Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hopeless Romantics Dress Challenge

If you live in the Bay Area and are a dancer, you probably know about Gaskells. In 2012, a group of costumers decided to see how many people would be interested in making a 1910s dress for the April Gaskells, since there was a PEERS Titanic Ball earlier in the month for the 100 year anniversary of the sinking. I made this dress.

Worn originally in 2012, but this photo is from 2014.
Photo credit: Christopher Erickson

The next years' challenge was a Gibson Girl dress, which I had planned to participate in, but was unable to due to my cat passing away during the time I had set aside to work on it. I was too sad to sew. 

This years' challenge was an 1830's dress, based on the Truly Victorian pattern TV455 (1830s Romantic Era Dress). I planned to make this dress during my Spring Break, since I'm a teacher and don't have a lot of free time otherwise.

I'm not going to go into too much detail on the initial construction of the dress, as that part went pretty much according to the pattern instructions. I wanted to do something different for this dress; something really complicated and unique. I thought back to something I had seen on my friend Emily's dress at the December Gaskells. 

Emily's skirt with amazing triangle-y things, AKA my inspiration.
I decided to do this pattern on the sleeves. Originally, I planned to do it across the entire sleeve, but my first attempt showed me that I needed to do some more planning before I blindly dove into things.

Sleeve mockup: 1st attempt at triangle-y bits
 One of the things that I was noticing was that the triangle-y bits (Which are more diamond shaped, I suppose, but I like typing "triangle-y" better than diamond.) were in straight lines and weren't really following the curve of the sleeve. Furthermore, the sleeve's size was being greatly reduced by this method, and the 1830s were ALL about ginormous sleeves. I took a poll online and my friend, Jennifer suggested that I do some smocking on the fabric first and then cut out the smocked fabric. For those that, like I did, have no idea what she was referring to, here's an explanation: smocking means that you do some sort of gathering pattern on the fabric before you do the construction. I looked it up on Wikipedia to get a better understanding: Jennifer suggested that I start with a 10 x 10 piece of fabric, smock it, and then see by how much it shrunk down. I laid out a grid first.

Straight grid that I didn't end up using.

But then realized that the pattern was actually circular, so I redesigned the grid to be radial instead.

Radial grid for practicing smocking

The plan was to sew together every other junction along a circle. The next outer circle would be the same, but shifted over so that the junctions that had been skipped over would be sewn together instead. (I have no idea if that makes sense, but you can see a visual of this on my actual sleeve design.)

Side view of the radial grid all smocked up

Front view of the radial grid all smocked up.
 It seemed to work pretty well, so I decided to go for it. I decided to only do three rows of stitches on the arm cuff and at the shoulder. When I re-cut out the pattern, I realized that I was going to have to make some changes to my radial grid because the point where all of the lines needed to radiate out from was not in the center of the circle. I began by dividing the center circle into 16ths in red pen. I measured these out by dividing the center circle into inch long intervals and then drawing the lines out from those marks. (This works if your arm is 16" around.) Then I divided each red pen section in half with green pen, then each green pen section in half by turquoise pen, then each turquoise pen section in half by blue pen. (Can you tell that I like color coding things?) The colors made it easier to see where I was on the pattern when I was sewing and made it easier to fit the sleeve into the armscye.

So. Many. Lines.
 Next I needed to draw the circles. I thought really hard about this and decided that the first circle at the shoulder and at the cuff should be 1/2" from the edge of the fabric. Then I decided that the other tow should actually be ellipses and go from 1/2" to 1" away from the previous circle. I did this so that the pattern would be longer at the biggest part of the sleeve and so it would be more visible. The red lines really helped with this, since I had 16 of them. I started at the mid point under the arm and then measured each red line, adding 1/32 of an inch each time until I got to the opposite side (the shoulder), where it then measured 1". Then I sketched in the circle. I probably could have done more measuring on the other lines, but I'm pretty good at drafting curves, so I didn't bother.  I did this for all of the circles.
Then I sorta felt like calling up each of my math students who complained about fractions and wondered where they would ever use this stuff in real life and telling them about this project, but I resisted.

Circles, ellipses, and lines- Oh my!

With the arm hole cut out. Plus bonus kitty toes!
I marked on the circles and ellipses where I would be putting in my stitches. If you were confused by my earlier explanation, check out the photo below and look for the black marks on the grid. Those were my stitch markers. I did every other line close to the parts that would go under my arm and then switched to every line about 3/16s away from the midpoint under the arm. I honestly eyeballed this part so that the triangle-y bits wouldn't look weirdly far apart or too close.
Up close view of the lines. This part eventually would go under the arm.

More up close view of the lines. This part eventually would go on the outside of the arm.
 I decided that in the interest of time, I would not do a mockup of this sleeve pattern and I would just run with what I had in my head. So I flatlined the silk onto the muslin (with the lines, circles, and ellipses facing up so I could still see them) and started smocking away. Each pinched together spot needed to be hand sewed and there were probably a kajillion of them on each sleeve. The first circle went great. When I started on the second circle, I began to see some problems. The triangle-y things weren't looking so triangle-y, but more like slanted lines. It was a cool look, but not what I was going for, so I abandoned my black marks (mostly) and did my pinches by eyeballing them. I continued to use the circles and the ellipses to keep the stitches in line with each other and to get that gradual increase in triangle-y shaped size.

Detail of the triangle-y bits.

The sleeve after the 2nd row of stitches. Bonus picture of me marathoning House.
I made it through all 8 seasons while making this dress.
 After I did the shoulder part of the sleeve, I did the cuff. The cuff was trickier, because the gathers were closer together. I wasn't sure that I liked it as much and I worried (unnecessarily) that it would be too small for my arm.

Finished sleeve before cartridge pleating it.
With the sleeve all smocked, what was I to do next with it? Put it on my kitten, of course!

Calliope wearing her new fashionable cat cozy. She's very tolerant of my weirdness.
 And this project wouldn't be complete without me getting to wear my sleeve as a hat.
This will be all the rage next year, trust me.
 After being silly, I started cartridge pleating the shoulder part of the sleeve. I ran the thread through the center of the pinched together part about 1/4th of an inch above the outer circle. Then I pinched the part in-between each stitch together and ran the thread through that part too. I wish I had taken a picture of that, since it's super difficult to say in words, and in concept is extremely easy. For the cuff, I simply pressed the gathers flat and sewed on a thin armband around them. I put some beaded trim on as well that I had laying about.

Up close view of the shoulder.

Up close view of the cuff.

Both sleeves on.
I later stuffed them full of poly-fil to help them maintain their shape.
 Once I had my sleeves on, I started thinking about the skirt. I wanted to showcase the triangle-y bits and in a fit of insanity, decided that I should do the same pattern on the skirt.  I drew in straight lines for this on the lining, which I neglected to photograph and made each junction 2" apart. Then I went along the first horizontal line and sewed together every other junction, making each triangle-y bit 2" deep. Then I cartridge pleated the skirt and handsewed it into the bodice. Then I put the dress onto my dress form and started pinching out the triangle-y bits by hand. I wanted them to drape a certain way, so I ignored my drawn lines. I pinned each place that I would later sew together.

Detail of the skirt triangle-bits.

I decided to have three rows below the edge of the bodice.
Because of the first row that was hidden by the edge of the bodice,
there are actually four rows of stitches on the skirt.

I was a bit concerned that the triangle-y bits would look sloppy,
but they sorted themselves out as I sewed them in place.
 I finished up the dress *just* in time for the dance! I had started it on Saturday, April 19th and finished it Saturday, April 26th. I was really pleased with how it came out.

Photo credit: Monica Lenk
The next morning, I made a few minor changes to the dress: I hemmed it up about 4 more inches and added some proper back closures. I have to say that I am more proud of this dress than any other I have made so far. I feel like I proved to myself that I am up to the challenge of doing intricate, hand-sewn decorations. I'm thinking of later beading each stitch that I did (except under the arm) because I'm a glutton for punishment and prettiness. I also would like to do some sort of triangle-y trim on the skirt to cover where I sewed the hem.

View of the back

Finished dress!

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