Monday, December 18, 2017

2017 roundup: cowl-back silk dress

If you were following along last December, you may recall that I was invited to a wedding and had nothing to wear, so I sewed a dress using a vintage Vogue pattern (more on that here and here). Here's the thing about me and sewing: until this fall, I still disliked a fairly large percentage of what I made, either because the construction just wasn't quite where I wanted it to be, or (more often) because the fabric, silhouette, and overall look just ended up not being my style. I think this is a fairly normal process to go through as you get used to the freedom of being able to design and sew literally anything you can imagine. I used to make something, wear it a few times, and then many months later have the realization that I just didn't like it, and that it certainly wasn't something I would be interested in buying if I saw it in a store. Fortunately that process seemed to get quicker every time, going from months to days, and I think I'm finally getting to the point where I can plan and make something I do actually like and want to wear. Back to last year's dress: I was honestly really excited about it when I wore it to the wedding, and I don't think it looked bad. But looking back at pictures after the fact, I realized it was less of a muted gray color (what I had envisioned) and more metallic gunmetal. The almost foil-like sheen is a lot and isn't what I was going for. And I've realized this year that I'm just not as into the vintage fit-and-flare look as I used to be, even though I think it complements my body type very well. There's more to dressing than just showing off our best assets, amirite?

Given all of that, and the fact that one side of the bodice started to rip open and I don't know if there is enough seam allowance to successfully mend it, I decided to take what I learned about patternmaking, construction, and my ever-evolving personal style and make a new dress for some summer weddings earlier this year.

I went back and forth on what I wanted the dress to look like for a long time. I originally wanted to do a silk version of the rayon maxi dress I drafted and sewed for class back in February, with an added slit up one leg for a little more glamour. (I apparently never posted a photo of the dress on! In large part because I feel like my construction was subpar. But the technical sketch is here.) I of course went back and forth until the weekend before wedding #1, leaving myself very little time to figure out fabric and create the whole dress. I decided to look for a silk crepe, and I headed to a local fabric store that has ends of bolts for lots of pretty silk. Unfortunately, I only found a few colors that I really liked against my skin tone, and none of them had more than 2.5 yards left - not nearly enough for the long, paneled dress I planned to make. I went home and looked into ordering online, but I realized I didn't trust the photos enough to know what would look good on me, and there was definitely no time left for swatches. So I went back to the fabric store again and bought up my favorite silk, even though there were just under 2.5 yards left and I had no actual plan for the dress. I also picked out 2.5 yards of Bemberg lining and an invisible zip to match.

I wanted to make something more understated than the fit and flair look, less vintage, less complex, more room to just let the beautiful silver silk be the star. I learned from the busted side seam of my previous silk dress and planned to make this one with a looser fit, so as not to strain the delicate fabric. And I'm all about the shift dresses lately, so that was a good jumping off point. The silk deserved something that would show off its drape, and since a floor-length skirt wasn't going to be possible, I decided to put last spring's draping class to good use and use my dress form to drape a low back cowl.

I haven't yet gotten to the point of feeling comfortable draping with my final fabric, a la Project Runway, so I started with muslin. The muslin looked awful on the dress form and on me, but I knew it would regardless of whether the final fabric version was going to look good or bad - it just doesn't have the drape needed to create a nice looking cowl. I had some cheap floral poly in my stash that I'd been planning to use for a muslin eventually, so I made a second version in this to get a better idea for how the cowl would drape. I made a few tweaks from here, including lowering the back cowl for a little more drama. I made a second version in the drapey fabric to confirm my changes, and then finalized the pattern pieces, including seam allowances and updating them to not be cut on the fold.

 first muslin attempt - awful in this fabric, but good enough to try in something drapier

the polyester muslin

and some final tweaks to lower the back and change the lining + facing situation

Cutting the silk and lining was a beast. I hadn't yet built my cutting table, so I cleared off the dining room table and did my best with my rotary cutter and 2 cutting mats that weren't big enough for the pattern pieces. It took a full 2 hours to cut four pieces out (front and back of each the outer fabric and lining), but overall it was a success. I believe this was the afternoon that I vowed to finally stop putting off making that cutting table, and a month later I did it.

The sewing part actually wasn't bad, even with slippery fabrics. My still new Bernina helped a ton, as did its walking foot and straight stitch plate (a plate under the presser foot with a small hole instead of a wide rectangle opening - it means I can't move my needle or do zig zag stitches with that plate on, but it makes it much less likely that delicate fabric will get pushed down into the machine).

With only 4 pieces, sewing was mostly straightforward, although the cowl and lack of back zipper made things a little interesting. The cowl's facing (part of the outer fabric piece that folds under to the inside of the dress) is shaped so that the back lining doesn't actually reach the shoulders. I had figured this construction out on a muslin first so it wasn't totally confusing when I sewed the real thing, but it was still pretty tricky, and I when I look too closely I worry that one back shoulder doesn't lay totally flat. The armholes were a pain because I had to sew the lining and outer fabrics right sides together, but with the garment right side out. This meant doing a sort of burrito with each armhole, the front and then the back, and sewing up toward the shoulder as high as I could. It's hard to explain this in writing, and I tried to show this in instagram stories when I was working on it but even there it was difficult to really show what was going on. Just know it was very annoying, slippery, and tricky, but I got it all together! And then I just had to sew the side seams - one big french seam going from the outer hem, through the armpit, and down to the lining hem on each side. Then I let it rest on the dress form for about a day and hemmed both layers. Done!

armhole burrito situation in progress, with little 1/4" seam allowances because that's how i roll.

I bought a beautiful necklace from Altar here in Portland to add a little interest and edginess to the front, got some shoes that matched the silk super well, and made this work for two weddings. Unlike last year's wedding guest dress, this one survived both and I still like it, so it's nice to know that it's still in my closet if I have another event to go to. If you're wondering about the bra situation with a low back like this, I bought some stick on pasties to cover any nipple show through and said "fuck it" to the idea that I need to wear a supportive bra with everything. This was definitely a departure from anything I'd worn to a nice event before, but I really felt great in both the relaxed shape and the open back. I'm excited to push myself out of my comfort zone more in the future, in terms of things i design and also wear.


Before and during wedding #1 in NYC (feel free to ignore the hotel room chaos surrounding me):

And wedding number two, at dusk in San Francisco. Yes I did style it exactly the same way, idgaf.

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