Dress Me, You Fool!
If you were to set a piece of cloth before me and warn that I could only make one thing, I would pick the fabric up, shake it out, drape it ’round my face to see if I could stand the color … and then proceed to make a dress. Why a dress? Is it because it’s girly, or old-fashioned, nostalgic of mommy’s closet? All those elements play a part in my feminine consciousness, but it’s something bigger than that; it’s the dress’ quintessential combination of utility and conversation-stopping style. Simply said, when you put a dress over your head, you are done. You are done getting dressed, you are ready to spend the day as you please; you have a single garment on your bod that says a lot about how you feel. You are complete — there are no dibs and dabs to coordinate or fold in. It’s the garment that has no apologies. The fashion industry has made a fortune convincing us that “separates” are the way to go, with ever-thinner tissue layers that need multiple purchases to “tie it all together.” A few hundred dollars later, you finally have one complete outfit that teeters on a precipice of trend. No so with a dress. A classic dress solves your disconnected pieces; the puzzle is complete. There are only a few classic silhouettes and they never go out of style. It’s instructive that fashion worships the icon of the Little Black Dress (LBD), because every dress is a little gem — it never takes up much room, and regardless of its color, it shines. If I were a man, I wonder how I’d find the analogous sartorial moment. I think coveralls, or caftans, might become my first choice. Again, I’d be looking for one garment that sums it all up, that begins every great entrance, and that exits with grace. It zips, it buttons, and your picture comes into focus. I’ve made … let’s see … a few dozen dresses over the past seven years I’ve been sewing. Springtime incites the most feverish dressmaking, because it’s the season for inexpensive cottons, linens, and no-sleeves — you can really crank them out. So what does the proper dress closet consist of? What dresses do you take to a desert island, and how quickly can you sew them up? The A-Line or Straight Sheath The sleeveless A-line is the basis for all smocks — it is the one. The sheath is the dress you learn on: darts, facings, zippers. If you can make one shift, you have learned all the basics of being a seamstress. A Jackie O-style dress was the first thing I ever made. It took me about four two-hour sessions, and I still wear it all the time. I knew in my gut I could sew anything after I made my first dress. It’s like snowboarding — the learning curve is steep but then, boom, you’re flying. The sheath hemline can be micro to maxi. Get one of those patterns that offers you a few different necklines: jewel, v-neck, scoop. The keyhole or the caftan slit can keep you entertained, too. This one pattern alone could keep everyone talking about what a fashion plate you are, for years. The Princess Princess seams got popular because they are “slenderizing” and they flatter a large bosom in the way that they partition you into graceful curving sections. Sandra Betzina has the ultimate instructions on how to move the boob up and down, the most critical part of the process. The Shirtdress Okay, this is the hardest one, but boy, will you look sharp. Mastering the shirt’s components: the collar, front placket, sleeves and cuffs, is your foray into menswear and a whisper of the Savile Row mystique of “tailoring” — the level you go to after dressmaking. Shirt design is where professional patterns make a difference; you don’t want to reinvent the wheel with these. With good instructions and neat tricks, you can really speed things up. I love the Simplicity 4171 shirtdress pattern because it comes in cup sizes B-D, saving you a couple hours right there. You need the right tools for shirt-making; you can’t skimp. You’ll want a sewing machine that has a first-rate automatic buttonhole setup, so you won’t be under the hot lights all year. Also, get the specialty foot that sews buttons on in seconds. The Wrap The wrap dress has been the big thing in patterns the past couple years, because it is, again, slenderizing and breast-enhancing. If you learn how to use knit fabrics, which revolutionized this look, wraps are easy to make. Stretch fabrics are the difference between you looking like Diane von Furstenberg in her prime or a ditz walking around in her bathrobe. Try the popular Vogue 8379 or Christine Johnson’s Wrap Dress #526. If you’re want a little challenge with some really hot details, you’ll fall in love with New Look’s #6429. Knits also demand specific tools for success. Get a walking foot, which keeps the fabric from having a mind of its own. You must use ballpoint or stretch needles, or you’ll skip stitches with no control. Finally, a serger would be heaven. Sewing knits is lightning-fast with the right tools, but cutting knits out is always going to take longer than wovens — the material squiggles instead of lying docilely on the table like cotton or wool. The scissors might start chewing on the lycra; the pins rebel against the rubbery texture. You are normal if you find yourself swearing. I find that after I make a few knit garments, I have to make a pillowcase just to relax. The Square Neckline I’m discussing this detail apart from the silhouettes, because this one element frames your face and neck in such a distinctive manner. You usually have to find a pattern just for square necklines, like Burda 7774 — they aren’t shown with other looks. It’s a remarkable detail because it flatters both the small- and large-breasted, tall or short, willowy or zaftig. It’s as if a painter made your portrait and then put you in a beautiful frame –those right angles light you up. The way you get a no-nonsense 90-degree angle on your fabric is to handle your facing and fabric seams with a little extra care. You dial down your stitch length to practically nothing when you get 1/2″ from your tight turn. Tiny stitches creep up to the turning point. Lift your machine foot, pivot, put it down, and keep the baby stitches going for another 1/2″. When you remove your seam from the machine and clip all the way to the square points, you’ll turn it right side out and poke open those tight corners with a point-turner. Oooh, they look so sharp and nice. Now go show yourself off. The Empire Waistline Empire waists are the basis for the baby-doll, the maternity dress, and many kinds of formalwear. The skirt is full, and the bodice needs to fit perfectly, or you look like Courtney Love on a kinder-bender. It’s interesting that the Empire veers between a juvenile and a ceremonial look, with not a lot in between. If you’re more than a B cup, I want you to approach the Empire look carefully, with a superb-fitting bra. The latest Empire that everyone is crazy about is a Grecian Formula with a drape that makes all the difference: Vogue 1027. I think everyone’s favorite dressmaking moment in cinema is when Scarlett O’Hara tears down the moldy old drapes in her family’s antebellum mansion. In the next frame, we see her in a mouth-dropping green velvet gown. Was that a two-hour dress, honey? However Scarlett pulled it off, there’s the example of dressmaking as a sheer force of will! About the Author: Susie Bright is an amateur dressmaker and a professional writer. She blogs at susiebright.com.