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? 

1938’s Fashionable Floral Stripes

The decade of the 1930s probably has the most joyful, extravagant, and inventive use of stripes to be seen in the last 100 years of fashion.  Garments back then – for both men and women – had striped material used in a dizzying array of differing methods to either complement the figure underneath or showcase the talent behind the design.  Visit this “Witness2Fashion” blog post for some visual proof of this fact.  Sometimes stripe directions were used straightforwardly, but more often mixed up to compliment paneled designs (such as I did for this 30s blouse) or used diagonally on the bias grain (see this dress of mine).  Back then, stripes were even used for evening wear, on winter coats, as well as shoes, hats, and everything in between. 

Year 1938 fashion inspiration.

Yet, 1938 is special in the way it stands out as the niche year for a specifically kind of striped print.  When I happened to run across a fabric that closely imitated the style of a 1938 striped floral, I was thrilled to have a chance to channel this short-lived vintage “fad” in my own sewing by combining it a 1938 dress pattern from my stash.  I love being able to recreate a killer vintage look, of course, but it is fun to do so as a modern comfort piece by working with a forgiving stretch satin-finish poly.  You’d never guess, right?  For me, this project is the epitome of learning from society’s fashionable past while also building upon and personalizing it for today. 

It is important to note that later on, this post will also be highlighting my fabulous vintage style hat, which I also made.  It is a refashion of a modern wool felt fedora.  Real vintage hats (in good wearable condition) are often beyond my preferred price range, and I really wanted a specific ‘look’ to match with my ensemble ideal.  It is much more satisfying for me to have made something with my own hands, using what was immediately available, and at a ridiculously reasonable price than high priced instant gratification.  I also made the grey belt (posted here) which can be seen in some of my pictures, but that already has had its own feature so I will not talk about it here.  I’ll do whatever it takes to assemble together everything I need to imitate those late 1930s fashion illustrations that so enthrall me where all the trimmings – jewelry, scarf, belt, gloves, etc. – are piled on in excess but somehow perfectly coordinate while also contrasting. 

All the rest of my accessories that you see are true vintage pieces, most of which have come to me from my paternal Grandmother.  I couldn’t decide if I preferred a grey belt or a rust colored belt – the latter of which is more true to the Tyrolean and peasant influence of the late 1930s.  With its laced front, the rust colored suede belt is just like what can be seen in fashions which span 1937 to 1940, even though the piece itself is from the 1970s.  We took pictures with both belt and color themed options.  As you go through my post, let me know at the end which prevailing color in accessories you prefer to pair with my dress!  Do you see how much accessories alone can change the feeling of or add appeal to a dress?

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:   The dress was made of a stretch polyester satin, the same material as what I used to make this vintage 1946 dress.  The hat is a 100% wool felt, originally an American Eagle brand modern fedora.

PATTERN:  McCall #3102, circa March or April of year 1938, an original pattern from my personal collection, while the hat I made with no pattern

NOTIONS NEEDED:  For the dress, I used lots of thread (of course), one zipper for the side seam closure, a few buttons for the front bodice (I used true vintage buttons from the stash of my husband’s Grandmother), and some cotton broadcloth scraps which I used as interfacing.  Everything I needed for the hat was repurposed from off of the hat, so I needed no extra supplies.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  The dress was sewn in about 20 hours while the hat was made in two hours and both were finished at the end of August 2018

THE INSIDES:  as the dress is a knit and the hat is felt, neither piece has edges that ravel and thus the edges have been left unfinished

TOTAL COST:  This fabric had been bought too many years back for me to remember how much I spent to buy it, but I bought it on clearance from the now defunct Hancock Fabrics store.  I believe I had about 2 ½ yards of material in total.  Everything else I needed was as good as free, coming from my notions stash on hand.  The hat I refashioned only cost me $10 to purchase second-hand.  My total cost for this outfit was probably $30.

The striped fabric I was working with soon became more than solely an aesthetic or historically based choice but ended making the pattern I was working with easier to construct than it would have been otherwise.  As the entire main body gets pleated down (only down to mid-thigh for ease of movement) I merely followed the lines of the stripes on the fabric to aid me in making the pleats.  It helped that this was a 30’s pattern and therefore generally straight-lined and not very curvy.  The width of one row of striping was the depth of the pleats, and figuring that much out saved me from having to chalk mark a plethora of fold lines.  The vintage pattern – which was printed much like a modern one because it was a McCall’s brand – suddenly was much less intimidating despite being covered in pleat lines and balance marks! 

This gets me wondering if perhaps stripes were popular for reasons such as this, to aid in the sewing of a very geometric leaning design.  Stripes get the bad rap for being more challenging to work with since they present a challenge to match up along seam lines.  However, this dress proves that is not always the case.  For pleated patterns, using fabric that is striped can definitely aid in the construction of your garment.  Sewing is very much tied to math, so use that fact to your advantage and make sewing easier.

Sears ad from August of 1938 that shows fabric and fashion in floral striping prints

I wanted to level up the slimming powers of the color black and have the direction of my print run vertical, even though floral stripes (as the blog “Witness2Fashion” states here) are often associated with flannel nightgowns when used lengthwise.  The popularity of the “Lantz of Salzburg” line of clothing helped commercialize the Tyrolean and “peasant” look for American women’s mainstream fashion in the late 1930’s.  I have found such floral stripes labelled “Romany striping” in late 1930s original Sears brand ad paraphernalia for either fabric or the dresses that are in such a print.  These have a clear Polish, Hungarian, Bavarian, Czech, and Balkan influence to their quaint, colorful, geometrically laid out designs as seen in the old advertising illustrations.  Perhaps the term “Romany” referred to the Roma people so often stereotyped as the classic “peasant” influence for 1920s to 1970s vintage fashion? 

Floral stripes may have been fashionable street wear in the late 30’s, but they became mostly relegated to nightwear in the WWII era.  With the onset of war, the ethnic fashion of Europe was confined to bed chamber clothing or at least watered down in obvious cultural influence for American women.  In the 1950s, a brand new batch of floral striped cottons became popular for full-skirted, cute summer sundresses of the era, but emerged looking closer to vintage bed sheet or wallpaper prints then what was what seen in the 1930s.  My own dress’ floral stripes are rather subtle and not very obvious.  The ‘stripes’ are more like trailing vines, but definitely botanical upon close inspection.  At some point, I would love to find a true “Romany striping” from the 30s and use it for another of my ’38 patterns because this first attempt is a big win for my wardrobe!     

As I mentioned above, as 30’s patterns are generally straight-lined and do not account for full hips, I added necessary shaping into the side seams.  This way I did not mess up the layout of the pleats down the front of the dress body.  I didn’t try too hard to do any matching in the layout of the pattern pieces, but the stripes seem to match in most places anyway.  Overall the closely spaced stripes make for a busy print that hides any flaws in my half-hearted effort at matching.  The print sure does visually elongate my body, giving the illusion that I am taller and slimmer than my petite frame size says I am.  It thereby conveys the ideal 1930s body type image on my definitely not 30’s era appropriate hip size.  I made sure to have the stripes run horizontal in the shoulder panels, though.  This gives my dress strongly framed, squared up shoulders that hint forward to the 1940s era, with a nod towards a menswear influence.  Laying out the stripes horizontally in the shoulder panels balances out all the other vertical lines, thereby further elongating my torso.  Sometimes fashion can be merely about creating a certain visual imagery for the body through perfect placement or mere exaggeration of details.

Along such a topic, I would be remiss if I did not further address this dress’ fabulous sleeves.  Amongst all the straight lines and stripes going on, eve the sleeves are uniquely geometric with the sleeve cap head being nothing box right angles to form a box shape.  When I said above that the shoulders are squared off, I meant that…literally!  I’ve never seen this kind of sleeve before and I love it because it is really comfy to wear as well as interesting.  The pattern recommended some sort of stabilization over the sleeve cap area, such as canvas or stiff crinoline, to be sewn in with the seams but as this is a modern interpretation of a vintage style, I merely used cotton iron-on interfacing.  The sleeves have a life all their own and smashing them down under a blazer, sweater, or coat does not crush them – they pop back to their intended shape!  The things to see and learn from using vintage patterns never fail to amaze me.

The neckline is unexpectedly versatile.  I am glad of this since I was not a fan of the high tied neck in the illustration, as necklines too confining around my throat freak me out.  However, I also felt such a neckline suited the design so I left it as-is and made it a part of the dress anyways.  As it turned out, the tie – being a stretchy knit – is not as restricting as I thought it would be (and I can tie it loosely, after all).  Even still, if I merely tuck the tie end into my dress I have the appearance of a plain neckline.  Taking that a step further, if I also undo the top button and flap the facing open then the plain neckline looks like it has lapels.  I mixed up the necklines in my photos, since (like my accessories) I don’t know which way I liked best.  I love clothes that have options.

For my hat, I started off by buying a basic wool felt fedora so I had a “blank canvas” with which to re-block, cut, or otherwise refashion as I so desired.  As I was going to do a hot steam treatment to the crown to turn it into a new shape at some point, anyways, I had no qualms about finding this secondhand.  It was very clean and at a steal of a price for such a good quality, good condition, and good brand name felt hat!  My main inspiration was a 1930s original item I found through a vintage seller’s online site.  No matter how much I wanted it, I just couldn’t deal with the sticker shock.  The crown shape was pretty basic, in a tricky specific shape, yet with minimal stitching.  I felt from the outset that this was something I was capable of reproducing, and there is nothing like having that preliminary confidence to give you a vision to go on. 

As my hat turned out, it is slightly different than the original inspiration yet still the same in the general shape and idea.  Nevertheless, having put the effort into this piece, I personally prefer my own version!  It matches perfectly with my dress (and other items in my wardrobe, as well) and is a 1930’s shape that still carries a sort of modern air.  It sits on my head effortlessly while also not messing up my hair, since it kind of perches more than hugs my crown.  Even still, I added an attached headband of elastic thread – so thin it gets disguised in my hair so easily- that goes around the back of my head. 

My hat was happily a zero-waste project, too!  Everything that was there on the hat as I bought it is on it now as a vintage-style refashion – the felt has just been cut and steamed into a new shape and the leather decorative ties went towards becoming the “string” that brought the crown together.  I really love the vintage style hats that I make for so many reasons, but the last reason may just be the way I don’t have to be as delicate or careful as I would be with an old original piece.  I know fashionable hats may be out of style the way they were in the 1930s, but with a hat like this one I will not care.  I will wear my me-made hat as much as I desire so as to bring more than just stocking caps back in style (hopefully) for fall and winter!

The proof of how much I enjoy wearing the hat and dress is in the fact each has become my frequent go-to item, either separate or together, for an easy vintage look.  Worn together, though, the dress and hat pairs with all my favorite shoes, jewelry, and blazer colors.  I like how I can brighten the dress up with yellow for summer, keep it all black for a funeral, or go with burgundy, beige, or pastel tones. 

Me and my son “cuttin’ a rug” out in the street’s stage at the Jazz Crawl!

My best pairing outfit pairing for this dress may just be from exactly one year ago, when my husband, son, and some acquaintances all went to an outdoor live Jazz music festival which travels down several blocks of a city street and goes on for the course of a whole day.  We showed up in head-to-toe vintage and caught the attention of photographers.  Thus, we ended up getting some good pictures after all, since we were too busy enjoying ourselves dancing the day away to the lively tunes!  I wore a true vintage peach rayon gabardine blazer, with my rust orange belt and me-made hat, and black and white spectator heels from Chelsea Crew.  Visit my Instagram post (here) on the Jazz Crawl to see some extra pictures.  We had a grand day out and my outfit was just what I needed for the occasion.  The stretch fabric and the little knee pleats of my dress were perfect for swing dancing…I would have never guessed this benefit when I made it!

Floral stripes are a fun spin off of the traditional plain lines.  Such a fabric pattern is a wonderful way to incorporate botanical prints into your colder weather wardrobe without looking like you are sporting a spring print out-of-place.  Finding that there is a certain year of fashion history that excelled at this specialty floral stripe helped me discover a medium through which to enjoy something new for my vintage wardrobe…something I love to wear!  Also, my hat was so much easier (and cheaper) than would be guessed by appearances so I definitely suggest giving refashioning of secondhand headgear a try.  This is such a great way to get yourself that dream millinery piece and customize your accessories at a more achievable level while also having fun learning a new skill.  All around, creating this outfit was a great experience for me, and you will not be disappointed if you try out a 1938 look for yourself.  Everyone loves flowers, right?  So – stripes that are floral cannot be anything but fabulous, right?!

Sweetly Spooky Spider Web Dress

There’s nothing to bring my sewing mojo back like reaching for a project that pairs my favorite color of purple with one of my favorite fashion years of 1939!  Add in a little Halloween whimsy via a vintage novelty print – but do so in the superior comfort of a cotton gauze – and I have a dress that is just so good, I’m absolutely thrilled.  I am not in the mood for anything scary or dark this holiday, so instead I went the cute but on theme look.  Does this make it ‘spoopy’?  

You may not see anything Halloween related to this dress at first glance, but – similar to every good 1930s or 40’s novelty fabric print – look closer and you will see the subtly hidden details.  To let the fantastic print be featured unimpeded by excess design lines, I picked a very simple style very classic of the late 1930s and early 40’s.  The basic pattern also helps the softness and whisper weight of the cotton gauze become a dress that is unimpeded by seams.  It is so pretty how it flows at my every movement or just a slight breeze and gives such a gentle structure to the silhouette!  Happily, this was an easy project to whip together and easy to make, as well.  This year I am having a Halloween free from the stress of any costume sewing and so my dress is even more wonderful being the sole extant of my spooky season efforts!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  ”Garden Cobwebs” print on an organic 100% cotton sweet pea gauze, 54” in width, custom ordered via Spoonflower (through the shop “raqilu”)

PATTERN:  Vintage Vogue #9294, a 2018 reissue of a 1939 pattern, originally Vogue #8659

NOTIONS NEEDED:  lots of thread and one long 24” invisible zipper

TIME TO COMPLETE:  My dress was finished in 8 to 10 hours and was finished on October 3, 2022

THE INSIDES:  All raw edges are cleanly, tightly zig-zag stitched together

TOTAL COST:  2 yards cost me $38

This is my second spider web print dress (my first is posted here) but it is definitely competing for being my favorite spider web dress!  True vintage original items in such arachnid related novelty prints can mostly be found from the eras of the 1930s to the 1970s and go for a pretty high price point today.  Thus, I am more than happy to sew, and therefore customize, my own versions.  I almost chose to make a blouse out of the Spoonflower fabric, but the fact I would have had so much material leftover, as well as the way I didn’t know what skirts or pants would match, dissuaded me from turning it into a separate piece.  This particular print seems especially suited for the springtime with the laurel leaves, pastel tones, and subtle webs, and I always seem to think of pretty dresses for spring.  Thus, my train of thought led to find the simple dress pattern I did.  All the pattern pieces easily fit onto only 2 yards with no nap (one-way direction) to the fabric’s print! 

Previous to this this project, I had yet to find a Spoonflower fabric that was anything other than absolutely awful.  I am not a fan of the quality of most of the base materials they offer.  Their cotton sateen is so stiff it can stand up on its own (this dress), their poly crepe does not hold the printed colors well (this blouse), and their regular cotton sticks to itself like Velcro (project yet to come).  However, this organic cotton gauze is an absolute dream come true.  It is slightly sheer, and has an unusual grid-like pattern as part of the fiber weave, but it presents the printing beautifully and is a joy to wear and sew with.  This is such a welcome surprise, as well as a game changer for me when it comes to knowing what to choose from Spoonflower. 

I realized after my order was completed that cotton gauze is found at our local fabric stores in the same aisle as the nursery materials, and so I suspect that this material is often used for baby blankets and swaddling clothes.  Oh well – if it’s soft enough for a baby, I certainly don’t want to be left out from enjoying something superior in cuddliness.  It’s just not what one would think of using for a garment sewing, I suppose, but I was desperate to find a Spoonflower material that was tolerable.  With the spider web print being what it is, and the way I was able to sew it into a cute dress, I don’t think anyone would be any wiser for what I pulled off here working with cotton gauze.  So – I fashioned baby blanket material for me, a grown adult, to wear as a classy vintage dress.  How freaking amazing is the ability to sew, right?!  If you try this experience out for yourself (and I do recommend it), my hot tip is to use a ball point needle (for knits) to sew with and take to time to finish off all raw edges as the gauze likes to unravel and come apart.   

I did see a few reviews and other seamstress’ versions of this Vintage Vogue reprint and it seemed to run on the small end of fitting ease.  The gauze I was working with is a very loose woven and not the type of fabric that I could see working well with a snug fit or stress at the seams.  Thus, I went up a whole size, and I am glad I did!  My sole complaint with this pattern is it has a very long torso length.  The bodice turned out extraordinarily long on me.  I had to shorten it significantly.  Otherwise, I love this dress pattern.  It would be the best bet for anyone new to sewing who still wants more than a plain dress, as well as anyone wishing to dive into vintage styles.  There is lots of room for customization, as well as being perfect for that oversized, novelty, or special fabric print you’ve been wanting to wear.  Just double check the sizing and proportions at the pattern stage before you cut, and you should be good to go.

I didn’t do any real alterations to the pattern beyond cutting the skirt front on the fold to eliminate the center seam. Then I switched up the neckline detail in conjunction with adapting the closure method.  The pattern, as per any true vintage dress, called for a small side seam closure.  Due to the conservative neck design, the pattern combined the side zip with a slit in the front neckline which closes with a tie extension of the bias binding.  Instead, I opted for a full 22” long center back invisible zipper for ease of dressing.  This way I could eliminate the need for the front neckline slit at the same time as making my life easier.  The gauze is so buttery, that I could not see attempting that front neckline slit as ending successfully or being anything other than a stressful effort.  I actually prefer the front neckline having relative simplicity and kept the bias binding tie in the back just above the zipper pull.  This is the same neckline that I already have on some of my past projects, such as this 1940s blouse and my classic Agent Carter dress, but for some reason I think I like it on myself best with this spider web print dress.

I’m so pleased with all the additional purple add in through my accessories.  My earrings are something I made by combining two gradient toned tassels with earring hooks – so simple!  My bracelet is actually a beaded necklace I made as well, to go with this outfit (posted here).  I have found that if a necklace is not too long, but sits close to the neck, I can wrap it twice around my wrist for it to also work as a bracelet.  I enjoy finding new ways to wear items I already have on hand.  My shoes were bought to pair with this “Little Mermaid” outfit I made but also match with this dress’ print, luckily.  I can never have too much purple, much to my husband’s chagrin.

Our location for these photos was a recently shuttered garden shop.  I think it added to the Halloween idea of decay, desertion, and dereliction.  Spiders love to find neglected places to fill in with their webs, and so it made sense to me to wear my spider web dress to someplace abandoned.  Previously, this business had been a standby staple to our neighborhood for over 80 years, and it is sad to see it closed.  It was a busy place while it was open, too popular for us to ever get pictures before now so at least there is some immediate good out of something bad. 

I love my dress’ delicate print compliments the details of the building’s wrought iron trellis work – it has a trailing oak leaf and oak acorn design.  The oak trees grow tall and stately and are the last to let go of their foliage.  To me, this symbolizes stability and strength to have such representation in some trellis work that holds up the front of the building.  However, I love the irony of a strong oak and a web represented next to one another, because a spider’s silk is just a strong in its own way!  Since an empty web is a home without a tenant, my dress has an added vintage-style jeweled spider brooch, ordered awhile back through “Nicoletta Carlone.com”.  Placed on the web over my chest, “Webster” the spider is not really creepy, but rather cute (the “spoopy” factor strikes again). 

This dress is a practical, low-key way to join in on the Halloween fun, but the way it is also a vintage style is so ‘me’.  I am thrilled!  For many, this holiday can be such an exhausting occasion involving so much drama and effort for all types and levels of creators.  Why not instead channel a bit of that creativity to do a quick and easy little selfish project that saves your sanity, as I did?  Don’t get me wrong though – I have had many a Halloween that becomes my excuse to make that full-out, over-the-top cosplay so I can understand anyone who lives for this holiday.  I am not there this year, and this pretty, purple, vintage spider web print dress is all I wanted to make the season special.       

Whether you celebrate, sew, wear a costume, or do none of these, I hope whatever you do for the day makes it a wonderful time. 

Botanical Garden Block Printed Dress

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.

THE FACTS:

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!