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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Member of the month - Beth

How to sew a ball gown in a bedsit without (entirely) losing your mind
I am fairly new to sewing and when I started I shared a large two bedroom flat with one other person....  now I live in a very small "Studio" (really a bedsit) in East London.
This adventure started as most of my sewing projects do… with some beautiful fabric I bought nearly eight months ago. And for the sake of full disclosure I am still working on this project. But there is a photo shoot on the 31st of May  and I am hopeful it will be ready.  I will post photos of the completed dress. 

It being an African printed canvas as I had to buy 6 yards of this beautiful gold and turquoise material, with a complex geometric pattern.  For £15 how could I go wrong? If you live in London go to Dalston market and look for the store near to the butcher selling cows feet.
Having so much beautiful fabric I decided to make myself a ball gown length full skirt. To put this decision into context I live in a tiny bedsit in central London so sewing something this big was always going to be a challenge but little did I know how much of a challenge it was going to be.

Also I am also a very novice sewer and the only things I had managed to complete before starting this project were a pleated skirt and some shoe bags. But fortune and fashion favour the brave, and I foolishly thought that it would only involve sewing longer seams. A lot of unpicking for accidentally sewing the pleats together happened when sewing the skirt.

I experimented with various ways of pleating the fabric, but as it was very stiff it looked more like a kilt than a ball gown.  My solution buy a vintage vogue dress pattern and just not sew the top bit, and add half a meter to the bottom. Turns out that this would have some interesting structural implications.
My first challenge was cutting out the fabric.  I discovered that the fabric was very narrow compared to others that I have bought. This meant that the gold bits would be hidden in the pleats of the dress if I used my original vertical layout, so  I opted for a vertical layout. I also had to cut from salvage edge to salvage edge. 

My room is only 4.5m long so I needed to rearrange my furniture so that I would have a clear path to lay out the fabric.  This was like playing solo twister! 

I then started to place the fabric so that the patterns would match, given the horizontal & vertical patterns in the fabric, choosing a pattern with princess seams, was not the best idea (next time solid colours only!). I thought I did the pattern matching correctly but turns out I matched on the cutting edge rather than the sewing line. GRRRRRRR!!!!!!!  After much foul language, tears  and ripping out seams I got to a place that I was happy with, the patterns if not the fit.

The pattern was originally a dress and in altering it I forgot to take account of the weight of the fabric.  It being very heavy I needed to put some structure in place.  I originally tried grosgrain in place of boning on the outer skit, then tried to use it as casing for plastic boning. Neither really worked. I tried boning the inner skirt, but it wasn't strong enough.

In order to provide the support  that I needed I had to sew a underskirt and add a wider boning to it. Professor Pincushion has some useful tutorials. But this didn't look that great. I have now opted to sew the boning to the grosgrain then sew the grosgrain to the outer fabric. 

And this is where I have got to so far.  To do  this week: 
1) adjust fit of skirt (I have gained weight over the last 8 months)
2) finish sewing in the boning/grosgrain 
3) attach Petersham at waist 
4) attach underskirt
5) do zipper
6) hem 9m of circle skirt :( 

7) Find an occasion to wear this thing! 
What I have learned
  • Buy a foam gardening kneeler (pound shop ones are good), it will save your knees when pinning and cutting fabric.
  • Yes it is worth it to baste your seams.
  • If you are going to be walking on your fabric to cut it out wear clean socks.
  • Electrical tape is awesome for marking hemlines and holding seams together.
  • Write the piece number and direction to the centre front in the seam allowance so that you can remember which piece is which when you come back to your project  after a few weeks.


  1. Great post Beth! I think we have all been there with the - 'oh that should be an easy sew!' routine. Well done for sticking with it. I love the fabric and I am sure you will look amazing in your new skirt. Good tip on marking the direction to centre front on the pattern pieces. I often number mine, but hadn't thought of directing myself like that so I will try that out in future.

  2. Congratulations on sticking with it through all the tribulations. I firmly believe that you learn mainly by the mistakes you make, at least I hope so as I have made so many in my time. Native fabrics are frequently narrower than we are now used to since modern technology has made the weaving of wide widths possible. You may notice than fabric amounts on vintage patterns are often given for no wider than 36 inches(90 cm in metric). Looking forward to seeing the finished garment.

  3. I love the title of this post, what a Cinderella you are! It looks like you're making great progress with the dress!

  4. This is to show that no amount of space is too small to be creative or sew a dress....well done


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