Lili-Kielo maxi dress

This one starts with a big old celebrity fabric crush. Atelier Brunette rayon/modal in “Lili” has earned a lot of internet love, and rightly so. It’s a lovely understated print: black with little mustard seed heads blown about in pale grey and red. But the cincher is how it wears. It’s soft and silky and cool to touch, feather-light but drapey and opaque. A dreamy combo. I stalked it and pinned it and kept coming back to it for weeks/months before finally taking the plunge.

Having splashed out on the fabric, I then spent further weeks/months agonising over which pattern to choose to show it off. I ended up settling on the Named Kielo Wrap. I knew I wanted a maxi and this seemed a good choice for a lightweight fabric.

The pattern only has three pieces (front, back and ties) so should have been a quick sew. However this was my first time working with rayon, and I have to admit is intimidated me. I got all spooked by the way it shifted around during the cutting, and then left it cut out for over a month whilst other cotton projects jumped the queue. Finally I womaned up and got stuck in, giving myself a full empty weekend to take it slowly.

Construction started well. I staystitched the neckline and treated the pieces carefully, trying not to stretch anything out. I marked my notches with tailors’ tacks and everything seemed to match up well. BUT the neck and armhole bindings were a reeeeal pain in the backside. I just could not seem to get them in without puckering. I unpicked parts of all three, and one armhole I completely re-did and is still far from perfect. I’m not really sure what I did wrong, but if anyone has tips on inserting bias facings with slippery fabric I’d love to have them!

That being said, I love the end result. It feels elegant and cool in style, yet uber-comfortable to wear, even in CAR where we’re currently averaging 35c (arrrrgh, send ice!) A genius-simple design, which has definitely encouraged me to try more Named patterns. In fact I bought the Helga playsuit pattern last time I was home.

The backdrop for the photos, in case anyone was wondering, is beautiful Segovia in Spain. We were recently there on holiday. It is home to both a Disney-esque castle (in fact one of the castles that is said to have inspired Disney’s design) and this incredible Roman aqueduct. I hiiiiighly recommend a trip for anyone staying in the Madrid/Salamanca area. The food is delicious too, mmmmm jammmmonnnnn…

Siobhan xxx

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What the Watteau?! (Part 2)

A couple of posts ago I wrote about my descent down an internet research rabbit-hole on “watteau-back” dresses – a design feature that first emerged way back in the 1700s and was notably reincarnated in the 1950/60s. Watteau-back dresses basically involve a big old load of folded fabric at the back which give the appearance of a cape/train.

Cool eh? I’m into it in any case, and decided to try incorporating a similar effect into a dress or two. My favourite examples are those where the dress is fitted through the bodice (rather than a sack/shift shape) and  where the watteau is a continuation of the skirt fabric rather than an additional, separate piece. These things combined pose a considerable technical challenge. How to add all that volume at the back without losing the shape in the bodice?

For my first experiment, I chose the BHL Georgia dress, a closely fitted pattern with a cupped bodice, narrow straps and panelled skirt.

My idea was to keep the fitted upper portion and then have the watteau-back blend into a gently flaring skirt. To do this I gently graduated the side front skirt pieces out from my size (14) at the hip to the largest size (20) at the hem. Then for the back skirt I drafted a new piece as follows:

  1. Traced the outer and upper seamlines from the Side Back (I)
  2. Overlapped the Centre Back (J) by the seam allowance, traced the upper seamline, marking the centre back
  3. Added 40 cm extra and squared off (K)
  4. Cut the whole thing on the fold

Construction-wise, with wrong sides together (i.e. with the fabric still folded along the fold line) I pinned and stitched a line down the “centre back” mark for 10cm. This basically gave me a massive pleat which I played about with and pinned until I was happy.

In the end I went with two layers of pleating, the first one 25cm wide, the second one 15cm wide. Once it was all pinned securely, i flipped it over and stitched within the seam allowance along the top before trimming off the excess. I then treated it as one back skirt piece and followed the construction as directed.

I should probably state (before I leap into a whole list of things I immediately want to do differently) that I love this dress. I’ve worn it to two weddings and it got lots of lovely compliments at both. I’m glad I persevered with the bodice (hang in there, anyone who’s mid-project!) because it’s by far the most glam thing I’ve made for myself and it makes me feel fab.

BUT – watteau-wise… meh, it’s not reeeeally what I had in mind… I meant they look like big old pleats, which are nice… but it’s not really the swoopy, drapey, dramatic cape-effect I had in my mind’s eye.

SO, lessons learned?

  • On pattern drafting: The adding-to-centre-back-seam method seemed to work pretty well. But for next time, I need to go all-out. A watteau starting at the shoulders and ending at the floor, for full-on cape-mania. I also might need to add even more pleats to make it look really intentional.
  • On fabric choice: Exciting design features should probably be shown off in solid fabrics, rather than crazy-pave african prints, in order to be noticed (duh). Also to get pleats that softly blend into the skirt at the hem, you probably need to use a soft fabric, not a stiff wax-print cotton (double duh)… Althoooough at the same time how AMAZING is this beautiful kitenge?? Picked up from Woodin Kinshasa… fabric store of dreams… I mean I have basically zero regrets about using it, it’s just not ideal for a watteau, that’s all I’m saying 🙂
  • On the other hand, to make the pleats stand away from the dress up top, it might be worth experimenting with adding a layer of something (netting?) along the top few inches… To be seen!

Finally, a quick word on the rest of the pattern – as with all BHL creations, it’s thoughtfully drafted with excellent instructions, supplemented by the comprehensive sewalong on their site. In terms of fit, the BHL ladies strongly advise you to toile the bodice and I would strongly support this advice!

I think I had about three goes before arriving at a fit I was happy with. I followed their instructions for a 1” FBA and adjusted the curve quite a bit, just by by pinching and pinning and transferring to the pattern etc. This sounds like a lot of adjustment but I think it’s to be expected with this sort of pattern. We all have such different shapes and sizes, it would be impossible to draft something which fits everyone’s leading ladies perfectly.

Mmmmm gin and well-fitting bodices…

Fair to say the watteau journey is not over yet. I’m looking forward to having another go once I find the perfect fabric – will keep you posted!

Siobhan xxx

Flamingos by the Sea

A few months back (ahem, yes it’s been a while) I hopped a plane to Europe and met M for a 2-week holiday in Italy. I have a personal theory that it is impossible to have a bad holiday in Italy. This was maybe my eighth trip and it didn’t disappoint. We started on the Amalfi coast at the wedding of some friends, before driving up through Umbria, spending a couple of days in Parma and finishing on Lago Maggiore with both of our families. Glorious.

Since the friends’  wedding was on the beach, I knew I wanted to make a dress with a fun seaside vibe. I picked up this Michael miller flamingo border print when I was last in the UK, from the Village Haberdashery. It was a total shotgun fabric purchase – I had 10 mins between appointments and my stepdad kept the car running outside whilst I ran in with my mum. Fortunately this one jumped straight out of the stack – it was meant to be.

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My starting block was the tried-and-true Emery dress by Christine Haynes because I love the fit of the bodice (see previous version here). From there I played around a bit and made three main changes: A deep v-neck, a pleated skirt and little cap sleeves. I tried out two of these modifications (v-neck and pleats) on a wearable toile before cutting into the real thing.

On the toile I was really happy with the pleat placement. Something about a flat front with volume at the sides feels really good – swishy yet flattering. The neckline on the other hand was just a little “off”. Not terrible, totally wearable, but not the look I was going for. I decided to try it deeper and narrower for the real version. It was at this point I also decided to add little cap sleeves to balance the neckline, using the pattern piece from the Washi dress I made last year (making another of those with shirring elastic is still on my to-sew list).

My other lesson learned from the toile process was to finish the neckline with a facing rather than binding. I looked at a bunch of tutorials for finishing a v neck with binding and the toile is ok, but I felt I got a much crisper, cleaner finish on the second dress. Facings, you win this round.

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If it’s not clear from the photos I love the finished dress. Just the right balance of breezy and fun and pretty for a seaside wedding imo… It is sadly far too fancy to wear day to day in Bangui, but I brought it back with me anyway. It makes me smile when I open my wardrobe.

Siobhan xoxo

What the Watteau?! (Part 1)

Afternoon all! It’s been a while I know. But I’m back, and with something a little different for a Sunday afternoon – a brief dabble into garment history. Now, there is a dress at the end of this journey, so feel free to sit this part out if textile history’s not your jam… but for the rest of you fabric fiends – let’s get nerdy…

This story begins a long time ago (ahem, last summer) with an airline losing my bag. Or rather, not losing it, just not quite managing to get it on the same plane as me. Easily done airline, no hard feelings. To take the edge off the 4-5 hour delay, we headed into Bristol and found ourselves wandering the charming streets of Clifton Village – fancy.

Somewhere between the artisanal pottery and avant-garde stationer we came across a little arcade full of vintage shops, wherein I spied a gorgeous 1950’s cocktail dress. From the front it had a standard 50s fit-and-flare silhouette, but at the back was this magical cape type thing. Extra fabric that cascaded down and blended with the hemline of the skirt. The shoplady was not ok with me taking a photo, so I mentally filed it under “work out how to do that” and moved on to browse the vegan bookstore/café next door.

Back home, I began a little interweb research and eventually hit upon something that vaguely resembled what I was going for, albeit a tad too vintage. Behold, the alluringly named “sack-back gown”:

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Apparently (thanks Wikipedia) the sack-back gown was all the rage in the 1700s: “This style of gown had fabric at the back arranged in box pleats which fell loose from the shoulder to the floor with a slight train.” This style of dress was popularly portrayed by 18th Century painter Antoine Watteau and so the pleated cape part became simply known as a “Watteau”.

paintingThe Watteau, a must-have style for those tricky ballroom/barndance occasions

Ok, still with me? Now, for some reason, the Watteau made a comeback as a design feature in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not totally sure why (if you are, leave a comment, I’d love to be more informed), but my best guess is that it was part of the whole post-war, post-rationing, let’s celebrate the fact that fabric is available again thing. Because nothing says uber-opulent celebration of fabric like sticking an unnecessary, heavily pleated cape on the back of a full-skirted dress, right? Right. Anyway, the results were, in my humble opinion, pretty freaking great:

Collage modern(For those of you who really want to disappear down a Watteau rabbithole, check out the nerdtastic Pinterest board I made for that purpose. You’re welcome)

Fair to say then, I became pretty obsessed with the idea of a watteau back dress. And yes, life and other projects got in the way, but this plan stayed simmering at the back of my mind, until finally a fabric-buying-spree spurred me into action… I think I’ve mentioned before that the “problem” with buying the local waxprint fabric is that it tends to be sold in massive 5m quantities (for making matching skirt/top/headdress/babycarrier combos). And yes sure you can always use the extra to make furnishings and gifts… but as I sat looking at the lengths and lengths of newly purchased gorgeousness, it occurred to me that maybe the time had come to put that excess yardage to a different use. Maybe it was time to BRING.WATTEAU.BACK.

Tune in for part 2 to see how it turns out…

Siobhan xx

Hello Bear Hannah

Like many others, I look forward to Fiona (Diary of a Chainstitcher)’s monthly Indie Pattern Update to browse and review what’s new in the sewing pattern world. Having built myself a decent collection of patterns over the last few years, I try to be discerning, resisting the urge to buy unless a pattern truly offers something new in terms of design, technique etc.

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(if you don’t follow Fiona already, you really should)

The Victory Patterns Hannah dress jumped out at me from the April review for all these reasons. I’ve been wanting to try the « arty sack dress » vibe for a while. Being at the curvier end of the pool I usually stick to waisted-only shapes, but frankly life is too short to worry about whether people are assuming you’re preggo or no, especially in a climate that averages mid-30s temperatures every single day. Gimme all the breeziest items possible thanks. Furthermore, Hannah is not just any sack dress, oh no. She has all these beautiful design details too. That curved hem with a nod to men’s shirting and that genius origami back that swoops down into deep pockets. SWOON, done deal, proceed to checkout.

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The foldover back means the pattern is a bit of a fabric gobbler, needing over 3m. Looking at my limited Bangui stash I knew I’d need to make Versiaon 2, which combines fabrics for a contrast block effect. I picked out a gorgeous Art Gallery Fabrics cotton I’d been hoarding, and some leftover grey cotton chambray (previously seen here) for the foldover back/pockets. The main fabric is called “Hello Bear Summit Twilight” and I bought it because it reminded me of Rwanda’s rolling hills, the mille collines I miss so much.

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Based on my measurements (and this handy tip on cup sizes from the Victory Patterns blog) I cut a straight size 8 and didn’t make any sizing alterations. The pattern pieces are preeeeetty funny looking when you lay them out, which is all part of the excitement. You really don’t know how it’s all going to come together until close to the end (or at least I didn’t). All that pattern wizardry does mean a veritable shedtonne of markings to transfer – I counted 29 on piece D alone. Since my chambray was prone to fraying I was reluctant to snip in, and since chalk tends to rub off easily, I decided to use tailors’ tacks. This was laborious but effective, best done in front of TV (I am currently dragging myself through Season 8 of the X Files, having decided to rewatch them all before doing the new season… I had forgotten the irritating tedium that is Doggett but am stubbornly persevering).

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With everything cut and marked up I finally got to the sewing and I have to say I really enjoyed it. It’s complicated and exacting enough to be totally absorbing, but the instructions and drafting are so good that it comes together in a really nice satisfying way, with no dramas or frustrations. The moment I sewed the side seams together to form the crossover back I think I let out an audible “ah-haaaah”. So clever.

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Tip: The pockets need to be reinforced to stop them stretching out and sagging. The pattern calls for twill tape, but if you don’t have any (as I didn’t) try using a strip of selvedge instead.

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I made just one design change, which was to do with the placket. I knew (from previous RTW experience) that a high-neck button up placket wouldn’t suit, comfort or personal style wise, but I didn’t want to majorly change the aesthetic by drafting a different neckline. So I created a tunic-style placket instead, using the original pattern piece to keep the proportions more or less the same. I’d be happy to do a little tutorial if anyone’s interested, just leave a comment 🙂

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So, finished item. There is a lot to love. The details are wonderful. All the things I liked on paper, I like in person too – curved hem (with a sneaky peak of that lovely facing), crossover back etc. It’s also wonderfully breezy and comfy (although I would probably lower/enlarge the armholes by a ½ inch next time). It is a definite departure in personal style and is going to take some getting used to, but I think I like it!! It’s nice as a comfy day dress and i think heels would help balance the relaxed shape for a dressier look… although I didn’t bring any to the field. Something to experiment with back in Europe!

There’s tonnes of room for creativity with this pattern. I’ve already spotted a super classy LBD version over here, and I’m looking forward to seeing others pop up in the coming months.

Siobhan xx

Chambray A-line Miniskirt

This skirt story actually starts with a blouse.

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A really lovely part of my job is that I get to work with wonderful people from all over the world… And a cool side effect of that is that they occasionally send me beautiful gifts from all over the world! This blouse is one such item, straight from Mexico. It’s feather-light cheesecloth cotton with gorgeous embroidered flowers across the front and back yoke. I received it on a Friday, right in time for a garden party on the Saturday… I just needed a skirt to go with it.

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I had a clear vision for my skirt – short, simple grey chambray, with a centre-front seam and exposed zip at the back (both design features I loved when I made my denim Brumby). The blouse is billowy so I didn’t want anything voluminous – no pleats or gathers this time. So I drafted a super simple A-line pattern, following these instructions. You basically work from your waist and hip measurements and add a couple of darts for shaping. Then just pinch in the darts and retrace to draft the facings.

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When I came to cut out, I decided to use the fringed chambray selvedge along the hem. This hadn’t been my original plan but upon closer inspection it was just too pretty not to use. I ran a line of zigzag stitching around to stop it unraveling too far. I double topstitched the centre-front seam in white and orange to tie in with the colours in the selvedge and to add a tiny, visible-to-probably-only-me detail (love those). I inserted the exposed zip at the back using the Brumby method.

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And that’s it. It probably goes without saying that this was a super speedy half-morning project. But I do love the result. Especially with my Mexico blouse.

Siobhan xx

Blue Moon Darling Ranges

Having been separated from my sewing machine for a couple of months, I was superkeen to get stuck straight into a project. In fact I think I unpacked everything on the Friday night my trunk arrived and was cutting out a dress on Saturday morning. I felt the urge to make something “proper” with real processes and details to concentrate on and the Darling Ranges dress seemed just the ticket.

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I think I can say at this point that I’m a fan of Megan Nielsen patterns. Her designs flatter a range of body shapes and the patterns are well drafted with simple, clear instructions that are not overly hand-holdy. They come in pretty packaging too which never hurts. On this design I love the flattering v neck, the waist tie that allows for more or less shaping (bigger or smaller lunches) and of course pockets forever.

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This dress look me a leisurely weekend from start to finish (read: a happy sewing pace which allows for attentive podcast listening and long lunch breaks). I didn’t make any major changes to the pattern. I graded between sizes based on my measurements and lowered the bust dart apex once I tried the bodice on. I also decided I wanted the sleeves a little looser, so sewed a narrower seam and left off the elastic.

The fabric is Atelier Brunette cotton batiste, ordered from Tissu & Co back in June. This is my second time sewing with AB cotton and it is just dreamy. So easy to work with and so light and airy to wear. Love. This design is called “Blue Moon” and I used 2m for the dress. The design was small and random enough that I didn’t bother about pattern matching, I just made sure all my moons were running in the same direction.

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I like how it turned out. A pretty, breezy little day dress.

Siobhan xx