I really think it has turned out magnificently! So here is a rather long post describing the process.
To start at the beginning… My beautiful second daughter had her yr 12 school formal this week. For US readers, that’s the Australian version of a senior prom. The eldest didn’t go to formal, she’s not into dances and dressing up, but this one was always going to be a big deal. Laura has been thinking and planning for months. As a fashion design student and keen fashionista she wanted something a bit different, but when we went searching all the formal wear shops (and I mean all of them, sigh) in the Christmas holidays, it was all depressingly boring and plain. So many traditional bridesmaid style dresses, so much sameness. I never really wanted to make her dress, way too much pressure if you ask me, and although I’m a pretty good seamstress if I do say so myself, the last real formal wear I sewed was my bridesmaid dresses, 23 years ago. But in the end Laura decided the only way to get what she wanted was to get me to make it, so I finally gave in.
We knew straight away where we’d get the fabric – the wonderful Eastern Silk shop which is just around the corner from my workplace. The fabric is a glorious embroidered dupion silk and the lining is also silk. I found it absolutely wonderful to work with and am so glad we didn’t choose a slippery fabric. The dupion is very robust, and put up with a fair few unpickings without showing the marks. I’m a complete fan now of the silk lining, also wonderful to work with, strong and fine but not slippery.
Laura had a specific design in mind. She’d tried on and photographed a couple of dresses that she liked the bodice design of, if not the fabric, and she had several ‘inspiration’ designer dresses she’d seen online that we could only ever afford in her dreams! Although I’ve drafted simple patterns occasionally in the past, and I’m confident doing alterations, I didn’t feel I had the skill to draft this dress, we needed a pattern. We spent ages looking through the pattern books, but eventually decided that a pattern I already had could be altered for the bodice, and just by chance picked up a pattern for the skirt in an op shop for $1.50. The final dress has a bodice which is a combination of the two different bodices in Butterick 5181, and the skirt from Simplicity 2398 view A.The bodice has two separate cups attached to the bodice band like views A and B, but has very narrow straps like views C and D.
The embroidered silk is very strong but relatively thin where it’s not embroidered, so I decided to line the entire thing with a reasonably thick, soft flannel fabric.I wanted something with the same amount of give as the silk (ie very little) and the flannel fit the bill. The front band, and both top back and bottom back sections of the bodice are boned, using flexible plastic boning which is just zigzagged to the flannel on the side closest to the lining. I LOVED doing the boning. There are 16 pieces of boning and I singed both ends of each piece using a cigarette lighter. It was so much fun. All that fire (laughs wildly…) After I’d stitched the boning in, I ironed a strip of interfacing over each one to add a bit of cushioning since the silk lining is very fine. You can see in the photo above, the way the pieces of boning are positioned means that the ends of each piece are also cushioned by the seam allowances folding up/down over them. If they weren’t they would probably have needed something stitched over the ends to stop them digging in.
The dress has taken a very long time to sew, partly because I’ve had a lurking terror the whole time that I was going to stuff it up. So every single step has involved massive amounts of procrastination. Which is ridiculous because it hasn’t actually been that hard to sew, it’s just needed lots of attention to detail. The challenge was more in the fitting, but once I got the toile done and fitting well, it mostly came together nicely. Although I think I only finished it in the end because I was getting frustrated at not being able to sew anything else (self imposed) until it was done. Oh and the deadline of the event, there’s that!
One thing I did have difficulty with was the straps. Laura wanted them really narrow, but I couldn’t for the life of me get the rouleaus I’d made to turn out. I think it was precisely because the silk is not slippery, so I couldn’t get it moving through the narrow channels. So we ended up buying ready made rouleau cord from Spotlight. Easy solution and it matches beautifully! Ideally the straps should have been enclosed in the bodice at the back but I needed to wait until the dress was nearly finished to cut them to the right length, so they are just hand-stitched to the already finished bodice as the very last step of construction.
The only major mistake I made was that I constructed the bodice by sewing the front and back top sections together at the side seams, and then lining those sections, then sandwiching them all at once into the lower bodice sections. This looks lovely both inside and out, however it then meant the lining of the top bodice back wasn’t able to separate when I came to put the zip in. So the bodice and lining had to be treated as one piece to attach the zip. This worked fine, but I’ve had to then handsew some ribbon over the zipper tape to neaten it on the inside.What I should have done is construct and line the cups, then sandwich them into the front bodice band; sew the top back bodice pieces to the back bodice bands, do the same with the back bodice lining pieces, and just attach the lining to the bodice along the top seam; then sandwich the front bodice between the back bodice and its lining at the side seams. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!
Other than the zip’s rather messy construction I found it really challenging to get the zip in the right spot. I’d left quite a bit of spare fabric for fitting, but how to pin it on my daughter so the dress was nice and tight (so it would stay up) and then accurately mark where the zip would go was really tricky. I ended up just using pins to mark the centre back, while I pulled it firm, and then working it out from there after I’d taken it off her, but I was really quite amazed when it did actually fit just right. I did say to Laura that if she wants me to make her wedding dress it better not be for at least another 10 years as it will take me that long to be ready to put myself through this trauma again!
The skirt lining was another casualty of the bodice construction mistake. It’s too complicated to explain why, but I decided the best way to end up with it free to attach separately to the zip was to handsew it onto the bodice. It looks good. We had a lot of to-ing and fro-ing about whether to put some tulle on the skirt lining, but Laura chose not to in the end, she thought it flared out enough without it. She also debated the length, and whether an ankle length skirt would show off her gorgeous shoes better, but finally went with floor length as more elegant. The hem is narrow and hemmed with some grosgrain ribbon.
I’m super proud of this dress, and of my beautiful 17 year old. The best thing is that she put it on and declared that she loved it. I just love that she had the confidence to wear something a bit different that suits her own sense of style, and she got to go to her formal feeling gorgeous.
Here’s just a few photos of the pre-formal party. We bought a stunning corsage from Flowers of Adelaide. They are a gorgeous florist in Torrensville where I’ve bought bouquets occasionally for birthdays etc. I knew they would do something elegant and they didn’t disappoint. Laura spoke to the florist herself and explained what she would like and they did a custom wrist corsage on a black ribbon. I especially love the succulents!
And just to finish off… after being religious about keeping the cats off the fabric, and putting it away in the cupboard after each sewing session, Laura had finished her hair and make-up, and had just laid out the dress on the bed while she put her shoes on. We turned our backs for 2 minutes and look who took up very temporary(!) residence.