I have been getting many requests for access to the info I have written over the past few years, so I have decided to re-open this blog to allow that.  I have not re-posted everything like the family stuff and some of my more snarky rants, but the dressmaking stuff is here.  I have only re-posted the alignment stuff that pertains to dressmaking.

I have actually stopped making dresses for the moment.  I got sick (again!) back in November, and the bricks banging on my skull finally made it clear that I am allergic to stress!!!  (Picture a full-blown diva nerve storm here…)  I have been wrestling with my perceptions of “stress.”  I/we Americans (?) think of stress as being an excuse for weenies to cop out.  However, after one lecture from my doc in which he made it clear that he perceives stress to be a real and potentially destructive thing, I finally had the guts to start saying no.  There are so many events and reasons that have contributed to my feeling that my dressmaking had become a burden instead of a joy…none of them worth re-hashing.  For now, I am not a dressmaker.

Instead, I am happily enjoying my newest endeavor of creating, digitizing and embroidering designs for Irish dance dresses.  All of that is here:  Taoknitter Arts.

And now that life is calmer (each new set of tests confirms my health), I am feeling the impulse to write again.  I shall see how it goes.

Hmmm, the wheels are turning…

Trying a couple of new things and feeling like writing!

Current happenings:

I have an assistant!  In 3 days she has made such an unbelievable difference in my LIFE that I have been …oh, I hesitate because I might jinx it…but…I have been SLEEPING!!!  Really, truly sleeping!  No waking up in the middle of the night to go over all of the things that I need to do, no jerking awake because I forgot to do something or thought I forgot something.  No waking up simply to lie there and stress and fuss and fizzle.  The first night that I slept for 10 HOURS straight, I woke up in a panic because it was light outside and I was sooooo confused!

As another friend Lynette put it, this woman is not my assistant, she’s my gift!  She wants to remain anonymous for the time being, and I will respect that.  But when she’s ready to be outed, there will be fireworks!  I actually think I should call her my partner.

I have also started doing a lot more digitizing.  We will have full Feisdress design packets for various embroidery machines so folks can do it themselves.  Also working on just having some Celtic knot work…I haven’t forgotten you, my testers, just a bit behind.  I am working at the moment with Kris on a Feisdress design…always a challenge to work long distance on files for a machine different than mine.  Kris is helping me SOOOO much.  Another gift!

And I have another little, errr, somthin’ or other…that’s what got me to the keyboard here.  I think I will need to write about it, about the process.  For the moment, tho, I am still cogitating as it gets going.

Off to the magic fabric store!!!!

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?

My Guard Garb

So after I wrote “Now, off to guard the gates…should I wear my armor or an ID dress with feathers!!?” at the end of the last post, I did try half-heartedly to find a pic of something amusing.  I kept coming back to liking costumes from “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” which has always been one of my all time favorite movies, but decided not to post any.

Then, just now, Katie (mendylady) posts: “Definitely feathers.  and hologram lame.  and platforms with goldfish. ;P  Have you watched Priscilla, Queen of the Desert at all recently?”

HA!!  Great minds…so here is my guard garb!




There is something perversely appropriate about these costumes for this job, wouldn’t you say?

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  

Teal Solo Dress

Another custom solo dress walked out the door today. Fastest one yet!

Epilogue: Diary of a Daft Dressmaker


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