Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Sewist Buys a Wedding Dress

Two months.

Two months! In precisely sixty days, Dr. Sam and I are going to trot down the aisle and tie the proverbial knot. Woohoo! Quite frankly, I've been an insouciant bride. We're having a simple wedding: Sunday brunch, lovely low key little venue, lots of balloons and flowers and bunting. Thanks to a close held hatred of rigmarole, I've officially cut out a lot of the typical American wedding shenanigans. There will be no DJ or releasing of the doves or—just kill me now—garter toss. Marriage is the important thing, not having a gigantic sparkly princess day of wonder. That's never been my dream.

Except, of course, for The Dress. The very small list of important Mary concerns in planning this shindig were, in order: Sam, the dress, cake. Since the dear professor is consistently the most lovely man alive and the (three) cakes are being made—fondant free!—by my longtime favorite bakery, the dress absorbed my worries. So, so many worries.

As a sewist, there was one question to be answered. Will I make the dress myself? 

It's a completely legit consideration, especially in this day and age. Not only are modern dresses hilariously over priced but they are, as I quickly realized from bridal magazines, remarkably homogeneous. If you want a strapless A-line white dress, no problem! The shops have rows and rows of neatly hung poofy confections for strap-haters. However, when you start swaying away from the herd? Fat chance. The section with sleeves is minuscule, colors other than white are unheard of, and no one who's anyone gets married in a short dress.

For sewists, this is enraging. One trip to the bridal shoppe—they can never just be a simple shop, kittens—is enough to start even the most sainted bride plotting the doom of Badgley, Vera, and that hawker of polyester swill, David himself. Sewists are used to taking matters in their own hands. If a pattern doesn't have sleeves, add them. If you hate the feel of flammable, melt-prone fabrics against your skin, don't use them. Sartorial beliefs, we have them in spades! All it took were a couple of post-engagement internet browsing sessions for me to know the usual bridal shop was not my destiny.

So, I compiled a list. What was my dream dress, exactly? If I couldn't find it, sewing was a viable option, so I could afford to be mindbogglingly specific. Thanks to vintage fashion catalogs, a vision quickly coalesced.

 Note: Sam, if you're reading this, stop right now! Your superstitious side demands it. 

Mary's Dream Dress: A Bulleted List
  • Bottom-of-knee length
  • Lace bodice
  • Sleeves, preferably 3/4
  • Button back. Not a zipper with buttons over it, either. Silk-covered buttons with working loops or death!
  • Color featured somehow
  • Layered circle skirt for a 1950s silhouette
  • Natural materials, preferably silks
  • Lower neckline

Surprise! This dress doesn't exist at David's Bridal. Initially, I considered going with one of the oft-pinned, retro dresses of Dolly Couture, but I had serious doubts about their quality. Reviews were spotty, their standard offerings are all polyester, and no design perfectly fit my vision. Sewing was looking like my best option. And yet...

Y'all, I'm going to be straight up here. I didn't want to sew my own wedding dress. Down that path lived stress and obsessively washing my hands while sewing and time-consuming muslin fittings. People kept asking me if I had a "clean room" to store it in, while I sewed. Fuck that. I can barely keep myself clean, much less my sewing room. Someday, I would love to make a complete couture gown for myself, but that day will come when there are no dissertations to finish or moves to make. So, I started finding vintage patterns, but dreading what my autumn would be like.

Enter Pinterest. On one of my random wedding dress pictures binges, I typed in the words "short British wedding dress." The lovely designers across the pond are much more open to retro designs and lengths other than floor. I'd stumbled across a handful of designers with gorgeous not-quite-right-but-almost gowns.

Then, I found her. Joanne Fleming, an up-and-coming wedding dress designer out of Brighton. She is famous for her craftsmanship, use of luxury French fabrics, and gorgeous twists on classic designs. If I wanted a bias-cut column gown, she had twenty amazing options. If I wanted colored lacy confections, there were samples aplenty. And if I wanted a button-back, lace and organza, knee-length fifties delight with sleeves and a low neckline? Oh, that's called the Annie dress.

Picture sources: Joanne Fleming Design Blog
Here's a link to my favorite real bride shoot, featuring an Annie dress. Lovely, no?

Mine, custom made to my measurements and specifications, is shipping out next week. Next week! Yes, I have been ridiculously squealing "Wedding Dress!" at odd times, since getting this news. Sam is temporarily deaf from all the high pitched squees.

The only alterations I made were to sub in a blush pink back-bow sash and coordinating pink silk petticoat binding. It is lovely, it is wonderful, and I'm not slaving away in my sewing room, cursing the day lace was invented. Joy! 

What do you think, friends? Would you sew your own wedding dress or go with an indie designer/seamstress? I'd love to hear about what you chose for your own. Sure, it's just a dress, but it's probably the only one we'll be asked about for the rest of our lives. It's also worth noting that one of my favorite bloggers, Mel from Poppykettle, is much braver than I and taking the plunge on making her own. It's sure to be a gorgeous, fascinating process.

Note: If you're as fabulously nosy about weddings as I am, my planning board on Pinterest is filled with lovely flowers and dresses. Gawk away! I would.
Note two: If you kind of hate the hoopla surrounding weddings and would rather read feminist ramblings about its annoyances, my alter ego has been writing a series called "The Apathetic Bride's Guide to Weddings." It's both funny and curmudgeonly. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Miss Anna Roots For the Home Team

Happy Sunday, my dear chipmunks! Did you enjoy a weekend of hiding acorns and engaging in crime-solving adventures? I do hope so.

Here at Chez Fancy, our weekend plans were rather derailed. My dear professor and I were supposed to road trip up to Dallas, where my best friend lives. We were going to eat French pastries, drink German beer, and--best of all--visit the Texas State Fair. Alas, our weekend of fried delicacies (this year's winner: Fried Thanksgiving Dinner, for real real) and classic Americana was not meant to be. Instead, we stayed home to avoid biblical thunderstorms.

All was not lost though. As part of my travel prep, I'd made a pretty sweet dress!

Why, yes, I did make another Anna dress variant. Why, no, this isn't the last one planned.

This Anna sets herself apart from the pack, by virtue of the green-and-white polka dotted fabric she's made up in. It's a dreamy cotton voile that I bought last year from Fabric Mart for a song. It's also the perfect thing for a fair! There is nothing more American than eating fried Twinkies, while wearing polka dots. If we'd actually ended up going, the fair probably would have been hectic anyway, because of all the bald eagles soaring and star-spangled banners waving in my presence.

Apologies for the wrinkles! We went to brunch, before this photo outing and this fabric wrinkles easily. 

Doesn't this dress just scream "State Fair?" While I was trying to take pictures for this post, even the wind wanted in on the Americana action. Half of my pictures look like 90's Mariah Carey cover art. This dress breeds pop poses, it seems. Witness:

 Warning: "Fantasy" may be stuck in your head for days, after wearing this dress.

As for the pattern itself, well you've heard this spiel already. Anna dress + gathered skirt = bliss.

To change things up a bit, I used the slash neckline bodice variant, rather than my previous v-neck. Normally, I don't love high and wide necklines, but this one is surprisingly flattering. It's probably due to the visual balance, when paired with the bodice pleats. This bodice, it seems, just gets better and better.

My construction of this dress was, at least, different this time around. Instead of the usual facings, I cut a lining out of green cotton lawn and inserted that in the same manner prescribed by By Hand London themselves. After machine stitching it in around the neckline, I slip-stitched the arm holes and zipper seams closed by hand. I don't know what's been going on lately, but I am finally understanding the joy of hand-sewing. It's probably a phase that will pass, but I'm reveling in it for now.

The other major changes were my now-standard fixes: a gathered skirt, in-seam pockets, and hand-picked traditional zipper. Woohoo for more hand-sewing!


In the end, I have yet another Anna dress that I love. Honestly, I didn't think another garment could rival my adoration for the Austin Bats Anna dress, but after wearing this cheerful, swishy number around town today, there might be competition. Sam is especially partial to it, because I've inadvertently made a Baylor University dress. His alma mater (and current place of employment) sports the colors green and gold, which I don't often wear together, but donned for his enjoyment...

Sic 'em, Bears! 
Note: Siccing (th)'em is that odd hand signal I'm doing above. At football games, of which I've been to exactly one, the whole crowd waves their "bear claws" and yells "Sic 'em!" together. It's adorably weird. Though, I can't knock traditions, graduating myself from a school with some of the oddest.

 The details...

Things I Loved: 
  • The fabric! I'm crazy about these polka dots. 
  • The pattern is quickly becoming a real go-to for me, as you can tell.  
Things I Changed:
  • Added a  full lining. 
  • Added the lining after the zipper, so that the finish was prettier. 
  • Stay-stitched the neckline. For the love of Reveille, please stay-stitch your neckline! 
  • Added in-seam pockets, because...pockets. 
  • Switched the invisible zipper to a hand-picked zipper. If you're curious about this technique, I recommend Tasia's tutorial
Things I Would Change, If I Made It Again:
  • Nothing. After four times, this pattern and I are in love.

Notions & Fabric: 
  • 3 yards of green-and-white polka dot voile - $20
Construction Time:
  • Four cheerful hours

Monday, October 7, 2013

Miss Anna Goes A Bit Batty

Good evening, my dear ghouls. That most wonderful holiday of the year looms on the calendar, filling my head with tricks and treats and fun size Kit Kat bars. It's Halloween, y'all! 

Or, it will be in twenty-two days, anyway. I'm one for early preparations. I would say it's a Girl Scout thing, but I was only a Brownie for one year, until I dropped out because they made us sleep outside, where the bugs lived. Despite a general distrust of things that crawl, I live for this holiday. It has all the makings of a good time: costumes, free candy, and things flavored with pumpkin. There is nothing about Halloween that is not awesome. 

As proof of my love, I've made my first Halloween dress.

That's right, my first. Novelty fabrics, I will own you!

So, what's novel about this fabric? It looks like an abstract black print on grey fabric. Boring! Just because it's black and grey doesn't mean it's Halloween-themed, Mary

Well, if you get a little bit closer...

Oh sweet baby squash blossoms, those are bats. Black bats, masquerading from afar as squiggles on a grey background!

Yes, my dear ones, I made a dress out of bat fabric. When I saw this Alexander Henry print, from their Ghastlies line, it had to be mine. Not only am I from Austin, the bat capital of America, but they are my favorite animal. How could you not love a flying mammal that hangs upside down and eats mosquitoes? They are wonderful, ergo they deserve a dress. 

Since this fabric is quilting cotton, a heavier weight without so much drape, it needed a pattern that could handle a stiffer material. Enter the Anna Dress, of course.

For this version of Anna, I decided to pair it once again with a gathered dirndl skirt. The close fitting skirt of the original pattern would have been a disaster with this fabric, but the structured bodice was ideal. Besides, doesn't it seem appropriate that a Halloween dress is made with a Frankenpattern?

As far as pattern changes go, the dirndl was the biggest change. The only other things I did were to add black piping to the neckline and sleeves, then sub a hand-picked zipper for the prescribed invisible zipper. That's a change y'all will be seeing a lot of, I'm afraid. The finish of a hand-picked zip is just as clean as an invisible zip, but puts a lot more control in the hands of the sewist. I do so love control. 

Since the Anna dress uses facings, and my fabric was a bit thick for a lining, putting the piping in was more of an adventure than it usually is. In order to make the neck facing turn properly with the added weight, I tacked it down at the shoulders and at the point of the V. For the sleeve piping, I turned the hem in 1/2 inch, the hand stitched the piping in, followed by black bias tape to cover the inside exposed edges. 

Oooh! Piping!

So, there we have it, another Anna. This pattern is always a dream to sew up, as well as wear. There are two others cut out on my sewing table right now and I can't promise they'll be the last. This bodice is both lovely and practical! A true winner. 

The details...

Things I Loved: 
  • The fabric! It's covered in bats, darling. 
  • The pattern is quickly becoming a real go-to for me. I heartily recommend giving it a whirl. 
Things I Changed:
  • Added black piping, to create interest on the somewhat busy print of the dress. 
  • Under-stitched the facings.
  • Added facings after the zipper, so that the finish was prettier. 
  • Stay-stitched the neckline. For the love of Cthulhu, please stay-stitch your neckline! 
  • Added in-seam pockets, because...pockets. 
  • Switched the invisible zipper to a hand-picked zipper. If you're curious about this technique, I recommend Tasia's tutorial
Things I Would Change, If I Made It Again:
  • Nothing. After three times, this pattern and I are pretty in sync. 
Tricky Steps & Suggestions:
  • Turning faces can always be tricky, but under-stitching them goes a long way toward taming the wee little beasties. Secure them at the shoulder seam, by stitching in the ditch, and you're golden. 
Notions & Fabric: 
  • 3.5 yards of Alexander Henry's Ghastlie Bats - $30
Construction Time:
  • Five delightfully haunted hours

I would like to tell y'all that this dress will only be reserved for October, but that would be a lie! It's seasonally appropriate with a cozy orange cardigan, but the print is understated enough for other months. These bats will have longevity far past Halloween, I predict. If anyone dares give me the stink eye about them in springtime, well...

That's what real bats are for. 

Kidding. Of course. I'll tell them that I'm from Austin, a city that properly appreciates this noble species, and give them a few hard-hitting bat facts for their trouble. 

 The perfect dress for some twilight ghoul hunting! 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Miss Zinnia Prepares For Fall

Autumn is, hands down, my favorite season of the year. Pumpkins line every porch, there's a nip in the air, and Colette Patterns always releases a new pattern! Their latest offering, the Zinnia skirt, is a versatile full skirt. There are three variations: a gathered button-down midi, a full pleated knee-length version, and a floaty pleated midi-skirt. For my first stab at the pattern, I chose Version 2, the fuller skirt with stitched down pleats.

There is a sad lack of handmade skirts in my wardrobe, an oversight I plan to correct in the next few months. I absolutely love full, knee-length skirts in the colder months, since they dress up so well with sweaters and boots. Even better, Zinnia lends itself well to a number of fabrics and styles, thanks to its simplicity of design, so it was just the pattern to fill my skirt need!

For this first one, I used a length of abstract stretch cotton bought from JoAnn's last year. I'm such a sucker for autumnal colors and this fabric has them all--black, light brown, cinnamon, mustard yellow, gray, and a lovely marine blue--scattered in free form dots across it. Originally, I had planned to turn it into a dress, but once washed up, it changed in texture. What had started off as a polished cotton, felt more like a double-knit when it came out of the wash. Never having sewn with such a drapey stretch fabric before, it went to the back of my stash. Now that I'm back on the sewing horse, though, I called it up for Zinnia service. This fabric had just the right amount of body to show off the pleats and lines of Version 2.

Construction-wise, the Zinnia was pretty easy. Despite the label on the pattern, however, I wouldn't necessarily call this a beginner pattern. Not only can working with so many pleats--sixteen in total--be a bit tricky, but the instructions were bare bones. Colette now leans more toward linked tutorials than exhaustive instructions, meaning that if one is fuzzy on invisible zippers or pleat mechanics, one must fire up the computer and read a tutorial. This is perfectly fine for experienced sewists, but I raised my eyebrows a few times at the things omitted as a result.

For me, everything went perfectly well right up until the waistband insertion. Despite stay-stitching my skirt top and precisely pleating everything, the waistband was a good three inches too short. I'm pretty sure this was due to my error somewhere along the way--whether in cutting or pleating--but it was still an unhappy surprise. Luckily, I'd changed the method of waistband insertion, so It was simple to cut another piece and add length to the band. Thanks to the busyness of the fabric, it doesn't even show on the waist!

As far as changes go, I made quite a few. As mentioned, I completely changed the waistband insertion. The way Colette prescribed to do it was super confusing and, at this point in my sewing adventures, I know when to go it alone. Colette's instructions have one sew the ends of the waistband, including button extension, first, then turn them and attach to the skirt. The idea of that just felt so wrong! So, I went the more traditional route of stitching the unfinished waistband to the skirt, then turning the ends by hand afterward. It looks just as nice, but involved less convoluted geometry. 

Additionally, I omitted the belt loops. If I'm going to wear a belt with a skirt, it's wider than would have fit here. Plus, with a pattern this busy, it's rare that I'm going to wear one anyhow. 

The last change was a bit of a personal quest: a picked zipper insertion! I've come to the decision that I hate invisible zippers. Hate, hate, hate them! I understand the benefits of them, can do them quite well, but would rather be set upon by rabid marmosets than insert one. Invariably, it takes me two times to put one in properly, because the seams never quite line up well enough. Aargh! So, to avoid the invisible zip and the unsightly seam lines of a traditional insertion, I decided to hand install the Zinnia zip. 

Now, I know I'm a bit biased, but isn't the loveliest zipper installation you've ever seen? I swoon! I sigh! 

To install it, I used a variant on this wonderful tutorial by Tasia. I hand sewed it precisely the way she did, but to initially secure the zipper, I did it the way my mum taught me: baste your back seam together, pin the zipper down the seam middle, then take out the basting stitches! It works perfectly to center a traditional zipper. In the end, this zipper took me about thirty minutes and was a joy to sew. Sure, it may mean a bit of hand-sewing, but it's much preferable to the headache of invisible zips. Besides, I'm catching up on Scandal, so I need something to do with my hands, besides white knuckle my couch in suspense. 

All in all, the Zinnia is a delightful little skirt. It's a basic pattern, yes, but it fills a need in my wardrobe, especially for fall & winter. I know that some people have issues with the way Colette's patterns are drafted and designed, but they've always worked for me. Zinnia is no exception. Of course, I'm not through with it yet. There is some wool challis sitting on my sewing table, just waiting to be cut out!

The details...

Things I Loved: 
  • The pleats! - I adore pleats, especially when they're stitched down. They emphasize curves, but let the skirt still keep some twirl. 
  • The fabric! - This fabric is weird, but it's also crazy comfortable. It may not look like I'm wearing pajamas, but man does it feel like it. 
  • The ease of construction! - It's a skirt...even if you do have to pleat a million times, it's so much simpler than the dresses I usually construct. 
  • The pockets! - Side seam pockets are, as ever, a welcome design feature. 
Things I Changed:
  • Used muslin, instead of fusible interfacing, for the waistband.
  • Changed the method of waistband construction, because if it looks confusing, it's probably unnecessary. 
  • Subbed in a hand-picked zipper.
  • Omitted the belt loops. 
Things I Would Change, If I Made It Again:
  • Narrow the waistband. This is just a personal preference, but when I folded the waistband in half, I liked the look of the skirt even more. With stitched down pleats, I think a wider waistband is pretty unnecessary, so I'll narrow it next time and see how I like it. 
Tricky Steps & Suggestions:
  • The waistband insertion was...ridiculous. I strongly recommending inserting it in a traditional manner, then turning the ends. It looks just as a pretty and won't give you headache. 
  • Top-stitching is used on both the top and bottom of the waistband. Personally, I find that my top-stitching looks better, when a smaller stitch is used - 2mm, usually. 
Notions & Fabric: 
  • 2 yards of mystery cotton - Is it a knit? Is it a woven? 
  • 7 inch black zipper
  • One 3/4 inch vintage button 
Construction Time:
  • Four hours, cutting to hem.

Note: I swear, the hem on this skirt is straight! When the wind blows, however, all bets seem to be off...