The creative process of dressmaking


My blogging seems to have stalled at the beginning of wedding season and into the fall dance competition season. It’s been a busy six months! Among other things I’ve created a wedding gown from a photo of a 1944 movie star and half a dozen ballroom dance costumes all to the specific requirements of my clients. I thought I’d share the creative process with you in the next few blogs.

The Wedding Dress

The dress was inspired by this photograph of one of the bride’s favourite movie stars. The neckline was raised to suit the bride and the train was eliminated to suit a summer wedding in a small chapel.


The Inspiration Photo

The scallops were sized by measuring the neckline and dividing it by the number of scallops I wanted. Each scallop is approximately 1/3 of a circle. You will notice that the hemline of the peplum has larger scallops than the neckline. In fact there are at least two different sizes on the peplum and the scallops at the sleeve hem are a different size again.  In making this gown I realised just how important my math classes turned out to be, especially geometry.

The fashion fabric is Crepe-back Satin with a stretch mesh for the full


Scallops on Bodice and Peplum completed

skirt. We used the crepe side of the fashion fabric to line the skirt. The bodice and both the peplum and its lining were underlined with good quality broadcloth.  A layer of tulle was added to the peplum to give it body and was cut to the shape of the scallops giving them a sharp, well defined edge.  I used the tulle at the neckline as well. This was a summer wedding so, we used breathable rayon to line the bodice and sleeves.  The skirt is gored so that it lays flat at the waist and over the hips, but falls in beautiful folds around the bride’s feet.

This was an interesting project and very rewarding, as the bride was thrilled with the result. She sent me this picture of her big day.


The Wedding

Working with knits – the sewing process

Sewing with knitted fabrics can be freeing although it is occasionally frustrating.  It is freeing because knits like Spandex are so forgiving and very little fitting is needed, and the seams don’t need finishing.  It can be frustrating if you don’t use the right tools and techniques when working with them.  This blog will give you an overview of how to sew with knits so that the frustration is lifted and you can be free to enjoy sewing these comfortable fabrics as much as you enjoy wearing them. (check out my previous blog for information on choosing fabric and laying out the pattern)

The tools:

Ballpoint sewing machine needles are a must, especially when sewing through elastic.

Fine, long straight pins are much easier to work with and don’t stick to the fabric.

A machine with a zigzag stitch and/ or a serger is best. A coverstitch machine is sweet but not essential.

For cutting knits I prefer a cutting wheel, but have used serrated scissors in the past (before the Olfa wheel was introduced). Regular scissors don’t work well as the knit has a tendency to slip and stretch whereas; the serrated edge holds the fabric against the cutting blade.

Pattern weights make cutting out faster.

A toothed tracing wheel works better than the smooth blade as the fabric tends to be thick.

Beyond this list, you can use pretty much what you already have in your sewing room. Make sure your thread matches your fabric type and not just the colour, i.e. use polyester thread for synthetics.

The method:  Set your stitch length at 3-4 mm.  3mm is best for most garment weights, but you’ll need longer stitches for heavy fabrics like fleece.

Adjust the tension for the weight of the fabric as you would for a woven. (Tension adjustments are unique to every machine, so follow your manual on this.)  Always stretch as you sew with a straight stitch, even when basting.  Play with this on sample pieces until you’re comfortable with how much you have to pull on the fabric to get a seam that gives, does not pucker and maintains its shape.  You should have one hand behind the needle and one in front keeping a steady tension and allowing your machine to pull the fabric through.  If the seam appears stretched, you have put too much tension on your fabric and there is too much thread in the seam to allow the knit to relax back to its original shape.  If it puckers, you haven’t got enough tension on the fabric and the seam will break when you try to stretch it.

Once the fit is right, serge the seams to give a ¼” seam allowance and a stretchy seam.  If you are using blanket fleece serging just adds more thread to the already bulky seam and you don’t really need to finish the seam allowance.

Pressing knits should be done carefully and as little as possible as the fabric can stretch out of shape if worked too hard – or melt if the iron is too hot!  Very often finger pressing is sufficient while sewing, especially on Spandex. Use a warm iron and steam and just touch the tip of the iron if possible.

Use a stretchable iron-on interfacing if it is required. You will want to maintain the soft feel of the knit even in a collar or cuff, so choose the weight of the interfacing accordingly.

Heming can be done by machine with a zigzag hem stitch or top stitch, twin needle top stitching or by using a two or three needle coverstitch.  The coverstitch is used on most ready-to-wear tops and dresses. Whichever method you choose, keep in mind that the hem needs to stretch.

I hope this short lesson helps you with your next project. As always your comments and questions are welcome.


Working with knits – getting started.

Knitted fabrics come in all weights and textures and need to be handled according to their individual characteristics. Before cutting into the fabric you should experiment a bit to see how it reacts to things like stretching the cut edge, pressing, washing and foremost how much stretch it has.  The pattern you intend to use will tell you how much stretch the fabric needs as a percentage and can be from 10-25% or more.

To determine the amount of stretch, hold 10 cm of fabric across the grain and stretch it as far as it will go. If it goes to 12.5 cm then you have 25% stretch (2.5/10= 25%). Is it 2-way stretch or 4-way stretch (across the grain and with the grain like a bathing suit)?

If you plan on washing and drying the finished garment, then wash and dry the fabric before cutting. I like to do this step with all my fabrics regardless of the weave.

Press a small area of the fabric with a cool iron and steam to see how it reacts. It might stretch out completely and lose all its shape so it is better to find this out now before you try pressing seams or pleats.

Stretch out each cut edge to see if the fabric will “run” like your pantyhose.  Usually, only one edge will run. If your fabric has this characteristic you must use the pattern layout designed for a “napped fabric” with the hems toward the end that does run as neck-lines and waist-lines get the most abuse when worn and are most likely to start to run.

Most patterns are designed with a “straight of grain” indicated on each piece, however, patterns for stretch fabrics will often indicate “stretch” instead.  For these you will need to determine where on your fabric the greatest stretch can be obtained – across the grain or with the grain.  It is important to have the grain straight on any fabric before laying out your pattern and this is true with knits as well. Put  about  one meter of the selvages together and hold them above your head so you can see how the fold falls, shift the layers until you can see it is straight and not pulling in one direction or the other.  Pin the selvages together so they stay where you want them. Knits tend to be slippery and shift when you aren’t looking.

To hold your pattern pieces in place while cutting I prefer to use pattern weights with only a few pins holding the grain line in place. For heavy knits like fleece, cut the pattern out first so that when you cut into the fabric the pattern isn’t pulled into it and torn. For fine knits I like to leave a bit of tissue around the cutting line to help stabilize the fabric while I’m cutting. My preferred cutting tool is a wheel. It allows for more accurate cutting and prevents the fabric being pulled out of shape when lifted into scissors.

Marking knits can be done with tracing carbon and a toothed tracing wheel, although for the fine georgettes you may want to do tailor’s tacks.

My next blog will go into actually sewing on the knits.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

What do you charge?

One of the hardest parts of professional dressmaking is quoting a price for a project. One looks at a pattern and figures it will be fairly simple; four seams, 2 darts and a zipper, fully lined – what could possibly go wrong? Should be able to finish it in 2 days or 10 hours, right? Not so much. First, I made a muslin to see if it fits and discovered that the design isn’t quite what I wanted and I spent a day figuring out how to re-make the pattern into the shape I want. Second, it is cut on the bias requiring a cutting surface 60” wide, so I stripped my bed and used that as the cutting table – brutal on the back, but doable. Third, the fabric choice was burnout silk which is a very delicate fabric that sifts easily and rebels at being sewn by a regular sewing machine. Enter the life saver called the Coverstitch Machine. With its differential feed it handles the vagaries of the silk beautifully. Of course it’s a new machine, so I have had to learn how it works while dealing with the burn-out silk. This is exhausting, but I still believe the new machine has not increased the time needed to get this far as it definitely makes the job easier. I have just finished day 3 on this dress. There is still another day’s work left.  If I had quoted this for a customer I would have had to double the estimate to make any money on this project. Fortunately, I am making it for myself – this time.

So when you call a dressmaker for a quote on a dress and she says “It depends…” perhaps you will recall this story and understand.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

What we wear affects how we think?

Have you heard the term “you are what you wear”? There has actually been a study done recently that has determined that this is actually true and not just your mother trying to convince you to get out of your jeans. It was reported in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Dr. Adam D. Galinsky that our thought processes are based on physical experiences, including the clothes we wear. (New York Times, April 2, 2012 by Sandra Blakeslee) I think it is fair to say that all of us have encountered the feeling that our clothes affect our moods and the way we carry ourselves and I find it interesting to find they actually affect the way we think.

Dance teachers tell us we dance better in the right outfit. They can feel it in the way we move and see it in the way we approach the dance. I hadn’t thought of it before but the children’s ballet schools always insist that the children are in the correct attire for the simplest practice. Those teachers know that their students focus on the dance when dressed as a dancer. Ballroom instructors are pleased when their lady students come to class in a practice skirt that moves with them. They say the student stands taller, moves more gracefully and achieves more in the lesson. It shows in the men when they wear dress pants instead of jeans. You can see them stand straighter and hold their frame better when they have a good shirt on instead of a t-shirt.  So, our thought processes and not just our moods are affected, hmmm.

An interview always goes better when you’re wearing your “power suit” that fits well and suits your figure.  You feel more prepared to answer the tough questions and show how capable you are.  That special event you were dreading becomes somewhat entertaining when you find just the right outfit to wear. Conversely, the event can be worse than anticipated when you wear an outfit that makes you uncomfortable. I become withdrawn and discover I have trouble with conversation when I’m dressed inappropriately for the occasion.  It appears that Mother was right when she told us to put out our clothes for morning before we went to bed.  If we plan what we wear, we can even plan how we think!

As always, your comments and questions are welcomed.

Design for Your Body – Bottom Dominant

The woman whose hips are larger than her bust has many ways of describing her body type – the triangle, pear-shaped, hippy, and many other less flattering – but my favourite is Bottom Dominant. I’m not sure who first coined the phrase, but the first I heard it was from Nancy Nix-Rice in a seminar at the ASDP Conference The biggest struggle for bottom dominant women is to get an outfit that fits both her hips and her shoulders and flatters her. Fitted dresses and suits are truly difficult to purchase and this figure type can really benefit from some custom made pieces in her wardrobe. For some patterns designed by a local Vancouver designer with your figure in mind check out .
In this blog we are going to explore some style options that will flatter the bottom dominant figure.
The idea is to draw attention to your face and shoulders and away from the hips, so patterns or horizontal stripes should be placed above the waist. Jackets and sweaters that end right at the widest part of your body should be avoided as much as possible. If your favourite sweater ends at your hips try pushing up the sleeves to just below the elbow to break the visual line. A suit jacket with a shaped lapel that ends less than 6 inches below your waist will look better than a longer one with no collar. Blazers and blouses should be of a lighter or brighter colour than the pants or skirt. Straight or tapered skirts are particularly flattering, whereas a flare will emphasize the triangle. Try straight leg slim pants, you’ll be pleased with the way they look. Your pants and skirts should start at or just below the waist. Hip-huggers are not a good choice.
You should avoid halter style tops as they simply emphasize the triangle and are better suited to women with broader upper bodies. Try a wide v-neck with cap sleeve for summer or evening wear. A boat neck or wide draped cowl are also good choices. Shirt-dresses are being shown this year and this style can work well for you if you choose a wide lapel and narrow belt over a full skirt – very ‘50s and fun to wear.
Remember to always draw the eye up!
As always, your comments and questions are welcomed.

The Lost Art of Ironing

As man-made fabrics improved and our lives got busier many of us simply don’t find the need to iron anymore. This was wonderful progress, and we all thought polyester would rule and we could pack away those irons for good. The tips our mothers and grandmothers passed down have been lost. Then, along comes the “Natural” movement. All the natural fibres, like cotton, rayon, linen and silk became popular again and we have to learn how to care for them all over again.
This blog is for the mom whose young son points to an iron in the Canadian Tire store and says “Mommy, what’s that for?” It’s also for the single dad trying to figure out how to press the shawl that came with his daughter’s grad dress, and for the young people who suddenly have to look presentable with a crease in their trousers for an interview. I will also include a few tips for the sewers on how to handle specialty fabrics.
Tip number one is to use more steam and less heat for almost any situation. A good steam iron will save more time and fabrics than you would expect. Don’t use tap water on a regular basis or it will build up a residue that might spit out on your clothes (yes, it’s happened to me and made an ugly brown stain that almost didn’t come out!). A bottle of distilled water is handy to have on hand and runs about $2 for 4 litres.
Start with your iron set lower that you think you’re going to need. You can always turn it up, but the burn mark in the middle of your shirt can’t be repaired.
Turn your shirt or dress inside out. This will make it easier to flatten the seams and darts properly AND it prevents a shine forming on the right side of the garment. Press only one layer at a time wherever possible. Press the sleeves last by laying one flat with the seam toward you. Press away from the seam to the opposite side to create a crease from the cuff to the shoulder seam. Do not put a crease in the cuff.
For dress pants, first pick them up by the hems and bring the seams together in the centre. Lay them down on the ironing board and keep the seams matched all the way up the leg to the waist. This will give you a crease that should fall in the centre of your leg. If you are just touching up the crease you will see that the crease is where your pants have folded when you laid them out. I recommend using a press cloth to prevent a shine. Failing that, use steam.
On delicate fabrics like silk and rayon I like to use a Teflon cover on the iron and lots of steam. If you don’t have the cover, keep the heat low. Man-made fibres also require a low heat. This is especially true if you absolutely must press that dance or skating costume.
Natural fibres except wool do well when dampened before ironing. Do you remember seeing your grandmother with a coke bottle full of water and a sprinkler cork in the top? Now we’d use a spray bottle. This method is pretty much the only way to get wrinkles out of linen and heavy cotton.
Wool is another story altogether. ALWAYS use a damp press cloth with wool. A press cloth is typically a fine linen cloth – an old dish towel works well.
And if ironing still sounds like too much work, you can always throw the shirt in the dryer for 10 minutes on low with a damp sheet of fabric softener.
As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

Design for Your Body – different shapes require different looks

Most garments are designed for a size 8 “balanced” figure that is the same measurement around the bust as it is around the hips and a waistline about 10 inches (25 cm) smaller. How many women do you know that actually fit that description? I can think of a couple of 20 year olds I used to know, but that’s about it. No wonder alterations shops are so busy trying to reshape readymade clothes to fit. It is why I started to sew when I was a teenager, but that is a story for another time. Today I want to talk about choosing clothes that actually suit your body, whatever shape that may be.
The “normal” woman’s figure can usually be defined by four basic shapes; hourglass, rectangle, triangle and inverted triangle. Each of these body types needs different style to look its best. The hourglass figure can look good in just about any dress as the body’s curves will fill out the lack of shape in a dress. However even these lucky women can have difficulty with pants and long jackets. I suggest that pants with a waistband or cut high in the crotch length will look best. Accentuate that waistline and don’t let fashion delude you into thinking low rise jeans are flattering. Hip length jackets will hide your shape unless tailored to nip in at the waist. If you are lucky enough to have an hourglass figure, whether size 8 or 18 you should accentuate it and feel good about doing so. We are all striving for that Marilyn Munroe shape that you have.
Rectangular bodies are thick through the waist so that there is little definition between bust, waist and hips. These women find that anything with a waistband will bag around the hips and conversely if the hips or bust fit well, the waist is too tight. They are usually better choosing a lower rise pant, one that sits on the top of the hip bone, just below the waist. When wearing dresses they should look for shapes and colours that give the illusion of a smaller waistline. Dark belts, seams that shape a figure like the princess line are good choices. The retro fashions of the ‘50’s that are popular now really flatter this body type. The defined shoulders and full skirts give one an hourglass figure where none existed before.
Triangle figures, whether bottom dominant or top dominant have challenges of their own and I will go into more detail with suggestions for them in another blog. In the meantime if you’re really tired of having your clothes altered to fit, why not try having them custom made to fit and flatter your figure? It can be a truly uplifting experience.
Your comments and questions are welcome.

Colour Trends – Spring is bright

It is such a relief after a long dull winter of grey, black and purple to see bright turquoise and sherbet orange in the stores again. The colours this spring are BRIGHT!  Brilliant jewel tones are being shown in colour blocks of turquoise and chartreuse, emerald green with rich oranges in a variety of soft flowing fabrics.  For those women who have dark hair and strong colouring this is your year! The colours being shown this spring are going to look fabulous on those of Asian or African descent as well as Snow White look-alikes.  What about those of us with softer skin tones and pale hair? Can we wear the bright tones? Certainly, you just have to choose wisely. Make sure the colour compliments your skin tone and you feel good in it. Hold it up to your face and if the colour of your eyes “pop” then you’ve chosen well.

If you are a little shy about wearing the truly bright colours try mixing them with your favourite neutral. The magazines might be showing that hot pink jacket with a sunshine yellow dress, but you might be more comfortable wearing it with a soft white or cream. Or, if the blocks of colours don’t appeal to you, try the fabulous patterns that are being shown. Bright butterflies on white or black, brilliant flower patterns and some truly retro patterns reminiscent of the ‘60s are being shown. So, go ahead, buy something a little daring and have some fun this spring. Mix up the patterns but match the colour tones. Some patterned fabrics have the same print on a variety of background colours giving you options for spicing up a simple top with a contrasting collar or even make a skirt or pants in the contrast. Check out some of the fabrics at

Whatever you choose this spring make sure it makes you smile when you wear it.  When you smile you look fabulous.



Dance wear – special choices

There are many forms of dance and the costumes for each one have specific requirements. We are all familiar with the ballet tutu and most of us recognise the flamenco dancer’s many layered skirts, but what about ballroom? Dancing with the Stars has given us a glimpse of the fabulous gowns and sexy little cha-cha costumes. How does the amateur dancer choose the right costume?

Let’s start with the basics – the style of the dance. Smooth dances such as waltz and fox trot require gowns that fit snugly to the upper body and allow the arms to be raised to shoulder height without disturbing the line of the dress. The skirts are full and heavy so they swing out with the turns and drop back in place as soon as the movement changes. Embellishments can enhance the dancer and the dress. Feather boas at the hem were popular in the ‘90s, crystals on the bodice, and floating scarf-like pieces continue to be popular.

Latin dances on the other hand; cha-cha, rumba, salsa, etc. call for short and sassy costumes.  You want to emphasize the hip movement and have the costume move with every beat of the music. It must fit snugly from shoulder to hip and can expose as much skin as the dancer is comfortable with. The pros often wear a costume that looks like a bikini with ruffles, but most amateurs feel too exposed in that style and want a bit more coverage. Fringe and crystals are popular embellishments.

Tango is in a class of its own requiring slinky dresses that expose the leg but looks like a smooth/standard gown.  The skirts are not as full as those for smooth dances; in fact a straight skirt is often preferred with split up the hip to show off the leg movement. Irregular hems and minimal embellishments define these gowns.

Watch this site for more information on how to choose a costume that suits your body and style. You can see some samples on my Facebook site.

Your comments and questions are always welcome.