#19 – Make and wear an item of clothing (not fancy dress)
I included this challenge in The List because I felt that along with all the fun things to do, there should be some things which I learnt from and which resulted in something useful. I chose a sewing challenge partly because I thought it might be helpful to be able to make my own clothes and partly because (a long time ago) I used to make my own dance costumes so I already have a sewing machine and a tailor’s dummy. Other than knocking up the odd fancy dress costume, neither of them have seen the light of day for over 10 years so it was time I actually made use them.
This wasn’t, however, the challenge I was most looking forward to, as you can probably tell from the fact that I’ve left it nearly ‘til last! If the impending deadline of my 40th birthday hadn’t been looming, I probably still wouldn’t have got around to it, but it got to the point where it was looking like it would be the only challenge left unfinished and of course having set myself a target I had to hit it.
I chose to make a dress, because I like dresses and I struggle to find ones which are casual enough to wear to the pub or out for a meal without being too ‘evening dress-y’. This was an ideal opportunity to create exactly what I have been looking for.
I thought because I had some experience of sewing and could use a sewing machine, this challenge wouldn’t necessarily be difficult, just time consuming. How wrong I was. Turns out that although I know how to thread the sewing machine and I have an idea how to sew things together, because I’ve never actually been taught properly (Textiles lessons at school having not entirely usefully involved just three projects: a pencil case, stuffed toys and a pair of tie died boxer shorts), there is a lot I don’t know.
I’m not used to working with a proper printed pattern, as my dance costumes were usually based on something someone else had made so I’d get a one size pattern cut out of newspaper and have to guess whether to cut the fabric bigger or smaller than the pattern pieces I had. I thought that working from a proper pattern, with proper sizing, would be a lot easier. Not necessarily so. Even choosing a pattern was not easy. Looking online was bewildering as there was so much choice and because the manufacturers seemed to assume a level of prior knowledge. I found I needed to actually be able to see the instructions on the back of the pattern to work out how difficult I thought it might be. Luckily, I am blessed with a proper haberdashers in my hometown, and their assistance was invaluable. I was able to pop in, look at physical patterns and then ask their advice about the right type of material, the sundries required and so on.
Having chosen a pattern in a style that suits me – (also the one which had the fewest pattern pieces and no fastenings because I’m rubbish at putting in zips. Fancy dress and dance costumes can be closed via the medium of Velcro, which is a lot easier!) – I bought it home to read it thoroughly and ensure I understood it before diving in and purchasing the fabric. So glad I did. I’m not used to the language and symbols on proper patterns and I needed some help. Before going any further it was off to the library, to borrow books on basics of sewing. (Apparently under the Dewey decimal categorisation system, these are stored not under arts and crafts but instead with DIY. I found them eventually.) One book in particular proved invaluable: “Stress Free Sewing: Troubleshooting Tips and Advice for the Savvy Sewer” by Nicole Vasbinder, literally starting right from the basics of setting up and using the machine, cutting out and marking fabric and understanding patterns, before then going through everything else up to how to use different fabrics and how to finish garments. It was a godsend, without which I would not have got through this project. In fact, without the help of this book and the staff at the haberdashers, I seriously doubt I would have produced anything wearable at all.
Having got the pattern, next I had to choose a fabric. The pattern told me how much fabric and which sundries to buy but I wasn’t sure I understood it so I took the pattern back to the shop with me. Lucky I did. The shop assistant showed me that I had to have a stretch fabric (jersey) and there was a little line on the back of pattern to indicate that the fabric needed to stretch a certain distance. If I’d got that wrong, the dress wouldn’t have stretched enough to go over my head to put it on! Disaster averted. Fabric chosen. Just as I was paying for it, the shop assistant asked if I had the right needles. Right needles? Yes. Jersey is a knitted fabric, if you break the thread the whole thing will ladder, like tights, so you have to use a rounded end (ballpoint) needle. And then there’s the correct thread. 100% polyester for sewing stretch fabrics because apparently that has some stretch in it too. Cotton doesn’t and will either break, cause puckering or restrict the stretch of your garment. I was learning a lot and I hadn’t even started yet! I was so thankful that I had easy access to the haberdashers and its knowledgeable and helpful staff. If I’d just tried to buy all this online without the benefit of advice I’d have made so many mistakes and wasted so much fabric.
The first step towards actually making the dress was cutting out the pieces. I had to check the measurements given on the pattern to confirm which size to cut out, and then remember to cut on that line and not the other four sizes also printed on the same pattern. Luckily the book had warned me not just to go with my normal dress size, stressing that patterns are often smaller than standard dress sizes. (I would have cut too small if I hadn’t read that bit!) It took me about two hours just to cut out the pattern, then another hour to pin it to the fabric, carefully following the instructions about right sides, wrong sides and folds. Luckily I hadn’t chosen a fabric which needed to be pattern matched; I fear that would have been too complicated for me.
I had a bit of a wobble at this point. If I have to use special not-so-sharp needles for this fabric, I wondered, do I have to use special not-so-sharp pins too? Research indicated however, that dressmaking pins were dressmaking pins and that there were not different varieties of dressmaking pins available. I guessed I could therefore use normal pins. I assume this may be because the force of manually pushing a pin into a fabric isn’t enough to tear a thread, but the mechanical force of a sewing machine needle pushing into a fabric is.
It took me a few days to psyche myself up enough to actually put scissors to fabric. This was the point of no return. If I cut this wrong, I would have to buy more material.
The first piece I cut, I cut slightly wrong. The pattern had little triangle markings all over it. These were ‘notches’ and are intended as markers to indicate where pattern pieces should be matched up with each other. Cut the notches outwards, the pattern said. I forgot. I cut straight along the edges of the pattern, without stopping to cut little triangle notches outwards… Not a total disaster, it just meant that when transferring the other markings from the pattern I had to remember to mark where the notches were too.
Transferring markings was something I’d never done before. Markings are really useful things. They indicate where things should happen or be matched up. For example, my pattern had an instruction to ‘sew a gather stitch between the small circles’. Working from a makeshift pattern, I would have had the garment endlessly back and forth on and off of the tailor’s dummy trying to adjust it to fit. Getting the fit right was so much easier using a proper pattern with these markings.
Just the cutting out and marking had taken about seven hours, so I was worried about how long this project was going to take, but it turned out that actually that was the difficult bit. Once I’d started the sewing, the dress went together reasonably easily. I’m familiar with using the sewing machines, but both the pattern and the book were helpful with suggestions about the correct settings for the machine, how to use the seam guides and how to sew the various different hems required. I worked my way steadily through the 23 stages of the instructions and the only section I struggled with was attaching the neck edging because I’d got it confused with a facing and couldn’t understand why the instructions seemed to want me to end up with part of it showing on the right side of the dress. Once I’d referred back to the picture on the front of the pattern, that made total sense; it was, in fact, exactly what I was supposed to do.
In total, it took about ten hours to sew the dress together, and I was able to use some of the more advanced features of my machine such as elastic stitch (which I didn’t know it had), different feet and the sleeve arm.
The pattern kept telling me to ‘press’ the seams after sewing them. I thought this meant iron them. But no, it seems there is a difference between ironing and pressing. Luckily the book explained this and stressed the importance of pressing when dressmaking. (In case you don’t know either, ironing is moving the iron over something to remove wrinkles, pressing is holding the iron still on a particular part of the garment so that the heat ‘fixes’ it.) Pressing ensures the seams lie flat and fall in the correct direction, making a great deal of difference to the overall neatness and finish of the garment.
I was really pleased with the end result.
The dress suits me, fits well and looks good. Once I’d figured out using a proper pattern, it was easy enough to do, although time consuming. It’s a lot of fun going out in a dress I’ve made, showing it off and knowing it looks good.
The dress has had quite a few outings already; to my sister’s for family tea, to the pub for our regular Sunday afternoon session and out for dinner with the other half. I daresay it will also make an appearance on my birthday weekend. After all the challenge was not only to make the garment, but to wear it too.
Would I do this again? I’m not so sure. In total, there was about 17 hours work involved in putting this dress together and I don’t have that much spare time so it was a ‘time expensive’ exercise before even taking account of the cost of buying the pattern, the fabric, the thread, the elastic, the correct needles… I spent £42.60 on these things, and the fabric was in the sale so it was 50% cheaper than it should have been. Dressmaking isn’t the thrifty, money saving activity that it used to be. Sadly, if you cost your time, it is much cheaper and easier to buy clothes off the shelf. However, it has demonstrated to me that I can do it, so if in the future I need a garment in a specific style or colour that I can’t buy, I know I’ve got the option of making it. And in the meantime, I have a unique outfit to wear that I can be proud to say I made.