Dressmaking. Yes, it’s not quite the usual sort of thing I blog about. But it is closely related to the general themes of textile and stitch, so I reckon it’s probably OK. (And, actually, it is my blog and I can write about whatever I want!) But, if you’ve turned up in the expectation of reading something about embroidery, fear not – I’ll no doubt be back on message soon.

Back in November, when I went to K&S at Harrogate, I wrote a bit about the Maker’s Atelier and how impressed I’d been with the sample clothes on the stand. I bought two of the patterns, resolving to do something about them at some vague point in the future. Well, somewhat to my surprise I’ve reached that point and have produced my first garment. The pattern I used was the pleat detail dress and top – see pattern photograph.Pleat detail dress

I was very taken with the simplicity and neatness of the pattern.  I discussed its making up with Frances Tobin, the mastermind behind the Maker’s Atelier, at the K&S show. One of the aspects that concerned me was how well the pattern would scale up to a larger size. She was reassuring on this point, and suggested that I could alter the positioning of the pleat. On a larger size it could look awkward over the bust, so it might be preferable to place it further down.

I had decided that if I was going to make a serious attempt at dressmaking again I would have to spend time on fit and sizing. One of the things that’s put me off over the years is the sheer difficulty of scaling up patterns so that they will fit properly. So, I really went to town on the fit. Following the advice on the Maker’s Atelier website, and on numerous other blogs and websites, I decided I’d go the whole hog and make a toile (referred to in the USA as a ‘muslin’). I spent some time tweaking the pattern. Not only did I reposition the front pleat around 5 inches further down the dress, but I also altered the neckline to bring it down a bit. I have never done anything of the kind in my life, but I reckoned it couldn’t be that hard? Could it? Well, actually, it was OK, and especially once I was armed with the correct bit of kit, which is a French Curve for drawing the curvy bits. I also lengthened the top to tunic length so it would cover my bottom.

I cut the toile out of lightweight calico, which is a fabric I use a lot. Then made it up, which wasn’t a big deal as there are so few pattern pieces.  Then I tried it on, to discover that the garment was OK over the bust and shoulders, flappy around the neckline and a bit on the snug side round the hips. (I should say that I was working on the 16-18 size). I spent a lot of time getting the neckline right, but got there in the end. One of the challenges about changing a neckline is that you also have to change the neck facings. But after a couple of goes I got that right. Widening it out over the hips was very easy as this pattern falls in a straight line. And, while I was at it, I lengthened the sleeves a smidgeon.

I had bought two lengths of fabric to try out this pattern, and decided to go with the broderie anglaise first. This is a very lightweight cotton covered in machine embroidery which gives the surface quite a lumpy texture. I soon realised it was going to be quite challenging to work with as the machine needle tends to get to a bump and then veer off. Making the facings was not going to work in this fabric. But then I remembered that a few weeks ago the iron had gone through the very worn surface of one of our older pillowcases. I’d mended it with a bit of old sheeting, but same thing happened again next time it went in the wash. The 100% cotton white pillowcase was very worn in the middle but there was plenty of viable fabric round the outside, and it had become soft and pliable. It turned out to be just perfect for the facings.

A good thing about making the neck bigger was that I was able to dispense with putting in a zip in the back seam. The garment pulls over my head quite comfortably. Here’s what it looks like finished:Broderie anglaise pleat detail top The neckline fits perfectly, after much effort to get it right.Broderie anglaise pleat detail top neck c I’m very pleased with the finished item. It’s required much time and effort, especially considering it’s such a simple piece of clothing. However, I’ve now perfected my pattern to fit me, and will be able to make another one with the other piece of cloth (blue linen) that I’ve got earmarked.

One of the reasons this has been slow to do, apart from the work on fitting, is that I’ve been garnering and applying advice from a range of websites on how to produce home-made garments that don’t look home-made. Some of the advice I would follow in any case as this is what I learned when I was a child, e.g.

  • Always press seams carefully as you go
  • Apply staystitching around the neckline to prevent the fabric stretching out of shape
  • Baste any seam that’s likely to cause problems – e.g. in this case the attachment of the neck facings to the neckline
  • Finish off the raw edge of the facings.

Here are some of the other bits of advice I followed when making this:

  • Make a toile. Opinions vary about this around the internet, but I found it invaluable and would always now do this with a new pattern
  • Prewash the fabric, so that any shrinkage is taken care of before you start cutting into it. (Bingo! Brilliant! Why hadn’t I ever done this before?)
  • Use directional stitching, e.g. stitch up the two side seams in the same direction, from the bottom of the garment

One piece of advice I meant to follow was to use a new machine needle for each new project. I just forgot. And actually, it didn’t matter because the machine behaved perfectly throughout.

I also tried to improve the look of the garment by taking care over finishing off the hems. Back when I did more dressmaking, decades ago, I often found that my lack of expertise in hemming gave the game away and made the thing look hopelessly homemade. On this occasion I cut (using a cutting mat and rotary cutter) some straight-grain facings from my trusty pillowcase, and these were easy to apply. I did the actual hemming using the blindstitch hemming attachment. I’ve used this on curtains before, to good effect, and the technique worked well here too. These are probably the most professional-looking garment hems I’ve ever produced.

So, on the whole, a very positive experience, although it was very time-consuming. I wish I’d written down all the time I spent on this, but I estimate I must have put around 4 days’ worth of time into this simple garment. The broderie anglaise fabric I used is too fine and see-through, certainly for a person of my age and build. I can wear it with a white cotton vest top, which looks fine, but I’d have been better off starting with a slightly heavier and more opaque fabric.

Right, I’m going to cut out the blue linen version now. This should be really easy….