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

Summer Southport Dress

Way back in February, pre-Kigali, M and I took a little trip to Paris. Having been several times before, we didn’t plan much. Our only scheduled activities were brunch at The Pancake Sisters (sooooo good) and a Studio Ghibli exhibition at Le Musée Art Ludique. Apart from that we just wandered and ate and shopped and explored and it was glorious. I was restrained in my fabric-buying, I just wanted one really special piece, a memento of our lovely weekend. I found it at Anna Ka Bazarre. This beautiful, supersoft Atelier Brunette cotton batiste, covered in tiny triangles.

What then followed were six months of being too scared to cut in to such lovely fabric, instead saving it for a pattern that was juuuuust right. In the end I settled on the Southport Dress, a newish pattern from True Bias.

The Southport dress is beautifully drafted, with very well-written instructions. It looks like a simple make but there are lots of lovely little details, like bar tacks across the pockets, which make it more of a challenge. I took my time, enjoying the process, working through each step carefully. The only frustration I had was inserting the bindings. I think my mistake was to use shop-bought cotton binding, which was considerably more substantial/stiff than the lovely fluid batiste of my dress. I went carefully, understitched, clipped, pressed etc. But I still got gathers and puckers and had to unpick bits at least 4 times, and they still don’t lie totally flat. I’m hoping they might soften a bit over time/washes, but we shall see. Takeaway nugget – if in doubt, make your own binding, fool.

Anyway, binding niggles aside, I am in LOVE with this dress. It is every bit as breezy and summery as I’d envisaged. I didn’t make any major fit alterations, I just graded between sizes based on my measurements and took out some length to account for my stumpy legs. I’m really happy with the fit, but be aware there is a lot of gathering, so stick with something lightweight fabric-wise. The buttons came from my new favourite haberdashery cupoard/shop in Town. I added an extra one because I was worried about potential gaping, but this wasn’t really necessary.

The fabric is just dreamy to wear. So soft, so flowy. I now want it in every other pattern/colourway. Next time I’m in Paris…

Siobhan xx

P.s. These photos may look all sweetness and light, but I had to stop mid-shoot to stamp on the most humungous cockroach, which was scuttling towards a crack under the back door. Keeping it real yo.

Back on the blogging horse (summer roundup)

Uh-oh, August?? Where did MayJuneJuly go?? Between finishing one job, a whistlestop tour around the UK, getting back to Genf, starting a new job, and jumping in the lake a lot because it’s just SO FLIPPIN HOT, crafting sort of fell off the table this summer. Whoops.


see how pretty? can you blame me?

But that’s not to say I haven’t done anything at all in the last 3 months. Here’s a little roundup…

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The Elisalex Dress

One of my goals for this year was to conquer my fear of making clothes and just blimmin’ well have a go. In looking for a good first project, I came across By Hand London, a new pattern label whose brilliant website is chockablock full of tips and tutorials. If you have ever wondered how to insert a side seam pocket, add a waistband or roll a hem then this is the site for you.


The BHL Gals, via By Hand London

By Hand London are currently running a sewalong on one of their patterns – The Elisalex Dress. Essentially the concept is that you buy the pattern and materials and then they take you through the process, one step at a time, so you can sew-along. To me this seemed like just the kind of hand-holding that might make the leap in to clothes-making manageable. Continue reading