ID School Dress Design: Chapter 2

I am continuing here with Fitting, Construction and Embellishment Standards. When Susan has finished the entire thing, I will re-post it in its correct order.

You may choose to use a dressmaker who is also the embroiderer, or you may have separate people/businesses performing each task. Either way, you will need to specify what you expect. So much of this depends upon your design which I will discuss in that section.

For now, you need to understand the dressmaking flow.
1) DM measures dancer and uses those measurements to alter a pattern to fit. DM may make up a fitting bodice to test the fit. (Something to discuss and document in your standards.)
2) DM cuts out the dress.
3) The pieces are embroidered.
4) The dress is constructed with perhaps another fitting.
5) Final fitting – customer accepts dress.

The DM is responsible for preparing the dress pieces so they can be embroidered. This usually means that the dress pieces have been interfaced and marked. Embroiderer and DM will need to work together and test different interfacings in order to find the right combination that will embroider well. The DM might prefer that the pieces are not cut out exactly to size yet – sometimes the embroidery causes the fabric to pull up and “shrink” a bit – and if so, the embroiderer needs to know that. The pieces have to be clearly marked so that the embroiderer can see the center line, the cutting lines, hem and seam lines etc. These will be used for placing and sizing the design. Depending upon your pattern, the pieces need to be clearly labeled as to what they are – the front side panels may look like back side panels, left side and right side may not be obvious – or the wrong design could be embroidered. All these details (and more) need to be worked out and agreed upon. They need to be written down. When the bus hits the DM and you need to bring in someone new, the written guidelines will save you time and money.

You and the dressmaker & embroiderer need to work out placement standards. For instance your skirt will be cut with a 1/2” hem and that will be clearly marked by your DM. You must specify that the designs will start X” above the hemline at the center lines (also clearly marked by DM). That way you won’t have some skirts with the design sitting right on the hem and others with it floating 2” above it and off center. You will ensure a consistent look. Every embroidered piece needs placement stated – don’t leave it up to the embroiderer to guess and remember what she did last time.

Selecting a Dress Pattern

I started making ID dresses before there was a pattern available in the US. There wasn’t a big internet presence, so information was very hard to obtain. I had to develop my own method for making a pattern for the skirt, and I drafted the bodice patterns by hand. Chances are just about every dressmaker who has been doing this for 10 or more years had to invent their own wheels, too.

The school I initially worked with wanted to bring in several dressmakers (moms as well as storefront seamstresses) which was a good plan. Unfortunately, none of them ever worked out because there was no real pattern. I’d go and show them how I’d make the skirt pattern and draft the bodice but the results were not good. A lot of them decided not to even try. Or they reinterpreted the skirt and it didn’t have the same look. Mostly they’d start and just quit part way through.

I’d hate to see that problem occur now because there are several patterns available. I feel strongly that your school should purchase a set of patterns that will be “loaned” to your DM(s). This is essential if you will be using moms or a non-ID specific dressmaker. (Some established DMs have their own patterns and may refuse to use a third party pattern.)

The pattern can serve as the master guideline for such things as:
1) Skirt proportion: Should the side panels be half the width of the center front panel? Or two-thirds? Or equal width? (Note: You must decide upon the skirt proportion before you commission an embellishment design – your artist needs to know the size and shape of the canvas.)
2) How wide/what type of pleats do you want in the front and back of the skirt?
3) What angle is the center front panel? The side panels?
4) How much seam allowance should be left in each seam?

A good pattern with good instructions can give your school additional flexibility and options. You may be able to call upon local sewing talent in your school or town. I suggest you purchase copies of available patterns for evaluation.

Selecting a Design

You can draw your own design “in house,” select an existing “per use” design from a designer’s catalog, or commission a custom/exclusive design.

An existing “per use” or “reusable” design can be purchased and used by anyone anywhere. That means you may see solo dresses with the same (or nearly the same) design on them. Since the colors and fabrics would be different, that isn’t the end of the world. There are MANY school dresses currently being worn that have reusable designs. You would pay the designer an agreed upon fee for every dress your school has made. You may be able to negotiate a lower price by purchasing rights to some number of dresses ahead of time. Fees for a single use vary significantly from designer to designer but ballpark is $30 – $60.

The custom or exclusive design is one that you purchase for the sole use of your school. The designer may or may not retain rights, so if you think you will be using parts of the design as your school logo or as background on your website, be sure to discuss the use beforehand. Fees and conditions vary – $150 and up.

If you decide to commission a design, you will need to provide the designer with some information and guidelines:
1) Dress pattern information: What commercial pattern (if any) will you be using? What are your skirt proportions and angles? Is your bodice darted or made using princess seams? You want your design to fit nicely on your pattern pieces.

2) Which dress pieces do you want embroidered?
a. Front bodice – always
b. Center skirt panel – always
c. Side skirt panels –usually
d. Skirt back – optional. This is a significant expense and may not be noticed as “missing” if you opt for an eye-catching shawl.
e. Bodice back – very optional.
f. Sleeves – usually. Do you want the embroidery directly on the sleeves or as a removable “patch” or cuff? If it is on the sleeve, adjusting the sleeve length causes the embroidery to float towards the elbow or fall into the hem.
g. Shawl – almost always. You can decide to go with a draped shawl with no embroidery. Decide upon the size/shape for a stiffened, embroidered shawl.

3) Do you already have some sort of school logo or initials you wish to incorporate in the design? Initials or an image that is very easily identified as unique to your school gives some folks a problem when used on the front of the dress. The argument is that it could influence an adjudicator if he/she can identify which school a dancer represents. I wonder how many times a judge (or anyone else) must see a dress before knowing the association. Anonymity certainly would disappear long before the dress. Personally, I find wearing initials on the front of the dress to be rather like a billboard. However, on the shawl, I find it charming. Let your designer know how YOU feel.

4) How extensively do you want the design to fill your dress pieces? There are many variations on this, but simply put, do you want your skirt & bodice full of embroidery & appliqué from hem to neck? Or do you prefer a design that stops short of the waistline seam and only partially fills the dress? The full version is very impressive. However, when such a dress is altered, the alteration (especially at the waist seam) can become glaringly obvious. Either the design is cut off or a gap appears. The less filling designs take to alterations more kindly.

Also, to fill the dress pieces consistently, design sizing is critical. Your embroiderer must be willing and able to produce many size increments (one per 1” of skirt length). The less filling type of design is less sizing dependant and you can probably do one size per 2” of skirt length. This is a CRITICAL issue to be discussed in detail with the embroiderer. If they tell you that 3 sizes will fit all – children through adults – be sure to order full samples of these magic sizes and judge for yourself if it will work to your satisfaction. (You will pay for these samples.)

5) Shaped pleats, hems, sleeves and shawls add to the cost of a dress. Be sure to tell your designer if you want them included in the design.

6) If you already have school colors selected, tell your designer. That may influence the design. Will additional colors be allowed?

7) If you are SURE that this design will ONLY be used on a single size/age group, tell her so she can produce a design with an appropriate feel.

8) Do you want your design to consist of mostly embroidery or appliqué work? All-embroidery designs tend to look best on smaller dresses, especially if the width of the satin stitching will remain the same no matter the skirt size. Embroidery machines can increase the satin stitch size if the design has been properly digitized (to be discussed with your embroiderer/digitizer.) If the design will be “hand guided,” the stitch width depends upon the machine. Home machines usually fall in the 5 mm to 7 mm range. Industrial zigzag machines often go up to 12 mm. The point is that on a large-sized dress, the design won’t be as dense as on a small sized dress and could look rather anemic. So if you plan on having moms (or an embroiderer who doesn’t use digital equipment) embellish your dress, you might be better off with an appliqué-heavy design. Appliqués will enlarge with the design and fill in large sizes as well as they do smaller sizes.

Be sure to look at your design “life sized” – not just on 8 ½” by 11” paper. Enlarge it to fit on a small skirt and on a large skirt. Does it work well on both sizes? Look at it from a distance – are there any accidental “arrows” or “bull’s-eyes” on the crotch or fanny? Are there “boob blossoms” or “eggs” on the bust line? Will it flatter large figures as well as petite ones? Are there horizontal lines across the hips that widen them? Look at it upside down. (Ann has written about this issue in her Diary…it is in section 14.)

9) A border around the bottom of the skirt is lovely design feature. But, it will make sizing the design much more complicated and expensive. It is very difficult to do well.


In this example the red skirt is the original design. Now we need to put it on a skirt that is the same length, but for a wider dancer. The border forces us to stretch the design sideways and the circles become fat ovals. The whole thing looks squattier.

Again, the red dress is the original and now we need to put it on two taller dancers’ skirts.


We started with the blue skirt and just enlarged the design until it fit that skirt length. When we try to use it on the orange skirt, which is the same length but for a narrower waist, the design is too wide so now it has to be squeezed to fit. The circles become elongated.

Without the border, I’d only need one size for each inch or two (depending upon how “fitted” and full the design is) of skirt length. With the border, I will end up making unique sizes for just about every skirt. Or I’ll be forced to change the skirt angles for every dress to fit the design. That means some skirts will be proportionately wider than others. Either way, it gets ugly – more time, more skill, more patience is required from your dressmaker and embroiderer. Some will just not do it and you’ll end up with designs that are cut off or end short.

I always advise against an embroidered/appliquéd type skirt border on school dresses.
Collaborating with a designer on your dress will probably be the most fun part of this project. Some people find it difficult because they can’t express what they want in words. Find pictures of dresses you like and ones you hate. Don’t worry about telling the designer you don’t like what she’s drawn – you won’t hurt her feelings. She’s trying to figure out what will please you. So if you don’t like it, say so and try to figure out WHY you don’t like it. The more feedback you give, the easier the process. Believe me, nothing is more frustrating for the designer than sending out sketches/ideas and getting NO comment or “what else do you have?”

More to come.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: New ID School Dresses: Design, Digitizing, & Finding Fabric « Taoknitter

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