Last night was the medical school ball. I didn’t go to this last year – too expensive – but this year I had dreams for a dress I wanted to make, and of course I needed an excuse for that. So finally I have made a ball dress! I always wanted to make one, one day, right from when I was 14 and admiring the dresses the senior fabrics students at my school made – of course, at the time I thought it was something I would never ever do. But now – success!
I have an awful lot to say about this dress, forgive me. I also have a fair few photos, plus some accessories (which may need a separate post, actually).
Firstly: the inspiration. I love 50s-style dresses a lot, and most of my me-mades are in that fit-and-flare style, but of course for the ball dress I wanted something a bit more than that – something with plenty of flare and plenty of swoosh. I searched around the internet for a while, and collected a file of dresses I liked, and before long it became clear that the common details were a) bold colours and b) contrast lace. Looking back on my image files, it appears the two with the biggest impact were these two:
Both were found on vintagegal‘s tumblr.
I loved the white and red colour combination, but I was limited by what was in the shop – and as I was buying from my favourite op shop, it was a rather smaller selection (they have a LOT of fabric. Whether they have the fabric you want, or the quantity you want, is a different question. Especially when a full circle skirt is in your future). I had two choices for lace, and a couple of colour choices – although this blue fabric was about half the price and twice the quantity of the other fabrics, which was what decided me in the end. All I know about this fabric is that it’s a synthetic – I did a burn test, as I’m terrible at telling fibres apart – and it’s a very lightweight fabric with a slight sheen.
My dress is a frankenpattern of a BurdaStyle March 2013 bodice, circle skirt using By Hand London’s circle skirt app, and self-drafted sleeves. I’m wearing one of my nana’s square dancing petticoats under the skirt, for extra volume (I actually wanted even more volume than this, but didn’t have time to make up another petticoat to add to this. In the end it was fine – I still looked fairly dramatic compared to anyone else there).
So, to construction (which is where I have tons and tons to say…)
In the bodice, I used the blue fabric as an underlining for the lace. Although the blue fabric is slightly translucent, and I’d probably want to line it if I was to wear it alone (I’ve been wondering if it may actually be intended to be a lining itself), I decided that with the lace over the top it would be sufficiently opaque not to need one. Instead I drafted a facing – when I’ve made this before, it’s been lined, so if the original had a facing I didn’t trace it. I possibly made the facing too narrow – it’s about 1 1/2-2″ wide, and it likes to flip out.
Because I was underlining, I had a bunch of hand basting to do before starting the dress proper – I rather like hand sewing, but it does make things take longer. Fortunately, I have a weekly craft night with some friends of mine, where I need some form of hand craft – sewing machines are slightly less sociable. So I got most of the basting done there, and could start the actual sewing soon after. When basting, I basted up the middle of the darts, to make sure the lace got caught in the tip. It worked pretty well.
I decided that a fancy dress deserves fancy insides, so I bias-bound most of the bodice seams (barring a couple where it was too difficult for me) and french-seamed the skirt and sleeves.
(as you can see, I used white thread to sew everything – I didn’t have the right colour of blue, and you can only tell in the skirt, everywhere else it’s hidden).
I’m really into sleeves at the moment. Not that I especially like sewing them, but I really love wearing things with sleeves. Perhaps because I’ve never had dresses with sleeves before? I don’t know. So of course I put sleeves on this, and of course the sheer lace looks wonderful.
The swoop of lace on the skirt was something I always wanted in this dress. I worried a lot, after buying my fabric, and panicked that I wouldn’t have enough fabric to do it – I had alternative plans, for if I really couldn’t fit it on the fabric, but I’m glad I didn’t have to use them. It’s just a circle skirt with the waist hole cut to one side. I cut this skirt out as a whole circle, rather than piecing it, and had an awkward moment when I realised the waist radius should have been smaller since I didn’t have side seams, but putting in a couple of tiny pleats made it match to the underskirt, so everything is all ok.
I edged the lace by zigzagging it, in the end. I wanted to bind it (well, I didn’t especially want to bind it – I wanted it to just end smoothly, but had no ideas for appropriate finishing methods) but when I tried, it sat really wobbly and wonkily, so I cut that off, agonised about what I was going to do, and then had a bright idea as I was lying in bed that zigzagging would be a valid form of finishing. I didn’t realise, at the time, the great serendipity of that thought, but of course the lace was light enough that when I zigzagged it, it gathered into a fine white line at the edge. Very neat, very beautiful.
Actually, this was associated with another minor disaster – my friend’s sewing machine, which I was borrowing since mine only does a straight stitch, started racing off and stitching without any speed control before I finished this. We couldn’t work out what had happened, so I had to give up on that one and hand-overcast the remaining lace edges – fortunately, I’d already done the entire skirt edge, and half of one of the sleeve hems, so I only had to do 11 inches of hem, rather than the whole 3 metres of skirt. (weird, I think in inches and metres. You’d think I could be a little more consistent about it)
My main skirt was hemmed with a bias facing of sorts – I made my own bias tape, for the first time ever! I had to stitch it down by hand because I didn’t have the correct colour thread – I chose the best I could, but you can see it doesn’t really match. However, this fabric was perfect for invisible stitching, as it has a really high thread count and very very thin threads (I kept panicking I was going to snap them as I pulled the needle through, and some of the stitches don’t look like they’ve gone under any threads at all, though I promise they have). So I spent Wednesday to Friday sewing as I did actually everything. I sewed as I read blogs, chatted to friends, did homework, even read my book (that was hard, I had to very carefully prop the book open). It took me several hours – why did I give myself so much hem to sew? I wondered several times why I’d chosen a full circle skirt rather than half, although I was glad last night when I spun around – so much drama in that skirt!
The roses were all hand-stitched, from sunsilky lining fabric – I wanted something with a little shine, but not too much body, and not too much shine. This was the best I could find. They’re arranged according to something I read recently about rock garden placements – no three in a straight line, and grouping smaller ones together.
I did another lapped zipper – perhaps an invisible one would be better for the fanciness level, but neat invisible zips are not in my skill set, and also I didn’t have any to hand, whereas I did have a white normal one. I hunted around my presser feet – I have a wide range of different feet, but no zipper/invisible zipper feet. The one I chose looked like this, and apparently is an edging foot. It was very functional.
In the end I finished the dress before the day of the ball, which I think is fairly impressive going. To be precise, I finished it at 10pm on Friday, and the ball was Saturday evening, so it was less than 24 hours earlier, but still counts. Instead I spent most of Saturday sewing accessories, because those were very much not done (I hadn’t even started my bag, beyond making the strap. Although I realised almost as soon as I finished the bag that I had a suitable purse already. Clever).
The only issue I had with my dress was that the back gaped a little. I tried to take a photo of it, but you can’t really see from a distance, but you can have a picture of my back anyway because I quite like my back.
Oh, and I’m wearing this with a petticoat of my nana’s – I was intending to wear a second petticoat on top, to have an even wider skirt base, but I would have had to make it and I ran out of time.
Other than that – honestly, love it.