Tribulations of the 400th

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.

THE FACTS:

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.

Autumn Maize

The thing that many downward spiraling leaves and a dizzying corn maze have in common in the season of fall is a golden rich hue.  I’m talking about the color called “saffron” that has been popularly seen everywhere beginning in the early fall of this year…it’s also called mustard, goldenrod, and harvest gold among other things.  However, I love word puns, so I’d like to associate my dress as being more the color of the traditional grain maize, with a title that calls to mind one of the joys of autumn that a field of corn can provide!

This dress is so comfy, the skirt is so swishy, and the details are so unique I can’t help but love it, although I’ll admit it was a bit hard to like at first because it is so quaint and more blatantly dated in style than much of what I make.  This dress does have rick-rack and an obvious vintage metal zipper in the side closing, after all.  Nevertheless, I enjoy trying novel things, and that includes new styles, new colors, new sewing pattern companies, and new techniques.  This dress has all of that in one project…so hooray for a feminine and fun vintage dress in the latest color for those warm “Indian Summer” days of fall!

THE FACTS:

FABRIC:  100% rayon challis

PATTERN:  American Weekly No. 3545, circa year 1941

NOTIONS:  I had all the thread I needed, and the oversized rick-rack and vintage metal zipper I used were from my existing stash.

TIME TO COMPLETE:  Even with the tricky paneling and added rick rack, this dress was still relatively easy, made in 8 to 10 hours and finished on September 10, 2017.

THE INSIDES:  All the seams are either enclosed in bias tape or French finished, with just the armholes left raw edged. 

TOTAL COST:  This was bought at Jo Ann’s Fabric store within the last few months, for a total of about $10 to $12.

That American Weekly dress pattern has been stumping me for the last few years since I bought it.  As much as I liked the design and wanted to make a garment of it, I could not figure out how to picture myself in the dress or get past the example drawing to see my own interpretation.  On a completely different strain yet a similar situation, when I bought the golden floral rayon, I loved it and knew what era of vintage it would be perfect for – the late 30’s to early 40’s.  Yet once it was brought home, I realized I was stumped with how or what to make of it.  Both the pattern and the fabric were dually stumping me in their own ways.  Maybe this is why the two of them felt right for one another in some vague way when I was sorting through my pattern stash for ideas!  I am so glad I have found a way to conquer the rut I was in and make something I love wearing!  For me, pairing a pattern with fabric and notions is something deep down inside I can’t always pin down, a sort of creative intuition.  No matter what I want to do, sometimes I need to wait for right moment of inner approval for me to sense that I have made the perfect match.  Many times the process of a project coming together is different, such as pairing fabric off first, or being inspired by the notions or merely a picture, but it all feeds my creative intuition that keeps cranking out ideas which keep me going.

Although I see it mentioned nowhere at all on the pattern, when I was doing my preliminary fitting of the tissue pieces I realized this was a petite Junior miss pattern, not in adult proportions in other words.  I can’t help mentally pat myself on the back for finding this out ahead of time and not just whipping it up.  Never assume too much when it comes to vintage patterns!  Check them out fully and figure them out before you reach for those cutting scissors, especially with old mail order patterns…I’ve made enough to know by now you can’t exactly know what to expect.  I retraced the pieces out onto my roll of sheer medical paper so I could then cut, tape, and otherwise re-size the pattern.  I suppose this time I had an obligation to preserve this pattern by being ‘forced’ to make a copy if I wanted to sew a dress out of it!

The sizing read as a nicely “normal” bust-waist-hips combo for me, and it should have technically been a tad big.  Just to be safe, however, as well as to have bigger seam allowances than the given ½ inch, I did add some ease to the side seams.  Good thing I did this!  Even with the extra width, the pattern still ran small enough to fit perfectly…I would not want it any more snug, especially in the hips.  Apparently not only is their sizing chart off when it comes to the finished dress but there was not a designation for body height sizing either.  McCall’s and Simplicity would use the term “junior’s” on their patterns and generally would be in the small sizes like a 30” bust.  My pattern was a size 16, for a 34”-28”-37” body, so it was not a small size by vintage standards.  Although there have been other mail order patterns I have come across which had some mysterious, slightly shortened proportions, this pattern was so short…it made it look so tiny!  It needed over two inches added to bring the bust, waist, and hips down to where they needed to be.  Just how many American Weekly patterns are actually in a junior’s size and no one would know the better until the tissue pieces get fitted on someone?

Sizing complaints aside, American Weekly patterns were offered through a Sunday supplemental magazine of the same name produced by Hearst for inclusion in their newspapers – kind of like the modern day “Parade” leaflet.  At one point, it was billed as having a circulation of over 50,000,000 readers!  Apparently this magazine only offered patterns from circa 1940 through the 1950s.  As I can find proof of one of the first American Weekly patterns, dated to year 1940 with a number that slightly precedes the numbers on this post’s pattern, I am pretty certain at dating my dress as year 1941, when the patterns just started being offered (besides basing the date on the style).  My instruction sheet says that their patterns only come in 5 sizes for anyone between a 30” to 38” bust, so that is not a whole lot of variety!  The actual construction directions were some small line drawn pictures and several brief paragraphs of text – not much for those you who would need assistance.  American Weekly patterns do have some really lovely styles, nevertheless!  Nothing I’ve seen is really is jaw-dropping, but they strike me as subtly complex and harmoniously designed.

Enough facts…look at the dress’ lovely details!  It has mock tabs on the hem of the gathered-top sleeves, and a mock-jacket look to the body.  The curving to the bodice panels was amazing on the pattern and really make for an interesting, unusual, yet quite complimentary fit.  The dress elongates the bodice and puts emphasis on the hips, yet the full skirt and wide, strong shoulders (thanks to the sleeve tabs) balance it out.  The bodice dips lower in the back than in the front, but as the hips turned out snug, this feature is not as obvious as I’d liked.  The skirt is 6-gored for a very pre-WWII fullness, with each of the skirt seams perfectly lining up with the bodice darts in the back and the two bottom points to the bodice angles in the front…simply marvelous symmetry of design.

This sure gave me an opportunity to use up a pack of giant rick-rack from my stash of never-touched notions in order to make sure the lines of the panels didn’t get lost!  The points, curves, and corners of the dress sections were tricky already, made trickier by the rick-rack, but I just love the interest the exposed notches create.  I probably could have achieved sharper points had I not included the rick-rack but – oh – how it brings this dress to a whole different level I’ve never had before!

Previously, I always had this idea that rick-rack was very home-sewn distinguishable, and for feedback dresses or aprons, even though I do have a generous stash of it.  I tested rick-rack out on this 1945 top, loving the results, and the more I’ve recently looked at really creative uses of the stuff, the more I felt I need to dive in with a major project, and that this was the one.  Similar dress designs from about the same time frame use the “half-rick-rack” method on the edges (see Marion Martin #9547 and my fabric inspiration dress New York #1368 from the late 30’s/early 40’s), so it seemed like the proper thing to do for a style like this anyway!  Adding the rick-rack was really time consuming, especially as I went to the extra trouble to tack the points down to the fabric so they would lay flat nicely.  I realized after the dress was done that the rick-rack actually does much to stabilize the bodice seams of shifty rayon, thinking practically.  Going out on a limb can be so amazing when it’s this successful.

“Three inch hem” according to the instructions, my eye – the dress, unhemmed, came down to my ankles!  I ended up doing a hand-sewn hem that was actually 8 ½ inches deep (see picture above at “The Facts”)!  Initially it was because I didn’t want to cut that much off my dress, but then I realized by making the wide hem it actually helped the dress immensely.  Firstly, the wide hem weighs down the otherwise very full and floaty skirt.  It keeps me from having a “Marilyn Monroe” moment of my skirt coming up on me and gives it a very feminine swish when I walk and especially twirl!  Secondly it makes my skirt opaque, much like a self-lining, so my lingerie slip doesn’t always have to be the perfect length.  Lastly, I didn’t have to commit permanently to a certain length.  I like my clothes to have the versatility to be tailored and changed if need be so that they’ll be something I’ll be happy with and fit into for many years.

One of the good surprises to this dress is actually how versatile it is to accessorize.  In these photos, I went for the brown and snow white tones, but is also works well with black shoes and earrings, as well as dusty greys as well as maroon brown-reds or orange tones.  My two-tone, brown and cream, slingback spectator heels are actually a good example of how the 1970’s era can imitate the 1940s era so closely the difference is almost indistinguishable.  What I like about 70’s-does-40’s shoes are the chance of finding them in a much more wearable state, as well as cheaper prices!  The rest of my accessories are true older-era vintage, however.  My gloves, my earrings, and the little beetle brooch are all from my Grandmother, while the 40’s hat is my very first vintage piece of headwear I acquired from a second-hand shop so many years back now.  It’s so hard to find brimmed hats from the 40’s and earlier in decent condition, and this one is a winner that has some stunning petersham ribbon decoration to boot!  In fall weather my allergy sensitive nose needs attention too, so I couldn’t resist grabbing this lovely seasonal handkerchief from my collection to pair it with my outfit for the day!

Yellow does have the connotation (at least so I’ve heard) that it does not “work” for many people, but I think this stylish golden hue is a bit more promising than other ochre shades!  Granted, I suppose I am a bit biased…I have made a hat in this shade already!  Besides, I know that just because something is pushed as a style ‘trend’ or ‘fad’ doesn’t mean people really like it on their own terms, after all.  My hope is that I have presented an attractive way to style and accessorize this golden maize color, though.  I have taken what is on trend, and interpreted it for myself using the way the past had done it before.  What goes around comes around and fashion is persistently resurfacing in surprising ways.  In the hands of someone who sews, fashion is whatever you make it!  Are you or have you worn a similar golden tone, or have you used your sewing talents to find a way to better like a style or shade of color?