Several years ago,when my mother and step-father were getting married, I made matching seersucker dresses for my sisters and step-sister. I ordered the fabric online and ended up with yards and yards of extra fabric (60″ fabric, accidentally ordered quantities for narrower fabric). In any case, as I was re-organizing my sewing supplies and fabrics, I came across the seersucker and decided to make a dress out of it. I was thinking about that stash of vintage patterns I recently bought, and the idea of actually making one of the patterns was too irresistible. Thought I would document the process here so those who’ve never made a dress can see what is involved. A disclaimer before we start, I use the pattern pieces but don’t read or generally follow the instructions. I’ve made so many garments, I find my instinct and logic are enough.
Here’s the pattern I chose:
Copyright 1955, a classic “New Look” silhouette…nipped waist and full skirt. Though the envelope shows three looks, it’s the same dress, the only difference between 1 &2 is in the decorative bow placement. Look 3 has narrower straps. Unlike modern patterns, this envelope contains only one size. It’s size 14…which has nothing to do with modern women’s sizes. The nipped waist look is awesome, but I knew I’d have to modify the pattern because I’m more of a “ruler” than an “hourglass”.
From Left to Right: Ruler, Inverted Triangle, Triangle, Hourglass
Original Image here.
I thought the pattern pieces would be really delicate and purchased a special fabric material that’s meant for making patterns. Removing the pieces, this is what I found:
These are the original instructions. They are very yellow (from the natural oxidation of the acids in the paper), but otherwise in good shape. In fact, the pattern pieces were in great shape themselves. I decided they were in no danger from me using them directly, so I proceeded without copying the pattern first.
I pulled out the pattern pieces and pinned them to my dress form, an adjustable model which is set to my measurements. I have the waist padded with some fleece to match mine, since I don’t “nip in” at the waist. I wanted to make sure the pattern would fit me well. By pinning it to the dress form, I was able to make modifications before cutting the fabric. If you look closely at the photo, there are two things you’ll notice, the pieces are overlapped, that’s the seam allowance, or extra fabric built into the pattern piece to let you sew it together. If I pinned cut edge to cut edge, the pattern would seem too big. The second thing is that, as I am short-waisted, I have pinned up the pattern to make the waist of the pattern sit where my actual waist is. This is an adjustment that is conveniently printed onto the pattern; which is very good with such an emphasis on the waist in this design.
The pattern calls for a side zipper, which means the center back seam is a great place to add the extra room I’ll need for my body shape. After pinning the pattern piece in place, there was a gap at the bottom between it and the center of my padded dress form. The top was actually overlapping the center line. By using the ribbon to follow the center line and an extra piece of paper, I was able to pin the extra pattern at the top to the center line, and draw the extra needed piece at the bottom. You can see the finished back piece on the right. I suppose I could have cut the extra paper away from the top of the pattern but, it has survived this way for more than half a century, I’m not about to chop into it.
The next step was to cut the pattern pieces from my fashion fabric. I fold the fabric in half and lay out the pattern pieces, utilizing the best layout to waste the least amount of fabric. I only have to cut around each pattern piece once and will end up with two mirror image pieces cut out of my fashion fabric. Some of the pattern pieces, for example, the center front, I will actually lay the pattern onto the fold. This way, I will end up with one piece of fabric that is mirrored across the fold. I wanted to ensure that all of the markings on the pattern were properly transferred to my fashion fabric. The arrows will help line the pattern pieces together to each other and are clipped as I cut each piece.
The three other photos you see are three methods of transferring the darts which shape the flat fabric into a three-dimensional garment. The first is using transfer paper and a tracing wheel. If you lay out two pieces of transfer paper, one on either side of the fabric, and press hard, the dart can be transferred to both garment pieces at once. This method can cause damage to the pattern, as it will cause perforations to the tissue paper. I found that this tissue was too delicate to utilize this method.
The second is to simply mark the circles along the dart with a tailor’s pencil. You can then “connect the dots” with a ruler, or just pin dot to dot and sew the dart freehand. This is the method I used for this dress. You do end up having to re-pin the pattern to both pieces of fabric so that the marks can be transferred to each, but that doesn’t take too long.
The final photo shows a tailor’s tack. This a a type of stitch which is kept fairly loose and marks those same circles on the dart. Once the pattern is removed, the tack is cut between the two pieces of fabric, leaving a small thread on each piece. Once again, you can connect the dots as with the pencil.
At this point, I also cut the lining for the front and back of the bodice from plain white lining fabric.
After years and years of coveting one, I finally bought a serger. This machine, which looks a bit like a sewing machine, uses four spools of thread to create an interlocked stitch on the edge of the fabric. This prevents unraveling, especially when a garment is washed. I used the serger to protect all of the edges of each garment piece individually. There are other ways to prevent unraveling; everything from liquid plastic, to sewing on bias tape (more on bias tape later), or creating a french seam (actually two seams, the first connects the two pieces of fabric, the second seals the edges of the fabric inside a channel…lots of work). After all my pieces went through the serger, I sewed the darts into the pattern pieces that I had marked, then sewed the pieces of the bodice together. This is a four-piece bodice, Center Front, Front Side (Left and Right), and Back.
Checking the fit of the bodice on my dress form. The serged edges are still exposed along the neckline, armscye, and bottom. I sewed the lining to the “right side” (the front of the garment) on both front and back. Yes, I forgot and had already sewed my shoulder seams together, so I first ripped out that stitching!
I used my scissors to carefully cut notches into the seam around the circumference of the armscye and the areas where they neckline curves. I then turned the garment right side out again, machine sewed the fashion fabric at the shoulder seam, then tucked and hand stitched the lining closed at the shoulder seam.
Normally you will press your seams flat when you’re done sewing them and, often, you will top stitch to keep them perfect. I didn’t want to crush the seersucker, so I didn’t iron my seams. I did want them to look neat so, using a double needle (literally, two needles that sit side by side on one shank and sew at the same time), I top stitched the seams all along the bodice.
The side zipper will be partially on the bodice, partially on the skirt. To make sure that everything would be neat when I went to sew in the zipper, I basted (long, loose stitches) the seams where the zipper will be placed. While the basting is intended to be removed, I still usually like to use a color that matches the garment. That way, if I miss a stitch, no one will notice. I wanted the basting to stand out for the camera, so I used bright orange thread this time.
With the bodice complete, I needed to make the skirt. This is where those yards and yards of fabric get used in a dress of this type. The completed garment, if you measured the bottom hem, measures six yards around (that’s 18 feet). I cut four identical rectangles, ran them through the serger, then sewed them together to make a long tube of fabric. The most important thing…make sure the seams are all going one way. Without a true “right side” to this fabric, I didn’t want to get confused and accidentally end up with a seam on the outside and one on the inside of my tube!
The first photo shows how the pattern calls for the pleating of the skirt. When I’ve shown people pleated pattern pieces before, this has seemed to really confuse them. It’s just a matter of drawing one point of fabric to the next point. I think the words and drawings that are sometimes presented make it seem more complex than it is.
The second photo shows the skirt fabric after I’ve pinned all the pleats. Yes, this took a long time. I could then choose to pin all of the extra fabric in the pleats to one side, or create a box pleat, where the fabric is distributed evenly on either side of the pleat. This is what I chose to do.
The third photo shows the skirt fabric after I had pinned all of the pleats. I hand-basted the pleats down to keep the suckers from accidentally getting picked up in my machine’s sewing needle. Trust me, the extra time spent basting is well worth it! There’s nothing more annoying than having to rip out a bunch of stitching because you accidentally sewed through fabric that got in the way.
I pinned the skirt to the dress form to check on the length of the skirt. The pattern calls for the skirt to end just below the knee. This is a dangerous length for those of us on the short side! I had already made the rectangles of fabric shorter, measured to hit at my knee. By pinning it in place, I could check that it was where I wanted it. With 5/8″ in the pattern for the seam allowance, I could cheat some in this area to make the skirt hang either a tiny bit lower or a tiny bit higher. My measurements were right, so I was pleased with the length and didn’t have to make any adjustments.
After I machine sewed the skirt to the bodice, I returned to my zipper. When using a side zipper, you want to always use an “invisible” zipper. This zipper is meant to be installed in such a way that will render it “invisible”. Obviously, that’s not really possible, but it is a very subtle installation that allows the garment to be admired, without being distracted by a zipper. That recent trend of zippers being sewn to the outside of a garment so that all the tape shows? Yeah, no way.
I pinned the zipper in place and removed the basting, then used the machine to permanently attach it. The other side of the fabric is set so that it touches the first side, leaving very little evidence that there’s a zipper.
A decorative bow. It’s such a cutesy dress, it needed a cutesy bow. It’s made out of bias tape and it is sewn together and then in place. I think this shot should also allow you to see the top stitching a little better.
Using the same bias tape (bias just means that the cotton fabric that is used is cut on the diagonal, this gives the resulting tape some flexibility to go around curves without puckering), I pinned it to the outside of the skirt and sewed it close to the bottom edge. I then had two options I could use. I could turn the tape all the way to the inside of the skirt to be stitched in place. This would tuck the raw edges between the skirt fabric and the tape, protecting it from unraveling. Because I had already used a serger on the edge of the fabric, I also had the option of flipping the tape down and stitching the seam down, leaving the tape exposed below. The fabric won’t unravel due to the serging, and I end up with a decorative design detail that matches my bow. This is what I chose to do.
Once that was done, I hand tacked all of the pleats down, making sure the seam allowance was pointing down to the ground (not flipped up to the top of the garment). I didn’t want them to flip up and look messy and bulky. This took some time, but is well worth it for the finished result: