A dress from a half-century-old pattern

dress pattern envelope from 1956


A couple of weeks ago, maybe a bit more, I started a project.   Some time back I acquired a dress pattern from 1956 for an adorable day dress that actually contained ALL of the original pieces.   I decided that this summer would be the best time to make it. So off to the fabric store I went to grab what I needed for it.

pattern instructions showing date

See? It really is from 1956.

As you can see from the first photo, this pattern was not in pristine condition.   Oh, no, it had been dinner for what looked to be a few rounds of small insect dinner parties, possibly replete with small insect cocktails.   Fortunately it was the envelope and one pattern piece that suffered the most damage.

pattern eaten away by bugs and time

Paper is yum!

But some pieces were okay.  The dress was to have small pleats at both shoulders, so I decided to make a pleater out of stiff paper so the pleats would be easy, and identical.

paper pleating template made from folded cardstock

pleaters are a new idea to me

Largely because the paper was so fragile and partly because I’m a weird shape and I wanted the fitted bodice to fit correctly, I decided to make a muslin.   Just laying the pattern pieces onto muslin and gently weighting them down with some smooth rocks, I drew on the muslin fabric, cut out and pinned those pieces to my mannequin, adjusted for my size, and then finally marked the final size onto the muslin pieces with a Sharpie

pattern recreated on muslin

this pattern might last awhile

And I made the dress.  Relatively few pictures exist of the making of the dress, as they turned out, well… boring.   Unfortunately, so did the dress.   You see, I really don’t have the figure to pull off that style of dress, and certainly don’t have a bullet bra and girdle to fake it like what was done at the time this dress was meant to be worn.   That’s something I really hadn’t thought through when I made the dress.  It was nicely made, but… dull.  And just a bit weird, even though I made it out of my favorite fabric (which I have yards and yards of!).

Now, skim over the above text.  See how short it is in comparison to the rest of this post?   The making of the dress wasn’t much of a learning experience, but the rest of it was.  So here follows.

What in the world was I to do?  I spent so much time on the dress already that I hated taking it apart and saving it for scraps.  Then it hit me — duh!  Add embellishments!   Negating the idea to use a Bedazzler, I drew an outline of the dress, scanned it in, and printed it out several times so I could doodle on the print-outs.  And I settled on this design:

illustration of a swirly design on a drawing of the dress

the swirls mimic the design of the fabric, albeit on a much larger scale

I intended for this design to be made of ribbon or somesuch, attached to the fabric.   When ribbon or cording or yarn is attached to fabric via stitching it’s called couching.   I’d seen this technique before but was only recently learned the name and only recently was interested in doing it.  This design couched onto this dress seemed to be the perfect pairing.

So I smoothed out the dress on my dining table, pulled out the spool of household cording, and got to work laying it out on the dress in the same way as my drawing.

white cording set on on the dress in the same design as in the drawing

household twine usually doesn’t look this pretty

Then, at a couple of inches a time, I moved the cording out of the way just enough so I could get my white pencil under it to draw the design onto the fabric.

string moved and swirl drawn in white pencil onto the fabric

It’s a fake. I recreated this scene for the photo.

But what should I actually use to stitch the design onto the dress?   I looked through my giant box of ribbons & lace so I wouldn’t have to buy anything, nothing looked quite right so I grabbed a few fabric scraps and tried that household cording, doubling it up because it was only about 1mm thick on its own and would have looked too insignificant on the finished dress.   I drew a sample spiral onto the scrap, then, putting the end of the cording on top of the end of the pencilled line, I used a zig-zag stitch, experimenting with stitch length (how much space as between the zig and the zag – ha) and the stitch width (how wide that zig-zagged line is).   You can see in the photo where I penciled onto the fabric my settings so I could pull off the sample and give it a good look over before jumping right into the real thing.

household twine stitched onto the fabric

disregard the caption about household twine looking pretty

Did I bother looking up the best way to do this?  Why would I do a crazy thing like that?  So I experimented.   And I saw where the back side of the fabric was pulled tight, wrapping around the cording.

the back side where the cord is stitched

pucker: say this fast 5 times (it’s not dirty, it just sounds funny)

This told me two things: (1) I needed to use a stabilizer of some kind to give the fabric some stiffness & strength, and (2) I needed to loosen up on that upper thread tension.  Adjusting the tension makes all the difference in how tight or how loose stitches are.   I needed a loose stitch to accomodate the thickness of the cording.

Anyway, obviously the household cording was out.  Oh, it did fine with the sewing part, it was the looking-at-it part I didn’t like.   I even tried twisting it around, and still, it was just darn ugly.  It had the appearance of being “home sewn,” an insult sometimes used on “Project Runway” when a designer presented something that wasn’t very professional looking.

I knew a flat ribbon wouldn’t work, as it would never curve well around all those curves.  Still, I tried it anyway.   Remember, I was trying to use up some of my stash.  It, of course, looked terrible.   Even moreso than the household cording.   What I knew *would* work, however, was satin rattail cording.  (Don’t ask me why it’s called that, I never bothered to ask.)   And satin rattail cording was the one thing I did not have enough of.  In fact, I had none.   So I went on Etsy and eBay and eventually found some perfect dark pewter-grey cording at a ridonkulously cheap price and waited eagerly for it to arrive.


Ah, it arrived a few days later.   It was the perfect shade of grey for my black-and-grey dress.  More experimenting ensued with stitching, thread colors, thread tension, and backing stabilizers.  Here are 2 of photos I took from many experiments.

satin rattail cord stitched onto the dress with black and with white thread

satin is really, really hard to photograph in my dining room

On the left you’ll see I used white thread, and on the right I tried black.  Neither looked quite right, but fortunately I had a small spool of a close-enough grey thread so I ran with it.

Remember I said I needed a stabilizer?   What ended up making the outside of the dress look right was to merely pin an extra layer of a same-weight fabric onto the inside.  I used giant safety pins to hold in a few fabric pieces, allowing for a bit of stretching that might occur.

fabric safety-pinned to the inside of the dress

it doesn’t look very professional, but safety pins sure do come in handy — all the bloody time

And I nervously started sewing.  The 2mm cording was too thick to use with my cording foot, but I left it on the machine and used it as if it were a regular foot, anyway.

close-up of the fabric and satin cording being stitched together

you can see my white pencil line here as well as the tab on the cording presser foot where smaller cords and ribbons can be fed through for easy stitching

I planned out the order of attaching the cording and decided on doing the smaller pieces first, allowing the fabric to stretch and give, then attaching that one really long line that’s in the middle of the scrollwork.   See the 3 swirls in this photo?   The two on the right were smaller ones I did first.   That line on the left is part of the Really Long Part I was doing later.

dress laid out on the table with cording and safety pins holding on the backing fabric

look at all those safety pins

And when I got to that long line, I started at one end and went to the other.   In hindsight, I should have started in the middle, stitched to one end, and gone back to the middle to stitch to the other end.  This would have saved several places where I had to ease the fabric under the satin cording.

And then it was done!  I had cut the bodice a little on the bias so it would have a bit more stretch-and-give, seeing as it’s pretty form-fitting, which is why you can see it giving a bit on the photo.

photo taken of a headless me in the dress

Here it is! You can see the cording starting on the bodice and ending on the skirt.

the lower half of the dress with disembodied feet below it

aaaaaand the skirt part

The dress’s public debut was to The Kimball to see the Picasso & Braque exhibit.  Go see it.   The exhibit, that is, you can see my dress anytime.

I made a matching ribbon to tie in my hair:

matching bow for my hair

I’m all matchy-matchy, just like they say not to do

Pockets, these are great things to have, and were not in the original pattern.

simple slash pockets in the side seams

you can stash all kinds of things in dress pockets, these were not part of the original pattern

It’s awfully hard to take pictures of oneself, especially if lighting poses a health risk.  So the picture here is of me in the dressing room with no head, arms, or legs.  But at least you can see the whole design on the finished dress.

the whole shebang

Ta da!

… Isn’t this the neatest print on a fabric you’ve ever seen?   Very “Burtonesque.”

finished dress hanging up

the dress on a lovely plastic hanger, but at least you can see the couched cording better this way


3 thoughts on “A dress from a half-century-old pattern

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