I wrote this article in September 2020 but have been long overdue in publishing it! I hope you enjoy…
When my friend’s mum asked me if I wanted her old curtains, of course I said yes. Multiple metres of good quality fabric for free?? Why wouldn’t I say yes? Also, using pre-existing fabric is more environmentally friendly than using new fabric, which requires more resources, and it saved it from going to waste. As this fabric has a sheen it doesn’t photograph very well so I didn’t completely know what to expect when they dropped off the very heavy bin bag. When I got the curtains out to look at them I was so excited and I knew exactly what to use them for. My friend is having her birthday party at a certain palace and I needed a dress. It was time for me to be own fairy godmother and bippity-boppity-boo myself an evening dress.
I had had my eye on the vintage Vogue pattern V1094 for quite a while, just waiting for the right occasion. It’s a gorgeous vintage design from 1955 with off-the-shoulder straps and a drop waist. It comes in two lengths but I decided to go with the shorter version.
Before I could get started I had a lot of prep to do. First, I had to dismantle the curtains so that I could wash and press them. I cut away and discarded the curtain rings and separated the lining from the main fabric. I also separated the panels of the curtains and lining so that they would be easier to manage. These were some big curtains!
I also took this opportunity to try out a technique I have seen online to test the fibre content of fabric. It’s a very simple test – you just burn it. Natural fibres tend to burn (but in different ways, cotton turns to ash and wool fibres smell like burning hair) and synthetic fibres melt (because they’re basically plastic).
The outer fabric melted which told me that the fabric had synthetic fibres and that I would have to be more careful when using my iron.
Now that I had washed and pressed the fabric, I could actually get started with construction. As this dress is off the shoulder and has very heavy skirts, the bodice has to be really well fitted so that it doesn’t fall down. To make sure the fit was perfect, I (for the first time ever) made a mock up. Fitting bodices is really difficult to do on yourself so I enlisted the help of my mum.
I was able to use my mock up in my actual bodice which saved me cutting out the pieces again. All I had to do was cut off the sleeve and neckline which corresponded to the outer piece. As the outer bodice piece and the lining are treated as one I took a leaf out of Bernadette Banner’s book and use long basting stitches to pad stitch the pieces together. This stops them from moving around and creating ripples in the finished garment.
Once I’d put together the main bodice I realised there was still a lot of gaping at the top of the back neckline. To fix this, I extended the back darts to the top of the bodice. This did create problems later on as you are supposed to fold down the edge of the lining and finish it binding – I couldn’t do this because my lining was caught up in the darts. As the fabric doesn’t fray badly and I’ll be dry cleaning this dress, I decided to just leave it as a raw edge.
Next, I added the two bands to the neckline. I used a lot of pins to make to the curve was secure. These were simply sewn down then folded over, leaving the raw edge underneath. I am considering adding a few tacking stitches to the band to stop it from flipping up when I raise my arms too high.
The top of the neckline and armholes are finished with a binding. When I made the mockup for the bodice I decided to extend the zip to the bottom of the armhole to make it easier to get in and out of the dress. Because of this, I had to split the armhole binding in half around the left armhole to accommodate the zip.
With the bodice complete, I moved on to the skirt. I did consider putting pockets in this dress but with the combination of the thinness of the fabric and the zip on one side I decided against it. I’m normally a staunch advocate of pockets in dresses but I figured that, as it was an evening event, anything I needed to carry I could put in a handbag.
The construction of the skirt was simple enough: sew all the pieces together, gather it, then sew it onto the waistband then repeat for the lining. However, the combined weight of the two skirts and their over 4m circumference made it pretty unwieldy. The skirt only just fit when laid out on my floor.
Now that the skirts were attached, I could add in the zip. I used a historically-inaccurate invisible zipper which meant I pretty much disregarded the pattern for this step. I still treated the outer and lining skirts as one piece as the pattern instructed but otherwise I treated it as any other invisible zipper installation. As the fabric is quite thick, the zip is a little stiff over the waist seam but it still works! Once I had completed the construction of the dress, I went back and tacked down the edges at the top of the zipper and sewed a hook and eye at the top.
The hem of the main skirt was also pretty simple, just a narrow double-fold hem. The lining, on the other hand, was a bit more involved. It uses horsehair braid, a narrow band of crinoline netting, to give structure to the skirt. The horsehair braid I was able to buy in my local fabric shop was too narrow, and the amount specified by the pattern was far too short. After spending an evening fighting with it (pictured above) I decided to tear it out and buy some new. This time I bought 5m worth – which was more than I needed – and the correct width. I also consulted a Megan Nielsen blog post to learn more about how to properly use horsehair braid. I took her advice and bound the edges of the braid before sewing it in but I kept having issues with the netting getting caught under the needle and scrunching up the braid. It worked in the end but I would love to hear any tips!
Now the skirt was complete, I tried on the dress for a final fitting. As I had anticipated, the weight of the skirt pulled on the bodice, distorting the fit. To fix this, I took in the darts at the back to make the bodice more fitted.
Now I could go in and and the finishing touches. I didn’t quite follow the instructions to the letter when adding the internal belt – I will admit that I just didn’t read the instructions properly and only noticed that the belt is only supposed to be tacked at certain points when I was halfway round hand-basting it in. I didn’t want my handwork to be wasted so I decided to continue with this method. I finished the internal belt with hooks and eyes and tidied up any other loose ends.
I am delighted with how this turned out. The drop waist and off-the-shoulder straps are really flattering and the horsehair braid is really effective for holding out the huge skirt. Like my very own Cinderella story I took something everyday and transformed it into something beautiful – perfect for an evening at a Palace! Unfortunately the party has been delayed due to the pandemic but my dress will wait patiently in my wardrobe until it can happen.