Thursday, July 24, 2014

Starting a new dress

Early this summer, I offered each of my kids a half-hour "date" with me.  During that time, I abandoned my usual control-freak ways and allowed my children to tell me what they wanted to do.  (I offered suggestions, but they got to choose).  K-daughter and I made a garden box; J-son got jealous and followed suit; N-son and I played a no-holds-barred version of Connect Four.

K-daughter liked this idea so much she asked me, "On our next date, can you teach me how to make a dress?"  Of course, I said yes.

Truth is, though, the Make-a-Dress project is way bigger than just one little half-hour date.  So far we've had three dates, in fact, and we haven't yet brought out a sewing machine or a needle.   
Date Three: we cut out the fabric.
Our three dress-making dates remind me why so few people make their own clothes anymore.  Sewing used to be a frugal option toward building up a wardrobe; but nowadays with yard sales and thrift stores and cheap clothes in every department store, sewing clothes from scratch is more of an expensive and time-consuming hobby than a way to save money.  Even I (who  made my own wedding dress, plus 18 teddy bears for family members, plus my daughter's coat, plus my own computer bag) --  well, even I use my sewing machine nowadays almost exclusively for mending, not making.

What's more, sewing a dress from scratch requires a lot of knowledge about of little details.  Our first "date", all we did was wander through the fabric store and buy stuff.  The first stop was the patterns: an overwhelming (to K-daughter) wall full of drawers, with each drawer full of envelopes.  I got to show her that the envelopes were organized in an order of their own quirky way.  She found a pattern she could fall in love with . . . until I pointed to the price tag: $15.65.   (And that's just the paper that tells you how to make the dress, not the cloth you use to make it!)

She gulped, and we regrouped, finding another dress pattern for only $2.50, and I promised her we could modify it to match the first one, sort of.  (Veteran sewers will know that we could have used a coupon and waited for a sale day to get even a lower price, but in this situation I figured forward progress was better than slow frugality).  Once we got the pattern, we had to buy the material and all the extras.  I assured her I could help her get a zipper and thread from my stockpile at home, and I tried to explain interfacing (seriously, does anybody who doesn't sew know what interfacing is?*), but even narrowing the next step down to fabric was overwhelming.  At one point, when she'd pointed to a fabric she loved, and I'd gently folded the fabric over the cardboard bolt to reveal the price (um, $30/yard), she was ready to give up.
[* As I write this, I'm totally imagining Evelyn and Rozy nodding their heads and smiling in knowing amusement.  Yes, yes, this.]
But I got to practice being a "calm, non-anxious presence", and eventually K-daughter and I found some inexpensive fabric she liked.  We bought the pattern and the fabric, and Date One was over.

Dates Two and Three were pinning and cutting.  For me, it was a flood of old memories --- it's been so long since I thought about lining up those arrows so they lie parallel to the selvage edge, or cutting those diamonds (out, not in!), or giving proper homage to seam allowances, or paying reverence to good side/back side of fabric.  I felt like a wise old woman, sharing ancient incantations.

We're still waiting on Date Four; that's when the sewing machine will finally come out of its cabinet and begin its work.  I figure we still have at least four or five dates remaining; far off on the horizon lie the mysteries of zippers, ruffles, and hems.  At some point, for sure, the almighty Seam Ripper will make its inevitable appearance.  There's so much to learn.

The title of this blog post is a little bit of a sad pun; before the summer is over, K-daughter will be moving into another apartment, and so she will have a new address.  That's a subject for another post.  But we've agreed to schedule weekly dates, and making her new dress (from scratch) is sure to be part of those.   


  1. Oh yes, those experiences are very familiar to me! I do wish sewing were a frugal alternative to buying clothing, but it really isn't. I like doing it, so it's worth it to me, but even new clothes at a lot of places are cheaper than things you make yourself. (Of course, those places have "fast fashion" ethical problems, but that's another story.)
    I hope you and K have fun with the rest of your sewing dates. I taught a friend to sew in grad school, and it was way harder than I thought it would be (but still fun). There are so many little things you don't think about as you're doing them that a novice wouldn't think to do.

    1. K-daughter is fun to teach to do new things, because she's (a) artsy, (b) generally competent, and most importantly (c) patient! She's very willing to slow down and take things one step at a time. That's hard to do when you're not seeing what looks like progress -- after all, we're three "dates" in and all we have to show for it is fabric scraps! I'm really enjoying working with her on this.

  2. I think you know what my suggestions will be for finding fabric to match your frugal ways. Just putting the word out works miracles: little old ladies who no longer sew love to give their fabric to someone who is willing to use it; a seamstress (or sewist as they are called now) who is moving is often willing to part with a stash; yard sales and thrift stores often have fabric, but they also have extra large clothing that can be used as a raw material for creativity, or drapes (like Sound of Music) or sheets. One of the biggest ways people are sewing these days is to take something odd or undesirable from the thrift store and refashion it into something wonderful and stylish (or vintage looking). Knowing the basics of using a pattern, though, goes a long way to being able to do those fabulous refashions. So glad to hear your daughter wants to learn; mine never did so she is at the mercy of what's available on the racks. Although there are many alternatives to frugally sewing, I still believe sewing is the best way to get a custom made, one of a kind dress. And the biggest compliment to me when I'm wearing something I've made is to be asked "Where did you buy that?"

    1. Yes, yes. And as K-daughter becomes a master of sewing (which I've no doubt she will someday), she'll naturally gravitate toward scrounged and/or re-purposed fabric.

      For this very first project, though, we're playing it as straight as possible. I think if it like trying a totally new recipe: the first time you follow the directions exactly, so if the dish is a flop, you know it's the recipe at fault and not your experiment. . . . well, except that I don't think her dress will be a flop. At any rate, we'll learn to tweak by first doing things exactly right.

      Some day, she'll get the Rozy-compliment of "where'd you buy that?"!!!