Searching on the internet for dressmaking workshops I came across this one day workshop described as Freehand Cutting Dressmaking with Chinelo Bally. It is run by Make Do and Mend in Chelmsford and this is what they promised - Learn how to make a garment using the freehand cutting method with Chinelo Bally (contestant on The Great British Sewing Bee). This course focuses on a stylish peplum top or, made longer, a beautiful dress to impress!
I had to find out more, having seen Chinelo's wonderful creations under pressure in the second series of Sewing Bee. Would a one day workshop enable me to run up similar fabulous garments? Well, I wasn't under the illusion that my sewing would be transformed in just one day but I did hope that I would be able to produce better fitting clothes that would be cut to fit straight on the cloth, rather than having to make alterations to the paper pattern and toiles before the final cutting out of the fabric, plus trying to avoid the difficulty of trying to fit oneself. I telephoned Make Do and Mend to ask if one could make the garment without help from another person with fitting etc. I was assured that with this method one could do it all alone without recourse to any help, even taking the initial body measurements. This sounded like a dream come true so I signed up straight away.
Getting to Chelmsford from London is easy as there are frequent trains from Liverpool Street Station and you can walk from the station, via the High Street, to Make Do and Mend in about 12 minutes if you do not dawdle window shopping. You are asked to bring your own lunch to the venue and there are plenty of options, including a massive Tesco, on the walk to the venue to purchase something if you have not made your own packed lunch.
There were 8 students in all, of varying ages and sizes (from size 8 to 22). The premises are delightfully decorated with enough room to carry out the tasks without getting in the way of fellow students. We were all there before the start time and enjoying hot drinks and biscuits provided when Chinelo arrived. She is the perfect tutor, calm, patient, giving clear instructions and always ready to answer any queries.
The workshop commenced with the taking of a given set of body measurements. It wasn't quite true that you could take them all yourself as it is impossible, unless you are a contortionist, to measure your own back. I would advise you to take your own tested tape measure to workshops as they can stretch with time and use. I test mine against a rigid measure to make sure that this has not happened before I take measurements, unfortunately the one provided for me at the workshop was not accurate. While we are on the subject of what to take to workshops I would also advise taking your own pins so you know that they are of good quality (not rough, bent or with blunted ends) and that you will have plenty.
Next we were given a series of calculations to make using our body measurements, you needed a calculator for these and I had to ask another student to do mine on her mobile phone. I think most of us hadn't used pi since school! Here we are hard at work on our sums.
Chinelo then described how we should layout and fold our fabric and press it so that the fold lines could be used as guide lines for centre front etc. This use of fold lines works well on cotton fabric and is quicker and easier than putting in a tacking line so I shall certainly be using it again with similar cloth.
Next, following Chinelo's directions and using the measurements resulting from the calculations, we marked out our pattern directly on to our fabric. There is one problem that I could see with this free hand method - calculating how much material you need for making a specific garment. With a paper pattern you can do some test layouts to see how much fabric you need before you go and buy the material but with this method you have to have your fabric in order to make the pattern. We were told to bring 2 metres if making a top or 4 metres for a dress, I found, as I am slim, that 2 metres was more than enough for the sleeveless top plus the sleeves that I intended to add but another person was concerned that she might have insufficent cloth.
The subsequent step was the most terrifying for me- cutting out. When using a paper pattern one has the opportunity to try the pattern against you, maybe measure the garment pattern and compare it with a similar fit of a garment you already have, to see if you have it roughly correct. This freehand method was completely new to me and was a bit like taking both feet of the ground to pedal your first bicycle - would I proceed safely forward or crash disastrously? I did not cut the armhole exactly as directed because I was intending to add sleeves, while the workshop is for a sleeveless garment, and my sketched-in armhole looked weird and not the lovely curve achieved by the other students but Chinello came to my rescue and corrected it. After the cutting we had 6 pieces, bodice front, left and right bodice backs, skirt front and left and right skirt backs. Below you see us with our cut out pieces and ready to start marking in the bodice shaping.
Chinelo described how to mark out the darts on the front and back of the bodice and the way to sew them. The way to sew the front darts is unusual and I found I had to rather play it by ear, as it were. This was followed by sewing the peplum skirt pieces to the front and backs of the bodice. To my amazement these matched exactly, not even a millimetre out. The next step that Chinelo demonstrated was sewing in the invisible zip to the bodice back. I had brought with me the 22 inch zip specified, this is fine if you are making the dress or a top with a longish peplum but it was too long for my top and, although Chinelo related how it could be shortened, at home I took the zip out and substituted a 16 inch zip. I only got as far as putting in the zip before the end of the workshop. Most of the class got a bit further than this and I could just have had time to sew up the sides but I did not want to do this because there was no opportunity to pin the seams and try on my bodice for fit before sewing. Chinelo not only tutored us and helped with our queries and problems but also made a dress to the measurements of one of the Make Do and Mend team as she demonstrated the processes. Here is the result.
My sewing continued- very intermittently- at home. To make the sleeveless dress as per the workshop you finished the armholes and neck with bias binding before sewing up the side and shoulder seams. However, for my sleeved version, I needed to close the side and shoulder seams, in order to establish the armhole into which to fit the sleeve, and I wanted to make a facing for the neckline rather than have a bias binding finish so this is how I progressed.
I pinned the side seams and discovered the fit was good except that the seam over my left breast was slightly out. It took me a long time to rectify this because I had to keep trying on, tacking, re-trying, re-tacking numerous times and it was difficult for me to reach behind and use the back zip fastening. I could manage to do it but it was a really hard and time consuming struggle so, in the end, I only sewed when my long-suffering partner was there to zip me up and down. Eventually, after a number of unpickings I altered it to my satisfaction. I am sure, if Chinelo had been with me, she would have instantly spotted what I had done wrong and told me how to rectify it without all the trial and error.
I puzzled how to create a sleeve and decided to cut out a toile for the sleeve from a New Look pattern for a top that I had made with a good fit to the sleeve. When I made this up and tacked it into the armhole it fitted quite well and I only had to lower the sleeve cap a bit to create the pattern for a sleeve to the peplum top. I made a facing for the neckline by making a tracing around the neckline using greaseproof paper. I produced patterns for a front neck facing to be cut on the fold and a back neck facing to be cut in two pieces ( left side and right side). I even managed to remember to add a seam allowance for the shoulder seams. The rest of the sewing went really quickly, except for the hand hemming of the peplum, which seemed to take forever. I was glad that I had not chosen to make a dress which would have required yards more hemming.
So now for the reveal, with photos taken at the crack of dawn by my dressing-gown-clad partner who I dragged into a cold but sunny garden.
a) Chinelo is a brilliant teacher.
b) This is the most fitted top that I have ever made in a non-stretch fabric and I never thought I could get such a good fit.
c) I learnt to trust measurements.
d) I found out that Chinelo is working on a book of her method and it is due out in October 2015. It will present a number of projects for you to make. I will definitely be buying this.
a) As is usual with this type of workshop, not enough time to get to the point that you want. As I mentioned earlier, I would really have liked to have a quick try-on to see if I had made any major mistake. If you have followed the instructions then it should come out correctly but I'm so muddle-headed, partly from the amount of brain cells that you lose the older you get and partly because I am naturally that way, that I would have liked that reassurance before I left the workshop. I found it difficult to take notes and listen to instructions at the same time but, after the workshop, you are sent a video on the process.
b) I had hoped that this workshop would show how I could apply the freehand cutting process to other types of garments but I will have to wait for Chinelo's book for that.
Have you taken a workshop or done a course, maybe one on line, that you would like to blog about. Any member of the London Dressmakers Club can blog on a sewing related matter so contact Giselle or myself if you would like to post something.