The Dresstangle

It is four right angles and four seams sewn with an opening for my head.

Boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waistNo, really. I know it looks like much more, but the fabric and the elasticated waist are doing all the work.

I’ve made this dress twice before (once in a peacock print and once in navy) during my half year of speed sewing for The Sew Weekly blog, but I never wrote about it here. Until now.

Boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waist

This version has an upgrade: A circle of clear elastic sewn to a dropped waistline.

When life (in the shape of a lingering cold, surprise deadlines at work, and family travel plans) started creeping in on my intentions to make something wearable this month, I fought back by resurrecting the simplest, self-drafted shape and applying it to the rayon challis print I acquired during my past addiction to online fabric sales.

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This is happening. #nofilter

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My first two iterations of this dress were cut and sewn directly from yardage.

This time, re-realizing how many more dress and top variations this shape could yield, I made a pattern.

Boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waist

I was grateful for the accuracy that one rectangular pattern piece gave me when trying to fit the front and back on the full width of the fabric.

I had to short the seam allowances a bit on one seam, but ended up with an almost zero-waste garment.

Boatneck dress with bloused elasticated waist

The dress in my head got sketched on my croquis to see how the sewn-on elastic would handle the volume and how much blousing I’d like.

I wanted the dress to be permanently bloused at the waist versus just having the extra fabric belted. The elastic would keep things in position and distribute the gathers evenly like it did in the men’s shirt I refashioned last year.

dresstangle3_wbss-4

However, a happy accident with the untested marking of my real vs. dropped waistline gave me more blousing than I’d planned.

But, I kinda like it!

Its 1980s material girl meets 1920s flapper.

Boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waist

I constructed the dress over three days.

Boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waist

On day 1, I ironed and cut the fabric.

On day 2, seams were sewn and overlocked.

On day 3, the elastic and hem went in.

Construction of boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waist

To create the blousing, I quarter-marked and zig-zag stitched clear elastic to a waistline marked 1.5 inches below my true waistline (which turned out not to be).

To keep the back hem even, I lowered the back waistline by half an inch at center back.

Boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waist

I canNOT get over the basic beauty of this dress shape. The amount of pattern play to be had is endless. My next one might get kimono sleeves and a rounded hem. A proper neckline might even get drafted on future versions.

My satisfaction meter is off the charts with this make. Not to mention that I may have stumbled upon my fall/winter uniform.

Boatneck dress with cut on sleeves and elasticated waist

What’s your experience sewing boxy styles? Would you ever try a dresstangle? What other variations do you see are possible with this shape?

The Holistic Seamstress: Part 2

In part 2 of The Holistic Seamstress, I return to the series —after a rejuvenating break and reality check on my original writing schedule — to consider the most fundamental element of wardrobe sewing, the body. Mine to be exact. I will reflect on the impact wearing ill-fitting clothes has had on my body perception, how I learned to use numbers to tell the truth about my body, and how that awareness is transforming the way I make clothes.

Wardrobe Sewing Element: Body

Body Beautiful

Through the years, I worked against the grain to accept and eventually love the realities of my brown skin, full lips, kinky hair, and short, thick, curvy frame that will never fit a standard height/weight chart. The world would have me believe my body is awkward, alien, and in need of improvement, but I boycott those lies like I did that California Denny’s restaurant that refused to serve my friends because they were black. I look in the mirror at all of the features that Maya Angelou tells us are “phenomenal” and I don’t doubt for a minute it’s true.

Even if I wanted to believe I was less than a goddess, when I moved to Washington DC in my twenties, the gentlemen of Chocolate City wouldn’t let me. From the moment, I stepped off the plane, you could almost hear Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mama Jama” playing as my personal soundtrack. Strangers whistled at me from across the street, cabs would show up without me hailing them, all manner of compliments from all manner of fellas who expressed an appreciation for parts of my physiology that my young, media-influenced brain tried to Photoshop away. Becoming date-able just by moving across the country gave me a chance to identify with the “eye of the beholder”, and recognize my own beauty as it is. Eating delicious, free meals at restaurants all over the city was a nostalgic bonus.

Personal Croquis All_Sides

However, there is one place on the planet that has the power to completely annihilate my body-positive attitude.

A dressing room.

It doesn’t matter which store. I have probably shed tears in all of their booths of shame.

You see, even though I am only five feet tall, in my mind, I’m an NBA point guard. I only started referring to myself as petite when I started to sew and learned about body measurements. Folks around me indulged my vertical delusions by sparing me too many short jokes, letting me boss them around, and every now and then looking over at me in an elevator, as if waking up from years under a spell, and saying “Damn, I didn’t realize you were so short”.

Under this delusion of grandeur, I shopped for clothes.

It went something like this….

I grab a size 12 for the bottom and a size 14 for the top and enter a dressing room with enough faith to fill a church. The one pair of jeans I own that fit decently hit the floor with abandon and I immediately start to imagine all of the hugging and skimming my chosen outfit will perform on my hips. The one of two well-worn tops I own that doesn’t make my boobs look like a buffet is yanked off in anticipation of its superior successor. I am standing in my underwear in a mirrored box filled with promise. I have even given myself a five-garment buffer from pessimism so I don’t give up on the process too quickly. If the clothes on the hanger knew the pressure they were under to please me, they would’ve animated like a Disney movie and slithered under the door to escape.

The clothes I picked out to try on would mostly fit my circumferences, but would neglect the depth of my curves and ignore the length of my proportions. I was doomed before the zipper zipped.

Clothes that almost fit, but didn’t in the worst way possible — sleeves that are not only too long, but hang off the shoulder like drunken loiterers, gaping necklines that expose my bra, waistlines that sit nowhere near mine, pools of fabric at the hips, bunching up at the crotch and knees and dragging on the floor — stared back at me and for the 120 seconds I could bear my reflection, I felt like I had the unluckiest body in the world.

How was I supposed to be the badass I was born to be if I looked like a frumpy, hot mess every time I got dressed?

Before I knew how to stitch a seam, crying on the floor of a department store dressing room was a regular thing for me.

While bumbling my way through sewing books and websites trying to learn the skills that would help me avoid dressing rooms for the rest of my life, I ultimately found a few petite-friendly places to shop with off the rack styles that respected my proportions and required no therapy sessions. There’s still a significant disregard for the unique needs of my curves in ready-to-wear clothes sized for petites, but those designers have never met me. Nor are they trying to. They are designing for someone else’s petite body. In fact, they are hoping their clothes will fit EVERY woman under 5 foot 4 inches. My expectation that they fit THIS woman is unreasonable.

No matter what number is printed on the tag or what section of a store I buy my clothes, none will ever be sized for Me. Making my own clothes with my body in mind would become my scenic route to badassdom.

Body Map

During the last two months of my life, I learned to speak another language.

I used to tell people that I am bilingual because I can communicate in both English and Ebonics. As true and entertaining at parties as that is, my dopest experience learning a new language involved NUMBERS not linguistics. Instead of a set of headphones and a date with Rosetta Stone, I used my measuring tape like a United Nations interpreter to understand the things my body has been trying to tell me about its architecture.

Starting with the southern hemisphere of my five foot landscape, I learned how to measure, draft, and fit a custom skirt block pattern from my new, Personal Wizard and Couture De-mystifier, Brooks Ann Camper. Her 5-week Skirt Skills course was the tallest, coolest, most refreshing drink of sewing education I have ever tasted. I have found my Jedi Master. Now that I have levitated through the Forest of Righteous Circumference, solved the Mystery of Back Dart Intake, and prevailed during the Battle of Waistline Positioning, the force within me is stronger than ever. I still carry my self-taught seamstress badge with pride, but I am now living with the epic level of satisfaction that comes from investing time (my most elusive commodity) and money (saved ferociously) to learn a skill that has systematically blown my mind into a million tiny pieces of creative possibility.

Personal Croquis All Sides with Annotated Measurements

When I saw a combination square with level on the supplies list for my couture skirtmaking course, I asked my husband what the hell it was and if he had one. I was a little intimidated by the tool’s sorcery and my general air-headedness about measuring things with regular tools (I learned how to read the 1/8″ tick marks on a standard ruler as recently as 3 years ago!), so Matt and his vintage combo square was recruited to assist me in yet another muslin-covered sewing adventure. Assigned to the task of accurately measuring his wife during the blessed two hours our toddler napped, my husband’s devoted contribution was the lynchpin to my pattern drafting success. With me standing in one place for more than five minutes, following his directions in my underwear, the measuring experience also gave two distracted parents an unexpected moment to flirt and be vulnerable together.

Armed with a solid set of bottom-half measurements, affectionately recorded by my better half, I followed Brooks Ann’s buttery smooth methods for drafting a 2-D map of my silhouette in the shape of a darted, waist-to-knee cylinder. The whole process gave me a crafty high I’ve never known before.

Using a blend of numbers and pencil strokes, my unique verticals, arcs, angles, and curves began to take on a voice I had been waiting to hear my whole life. It’s as if my body has been trying to introduce itself to me through all of my years of fiddling about trying to fit commercial patterns and I couldn’t hear it. It waited patiently for the time in my life I would finally choose a teacher, admit I prefer centimeters over inches, and dare to discover what it has to say. I like to imagine it singing to me in the voice of a young, John Mayer, seducing me to design for it with “Your body is a wonderland” lyrics on repeat.

Made to measure clothes give my body a voice to speak its true shape or reshape its truth. When I wear ill-fitting clothes, my body’s voice is drowned out with noise, going tragically unheard or at worst being mis-represented. Exhibit A: The collective DNA of my tears on the floors of dressing rooms across America.

After two days and two nail-biting muslin mock-ups later, I celebrated the completion of my custom skirt block pattern with some you-go-girls from my classmates, a Big Gulp-sized glass of wine, and an obscene amount of domestic high-fiving with my man. For the first time in weeks, our husband and wife couture-crime fighting team finally had something besides “Pee-Pee on the Potty!” to yell across the house to each other.

When my sisters flew in town to visit for Thanksgiving last week, the story of our collaborative accomplishment was retold with the same sentence-finishing enthusiasm as our honeymoon story. The afterglow from that trip to Amsterdam was just as bright. Forget couples yoga or cooking classes, pattern drafting is the new date night.

Custom Skirt Block on Wall

When I was pulling my hair out trying to get Vogue 1019 to fit my hips, I knew I’d eventually figure out how to fit the pattern — maybe after a seventh or eighth muslin. I could never have predicted that in less time than it took me to do that, I could learn how to draw a one-of-a-kind skirt that also gives me the capacity to create ANY skirt.

Body of Work

Given that I’d never worn a well-fitting skirt before, the promise of getting one at the end of class was the chocolate-covered carrot that teased me through each week of the Skirt Skills course. I practiced the basic drafting skills I needed to design flared and straight skirt styles with my custom block and obsessively began sketching ideas and gathering inspiration images. But, before inviting Tim Gunn over for tea and a design critique of my new one-woman collection, I wanted to make a simple straight skirt using my block — because, after all, I’d never had one that fit my body properly.  Based on the results of my couture-infused mockups, I knew this one did.

Straight Basic Skirt Sketch

With some African wax print cotton, hand-marked and hand-basted stitchlines, some double-fold bias binding, and an invisible zipper, I crafted the best-fitting skirt I have ever worn in my life.

African Straight Skirt Custom_Block - 1

When I wore the skirt, it didn’t shift on my hips, ride up, wrinkle up, or look anything but awesome on my body all day.

African Straight Skirt Custom Block , back view

I didn’t know how to behave! I kept smoothing my hips and checking my reflection expecting to see something wrong. All I saw was ME in a badass, well-fitting skirt!!!

African Straight Skirt Custom Block, side view

I have more in the works!

That denim pencil skirt I dreamed out loud about is underway, as well as a khaki skirt with a secret-weapon pleat. All patterns custom designed by me – for my body.

I am eternally grateful to Brooks Ann for her wizardly, thimble-wielding techniques. She has mountains of patience for cocky advanced beginners like me who try to hurry through lessons before settling into the steady rhythm of slow, deliberate making.

This is the sweet spot of handmade wardrobe building I have fantasized about. Knowing how to design and sew for my unique body means having the power to speak its beautiful, native language through mindfully-created garments that live to echo or enhance my silhouette.

I’m going to call this the sacred art of being a bad mama jama!

I’d love to hear your body-awareness story. How has your perception of your body’s shape or size evolved? Does your history with fitting or buying clothes include any tears or triumphs? If you’ve discovered the accessible magic of pattern drafting, do you feel as heroic as I do?

Thanks for hanging with the series. I’ll see you in the comments.

Wanna Be Sewing: Pencil Skirts

Later this week there’ll be more sewing soul contemplation. Today, I am taking you on a quick, mid-week scroll through my current fixation on pencil skirts. Specifically, denim ones. A custom-fit, deep indigo skirt, tapered at the knee. (1) Curve-hugging enough to distract my husband from a computer game, (2) conservative enough to run an all-day tech company meeting, and (3) durable enough for changing a flat tire on my pickup truck…or a small child covered in mud.

I want this skirt in my life so badly, I hired a couturier to teach me how to make one from scratch this fall. I’ll share more about that experience down the line. For now, let’s peak at a few of the high-end ready-to-wear skirts I’m inspired by and maybe even “pencil in” how they might look on me.

Starting with this simple one from Citizens of Humanity.

Citizens Of Humanity Denim Pencil Skirt

A high, contour waistband and a center front seam, this basic skirt is also showing some quiet rebellion with its boldly angled pockets. It’s like that front panel starts off wanting to be a middle gore in a three gore skirt, but then changes its mind when the center seam shows up, maps out a smooth exit, and juts off to the side seam in creative protest.

Story of my life.
Denim Pencil Skirt Design Inspiration 01

This Burberry beauty is a bit deceiving on the curve-hugging front because its made of stretch denim. But, those style lines are what caught my eye.

Burberry Brit Stretch-denim pencil skirt

A classic, sporty denim skirt with all of the expected features until your eye is lured down the thighs by a hypnotic pair of double-topstitched, flat-felled seams.

Yes and yes.

Denim Pencil Skirt Design Inspiration Sketch 02

Now, what about the collar-and-a-peplum-had-a-baby feature of this $500 Moschino skirt? Bringing that kind of attention to my waist might not be the best decision. Or, it could be the missing link.
Moschino Buttoned stretch-denim pencil skirt

As long as I never find myself transported to the 1980s where I might get the urge to “pop” the collar, the style might have a chance on me.

Denim Pencil Skirt Design Inspiration Sketch 03

Look out for more inspiration sketches on Instagram, the dumping ground for my design impulses. Seriously, though, I am physically restraining myself from sketching and sharing more right now. A sign that it’s time to head back to real life where our fingers are crossed that no truck tires or tiny muddy people need my help today.

Gather Around

When time travel is invented, I will return to the past with advice for myself the moment before I learned to sew. I will tell me to build up my skills sewing dartless tops and skirts with elastic waistbands (that will become inevitable and welcomed after having children). I will also warn me about the horror of sewing machine needle piercing pinky finger.

Darts on the full-busted are ridiculously huge. There’s this Pac-Man wedge of fabric that’s supposed to shape my curves but it sews up bulky and pointy unless I get all couture-y (which I rarely have patience for). Strangely, I had enough patience to learn dart rotation so I can disappear the damn things altogether.

Back in the day, I first sewed this basic tank pattern into the Devil Wears Floral Top and made plans to change it up with neckline gathers.

Croquis Sketch, Simplicity 2599

Fast forward to now. I grab my beat up copy of Patternmaking for Fashion Design to learn the basics of dart rotation. Then, a little googling leads me to this tutorial which hooks me up with a step-by-step lesson on rotating a side bust dart into the neckline to create gathers. The EXACT thing I was trying to do with my pattern.

This is the result, tested out as a crop top (in attempt not to waste the fabric if my experiment failed) in polka-dotted rayon challis.

photo 1

The whole procedure feels like sorcery until you sew it up and your mind is like, “Oh, that’s all it is!” The one thing I didn’t anticipate was having to abandon my usual 1/2″ bias tape facing application for a more suitable visible binding. The linen bias binding is leftover from the Driving Men Mad Dress, but the next time I sew this top (likely as a dress), I’ll make bias binding from matching fabric.

photo 4

Right up there with dartless tops are elastic waistbands on skirts. And, the holy grail of elastic waistbands is the extra wide elastic waistband that is sewn right to the fabric in no time flat and worn on the outside for all to see.

My go-to dirndle pattern with pockets was sewn in a flowy print to 3″ stretch elastic from my stash. I love how the wide elastic makes the gathers less bulky. Ignoring that it needs to be hemmed shorter (midi length isn’t the best on me) and that this elastic is too awesome to have ever spent time as “stash”, I am liking this situation and will certainly repeat it. Say hello to the Waist No Time Skirt.

The Waist No Time Skirt

I am glad to report that after sitting at a desk most of the day and chasing a one year old around in the evening, the elastic held up nicely. No weird creases or rolling about. Perfect for those days when someone suggests the Indian buffet for lunch.

As for my time travelling plans, I don’t think I’ll risk the effects to the timeline just for selfish sewing advice. Maybe for selfish celebrity meet-cutes with Idris Elba, instead.

What about you? What might you travel back in time to say to your younger self about sewing or fashion?

Birth of a Spring / Summer Wardrobe Palette

I’m the kind of girl that likes plenty of options when faced with a choice. The cereal aisle (if I dared to stand in its void) doesn’t intimidate me at all. I just wish I had the time to catalogue it ;-). So, when I saw that the Spring & Summer 2012 Palette Challenge was announced over at The Coletterie, it was out of character for me to want to play along.

“To participate, you research and choose a color palette for creating a mini seasonal wardrobe, create a moodboard, and then spend about 8 weeks sewing as many garments as you’d like from that palette.” Sarai at The Coletterie

Those lovely constraints (which I need but often avoid) would only have me “obligated” to my color palette for a couple of months. It would also give me an opportunity to focus on a handful of patterns, say 4 or 5 garments that could be mixed and matched into two weeks worth of outfits. Limits with limits. I can work with that!

The challenge is pretty low-key and should fit nicely with The Sew Weekly’s upcoming themes, but Operation Sew Balanced needs my attention for the moment. Perhaps in a week or so, I’ll decide if I will fully participate (Flickr group, forum, etc.) or simply remain an inspired and supportive lurker.

In the meantime, here is a palette of fabrics that would inspire any mini wardrobe I might sew this season.

Palette of Fabric Prints to Inspire a Spring/Summer Mini Wardrobe

A signature floral, solids selected from a rainbow plaid, classic & cheery polka-dots, and chevron stripes for texture. (Fabric: Maywood Studio’s Calypso collection, Robert Kaufman Pimatex Basics & Remix collections).

Got any color-coordinated wardrobe plans this season?

Uh-Oh Minutes and Aha! Moments: Lab Notes on Pants Fitting

Line drawing of McCall's 6514 pants pattern

It’s been five years since I’ve attempted to sew a pair of pants. My first pair (wide legs, with an elastic waist) were fitted by following the guidelines in a comprehensive pants sewing reference book and the-most-awesome pattern alteration reference book from my library. I had a succesful pair of palazzo pants (which later proved to be a horribly pilly linen-blend fabric that ultimately made the pants unwearable) after only 1 night of pattern alterations and two muslin prototypes. I still have the original and altered pattern. But for some reason, I threw away 99% of my notes —perhaps a subconscious move of self-sabotage. Maybe I like re-learning things from scratch and have orchestrated things so I can experience life like that guy suffering from short-term memory loss in the movie, Memento…”Hey, look at that! I figured out the steps for making a pair of pants that fit!” Five years later…”Hey, I wish I knew how to make a pair of paints that fit.”

That’s kinda of what happened to me when it was time to conquer my second pair of pants for an upcoming challenge (to be revealed later)….I had only a piece of the map to  the island where they buried the Treasure of Trouser Tailoring (sorry, I have a small addiction to alliterations I’m trying to shake off). The rest was lost during my years of intermittent, aimless sewing. So, back to square one I went. Reference books…check. Muslin yardage…check. Measurement tape…check. Measurement charts…check….Pants pattern…check. Pandora set to Jim Gaffigan radio station…check (cause I’d be needing EVERY ounce of my sense of humor).

I’ll be going into the weeds of the details later on, but for now let’s just say….I know now why I waited five years to make another pair of paints. I was probably still post-traumatic from the first time I was faced with nearly SIX different pattern alterations – not all of which are self-evident at first.

Here is the chart I filled out (click it for a closer look via PDF) while measuring myself vs. the pattern pieces and below is an illustration of all of the reference points I used for the flat-pattern measuring.
Measurement Chart used for Pants Fitting

Pants Pattern Reference Points for M6514

The first muslin took two days (my longest alteration-to-muslin interval all year!). The second and third took an evening each. Halfway through evaluating the second muslin, I got worried that my fitting issues were hopeless. Thankfully, my extra nerdy, overanalytical husband wouldn’t give up on his attempt to read my wrinkles and sherlock where on the pattern to make the correction. His scientific inquiries kept my gears turning and I ultimately remembered on what page in which book the key alteration was explained. We nerded on further to come up with more efficient ways of making the length and width adjustments to save time and reduce pattern distortion.

This whole adventure put me waaay behind schedule (when am I not these days). Which means I may have to opt out of next week’s challenge so I can do the chores I’ve been neglecting. Must I really choose between having a clean house and making another garment?

Rushing for a Refashion

My garment for the Refashion challenge was still brewing in my head as of last night. And, it’s due tomorrow! My procrastination has left me with only an evening’s time to upcycle this brown dress from Target. I’ve made some quick design notes and plan to resurrect last week’s accessory to make this 11th hour stunt pan out.

I’m dying to add inseam pockets (something I’ve surprisingly never sewn before) to this sheath. Pockets would upgrade it from “meh” to functionally cute. But, I may not have the time. We’ll see. Stay tuned. Given my ticking clock, the results are sure to be interesting.