Today I’m going to walk you through how I constructed my Deep Blue Sea dress. I had some guidance from my pattern source book, The Party Dress Book by Mary Adams, but in other ways I was on my own. Making your own design can be exhilarating, but challenging, as there’s no one there to walk you through every step or make sure you didn’t forget anything. I found it helpful to make a checklist of everything I needed to do.
Sketching and plotting
The first step was to sketch out what I wanted to create. This was the phase where I had to be serious about figuring out if the time I had would be enough to finish the project, but also the phase for throwing designs on the page and seeing what I liked. Sometimes that’s the most fun part! It’s also really cool to come back to your sketches and see how well you executed your vision.
I like to make notes on the side of my sketches to plan out fabrics, notions, and techniques I might use for the project. You can see I’ve also sketched out other stuff on the page; some of it might make it to a final product, and some of it might just stay on the page. Everyone has more good ideas and intentions than they can pull off in a lifetime; this is why we have stashes and project queues.
The bodice design on the left is the design I ended up using for the final project. I liked the idea of a “deep blue sea” dress. I knew I wanted to use the dark blue satin I already had in my stash, and I wanted the organza overlays to be blue as well, so “underwater” was a fitting theme. You can see I also sketched out a flower and vine possibility, and sketched the dress as a whole (originally it had shoulder-swoopy-bits as well, but I omitted those in the final.)
Sample, sample, sample!
Once I had an idea, the next phase was to make sure it would work. It always, always helps to sample beforehand if you really care about what the final product will look like. This involved two phases: making a bodice muslin and testing the embroidery and fabric combinations. The muslin was easy; I cut out the pieces from the book’s pattern, basted them together and whacked in a zipper, and from there I just pinned out the excess (my dress form helped a lot with this.)
I bought undyed organza from Dharma, which is a much less expensive source of silk fabric than almost anywhere else, as long as you don’t mind your choices being limited to white or black. Fortunately I know how to acid-dye and have the dyes on hand. I tossed the silk into my dyepot (after a good long vinegar-solution soak) with Jacquard “Brilliant Blue”. In the meanwhile, I grabbed some satin scraps and embroidery thread and hit the machine to test out if I could really do the kind of embroidery I was planning on, and if it would work.
The fabric combination was a go, and the embroidery, I decided, would be fine. I couldn’t figure out how to get the satin to pucker less, but by testing the organza overlay I’d already planned on, I knew in advance that it would be fine, because the puckers wouldn’t show.
Embroidering the front panel
Now, how to get my sketched-out design onto the bodice panel? First I thread-traced my construction-stitching lines onto the fabric, so I knew where my edges were. Then, with my sketch close at hand, I took a chalk pen and drew out the design on the back of the fabric (it’s a crepe-back satin, so this was much easier than if it had been satiny on the other side, too.) It took a view variations to decide on something I liked, that worked with the proportions. Then I thread-traced the design. (Helpful hint: do this in the final embroidery thread! I wasn’t really able to pick out most of the thread-tracing under the embroidery, and it would have worked better if the colors had matched for where the thread peeked out.)
Fitting and constructing the bodice
Because I’d already done a decent fitting in the muslin, this wasn’t too tricky. However, the organza made everything even slipperier than the satin. I hand-basted the organza to the front panel to keep it from shifting (it still did, but less so) and then hand-basted the front panel to each side panel. After that it was fairly straightforward stitching.
Adding boning and interlining
This was the part where I mostly wished I had more guidance. There wasn’t any provision for boning in the book, that I remember, but I knew I wanted mine to be boned—the structure helps the dress stay up, for one thing, as well as keep its shape. At this point I pulled a lot of advice from the interwebs. What I decided was to make an interlining out of cotton flannel (the idea being the flannel smoothes any bumps behind the fashion fabric that might show) and attach the boning to that. I had a hard time finding any advice on where to put boning; in the end I kind of guessed. Jury was out on whether to continue boning straight up the princess seams over the bust, or end under the bust line; I decided to put boning all the way up. I used spiral steel boning and I figured my bust line could use the extra filling-out.
(The best part about interlining is that no one will ever see. I went with fun fabric because of that.)
In the end my final boning channels were placed thus:
This seemed to work pretty well. By this point I had done fittings on both the outer bodice and the interlining. When it’s really crucial for something to fit and stay up, more fit-checks are definitely a good thing. (Also: make sure and wear the foundation garments during fitting that you plan to wear at the event! This means you have to have them beforehand.) I planned not to wear a bra with this dress, because I hate strapless bras, so the bodice was fit close enough that if I did wear a bra, it would look weird, but it fits perfectly without.
Sewing the skirts (oops…)
Pretty straightforward step that I somehow managed to screw up. I cut two circle skirts, one of organza and one of satin, French-seamed them and then stitched them together at the top. Then I stitched them to the bodice. Then I realized I’d sewed the outer skirt on inside out. Oh, and did I mention I used an extra-short stitch on these? *groan*
Creating the lining
At this point I went to a friend of mine for help. She alters wedding dresses professionally and had good advice all the way through my process for getting good results from this dress. She advised making a lining that extended further down my torso, to my hips. The idea is that the lining is fitted very tight, and then boned. The tightness over the hips wants to go somewhere narrower, like the waist, which forces the rest of the dress upward—no bodice falling down! I did this pretty much to spec, adding boning (I used Rigilene for this, not having enough spiral steel, though the spiral steel would have been better) in different places than the first boning, at the middle of the side front and side back pieces.
The zipper is attached to the bodice and the lining, but not to the skirts. The skirts have a slit to accommodate the zipper, and then they are meant to be snapped closed over the lower portion. This part got a little messed up—I wasn’t able to get the clear snap I wanted to use for the organza in time, and then I accidentally sewed two male snap-ends onto the underskirt and only found out when it was too late to fix it. A handy safety pin came to the rescue there.
The skirts were both hemmed using my rolled hem function on my serger. The lettuce-hem adds a nice floaty effect and it was much easier than bothering with a narrow hem.
(Tigger had to help. He’s completely attracted to blue fabric, probably because it shows off his orange fur the best.)