Feisdress FSP: Stiffener, boning & wrapping the seam

Cindy in ON wrote:

My first question is about the boning in the FSP. The instructions
say “the boning runs across the bottom of the skirt like it does on
the FSP and into the back side of the knife pleat.” I get about
running it into the knife pleat, but I’m thinking that boning going
two far into the FSP is going to cause a problem with my skirt
sticking way out or not bending unless I stop it somewhere. I also
wasn’t sure if I was going to use stiffener in the side panels. So
my questions are:

– if I put boning horizontally in the FSP, what guideline should I
use for where to stop it?

– Has anybody used a vertical piece of boning in the back edge of the
knife pleat and avoided having the horizontal boning in the side
panels and if so, how did that work?

– with the traditional skirt pattern, is stiffener recommended for
the front side panel, and if so, at what weight? The stiffener I
have seems quite stiff (almost as thick as felt and creases where
folded). Should I look for a softer stiffener for the side panels or
is this what I should be using?

The second part of my questions revolves around cutting the lining
for the FSP. The pattern shows an extra inch and a half or so to be
cut for the lining that folds around something. I just can’t picture
this or what it folds around and how it’s going to work.

– Can somebody explain this so I have an idea what I’m doing with
that extra bit when I prepare my lining?

Thanks all! I appreciate the help because the only dress I have
available to look at for construction questions is my DD school
dress, and it doesn’t feel that there is stiffener in the side
panels, or any boning, and clearly there are somethings that are done
differently than I will be doing for a solo dress.

I am assuming here that we are talking about a 3 panel dress, so my answers are in that vein.

Yes, you are correct that most solo 3 panel dresses are different than a lot of school dresses when it comes to stiffener in the FSP.  Solos dresses are usually much stiffer so that the side panels extend further out to the sides.  And, it is usually preferable that the FSP does not bend but instead is as flat in relation to the CFP as possible which is why the same stiffener is used in all 3 panels in the front skirt and why the boning extends from the knife pleat out to the edge of the FSP. 

Now, this is not a hard and fast rule.  Depending on the dancer’s ideas of stiffness and width, I did not always use the boning.  I found also that the thinner a dancer was (flatter torso) made it easier to achieve the flat front look so boning was not necessary.  The rounder girls did require boning to keep the panels flat because the waist line curved around their bodies more.  (You can read read Susan’s explanation of this here: Skirt Question.)

Be aware that if you do not use the same stiffener in the FSP, the side panels will collapse down and in.

A vertical piece of boning behind the knife pleat will not really accomplish anything except add weight.

Now for the seam wrap:  here are a couple of pics of the wrap.

seam wrap by you.

seam wrap by you.

basting & seam wrap by you.

(You can slso see my basting in the above pic.)

Let’s see if I can explain what I do.

First, I cut the seam wrap longer than the skirt hem.  The cut piece looks like this:

wrap info by you.

This allows me to wrap the bottom of the seam also.  Once the seam is sewn, I iron the vertical edge of the wrap to create a straight fold, fold the bottom of the fabric up over the bottom of the seam, fold the vertical edge, and then sew.  All seams are now hidden.

New ID School Dresses: Design, Digitizing, & Finding Fabric

Susan and I have been working with an existing ID school to create new dresses.  I have really been enjoying those process.  Good folks.

We sent them first to read these two posts: ID School Dress Design  Chapter 1 & Chapter 2.  I don’t think I have ever finished organizing the info, but the process is there.

So far, the focus has been on getting a new design.  Lots of talking, critiquing, tweaking, and then the design is ready for me to digitize it.

I am not going to use the actual design here (don’t want to steal the school’s thunder for the unveiling day), but I can still talk about my approach using Dana’s design from her tunic dress.  Dana’s design was digitized with the same stitch ideas in mind that we are using for this school.

Here is Dana’s finished bodice.  We used a satin-look step stitch for the black and then a narrow satin-stitch for the silver.

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In a nutshell, I get the design from Susan in either a jpg format or as vector graphics.  We have experimented with the vector graphics format to see if the auto-digitizing function would work to make things go faster, but I have NEVER been happy with that function.  The logic of it on complicated designs like this one is NOT logical, and I spend so much time cleaning it up that I might as well have done it by hand in the first place.  Vector graphics can be a cleaner pic to follow, but these days I have gotten good enough at this that clear lines are no longer mandatory in the pics.

Susan has always sized the designs correctly, but sometimes in the translation from her computer, thru email to mine and then opening them in my software the dimensions have changed.  I re-check dimensions and re-size the graphics accordingly.

In the past, I have whined until Susan has put in tremendous time to show all of the overs and unders.  Again, because I have gotten pretty good at this, this time I told her I really did not care if it was drawn correctly, just indicate!  So she indicated!

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Then, I choose a starting point and get busy.  Here is the finished design.  (The lavender stitches making the box outline are basting stitches to hold the fabric in place since I use sticky stabilizer more than I actually hoop the fabric.  More about that here: Embroidery placement.)

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Not really interested in going through my whole approach to digitizing something like this, but I will say that making the overs and unders true overs and unders is important to me.  When the auto digitizer is used, this does not happen…lines just butt up against one another with weird gaps and even stitches filling angles in odd ways.  What I do takes time, but the end result is worth it to me.  This pic shows a close-up of the end result.
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My process for the new school dresses will be the same.  A big part of this process is doing test stitch-outs to see if it looks the way I want, to check thread tension, coverage, and any consequent pulling, puckering, tunnelling, or drilling.  I am expecting a full round of stitch tests on this new design because the fabric is completely different than Dana’s even though the stitch combination is the same.

Once the initial middle-range size is digitized, then I create files for each size dress.  Time-consuming, but once it is done we are set!!!

During all this time, I have also been researching fabric sources to find not only the kind of fabric we want (durable and washable), but also the quantity.  Since this is a new dress for an established school, we have many, many dresses to make.  And, another consideration for a source is that they will have this same fabric far into the future.  Heading off to JoAnn’s or Hancocks is not the solution this time.  Even my favorite online stores cannot be counted on for this kind of reliability.  But, Susan suggested Raymond’s Textiles, and I think I am set!

Susan is also creating a custom set of patterns for this school because the skirt is a bit different than the regular three panel.

So now I am doing a few wash tests to see how the fabrics react.  If all goes well, then the prototype dress made for the school director is the next step.

The Tunic Dresses

I was planning on writing more about our new tunic dresses (Liz’s Tunic Dress, Dana’s Tunic Dress), but Caroline posted a bunch of questions before I got to it!  So I will use her list as my framework:

I love it! And BOY do I have questions! -D
You have again revolutionized the concept of an Irish dance dress…

So here goes,

How did you attach the pink panels? Are the black panels part of the bodice? How can I adapt Susan’s pattern to do this? Will Susan make a special pattern for this and where can I buy it?
How did you stiffen the panels? (Did you stiffen the panels? ) How did you work out the lining for the black panels? Is the underskirt secure? Is there any Velcro or other form of attachment to keep the bodice and skirt in their place?
At what stage of the bodice did you embroider the panels? Do you have to embroider around the edges of the panels when the darts of the bodice were already in place?

I am sure I can think of more questions, but let’s keep it with these for now -D


Let’s start with the bodices.  The black and red panels are cut as part of the bodices…there are NO horizontal waist seams! 
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Susan put her mathematical mind to work to create a custom bodice for each dancer.  The obvious challenge was to incorporate not only the appropriate darts and seam angles but also the angles and lengths of the panels themselves!  When she brought the first test pattern to me so we could look at it on the dress dummy, I was amazed by both its complexity and its brilliant simplicity.  Together we worked through a couple of things, but I served mainly as her sounding board… amazing, Susan!!

This pattern was not an alteration of the Feisdress pattern.  Each bodice was specifically created to fit two very different bodies.  I cannot imagine that this could be generated as a generic pattern…alterations would change it drastically and mess up the panels and their angles of hang.  We did have to alter the pattern for the red dress…I just stood there in awe as I watched what Susan did to it to make it right.  Not an easy task.  Later, I was able to make another SIMPLE alteration, but only because I had worked through it with her once before.

If you want a custom pattern, you will have to contact Susan.

Attaching the pink panels was not as simple an operation as I thought it would be.
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I had many ideas…many moments in the middle of the night when I would pop awake with the “solution.”  But I could do nothing until all of the pink panels were finished…11 of them…the never-ending panels………  Yes, the pink panels are stiffened.  The design was embroidered first, then I attached it to 1 layer of firmflex, attached a back lining, and satin stitched the outside of each panel.  Then I began fooling around with attaching them.  We wanted a narrow silhouette (no panels sticking straight out to the side), and we wanted them to move freely.  I was thinking that minimal attachment would be best, but then they hung at odd angles.  I ended up sewing the pink to the black across the top of each pink panel and the again down about 1 inch on each side of the black where it splits at the top of the pink panels.  Deciding on the width of that opening was a journey of trial and error.

The designs on the panels of the red dress and the black bodice were all done after the bodice was cut but before any construction was done.  I serged the lining to the black bodice as I always do, completed the satin stitching around the panels, then completed the bodice darts.  For the red bodice, I did a partial bag lining so that the darts would not become stiff simply because of the amount of fabric in them.  The lining was serged to the bodice around the edges.  Then, again, I completed the satin stitching, followed by the darts.  Both tunics have separating zippers.

There is only decorbond in the shorter panels of each bodice.  Keeping them soft, especially on the red dress, was a priority.  In fact, there is no firmflex (like timtex) in the entire red dress!  WOO-HOO!!!

Now, the underskirts…felt like I invented a wheel.  Thought this would be a piece of cake…not.  But, each of these skirts was a good challenge.

I decided that Dana’s skirt should be a drop waist so that there would be no extra bulk under the black tunic.  The attachment of the skirt fabric to the skirt yoke evolved.  My original thought (and attachment) was still too bulky, so this ended up working.  Here’s the top black layer (and the mysterious cat tail!)…
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…and the next poofy layer which I thought would be enough.  Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
But when the pink panels were attached to the bodice, it was obvious that we needed another layer of poof to resist the panel weight. So, I added the silver.  You can see here how soft everything is.
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This skirt is on a stretchy yoke with an elastic waist.

The red skirt is totally different. I forgot to take pics of it (walking dead), but here is a pic from the O as it was waiting to be worn…
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This skirt has 2 very gathered layers attached to a wide elastic band.  There is a short zipper in the back.  Finding just the right poofiness (love that technical term) is the reason for all of the “quilting” below the waist band.

At a fitting, young Liz said she loved the way this skirt felt because it is so light!

The tunics are made to simply be worn over the skirts.  There is nothing to attach the tunic to the skirt because they fit well and there is no centering to worry about.  If I needed attachments to keep things in place, well then I would not have done a very good job of fitting!

Liz’s Tunic Dress

As I wrote in the last post… 

We at Feisdress (Susan and I) have been contemplating a different approach to making Irish dance dresses for a while now. As I have said before, I love making 2 piece dresses for a variety of reasons (ease of skirt attachment onto soft cotton bodice, ease of dealing with dropped waist look, dancer can remove jacket in between dances to avoid stinking it up!!!), so this was part of thinking about a different dress. Susan and I both wanted to try a soft skirt but were not interested in ruffles or tulle (brings back the horror of making a tutu for me!). And we were both interested in maintaining that slimming, wonderful drop waist look and combining it with a narrower silhouette…but of course you need dancers who want to try this with you!

Well, we found not one but two dancers who were game to go on this journey with us!

The first was Dana.  She is in the “& Overs” and wanted a dress made just for her.  See her dress here.

The second was Liz. 

Liz and her mama Paula had been through an unfortunate experience with one of the well-known dressmaking “corporations” and had been…uh… dissatisfied.  Paula then discovered that I was a mom of dancers in her school…the rest is the beginning of what I hope will be a long friendship.  Wonderful people.

Liz is a little person.  Liz wanted a soft skirt dress, a dress that she did not have to fight in order to dance.  I saw and inspected the dress they received from overseas.  It did not work, and I understood why.  We talked about their dress vision, their dress dream.

We were so on the same page!!!

This dress, like Dana’s, is a two piece: a top/tunic and a soft skirt. The difference between this dress (as well as Dana’s) and other dresses is the lack of a waist seam. This required very specific patterns made specifically to these dancers’ measurements. Fantastic challenge for both Susan and I! Susan’s patterns were quite brilliant!

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And here is the very lovely young lady…
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…with Hunter and the flower dress, no less!!!!

Congrats to you both for your accomplishments today!

Dana’s Tunic Dress

We at Feisdress (Susan and I) have been contemplating a different approach to making Irish dance dresses for a while now. As I have said before, I love making 2 piece dresses for a variety of reasons (ease of skirt attachment onto soft cotton bodice, ease of dealing with dropped waist look, dancer can remove jacket in between dances to avoid stinking it up!!!), so this was part of thinking about a different dress. Susan and I both wanted to try a soft skirt but were not interested in ruffles or tulle (brings back the horror of making a tutu for me!). And we were both interested in maintaining that slimming, wonderful drop waist look and combining it with a narrower silhouette…but of course you need dancers who want to try this with you!

Well, we found not one but two dancers who were game to go on this journey with us!

The first was Dana.  She is in the “& Overs” and wanted a dress made just for her.

Here it is: the 21 panel!
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The 10 top black panels are part of the black tunic.  There is no waist seam.  The 11 pink panels that were a particular challenge to attach so that they moved freely but were also secure in the correct hang angle…I attached one of those buggers 6 times before I got it to behave!!!!

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This is the totally separate, totally soft underskirt.  I am particularly enamored of this pic…I call it “Skirt with Tail.”Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

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This is a pic of the dress before the pink panels were attached.  This works, too!

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I love this design.  It was a particular challenge to digitize this one.  There were several test stitch-outs of the pieces and parts until I found just the right way.  I am very happy with the way it turned out.
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More later if there are questions.  One more dress to put up, but must go to the hometown Christmas Parade!

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: http://www.amazon.com/Irish-dancing-costumes-illustrated-photographs/dp/0952795205 . 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”  (http://www.gavindoherty.co.uk/); Elevation Designs, “EDs,” (http://www.elevation-design.co.uk/) 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  

Feisdress presents: The Emily 9-panel Solo!

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Oh, and..ta-DAH!!! (Please excuse the crud on the crown…had to take pics before I was done trimming.)
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So, to review, this is a 2-piece, 9-panel dress. The regular Feisdress pattern was used and altered for a panel skirt using Susan Gowin’s directions (email her if you want them). Designed by Susan to be a 10 panel, but I could not truly find a way to add the 10th panel over/around the zipper in a way that pleased me, so the 10th panel is hanging on my embroidery rogue’s wall. Turns out that the young dancer has lost more than a bit of weight, so I would have had to remove it anyway to make this skirt the correct size. Here is the skirt and under bodice:
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Here is the finished under bodice. I was so excited that I had learned how to make bias tape that I made more to finish the neck and hem of the bodice jacket…such a dweeb!
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Here is the sleeve in its entirety…
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…and the lining for the bodice jacket and the sleeves (I LOVE the wild stuff):
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We used a regular 3-panel construction for the underskirt (the details can be seen here: Emily’s 9-panel). I have recently had the opportunity to really inspect a couple of panel dresses that did not have anywhere near enough room for a dancer to move freely: one had box pleats between the panels that were small and so terrifically stiffened that they did not have much give, and the other was a supposedly soft underskirt that was actually a set of ruffles attached to a RIGIDLY stiff CONE with vestigial, tiny stiffstiffstiff side pleats that did not move and NO back pleats…no room to dance here at all. I like the 3-panel underskirt because I already know how it moves and there is enough room for the dancer to kick freely. The next dress on deck is another panel with a completely soft underskirt…can’t wait to tackle that!

Look at the crown/headband “from a distance”…
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The clients had sent me a description of the type of headband that they wanted, but I had not received it by the time the dress was to be picked up, so I did my embroidery impression of a headband…does it look like one? A fat one? Molly thought I had succeeded. I am waiting for a pic of the dancer in full regalia to determine my success.

Here are my shawl “pins.”
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These are not actually pins…they “pin” the shawl underneath with a sandwich of velcro as shown in the Webmaster’s revamp, the flower dress, and Aislinn’s teal dress. One of Susan’s genius ideas. All of our clients are so amazed by them!

Here they are at work:
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(Notice the bunching above the embroidery line on the back of the bodice jacket? In a former life, my dressmaking dummy was an Olympic swimmer by the name of Helga…and this is as small as she goes. Does not fit this way on Emily, thank goodness!)

This is the skirt lining:
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Not enough fabric for the bloomers so made them out of heavy dark pink satin that matched the pink in this fabric.

Ended up putting some crystals at the neck…I like the necklace look. Used a tip from IDD posted by Erika…I put 2 fabric bandaids on my left index finger so that I could really press these hot-fix crystals into place. Great idea, Erika!

Yesterday, diva Maggie was looking at the bodice jacket and she exclaimed, “It looks just like a corSETTE!” That’s how she pronounced it.

” Yeah.. that’s the point, dear.”

“Oh…well, it’s cool.” The Divas are all lovin’ this dress! I feel truly successful when the Divas approve!

Even diva Michael is impressed with this dress. He actually came down the stairs into the dungeon to look and discuss it with me last night. Tonight I showed him the finished shawl product in this pic and he laughed…
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…can you see it?

The whole family has remarked that this dress, though intensive in its work process, has not been as crazy as others. However, Michael said, “That is so perfect!” when, in the background, he saw this:
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Not birth, but these creations make me tired and a bit bug-eyed!

Now…on to the next!

Part 1: Diary of a Daft Dressmaker

(This was originally written at the beginning of 2007. I have re-read it and find it to be a good refresher for me.)

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! 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.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 very odd things, but they still have to fit humans. One invaluable site 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.

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.

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. At this point

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? Last year, 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

Part 2: Diary of a Daft Dressmaker

Continuing the refreshment of my faulty memory…

5) Finish the bodice pieces with a serger!!! Before I started working with Susan, I was doing alterations for a local ID school. The bodice was completely bag lined, including the zipper seam (no seams are visible in the lining of the bodice). The hem of the bodice and top of the skirt were finished with bias tape. It LOOKED great, fantastic, but inside the bag lining all the fabric (including the lining) was fraying a great deal. This obviously impacted the amount the bodice could be let out because of the decreased fabric stability. When I altered them I always put things back as I found them, however, it was very time consuming.

This all changed when I met Susan. After I spent very little time serging the lining to the embroidered bodice pieces, I was hooked. Found myself a good serger the next day. Alterations are obviously easier because you can tell at a glance if there is room to let out (instead of feeling for seam allowance through the bag lining), and there is only one layer to work with instead of two (and the subsequent number of seams).

And obviously if all the seams are finished off with a good serger, there are no fraying issues. While I understand there may be a short debate about which looks better, there are two things I take issue with when it comes to bag linings: 1) since re-sale of these dresses is so important, alterations should be A) easy to do, i.e. seams are easy to get to, and B) the fabric should be properly finished to ensure that fraying does not decrease seam allowance; and 2) if a bag lining is used, the zipper seam should be covered by it or serged. Here is a pic demonstrating what I have seen too many times – unfinished fabric edges at the zipper leaving threads to be caught (the uneven seam here is another issue).

UPDATE: OK, my editor feels I am being a wimp. “‘Unfinished seams’ are not the [only] problem with [this] neckline. The zipper and neckline are not finished properly. I can live with large, unfinished seams (especially with fused, knit fabric as in the photo). But I won’t accept the top of that zipper and neckline binding. This is extremely unprofessional and ugly.” I agree…but she says I am still being too nice…give me time!

So that brings us to the next topic….

6)There is a good way to insert zippers and neck facings.
And here’s a link that explains it all beautifully: zipper. It was a bit inside-out for me at first but now my hands just make it happen. I used to hate, detest, DESPISE zippers…no big deal now. The facing also makes all the difference in the look, even when the collar is shaped and satin-stitched. I will admit I have cut corners a time or two and not done it when my fabric is already very stiffened as on two 2-piece solos I just finished. Otherwise, I always do this.

7) Line up the pleats with the seams. This pic is of the waist seam between the center front bodice and the center front pleat (CFP). There is an OBVIOUS problem in that they do not even remotely match in size…and the CFP is not centered.

(There has been a very long pause here as I struggle to comprehend this mistake which was not made by a newbie.) Note to self – make sure pattern pieces are matched. Every time.

Why is this important? Because it looks awful and amateurish! I am assuming that the basic shape of the ID dress came from a princess line dress – it is the basis for all our patterns whether our bodice is a princess line or 0ne-piece darted. When there is one base color, lining up the pleats with the bodice seams is not as crucial…who can tell as long as the designs are centered? Looking back, there came a time when the center fronts of the dresses were done in a different color. The emphasis was still on this princess line shape so the center front bodice and CFP had to match up in width at the waist to continue the unbroken line from the neck to the hem. Makes sense to me. So, unfortunately, this take on the center front of the dress is not ready for prime-time!

8) Press, baste; press, baste; press,PRESS, baste, BASTE!!!

My mother told me this, my sewing teachers (when I was 10, 17, 20) told me this…Susan added that pressing as I went along was perhaps most important. But, I am a master with pins. I really am!!!! But not when it comes to the physics of Irish Dance dresses. Unpressed, stiffened fabric pulls no matter what is done to it. Add the Timtex and no pin can answer the call. So I press using steam with a pressing cloth and then pull out the long needles and the upholstery thread and get busy. Saves so much time and frustration in the long run. I use upholstery thread because it is thicker (and waxed in some cases) and so it pulls out easily whereas the thinner stuff breaks in the thick layers.

Susan posted a comment that I am moving here: “Along with basting and pressing – PRECISE MARKING is often overlooked in the rush to get started. I hate it. I’ve muddled through the years with tracing paper and the little rotor-nobby thing, pins, clips etc. But once I had an accurate pattern the time spent making clips/notches and baste-marking fold/pleat lines — has not been lost time because assembly goes quicker. Or it least it seems it does because it it MUCH less frustrating. Kathleen Fasanella preaches that you should spend about 80%-90% of your total time and effort in getting ready to sew. The actually construction should be the quickest and easiest part of the whole project.”

So true. And again, with these stiffened, precisely made dresses, using precise markings is really the key. I should have put this first because all of the pressing and basting can only be as clean and sharp as it must be when I have clear lines to follow. I will admit I did feel as if the work I did getting the first dress I did with Susan ready (my “training” dress) was tedious and never-ending, but when I was able to move so quickly once the sewing began, I understood completely and was a convert (really and truly, this is not a religious cult despite my many attestations to conversion!). I mark everything very carefully now, every time.

9) Do not let the skirt lining bag. Major pet peeve of mine. I am a mom that wouldn’t let her daughter out of the house (beginning at age 1 going to the park with Dad…truly have mellowed 16 years later) if the hem of her little denim jumper was turned up from the dryer. Don’t get me started on the mental illnesses associated with that… however, on something that is supposed to be as clean and crisp looking as possible, seeing the lining bagging below the hemline on an ID dress makes me nuts. Such an easy thing to avoid!

Sewn hem: 1) after the lining and outer skirt are hemmed together, trim and clip the seam on the curves, then press the seam on the right side so the seam lies underneath the lining. 2) Then use a multiple zig-zag stitch to attach the lining to the underneath seam fabric. The multiple zig-zag allows give on the curved seam and helps keep the lining fabric from falling below the seam to be seen from the outside. 3) Iron the fold between the lining and outside skirt. I press on the inside so I can see a thin line of outside fabric to ensure the lining cannot be seen at the bottom of the hem on the outside. 4) Then, I take the time to smooth and pin the lining to the outside fabric so I can sew a few lines of stay-stitching on fold lines from the hem to the waist. This basically guarantees that there will never be any bagging.

Satin-stitched hem: Before I insert the stiffening, I complete step 4) from above. Then, I stitch the stiffener into the hem.

10) Take the time to learn how to satin stitch and then TAKE the time to satin stitch correctly. Nothing worse than crappy satin stitching. I saw the example below a couple of months after I started making ID dresses and had to scrape myself off the floor. Completely beyond my comprehension..the money paid for this dress…the shoddy workmanship…I was speechless and Susan laughed that humorless, sardonic laugh she uses on me when my naivete is glowing radioactively. Stunning.I should think the problems with the satin stitching in the pic above are obvious…however, I feel the need to elaborate. First, the density of the stitching is not even. The obvious assumption here is that this is hand done (as are most/all edges) which means that the stitcher is forcing the fabric through the machine. Yes, sometimes our thicker fabric is difficult to get under the foot… this is where a practice piece comes in handy. How will it move? Does it need help? Is a plate needed to accommodate the extra thickness so things move smoothly?

Second: the width of the stitches is not even…let the machine do it’s job!!!!! Stop fussing and moving things around. Guide the fabric STRAIGHT and back off. Do not push and shift.

One thing I do on edges to help with the two issues above is use tear-away to help the machine move it through smoothly as some fabrics are “sticky” like lycra or get snagged.

Here is an example as seen from the lining side of a skirt. (This hem was done in different colored sections which is why only one part is done.) After I cut the shaped hem, I attach a length of tear-away using a small zig-zag. Then I do the first round of satin-stitching (rayon here, metallic would be second round). Then I Fray-chek and tear just the area hanging below the hem which allows the second round of stitching to cover any tear-away fuzz on the bottom, but leaves the rest to protect the lining and help move it through smoothly. After the second round of stitching, I Fray-chek again and tear the rest off.

Third: learn how to get around a corner. So many different ways. I have a couple, but we all have to deal with our own temperamental machines and fingers. Before each new hem/pleat/crown, it is worth my time to refresh/refine my memory or maybe try something new. Remember to remember!

Fourth: Fray-chek and then TRIM! When done, put fray-chek on the back and points of the embroidery. Let dry…trim threads and any fuzzies. Depending on the color, I try not to put Fray-chek on the front, but sometimes it is necessary. Do a fabric test. It shows on some…others can be scratched to make it invisible.

11) Sequins: The above pic brings up another special consideration when making ID dresses… satin-stitching around sequins. I have read a lot about dealing with them, watched Susan, asked questions… they are awful. But, there are ways of making them behave.

The pic below shows the equivalent of a wash-away stabilizer. This stuff tears away perfectly. Some people use plastic bags from the dry cleaner (it stretches and pulls too much for me) and I have recently read about using Press&Seal. So, why use this? This is see-through and it keeps sequins in place while satin-stitching…no tiny pieces flying into eyes, machines, coffee… But it also helps with coverage around the edge of the sequin applique piece by covering the sharp edges of the sequins which helps keep them from poking through the stitching. However, I will go over edges twice if I need to so it is fully covered. I also digitize my designs and stitch them out on my computerized machine. I do two things that work well to get full coverage. 1) Depending on the thread I am using around the applique, I can adjust the stitch density of the stitching for better coverage, and 2) because my machine does not need to “see” to do its job, I can use a thicker tear-away (in black or white) which really keeps the sequins from poking through the thread.

All of this has been about dealing with sequins from the outside. What about the inside? Fuse it!!! Except for the fishscale sequins I have bought from NY Elegant, every length of sequin fabric begins to lose huge amounts of sequins the second it is cut if it not fused properly. So, I fuse the backside well to anchor the threads holding the sequins. There seems to be no real fool-proof way to keep sequins anchored forever (short of spraying them with a thick layer of shellac), but fusing sequin fabric that knots at the back (more expensive) is fairly reliable. I have resolved to be honest with clients about the suitability of various sequin fabrics. Some work…some will shed as you pass the judge’s table no matter what you do.

There is also the issue of sequins in the seams. There is the obvious discomfort for the dancer when they scratch; this is not an issue when the bodice is lined with a true bag lining, but I am not going to do this. Sequins caught in a seam are pierced by the needle and are prone to falling off leaving bare spots, and they do not lay flat. We tried one solution: not putting it in a seam that would bend any sequins. The first pic shows the sequin fabric folded and then sewn close to the bodice side seam. This allowed me to try and fold a line so no sequins would bend or poke and catch the fabric under the arm. Also, there is a generous fold to guard against losing sequins from the cut edge.

The second pic shows a few things. 1) The collar was made as a single piece that I attached to the bodice after the shoulder seams were sewn in the base fabric, so, no sequins in the shoulder seams. 2) The neckline is bound with the fabric from the selvage edge of the sequin fabric (only because it was already the right color!). 3) After I sewed the shaped edges of the collar to anchor it to the bodice, I satin-stitched.

The third pic shows the folding and sewing of the side bodice piece to the finished bodice. I actually cannot remember if I did the same thing at the waist, but I am assuming I did since the waist seam would fold up and cause bending of the sequins.

Have not yet had a request with sequins in the same places, but it will be interesting to see if I still feel this is the best way to handle it.

Part 3: Diary of a Daft Dressmaker

Part 3: Diary of a Daft Dressmaker

12)Appliques: Next in this train of thought is preparing good appliques to ensure a good looking design.

First, stabilizing the fabric is a must. Different fabrics require different stabilizers but all of them perform the same function…supporting the applique fabric so it can stand up to the dense satin-stitching. Nothing worse than a fraying applique that eventually falls off!

Second, best way to keep the applique in place for satin-stitching and for all time is to adhere it to the base fabric. Fuse wonder-under to the back of a prepared length of the stabilized applique fabric using the dry iron press. The press can iron large areas, and the lack of steam keeps all things from crinkling. Then after cutting, these pieces can be fused into place on the base fabric and nothing will move.

And this brings up the very important third point: clean cutting lines on appliques. Sloppy, uneven applique pieces and then even sloppier stitching will always make a dress look “homemade” (in the BAD sense of the word). Obviously most of us are making these dresses at home, but there is a difference between “homemade” and “professionally made” in our basements (or dining rooms, spare bedrooms, kitchens, etc). Use precisely drawn and cut templates to ensure the appliques are the correct shape and then get down to the very time-consuming activity of tracing & cutting them all out very carefully. There are cutting machines for this that would make life easier, but I, for one, cannot justify the cost since I really do not do mass production. Maybe someday I will find a cheap one.

Again, remember to make sure the satin-stitching is dense and wide enough to ensure full coverage of the applique piece. No gaps, no misses, no fraying fuzzies.

I will not post pics of a bad applique (don’t want to embarrass anyone, least of all myself). Suffice it to say that crooked cutting, design pieces that should match in size and shape but don’t, sloppy satin-stitching (because the cutting lines are crooked or the technique is faulty), fraying fabric that is untrimmed or pulling away from the stitching…these all contribute to making something look unprofessional. And I am assuming most of us know it when we see it. We criticize it. However, the question is, are we that demanding of ourselves? A “Come to Jesus” moment for me every time! Then I take a break, re-evaluate, rip it out if needed, and begin again more slowly. Have ripped many an applique out, cut a new one using my template, and started again when I came back from a breather.

13) Things that don’t line up. This has been a real challenge for me. Designs that cross seams are very difficult to line up. It is of course perhaps near impossible to line things up EXACTLY, but I get a twitch when there is asymmetry in the wrong place. Have ripped out seams, zippers and even appliques themselves to get closer to the necessary symmetry. And it is not just me. I do believe that the eye is drawn to mismatches and asymmetry. If that is the point of the design, great. Otherwise, I am doing my client a disservice letting obvious issues go unaddressed: she wants them to watch her dancing, not fixate on a mistake on her dress.

Here are pics of what I mean. (These pictures are of a dress made by another professional dressmaker and used with her permission. They have first been altered to illustrate incorrect placement, but then shown again as is to illustrate correct placement.)

This pic is the back bodice showing the zipper above the shawl and the applique does not meet. I might be briefly tempted to ignore this, especially if the dancer wears a longer wig…but not for long. Here it is again with the angles meeting…much better.

Here is the same problem at the center back seam. This is always visible.

Here,it now matches. And this is a great example of design elements matching as they should not only over the seam but over a pleat fold. Notice the long zigzag line that visually meets up with the diamond on the back skirt outside the pleat fold.

This pic of the center front of the dress shows two things: the center designs do not line up and the curved appliques at the top of the pleat do not match up.

Here, all is well (the bodice is a bit folded so the center design still looks a tad off, but it is not).The execution of this design is a great example of several things: all elements are well cut and stitched, there is a clear & even repetition of shapes; sides mirror each other so it does not look lopsided; the pleats are folded in the same place in the design (on the back); hem-line shaping is even and consistent.

14) Design. (This was obviously written before I did start designing and created Taoknitter Arts.)  Now, I have come to terms with the fact that I am not able to create a design for a dress. I deal with color, embellishment, construction design and labor, and I can see when something just is not quite right with a design and I can adjust it, but I am incapable of coming up with a picture of a design. Made me a bit squirrely for awhile because I felt I needed to be able to do it all…but once I accepted the fact that my brain does not work that way anymore, I relaxed. I became severely ill back in 2000 after the birth of my 3rd daughter…almost left Michael alone with 3 kids to raise. Up until then, I was a choreographer, dance professor, director, costume designer, kinesiologist…I did everything I wanted and needed to create dance and guided my graduate students to do the same. My brain (looking back now) was a marvel in the way it worked, the way it saw dances, sets, lighting, costumes all fully realized. All of it would be there in 3-D glory, illuminated by a brain that simply had to create. After I got sick, life changed and I retired. When I began this, it never occurred to me that I could not design… I always had. But it took trying to create an Irish dance dress design for me to fully realize that my brain is different now. I still need to create, but it is working with my hands that provides me with the outlet now. I rely on Susan to create the beautiful vision, then I get busy making it real.

I am telling my story here to put my perspective on design in context. I may not be able to create a design, but I can still see it and its effects. Here are a couple of things I now consider:

A) Does the design work with a dancer’s particular body-type and posture? Type of design and its placement can hide or accentuate round, thin or overly wide shoulders; thick waists; large busts; wide hips; short necks. Placement of fabric color also affects these things.

B) Fabric color and dancer’s coloring. I cannot tell at a glance what will work on a dancer, so I now get big swatches so I can see it next to the dancer’s face. I just made a dress using a coral metallic silk. The young dancer lit up when she saw it but I thought it would not work because she is so pale. However, when we held it up, her cheeks blossomed and she looked so pretty. Reminds me to pay attention to what draws a dancer’s eye…we usually like what will look good on us.

C) Sometimes I see designs that have not taken into consideration placement of certain elements. To put it bluntly, arrows pointing to body areas, boob blossoms and boob eggs, and other unfortunate shapes placed badly draw the eye. To be more specific with examples is not nice and not my intention.

D) Ok, this one might just be my own weird quirk, but it pays to be wary of creating subliminal pictures in the design that are unintentional. Negative space is part of the design. The arrangement of shapes can create another picture because of the unused space. This is a pic of the shawl on the first dress I made for my oldest daughter. I did mess with the design I bought to create a shape for the stiff shawl, so this result is my fault, not the designer’s. Can you see the bunny? Use the shawl outline as your reference. My middle child pointed this out to me with a squeal of delight when I had the dress almost done. Oldest child thought it was funny, so I didn’t fuss.
Use of color can also affect what I see: on two of my dresses, an abstract Bullwinkle the Moose because of his white “antlers” and a grinning fool that I actually caught on the bodice so removed the silver in his “eyes & horns”, but I did not catch on the front panel. I have seen cows, bulls, crabs, cockroaches, Indians, devils…things funny and things weird. It pays to do a sample and step back…or better yet, bring in a child and listen when they squeal! My kids taught me to see these things and I do not claim to be the only one who “sees.” Have heard many a giggle about “pictures” at feiseanna…so I pay attention.

Feel like I’ve written an outline for a book. And I think I am done…for now.

Happy New Year to one and ALL!

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