If you know me at all, you know that in the last few years I have become a skirt fiend (weather permitting), but what you may not know is that in all of my skirtmaking, I have successfully avoided having to do such things as make darts and sew zippers. All of those pesky little details that make clothes fit you well, I have skipped by crafting skirts in a wraparound style, or by giving them elastic waists. This has been fine with me, really, although I have often thought that if I could master those shaping techniques, I could actually make myself a nice dress or two.
As much as I love my summer wardrobe of tank tops and a-line skirts, nothing says “easy, breezy, effervescence” like a well-fitting sheath dress.
Enter Built by Wendy Dresses, the new book in the Sew U series by Wendy Mullin. (Wendy Mullin is the genius behind Simplicity 3835, which, if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you will know is my go-to pattern for shirts, and what I generally wear in the summer when I’m not in a skirt.)
The book includes patterns for three basic dresses: sheath, shift, and drindl (which is basically a dress with a defined waist and gathered skirt). I went straight for the sheath, traced the correct size of the pattern on to tracing paper, cut it out, and made a muslin out of a thrifted bedsheet.
The instructions for putting the muslin together are somewhat vague. There is sufficient detail when it comes to measuring yourself , choosing the right pattern size for your body, and cutting out the fabric pieces. All of that is very helpful, but if you’re new to dressmaking, you might be stumped by the instruction to “stitch or pin the pattern pieces together” with no further elaboration. While the book comes with the patterns to put together three basic dresses, there are no instructions for any of these basic styles. I was able to overcome this by flipping to the projects section, finding a dress based on the basic sheath, and seeing how that one was put together.
My muslin had its fit issues, which is why this is all I plan to show you of it :-D Luckily, BBW Dresses features a section on altering patterns to fit, and that alone is worth the price of admission. Wendy describes (and illustrates) how to translate your muslin’s shortcomings into pattern modifications. I can’t stress enough what a valuable thing this is. My muslin gave me practice putting in my first zipper, helped me get comfortable sewing darts, and then let me slash it up in an effort to learn a little something about my measurements.
Once I had my new, improved, basic sheath pattern pieces, I was ready to cut into the good fabric. I bought and pre-washed two yards of the Wall Flower print in the New Day colorway from Denyse Schmidt’s Hope Valley collection, and laid out my pattern pieces.
They didn’t fit.
A word of warning: the front and back pattern pieces, if you are making one of the larger sizes, may not fit side-by-side on 44″ wide fabric. If this is the case, as it was with me, the two yard quantity called for in the pattern is not going to be sufficient.
Since I didn’t want to wait to mail-order more fabric, I decided to get creative. I perused the sheath-based projects in the book, looking for ones that involved making the sleeves or neckline shorter (thereby making them easier to fit on what was left of my fabric), and settled on the “Oktober Dress.” I only modified the pattern in terms of the sleeves and neckline, and left the skirt as it was. Theoretically, this would have given me the basic sheath silhouette, with just a deeper, wider neck and shorter sleeves.
Suffice it to say, somewhere along the line I screwed that up, tried to fix it with some homemade bias binding, but found that to be even more awful than it was without it.
So, ok. The neck looks terrible. And the zipper isn’t perfect (by a long shot) but it’s in, and it’s better than my practice run was. On the bright side, the rest of the dress fits so much better than the muslin did, thanks to the pattern-modification process.
I do love the way the skirt portion fits me (minus the static that plagued my photo shoot), and if I never manage to figure out how to fix the upper half of the dress, I can always just cut it off and make myself a nice fitted skirt out of it.
Anybody have any ideas for things I can do to improve the top half of the dress? Is there any way to turn a raglan construction into a sleeveless style? I could see this looking nice with spaghetti straps, if I could figure that out.
While I did have some difficulty with this project, it hasn’t soured me to the charm of the book. Many of my problems were due to user error and lack of experience – both things that should be less of a factor the next time I try this process. And I do want to try it again. The bulk of the book is dedicated to projects that use the basic patterns as building blocks to more interesting designs, and I haven’t even scratched the surface!
I’d call this an Intermediate level book. Or maybe a book for motivated beginners who have a comprehensive sewing guide they can refer to where necessary.
4.5 stars out of 5