Sometimes the easy patterns really throw me for a loop and make a sewing project surprisingly, mystifyingly challenging. It’s when I least expect it, of course, and it never makes sense why. The added pressure of reaching a milestone number for such a project probably didn’t help, too. This post’s vintage dress was unexpectedly a tough one to reach nicely wearable status as my 400th project since 2012. I had our last vacation of the summer as my motive and encouragement to power through and finish it, at least. I do love a new me-made item whenever we take a trip and this bold little tropical hottie is here to show off her grand day out for fun in the sun.
Back in the late summer of that year of 2012, I started sewing again in earnest after a few years’ break and started keeping a log of all the projects I was making both for myself and others. Mind you this by no means counts the paid-for commissions that I do on the side (which you don’t see) and the countless projects I have been creating before 2012 since my first lessons at seven years of age. Most of the logged projects do appear on my blog eventually. Even still, 400 is the last big milestone before I hit the grand number of 500 in the future! Meanwhile, I have a lovely success story to share here and some wearable proof to my dedication to sewing all these years.
FABRIC: a Hawaiian printed rayon challis
PATTERN: McCall #5918, year 1944
NOTIONS: all I needed was thread, a zipper, and a set of shoulder pads
TIME TO COMPLETE: It was finished on August 22, 2019 after about 30 plus hours of effort put into the dress.
THE INSIDES: A mix of French and overlocked (serged) seam finishing
TOTAL COST: This fabric has been in my stash for so long I’m counting it as free, but I know it came from what used to be Hancock Fabrics many years back. I always got the best deals from them so it probably cost me less than $15 for sure.
The dress pattern has an interesting story to it which I’ll explain first. Back when I posted about making my mid-1930s lingerie set (post here) I found a random sleeve piece from a completely unrelated pattern with a date about a decade later in the mid-40’s. It is a very clever self-faced cap sleeve I imitated when refashioning my nightgown (see it here). Finally sighting the counterpart cover image had me speechless at its amazing details. I posted about that mystery homeless sleeve tissue piece (here) and the kind seamstress Eszter at “Em Originals” let me know she had an original of the pattern that matched it. We exchanged pattern copies as a trade and now I have the whole dress! Oh, the wonders of the global reach that the internet makes possible…
It was tough to feel out what fabric to match with the pattern, though. I wanted something that screams daring and exotic and warm temps. However, I also realized the lack of complicated seams would be perfect for a bigger print. Letting go of this hibiscus blue-toned Hawaiian inspired rayon from my long time stash was quite hard to do, however. It is such a saturated coloring in a print you don’t find but in vintage fabric. Yet, I felt it was a perfect pairing. Yes, the rayon provides great draping for the bias grain action and the neither the dress nor the design overwhelm each other, just as I had hoped. Great fabric is meant for more than just ogling and petting while stuffed in a stash. I think it deserves to be made into something to enjoy being both worn and appreciated no matter the risk!
The center front bodice completely carries this whole dress with it. It is such a smart feature because it is not just for aesthetics but actually a really smart way to shape the bodice without a single dart necessary. It made for a very interesting pattern piece that was good for my technical brain to see and understand. The bottom of the V neckline ends at a casing that opens up the middle of the bodice. There are ties that run through the casing and, when tied together, forms a little open spot that is so racy for the 40’s but low-key enough I don’t feel exposed. The bust gets shaped from the center out this way in the best way possible, especially since the center casing is cut across the bias grain. At the pattern stage, the front has the casing veer off away from the bodice so it ends up on different grain than the main body. A double-fold, self-facing to finish the edges is included, too. This one little detail more than makes up for the simplicity of the rest of the dress and was not as hard to make as it might sound. I have seen this same kind of detail used on sleeves before (see here) so now that I understand how it works you might just see me try this on other garments in the future!
I had to dramatically grade up to make the pattern wearable for me, adding just over four inches. While I was at it, I slightly tweaked the pattern. To avoid breaking up the print even further and simplify the design even more, I joined the bodice and the skirt sections for a waist free back half. The front has a skirt with the center seam cut on the straight grain to save room on pattern layout. The darts to the back half met at the waistline anyway so I just turned them into one-piece “cat-eye” (also called “fish-eye”) darts on either side of the long, vertical center seam. Changing the grainline in the skirt pieces works in favor of the dress I believe because there is now a bias which wraps around my hips for a wonderful shape and subtle flare at the hem. I lengthened the dress as well to a ‘not very proper for war-time’ longer midi length because I personally liked how it adds to the silhouette. A mid-length dress is more versatile and makes the most of the slinky rayon!
The main difficulty and frustrations with this dress primarily had to do with a new self-realization stemming from finding out that I had made a dress which was impossibly too small for me in certain areas…and I had absolutely no extra fabric to fill in for my oversight. Cutting out this dress on just under two yards of fabric – even if it was 60” width – was extreme pattern Tetris. A few inch wide scraps were all I had left. I love being so efficient at using fabric but that means I have to be perfect with my cutting.
I do believe a third of my fitting problems with this dress might have been from tweaking the pattern the way I did. The other third is probably from a dress designed with a very slim skirt – surmised afterwards both from the rather straight lines on the pattern and looking at the cover illustration (those two ladies have absolutely no hips whatsoever). The last third of this dress’ issues originated from the frequent ill health I have been experiencing this year. I only realized by making this 400th project that some of my body’s sizing has changed. My proportions are slightly different now than what I have been for a good number of years. My body had changed but the sizing I was drafting onto my patterns had not yet caught up because I didn’t know any better. This kind of thing is never a pleasant pill to swallow and has been very demoralizing. This 400th make was tough in more way than one.
Somewhere in the back of my consciousness, I had wondering why some of my garments had been fitting me differently just lately. I’m sure it is the kind of thing only someone like me would ever notice, because I am merely talking about a few inches more in difference, particularly over my hips. Even still, I hate having to spend my extra time tailoring my garments to accommodate illness aftereffects I don’t want but have no control over at the moment. Yet, at the same time, I am extremely thankful that I can even do such a thing to ‘save’ my clothes in the first place. Ready-made and store bought items with their overlocked insides do not provide the leeway for extra room that ¾” or 5/8” uncut seam allowances can give. This is why I prefer time-honored finishing techniques over using a serger. Taking out both side seams as well as the center back seam all the way out to ¼” from the waist line down gave me just what I needed for the perfect fit to happily have a wearable dress.
A large part of the success to sewing, I do believe, is all wrapped up in the tricky knowledge of how to fit and adapt clothing. Granted, getting to that point of a perfect fit was literal hell for me – I hate unpicking, especially when I originally made lovely French finishing inside, like I did for this tropical dress. This is why the bottom half of the seams to my dress are unfortunately overlocked along their edges…I know, I just preached against it, but I was tired, down in spirits, and desperate. A French finish on tiny seams is not something I wanted to take time for on what was supposed to be an easy-to-make project. I was running out of time to finish the dress before the trip, too. Nevertheless, as disappointed as I am with how this dress came together and failing in my ‘normal’ standards of quality, this dress is a joy to wear.
The colors make me happy, and can pair with so many combinations. I chose aqua and turquoise accessories for these pictures, but light blue items really soften the tone and navy blends in. Black heels and a fancy necklace with simple earrings brings this dress up to evening wear standards. Better yet, the comfort on this is first rate. It feels like I never took off my nightgown. I realize, now that I have been sick for an extended time, I find myself tending more towards easy-wear vintage pieces. Sure, I still love my tailored pieces with cinched waists and perfect darts that require me to wear my old-style lingerie to keep a perfect form and stature. Yet, something as ‘throw-on-and-go’ as this dress is priceless. Great details are not neglected, though, thanks to the never failing wonder of fantastic vintage designs. It’s no wonder I make my own clothes, because I have no idea where to find anything comparable in ready-to-wear, even if such a thing is out there.