It’s comforting to know that some of the best things in our world have not changed and only stayed the same as they have been for centuries. As India just celebrated their Independence Day August 15th, I’m specifically thinking of how so many of the heritage fiber arts in that country are practiced the way they were so long ago. Why mess with a good thing when it is perfect as-is, right?
What comes from the earth is kept a part of the earth the way the fabric of India is produced. Indian cotton is grown and harvested naturally, first of all. Then, plants, spices, and vegetables are used for dye, the earth is utilized for resist stamping or setting, and artisans turn everything together into an organic whole. All this adds up to a very eco-conscious manner of creating some of the most beautiful and wonderfully comfortable fabric this world has to offer. It is an honor and a special experience to make and wear something that involved so much love and attention just for these few yards! There’s no better way I can think of to celebrate India’s long fought freedom than to enjoy a respectful all-in dive into appreciating the beauty to one of the many fascinating facets of their culture.
FABRIC: a 100% cotton content for the print, fully lined in a tan beige tone Bemberg rayon satin
PATTERN: McCall’s #7894, year 2019
NOTIONS NEEDED: I just needed lots of thread and one zipper
TIME TO COMPLETE: This dress was finished on June 9, 2022 in about 20 hours
THE INSIDES: loosely zig-zag stitched along the raw edges to reduce fraying
TOTAL COST: The Indian cotton fabric from “Fibers to Fabric” on Etsy cost me $15 (I got this on a half-price sale) for 3 yards, while the rayon lining was another $15 for 3 yards from Fashion Fabrics Club.
There are many sites that dive into the nuances of block printing so I will not overly dive into the process here but this link through Saffron Marigold and this page through Vogue of India can be a good start to inform yourself. I merely want to stress that it is of utmost importance to make sure you are buying from a source which employs fairly paid workers and does the craft the traditional way…no mere printed fake outsourced versions, please. There are many knock-offs to be found, especially in ready-to-wear (which is in it for the visual aesthetic and nothing more), but this does the opposite of esteeming a craft that deserves only awe-inspiring admiration. Historically, the textile history of India is not about being carelessly machine made but being the work of caring human hands. Support the heritage craft of India by doing some conscious purchasing if you want some block prints for yourself!
This being said, there are some pro and cons to keep in mind. Be aware that most block prints are in a width no wider than 45” so take that into account when planning out a project. This is why I was squeezing this dress in on 3 yards when 4 yards probably would have been better. Rich toned block prints can bleed out their dye in the first one or two washings so be careful to wash them with similar colors. The cotton of India, though, is buttery soft, whisper thin, and among the easiest to sew material you could ever imagine. It is a dream to wear, sew, and work with! Besides, this material is the best way possible to effortlessly stay cool in the heat of summer.
The positive qualities of Indian cotton also means that it is often less than opaque. Busy prints hide any see-through issues more than not. For this dress, however, I did not feel like a sheer look nor did I want to feel obliged to wear an underslip, so I fully lined the cotton. Bemberg rayon is magnificently breathable, moisture wicking, and a very good imitation of silk, so it is the perfect pick for keeping this dress lightweight, comfortable, and an effortless summer staple. Knowing how to work with fabric and how to use it to its best advantage is a large portion of the planning and figuring that goes into any sewing project.
With all of this positivity I am expressing towards this dress, it was really difficult for me to successfully sew. I may sound crazy, but I loved doing the yards and yards of ruffles which go in between the seams. Doing the ruffles in this buttery soft fabric was easy after all but the process really centered me, calmed me down, and helped me enjoy the extra effort. I just think I relaxed a bit too much and didn’t think to look ahead at the pattern for issues. Then, I had to be creative and fix the dress’ fitting issues after it was fully finished. Also, there was a total oops moment where I sewed in the most perfect invisible zipper – even matching it through the intersecting points where the ruffles meet – only to realize after the fact that it is on the right side and not the left. Considering the effort it would take to switch sides, I am leaving the zipper well enough alone.
The wrong-sided zipper just added to the many little ways this dress was such a frustrating bother to sew, even though I love everything about it…the details, the fit, the style, and how perfectly it matched with my fabric. I’m actually happily accepting of all the dress’ ‘faults’ which happened because I’m working on being gentler on myself with my self-imposed expectations of perfection. I actually love my dress all the more for reminding me what it feels like to embrace the fact I am only trying my best and cannot always be up to par. The beauty of a handmade block print are the little irregularities in the coloring or stamping. Why shouldn’t my sewing be all the more beautiful for showing the way I persevered and made the most of my ‘mistakes’?!
I rounded up to a size bigger because I wanted a looser fit, and this worked out great. Having a looser fit keeps the overall garment easy and comfy to wear. Tight clothes are uncomfortable in the summer for me. Nevertheless, having a loose fit is especially important here since I wanted the option of wearing silk Indian trousers underneath for a more ethnic look, as you see it in my pictures. With a looser fit, the bodice front wrap stays closed without gaping open. Most importantly, though, I discovered the hips in this pattern run really small, even with going up a size! By letting out the seam allowance to 3/8” on each side seam I had just enough to recover the fit and keep this wearable.
Another point to mention is how this pattern seems to have been drafted for very tall girls. The torso is very long and not average proportions. Comparing the line drawings to my finished dress, everything seemed to droop lower on my body. The bodice-to-skirt seam needs to be slightly above the waist and the left point where the two ruffles meet at the side seams needs to land at the high hip. The finished dress wasn’t doing this on me. I needed to pick up the upper bodice to raise up all the rest of the dress without ruining the design lines.
Disguising while correcting this faulty fit after the fact was all done before I had set the sleeves in, so I luckily had I bit more freedom to alter the bodice. First, I made a 2 inch horizontal tuck across the back bodice right across the shoulder line, making my dress appear as if it had a shoulder panel much like a man’s dress shirt has. This picked up the dress, for sure, but the front became wonky. To evenly pick up the front half of the dress, I took 2 inches of the front bodice under the shoulder line and tucked that under the shoulder seam. Then I top stitched down along the shoulder seam. The excess fabric was not taken in evenly in the front as on the back I realize, but the dress doesn’t give any funky fit for this fact, and I am thrilled to have found a way to fix the fitting issues with no marring of the original design or unpicking of stitches. The sleeves merely have a bit more gathers to them for my alterations to the bodice, but I love puffed sleeves already from sewing designs of the 1930s era. All is well that ends well, here.
A handful of further personal variations to the design deserve a mention, as well. The asymmetric look of the skirt’s ruffles struck me as a tad odd in the way they abruptly end at the bodice. I realized that the front ruffle joins the bodice seam at just shy of the same point where the underwrap to the bodice ends. So I ran with this detail and added extra ruffles to just that half of the neckline, thereby continuing the asymmetric line and adding some unity between the bodice and skirt. I had the neckline ruffles go across the back of the neckline and end at the shoulder on the opposite side so they can be visibly a part of the bodice from behind, as well. I also lowered the slit opening so it didn’t open up so high up on my thigh. Finally, I also disregarded the elastic guide for the sleeve hems and cut whatever length felt comfortable around my arms. Sewing for yourself is all about customizing to your personal taste and desires, so don’t forget to throw those instructions out the window every so often and make what you want, how you want!
Even though I make what I want how I want it, for Indian and other ethnic material I always do my research and let a respectful interpretation of that culture influence my sewing in such cases. I want to give cultural fabrics their proper place so I can learn from and honor those cultures yet still also invest my own personal story into what I sew. In the case of this project, I first bounced some design ideas off of our Gujarati Indian friends to see if I was on the right track. Then, I got in touch with the seller of my fabric and found from her the details to the print that I chose for this dress. Apparently, these types of multi floral designs on a single print are called “bagh” – which means “garden”. Lotus, marigolds, hibiscus, rose, Chameli (Jasmine) are common depictions. Gardens are often shown as the setting for many joyful and sacred artistic depictions in Indian art of both Hindu and Muslim manuscripts. Thus, I found a beautiful blooming wall of flowers at a local Garden shop to pose in front of to emphasize the glorious theme printed on my dress’ fabric. I was bringing my own garden to a flower garden…oh, the lovely irony!
The overall creative stylization of Indian block prints are such a heritage craft that my dress’ fabric can be recognizably similar to an 18th century skirt or a textile dating from the Renaissance. The floral imagery to Indian block prints has not changed all that much and my historian heart rejoices at such a continuity. My original plan for this fabric was to make The Dreamstress’ “Amalia” jacket (ca. 1780) from Scroop patterns, after all. However, Indian block prints have a history of being very desirable and sought after in olden times when imports had long lead times and exporting was a dangerous job. Thus, many countries sought to “knock-off” the visual look of such fabrics with their own colonial practices. I do not want to be the source of continuing a painful narrative history and wanted this garden fabric to be turned into something practical, wearable, and a source of joy. I believe I succeeded.
Happy 75th anniversary of being an independent country, India!