Tight brief here: design has to be a flower, fruit or vegetable and has to feature a turning leaf…. Having seriously considered several humorously phallic carrots, I settled on this satusuma for my design.
Taken between February 2019 and January 2020, the following photostream charts the first half of the project. Starting with pricking and puncing to transfer the design to the silk, stitching a shade key and testing out a circle shape, stitching the lower half of the fruit and the furthest leaf.
I actually really enjoy this technique! The long and short stitch creates a lovely effect and I’m having fun creating painterly shading.
What I’m not loving is replicating a photograph. I’m finding it frustrating that I’m not managing to achieve a photorealistic result, although in truth I don’t think that’s really the aim of the exercise here. I’m super happy with the smooth, round edges, and I think once I get to the light-reflection part it’ll suddenly feel more ball-like.
I’d really like to try this technique in a more modern, abstract design – just playing with geometric shapes and colour would be fun.
Finally, blackwork is done and I’m moving on! My finished blackwork piece is in for assessment over Easter, but I’ll post a proper conclusion on that whole thing once I get it back.
For now I’ll do a little walk through of the starting steps on the next project: goldwork. The design I’ve gone for is a goldfish, for obvious reasons. Given that I have literally zero understanding of this technique and the elements I need to include the designing part has been a bit of a head fuck, but I think I’m actually super happy with the direction the tutors have helped me take here.
The prep is quite long for this technique. For a start, framing up has the added kerfuffle of attaching the silk to calico with a herringbone stitch.
And then the transfer of design is done by pricking and pouncing, which I’m not a massive fan of. Stabbing all the tiny holes in the tracing paper is fun, but then I made a bit of a balls up of tapping the chalk through the holes onto the silk.
Never mind though, it brushes off. After painting the lines in with white watercolour and an insanely thin brush I could deal with the chalk debacle pretty easily.
The silk then has to be fixed to the backing calico with tiny stab stitches; all over in the filled area and only along the lines in the open areas. Giving poor little fish guy the pitiful look of a child with chicken pox.
Now some padding can be done! The body part of the design needs to transferred to felt in the same way as the main design, and cut out several times to make pieces of decreasing size. These will build up the padding for the fish body and give him a subtle 3D effect.
They’re attached smallest first and biggest last, to make the finished shape as smooth as possible.
I’ll also need to complete a area of soft string padding to meet the brief, so that section of my design will be the crest-y bit. String is waxed and doubled up over and over to create the perfect thickness to fill the shape. Working from the centre out, one gradually removes chunks of string from the fabric side of the bunch until only a couple of strands make it right out to the end.
The finished shape is (hopefully) a smooth, elegant curve, which will get covered with lines of gold at a 45 degree angle.
One of his fins didn’t cut the mustard, so I’ve removed that and will need to add a new piece for homework. But still, I feel like I’ve made a good start!
The wedding has long since been and gone, but I’m finally getting around to posting these photos of Paula in her dress.
A big thanks to Dave Watts for taking such beautiful pictures! I feel super lucky to have these lovely shots of something I’ve made. You can find him here if you’d like to see more of his wedding photography, or contact him about your own photographic needs.
And another thanks to all my lovely friends who’ve enquired about this recently, it’s been really amazing to have everyone taking an interest in this project! I hope these photos round off the story nicely…
In 5 weeks time the actual wedding will be over, so this is the big push to make up the final dress! In an ideal world it’ll be ready for the final fitting by next weekend, leaving me a couple of weeks to hem it, add a hook-up train solution, and do any last minute alterations. And that’s not a completely unrealistic goal: as we stand right now the top mesh layer is sewn! And almost all the pieces are cut ready for the second layer. The petticoat is well into development too. So if I can plough on during the evenings of the coming week maybe I can avoid a last minute panic?!
I wanted to get the petticoat nailed first, but that didn’t go terribly well. I’d tried to do research on how to make an underskirt but I kept coming up with nothing. We’d bought 10m of very stiff mesh at the beginning of this project, so I persevered with that, making tiers with an enormous amount of volume in them, but it didn’t look right. It was more like a tutu for a small child than a couture undergarment.
At which point Lucy, in trying to help out and find some more information online, realised that there was an alluring array available on eBay for no more than twenty quid… So I downed tools and bought one.
And it’s not too bad! Much more volume than I was managing to create. But very, very light ivory, which I would’ve preferred to be more like a cream. Also, and fairly vitally, it’s quite short. Even with my fitted facing on the top, the length is still 13cm shorter than the dress itself will be.
I am going to have to build it up a bit bigger, so I will add a layer of my own tiered mesh; to create a kind of hybrid store bought / made to measure petticoat. So this extra layer can be a little longer, and maybe that will be enough! Maybe under the full dress it will all work. And if it doesn’t then I’ll need to make a panel of my own to go between the boned top panel and the top tier of the bought petticoat.
Petticoat will therefore stay flexible until I’ve got more of the dress done, and we’ll cross these bridges when we get to them. But I’m really glad I ditched the overlapping panel closure solution (on the left below) and changed to more panels and an open ended zipper. The new one is working out very nicely, so at least I feel that however we solve the mesh dilemma it will have a good, well-fitting anchor at the waist.
And on to the actual dress!
Cutting out the skirt panels from the narrow mesh threw up an immediate mishap: I’d miscalculated on the width of the biggest, centre back panel.
I’d been super careful, but there were a few things I’d overlooked (like the centre back edge not being along the grain line all the way to the top, and the fabric being shy of the 90cm). To fix this I had to take away almost 5cm of volume from this panel, which won’t matter in the slightest because the back is not short on volume. Not a disaster, just a momentary pain in the arse.
The zip has been source of great concern for me. It’s a focal point in it’s own way, there’s nowhere to hide with it on a dress with this little adornment, and it could be the difference between the dress looking professional and shoddy. I’m therefore massively relieved to have gotten it in, to the outer layer at least.
Because the two layers are both visible and not just a simple outer and lining, I wasn’t sure what the right solution was. In the end I decided to make both layers up separately anyway, which means the zip construction can be super normal and much more likely to look good, but I do want the seam allowance of the waist seam on the mesh layer to be on the inside of the garment… and whether or not you can visualise what I mean by that! You can trust me that it’s kind of two contradictory things.
Even though I bought a concealed style of zipper I’ve sewn it in in the conventional way. There is an overlap on one side which covers the zip and I hand stitched that to the machine stitching line for the most subtle indention possible, rather than an obvious machined topstitch.
My plan is to make up the top and skirt parts of the bottom layer and then add them to the outer in a way that achieves the waist look I want. Then I will hand stitch the bottom layer to the zipper similarly to a lining, and hopefully that will go without a hitch!
The rest of the panels went to together easily. I’ve put tiny french seams on the bodice at the side and princess seams. The skirt seams are stitched twice and pressed to one side. So far I’m happy with this but I might still need to trim the seam allowance down if it looks too chunky against the silk under layer.
One more week then to make up the under layer, add sleeves to the mesh layer, and work on the petticoat. Seems manageable. And as much as I’m enjoying this I’m glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel!
This is going to be a fairly quick catch up, mostly because I don’t think I took many decent pictures!
In my last blog post (here) Paula tried on the first toile, we pinned it to fit and we made a lot of design decisions. I used those fabric pieces to draft a new version of the pattern in paper, and that’s what I’ve used to cut and make the second toile.
Because the mesh fabric we’ve chosen is so unusual I decided to make the top part of this mock-up in the real thing, rather than calico. Partly because it would be impossible to get the perfect fit otherwise, and partly because I’ve never worked with something like this before so needed the practice! But as it’d just be costly and unnecessary for the skirt I’ve carried on in a medium/heavy weight calico there.
Which led to the first problem – I had the calico in hand before the mesh, so I went ahead and made the skirt first feeling all smug and efficient… Until I realised that meant I couldn’t put the bloody zip in properly. I should have sewn the waist seam for the left and right back panels first, and the centre back seam up to the bottom of the zip opening, then put the zip in, then carried on with all the other seams. Lesson learnt.
The zip threw up a multitude of issues actually. I tried two different methods on the left and right, one with the zip tape between the layers of mesh and the other treating the two layers as one, and in that confusion I stretched one side out pretty badly and ended up with the back neck line on the wonk.
Plus I bought a concealed zip and then realised I didn’t have a concealed zipper foot, which would allow me to stitch right beside the zip teeth. Without that the concealed zip is not even remotely concealed.
And then there’s the petticoat, which I hastily threw together the night before the fitting because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted! But actually that was fine, we talked about how it should be and we used the bit I had made to cobble together a look we liked under the skirt. So this will be the next part I work on; I need to make a wide facing with boning, I’ll meet up with Paula again and check it fits like a glove, then I’ll attach the lining and the amount of mesh we’ve decided on and that will be the first section of the final dress to be finalised.
The actual fitting went well! She seems like a happy camper, so I am too. She’d planned to wear a shaping body con thing underneath, Spanx-style, but actually when we tried that on it just seemed uncomfortable and unnecessary. Also less flattering, weirdly enough. Sometimes I think those garments are counter-productive, instead of smoothing out your silhouette they just squeeze you into a generic amoeba shape with no distinction between bust and waist, bum and thigh. Back in her normal bra the bodice fitted so much better, and we can even take away some fabric from the midriff to properly define her figure – infinitely better than the Spanx scuba sausage.
I’d made the sleeve a wince too tight, so we cut up to see how much to let back out. But it actually looked so nice with a looser, straighter sleeve that we’ve decided to run with that. It’s a bit risky I guess, but at least it’s only sleeves; if we have to whip them off and make slim ones again then it won’t be the end of the world.
So, as previously mentioned my next step is the underskirt contraption. But before I launch into that I’ll take this incarnation in to the seamstresses at work and see what they have to say on the subject. I have a lot of questions and I think there’s loads more minor disasters here that I’m not even aware of. I don’t want any last minute surprises!
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, said… no one cool, ever.
We’ve had our first fitting on the wedding dress, and it went pretty well :) Although the toile was only a rough outline of how the dress will actually be, it did show the important ideas and the fit actually wasn’t too bad!
I didn’t make the under skirt for this one because I feel like I need a fairly accurate pattern for the outer to base it on. But seeing as we had loads of great mash laying around we stuffed it under the calico just for kicks. The effect is a bit more Queen Victoria than Ellie Saab, but it kept us amused for a bit.
So I pinned in the toile as needed. The waist seem needed to come up a few cm, but the length on the skirt was actually ok. I took quite a bit of width off the bodice and shaped dart more closely over the bust.
The sleeve needed to be slimmer and the shoulders had to come in a lot.
The double mesh on the sleeve was a winner, so much so that Paula’s decided to have it on the bodice too. It’ll be quite a bit more stretchy than the calico so I’ll need to bear that in mind on my next pattern, I can probably afford to shave a little more off the seams and straighten up some of the more finickity shapings.
I marked up the toile where it had been pinned and cut along to make my new pieces. I have joined the dart up into the armhole to make a princess seam, which I think will give us the best possible shaping for Paula’s boobs and will mean that we can have more control over the grain line, and therefore the stretch, in the side section.
Where I cut the new armhole a large chuck of calico remained on the sleeve:
I need to add this on to the sleevehead to keep the length over and around the shoulder joint, but re-arranging this extra volume to make a flat sleeve piece will require a little juggling. I have slashed into the edge to release the tension. When I trace this piece out I will reshape the sleevehead to match the armhole on the body side and slim down the width, so we can keep the length and use the stretch in the mesh. That may not make a lot of sense! But in my head I’m sure I can see a way to re-draft this mish-mash of a piece into a nice fitted sleeve.
For the skirt the volume at the hem was nice but the pleats were not: I’m going to take those away and make the skirt in 7 plain panels instead. I’ve pinned out the pleats and pressed the skirt pieces flat. I’ve drawn on new seam lines to split the pieces into more panels and cut along. When I trace these pieces out onto paper I will smooth out the waist edges and add a new grain line on the side panels.
Next I need to trace all of these pieces onto pattern paper, checking that everything still adds up and will fit back together again! I need to add notches and seam allowance and generally turn this into a real pattern. I also need to use this skirt pattern to make an under skirt pattern. Because the top part is now entirely in soft and stretchy mesh it won’t be stable enough to hold up the full, heavy skirt. I’m planning to solve this with a facing for the skirt which is sturdy and well-fitting, possibly even with a bit of boning in it, to anchor the skirt on the hips. This will mean that skirt is entirely self-supporting, with the top part attached at the waist seam giving the look of a normal dress.
And from this facing the panels of lining and mesh will come down to reach the floor. I’m sort of winging it on the volume here! But I think and educated guess will be fine and we can take out/add in as required in the second fitting.
I have taken the two commercial patterns I bought and had a good, close look at them. Instead of cutting out the tissue paper pieces I’ve traced them off onto dot and cross paper so I can keep the originals intact for another time. Plus, that tissue is really irritating to work with! It’s virtually impossible to make alterations on because it’s so flimsy, so a bit more time spent here will pay dividends.
The plan for the skirt was to keep the volume exactly as the Vogue pattern, but switch the gathered side panels to pleats. I was thinking we should have two deep pleats facing away from centre at front and back, but when I folded these into the paper they just look too contrived and didn’t give the sort of fluffy, flowy look I know Paula likes.
Therefore I moved on to random pleats of mixed depths, all facing away from cf. There are probably a thousand more professional ways I could’ve achieved this! But I chose to prop the paper up with weights at the hem and smoosh the waist down accordingly. As long as the final waist seam measurement matched with the bodice I was pretty easy on the rules.
All hunky dory; until I got to the back and realised that the train was going to look a bit weird folding over itself in that way. You’d naturally want pleats to face away from centre back as well as centre front, but then do you just put up with a weird box pleat on each side?!
To get a better picture of the 3D effect here I pinned my paper pattern to a mannequin:
And at this point I just started to wish that I’d draped it from scratch and not buggered about with the paper pattern at all! Although this stand is not the same size as Paula, and is considerably taller, I could’ve made it work.
Never mind though, I’ve started so I’ll finish. But I’ll definitely keep the pleat size and position flexible so I can chop along the waist seam and move them around while she’s wearing the toile.
Before I cut the fabric out I moved the pleats one more time, reversing the direction of the pleat closest to centre back and then randomly switching some of the others. And I was happier with it then, it felt more organic and interesting, far better suited to the bride in question.
Bodice-wise it’s not been a walk in the park either! I used the size closest to Paula’s body measurements, but I know full well that the initial fit is not going to be good! I’m going to have to take a lot out of the length and I also feel that the shaping in the bodice pieces is too basic, probably leading to a clunky, sack-like fit which is not full enough over her boobs and too baggy below.
I used the Butterick pattern for this part, which has a strapless under bodice with two vertical seams over the bust, plus a long sleeved bodice to be made in lace which has two very large darts from bust to waist. When I laid these two sets of pieces together they seemed like two completely different fits though, with a lot of suppression over the bust on the lace layer. It doesn’t call for stretchy lace, but perhaps all lace has a certain amount of give because of its mesh base?
For our dress we want the mesh and the silk layers to be cut as one, so no contrasting sweetheart neckline underneath, just a well-fitting bodice with armholes and a round neck. So what I’ve done is to take the lace layer of the Butterick pattern (because this fits with the sleeve, which we definitely want to use) and start with that. When I fit it on Paula I’ll need to make the body shorter and probably open it up in some areas and pin away in others, but I think I’ll be able to see where we need to put the seams. It’s hard to know at this stage if I’ll need to make the bodice in 6 pieces, with side panels at front and back, or if only 2 would be ok.
Paula’s imagined from the start that it’d be nice to have a more sheer sleeve, with just a double layer mesh and no silk, so we bought a half metre of our chosen mesh and I’ve incorporated that into the toile to test it.
So now I have a full toile of the outer dress ready to fit! It has a double mesh sleeve on one side and calico on the other, so we can see if we prefer a sheer look or more of a unified, all-over effect. I haven’t put any under layer for the skirt, but I don’t have 6m of very stiff mesh to play with so I think I will make a rough petticoat. It would be good to get the skirt falling properly at this stage so that the pleats will be nice and accurate for our second (and hopefully final!) toile.
Next stage: get Paula over for a fitting, pin and chop this guy as needed, then take it apart and trace it out for the next pattern.
Literally every single person I know who has made a wedding dress for a friend rolls their eyes and says never again when asked about it… But I am super psyched!
My friend and ex-colleague Paula is getting married in September and cannot find her dream dress. She wants a long sleeved, round necked dress with a sleek skirt, full at the hem but smooth from the waist. She’s collected a few catwalk images but everything she sees in real life, from full-on bridal made-to-measure to RTW occasion wear, isn’t cutting the mustard. So she’s asked me if I might be able to make her one, and completely unbeknownst to her it’s something I’ve always wanted to try my hand at.
When I started my fashion degree, bridalwear was totally where my heart lay. It’s a rare corner of the fashion industry where handmade dresses are still a reality and where one creative individual can take a design all the way through from concept to finished garment. Had I been less of a girl I’d probably have focused on tailoring, but I just can’t resist a giant meringue skirt.
Anyhow, I did some work experience in boutiques and I took some evening classes in specialist patten cutting, but my resolve crumbled under the scrutiny of my uni tutors. There was little to no respect for the area on my course, the tutors held the catwalk and the cutting edge designers in high regard and saw bridal as the antithesis of cool, edgy design. If I were to do it all again now I think I’d have the gumption to take that challenge and run with it, to find a contemporary niche where couture bridalwear could be exciting, and in actual fact there is clearly a gap in the market where brides like Paula are finding the traditional boutiques falling short of the alternative looks on the catwalks.
So she brought her catwalk images to me:
And the there was clearly continuity between them! She knows what she wants and now I do too. The only slight catch being that these girls are willowy 6′-ers, built with all the sex appeal of an ironing board. Paula is, in the best possible way, the polar opposite of that; barely clearing 5’1″ with a rack that’d put the cast of Baywatch to shame.
(Side note – thank god she doesn’t want a strapless dress! I absolutely hate that!! Women who haven’t worn a strapless bra since they were 13 and barely needing an B cup, suddenly deciding at 33 that they want to spend the most highly-photographed night of their entire lives hoicking up a cheap, ill-fitting bustier. Don’t do it to yourselves! You know what they say about packing for vacation? – if you wouldn’t wear it at home, don’t take it on holiday. Same goes for weddings. If your tits don’t defy gravity 364 days of the year, they still won’t on your wedding day. Unless you can afford the personal attentions of Rigby or Peller don’t even think about it.)
I decided I’d use a commercial pattern as a base. Maybe that’s a little shameful coming from a professional pattern cutter, but the rigmarole of starting from scratch without even having a block or the right size mannequin to drape on just wouldn’t be worth it. The choice was really disappointing! Each of the major companies does a few, but none had all the features we were looking for. I printed out several of the pattern envelope images and sketched some designs over the top, sadly they don’t photograph too well but here’s a few to give you the gist:
Paula and I met for lunch and looked them over. It seemed to be going in the right direction so I bought these two patterns:
The Butterick pattern includes cup sizes, so I think it could be a good base for the bodice, but we’ll want to merge the strapless under layer with the long sleeved top. The Vogue option seems to have a much nicer skirt, but I’ll need to remove pleats from the side.
I’ve redrawn our main design ideas and started a little pin board, where I can keep all our images and developments. I still need to print and add the original inspiration images, but here it is so far:
(My attempts at half decent photography are falling even more short here – to get a tolerable shot I had to put the cork board into the light tent thing and I haven’t got the software to erase that from the corners, so please avert your eyes.)
Next step is to go fabric shopping, just to pick up some swatches and settle on a look and fabric type. This will heavily inform what our final design looks like and how I’ll adapt the pattern, then I can get started on the first toile.
This is the first module of four that make up the certificate course at the Royal School of Needlework, and my piece is now assessed and framed.
I did well! I think. Although how can you tell when you’ve not got a class full of peers to compare yourself too? I wouldn’t say I’m competitive, but I do like to know how everyone else has done. And maybe also rest assured that I kicked their arses.
The course works on a very flexible system of attendance, so although there are a dozen other students in the classroom with me on any given day, they could be working on any one of the ten modules covered by the Certificate and Diploma courses. We’ll all have started at different time, we’ll all be at different stages, and we’ll all pick up our results discreetly and mostly without discussion.
I scored (is that the right word?!) 87 out of 109. Which is basically 80% and where I come from that’s a 1st! A grade which I think I only achieved once during my BA, for an essay on postmodernism which has been less help to me than algebra over the intervening real-world years.
I got full marks for several areas, including taking care of my fabric, use of colour, smooth outline stitches and sharp points. Apparently my burden stitch on a curve was very brave. My lowest marks came from not including enough open areas and also the quality of my slip stitching on the reverse of the mount. Not going to lose sleep over those!
The feedback did hammer home that this is not some arty-farty, high faluting, conceptual Saint Martins’ course… This is a technical course in traditional hand embroidery techniques, with more than a passing care for their historical context. And I am a geek for that stuff, a pedant of the first water who will research meticulously to understand and articulate the era at hand; but even I was docked marks for elements of my design showing ‘a modern interpretation which sits outside the brief’. I do like that, although being a rebel at the RSN is being a moderately sized fish in a very tiny pond.
They concluded that my concept was unusual and my finished piece striking, so that’s nice.
Choosing a frame proved tricky. Maybe the assessors were right and the slightly contemporary twist on a generally historical feeling piece left us finding that no style of frame really felt right. Not only that, but it also needed to reflect my taste as maker and my mums’ taste as future owner and viewer. We were in the frame shop for a very long time. We had to go for full English breakfast afterward to recover.
I think the final choice was alright though, and it does seem at home in my mum’s living room despite a slight clash with a jammie dodger cushion. Not that it was cheap! A hundred and fifty quid to get something framed – is that normal?! I suppose when you consider that this module of the course cost me well over a grand in fees, plus a bit more in materials and transportation, and easily a hundred hours of my life; the cost of the frame is a piss in the ocean.
I am well into the to blackwork now, four classes in to the eight class unit. I’m going to work a bit more intensively on this one, I worried about the fabric being stretched for a full year while I completed the Jacobean and although there were no visible effects on the finished work I think it’s generally better to avoid the excessive strain. The rest of my dates are booked in the diary, so if I can stay on track I’ll be putting the finishing touches to it in 2 months time.
My last class marked the halfway point on this module. Four down and four to go, but I can’t say it looks like it’s half done.
The shading is really daunting. The two elements of thickness of thread and density of stitch pattern have to work simultaneously to make the overall shade move from dark to light and vice- versa. It feels like a strange combination of calculation and instinct. At the beginning I experimented with the threads and set out a key for which looked darker than the next, setting them on a scale from 0-8. I traced my design into blocked out areas of shade and allocated each area a value corresponding to my scale, so that similar tones would look even across the whole piece. At which point I felt that this would be manageable, like a paint by numbers…
But I have to use around 5 different stitch patterns within this design, some more open than others. So even though a 4 on my scale may mean using 3 strands of Anchor cotton, that is going to look different in each of my stitches and 3 strands of cotton on the figures’ legs may look much darker from a distance than the same thread on the wall behind her. To compensate for this I need to adapt the stitch pattern to either add or remove some stitches and adjust the density of the stitch. Or, if I want to keep the stitch the same for design purposes, I’ll need to deviate from the key and use a different thread to achieve the right shade.
The whole thing is a balancing act, constantly juggling stitch with thread and comparing the developing work with the original image. I’m paranoid about making the background too dark or too light, throwing in the blackest black where it should be a mid tone and leaving myself with no darker tone for the shoes or the gloves.
Take the area that I’ve worked on today for example: the upper left side of the background where the light moves from bright to very dark in the shadow of the models’ arm. The changes in tone are so varied! and in trying to incorporate every little undulation in shade I’m not only losing shape, but losing the relationship between the arm shadow and the top right corner of the image. Is this a problem? I haven’t got a clue.
But, as important as it is to follow the photograph, I also want to have the freedom to decide what’s best for the embroidery as a stand-alone piece. After all, once it’s done no-one will view the two together, and the embroidery has to work as a realistic and well composed image. It’s inevitably going to be stylised to a certain extent – it’s a textile piece and not a photograph – but it has to make sense and if the lighting in the image is illogical then the brain of the viewer will be quick to flag it up.
And to add to the difficulties, winters limited daylight hours are putting the pressure on! I set up shop in front of our big bedroom windows and door to work a few afternoon hours this weekend, but before long the natural light goes and my harsh lightbulbs don’t cut the mustard.