Counting Down…

    A ticking clock tracking the arrival of the New Year of 2023 isn’t the only thing I am watching at the moment.  In case you missed it, I just had my 450th post here on my blog, so I am now counting down to my next milestone…number 500!  What a way to end my year!  Although 2022 has been one especially tough and challenging time for me, my blog and its wonderful readers is one reason alone to count my blessings. 

     The pieces highlighted in this post are a merging of multiple decades and influences, all combined into one versatile but elegant ensemble.  This is so classic of me to do!  The jacquard over blouse is from the mid-century “Swinging Sixties” and the dress is from the “Hippie Era” of the 1970s.  Both were put together in a way that I hope is reminiscent of 1930’s era glamour.  I do believe that it would be hard for anyone to ever guess the origin decade of each design with the way I made them!  Of course, some of this may be due to the way I interpret my old patterns – I do need my handmade garments to be a modern and very individualistic interpretation of past styles. 

     Such ambiguity of vintage fashion only goes to show that stereotypical looks are frequently not a catch-all summary of a particular decade out of the past.  In every commonly held story about fashion history there is something yet to uncover that’s quietly hiding between the lines, just waiting to be shared by the right person.  Those further stories are something I attempt to expound upon through my blog.  As I have been progressively going through the fashions of the last 100 years and their history, individually sewing each year in antiquity, it seems that the more things change, they also stay the same to a point.  It is sad to know this is the last post of 2022, but also exciting to look ahead to everything I will share with all of you for the coming 2023.  Here’s to more fabulous fashions to sew, further historical details to learn, fun times to share, and more glimpses into my life – all to be seen here at “Seam Racer”!

THE FACTS:

FABRICS:  a black polyester satin and a polyester/metallic jacquard, both lined in a cling-free, matte finish polyester

PATTERNS:  Simplicity #7807, year 1976, for the dress and Vogue #5419, year 1962, for the short over bodice – both patterns are vintage originals from my personal pattern stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread with two zippers

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress was made in about 10 hours, while my over bodice was in 6 hours.  Both pieces were sewn at the end of last year (in 2021).

THE INISIDES:  As both pieces are lined, the inner raw edges are fully encased except for the skirt half to the dress, which has its seams left raw because they – being cut on the bias – do not fray.

TOTAL COST:  Both fabrics had been bought from my local JoAnn Fabrics store about 6 years back for other projects.  The jacquard was a clearance remnant so my one yard was half the price of a full yard with 50% off – a price of $10, in other words.  The black satin was on sale, but I did buy 3 yards.  My final total was about $35 for this set.  

     Half of this project has been on my mind for many years.  My first inspiration started by finding the jacquard remnant and feeling it had a nice modern Art Deco revival feel to it.  However, there wasn’t much there and it was too polyester looking at close inspection to pass for a true Depression-era piece, though.  This fancy Vogue #5419 pattern was the perfect match for being economical as well as channeling how the 1960s era revived the 1930s.  I specifically wanted the over blouse top to be a shoulder cover-up for an ivory brocade strapless dress I bought for myself 10 years ago (as seen in this post under my green jacket).  Adding a handmade garment to complete a ready-to-wear one always gets me to wear the one I didn’t make all the more.  The two garments did end up matching well.  After all, the dress I had was pretty much a line-for-line copy of the under dress included with the pattern for the over blouse.  Nevertheless, the knee length gives off a cocktail dress air, and I needed an evening outfit more elegant for my husband’s work’s Christmas party.  It was back to the drawing board.

It was sad to discover that the two dress bodice patterns had been cropped into almost a dozen pieces by the previous owner. I had to bust my brains assembling them back into their proper shape & size before using.

     This was the part of the project that had not been planned!  I brainstormed with barely a week before the event and looked through my stash of fabrics available at home.  Luckily, I had a variety of solid toned satins in larger cuts (about 3 yards each), hoping to use them for some 1930s gowns in the future.  Relying on only what was on hand, I happily, quickly, and economically whipped up this little black dress that is like the best of the 1930s and 70s combined.  I love it because it is unlike any other black dress in my wardrobe yet also so comfortable and sultry at the same time.  It glamorizes my jacquard bodice and fills in the scoop neckline just like I wanted.  Is it even an important occasion for a sewist if there wasn’t any drama in the planning beforehand?!  My outfit ideal ended up being finished with two days to spare.

     Let me begin with the easiest to make of the two – the over blouse.  It was easy because it was basic with just a few pattern pieces, yet I simplified it even more by eliminating the facings.  I did use the facing pieces to cut out iron-on stabilizer for the neckline edge, but otherwise the full body lining cleanly covers up all raw edges.  It is a good thing I did full lining because the jacquard was a real mess, fraying all over the place, and was very itchy against my skin when I did a few in-progress fitting try-ons.  I adapted the pattern early on by slightly raising the neckline and cutting the back body on the fold, just as was done for the front.  The pattern calls for a full buttoning back, but I instead put a zipper in the side for ease of dressing.  Being a jacquard, the fancy fabric technically had two ‘right’ sides, but I choose as my good side the one which had more black than gold to curb some of the shine. 

     The pattern did run overly generous in fit so I had to take in significant amounts distributed amongst the side seams and bust darts, as well as create a hidden fold in the center front.  The sleeves turned out unexpectedly long, way beyond the elbow, but I kept them as extended short sleeves because it evened out the look of the cropped bodice on my almost petite frame.  It was really tricky to fit.  I found it needs to be quite snug on the body to keep it from riding up.  I don’t know how the envelope cover shows the overblouse so loose fitting with so much gape.  I tried that out during one of my fitting try-ons and it did not work being worn like that.  That fit was very sloppy looking and shifted all over the place on my body.  Whatever the case, the snug fit that I found necessary meant that whatever I wear underneath needs to be thin and not bulky with definitely no sleeves.  If I wear my black high-waisted trousers (posted here) with this overblouse I will layer a tank top underneath.  My choice for an underdress is the ivory brocade one I mentioned earlier or the black satin one you see in this post.

     I don’t know about you but I can’t help but see a slight Regency era influence to the design of this top.  It is not much different than the short jackets and decorative bodices that were worn over dresses between the 1800 to 1820s time period.  Those pieces, called “Spencers”, similarly had a snug fit, empire waist, and were meant to be decoratively worn over an insubstantial dress.  Since I love Regency fashion and already have historical clothes for that era, I was therefore at ease with the odd style of this top.  Yet at the same time, it was completely out of my comfort level to pair it with modern styles.  The little 60’s top surprisingly works with more of my wardrobe than what I first intended (as mentioned in the former paragraph) and therefore gives me all sorts of new ideas for sneaking Regency styles in with my 21st century clothing choices. 

     Speaking of sneaking things in, not only is my black satin dress pretty “old Hollywood” for being a 1970s pattern with an almost tacky envelope illustration, but did you notice how I made some cheap fabric look more elegant than it really is?  Treating myself the good stuff, like silk, has spoiled me!  I don’t enjoy polyester fabrics as much as I used to, but a black satin as shiny as an oil slick is so appealing for a design like this. 

The benefit is immediately obvious in construction when the fabric pieces want to slip away from you and the skinny spaghetti straps are incredibly easy to turn inside out.  The smooth finish to the fabric made this the ideal underdress for flawlessly fitting under the over blouse. Ultimately, however, black garments can be so hard to see in detail as well as photograph (especially indoors) but the shine to the fabric is just enough to help my silhouette not get completely lost in the shadows of mid-winter.   Yay!  I found a way to love a fabric from my stash that was languishing, forgotten and unwanted.

     What helps achieve the slinky effect that plays upon the shine is my change in laying out the pattern.  The instructions said to lay everything out along the selvedge to make it straight grain.  However, I wanted to both avoid a harsh A-line shape to the skirt as I saw on the cover illustration and get a better fit without making it tighter.  Combining these aims with my desire to channel the 1930s, I decided upon cutting the skirt half of the dress on the bias grain.  I had plenty of extra fabric to do so!  This was the best upgrade for this pattern but it really made the waist seam a beast to sew…lots of easing in the excess bias.  My effort was all worth it in the end, though, because the softened silhouette and swish factor is unparalleled.  It is a bias cut dress that has my ideal balance of loose cling while also hugging my movements.  I love this dress!

     To counteract the bias cut skirt the empire waist bodice is cut on the straight grain, interfaced, and fully lined.  It is like its own brassiere being so stable, which is convenient with the spaghetti straps being placed so far out on the shoulders that conventional lingerie is not compatible.   The high waist and the widely placed straps give this 70’s dress a Regency flair in its own right with the way it emphasizes the open neckline, strong shoulders, and columnar appearance.   I had counted on this being the case – that was the only way it was going to be pair well as an undress for the little 60’s over blouse.   I figured if both had a Regency era influence they must end up looking good together even though they are from differing decades?  I had no confidence.  When I saw for the first try-on that the two pieces actually pair so well together I totally did a happy dance.  I love this part of sewing – the one where you actually surprise yourself with what you have made!  It is the best kind of reward. 

     I have also found the dress to be an incredibly versatile piece of its own right, but the details of the extent to that may just be for another post.  It is easy to pair tops over it and wear as if it was just a skirt.  The dress makes for a very nice long length slip dress under some long but also sheer dresses.  I want to make a long length open coat to pair over the dress to have more fun with its faux Regency appearance.  I never expected such resourceful dress when I put it together but such usefulness makes me like it all the more!

Let’s play a game called find the hidden hand-stitching. Really, though – look at how both are so nicely finished!

     Everything over and above the basic garment piecing for both items was finished with my finest invisible hand stitching.  My sewing machine was only used for the hidden inner seams.  I usually save my hands and shoulders the misery of doing this unless the fabrics that I am working with are fine or need a specific hem.  However, the fabrics for both pieces were cheap enough in quality with a glossy face that would expose machine stitching in a way which would not do either fabrics a favor.  I had to keep the ruse going and treat these fabrics as if they were nicer than they are to keep them looking that way as a finished piece.  A bias cut skirt is extremely tricky to hem on a machine anyway, and the jacquard probably would have acquired runs and pulls that I would have taken to easy way of machine top stitching.  What kind of finishing your handmade garments receive goes a long way towards the finished look and is just as important as every other step in the process of a sewing project. 

     Well – I suppose I have said more than enough and need to wrap up this last post for 2022.  I hope the holiday season finery that I shared here has inspired you or at least entertained you.  I trust that this post, like all of the rest, gives you a taste of the fun, the energy, the challenge, and the enjoyment that goes into everything related to sharing what I make…from a planning forethought to that final click of the publish button.  It is my way of reaching out to all of you, so I love it when you reach out to me with every like, comment, or message.      

My wish is that this upcoming New Year is the best yet to come for all of us! 

Turning into an “Alley Cat”

In my list of favorite designers held in high esteem, there are many which I know are inaccessible – I will probably never wear or own an original by them and only experience their creations in a museum.  Then, I have another list of top favorite designers that are exciting in an attainable way because I do own original pieces from them.  Betsey Johnson is at the top of the latter list…I have three of her vintage inspired silk dresses from the 90’s and 2000 era.  I adored her clothing styles as a teenager!  Wishing to understand more of her career after all these years, though, I am thrilled to have finally sewed up my own Betsey Johnson dress which hails from her rise to fame under the “Alley Cat” line.  This dress is from an important year in her history – 1971, the year Johnson received the Coty Fashion Critics’ Award.

In Betsey Johnson ads from the early 1970s (such as this one), these dresses are labelled as the “frontier-look”, but her spin on such old-fashioned style has a sleek look and stylish edge.  Even though there is almost 4 yards of fabric in this dress, I am miraculously not swallowed up in frills and gathers.  Instead, I feel slim in the way it has first-rate shaping and smart details that show off the body.  This dress lacks the homeliness of the normal prairie dress with its 1970s era youth oriented trendiness.  All these points help my dress be very wearable by being versatile, something which is a classic trait for Betsey Johnson’s clothing.  This dress can be sweet and simple (the way I styled it), but when paired with my 70’s boots, different jewelry, and bold makeup, I have found it can lean more on the punk side, an influence that Betsey Johnson preferred.  Her fashion offerings – at their core – was about a punk inspired spirit of rebellion…wearing what you want, how you want, and not being afraid to show both the pretty and the gritty side of being a girl. 

Even though this dress and its fabric – both being from the 1970s – makes my garment vintage in its own right, the way it turned out would make me think it was a modern “cottage core” dress loosely inspired by vintage.  The prestigious FIDM museum says, “Johnson designed vintage-inspired prairie dresses with small floral prints.”  I stayed true to that but it turned out so fresh, I was happily surprised by that.  More so, however, I wanted to show how Betsey Johnson had an alternative means of ‘rocking’ (literally, she was popular with the pop music culture of the era) the prairie trend differently than her contemporaries for such style, the fellow American Jessica McClintock (of the 80’s Gunne Sax, see my version here) or the British Laura Ashley.  I think I found that sweet spot of interpreting Betsey Johnson’s unique style to bring my own Alley Cat to life!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  two 100% cotton prints from 1970s (or possibly early 1980s); there was 3 ½ yards of the overall dress floral and ¾ yard of the contrast floral

PATTERN:  Butterick #6531, year 1971, an original vintage pattern from my personal collection

NOTIONS NEEDED:  one 22” long zipper, some bias tape, and lots of thread – that’s it!

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress came together quickly in about 15 hours of sewing and was finished at the end of October 2022.

THE INSIDES:  These cottons are fairly densely woven, so they really don’t unravel much (I can tell by the way the raw ends didn’t unravel when I washed the fabric before cutting). I simply zig-zag stitched over the raw ends inside.

TOTAL COST:  this dress was as good as almost free, since the notions I needed were on hand from my Grandmother’s stash and the cotton fabrics came from a large box of 50-something assorted vintage fabrics I bought for $10 from an antique shop. 

I spent just as much time doing preliminary preparation – tracing the pattern, sizing it up to fit me, and then cutting it out – as I did actually sewing the dress together.  Betsey Johnson’s offerings were geared to the juniors and teens market, so much so that even for those styles which are in ‘adult’ sizing (such as the dresses I have from the 90’s) are still tailored for someone short-waisted in smaller sizes.  In vintage Betsey Johnson pieces, the most commonly found ready-to-wear size is 2 through 6, and they run a size smaller than listed.  All this works for me because I am still close to my teen years’ sizing and also borderline petite, but I know this limits many women from wearing her designs.  The opportunity of having Betsey Johnson’s designs in commercial patterns opens a big door of inclusiveness by making them available for ladies of all sizes…as long as you know how to grade!  The sizing chart on the back of my pattern shows that it wasn’t offered above a size 12, equivalent to a size 6 today.  My Betsey Johnson dresses are size 4 and 6 but they fit (snugly) thanks in part to being on the bias cut.  This dress pattern is laid out on the straight grain and I did not want this to be as tight fitting, being cut in a cotton and not a silk like my other dresses.  Thus, I had to dedicate some good time to fully adjust the pattern before I could dive into sewing.

I kept in mind the sizing trend of my existing Betsey Johnson dresses and came into this project half-expecting the same from this Butterick pattern even though it was in what appeared to be the brand’s ‘normal’ adult sizing looking at the envelope chart.  However, everything I was seeing from all the measurements I was taking from off of the pattern pieces told me this was a real-deal Betsey Johnson design…I was ecstatic!  So, I graded the pattern up with an extra inch bigger than what I needed and kept the petite proportions.  It turned out just as I expected, true to Betsey Johnson sizing, and fit me perfectly with no adjustments needed (beyond what I added into the pattern pieces).  This is one of the first clear examples I have found of a commercial pattern deviating from its company line of sizing to keep the designer’s sizing model instead.  This makes me super happy because it tells me this is a true designer pattern, not one that has been altered by Butterick to bow to their guidelines. I have yet not found such designer individuality with any Vogue brand designer patterns.  This heads-up knowledge of what sizing to expect was only possible because I had the opportunity to experience the clothes from this designer.  There is a special sewing related benefit to (as I mentioned above) enjoying those designers you find that are accessible and appealing to you.  It here paid off to be a “Betsey girl”!

My chosen two cotton fabric prints are a wonderful combination that do not match yet also complement one another just enough to actually go together.  I successfully figured out how to do this with my Gunne Sax dress…which also happened to be blue printed cottons, I know.  I was aware that I could end up being overly repetitive with this dress.  Thus, I used smaller all-over floral prints with a variation on the same colors.  The busier, smaller print on the side bodice panels and the sleeves was an already hacked up remnant that someone previously had cut several pieces from before I got the fabric.  Thus, even though I say the remnant was ¾ yard, actual usable space was much smaller and I just eked out the pattern pieces I wanted.  Up close, this contrast print is in triangles of tiny flowers, much like a faux ‘quilt’ paneling.  It adds to the low-key prairie flair of the dress.  The main floral has cheerful colors of coral pinks, blues, and tints of yellow in loosely thrown bouquets.  The blue of the berries in the main fabric print are much brighter in color than our pictures captured, and I had hoped my retro style wedges (Re-mix “holiday” shoes) would have brought out some of that tone.  The shoes happened to match what was drawn on the envelope cover’s model for the view C that I went with for my version!

Many of Betsey Johnson dresses from the 1980s and newer were made of flowing silks and polyester satins, but many of her prairie and kitsch inspired garments from the 1970s seemed to be in cotton.  The envelope back called for me to use “crisp fabric” or “soft fabric”…huh?  This was a confusing either-this-or-that choice, so I went for a bit of both.  Modern cottons are too stiff to be ideal, which is why I was thrilled to use this vintage cotton – it is luxuriously soft, lofty, and flowing.  At the same time, the fabric has enough body to let the gathered fluttery sleeves have their own definition.  Yet again, I find that vintage does fashion the smart and fun way! 

Several of the other fabric options for this pattern were crepe, voile, and – the most significant mention – knits.  Betsey Johnson was involved in dance school growing up, and she and her mom would sew the stretchy body suit costumes for her performances…fueling both her creative mind and her sewing talent from a young age.  Later, in 1964, Betsey Johnson had her first designing success by making velvet trimmed “sweaters that hug the body” with a batch of crocheted fabric she acquired (as she relates in her memoir book, “Betsey”).  Johnson at that time was in her early twenties and a “guest editor” of Mademoiselle Magazine, working in the fabrics department.  She had landed her role at the magazine by winning its summer scholarship contest.  Her first step into selling her designs was initially about survival because she needed rent money to supplement her editorial job but her little tops became popular and Betsey loved the opportunity to stretch her wings.  Thus, it’s no wonder the patterns she did for Butterick in the early 1970s (under the “Alley Cat” brand, when she was creative director there between ‘70 and ‘74) all either mention or prefer stretchy woven, sweater knit, or jersey material as a fabric choice since it was her first sewing experience. 

Knit fabric in a plaid or funky print is very much a Betsey Johnson thing and it was tempting to try as I had just the thing on hand!  However, as there are more than 3 yards in my dress, I was afraid a knit would have made it hang rather than float romantically.  This exact dress design was featured in the January 1972 edition of Seventeen magazine, along with several of the other views from the pattern I used as well as Betsey’s other Butterick offerings.  In the advertisement text, which can be viewed thanks to ”Gold Country Girls” blog (page here), it is hinted that Wyeth paintings were Betsey’s inspiration behind this dress design and magazine’s photo shoot, so I think using anything other than a dense but lightweight knit would have defeated her ideal here.  Ah, see – here I go diving headfirst into every aesthetic detail.  After years of admiring her brand, I love realizing just how this pattern completely sucked me into the joy of manifesting my own personal interpretation of Betsey Johnson’s style.  Her Alley Cat line was before my time, after all, so this is different than the Betsey Johnson I grew up with…but it is no less welcome!  Visit my Pinterest board here to see more Betsey Johnson ads, patterns, and clothing from her pre-1990s era.

My only small regret to my dress is the way the fine details and design lines get lost in the print.  I am a big fan of how the waistline comes up to ride the top of my hips at the sides but dips down low for both the center front and back.  It is a beautiful design that is interesting and makes for great ease of movement.  It also seems to be a popular feature for Betsey Johnson because she reused this same undulating waistline on her other Butterick patterns (no. 6536 and no. 6529, as well as no. 3292) as well as many of her ready-to-wear dresses.  This style of waistline pairs perfectly with the different layout of gathered waist where it is only gathered in at the center back and front.  With the sides being kept smooth, this really creates a slimming silhouette that I am obsessed over.  My hips are big enough the way it is and the combination of princess seaming in torso, dropped waist, and controlled skirt gathers all help me feel that I have lot a few pounds (even if only in appearance).  Any dress which can do that is a winner.  Usually teenager’s clothing does not simultaneously work well for a grown woman’s style, but Betsy Johnson has found a way around that.

My sole slight change to the pattern was to adjust the neckline.  I raised the dip of the front scoop neck by about 5/8 inch and eliminated the facings.  I love the simplicity and smoothness to a bias finished neckline, so I went for that instead.  Bias tape does tight curves so well, especially when sewn on with a tiny seam allowance that needs no clipping, and is much less fussy than facings.  After all, Alley Cat garments were meant to be bare-bones and not high end.  This was so that her intended market of urban teens and juniors from big cities (like New York or L.A.) would find them “reasonably priced” (yet Betsey’s “always under $100” garments equal about $750 dollars today).  Imitating the finishing of a 1970s Betsey Johnson dress gave me an excuse to do machine made top stitching and basic finished seams inside (I’ve been doing a lot of nice hand stitched projects lately).  Her 1990s and 2000 era silk dresses in my wardrobe are much finer in French seams and full linings, but this “frontier frock” was the perfect way to have an easy-to-make project for myself.

This dress may not be a knockout, but it is fun and ultimately comfortable with a great fit.  I thoroughly enjoyed everything related to the creation of this dress more than I show because this was an especially personal challenge.  It pushed me to add an alternate appreciation to what I thought I knew about a designer I have already admire and respect.  Every backstory to a designer’s history tells so much about why and what they did later in their life.  For all the fame designers can garner, they are just like any other human being who deserves empathy and appreciation, after all.  So I hope this post inspires you to take a look at Betsey Johnson and realize there is so much more to the “frontier look” than you may have realized.  Perhaps her style speaks to you, like it does to me? 

Indian Angrakha-Style Robed Dress

For anyone who follows the traditions of India, October often ends up being a celebratory month in which the festival of Navratri ends and Diwali begins.  Navratri, meaning ‘nine nights’, is one of the most popular and widely celebrated Hindu festivals in many parts of India and lasted September 26 to October 5 this year.  Diwali, the “Festival of Lights” associated with both the principal Goddess Lakshmi as well as the end of the Indian fiscal year, begins October 24 in 2022 and is 5 days of family, food, fireworks, colored sand art, special candles and lamps. 

I always celebrate these occasions in spirit where I am, far away from India.  Nevertheless, I’ve been having a hard time getting back into anything after having a bad time of catching Covid at the end of August.  However, choosing a traditional “buti” flower block print cotton, I found a project both easy to make and wear which is just the pick me up I needed to reignite my spirit, get back into sewing again, and launch me into the mood for this month’s Indian festivities.  As I am slow to think and accomplish much currently, I was so happy earlier this month to finish sewing an “Angrakha” in time to honor the theme colors of the last two days for Navratri.  The peacock green on my dress commemorates day 8 and the bright pink of day 9 is from my dupatta shawl, which was bought from the Devon Ave. Indian district in Chicago!  This garment is supremely comfortable, colorful, and fun, but also is the perfect ethnic item to wear for these celebrations!   

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  an all-cotton hand-stamped block print direct from India through “Fibers to Fabric” shop on Etsy

PATTERN:  McCall’s #6428, year 1978, from my personal pattern stash

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread, some ethnic Indian loop trimming from a New Delhi artisan sourcing shop “Cat Fluff” on Etsy, and some random items on hand to make the Angrakha’s tasseled tie ends

TIME TO COMPLETE:  This was sewn in about 10 hours and finished on September 27, 2022

THE INSIDES:  cleanly zig-zag stitched over the edge in several layers to imitate serging (overlocking)

TOTAL COST:  I bought 4 yards of this material on a seasonal clearance sale and together with the trimming my total cost comes to just over $20.

a traditional silk brocade Angrakha

In brief, an angrakha is a double-breasted, wrapped, long sleeve outer robe that is asymmetrically tied closed at the left side of the high waistline and traditionally paired with loose Indian trousers.  The earliest mention of this word specifically can be traced back to the 16th century!  An angrakha was historically worn by men of Rajasthan (state in northern India) either as a soldier’s robe, when there was a quilted inner panel under the double-breasted chest, or as a court robe for royalty when made of the best silk brocade with rich trimmings.  By the 19th century, it had evolved to be a garment made of sensible cottons, but now today it is also worn in public by men and women alike of varying ethnographic backgrounds and locations.  It even has progressed into varying lengths – long as a special occasion dress, short as a daily wear tunic, or mid-length as a multi-purpose robe or fancy suit (when there are matching trousers and dupatta shawl). 

The angrakha is supposedly derived from traditional outfits of Rajasthan’s neighboring state of Gujarat and can be seen in some of their Garba or Dandiya performances for Navratri. Gujarat is, after all, the only state that erupts into a nine-night dance festival, one of the longest in the world! Each night of Navratri, all over the state, in villages and cities alike, people gather in open spaces to celebrate their feminine divinity. Oh, how I wish I was there to experience that for myself…just picture the blaze of color, energy, and excitement such an event must be!

The literal meaning of the word “Angrakha” is ‘something that protects your body’, and thus I searched (and obviously found) a robe pattern from which to base my make off of.  A modern robe still embodies the very definition of this Indian ethnic garment and – just like an angrakha – is a layer that is not worn alone but over a full set of clothes underneath.  I serendipitously found the perfect source in a vintage pattern from on hand!  It is a nighttime set pattern, but robes made of the right fabric can be definitely appropriate for wearing outside the confines of the home.  I remembered how the fashion of the 1970s had revisited many different historical influences and the empire waist, full skirt, minimal seams, and wrapped closure was everything I needed for a modern yet traditional interpretation of an angrakha. 

I adapted just a few things to the pattern to both make it fit me better and be more ethnically an angrakha.  The pattern I had was a medium (the sizing was in general increments and not precise numbers) so it was much bigger than my measurements.  The sleeve length was originally very long and I had to fold up the pattern tissue to the exact length needed because I was including the full selvedge edge along the cuffs.  The main body was very wide and I folded out an inch out of each bodice piece, taking out a total of 4 inches.  Even still the main body turned out too generous, and not the proper angrakha silhouette.  Just reshaping the underarm seam into a right angle, rather than a soft curve, worked wonders to bring in some shapeliness to the bodice and provide all the reach room I needed.  To continue the reshaping, I also straightened out the sleeves into stovepipe style rather than the pattern’s given bell sleeves.  The most traditional garments of any culture are often composed of very basic, simple shapes and so it seemed proper to turn the design lines for this angrakha into something very angular and geometric.

An integral part to the angrakha is the tasseled tie closure for the asymmetric wrapping.  As I said above, I meant to channel modern India’s take on a historically ethnic style so I deviated from the traditional double tied closure.  Things were kept simple for my angrakha with one sole tie.  I went really inventive by coming up with something suitable and used a turquoise green colored shoelace that I happened to find in my notions stash.  Then I sewed down two matching colored cotton tassels (leftover from this tunic project, posted here) over the ends.  A shoelace string is much sturdier than any ribbon or cording I had been considering anyway!  I stitched thread chain loops over the shoelace tie at both ends of the waistline where it needed to be connected.  Yet, my thread loops do not catch the ties, which run under the loops so the waistline can adjust to whatever feels comfortable for the day.  With the tassels at each end, the tie however cannot come out of the thread loops, providing assurance that it will not get lost but is staying put.  

See the two thread loops holding the tie in place?

I was not doing an overall elasticized waist like the pattern called for, but I was making the bodice smoothly tailored with only the skirt portion gathered.  Thus, I had to add a few darts in the bodice – under the bust for the front panels and under the shoulders for the back panels.  The waistline shape was trimmed to be more like a historical men’s angrakha, where the front waistline lands at a higher true empire height while the back waistline dips lower to hit just above the true waistline.  I did not line this robe, or used any facings, but I just used the selvedge border for all hems and simply turned in the neckline edge under the loopy Indian trimming.  The bodice panels with the long cut-on sleeves took just over a yard, which left me with the 3 yards of fabric for the skirt portion.  Four whole yards of fabric was just enough to work for this project! 

As I expounded upon in this post of mine about the making of a Rajput Sherwani coat, dyeing and block printing traditions have always been rich throughout the Indian states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Sindh.  Their textiles had been exported to places as far away as Egypt and Africa centuries before the British control there popularized the exporting of their chintz, block prints, paisley shawls, and silks to England, America, and the Dutch colonies. The fabric I chose is a classic, buttery, whispery soft Indian cotton.  The predominant dye color to my chosen print is also in the background.  In modern times, I tend to see this color called turquoise.  This color can be seen as a blue or a green depending on the person, so I find this label for such a shade as too generalized and confusing.  To India, the natural (often botanical dyes) dyes that are often used turn this shade greener toned than anything else, and this way blues are easier to clearly identify.  This block print matches with the Pantone shade of “Blue Grass”, but I see it in person, in indoor light, as the traditional “peacock green”.  It is complimented with shades of true Indigo (Pantone “Sapphire”) for the print, as well as “Dusty Lavender” in the border – all my favorite colors!  

Milk Thistle

The overall print, called the ‘field’ area, is filled up of ‘buti’, tiny stylized almond shaped floral motifs carved in wood for stamping purposes.  ‘Buti’ is an Indian Marathi word that means ‘something hidden or kept hidden’ and the best part of these stylized florals is reading secrets within the creatively rendered botanical representation.  Here, the fabric looks to me to show a milk thistle plant, known in Hindi as “doodh patra”.  It has long been popular in India as a flowering herb that provides therapeutic properties as well as a multi-purpose oil (extracted from the seeds).  The portrayal of this plant is for me a subtle nod to the angrakha’s late medieval origins – the thistle was a favorite decorative and symbolical element of manuscript illuminations, tapestries, and brocades of the olden times. 

However, on a practical level, such a print shows the Gujarat influence to my interpretation of an angrakha, as that is the Indian tradition that I most closely associate with through our Indian friends.  I know I am biased, but I will insist that Gujarat has the superiority when it comes to cotton production, embroidery, and tie dyeing.  Yet, I know Rajasthan (particularly the capitol city of Jaipur) is tied to the history of the floral motif block print.  I love the way that my angrakha combines both state’s textile histories into one fantastic garment that has a richly interesting history all on its own. 

I am thrilled to have a new type of Indian clothing to wear as part of my ongoing efforts to participate in the culture of India through their wonderful festivities.  This angrakha is my new favorite wardrobe item so I have not been shy from wearing it out to eat, to do errands, and more!  I think it is so important for respectful cultural representation to be something seen outside of limited ethnic circles so that the public can that have a chance to see, respect, and learn.  India has such an enthralling history with a depth which can be intimidating to a newcomer, but I hope coming across someone like me can become a moment of enlightenment for others.  I love sharing all things related to my sewing, especially history and culture!  For this angrakha, its bold but attractive combo of colors in a relatable wrap-on style seemed to really bring out the questions and comments from people I came in contact with. 

Most people never understand what is the clothing of the people of India beyond a stereotypical tunic, trousers, or sari…but there is so much more variety than that!  It would be a great honor if my blog could be the source for opening any reader’s mind to just some of the interesting nuances to what the residents of India actually do wear and how it is beautifully tied to their culture, their heritage, their self-expression, and their talents.  I adamantly believe the world would indeed be a dull place if it wasn’t for the flourish of color and wondrous handiwork that the fashions of India bring to the globe. 

Here’s a wish for a peaceful, renewing, and happy Navratri festival!

Golden Maple

There is nothing quite as refreshing as a change of scenery.  I love the fact that the holidays change up the atmosphere as well as the sights around town, and yet a full out location modification, if only for a day here and there, is the real elixir.  We’ve been taking advantage of the acres of land (a road trip away) which my husband’s family still owns.  It is the remnants of what was once a much larger farm, already old when the third generation back bought it.  The promise of no one around but us and plenty of personal space with a variety of exciting nature to hear, see, and absorb was wonderful. 

Of course, I couldn’t help but try out wearing my newest vintage dress creation for one of this season’s trips out to the farmland.  Not that I did the actual property hiking or upkeep work in this (I save that for boots, a worn-in shirt, and denim overalls). Nevertheless, this dress interpreted the colors and feel of the farm to me – rustic, beautiful, fun, and freeing!  The old family property is our new safe place to be ourselves, reset, and find renewed refreshment.  Similarly, this new dress is a cozy, cheerful, and easy on the eyes.  This is already a cold weather favorite piece to wear!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  Lady McElroy Textured Jersey Knit Fabric, in “Golden Gentle Harmonie” print, in polyester from Minerva Crafts and Fabric

PATTERN:  Simplicity 5850, year 1973, from my pattern stash

NOTIONS:  All I needed was matching thread and a 22” long back zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress took me only 5 hours to go from start to finish.  It was completed on October 22, 2020.

TOTAL COST:  about $25

The background color is very interestingly unique and hard to capture accurately.  It is not really a yellow, but neither is it an orange.  Minerva’s listing seems to call it a gold, but it more coppery than that.    The closest I can swatch it through the Pantone colors is “Autumn Maple” #17-1145.  The dress’ color reminds me of a heavily spiced pumpkin pie, or baked sweet potatoes – yum! 

For being a 70’s dress, I see this a step above the stereotype of the era.  It is has an elegance of silhouette inspired by the 30s and simple lines that could be from any of the past several decades.  The angled empire waistline is so lovely!  There are your run-of-the-mill tapered sleeves…no bell sleeves, and no puff sleeves. The back has a long 22 inch zipper making this super simple to get on for an instant put-together look.  The skirt has a lovely swish to it between the bit of bias cut and stretch of the knit.  As easy to sew as it was, I don’t know why it wasn’t one of those minimal piece designs called “Jiffy” patterns.  After all, I was able to pull off cutting out this dress on only 2 yards of material (60 inch width).  If a dress like this comes together as quickly as this did in one evening, then I am a very happy girl indeed!

The ‘turtleneck’ is not as overpowering as or even similar to a 90’s turtleneck – the back envelope summary technically labels it as a stand-up collar.  This high neck can be found as an added option on many dress patterns from the late 60’s to the mid-70’s.  It really is the perfect balance that keeps my neck warm but not suffocated.  The instructions did not call for interfacing or even facing to any part of the dress, and as I was working with a knit I was happy to oblige.  Unfortunately though, the pattern wanted only one layer for the stand-up collar with a simple hem along the top edge.  What?!  I went ahead and cut out two layers of material to face each other for a clean finish and stronger collar piece.  This slight change of mine made for a much nicer neckline.

What is this trademarked “Look Slimmer” label to this pattern, I wonder?  I understand it’s self-explanatory yet I am curious why Simplicity began this line in the first place and what body type was their intended audience.  If anything, such a selling point sure helped me feel more confident about using a large print floral for a longer length dress.  Surely a design that slims the body must be able to pull off an oversized print, right?  Longer length, long sleeved, warmer winter dresses always make me sense that I may lose a complimentary body conscious appearance in the effort to stay warm in the cold.  I sometimes felt as bulky as the “Stay-Puft” man (from the original ’84 Ghostbusters movie) in the winter clothes I had growing up.  Yet, this dress manages to hide the layers I am wearing underneath here…amazing!

Paging through the rest of my 70’s pattern stash, I now realized I do have a few more of these “Look Slimmer” designs.  They do all rather seem way too similar to each other so I can’t imagine a gal back when these came out buying too many patterns from this line unless she was okay with not a lot of variety.  Nevertheless, that is a great promise to include on a pattern cover and I do believe it holds rather true even in a print such as the one I chose, even with a few extra clothes layered underneath.  When you are out in the middle of almost nowhere away from home, letting yourself grow cold is unwise and not fun at all.  If I can look good taking care of such practicality, even when no one but family sees me, all the better.

I hope my fellow Americans had a happy, healthy, and hearty Thanksgiving holiday celebration.  Who is already begun getting ready for the next holiday?  We did chop down a cedar tree at the farm land, mostly to refurbish our coat closet for protection against clothes moths.  Yet, we also posted up in our living room the small little top portion of the tree leftover.  As we never have a tree up before Thanksgiving, we did not decorate it, but still…I guess, unofficially, Christmas has already started early here, too.