Friday, November 14, 2008

A Nightmare Dress

No, the dress itself was not a nightmare to make. The title of this post just refers to the origin of the design. A friend of mine was feeling a little stressed about the prospect of making/finding the costumes for herself and her daughters for Halloween this year. I was feeling up for a challenge, so I took on one of the more intimidating costumes: the Sally dress. Here is the image my friend’s daughter provided for me:

The basic requirements for this dress were that it should look like the dress from the movie, both in color and fit, and that it should be made well enough to be worn more than once and be passed down to the younger sisters. Many commercially available costumes bore more of a resemblance to a circus tent—garishly colored and shapeless. My plan was to make the dress using patchwork and appliqué methods, using as a base pattern the design for a dress I made for Eve in The Diaries of Adam and Eve (performed at an extremely family-oriented theatre, hence the need for the title characters to wear clothing). Fortunately Sally had pretty much the same measurements as Eve, so that simplified matters somewhat!

First, I drew out the overall plan for the front and back, including using my 9th grade geometry skills to draw parallel grain lines on each section. The dress is bias cut, to allow for a nice fit without excess construction seams—there would be enough seams in this dress anyway! I traced each section, along with the grain lines and any placement markings, to individual pattern pieces, and added seam allowances where necessary.

Next, the fabric. There are a lot of pieces, and a lot of colors, and I didn’t want to waste money or fabric by buying strips of cloth for each color, and then end up with a bunch of extra. Plus, I wasn’t sure how well I could find fabrics of the right colors. So I bought a couple yards of unbleached 108” muslin and some dyes. After prewashing and drying the fabric, I laid out the pattern pieces roughly, and drew section lines (all lines I drew were either parallel or perpendicular to the selvedges). I also marked each section with a code indicating which color it should be, and sewed around the edges to prevent fraying. Then, armed with Dylon cold-water dyes and a number of white dollar-store wastebaskets, I set up a dye shop in my bathtub.

I chose the Dylon dyes because they seemed much better suited to multiple small batch dye jobs than the other dyes in the stores. Almost none of the sections were supposed to be the colors indicated on the dye packets, so I mixed powders, dyed lighter sections for shorter times than directed, and dyed and redyed darker sections. The sections I had the most difficulty with were the maroon and brown. I ended up getting some navy blue dye and overdying those sections to try to get them a little darker. The end results were not quite the colors from the movie, but coordinated well together and were still much better than the circus-y commercial dresses!

After cutting and marking the pieces, I drew swirls, stripes, and dots on several pieces (using a black permanent fabric marker), fused the brown dots and pink square to their sections, then taped my master plan of the front to a door by my sewing machine and got to work. If pressed, I could recreate the order in which the sections were sewn together, but for now I’ll just say it was a logical progression. The front went together very quickly and easily. The back was a little slower…because I’d forgotten to put notches on any of the pieces. Even so, it still went pretty quickly. When I sewed the front to the back at shoulders and sides, I left a section under the left arm where a zipper could easily be added, if necessary. Since this is a bias-cut dress, and bias needs to settle, I hung the dress overnight at this point.

The next day, I hung the dress on a door, set up my laptop nearby with the concept image displayed, grabbed my scissors, and started cutting. I have seen other versions of Sally’s dress where the lower edge was cut at angles and hemmed, but I felt that, A) that method looks awkward and bulky, rather than ragged and torn, and B) That method looks like a pain in the neck. So I just cut the hemline and sleeve edges, mimicking the concept image as closely as possible. After I finished cutting, I applied a healthy dose of Fray-Check to all raw edges. Fray-Check is supposed to be washable, but I did advise my friend that it may need to be re-applied in the future.

So, the dress is sewn, the edges are finished…should be done, right? Well, here’s where I started to get a little carried away. In the movie, the black thread used to sew the patches together is visible. Now, I did use black thread when I was sewing, but even if I had, say, zigzagged along the seams on the outside, tiny little black threads just wouldn’t show up. So I dug out some black yarn and a fairly large-holed sharp needle…and started hand-sewing big black stitches along the seams.

After a few, enough to get the idea across, I sent a picture to my sister and asked what she thought. She liked it, but said I’d better do the same thing across the rest of the seams. My fingers were a little sore by the time I was done, but it really did look good!

As I mentioned before, I left a spot in the left seam for a zipper, just in case. My plan was to try the dress on my friend’s daughter, then put in some darts and a zipper if she wanted it more fitted. However, I think I scared her off of that idea when she tried it on. I mentioned that the darts would probably give a slightly off-set appearance to some of the designs and seams. So Sally, weighing the designs against the fitting, opted not to have the darts.

So, lessons learned:
1. It is harder than I thought to get deep colors on cotton using cold-water dyes.
3. Maybe a thimble wouldn’t be such a bad idea next time I’m trying to stab worsted-weight yarn through muslin.
4. Probably would have been better to fit a plain muslin shell to Sally, then use that as the basis for the pattern. If I had incorporated the darts from the beginning, we could have had both the designs and the fitted look.

All in all, though, I like the dress!