Friday, 24 October 2014

Chiffon Dress Construction Details

This post follows up from the completed chiffon dress I posted earlier in the week and focuses on the step by step process I went through to make it, so if you want to see the garment as a whole first make sure to check that post out. I put a lot of research and thought into the construction of this dress as the fabric deserved to be turned into something extra special. I know I love reading about the nitty gritty of the construction process (in fact I think it was Poppy Kettle's fascinating posts on the construction of her incredible wedding dress that got me itching to try something a little more complicated!) so I thought you guys might like to hear a little more about each of the stages I went through to create my dress and which particular techniques and tutorials I used. Be warned, this is a long one!


MUSLIN MAKING

So first things first I actually made a full blown muslin of the bodice which is something that is very rare for me to do! I already knew that the Flora skirt would work for me having made it twice before but I'd never tried the 1876 bodice pattern and from other Simplicity experiences I knew I might have some issues with the amount of ease. Working with these lovely silks I didn't want to be fiddling with fit or doing any unpicking at a later stage! Looking at the finished garment measurements on the back of the envelope I decided to go down a size from the size 12 which was recommended for me. This was thankfully the right decision and the size 10 was basically spot on. I only needed to nip it in very slightly at the side seams at the top. I used a lightweight cotton for the muslin and even inserted a zip so I could get an truly accurate idea of size. The other benefit I found to making the muslin was that it was great to have a practice attempt at assembling the bodice before doing it with the silk.


CUTTING

So next up it was one of the steps that I felt most apprehensive about; cutting. I'd read a lot about ways to handle these lightweight silks from using spray stabilisers or even a gelatine bath to give the fabric some stiffness to cutting between layers of tissue paper. At the end of the day I decided to stick as closely as possible to methods I was familiar with. I didn't think working with such a lovely chiffon was the ideal time to start trying out gelatine baths, I was concerned I might end up altering the hand and drape of the silk permanently.

I cut everything out in a single layer as having a double layer of silk on the fold would make it more likely that at least one layer would shift off grain. I worked on the carpet rather than on the table as this had a bit of grip on the fabric to stop it sliding around. It also meant when I was trying to get the fabric laid out straight I could pin the corners into the carpet and keep it nice and taught. I used a combination of pins and weights to hold the pattern pieces in place. Much of the advice I read suggested to avoid using pins but I knew I was going to want to use a lot of pins to keep everything nice and accurately positioned when sewing it up so used them at this point too. If you are thinking about sewing with silk bear in mind that pins will leave holes in the fabric, even if you are using fine silk pins as I did. Therefore you will want to keep your pins within the seam allowances, this worked out well for me.



I began with the skirt pieces and because of how large they are compared to the size of my cutting mat I decided against the rotary cutter and stuck with my trusty shears. I would usually move the mat around underneath the pattern piece to where I next want to cut but I didn't want to risk moving the silk about mid cutting. I had planned to use the rotary cutter for the smaller bodice pieces but the shears were working out so well I stuck with them throughout.

I'm not going to lie the cutting process was lengthy and got a little tedious but the effort to be accurate paid off in the end. It's so worth making sure fabrics which need to drape beautifully are cut right on grain. I cut every pattern piece from both the chiffon and the crepe de chine and then cut the bodice panels from both the organza and batiste too, adding just the batiste to the halter strap to add some strength without stiffness.



PREPARING THE PATTERN PIECES

The next step was to get the individual pattern pieces ready for machine sewing. After cutting I marked all notches with tailors tacks rather than making a snip into the seam allowance as I usually do. I did this as the fabrics were so fragile and also because I wanted to use narrow french seams in for the skirt. I usually use tailors tacks to mark dart points and pleats as they are a great way to be really accurate without risking permanently marking your fabric.

Then came the most lengthy step of the entire process; hand basting the layers of the bodice together. I had already had a bit of practice at this during the 'boned ballet bodice' part of the tutu construction course which I completed earlier in the year. I laid out the pieces flat on a table and kept them flat as I sewed. I like to use brightly coloured thread which contrasts with the garment so it's easy to see which need to be removed at a later stage. I use a single thickness of thread and use a separate strand for each side of the pattern piece, leaving a reasonably long tail at each corner. This means that when it comes to removing the basting you can pull out each length individually and with ease. The stitches can be fairly big, mine were about a centimetre long.


All of the bodice panels were formed of four layers of fabric. Starting from the outside there was the printed silk chiffon which I basted to the underlining of ivory silk crepe de chine. Then came the silk organza interfacing and cotton batiste which I basted together and applied the boning to. I settled on using batiste as the bodice base after searching online for the best fabrics to underline/line the chiffon and coming across some advice from a ballet costume maker on a sewing forum. I had already decided to use silk organza in place of a fusible interfacing as fusibles tend to bubble up and alter the hand of delicate fabrics like these silks. The combination of this with the batiste worked out perfectly; it gave a nice stiffness and structure when combined with the boning without adding too much weight.

I wanted the silk chiffon and crepe to hang separately in the skirt to give it some more movement so to prepare these pieces I just marked the notches with tailors tacks and stay stitched the waistline.

MACHINE SEWING

So the time had come to get on my machine. I had a good long practice first with some scraps of the chiffon on it's own, the crepe on it's own and then both together. I'd picked up lots of tips from many of your lovely blogs in advance and thanks to them I didn't encounter many problems! These are some of the most useful posts I came across:


I used a size 60 sharps needle and a medium stitch length (about a 2 on my machine). To avoid the start of seams getting chewed up I made sure to hold the thread ends back and not back tack at beginning or end. The only time I had trouble was when sewing with the chiffon on it's own for the skirt, which just required a bit of patience. The only bit of advice I didn't follow was to use narrow throat plate on the machine as I don't have one.

PRESSING

I was a bit nervous about using the iron with the silk but good pressing is the key to making any garment look a little bit more professional so I knew I needed to get it right. I used an organza pressing cloth and a medium heat. My tailor's ham came in so useful for getting a nice crisp edge on those princess seams. I also followed a tip from Coletterie and used as little steam as possible. I'm really pleased with my crisp seam finishes throughout!

BONING/LINING

Following the pattern instructions for the bodice I constructed the lining in it's entirety (consisting of the the cotton batiste basted to the organza interfacing) and attached the boning to this before sewing this piece as one to the bodice shell. I mentioned in my previous post that I used pre-covered plastic boning from Mood Fabrics and how well it worked for this particular project. It's quite lightweight so won't give you much support but the weight matched the weight of my fabrics perfectly and gives a great shape. The pattern has you insert the boning right up over the bust along the front princess seam line so you want something that has a bit of flexibility.


Pre-covered boning is super easy to insert. I used some on my Martini Dress which was also plastic but fixed into the casing. The boning I used for this dress you can slide in and out of the casing. I loved this as it meant I could slide the end of the boning out and trim it down, then push it back in and sew the casing right up through the seam allowance so the ends would be sealed when I sewed the intersecting seam line. It also meant I could push the boning away from the seam line as I sewed so reducing the risk of a broken needle! I attached the boning to the wrong side of the batiste so it would be concealed within the bodice when it was assembled. I aligned each length of boning along each of the seam lines then sewed by machine down both sides of the casing as close to the bone as possible. The pattern does include instructions for creating your own casings using the seam allowances of the lining if you prefer to use a different kind of boning.


SEAM FINISHING

As all the raw seams of the bodice were going to be enclosed I simply pinked them. I briefly considered overlocking them as the novelty of having such professional looking seam finishing at my fingertips still hasn't rubbed off, but ultimately decided limiting any extra bulk and risk of seam allowances shooing through to the right side was the way to go. I didn't trim down the seam allowances much, in case for some reason I needed to make an emergency alteration.

I was keeping both layers of the skirt separate so used french seams to finish them both. I was apprehensive of trying this somewhat fiddly technique on the slippery silk so erred on the side of caution and made them slightly wider than I should have done. Next time I will be more aggressive with trimming them down. I debated for ages which way up to attach the crepe de chine lining. Usually with a lining I would automatically attach it with wrong sides and seam allowances up, against the wrong side of the shell. However as I was working with the semi sheer chiffon I thought it would be best to keep that side as clean as possible. As I'd finished the seams so neatly I went with the wrong side of the lining inside, against the skin.

NECKLINE

I spent a fair amount of time using different methods to strengthen the neckline of this dress and give it a nice crisp finish. I began with stay-stitching the neckline edge of each pattern piece before assembly. When I'm concerned about an area stretching out I usually apply twill tape in the seam allowance but I felt like this might be a bit bulky for this design. Instead I cut 1cm wide bias strips of silk organza and stitched them to the seam allowances close to the seam line. I used bias strips so they would curve around the sweetheart neckline. I then clipped the seam allowances where necessary and under stitched the lining to the seam allowances before giving it a good press.


INSERTING THE ZIP

I was really nervous about inserting the invisible zip as I was envisioning unpicking a puckered and twisted mess and leaving all kinds of holes in the chiffon. However, it came out great first time! I followed all my usual tips as described in this post. Firstly I needed to stabilise the seam allowances along where the zip would be inserted to prevent puckers, but as explained previously I couldn't use my usual strip of fusible interfacing. Instead I followed the advice of Clare Shaeffer on p101 of her book 'Couture Sewing Techniques' and machine sewed a selvedge strip of silk organza as close to the stitching line as possible. I then inserted the zip following the rules of sewing both sides in the same direction and after inserting one side making a snip in the zipper tape of the second side where the waistline seam needed to line up.


To finish it up neatly I stitched the batiste lining of the bodice to the zipper tape with my normal zip foot. I also went the extra mile with this one and enclosed the end of the zip tape in a piece of the batiste. I had a bit of a head scratching moment when working out how to insert the zip into the skirt when I wanted to hem the two layers separately but I'll explain in a moment how I got around that! At this stage I just went ahead and inserted the zip into both the chiffon and crepe as one and left the seam beneath the zip open.


WAIST STAY

I've been absolutely devouring Clare Shaeffer's book recently and am looking out for any projects I can incorporate some couture techniques into. This book is fascinating. Just learning about the best purposes for different stitches and the basic process of the couture construction has opened my eyes to so many different techniques and finishings to try and ways to think about construction. It's got me all fired up to push my skills to the next level! One of the things I've been really keen to try is using a waist stay in a garment and I thought this dress would be the perfect time to try it out. I used a curved piece of 1" petersham which I bought from Maculloch & Wallis as the slight curve makes it sit around the waist better. I lined the bottom of the petersham up with the bottom of the bodice and hand stitched it in along the centre with a running stitch, starting and finishing 1.5" from each end of the bodice. I'll admit I then found Clare's written instructions a little confusing but I used the illustrations to work out how to fold the ends of the bias tape and attach the hooks and eyes. It's given it such a clean and secure finish and I can feel the difference when wearing it. The weight of the skirt is quite surprising so it's great to have an extra something to stop the waistline distorting.


HEMMING

The first piece of hemming I had to do was to hem the front drape of the bodice, which is simply a piece of the chiffon and crepe basted together. My rolled hem foot did not at all like working with the two layers together so I resorted to the instructions included with the pattern which has you turn and press a skinny hem, stitch close to the fold, grade the raw edge, then turn, press and stitch once more. The silks pressed so beautifully that this was pretty straight forward.


The trickiest bit about hemming the skirt was levelling it up. I left it to hang overnight and it dropped really unevenly. I have never been so grateful for my tailors dummy! The rolled hem foot behaved completely differently when working with just a single layer of silk and it was a super speedy way to finish that huge hem! On both fabrics the foot dealt well with sewing over one side seam but struggled over the second. I just carried on and rolled the inch or so that it missed by hand afterwards. I often find the trickiest part of making a rolled hem is getting it started and finished. This problem was resolved for me by the fact that I had left the centre back seam open under the zip. Starting from a raw edge rather than mid circle is so much easier! I closed the bottom of the centre back seam with my zipper foot right at the end. This is the only point where the two layers of the skirt are attached.


If you've made it all the way through that lengthy post, congratulations! You must be as obsessed with all the intricacies of sewing techniques as I am! I think I've remembered to include most things but if you've got any more questions (or tips for how I could improve things further next time!) then let me know in the comments below.

22 comments:

  1. Fiona, this was the most enjoyable blog post I've read in a long time! Thank you so much for taking the time to put together all these juicy details of your construction methods. It was so fun to devour such a technical post, and I love that you've been enjoying Claire's book and finding ways to use all the wonderful techniques she describes! I've been reading her book too, and it's really opened my eyes to the world of couture.

    This dress is truly a masterpiece. Congrats on a beautiful product and successfully applying so many detailed techniques to such slippery fabric! :)

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    1. That is such a lovely thing to hear Carolyn! One of my favourite things to read on sewing blogs is all the in's and outs of construction so I'm glad other people enjoy it too. Clare's book is just fantastic and really inspiring isn't it? It really makes getting a couture finish (or at least a step towards it!) feel achievable for a self taught seamstress

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  2. Wow! The dress was evidentially special but the time and skill you've put in to it, as well as the thought, is amazing! I'm so glad it's yielded such a gorgeous item!

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    1. I'm so pleased it has too Vicki! Though to be honest if it had turned out a complete disaster it would still have almost been worth it for all that I learnt and the enjoyment I got out of the process

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  3. This is such a stunning dress! Thanks for the detailed construction description!

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    1. You are welcome Marie, after all the time I put into it it's lovely to be able to talk about the whole process in detail with people who appreciate it

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  4. Thanks for the innards and tips! It's always nice to see how things were made, and they'll be a big help for the slippery slidy fabric I'm using for my next dress.

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    1. O that sounds interesting Siobhan! I hope you enjoy the process of sewing it and I'm looking forward to seeing it!

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  5. So interesting and I am really impressed, you've definitely gone up a notch, what next I wonder! I've Claire shaffers jacket couture book but going to treat myself to the other one. You have inspired me to think about a special dress for Christmas

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    1. I've got special dresses for Christmas on the brain at the moment, I can't stop thinking of ideas now! Clare's book is well worth a purchase, I think I'll be asking for the tailoring one for Christmas. Hearing that someone can see an improvement in my sewing really means a lot, thank you

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  6. I'm a couture enthusiast too, and think you did a beautiful job. Your efforts really paid off.

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    1. Thanks Justine! I've just been over to check out your blog and have followed it immediately! I'm really interested in your posts about working with leather

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  7. Great post - loads of really useful tips. It's not surprising the dress came out so beautifully! Lovely work. I'll have to find a copy of the claire schaeffer book!

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    1. You will Jo! I thought it would be good but didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I have. It's really got me inspired to further my sewing skills

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  8. Proof that what's underneath makes the garment beautiful.

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    1. YES! What a wonderful way to think about it Gail. I've become really interested recently in the structure of slightly more complicated garments such as this and what goes on underneath to create shape. You've really hit the nail on the head!

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  9. fiona, you did everything brilliantly and it completely shows in the final garment! amazing, amazing work.

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    1. Thanks Devra, it was such an enjoyable process to work through!

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  10. Hello, this article came to me in a moment where I am still struggling to decide how to construct the bodice of my dress. I fell in love with double georgette, I want to do a sleeveless princess seam V-neck. I don't want to use boning. But Double georgette is transparent and lightweight, will you recommend me to use the same set-up you have use, I mean(Double georgette+silk crepe de chine+ silk organza+cotton batiste) except the boning???

    I want to move freely, specially dancing.

    I will appreciate any help. Thanks so much in advance

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    1. Hi Livonet! I'm by no means an expert in this sort of thing but I definitely think the double georgette will need underlining like you say. This could be done with a whole variety of other lightweight materials. I chose the crepe de chine because I wanted to use the same for the skirt and I wanted the skirt to have a lovely lightweight drape and movement. In terms of lining the batiste worked out great for me as I wanted to keep everything very lightweight and with the addition of the organza interfacing and boning there was plenty of structure for this design. Does the pattern you are using say to interface all the bodice pieces? If you are using drapey/lightweight fabrics to underline and line the georgette I would recommend using the organza as interfacing to give you some structure if you are not using boning. When choosing which fabrics to use I think it's a matter of weighing up the look you want along with the practicalities of how much structure it needs to provide and whether it needs to withstand any stress (for example if you want a closely fitted bodice and want to dance). The combination I used here worked out great for me so if you want a similar sort of look then go for it! Good luck with your dress and enjoy making and wearing it!

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  11. Thank you for this post! It was everything I wanted to know and more. I just bought some gorgeous chiffon for a dress I want to make for a wedding and I wasn't sure what to buy for the lining. The pattern also calls for boning so you answered all of my questions in one post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and I'm glad I stumbled upon your blog in my google search.

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    1. You're welcome Jennifer! Good luck with the dress! Working with chiffon is a challenge but I absolutely loved it and the results are worth all the effort. I'm sure it will turn out beautifully as you are putting so much thought and research into what you are doing

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I love hearing from readers of my blog so please feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you thought about this post/make! Any hints or tips to improve my sewing are always much appreciated too!