Back skirts, etc…

Today I got 2 similar emails, so thought I would do a post.

First Kilynn wrote: I have been looking at the school dresses you are making for Teelin. I really like the way they look in the back. How much stiffner are you using in the CFP, the FSP, and the back? Have you put decor bond on all sections? Do you use Firm Flex in the back or just the CFP and FSP? I am working on school dresses myself and an wanting to make them as easy to handle as possible. I also wanted to make them washable like the Teelin dresses. What mother would object to that!!!

Then Amy: I have a question about stiffener in the Teelin dress. I know you use Firmflex in the front of the dresses and they look great! We are so excited! We have ordered some Firmflex to try! You didn’t use Firmflex in the back of the Teelin dress did you? It drapes so beautifully. We are still working the “bugs” out of our school dresses. Currently, we have Decorbond in the back of our dress. The problem is, the dancer sits down wrong and BAM! nasty crease! We use a polyester satin as our lining and a gabardine as our main fabric. We were thinking of no Decorbond, but maybe a very lightweight interfacing on the satin lining to help give it some body. The satin tends to “grow” especially when you hit the curve and the bias kicks in. Does that make sense? We’re trying to get away from the stiff two-dimensional look. I love how figure flattering the Teelin dress looks, none of this trying to put flat cardboard on a round cylinder nonsense. Any advice would be appreciated.

Are you 2 working together or just on the same wavelength?

For the school dresses, I prep the fabric by fusing it to a tricot (just like french fuse) interfacing, not a woven and not decorbond.  The tricot supports the fabric, giving it a tad bit more body, but it does not add much weight at all, allows the fabric to move, and it will not crease the way a woven can and decorbond will!  I feel that this interfacing fuses the best, and I have yet for it to bubble away the way the woven can. 

That is all I do to the back of the skirts.  I do use decorbond on the areas to be embroidered on the front which then have one layer of Timtex underneath, but unless I am embroidering on the back, I do not use any other stiffener in the back.  Why?  First, I personally like the back skirts to move easily, and second, since these dresses get so much wear, I do not want decorbond or stiffener to crease or break down from all of the sitting and kicking that the backs are subjected to.  Even if the backs are embroidered, I only use decorbond in the appropriate area and then remove the excess to allow the skirt to retain as much movement as possible.

Now for the satin lining…I use crepe back satin which has some weight to it, and I do not interface it.  Here is what I do to keep the hem from bagging below the 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 fabric lies underneath the lining.
  2. 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 the pleat fold lines from the hem to the waist. This basically guarantees that there will never be any bagging.  I sew 3-4 of these lines on each side of the back skirt (6 to 8 lines of stitching in total).

Did I answer everything?

Wearing Ease

(Edited to add a comment/question written by Kara.  Thank you, Kara, great observations.)

I received an interesting phone call last week from the alterationist that I send folks to, Hsiao Fang. When I gave up a school account a year or so ago, she started taking the measurements for the new company as this was a long distance operation. I hear from her periodically when she calls to discuss altering ID dresses that I send her way.

This time, she called to ask me if I, as an ID dressmaker, add ease to my patterns and if so, how much. I said yes, and that I add 2 inches at the waist, 3 at the bust, and a bit in a couple of extra places. (My specific amounts come from Susan.) Hsiao Fang breathed a sigh of relief and went on a rant about how that was how she was trained (as a tailor), and about moving bodies, and about dresses coming in from this company with ABSOLUTELY (her emphatic emphasis) no ease at all, and that parents were coming to her to alter brand new dresses that could not be zipped when they arrived. The parents are complaining about this and about sleeves that do not allow any movement at all and are so tight at the armscye that the dancers get rubbed raw! The parents and the TC want Hsiao Fang to add ease when she takes the measurements, but I was in total agreement with her that that is not her job! She was in quite an understandable snit and last I heard was going to stop taking the measurements.

She asked me several questions about the company making the dresses…I really know nothing about them…but I was just as bewildered as she. She told me about her conversation with the dressmakers about how they did want exact measurements from her with no extra room added into them, and then her surprise when the dresses would come in with those exact measurements and sometimes smaller! She asked me if I thought they were using generic patterns, “…grabbing the one with the 36 inch bust measurement if that was the measurement sent with no thought to the other measurements or wearing ease!” The last straw was a dress just brought to her that had been made to the exact bust measurement with no attention to the large waist measurement, and this brand new dress had a 6 inch gap at the zipper at the waist…Hsiao Fang was beside herself because there was absolutely not that much fabric in the seams to let that out!

Most home sewers do not really think about wearing ease because it is built in (along with design ease) to the patterns that we buy at the store…could this company be employing a dressmaker who does not know about wearing ease?  Susan wrote the following on her website:

 A Note About Ease
Dress and pattern makers talk about two kinds of ease: “Fashion (or Design) Ease” and
“Wearing Ease.” “Fashion (or Design) Ease” is the first kind. This is the extra fabric that
the dress designer puts into a garment to achieve the desired look. Sweat pants have a lot
of fashion ease. A bathing suit does not. Fashion ease is what has traditionally made
determining a pattern size difficult for the consumer. You select a pattern based on your
body measurements and sometimes it fits you well. Other times you find the same sized
pattern is “too big” or “too small”. That’s because you really don’t know for sure how
“baggy” or how “tight” the fit has been designed.

The second kind of ease is “Wearing Ease.” You need your dress to be bigger than your
measurements so you can breathe, turn, sit, raise your arms. In the real world you’d want
to be able to tie your own shoes and comb your own hair. In Irish Dance dresses, you
need at least an inch in the waist and about 2” in the bust extra. You really do want to
keep the waist snug so that the weight of the skirt is carried on the hips rather than on the
shoulders. If the waist is too loose, the skirt collapses inward and won’t hang right. So,
no matter how much you want to leave some “extra for growth,” the waist isn’t the place
to do it.

Susan does not add any hidden ease into the Feisdress Pattern.  What does that mean?  If I get a pattern at the fabric store, the measurements on the back are actual body measurements, not pattern measurements.  So, if I buy a pattern that has 3 inches of ease in the bust, if I have a 36 inch bust, the measurement on the pattern envelope says 36 inches, not 39.  The measurements that Susan publishes for her pattern are PATTERN measurements which means you have to decide on the ease you want.  If you have a 36 inch bust and buy the pattern that has a 36 inch bust, you will not be able to breathe (if you can manage to get the bodice zipped in the first place) unless you add ease.

So I take exact measurements (see Measuring for the Feisdress pattern & Measuring the Upper Chest & Troubleshooting Sleeve Issues ), plug them into my excel sheet which adds the ease that I want, and then decide which Feisdress pattern to start with (I alter this to make sure all measurements are as they should be).  I fit solo and school dresses differently in that the solo dresses fit closer.  For school dresses, unless a dancer has stopped growing, I actually make them a bit loose to begin with because parents want to see visible growing room when the dress is delivered!  I do admit that seeing the dress loose to begin with offends my dressmaker’s pride, but I totally understand the parents’ perspective.  I add ties inside the dress so that the waist fits snugly…any looseness in the back is hidden by the cape.  And, I make sure they also understand that there are huge seam allowances at the sides of the bodice and zipper, at the top of the skirt and at the bottom of the bodice so that the dress can be let out and down perhaps a couple of times…I actually add the same to solo dresses.

So fellow dressmakers, how do you deal with ease?  What do you add and where?  Do you fit school dresses differently than solos?  Do you build in large seam allowances for future alterations?  Would love to hear from you on this.

Kara wrote:

Since I have been making mostly off the rack dresses, exact fit to a particular body has not been an issue.  However, as I am selling these dresses and getting questions about fit, I’ve had a couple of thoughts and questions of my own.  Say I am selling a dress with a 32 chest measurement and a 27 waist measurement and someone emails me and says “I love the dress but the chest is too big for my 30″ daughter”  Am I correct in advising them that if the 30″ measurement is an exact chest measurement than this dress should fit fine in the chest?  An example that I just experienced was an OTR that was the exact measurements of a dancer.  She tried it on and of course it was way too small because the measurement the mom was going on were her daughters exact measurements not accounting for wearing ease.   So are there a bunch of people out there looking at used solo’s and rejecting them because they might seem too big because they are basing their decision on their daughters exact measurements and not allowing for movement and wearing ease?

I would say that yes, a 32″ measurement at the chest on the dress should fit a 30″ chest just fine.  As we all know, there are always posts on the boards about how to measure dresses, measure dancers, etc…have there been specific conversations about the need to be aware of ease when choosing a dress?  Since I do not do OTRs, I have not had to deal with this.  Dressmakers, how do you advise clients?

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.

Back to the sewing

My last post reminded me why I stopped answering technique questions…the drama is draining.

As much as I have been blogging about dance technique issues you would think I have not been paying any attention to my dressmaking. Not so, not so.

But before I go there, I want to post this link to Kathleen Fasanella’s tutorial on “centered zipper construction.” My blog analytics show that lots of folks come here looking for info on putting in a zipper…I have also put the link under the Feisdress information on the left of the blog for future reference.

Back to the dressmaking…

1) Susan and I have been very busy working with an established school to design new school dresses. Very interesting process, and so far I am enjoying this immensely. I say so far because I know that this is not always an easy endeavor. Yet, the folks that we are working with are wonderful, very clear in their ideas and open to discussion. This is my first time being involved in the school design process from the very start…very interesting.

I have been looking at sources for fabric for this school. We need to find a supplier that can always get us what we want, but we also need to be realistic about the types of fabrics that we choose not only for their sturdiness and washability, but for the fact that they will still be available through the supplier 10 years from now!!

Designing the new embroidery has also been very interesting for me to be a part of. As soon as that is finalized, I will get busy digitizing while Susan develops their school patterns.

2) I have been digitizing the dress designs for a school account that I’ve had. Susan has been doing that by hand, but has decided to give that up. My idea of great fun is digitizing her designs!

3) We are working on our current custom solo dress. This is a client that has worked with Susan before…very nice folks. They chose a new design from Susan’s newest Feisdress design cd. It is a 2 piece, 10 panel dress. We went shopping with the dancer’s mother for more fabrics last week and then did up some panels with different fabric combinations for them to choose from.

Here are the three choices we sent. There is no embroidery yet…useless to mess with that until the colors are chosen.
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I was going to do one more combination, but they like this one. This was the 1st one Susan and I put together…messed around quite a long time deciding which fabrics to put together. It is on the fabric that will be used for the underskirt. Now to start messing with thread colors and finish the digitizing.
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These are the rejects.
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Susan has an incredible eye for color. I know what I do and don’t like, but I do not have her ability to look at a color and know what will work with it. This process was educational and fun once again. But now she gone on a trip and I have to decide on thread colors myself!!! Ack!

It is a sewing dungeon day…and I am looking forward to it.

Dudney Dresses

Delivered 3 more dresses last night for the Dudney School for the 1st St. Patrick’s Day parade in Alexandria. 2 more to do for next week. This is a nice photo of some of the girls who competed in December at the 2006 Southern Region Oireachtas. I blurred their faces because not every parent is comfortable having pics of their children online. But you can see the dresses and even get an idea of just how excited they were!

I had a partner while sewing this week. A mom in the Dudney School wanted to put her daughter’s dress together herself. I was hesitant at first because there was no way to really know what her sewing skills actually were…telling someone what to do is one thing, teaching them is another. But I took a chance and I am so glad I did. Not only did Jane really know how to sew, but she was great company. I think she was a bit surprised at all that actually goes into making one of these, and she has now joined the ranks of the frustrated Irish dance dressmaker – she sewed and ripped out and wrestled and sewed and ripped out and wrestled, wrestled, wrestled…with the blasted skirt! I give her a LOT of credit…she never once swore in my presence (not that I would have cared) and she always had a smile on her face!!!! At one point she said, “I think it might be awhile before I want to attempt a solo dress.” I told her that after I finished all the dresses I was working on for the Oireachtas, I did not venture back into my sewing dungeon for 6 weeks…and then it took me 2 WHOLE days to clean it up! It takes time to recover from the Irish dance dress adventure.

A small milestone: I put one of these dresses together in 1 day. 1 day. I feel like Super Woman…Speedy Seamstress…Turbo Taoknitter. I am usually putting 2 to 4 dresses together at the same time in an assembly line fashion, so I had no idea I had become so proficient. What a shock when it was simply done. And the skirt went on in one pass! When I put it on the hanger to see if the skirt was hanging right, I just stood there in shock…I was done!

Simple pleasures for simple minds…

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.

ID School Dress Design: Chapter 1

I am re-opening the blog to public viewing with chapter 1 of Susan Gowin’s treatise on “ID School Dress Design.”

For the record, I do have vested interests. I sell an ID dress pattern. I sell designs for solo and school dresses. I make and sell solo and school dresses. So what I say should be considered biased. Feel free to comment from your own point of view. I am open to intelligent discussion. The focus here is to offer advice to new TCRGs who are developing their first school dress.

The following is directed to the school dress design team. The team may consist of the TCRG and no one else, or it could include parent(s), student(s) and even the school’s dressmaker (if you already have one).

The ID team dress makes a statement about the school it represents. Everyone involved – TCRG, parents, students – hope for an attractive, flattering dress with great stage presence that will fit and last for a long time yet cost very little. Unfortunately, these goals are somewhat at odds with each other and the mission of the design team is to weigh the importance of each, set priorities and make some tough decisions for their school.

The issues the design team must address are:
1) Select a dressmaker/embroiderer
2) Select/commission/approve an embellishment design
3) Decide on colors
4) Select fabrics
5) Select dress pattern
6) Establish an ordering process
7) Document dress fitting, construction, and embellishment standards
(Discussion of these issues will be out of order.)

The circumstances unique to your school will determine what you consider when. The order is important because every decision you make will influence all your subsequent decisions. The team CAN control the order in which these issues will be addressed. Be aware that your approach order will limit options available for the next selection.

The team also must determine which selections are absolute (unchangeable) and which may be treated as “preferences” (open to revisions or substitutions). Here’s an example:

The team has selected an embellishment design, colors and fabrics. Now they are looking at dressmakers (DMs). DM-A insists that significant changes be made to the design for reasons related to her equipment or methods. DM-B refuses to use the fabric the team has chosen. Both DMs may (and most likely do) have very good reasons for their stands. Is the team willing to change the design and/or fabric? Or, will these DMs be excluded and the search continue? In this case, we’ll say the team’s design choice is absolute and the fabric choice is flexible. They were unhappy with the changes DM-A wanted to make, but they will consider alternate fabric types. So, DM-A is out and DM-B is still under consideration.

I will continue to discuss each issue in the design process. As you read and consider my opinions, please remember that this is one of those situations where you need to get it right the first time. Any changes made to the design, construction, embellishment, color, fabric, or fitting standards of the dress will make previous versions obsolete. Parents will be very unhappy, feel cheated, “unfavored,” and blame the TCRG and the rest of the design team members personally. Resale values drop and disappear.

In other words, making mistakes and “learning as you go” will be costly, both monetarily and emotionally. Be prepared to pay upfront in order to save in the end. You may be asking dressmakers, embroiderers, and suppliers to provide you with samples for approval. Since a significant amount of time and effort will be required, expect to compensate them. Be prepared to spend the time it will take to get the dresses you want. Don’t let some deadline pressure squeeze you into accepting a less-than-expected dress because it is better than no dress. Plan on it taking at least a year from the time you begin this journey until your dancers perform in their new costumes.

On Getting Hit by a Bus

The bus is the bad thing that Murphy says will happen. The bus is life interfering with the best laid plans. The black bus brings sick children, dying parents, natural disasters, fires, auto accidents, legal problems, emotional breakdowns, divorce, discontinued fabric, broken machines, and postal strikes. The white bus brings prayed-for pregnancy (with triplets!), the spouse’s promotion and transfer to a different region, the daughter’s engagement and wedding plans. A bus will eventually hit us all. No matter what you do, you can’t prepare for it all, but if you address the right issues you may still get your dresses.

What do you really need?

Before you begin making any dress plans, analyze your school’s needs. First, how important will team dresses be in your school? Is yours a “solo school” with little team dancing? The school dress is a step up from skirt-and-blouse but once outgrown, generally not replaced. Dancers with solo dresses wear them for performances and parades.

Or, do you have a “team school”? All dancers are required to dance figures and school dresses are worn for performances and parades.

Most school fall somewhere between the two extremes, but deciding how central the dress will be to your school image will help you to develop workable solo/team dress policies. Will your dancers have to “earn” (reach a particular level of competition, such as preliminary championship) solo dresses or will each dance family have the option to purchase a solo dress whenever they feel like it (within your dance organization’s rules, of course)?

Will the school (or some booster organization) be subsidizing dress costs? For instance, you may choose to apply performance fees towards dress expenses. Besides facilitating dress purchase, this may allow the school to stake partial ownership of the dress to prevent sale outside of the school.

What is your overall costume plan? What will the new students (who haven’t yet committed themselves to ID) wear? Generally it is the skirt-blouse outfit. Some schools have a skirt made; others select a skirt & blouse from a uniform catalog or just leave it up to the parents to find something appropriate. In my observation, the uniform catalog option works best. Even if it eventually costs more than a “custom” skirt, parents feel better about purchasing “real” clothes. They can justify the expense – dd can always wear the outfit if she gives up ID.

The main school dress will be around for years. Changing it will be very disruptive, even if there is strong dislike for the dress throughout the school. It is tempting to try to design a dress that will be all things to all dancers and suitable for every opportunity that arises. There is pressure to have a dress that is as fancy/glitzy/jazzed-up as those on the podium at major competitions.

Some feel the need to provide a less-embellished version of the school dress, a “junior” dress for older beginners (often some sort of jumper with embroidery on the bodice).

And don’t forget about special “performance” costumes used for shows or recitals. Typically, these are more “Riverdance-y” and not stiffly embroidered.

Adults need their own dresses that are more tolerant of a “full figure”.

And so it goes. But is all this necessary? For a new school, to start, all you really need is some sort of beginner option(s) and a team dress. All the others can be added as needed. (Just be sure you anticipate the need and start early.) Even though changing the design of the team dress is difficult, if you start simple you can gradually add in an “improved” version of the team dress for “senior” teams that will be dancing in major competitions. The older style dresses can eventually become the “junior” dress.

After you analyze your school’s needs, take some time to analyze your TCRG’s needs as well. The TCRG needs to decide his/her role in the costume drama. After the dress has been designed, approved and ordered, it is common for the TCRG to wish to “back out” and just let it happen. Complete withdrawal is not possible. Much of the ordering process can be delegated; however the TCRG remains the final authority. There will be situations in which the dancer and DM disagree. Many of these problems and issues can be anticipated and covered in the fitting, construction and embellishment standards document. But there will still be tough decisions which result in either an unhappy parent or DM. Try to avoid it and the DM and parent will be angry and you could lose both.

Fitting, Construction and Embellishment Standards

Your objective is to present your definition of a well made dress and to itemize the points of agreement that you have worked out with the DM. I want to make clear that I am not advocating that you dictate to the DM how she should conduct business. What I am suggesting is that you decide what you expect. The DM may agree to it or not. Or she may have a different approach that would work for both of you. This is not meant to be a hostile document to be used against a DM. It is meant to specify exactly what you want so the DM won’t have to guess. Most DMs really want to please their clients. If done correctly, the document will outline exactly what it will take to do that. It will cover common “what if” situations and clearly state who is responsible for what. This will be the place to state what payments are due to whom and when the fees should be paid.

Fitting standards will protect both you and the DM. Many parents pressure the DM to construct the dress too large (“room to grow”). The result is a dumpy-looking, sagging dress that twirls around the dancer. To look best, the ID dress must fit snugly to support the skirt. Otherwise it hangs from the shoulders, the sides of the skirt fold in towards the front, and the skirt spins at the waist. Since the DM is being paid by the parent, she may feel she should comply with the customer’s wishes. However, if a fitting standard is available, the parent will know beforehand what has been agreed upon. The fitting standards should provide a reasonable range that will accommodate just about any age, size, shape and allow the DM and parent to work together to make a dress that will be acceptable within the school. Extremely unusual cases can be addressed individually but will necessitate TCRG consultation. You may also find you need different ranges based upon a dancer’s maturation/size/potential for more growth. You want to be flexible and take advantage of the DM’s expertise.

“Ease” is the term DMs use for the “how much bigger than the body measurement” they make parts of the dress. For instance, if your chest is 40” and I make your dress with a 40” bust, you will not be comfortable, able to breathe or move much. Some ease is required. An experienced ID dressmaker can help you set a range (or ranges). Setting them down in writing, beforehand, and giving them to the parents will anticipate many conflicts. Consider ease guidelines for the bust, waist and (for younger dancers) the shoulders. It is also good to detail hand/wrist points between which the sleeve should fall.

Skirt length is the most difficult to specify because there are several ways to measure “above the knee”. Pick one – kneeling is probably least open to misunderstanding – and then specify a range (X” to Y” above the floor). Again, you may have different ranges depending upon age/size.

Standardizing how/who measures your dancers is the key to adhering to the fitting guidelines that are mutually set between you and your chosen dressmaker(s). You cannot have ten people measuring ten dancers in ten different ways and expect a DM, no matter how competent, to fit each dancer well or consistently. You will need to work with your DM. If she is local she will probably measure the dancers herself. If you have chosen to use an overseas or long-distance DM, you will heed to be trained in how measurements are expected to be taken. EVERY DRESSMAKER WANTS DIFFERENT MEASUREMENTS TAKEN DIFFERENT WAYS. Even if your DM is local, it is a good idea to have someone within your school trained in taking measurements for the dressmaker. Growth-spurt emergencies happen and it will facilitate things if the DM doesn’t have to come back to re-measure. Both DM and parent should keep copies of the measurements.

Your construction/ordering standards are statements of how you want your dresses made and how the ordering process will work. You will discuss and come to an agreement with your DM about each specification. At a minimum:

1) Specify your base fabric(s) – type, color, manufacturer(s), product code(s)
2) Skirt/bodice/sleeve lining(s)
3) Interfacing(s) – list dress pieces that you want interfaced and the type of interfacing you want used
4) Stiffener – specify where stiffener should be used and the type/amount.
5) Seam Allowances – specify amount at key seams for easy alteration (center back, bodice sides, bodice waist, skirt waist, sleeve, etc.)
6) Sleeve hem – how much?
7) If the bodice princess seams/darts must align with the center front panel, say so.
8) Seam finish – do you care if all your seams are finished and how? Pay particular attention to exposed seams in the skirt. Should they be bound? What about the back zipper- do you want the zipper in the skirt finished with the lining so that it doesn’t show during kick up?
9) What happens if dancer grows before the dress is finished? (Commonly an alteration fee will apply.)
10) How/when can a dress be cancelled?
11) If multiple dresses are ordered, who decides on priority?
12) Bodice lining – do you want the bodice interlined or bag lined?
13) Sleeve lining?

Chapter 2 to follow soon.

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