For the past few years I have had the opportunity to volunteer for the Marin Symphony Gala, which is the perfect excuse to make an over-the-top gown (not that I need much of an excuse)!
Last year I spent a lot of time hand beading a suit made of a linen/silk jacquard. The year before, I made a periwinkle strapless gown, and the year before an emerald green Ceil Chapman design that I made my own.
This year I took my first adult vacation and spent a few wonderful days in New York City! Of course, a lot of my time was spent wandering around the garment district, where I found this amazing silk/wool cherry print.
It was clearly destined to be this dress, although I did not realize it at the time. It was only after I returned home and realized I had less than a month to put something together that I realized how perfect the cherry print would be for a gala gown!
Step 1: Mocking Up the Muslin
I found about four pattern options that I loved, and narrowed it down to two. I love the dropped waist of the strapless gown, but really love those sleeves, too, so I combined the two bodices and kept the full skirt from the strapless design.
But first I had to figure out what to do with a pattern piece that measures approximately one inch! These things are seriously tiny. But it certainly is refreshing to only have one or two pages to print out (I am NOT a fan of the PDF pattern)!
The straight lines were easy to draft, but a couple of the curves (those sleeves, for instance!) were challenging to figure out - I wish there were a few more points of reference in those areas. That being said, the mini pattern pieces from Éclair-Coupe Paris are genius.
Since these patterns do not include seam allowances, I decided to go for it and try out Susan Khalje’s couture method and thread traced the stitching lines, leaving excess seam allowances to play with.
The next step was to combine the two bodices from the two separate designs. After matching the waistline of both, I traced off and marked the differences. The darts matched up very well, which was a good sign!
The massive skirt pieces posed a different challenge. Those tiny little pattern pieces ended up creating a full skirt that ends about knee length. Extending straight lines is not a problem, but they do not include the pleats. That is fine, except the only image I had to work with was a stylized drawing!
And then, these patterns do not come with directions. An added challenge, for sure, but that is why I love sewing - there is always something new to learn.
These days, I do not pay a whole lot of attention to the given directions, but it is nice to know they are there, just the same. There are hints on the pattern pieces, of course, but I was very grateful for a practice run. This time around, my muslin was as much a test for my order of construction as it was for fit.
Step 2: Gala.corselette
I knew that a foundation layer was going to be needed with an off-the-shoulder dress that dips in the front and back. A corselette was the perfect solution.
Time for another muslin! I tried a couple of different things with the bust cups, only to go back to the original Vogue 7698, although I did add a bit of coverage to the upper edge. I also added length to the lower edge to match back to the dropped and pointed bodice pieces of the dress.
My underlining is plain old quilting cotton that is leftover from various projects. I ran out of black, so I pulled out some blue.
Instead of attaching the waist-stay after the lining was in place, I placed it between the two layers. I figured this would be more comfortable (especially with the wider grosgrain I chose) and would keep it from digging in at the waist.
But then I needed access to the ends.
My trusty bound buttonholes came to the rescue.
Then, of course, the stay needed a few hook & eyes. I often get lazy and just use a larger skirt hook & eye, but they can dig in a big on the closer fitting stays. So I went the more labor intensive route, and used four small ones.
Step 3: Gala.petticoat
I purchased a black tea length petticoat a few years ago for this dress. It has come in handy, let me tell you! But for this gown, I wanted something extra to help fill out the back half of the skirt.
The corselette/petticoat goes on first, the purchased petticoat sits on top of that, and then the dress is finally put on!
I used my front skirt pattern for the back and front of the petticoat. For a center back opening, I made a fabric placket. The upper edge was finished with rayon seam binding and then hand stitched to the corselette.
The ruffles are made from netting. Netting is 72” wide, so I just used that as my width. Each ruffle was cut twice as wide as needed, plus one or two inches for a seam allowance and to account for folding all that bulk over on itself.
The netting was folded in half (I prefer a folded bottom edge to a raw edge – it looks nicer and poofs more than a single layer), basted together and gathered using that basting stitch.
The gathered ruffle was stitched to the cotton petticoat, facing toward the waistline. The ruffle then was folded down into its proper position, facing downward toward the hemline. Normally, that would be it. But since these ruffles were a bit narrow, they did not want to stay down. To remedy this, I top-stitched each down.
The hem of the petticoat also has horsehair braid stitched into the hem for added body.
Step 4: The Bodice Construction
In many ways, putting the front and back bodice pieces together was the easy part. Even without directions, the construction is pretty basic. Stitch the darts, then side seams, attach it to the skirt, and voila . . . you have a dress. Well, there was a little more involved for this project.
The original designs were cut on the fold at the center back, so presumably, the zipper opening would have to be placed on a side seam. Well, I decided that I would prefer a center back application (easier to get hair and makeup done ahead of time!).
There are a whole lot of points and internal corners (or, flipped upside-down, a v-neckline). Just to make sure I was happy with the process, I tried it out with some muslin scraps.
An internal corner is easily solved with the same technique that reinforces a gusset.
The neckline was originally a scoop neck, but with all of the hip points I added, that one rounded style line looked out of place to me, so I changed it.
Facings are not often used in couture pieces, so I thought I would do my best to avoid them. Of course, I cannot think of another option for certain necklines like scallops, but for this dress, it seemed possible.
That internal corner/gusset procedure would do just fine for the center point on the neckline as well, and do away with the need for a facing. Two problems solved!
But the points were a different issue. I suppose I could have mitered the points, but this way I had a bit more play with the sides and how acute of an angle I wanted, even after the point was reinforced.
In the end, I applied the internal corner patch of organza below the point (think stalactite/stalagmite coming to a point – I am sure there is some mathematical description for the two triangles joining at a single point, but it escapes me).
The center back zipper opening was reinforced with a strip of silk organza. Both the silk/wool and the cotton underlining is fairly stable, but it would have been silly to go to so much trouble with everything else, only to have that seam stretch, right?!
The neckline edges were also stayed with organza – this time with the selvedge.
The bodice lining was cut to end just below the waistline (to which I added a couple of boning channels at the side seams and the front darts).
Once it was finished, the upper edges were hand stitched into place.
Step 5: A Fabulous Set of Sleeves
The sleeve, oh the sleeves! They are one of the main reasons I decided to use the second pattern. Who wants a strapless dress when there are such sleeves to be had!!
Like the rest of the bodice, I underlined them with cotton. I was a tiny bit concerned that they might need more body, but the silk/wool is quite springy, which worked out just fine.
The curved seam allowances were clipped, and catch-stitched in place.
To hem the lower sleeve edge I clipped generously, and turned the raw edges to the inside. Those edges were covered with a length of bias fabric which was fell-stitched to the hem edge, and the raw edge was catch-stitched to underlining to hold it all in place.
My favorite part is covering up all those raw edges with my lining!
To keep the sleeves up, I needed something. The limited references given on the tiny pattern pieces say to “gather” the upper edge.
Instead of following that advice, I pulled in the excess with some fabric covered elastic.
What I came up with is a combination of a scrunchie and a garter. Waistband elastic was covered with the dress fabric, the raw ends tucked inside, and a line of zig-zag stitching kept the elastic in place.
That odd looking thing was then attached at both ends to the sleeve seam, tacked in place at the center point of the elastic and the center point of the upper sleeve edge. The process was repeated, halving the elastic and upper sleeve edge until the excess sleeve was corralled into place. A similar process was used on the lower edge of the sleeve as well (also to help hold them in place).
Step 6: Plenty of Pleats
The pattern pieces do not include pleats. From the illustration, I guess that the front skirt did not have any. So the lower edge width of the skirt front was determined by my fabric width. I squeezed as much as I could out of what I had (the underlining had to be pieced since it was only 44” wide).
For the back, I worked out most of the pleating on my muslin, but I knew it was going to be a little different with my silk/wool.
So these pieces lived on my dress form for a while – the perfect place to keep them out of the way, and safe from a stray clip of the scissors.
Step 7: Where I Hit a Snag
The Wednesday before the event, I decided to take the day off of work and hopefully get most of the dress completed. That would leave a couple of days before and after work to finish up all those extra things that always pop up on a project. (I also had to finish with all of the netting on my petticoat and attach it to the corselette.)
The day started out well, although everything always seems to take twice as long to complete in reality as it does in my head. The skirt was pressed, and most of the basting stitches removed, the bodice was in good shape, the corselette/petticoat was wearable, although I wanted to add a couple more ruffles if time permitted. And then there was the bag . . . but I knew it was unlikely that would ever get finished. Better to have something to wear than all of the accessories, right?!
Then the sun went down. Daylight is so much easier when working with black . . . so that slowed me down. With time ticking away, it was time to make this thing look like a dress and attach the bodice to the skirt!
And that is where everything went wrong.
The basting stitches would rip out before I could get the (rather heavy) dress over my dress form to make sure everything was laying flat and I was happy with the pleat placement. I wanted to avoid using lots of pins because they could easily snag the material, but maneuvering the whole thing was turning out to be a nightmare.
I gave up, and decided I needed to forgive myself for not making the deadline.
And then something happened . . . because I relieved the pressure of a Saturday deadline, somehow it all came together.
Once the pieces were basted together and hand-stitched in place, it was time to close up the back seam. At least it was beginning to look like a wearable dress!
I started with the skirt. Leaving the center back pleat undone, I basted and then hand-picked the zipper, leaving the teeth exposed (this was later covered with that final skirt pleat).
I have been understitching by hand for years – mostly because I have top-stitching paranoia. What if the machine skips a stitch, what about this tiny spaces that are really annoying to work with, etc. Well, if you have a larger than normal amount of fabric to fold under, your under-stitching can be placed further down, ensuring that the lining does not peek out.
Step 8: The Finishing Touches
As I seem to do every year, I was stitching away right until the last minute.
I did add a second (less substantial) waist stay to the dress. The corselette was going to hold me in, but having one on the dress makes zipping it up so much easier! And yes, it is navy blue. That is what I had on hand, and there was no time to go and pick up any black grosgrain.
Mom came over to help with the hem. I had a hand basted line of silk thread where I guessed I would want the fabric turned up, so we started there. Miraculously, the finished hemline was pretty darn close.
I evened out the excess allowance and trimmed away. The hem was catch-stitched to the skirt underlining. Next, I covered that raw edge with some seam binding.
More basting threads to remove, and that was finished around 11:30 p.m. Friday evening.
Step 9: The Finished Dress!
As you probably guessed, I finished the gown - and here it is! (I still cannot believe I got it done on time.)
I also managed to finish a hand-beaded velvet bag the morning of the event. How is that for last minute motivation?!
This is, by far, on of the most labor-intensive projects I have ever worked on, and it will probably be another year before I take on another like it! But it was absolutely worth it.