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


I’m sharing a little Rwanda love today: I was lucky enough to have some of my family here a few weeks ago, so I took time off and we went on a roadtrip together. We saw hills and volcanoes, tea plantations and coffee washing stations, Africa’s biggest montane forest and beautiful lake Kivu stretching out to DRC. This really is the most incredible country.

At the end of the trip, we went to see the gorillas. We got up with the sun and trekked up through the forest for a couple of hours before arriving at the clearing where our group was hanging out. It was mid-morning so they were lazing around, snoozing, playing and sleepily munching on something that smelt like wet celery. It felt like we’d just stepped into their home, but the guides had this amazing way of constantly communicating with them, making low calming grunts and getting low grunts back – all ok here. It was incredibly special to be so close these huge, beautiful animals and I couldn’t stop noticing the hands and feet and eyes, which are so like our own.

I loved their poses too. That last one is total swimwear magazine material right?? Anyway, I won’t bore you with the 800 other photos but suffice it to say that Rwanda is incredible and if you ever get a chance to visit, you really should.

Sewing-wise, it’s been a fairly busy month. I am battling with the Grainline tiny pocket tank, which I so want to be a wardrobe staple, but the fit just does not want to play ball… We’re taking some time apart while I re-assess what the issue might be through extensive googling/lurking other sewist bloggers… In happier news I’ve got another BHL Kim to share. Remember I bought some special waxprint fabric a few weeks ago? For a long-distance joint project? No? No matter, you can read all about it over on The Monthly Stitch 🙂

Siobhan xx

Peplum Top


The month of May 2014 was decreed by the sewing blogosphere (or a good part thereof) to be “Sewing Indie Month” – a month-long celebration of some of the fantastic independent pattern designers out there.


What is it that makes these trailblazers so awesome? Let me count the ways:

  1. Firstly, the style of indie patterns tends to be fresh, modern and clean. The same cannot always be said for the big 4 (Vogue, McCalls, Butterick and Simplicity), whose patterns can sometimes feel a little fussy and dated. Side note – if you want a giggle, check out Lladybird’s reviews each time Vogue release a new line. Honestly, on a grey day, posts like this and this are all I need.
  2. Secondly, indie patterns tend to be written in a friendly, jargon-free, accessible way. They don’t assume you have 10 years of experience, they just want you to be able to make something you will wear and love. This makes them ideal for newbs.
  3. Thirdly, in addition to the patterns themselves, a lot of indie designers post blog tutorials and host sewalongs to give you even more support and encouragement. This not only makes things easier, it also connects you to a community of sewists who are all working on the same thing, which I love.

I could go on but let’s get back to Indie Sewing Month. As part of the celebration there were a number of challenges set, one of which was “pattern hacking” – taking a pattern and modifying or customizing it in some way. I’d never really done this (unless you count sticking a gathered skirt on the Elisalex pattern, but that is super simples) so I thought I’d give it a go and try to create a peplum top.

Now, I have to admit, this is a trend that had largely passed me by until the oh-so-stylish peplum-queen Chinelo Bally landed on my tellybox in GBSB II.

p01wjpxdWas anyone else totally mesmerised by everything Chinelo wore/made? And that freehand cutting business?? Actual magic. I heard a rumour that she’s started teaching classes too – UK sewing friends, get on it!!

Having decided on the pattern, the fabric choice was easy – the geeky glasses/blue chevron Echino linen/cotton I picked up in Japan. Yellow on the bodice, chevron on the peplum – I could see it in my mind’s eye and it was good!


I chose BHL’s Anna dress as my base bodice, since I thought the slash neck and kimono sleeves would give the large print plenty of room to play with. This also gave me an opportunity to revisit the pattern and address the fit issues I noticed on my first attempt. I made toiles people – two of em. I used Ginger’s awesome cut-and-pivot method on the front and back to take out the bagginess on the neckline. I tacked in an invisible zip (instead of guessing and pinning). It was a proper job, and the result was a much better fit… I should probably accept that these things go hand-in-hand!


Stashbusting toile

When it came to the peplum, toil-ing it up was super straightforward. I used the calculations for a standard circle skirt, estimated the length (20cm), tried it on with the bodice to work out where the waist seam should be, and then tacked it on. I loved the look and got very excited at this point. I then got out my “proper” fabric and my heart sank a little. The strip of blue chevron was faaaaar too thin to do the peplum I wanted – wah! I decided to carefully sew strips of the chevron together until I got a piece that was wide enough. Even with 3 m worth of pieces there still wasn’t quite enough for my full circle, but we’ll come back to that later.

To avoid having an(other) seam down the front, I cut out one half circle and two quarter circles, adding an additional seam allowance to the quarter circles (for the zip). This also gave me a chance to pattern-match all the seams.

 IMG_4706  IMG_4705

I tried to be careful with my pattern placement on the bodice too, making sure to pattern match across the back as best I could, and positioning the glasses so they sat nice and whole under the neckline. Things get a little funky around the darts but I don’t think that can be helped… TBH I also totally forgot about the shoulders so it’s a bit of a mess up there. Moving on.

This was my first experience using an invisible zip foot and it went surprisingly smoothly – at first. That was until I noticed that the waistline didn’t exactly match up. Bouyed by the apparent easiness of the whole invisible zip lark, I unpicked the area around the zip, re-pinned and went again. THIS WAS AN ERROR. I ended up having two goes and still the zip is undeniably less invisible around the waistline. Excessive ironing helped but didn’t totally fix the problem. Lesson learned – do not mess with a well-inserted invisible zip.


Lastly I cut some wide strips of bias binding from the yellow to finish the edge of the peplum and disguise the areas where the pattern runs out. As I said, I’m pretty delighted with the finished item. I love the dramatic silhouette.

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So that’s my hack. This challenge is being hosted by Rhonda over at Rhonda’s Creative Life. Head over to see all the impressive hacks other folks have come up with. Including another superdooper peplum top, using the Elisalex as a base. Must put that on my to do list…

Siobhan xx


Tokugawa Anna

Today marks my first project completed with fabric from our Japan trip. Ladies and gents I give you the Tokugawa Anna.


The fabric is a navy and cream wave pattern, used by the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868). We first saw the pattern as wallpaper in a preserved former government building in Takayama. I loved the simple clean lines and the nod to sea waves, and so was pretty excited to find it in fabric form the next afternoon.

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The blogland concensus is that By Hand London’s Anna Dress pattern is a dream to sew, and I can only agree. It comes together really easily. The issues I had were all of my own making… Firstly, I decided not to do a FBA as my measurements were pretty close to the pattern and this is a less formfitting shape than, say, the princess seams of the Elisalex. However, when I held the bodice pattern pieces up against myself, I felt they were probably going to be too short (I am that attractive shape that is long of body, short of leg) so I added a hefty 6cm, following the instructions on the Anna sewalong. As I wasn’t making a muslin (I know, scandale) I tacked the bodice together first so I could check the fit. It was mostly great but I did need to lower the tip of the bust gathers by about 1cm. So now I am now curious as to whether, had I done a proper FBA, this fiddling (longer bodice, lower gathers) would have been necessary? I am almost tempted to retrace the bodice and see… almost.

When it came to the skirt, I had originally wanted to do a full-length number and bought 3.5m of the fabric with this in mind. However, what I had not considered is that to fit the skirt pieces on the fabric, you have to tessellate them top-to-tail, a no-go if you have a directional print (as I did). Upon realising this, I changed tack and folded the pattern pieces up to knee-length. Now, I don’t know what went wrong here, I thought I had carefully measured, but when I came to sew them all together the hem looked like this, at pretty much every seam:


W.T.F?? Note to self: Next time check the pattern for how/where to shorten the skirt, do not just assume you can measure and all will be fine. In the end it was ok, the hem  just took a lot measuring/checking than it should have done.

The last change I made was to put an exposed metal zip in the back, instead of an invisible one, following Keightly’s excellent instructions. My reasons for this were threefold: Firstly to disguise the fact that the pattern doesn’t reeeeally match across the back (oops), secondly because I love an exposed metal zip on a girly dress and thirdly because I am still waiting for my invisible zip foot to arrive and I was just toooooo impatient to finish this lovely dress.

 IMG_4208       IMG_4198

Siobhan xx

Polly top

Yes, this is another By Hand London pattern.


Yes, I may have a small obsession. Yes, I probably need to branch out with the next project. But in my defense the Polly top is extremely cute, very quick to make, and is available as a free downloadable pattern. That’s right – free!!


I have discovered masking tape is a pal when it comes to downloadable patterns. You can see through it, write over it and reposition it if you go wrong once or twice (ahem)

Having amassed a considerable collection of small fabric scraps and pieces in the last two years, I decided to set myself the challenge of making the Polly out of scrag ends only. I found two purples that I loved together – a houndstooth and a fun birdcage pattern. However it became quickly apparent that neither was big enough to do both the front and back bodice, so I added a brown stripe.



Even then I ended up cutting and stitching a few bits of the houndstooth together, but you can’t tell… at least I don’t think you can.


The finished item

The neckline and armholes are finished with bias binding. This was a tweesy bit fiddly and my topstitching is far from perfect, but I love the finish, especially where it contrasts at the back.



Sadly summer is fading fast and I’m not sure how many vest days we’ve got left.  As such I would highly recommend abandoning whatever you’re doing right now and knocking one of these up asap. It’s a perfect beginner pattern and did I mention that it’s freeeee??

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Siobhan xx