Part 1: Diary of a Daft Dressmaker

And I do really mean “daft.” An anonymous poster gave me a nice correction…I must mean”deft.” I truly appreciate that, but I mean “daft.” And any of you who continue to do this and actually enjoy it like I do…you understand my meaning.

This started as something relatively short…and got longer…and longer. So I broke it up…and revised as I went along. It is in 3 parts now.

(The following retrospective is in no way meant to impugn any dressmaker’s honor. This list is dedicated to keeping me honest.)

Many, many, MANY things I have learned about sewing professional looking Irish Dancing Dresses…and I thought I knew much about sewing when I began. HAH! In the past 16 months, I have made 33 dresses and altered more than I can count starting 2 years before that. My learning curve has been great, even curling back upon itself occasionally. There has been confusion, exhaustion, exasperation, frustration, pain, blood, tears, profuse swearing and even the occasional thrown object. And then there was extreme satisfaction when I was rewarded with smiles, exclamations of joy, my middle child’s approval, squeals of delight, many hugs, and paychecks.

So before I begin this new year and the new list of dresses, I want to remind myself what I have learned.

1) Sergers were made by sewing angels. Although I could appreciate the value of a finished seam before, I always spent the time trimming & zigzagging or turning up an edge and top-stitching. No more. The speed, the fabric trimming, the beautiful dense stitching on the fabric edge! Ah, heaven!

2) Good thread is a must. Period.

3) Stabilize, stabilize, stabilize! I like anything I can fuse – fusible woven cotton, French fuse, Decor-Bond…wonder-under when all else fails (NOT the heavy duty). Makes everything behave.

4) Other must haves: a good sewing machine; good scissors (and isolate the ones for sequins and paper); good iron; good press; a huge supply of sewing machine needles (I mainly use very sharp or denim needles, even for embroidery with metallic thread) and change them often; LONG pins & several magnetic “cushions” for said pins; round and rectangular hole punches; many sizes & types of rulers; markers of all kinds; pencils and chalk (in all forms); an awl; pre-wound bobbin thread in black & white; huge supply of Fray-chek and Fabri-tac; long hand needles and upholstery thread; huge supply of 24” zippers; canned air; and bandages, music, and someday, a fully stocked bar with a really cute bartender at my beck and call (oh, wait…that’s my husband…)!

As for making the Irish Dance dresses themselves:

1) First and foremost, use a good pattern! I use the Feisdress pattern. Have tried others, including one I created with my pattern making software. None as good as the Feisdress pattern. I choose the appropriate size using a unique measurement – the upper chest width, from front armscye to armscye. And, since the same upper chest measurement in a child goes along with other measurements that are usually different than those for a young woman (bust, waist, center front & back length, shoulder width, etc), there are two sets of patterns: Girls & Juniors. Yes, all dancer’s bodies are different, but alterations to the pattern are simple.

Using the Feisdress pattern and working with Susan has been an amazing education. I have learned not only more about sewing in general but so much more about how one makes things that truly fit the human body. Irish dance dresses are truly odd things, but they still have to fit humans. One invaluable site is in terms of clothes and the human form (among many other things) is Kathleen Fasanella’s Fashion Incubator . This website, in general, is an unbelievable fount of information. Kathleen Fasanella is brilliant. An example of this and a discussion that illustrates why Susan’s pattern uses very little, if any, ease (most particularly in the princess seam) is this link. Even though I use pins, I use less because the Feisdress pattern pieces are designed to eliminate unnecessary ease so they match well to be sewn easily. This link takes you to another very interesting discussion along the same lines.

I have also altered the Feisdress pattern easily for other styles of Irish dance dresses. I have made two-piece dresses and panel dresses. My next challenge is a wrap dress…Susan has already prepared instructions for altering her pattern for this so I do not have to do it myself! You can email her for it… go here for her email.

2)Take precise measurements and do fittings. This seemed like a big, “DUH!” but I have continued to learn so much. I have learned to take a few extra measurements that help me get a very precise fit, but fittings are invaluable to ensure this. I am leery of doing custom dresses for dancers that I cannot get my hands on. There is always something that I need to tweak when I put a fitting bodice on her. I even do a fitting of the basically-finished bodice right before I sew on the skirt…sometimes they’ve grown or lost weight. I once had a young dancer change so much in 2 weeks (part of a large order for a school), that I had to do a new bodice. Solidified my stand on bodice fittings.

3) Always leave big seam allowances for easy alterations. When I began altering dresses, that was my biggest frustration…no allowance for squat! Or even worse, one side of the dress had extra in the seam but the other side was either terribly frayed or had none! I used a different pattern for my very first solo dress and drew in extra seam allowances on the pattern. The Feisdress pattern has this extra included: side bodice seams are 1″ each, the sleeves have the corresponding 1″ in the long seam and 2″ at the cuff, the zipper seam is 1.25″, and there is 2″ at the bottom of the bodice and at the top of the skirt. Perfect.

4) Actual cost vs. virtual I got sucked into the world of making ID dresses because my daughters dance… I thought making my oldest daughter’s dress would save me money. NOT! I probably did not save much on the first because of my mistakes and the number of times I started over. And I KNOW I spent way too much on her second dress. But that’s me because I found new puzzles to explore and solve, and I love doing it for my kids. There are things that I have learned that I pass on to whoever asks. But, what is important here is the actual cost vs. the virtual.

What does that mean? Well, let me try to put my thoughts down here. I can’t afford to buy a $2000 dress, but I want to make one that looks like it might cost $2000. So, the possibility obviously enters my mind that I can make my dd’s dress. I can sew…I started sewing clothes for myself when I was 10 (pants, jeans, skirts, dresses, jackets, formals…remember scooter skirts?), and have made dance costumes of all kinds, cheer leading outfits, wedding dresses, wedding veils, many a Hallowe’en costume…I can do this. I drag my daughter to the fabric store and we just start looking for colors we like. So I spend $400 on fabric and supplies initially (probably about average for just about anybody). I am not comfortable trying to design the dress, so I find a designer (the first designer I contacted was Alison Young. Lovely young woman and she designed exactly what I asked for…a purely embroidered design). I know now that she truly did not charge me enough for her lovely design. And this is important – if an actual $2000 dress were being purchased, the design would be about 1/20 of the true cost. Invest in a GOOD design. In my opinion (and everyone has one like………….never mind), design and colors are what make the impression, not the shaped pleats and hem, not the stiff or soft shawl, not the sequins or feathers or fur or crystals or the name attached to the dress! It is the design and color and the rest is gravy. A well-designed dress has an impact on the psychology of the viewer, yes?So many posts on the boards debate what is important…isn’t the dancing most important? Yes, a good-looking dancer (in all aspects of presentation) will draw your eye, but if she can’t dance, what difference does it make? Recently, the champ in my daughter’s first prelim competition was wearing her school dress. Fantastic! Perhaps at the very top, the look might tip the scale, but I am not interested in that debate right now. I believe (after seeing it with my own eyes) that too much sparkle keeps the design from being seen. If catching and keeping the judges eye is important, then I think that the (very human) judge is going to focus on the one in which the interesting design and pleasing color are clearly visible, not the one where the dress is only a beautiful flash of light.

Diary: Part 2

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