Cocktail Dress part 1 and 2: Adjusting The Bodice and Sleeves

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Sunday, 6 July, 2014

Part 1
To be honest, I have always been a bit afraid of pattern making. My mother used to make dresses using patterns from DIY clothes magazine (mainly Burda :) ), but I've always had a hard time understanding just how to build a pattern based on your own measurements. Cause come on, if you're gonna make the effort to sew your own clothes you want it to fit like a glove! Right? Right! And on top of that I want it to be EXACTLY the way I want. So not an A-line, but a pencil skirt for example. Oh, and add pockets while you're at it.
A few years ago I did take a pattern making course. It was once a week for 5 weeks or so and we would learn how to draw the basic patterns of a dress, skirt and pants. Unfortunately this was a bit too ambitious and we got slammed with pattern after pattern without much of the rationale behind how a pattern is actually built up. And this is essential when you want to make size or design adjustments. One thing that still boggles me is the 'add 3 cm here'. Why? Why in this design and not in the other one? I never got a good explanation for these type of things. In the end I was able to make a decent dress during this course (I have a picture of it in old projects, the green dress with wide skirt at the end), but ask me now and I couldn't tell you how I did it..
I've long since thought I should get back into it. So, last weekend I got my notes, a bunch of trusty old Burda's and a pattern making book and I set out to figure this pattern making out myself! I quickly discarded both my notes (add 3 cm here, huh, why?) and the pattern making book (draw C1 to C2 to C3, then from A1 to C3, what??) and basically stuck with the Burda as a starting point.
First thing to decide: what to make? This is what I truly love about sewing your own clothes, the possibilities are endless! I knew I wanted a dress to start with. I've made several dresses already (although without a pattern) and I think they are relatively easy. Once you get the top fitted, the bottom can be less precise. Unlike pants. I've never made a pair of pants in my life, firstly because I don't have standard measurements around the waste and bum (but is there such a thing as standard, right ladies?) and if you don't get that right,  the fit is just awful. But ok, that's the next challenge. First the dress.

On my trip to the Utrecht fabric market the other day I fell in love with this fabric. It is quite thick and stretchy and I love the semi-geometric pattern and the turquoise details in the design. It was also a bargain at 3 euro a meter! I immediately decided it would be perfect for a tight fitted cocktail dress and took home 2 meter of 1.5 m wide.

Back home I sifted through my Burda's and found this pattern that closely resembled what I wanted. It's a pattern for tight fitted dress with a pencil skirt. The two main differences are that my dress will have sleeves until the elbow instead of full-length and the neckline will be deeper and rectangular. But these are alterations that are very easy to make. 

I remember helping my mom draw out the patterns when I was a child. She was also a fan of Burda and would sew pants suits for herself and dresses for me :)
But staring down at the pattern sheet I initially felt mostly frustration.. But deep breath and go back to the description. Details on how to copy and then sew the pattern pieces together are fairly easy to understand (give or take a few sewing-terms that I also don't understand). Basically you pick your size and draw out the lines of the different pattern pieces. Then copy them onto paper and cut them out and that's your basic pattern. I like to draw out the lines on the pattern sheet first with a thick marker, so I don't make any mistakes when copying (like my mommy used to do :) ) Don't forget the darts!
I started with size 36, because confection size 36 usually fits me quite well. There is also a key in the front of the book where the measurements are given for the different sizes. My measurements would jump between size 36 and 40 (...) so I kind of ignored this for the moment. But I knew that I would have to adjust some things. I would advise to start with a bigger size if you're not sure, you can always take it in later if you have to. 

So, to make the basic pattern I simply copied the Burda pattern. Most people use tracing paper for this. Tracing paper is neat, it's transparent and you can get it with 1 or 2 cm reference markings to make cutting a bit easier. But I like to recycle old newspapers for this. For bigger patterns I taped multiple pieces of paper together (put tape on both sides so it doesn't move around) and I made a simple 1-minute light box to help me trace the lines. This worked perfectly well (Who needs expensive tracing paper ;) ) Copy each piece and cut exactly along the lines. 

Next step: copy the paper pattern onto your fabric. Now, the golden rule when you're making a pattern that's not exactly the right size yet it to use a test fabric. You can then make adjustments with the test fabric and use this to make a new (fits like a glove!) pattern. Doing all this with your nice fabric (especially if it is frail!) you risk damaging it.
As you can see in the picture, I didn't do this. Don't be as stubborn as I was! I didn't have a test fabric in the house and I hoped that my dress fabric would be sturdy enough to take a few alterations. But this is still a big risk! It's ok if you have a lot of extra fabric (but I didn't). Anyway, let's pretend this is a test fabric, ok ;)
So, I used some chalk to outline the edges of the pattern on the fabric. I did the darts (usually triangles, so straight lines) by folding over the paper fabric on each side and then drawing the line along the fold. Cut out the pieces and leave 1 - 1.5 cm along the edges for the seem. 

I sewed the edges and the darts and tried on the (test ;) ) top. As you can see, the waste line is ok, but this pattern is obviously designed for a significantly more busty size 36... So I'll have to take it in. 
Next week I'll show you how I took take off a couple of cup sizes and how to put in the sleeves.
Part 2
So this week comes the first challenge: getting the bodice to fit right. Although the Burda pattern was a great place to start (especially if you're not a pattern-making queen like me), of course it doesn't fit perfectly. 

To get a rough estimate, I tried it on and just stuck a pin in there. With the pin in it's about the right fit. Then I took off the bodice and measured how much to take it in. 

This is why you really need to do this with test fabric... When you make adjustments, you have to undo seems etc and you run the risk of damaging the fabric. I was extremely careful undoing the seem with a ripper. I did get a little nick tough :S But this part is probably going to get cut off later, so no biggie.  

The tricky thing about the bodice I think is that it is asymmetrical (the back of this pattern was much larger than the front; does anyone know why this is??)
Anyway, according to my measurements and my pin, I decided to take off about 2 cm in the front and 5 cm in the back (until the seem). 
This is probably the best tip I can give you: hand-stitch the fabric according to your new measurements before cutting into the fabric. Then try it on to check the fit! If it's not right, you can adjust again. This simple thing has saved me many times from making irreparable mistakes. I use a running stitch in a contrasting color (so it's easy to take out later on).
If the fit is right, cut to the new measurements. You can now copy from your fabric onto your paper pattern and next time it will fit like a glove ;) Leave the test stitch in and use this as a guide to machine stitch. Then use a ripper to take out the test stitch. 

The bodice fits perfectly now! On the downside: the deep neckline that I wanted was based on the original pattern and is now too deep :S. Note to self: don't make adjustments to the neckline before you've done the bodice.. Anyway, we'll take care of that later. First the sleeves!

So, since I changed the top of the bodice I need to do something to the sleeves so it will fit around the armpit. Sleeves are a bit of a mystery to me. I wasn't sure how much to take it in (since I took in the bodice 2 cm at the front, but 5 at the back). I measured everything with a measuring tape and figured out that 2 cm off on each side should get the job done. But just to be sure! I did a test stitch around the sleeve AND attached the sleeve to the bodice and tried it on. 2 cm does the trick! Then took it apart, cut to size and finally machine stitched it. Yes, I never said this was easy..

To attach the sleeve first iron the seem. I used to find ironing seems pretty annoying but, trust me, it the end result is soo much nicer. It's totally worth it. So iron before finally attaching it to the bodice. Turn the sleeve right side out and bodice wrong side out. Stick the sleeve through the arm hole in the wrong direction and attach it by starting at the top and working your way down to the armpit. When you turn everything over, it should all be right side out :)

Sweet! I'm super proud of this already! 
Next time the skirt. Challenge accepted ;)

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