Belated Floral Birthday Dress

There’s a bit of a tradition in the sewing community of sewing a new outfit for a special occasion—for once-in-a-lifetime events like weddings and proms and graduations, as you might imagine, but also for those smaller milestones like birthdays and vacations to new places. Not everyone does this, of course, nor even the majority of people who sew, but it’s a ritual I’ve seen a fair few sewists indulge in, and I’ve secretly cherished the idea of doing it myself for rather a long time.

The trouble is, I always think to do it as the date of the event is closing in, when it’s only a week or two a way, which simply isn’t enough time (for me) to do a special project any kind of justice. Not without an excess of wailing and hair-pulling, anyway. I’m generally self-aware enough not to create that kind of stress for myself around an occasion I’m particularly looking forward to, so year after year I watch my birthday, and my dream of a birthday dress, come and go.

Not so in 2019, however. This time, I was determined to start early and finish with time to spare. I was helped considerably by having a strong idea of what I wanted right out of the gate: a 70s-style mini dress in a floral print, preferably with a gathered sleeve, maybe with a ruffle somewhere. I suspect I was influenced by the True Bias Roscoe Blouse and the Friday Pattern Co. Wilder Gown, or more specifically Allie’s mashup of the two.

Fortunately for me, I found what I was looking for more or less instantly in Butterick 6705. I chose View B, which offers a shorter length, sleeves gathered by elastic at the wrist, a bound neckline, and a double flounce at the hem. The relaxed waist and hip and flared hem are balanced by the peaked empire waist and bust gathers, which provide shaping around the chest. The raglan sleeves keep things on the casual side.

The fabric is a polyester crepe from JoAnn. I briefly considered a slightly more graphic design with black-and-white line art flowers on a solid background, but loved the dark green of this floral too much to pass up, and besides, if ever there was a time to lean into a softer, more romantic style, this seemed like it.

Despite its textured face, the polyester crepe has a smooth back that, when combined with the fabric’s thinness and fluid drape, made it an absolute pain to cut and pin. I did try to starch it with a homemade spray starch solution, but was too impatient for it to dry before trying to press it, and I ended up foregoing starch on all but the two bodice pieces. It really would have been better to wait, and if I use polyester crepe again I’ll factor in time for starching and drying before cutting.

I cut a size 10 at the bust, grading to a size 12 at the waist and hip. I removed 2″ from the lengthen/shorten line above the waist and below the hip, shortening the dress by a total of 4″. I made the decision to shorten in both places based primarily on my CustomFit measurements, which have separate lengths for “waist to armhole” and “waist to hip” that I compared to the finished garment measurements, but also based on the principle that it’s generally a good idea to split such large differences over multiple areas to avoid any weirdness at the seams.

For the sewing itself, I had no issues with a 70/10 universal needle and polyester thread. The pattern instructions didn’t offer any suggestions on how to finish the raw edges of the center front bodice seam, so I extended the narrow hem that’s used on either side of the front neckline slit. The rest of the raw edges are finished with French seams, and each flounce has a tiny rolled hem.

Stitching the narrow binding on the neckline was a beast, but worth it because I like that finish. As with my Archer shirt, I opted to sew the binding to the wrong side first, then wrap it to the outside and stitch in place from the right side; if the stitches don’t go through the binding on the outside, I have to go back and re-stitch them anyway to secure the binding, but if they don’t land “in the ditch” on the inside, who cares? Nobody can see it anyway.

My only complaint with the pattern, and it’s only a very minor quibble, is that the two-piece sleeves are designed to be eased, but there’s only one notch indicating where the easing should end, instead of two notches like you’d find on a princess seam.

In terms of improvements, I wish I’d gotten the zipper to lay a little more smoothly and stop a little closer to the top of the dress. I also hope to one day be able to sew on hooks and eyes competently. These ones are okay, though they’re a little more visible than I would have liked. Because the neckline is so high in the front, I will sometimes leave the front closure undone like you see in the last photo.

On the flip side, I’m proud of how the flowers accidentally lined up quite neatly across the front slit, since (as you can see from the rest of the dress) I didn’t even bother to try pattern matching.

The only way in which this dress could be said to have missed the mark was that I didn’t have it done in time for my birthday. As I approached the day of, which I planned to celebrate with a small group of friends at a local game cafe, I realized that all of the painstaking pinning I was having to do was slowing me down, and I was going to have to really sprint to get the neckline binding and the flounces completed. But after visiting the cafe and realizing it was going to be far too cold inside to wear an unlined, artificial-fiber dress comfortably, I decided to cut myself some slack and finish after the party (which also gave me more time to focus on making a cake, so win–win).

Not to worry, though—my birthday dress dreams were not, in fact, dashed, as I ended up having a second birthday celebration with my family during our Thanksgiving holiday. The dress garnered many compliments and was wonderfully accommodating of my turkey-day indulgences.

While I don’t see myself having the wherewithal to make a new frock for every special occasion, I might be contemplating making a travel wardrobe for our next big vacation, which will likely be so far into the future that I will surely have at least even odds of achieving my sewing ambitions.

Reciprocity

The first designer item I owned was a Vera Bradley purse I received from my parents for my high school graduation. Over the years my mom, my sister, and I each gathered a small collection of Vera Bradley bags and accessories in a smattering of colors and patterns. Despite our varying needs and tastes, we all agreed that the bucket bag was an eminently practical choice whenever you needed to carry the usual wallet, keys, phone, and personal items, but also sunglasses, two water bottles, an entire packet of tissues, a book, and maybe a snack.

My mom liked the bucket bag she owned, but wanted one in a solid color. After sweetly dropping hints both to me and to my sister to relay to me, I figured it was time I put my skills (such as they are) to use to make that wish a reality.

Fortunately, my sister had an old bag that was too worn out to carry around anymore, which she graciously sacrificed to my seam ripper. By taking the bag apart over several days and photographing each step, I was able to understand the construction and use the pieces as templates for a new bag.

The bag has an exterior zipper pocket, an interior zipper pocket, and three interior open-top pockets. It closes with a magnetic button. The straps are fixed. There’s a sleeve in the bottom of the bag for an insert to stabilize the base so that it doesn’t sag and the bag can stand up on its own; I took the insert from the deconstructed bag, which is just a piece of mat board or heavy cardboard, for use in my re-creation.

I didn’t make any modifications to the design or size, but I did opt to use a thick stable knit with a quilt-like pattern (leftover from this cosplay) for the shell instead of quilting together plain cottons. The lining is a polyester silky solid that I’d bought several years/moves ago for an ill-fated Sorbetto top.

I definitely saved on quilting time as a result of using a a “pre-quilted” fabric, but toward the end it was a challenge to feed the many layers of thick fabric through my machine. For the straps, my attempts to sew a tube and turn it right-side-out proved disastrous. I ended up cutting new straps, sewing one edge right sides together, opening the seam out, folding under the raw edges, and topstitching them in place, then topstitching the first seam to match. I didn’t even attempt to machine-stitch the bias binding that encloses the last raw edges on the inside bottom of the bag, preferring instead to wrestle everything into submission with hand-stitching.

If I were to attempt it again—and I think I might—I’d use a thinner shell fabric, but otherwise the construction is straightforward and didn’t require any special tools or techniques.

Judging by her reaction, my mom was pretty pleased with the outcome, and this bag has joined the rotation with her other favorites. For myself, I’m glad I could reciprocate the gift of a good bag that she once gave to me.

Another Handmade Christmas

This is it, folks! This is the final post documenting things I made last year. After this, I can move on…to catching up from the first quarter of 2019…

I admire anyone whose holiday traditions—whatever holiday it may be—involves making gifts for their loved ones or community members. My gift-making ambitions have always grossly exceeded my available time, resources, and common sense, but in 2018 I managed to make a few little things for some of my favorite people.

Up first, and by request, bowl cozies! From top to bottom, these went to my sister, my mom, and my sister-in-law Heather and her wife Elaina.

Two bowl cozies with a yellow and grey floral exterior fabric and a solid yellow interior fabric

Two bowl cozies with a taupe and cream abstract patterned exterior fabric and taupe and cream dotted interior fabric

Two bowl cozies with light and medium blue tie-dye patterned interior and exterior fabrics

My mom saw these at a craft fair but didn’t see any in a fabric she liked, so she sent me a text suggesting they might be an easy and well-received gift. I used instructions from Happy Hour Stitches, but you can find the details on any number of sites—in fact, Helen’s Closet just posted a tutorial a little over a week ago in a new series on scrap-busting.

My sister’s bowl cozies were made with leftover fabric (you may recognize it from her casserole carrier from the previous Christmas); the others were made with fat quarters from JoAnn. I already had 100% cotton batting on hand, but I needed to purchase 100% cotton thread to stitch everything up, as polyester could melt or scorch in the microwave.

Each recipient’s bowl pair of bowl cozies was served up with a bag of soup mix.

Three pairs of nested bowl cozies, each holding a bag of pre-packaged soup mix

The other gift was for a secret Santa exchange among the members of my D&D group. By sheer coincidence I paired with Jorren, the amazing illustrator from the art exchange. He had been working hard on multiple projects leading up to December, including prints for a holiday pop-up shop and several commissions. I wanted to show my appreciation for his work, so I picked a couple of art-themed gifts: a graphic novel called Junji Ito’s Cat Diary: Yon & Mu and a set of Pentel Arts Aquash brushes.

I needed something to round the package out, and Jorren had just debuted his freelance graphic design business, Mind Fuzz, so I got it in my head that I needed to put his logo on something. Trouble was, he wasn’t using the logo as his profile image, and I couldn’t very well ask him for a copy of it without tipping him off to my plan.

In ninja-hacker fashion, I found a photo that he shared of a t-shirt screen-printed with his logo and proceeded to manipulate it in Photoshop and Illustrator until I had a black-and-white vector image that I could scale and print as a template. I transferred the template to a remnant of black poly cotton blend, embroidered the outlines of the letterforms, and then sewed up the embroidered fabric into a sturdy pouch with a brass zipper. Ta-da!

A black zippered pouch with outline of the words "Mind Fuzz" embroidered in white in a circle in the center of the pouch

I followed instructions provided by Jedi Craft Girl, but as with the bowl cozies, there are countless examples of this and similar pouches online. My pouch is lined with the same black fabric as the shell and interlined with 100% cotton batting to hold its shape. The embroidery is regular old DMC floss in white, stitched up using a hoop and a crewel needle.

A black zippered pouch with the zipper opened to reveal a cleanly finished interior lined in the same black fabric

I ignored the dimensions in the instructions; they were too small for my purposes. My pouch is slightly smaller than I intended at 9 inches tall by 11 inches wide (at the top), but is large enough to fit Jorren’s preferred style of travel notebook, along with a handful of pencils or pens.

Just for fun, I had Justin put together a GIF of the progress shots:

No last-minute sewing, I didn’t drive myself crazy, and everyone loved their gifts—success!

A Short Entry on Pajama Shorts

When I finished muslining McCall’s 7324, I had about as much leftover fabric as I’d used for the top. And since my muslin wasn’t wearable, I thought I’d have another go at some kind of top to make up for it. Despite the fact that I myself professed this navy fabric closer to a quilting cotton than to the shirting it was marketed as, I foolishly latched onto the idea of making a ruffle top following this Megan Nielsen tutorial (and brought to my attention by this Peneloping blog post).

It was a hilariously abject failure. For starters, I didn’t actually have enough fabric, which makes for some sad not-really-ruffles. The fabric was entirely too stiff, so it hung like a paper bag. The cheerful yellow bias tape I used around the armholes was also too stiff and didn’t want to stay rolled to the inside, and even though it was mostly hidden it managed to tip the entire thing from playful and cute into clownish territory in my mind.

So…I cut both the failed top and the muslin apart again and made pajama shorts.

The front of a pair of drawstring pajama shorts hanging on a dress form

The back of a pair of drawstring pajama shorts hanging on a dress form

I used Simplicity 1520, the same pattern as my tartan pajama pants, along with my trusty pocket template. There’s something deeply satisfying about a well-sewn pocket, even a very simple in-seam one.

A close-up of the pocket opening in a pair of drawstring pajama shorts hanging on a dress form

I incorporated all of the after-the-fact modifications I made to my flannel pants, which made this relatively quick and simple to whip up. I have vague recollections of unnecessarily complicating the sewing of the elastic/drawstring casing, but I’m positive it was for no good reason whatsoever, so I won’t try to recall what I did or didn’t do here.

Everything was sewn on my regular sewing machine, and then the edges were finished on my serger. There’s both an elastic and a drawstring at the waist; the drawstring is just a strip of the main fabric with the raw edges tucked in, sewn flat, and then knotted at each end. The elastic and drawstring were threaded through buttonholes (reinforced with interfacing, which you can see peeking out in the shot below) in the casing.

A pair of pajama shorts turned inside-out on a dress form to reveal in-seam pocket bags and the stitching throughout

The finished pajama shorts fit just fine, but I haven’t actually worn them yet. We keep the house too cold in the late fall, winter, and early spring for shorts (for me, at least), and even in the warmer months you’re more likely to find me wearing loose, lightweight pants than shorts indoors. If I don’t find myself reaching for these come summer, at least they’re made well enough that I wouldn’t feel guilty about donating them.

Sage Sleeveless Summer Blouse

Caitlyn is standing on residential sidewalk wearing a sleeveless summer blouse, white jeans, nude pumps, and sunglasses

Caitlyn is turned to the side to show the deep armhole, voluminous fit, and high-low hem of her sleeveless summer blouse

Now this is the kind of summer top I dream of. The fabric is a beautifully smooth, soft, and drapey mystery material that my mom (hi Mom!) gave me when she was clearing out her sewing and craft supplies. I’m not sure what she originally bought it for; I can’t recall anything she’s made out of it. The smooth hand and fluid drape remind me of rayon challis, although Allie’s Fabric Files says that wrinkles will fall out of rayon challis within a few minutes of wear, and that’s definitely NOT the case with this material. It loves a good steamy press, but also seems to wrinkle from my body heat alone. Perhaps it’s linen or a linen blend?

To keep the fabric from slithering away from me during cutting and sewing, I filled a dollar store spray bottle with homemade spray starch (made by boiling cornstarch in water) and applied it liberally while pressing. It made a huge difference in how the fabric handled: it remained crisp and even a little grippy throughout the sewing process.

The pattern is a heavily altered McCall’s 7324. I mentioned the modifications I intended to make after muslining the pattern, but here’s a rundown of the changes that happened on the final garment:

  • Cut a size 10 instead of a size 6
  • Narrow the shoulders by 1 inch
  • Deepen the armhole by 0.5 inches
  • Eliminate the vertical pleat extending from the placket
  • Eliminate the gathers along the front neckline between the placket and the shoulder, which necessitated the following compensating changes:
    • Change the shape of the placket opening from a trapezoid (narrow at the top, wider at the bottom) to a V
    • Change the length and angle of the placket bands to match the new opening, ensuring the bottoms of the bands will be horizontal when stitched in place
    • Shorten the neckband (which looks like a collar stand)

I also left the hem curve alone this time instead of trying to shorten the back. A little butt coverage isn’t such a bad thing.

Caitlyn has her back to the camera to show how the curved hem of McCall's 7324 provides full bum coverage

The top is quite voluminous. With the relaxed fit, going up one size would have been sufficient. I also didn’t account for the fact that a two-size increase would change the armhole, so while taking in the shoulder width was definitely a good call, scooping out the bottom of the armhole an extra half-inch wasn’t necessary. In fact, as you probably noticed in the second photo, raising or moving my arms reveals a peek of bra band. I don’t care that much when I’m wearing the top casually, but I’ll throw on a camisole underneath if I’m in a more conservative setting. I’d love to make an obnoxiously colored bralette to wear with it—I keep envisioning orange—because FASHION.

On the inside, I stitched everything on my sewing machine, then finished the side and shoulder seams with my serger and the armholes with self-fabric bias tape. (Starch is the only thing that made bias tape possible, and even then, I’ve got a few spots of wobbly stitching where the raw edge has come untucked. I have no idea how anyone can make bias tape out of things like silk…) The hem is a baby hem made using Carolyn’s instructions.

I think that’s everything? Here are a few up-close shots:

A detail shot of the v-shaped placket and shoulder gathers of her modified McCall's 7324 sleeveless summer blouse

A detail shot of the gathers at the back neckline of the McCall's 7324 sleeveless summer blouse

A detail shot showing the high-low hem of the McCall's 7324 sleeveless summer blouse

A detail shot showing the baby hem used on the McCall's 7324 sleeveless summer blouse

I’m much happier with the gathers on this iteration, and my topstitching on the neckband is marginally better this time. I wore this beauty about once a week from the time it was done until a cardigan wasn’t enough to make it warm. I don’t exactly look forward to summer here in the south, but being able to throw on a cool, comfortable top I made takes a bit of the sting out of it—it’s the closest I’m ever going to come to looking stylish while sweating buckets.