This is my good friend Rachel. No, she’s not a time traveller. You might recognise her from Instagram, diligently commenting on all my sewing posts, because in addition to being extremely beautiful, she’s also an absolute babe. Ain’t she gorgeous?! And isn’t that dress completely sublime?!
And here’s the fun thing about this dress: she made it. Yes, she had a bit of supervision from yours truly, but without having sewn in over a decade she made this with her own fair hands and I think it looks banging.
At this point I think it’s fair for me to take a little bit of credit because, back in May, Rachel became a bit obsessed with seeing my me-mades every day. She’d studied Textiles at school (receiving an A* at GCSE for a Lord-of-the-Rings-inspired gown, no less… she might have mentioned it once or twice…) but hadn’t sewn since, but MeMadeMay gave her a push to rekindle her love of craft. At around the same time she was invited to a 1950’s themed wedding. “Perfect opportunity to make something“, she thought, and dived straight in by ordering this gorgeous Vogue V8789 Pattern.
Now, the thing about this pattern is that it’s a reproduction of a 1957 original. On the one hand that’s great as it’s true to the era (very much Dior’s New Look!), but on the other hand the instructions were near-on indecipherable and the sizes differed wildly to what we’re used to in the 21st Century. It was certainly a far cry from the modern patterns I’m used to, with their colour photographs and online sew-alongs. Suddenly we realised just how much more adept women in the Fifties must have been at making their own clothes (it was considered an essential skill then, and passed down through generations. I read a great article that touched on this in the Guardian a while back). Not to mention how years of post-war rationing had made them so much slimmer than we are now. It’s therefore super-important when working with vintage patterns to carefully take your measurements in advance, rather than just plumping for your “normal” ready-to-wear size. Rachel (who is very slim anyway) made the dress a full two sizes bigger than she normally would, so it’s definitely worth the bit of extra effort to avoid potential disappointment.
So anyway, the pattern arrives and panic quickly ensues as Rachel realises this might be a bit ambitious for a starter project. No bother, though – we turned what was originally just meant to be a fabric shopping date (that’s a thing, right?) into a full-blown-oreo-biscuit-fuelled sewing bonanza!
We started by buying fabric from Saeed’s in Walthamstow, where we were totally spoilt for choice. We were actually looking for fabric with a border print but abandoned that idea after realising that meant Rachel’s choice would basically be limited to scubas, which aren’t at all true to the era. After a lot of careful deliberation she opted for this romantic light-weight cotton lawn for £8 a meter, and some mustard-yellow chiffon for the cumberbund (which is basically a fancy belt for anyone who, like us, had never heard of it!). Blue and yellow are Rachel’s favourite colours, and the small floral print had the added benefit of no pattern-matching required. Happy days!
Next problem: the pattern told us we needed five meters of fabric. “FIVE METERS?! Are you having a laugh?!” (Rachel’s actual words). Even the lady helping us in the shop thought that sounded excessive. So there we were, in Saeeds, pulling out the pattern and agonising again over the instructions all over again, until we concluded that it could only need that much if you were using a border print, and needed to pattern match. Sure, that’ll be it. So optimistically, we purchased the 1.87 meters that Saeed had left in Rachel’s fabric of choice and decided it would be fine. Of course it would.
At this point, anyone who’s read about my Secret Patchwork Coco will notice a theme emerging: I never seem to have enough fabric.
We knew we’d need to use it economically, so we tried lots of different pattern layouts before cutting it out. We made the bodice first, so that we could use whatever we had left for the skirt. We also omitted the inner belt because it seemed like an unnecessary waste of material and we couldn’t work out what it was for anyway. I started Rachel off by showing her how to resize the pattern and make tailors tacks, but other than that she did all the prep herself. Then I showed her how to use my sewing machine and make darts, and off she went! Like a duck to water. The fit was all important for this style of dress so we made a few tweaks to the fit by taking it in a little at the sides and making the darts longer, so it fit her like a glove. We even exceeded our own expectations by making rouleau loops for the button holes (neither of us had done this before, but it turned out to be quite easy!).
Only at this point as we embarked on the skirt did we realise that we probably should have bought closer to five meters of fabric after all. It transpired that we were supposed to cut through four thicknesses of fabric rather than two, although we only worked this out from the tiny diagrams – it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in the instructions! So we only had half the fabric required to make the iconic full Fifties skirt we were aiming for.
We both acted pretty cool about it, but secretly we were gutted. We toyed with the idea of having a contrast skirt, or combining the fabric we had with something else to create vertical stripes, but neither of those would create the look Rachel was after. So instead we decided just to use the fabric we had and accept that it wouldn’t look quiet like the picture. I showed her how to make gathers (I was actually GOBSMACKED at how she got them so nice and even first time) and attach the skirt to the bodice, and after that she finished it off at home, on her housemate’s sewing machine. It took a total of two days for the pair of us working together, and a day and a half of Rachel sewing on her own at home.
I know I’m an eternal optimist, but I genuinely think that the smaller skirt was something of a happy accident. Here are the reasons:
- If there’d been loads more fabric it would have been much more difficult to gather neatly. As it is, it sits perfectly – look how tiny her waist is!
- Hemming would have taken FOREVER.
- We probably would have had to make the inner belt, to support the weight.
- The smaller skirt makes it infinitely more wearable day-to-day. It’s a very classic shape that looks vintage-inspired without being too fancy dress.
- Times were hard in the Fifties, right?! I mean, could anyone really afford to buy five meters of fabric for one dress then?!
Sure, a fuller skirt would have looked great, but there’s no doubting that the finished garment is absolutely stunning. The straight neckline and wasp-waist make it very true to the era, and she accessorised it beautifully with white gloves, a string of pearls and a pill-box hat from eBay. It took a total of two days spent working together, and a day and a half of Rachel sewing on her own at home.
She went to the wedding this weekend (which also happened to be her birthday!) and everyone was suitably amazed that she’d made it herself. Now she’s officially got the sewing bug, and there’s talk of her buying her own sewing machine and making a Tilly and the Buttons Cleo (which is much easier, thank goodness) as well as a secret project I can’t mention here. I’m so pleased that it turned out well in the end, and can’t wait to see what she makes next!
NB: July, of course, is the month of vintage patterns on Instagram (for non-intragrammers, #vpjuly is actually a thing!). I’d love to hear what you’ve been making, and what you’ve learned. Please let us know! Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with more pics of this bombshell:
PS: HAPPY BIRTHDAY RACH! X