Dressmaking The Easy Guide

I promised you a blog about how I came to make my first self-drafted dress pattern for the above dress. Now, firstly I must say that the dress isn’t perfect by any means so don’t get all judgey on me haha! It is only made in the cheapest polycotton, as I wanted to make sure that I finally had the fit as good as I could get before using any of my nicer fabrics. That being said, I will wear this, when the British summer allows, but it is thin and definitely needs a full length slip underneath!

So, it all started last summer when I kept seeing posts on some of my sewing social media groups about a book that women were using to learn how to draft patterns to fit their own personal body shapes. Having an odd menopausal shaped body myself and finding it difficult to get ready to wear clothes that fit me nicely, I had already spent a bit of time looking into making my own clothes. Among other web based clubs and pattern makers, I’d investigated the American based company Cashmerette and was considering joining their club for the online classes, but it was quite pricey so I was putting it off. Then this book that British women were raving about came to my attention so I decided to buy it and see for myself. It’s the best £20 I’ve ever spent.

The book of course is Dressmaking the Easy Guide by Helen Rhiannon Gill, it is supported by an amazingly friendly and helpful Facebook group of the same name as well as the website linked and now a YouTube channel with tutorials. It has gone global, with women from all over the world meeting online and in person in newly formed sewing groups to help each other to make dresses that fit. Our own group here in Hull and East Yorkshire meets up every couple of months or so and we’ve all become friends. If you are interested you can find us on Facebook here, HEY Sewing

The book takes you right through the whole process from creating your pattern blocks to designing your own unique dress.

  • How to measure yourself, or even better have someone else measure you, properly
  • Choosing the right set of blocks based on those measurements and how to deal with being different sizes on top and bottom (and often in the middle as well!)
  • Altering the block to fit your own body. A pattern block is the basic pattern piece, without any extra bits like seam or hem allowances or any design features. There is a good explanation here from The Sewing Retreat website. Helen’s book includes a set of full size blocks for all sizes
  • Making a toile and adjusting it to fit you perfectly. A toile is a sample dress, usually made in calico or other cheap fabric that is easy to work with. Lots of people use old bedsheets or duvet covers.

Below is my first toile which I made much too big. I adjusted that and feeling reasonably confident, I made my first dress, a fitted bodice, short sleeve and A-line skirt, using my cheap polycotton so that I wouldn’t be losing much if it wasn’t right. Good move, as it was definitely not right and has ended up being cut up for scraps as I knew I would never wear it. You can probably see, it is too loose at the waist and the bodice is too long.

My next attempt, when I again thought I had my toile fitting cracked, was a sweetheart neckline, short sleeved straight skirted dress with a concealed side zip. Again, too big! I’m clearly not as big as I imagine myself to be. The neckline gapes and exposes far too much boobage if I lean more than two inches forward and it’s baggy at the waist. I don’t know that I like it enough to be bothered to make adjustments now that it is all sewn together so it might end up in the charity shop bag. I’ll leave it in the naughty corner for now, I know from experience with knitting that hasn’t quite gone to plan, a few weeks or months in the naughty corner and then I often pick them up and finish them nicely.

So, after many attempts and disappointments, I recently made the toile below, which I thought was a pretty good fit overall. I just felt a couple of tweaks were needed, a bit off the shoulders and waist and the back neck was a bit gapey.

I made those adjustments and transferred them to my block and then, getting a bit fed up of making toiles over and over, not to mention getting low on calico, I dug out the cheapo £1.00 per metre polycotton again. I had bought this stuff in three different colours last summer from Pound Fabrics. My thinking was that if it was crap again, I’d only wasted a couple of quid but if it was ok, I’d wear it as the fabric pattern is summery.

This is the resulting dress from those little tweaks, you can see the other views in the picture at the top of the post. It has a boat neckline, short flared sleeve and straight skirt. Overall, I am thrilled with the fit. It is a little bit tight round the armholes, probably due to me lifting the shoulder seam from the toile, so I have now made the armhole scythe deeper on the block for future dresses. I am also looking forward to making different necklines and sleeve options as well as of course different skirt shapes. A-line, gathered, circle or half circle and box pleats will all be tried at some point I’m sure.

I can’t say it’s been an easy journey because it hasn’t. I think I have redrawn blocks, started again from scratch and made more toiles that I would ever care to again! Along the way I have learned things about my body shape, I’ve had to do some more advanced block adjustments due to the shape and curve of my back, among other things. it’s been a steep learning curve at times but I’m pleased to have been on it. I’ve almost thrown in the towel at times but I knew that once I got it right, it could be the basis for well fitting clothes going forward by using my blocks to not only design my own dress, skirt or top patterns but also to help me make adjustments to commercial patterns that I like. Not sure when I’ll be that confident mind you!

Since making that dress, I decided it was time to cut into my ‘nice’ fabric. I bought this beautiful batik at the Sewing for Pleasure show in Birmingham in March and from the off, it has been shouting out ‘simple lines, sleeveless or cap sleeves’ at me so here it is. I don’t have a modelled picture just yet, I need to hem it and then will get a photo of me wearing it. I love the colours of this fabric but it is another dress that definitely needs a full length slip as the fabric is a bit ‘sticky’ for want of a better word. It clings but not due to static, it’s like the fabric just sticks to my legs somehow. I’ve tried it on with a slip underneath though and it looks and feels fine.

So there you have it, my journey to making a dress that fits. If you are inspired to start making your own dresses, I honestly recommend Helen’s book. She is also very generous with her time, often advises on questions in the Facebook group and has produced a wealth of video tutorials to explain various aspects of the process, including some of the more advanced adjustments like full bust and sway back adjustments. You can use your blocks to make separates, skirts and tops too and the knowledge you gain may help you to adjust your commercial patterns to fit you better.

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