Inside the mind of Susan Gowin

Susan was asked about her pattern in a Yahoo pattern group, and she wrote this in response.  I thought it was high time the rest of us were privy to some of her thoughts about her own pattern.

The culture around Irish dancing is weirdly secretive from the steps through the dressmaking.  So there are no good books, or much of anything else, about ID dresses.  This is about the extent of it: . Nothing on construction. 

When I got involved making the dresses (early 1990s), I couldn’t find a pattern, couldn’t find a source for embellishment designs, and couldn’t find anyone who could or would tell me how they made the skirts stiff.  So I had to invent a wheel.  I bought a few books on pattern drafting and taught myself.   

There are competition “solo” dresses which are supposed to be unique and fancy.  Right now, dresses purchased from “big name” Irish dressmakers run about $3000 with the currency exchange.  The “big names” are Gavin Doherty –usually called “Gavins”  (; Elevation Designs, “EDs,” ( and Siopa Rince, “SRs,” (no website worth looking at).  Quality ranges considerably even between dresses from the same design house – from good to outright shabby.  Dresses are often ordered blind – the customer has no input on color, fabric or design.  Fitting measurements are crude and may or may not be taken by someone who knows what they’re doing, and even if they do, the measurer may not measure the way the dressmaker expects.  The general policy is “no returns”.   

This may give you an idea of why there is a market for ID dress patterns.  

I plodded along for years, drafting a pattern for each customer.  This worked fine for me with solo dresses, but school/team dresses was another matter.  (Every ID school has their own particular dress that is worn for group dances, parades, group performances etc.  Usually when a new school opens, they consider the other schools’ dresses in the region and pick color combinations and designs that are dissimilar to existing dresses.)  I embroidered dresses for a few local schools and other dressmakers put them together.  But there was no pattern, so we’d have to find someone who could work that way.  It isn’t easy.  And since the design is sized to fit on a given shaped piece, we couldn’t have dressmakers changing the skirt proportions and so on.  It was a challenge.   

About 4, maybe 5, years ago, I started selling embellishment designs to other dressmakers.  We created a CD catalog that showed drawings of each design. When a design was purchased, we’d email the customer jpgs of the design for each pattern piece: bodice, sleeve, skirt front, skirt sides, skirt back and shawl.  The second year, I added instructions for how to draft a bodice to the catalog.  I got requests for custom patterns and from there I FINALLY got around to creating a standard set of patterns.  (And yes, by this time there were other patterns available, but they all had construction and style problems.)  About this time I continued on my twelve year quest of figuring out armholes.  The ultimate “requirement” (nobody meets it, this is a heavenly goal) is that the dancer be able to raise her arms over her head without the waist or hem of the skirt moving too.  I wanted to be able to find a pattern design that didn’t involve overly large sleeves, gussets, unsewn armpit seams, stretchy inserts or any other bottom of the barrel fixes.  I eventual flew to El Paso and worked with Kathleen Fasanella for a few days.   

The “traditional” ID dress at the time (two years ago), consisted of a tightly fitted bodice, straight or belled long sleeves, and full “circle skirt” (that wasn’t really a circle skirt any more, but used to be 40 years ago) that had stiffened pleats in front.   

After that background, I guess it is time to actually try to answer your question about the pattern. 

I made this assumption about my customer base:  I figured I would be selling to a mom who wanted to make her daughter a solo dress, and/or maybe make a few team dresses for their school.  I didn’t know how much sewing expertise these moms had, but I knew from my own experience that most commercial sewing patterns are just this side of pitiful with lots of errors in the patterns and the instructions.  So I decided I’d make this my personal statement of what I considered a good pattern. 

I did not use any pattern drafting software to create the pattern.  The bodice sizing was generally based upon a commercially available set of slopers.  I used them just so I didn’t have to grade the patterns – each size was individually drafted.  I did draft the patterns on my computer using vector graphics software.  The skirts are purely mathematical, so I wrote visual basic routines to take measurements entered into spreadsheets I set up.  The calculations were done by the formulas I composed and the resulting information was passed directly to the vector graphics program and the individual sections of each skirt were automatically drawn for me.  I’d then collect the sections, add seam allowances, labels etc and create the actual pattern pieces which were composed of one or more of the generated sections.   

The bodices were created by manipulating the patterns on my computer just the way I would have using a pencil and paper on a table.  I’ve developed my own style of drafting using a compass, so in some ways this was actually easier.  And since I could instantly see the length of my seam lines (down to the .0000x of and inch), it is very accurate.  Yes, this did take a LOT of practice to get used to it, but now, when I alter a pattern to fit a customer, I just do it on the computer and print it off.  I’m much quicker at it than with pencil and paper.   

Every pattern piece is a full piece.  There are no “place on fold” pieces. 

The bodice is provided in both a darted and princess seamed version.  The princess seam has NO ease.  I can sew it together without pinning – which was a goal for all the seams in the pattern. 

There is NO ease in the sleeve cap which makes for a nice smooth, easy to sew sleeve.  (Yeah, I use a couple of pins, just to be safe.) 

The armhole is high, tight and shifted frontward. The sleeve cap is rather flat.  This allows the dancers to move their arms even thought the bodice is very fitted. 

Every seam allowance is marked.  I use multiple seam allowance widths throughout the pattern.  Since these dresses are sold and resold and altered, I wanted to leave roomy seam allowances where I could.  If I had a choice between sewing ease and jumbo seam allowances, I went with sewing ease.  So the shoulders and princess seams have ⅜” seams.  The sleeve and bodice side seams have 1” seams.  The neck has a ¼” seam.  The back zipper has 1¼” on each side.  I leave 2” at the bottom of the bodice and at the top of the skirt so that the skirt can be dropped if necessary.  The armscye has a ⅝” seam allowance. 

The neckline facing is one piece to reduce bulk (no shoulder seam). 

The skirt hem is marked in ½” increments from 11” through 19”. 

I do not give body measurements – all measurements provided are actual pattern measurements.  This removes ease from the issue, which, in case you haven’t guessed, is one of my pet peeves with commercial patterns.  Since the maker knows the measurements, why not provide them?  Why make the sewer measure the pattern and figure out what needs to be changed?    

The purchaser is strongly encouraged to purchase the pattern by upper chest measurement.  I don’t give my sizes numbers in order to force the dressmaker to actually look at the measurements to pick a size.  

The instruction “manual” runs 24 pages and there are photos for about every step.   

Finally, here’s how we print and send the patterns.  My pal, Gina, in Florida, is in charge of orders and distribution. (I’m in No. VA).  She doesn’t have the storage area for mass quantities of patterns, nor do we sell thousands of them.  So we print as needed in a local copy shop.  We provide the graphics files and they print them on the 36” wide black and white printer.  Yes, it is expensive, but this allows us to correct errors and only print what we need.  The patterns sold in USA are rolled into tubes and mailed out 2-day priority mail.   

Susan – FeisDress  

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Gina
    Dec 01, 2007 @ 06:18:23

    See…. everyone else is sitting with that “uhhh, tab b into slot k taped at 43.5% angle secured with a 3mm by 2mm strip of Magic Tape * you must use exactly this size or it will ruin the whole project*” look on their face.

    Susan, We love you … but a sneak peak into your mind is a scarey thing

    anyone else seen the movie a Beautiful Mind?

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