I would like to show you an example of a dress I recently made using one of our beautiful hand-woven cotton fabrics. In fact, it’s one of my favorite fabrics ever!
The crosshatch fabric I used is very similar to our Disappearing Checks handloom cotton, only the current fabric has black checks rather than the blue ones on my dress. (My fabric was also slightly lighter in weight and more translucent than the current batch.)
The fabric is extremely soft and has what I think of as a “cottony” feel: it is soft and warm to the touch, a bit like flannel almost, rather than being smooth and cold to the touch like a shirting fabric. Why is this? Not only is the fabric hand woven, the cotton was probably hand-spun, with the result that more tiny cotton fiber ends are tickling our fingertips. This also gives the fabric a very soft drape.
Which pattern to choose for my beautiful fabric? Ah, the eternal conundrum… I wanted a fairly simple design to show off the intriguing fabric, and ideally something with a bit of fullness to take advantage of the fabric’s lightness. A nice review on PatternReview.com led me to Vogue 1543, an Anne Klein design with soft pleats at the front waistline on the bodice and skirt. Aha - didn’t I need a white summer dress?
Unfortunately this pattern, like so many these days, was completely plain on the back. Am I the only one who finds this incredibly boring? So I dug out a drafting book and created a back shoulder yoke which extends slightly to the front. The waist darts on the back bodice were then rotated into a small inverted pleat over the shoulders at center back. Much better!
I also widened the shoulders as a personal preference (cut-in shoulders are cute, but bra straps aren’t). And finally, because the fabric is so soft and I was afraid that it might slip at the seams if stressed, I cut the skirt pieces one size larger than I would normally wear to provide additional ease through the back hips.
In case you fear cutting up your sewing patterns to create design details, there is a great book which will encourage you to take matters into your own hands: The Savvy Seamstress : An Illustrated Guide to Customizing Your Favorite Patterns by Nicole Mallalieu. I discovered the book only after making this dress, but I think she showed a yoke treatment similar to what I have described here, as well as a number of other great ideas and useful techniques.
To prepare the fabric, I hand washed and line-dried it; it shrank very little, if at all. My fabric was definitely semi-sheer (the current version of the fabric is more opaque) and had to be lined or underlined. A very lightweight plain weave cotton was just the thing: similar to the white Cotton Voile available in the Loom & Stars shop, which is the perfect weight and softness to go with handloom cottons.
But which one, lining or underlining? That depends on the location. I underlined the bodice pieces, i.e. held the two fabrics together and treated them as one, only after dealing with their respective waistline treatments: the outer fabric was pleated, whereas the lining was darted. The skirt, on the other hand, I lined, both because here too the pleats at the waist were treated differently on the lining and outer pattern pieces, and also so that the two layers would move freely.
For stitching, fine cotton threads are best for such fine cotton fabrics, and luckily I had just picked up a spool of Aurifil for the first time, which I was really pleased with. Unlike the usual Mettler or Gutermann no.50 cotton threads which are slightly thick, the Aurifil seems closer in weight to the DMC Cotton Machine Embroidery thread which I usually use, along with a fine machine needle. French seams on both fabric and lining ensure that the delicate fabrics will not fray, but still hang nicely.
It was not possible to match the fabric’s woven checks precisely at seams, due to the hand-made nature of the fabric, but it turned out good enough. Just think about where you actually do match it: I matched the center front bodice seam at the notch (as one does!), but on this pattern the notch was just above the waist: not a spot that usually draws the eye. My husband’s first comment upon seeing the dress was, “why doesn’t the fabric match in front?” I protested that I had matched it, but… oh well. So remember to make your own match-point where it counts!
For finishing I went semi-couture-ish since I didn’t want to use topstitching on this dress. Bias tape around the neck and armholes did the trick, turned under and hand-stitched to the underlining (as were a few seam allowances, such as on the yoke). Luckily I love to sew by hand! I also bound the waistline seam, which was slightly bulky in front due to the pleats.
A tiny machine-stitched hem lets the fabric hang softly. Much to my surprise, the skirt shortened itself quite a bit, shrinking upwards when I first cut off some of the excess length. Luckily I had re-measured the hemline and discovered this before stitching the hem, or else the dress would have been too short and uneven - horrors!
But wait, the neckline, you say… what’s shown on the pattern is not what we see in the photos! Indeed. When at last I tried on the dress, the high V-neck seemed boring and wrong, at least on me. So I changed it to a scoop, but this made the neckline too loose, probably because the pattern was not intended to be this shape. And it still seemed somehow harsh and plain… it needed some softness, like the softness of the pleats and the fabric, right? A long bias strip folded in half and tacked into the neckline did the trick perfectly! Yes, it now looks sadly unfinished inside, but only you and I will know.
What did I learn? Well, I should have interlined the shoulder yoke with silk organza for more stability. But more importantly… I learned how lovely it is to sew on handwoven fabric! Not to mention how comfortable it is to wear: breathable, floaty and cool. Wrap it up with a blue metallic leather belt, and voila, the perfect summer dress!
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