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Beyond the Pattern Instructions, Part 2

Ten MORE Tips from a Couture Dressmaker to help you achieve
superior results on your next important sewing project . . .

By Susan Khalje, Susan Khalje Couture Sewing School

Originally published in Hancock Fabrics Home Expressions Magazine, Spring Issue 1996

Continued from Beyond the Pattern Instructions, Part 1

11. Many formal gowns, especially those which are strapless or which have off-the- shoulder sleeves, will have placement lines on the pattern for boning: usually two pieces in front and two pieces in the back. Your garment will be improved considerably by adding more boning to the bodice. (See Illustration # 1, Beyond the Pattern Instructions, Part 1.)

Boning is your best ally for holding the gown up, for smoothing out side seams, for forming a beautiful clear vee at the lower center point of the bodice (often referred to as a "Basque waist"). Boning is often sold encased in a fabric channel; the fabric channel is sewn to the underlining (obviously it can’t be sewn to the fashion fabric or it would show through to the right side), and then the boning is slipped into the channel. It’s a wonderful ally, and it will help to create a sturdy well-supported bodice that won’t sag, feels comfortable, and enhances the design.

12. Often, the neckline on a wedding gown or formal gown is on the bias -- any gown that vees down is, for example -- and unless these seam lines are stabilized, they will continue to stretch. Twill tape, or even a narrow strip of selvage, placed right along the fold line, will keep these unstable lines from stretching and sagging. You can pin the stay tape in place during a fitting, or you can refer back to the original measurement in the pattern if things have already stretched and you need to pull the fabric back to what it was. Hand-baste the stay tape along the fold line, sewing it either to the underlining or through the fashion fabric (discreetly) just inside the seam allowance.

13. Lace is an incomparable part of a gown -- it adds delicacy, beauty and grace in a way in which no other fabric can. The choice of lace available is sometimes overwhelming, but I always tell students, and clients, to choose "what grabs them." And something will! The best quality laces are of course the most expensive, but, fortunately, a little bit goes a long way. The first time I bought a fabulous French lace -- a breathtaking lavender lace with gold highlights -- years ago, I got a quarter yard of it. I used it sparingly  -- there was just enough to go on the yoke and cuffs of a beautiful velvet blouse. I was forced to be clever and creative with my use of it, and the result was beautiful, and just as effective, I’m sure, as a much more lavish use of it would have been.

photo4.jpg (35737 bytes)Lace has no grain, so layout can be somewhat flexible, although careful motif placement is essential. It can be pieced endlessly (the two layers are overlapped, stitched along one edge on the top, and the excess is cut away underneath). (Photo 4)

Study the lace that you like. Is the color right? Are the motifs the right size for the wearer? If the borders are important, does it have beautiful borders? Are the scallops on the borders the right size? Can you immediately picture it as a part of the gown? Taking your pattern, or your muslin, to the fabric store will give you an indication of how the lace will work with your design. Slip the pattern piece under the lace (you’ll see it easily -- lace is mostly air ) and see if the patterns on the lace complement your design. Don't be rushed into making a choice -- and once you do, have fun playing with it. There will be many choices of layout, design placement, cutting and use -- take your time to explore them all before deciding upon the best route.

14. Gathering plays a small but very important role in the success of the gown. So often a well-made gown is spoiled by lumpy, uneven, unattractive gathers. It’s a shame, because it’s so easy to make them beautiful. The first job, which is part of your experimentation process, is to find the proper gathering stitch size. It should be big enough to allow you to gather with reasonable ease, but small enough to hold the gathers in place once you've gathered them. Test the stitch size over bulky seam allowances, especially. Three rows of gathering should be made: one right on the seam line, and two in the seam allowance. All three are gathered together (I always pull the bobbin thread -- it‘s a little looser); then play with them, moving them back and forth until they loosen up a little bit, and until the tension on the threads that you’re pulling is constant. All three should be evenly taut. The more you work with them, the more they will "behave," the more they'll line up beautifully, almost like little cartridge pleats. (Photo#5)

Once they’re gathered as you want them, and spaced properly, tie off the knots (bring all the threads to one side), and carefully press the seam allowance to lessen bulk and to encourage them to stay put. They’ll be less likely to slip and slide while they're stitched in place if they’ve been carefully basted in place first instead of just pinned.

ILL3.gif (2802 bytes)15. A hand-picked zipper is an easy-to-master, elegant-looking yet strong, couture finishing touch. A hand-picked zipper is sewn in with a back stitch, called in this case a prick stitch. I  begin on the upper right side, work my way down to the base of the zipper, and start up again from the lower left side, ending at the upper left side. (Illustration #3)

Practice will reveal the correct spacing for the stitches, and coating the thread with beeswax before stitching will both strengthen the thread and discourage tangling. One clear advantage of the hand-picked zipper is the ease with which it goes into a large gown -- the gown is held on the lap, instead of trying to wrestle it to the sewing machine, which, after it reaches a certain bulk, is nearly impossible. Fine sewing is all about control, and a hand-picked zipper gives the dressmaker the ultimate opportunity to control the  zipper installation.

16. There is much hand-finishing in a high-quality sewing project. Many sewing techniques which are perfect for an everyday garment don’t really belong on a fine quality gown. It is these special techniques that will lift the gown from the ordinary to the extraordinary: finishing the bias binding by hand instead of stitching in the ditch, carefully fitting and stitching in a silk lining by hand, finishing off the armholes on the inside with a piece of silk bias binding (to both cover the seam allowances and to give comfort to the wearer), carefully lining up dozens of perfectly spaced buttons on the sleeves and back of the gown (after having covered the buttons with fashion fabric so that they match the gown perfectly), and sewing them on securely with beeswax-coated double thread, etc. So, be prepared for, and enjoy, the hand-sewing in the project. The time involved is your commitment to the quality that the project deserves!

ILL4.jpg (15272 bytes)17. The job of the hem is to finish off the bottom edge inconspicuously. Nothing is more of a reflection of the quality of the gown than the hem -- a beautiful hem isn’t difficult, but, as with the rest of the project, it takes care to do it right. If the hem is straight (as with a sheath , for example), your job is to make sure that it’s consistently even from the floor, gently pressed up (nothing looks worse that a flattened, pressed-to-death hem), and carefully stitched to the underlining. If the hem is curved, in which case the bottom edge of the hem will have more fullness than the skirt, the extra fullness will have to be dealt with. It can be notched, split and overlapped, or darted, or it can be eased into hem lace (stretch the hem lace as you sew it on -- once it’s relaxed, it will in effect gather the fashion fabric). (Illustration #4) As ever, experimentation is the key to success.

ILL5.gif (4445 bytes)18. Wedding gowns have the wonderful advantage of being able to change from a magnificent stately gown with a long train in its formal role (for the ceremony) to a floor-length ballgown (for the reception). Some gowns have detachable trains, but most don‘t. Bustling the gown will enable this metamorphosis to happen. (Illustration #5)

I always start bustling a gown by positioning the center back -- I experiment until I find the right pick-up point -- the point along the center back seam, when lifted to the waist, at which the train is no longer on the floor. I pin it to the base of the back of the bodice. I then do the same thing on one side of the gown, knowing that I will probably have to pin the gown at least two additional places per side. I look first along the side back seam - this will be a sturdy place for a pick-up point -- and experiment with matching the pick-up point to the base of the back of the bodice, alongside where I’ve pinned the center of the skirt. I do this as often as necessary (some skirts are very full, and need more pick-up points to accommodate their fullness) until I’m happy with one side. Rather than try to match the second side (by which point my patience is running low and my client is getting tired of standing, motionless, in place during the fitting), it’s much easier for me to match the marks from the first side to the second side once the gown is off the bride. There is often a design detail at the back of the gown (a bow, flower, overhanging lace) under which I can hide my bustling buttons; the matching loops are thread loops or thread bars, gauged to loop over the buttons without slipping off too easily.

19. It is the little touches, sometimes known only to the wearer and the dressmaker that make a project extra special. I always like to add a touch of blue to the inside of a wedding gown (why not use pale blue ribbon for the hanging loops, as long as they’re hidden while the gown is being worn?). I know dressmakers who embroider initials, or a special date, inside the gown. An English friend of mine who was once a ballerina told me that the ballet company’s seamstresses used to embroider heather inside the dancers’ tutus, for good luck. What a charming detail! This is the perfect opportunity to add your own special touch.

20. Finally, it’s done, apart from its final pressing and storage. The final pressing is a little scary -- all that hard work at risk -- but by now you should know your iron and your fabric’s ins and outs very well. Double-check the temperature on your iron, get out your pressing cloth, and begin. It’s usually not the bodice of gown that presents the problem -- if it’s made of lace it will need very little pressing (lace doesn't really wrinkle); the sleeves may need some attention, but it's the pressing of the skirt that’s the major job. It’s important to try to get someone to help you support the weight of the gown while you are pressing it. Warn your helper that it will take awhile, and that the gown may get heavy. The skirt is the challenge. Have your helper hold the gown from the shoulders, and lift it so that the upper part of the skirt rests on the ironing board. I like to do series of circles --  the top third of the skirt, all the way around, the middle third of the skirt, all the way around, the bottom of the skirt, all the way around, As you get lower on the skirt, your helper will be standing further away from you and the ironing board, holding the gown form the shoulders all the while. By the time you get to the train, if the dress has one, your helper will be some distance away.

After you’re done, if the gown can be suspended from something high, you’re in luck; it’s a shame to have to fold or crease the fabric you’ve just taken so much time to press. You can put a hanging loop along the back seam of the skirt, on the inside near the hem, and loop it over the gown's hanger, but beware that the fabric in the area of the loop is bound to become distorted, especially if the skirt is hung for any length of time. I like to use satin covered hangers for hanging special gowns, and I sew little buttons on top of them, close to either end, to keep the gown’s hanging loops (the ones inside the bodice) from slipping off. I stuff pink tissue paper into the sleeves, inside the loops of a bow, under a collar (if there is one ); I make sure that none of the fashion details (a silk flower, a puffy bow) are going to get flattened or folded the wrong way before the gown is worn. Extra care now will pay off on the big day.

The successful completion of an important sewing project is a triumph on the day it is worn, but the rewards go beyond the day itself. They lie in having challenged yourself as a dressmaker, having used new fabrics in new ways, having broadened the range of your imagination and pushed your skills beyond what you’ve done before -- truly a cause for celebration!

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