Saturday, February 26, 2011

Swing Dress Sew-Along

Is there something out there that people assume you like, but you don’t and just because you like something similar you have to explain over and over that you don’t like that second thing? Until very recently I felt this way when I would talk about reenacting and history, and people would go from there to vintage. I’m not into vintage. It is not that old. I am not glam, I don’t wear modern lipstick or nylons. I have often despaired when folks that I admired in the Living History world jumped on the vintage bus. That is, until this winter.

Stephen and I have, in the past, admired the waltzing and swing dancing couples at Reenactorfest. I love dancing in any form, so when Stephen suggested we find ourselves a studio that might teach some of the more historical dances I jumped at the chance, and in December we found ourselves at a ballroom studio taking classes in Waltz and Swing. The waltz, and a few sampler classes we’ve taken have been really interesting, but the swing class has been plain fun. We’ve been taking the classes for 2 and a half months and I almost feel like I could hold my own for the length of a dance.

Then, about a month ago one of my 18th century blogs that I follow mentioned that she was thinking of participating in a swing dress sew-along. I had never heard of a sew-along! I had to find out what it was, and what exactly this swing dress was. The link took me over to Casey’s Elegant Musings which is a lovely blog. Casey is lovely and sews beautiful outfits. She writes well, and was just starting to host a sew-along. This is where a blog author picks a pattern, and followers all over the blogosphere follow along and make the dress too. Casey had lovely pictures of a couple versions of the dress that she had already made: really classic looking, but fun at the same time. The idea of a sew-along tickled me, and I thought it would be tons of fun to have a dress for swing dance class; but I was in the middle of an intense sewing project that I was determined to finish, then I had the next few projects all lined up after that. I did not need a new sewing project.

Over the next few weeks I kept going back to Elegant Musings. I told myself that I did not have time, that I really didn’t even like vintage, that I had so many other projects and they were all more important. But I kept going back. The pattern was one designed and sold by Sense & Sensibility Patterns and they had a $10 e-pattern version that you could download and print yourself. I ordered it, but I told myself that I was just ordering the pattern for some later time, possibly years down the road. I would not take part in the sew-along, and I most certainly would not try to make a dress before this February’s Reenactorfest!

Winter is a hard time of year for me. This winter we have gotten tons of snow, and every time I contemplated winter projects, and preparing for spring, the swing dress would pop into my head. I added Elegant Musings to my RSS feed, and even tried out one of Casey’s hairstyle tutorials (I got it right on the first try.) When the post about fabric choices came up I saw that lightweight wool was an acceptable fabric, and right then I knew I had lost the inner battle. If I could find a good fabric I would make the dress. This proved harder than I had anticipated. All my local fabric stores had a small selection of light-weight wool, but the colors were not what I was looking for. I was looking for a combination of weight and drape that did not seem to be in the stores. I finally drove down to Boston, and after despairing about all the drab and horrible suit-weight wools (half of which were polyester and not wool at all) I pulled a poly-cotton bolt out of the bottom of a pile and found a lovely wine colored fabric with pretty pink flowers. I bought enough for the swing dress plus a little extra, just in case.

As you know from my previous post, I was making up my 18th century stays for a mid-January ball, and once I had gotten them at least far enough along that I had worn them once successfully I started thinking more seriously about the swing dress. Have I mentioned how snowy this winter has been? We have had a number of days where it has been too snowy for my to drive in to work. On the snow days I would treat myself by giving over lunch breaks and commute times to the swing dress. I also stole some evening hours on weekdays. The sewing room is in the back of our house, and fairly cold since we keep it closed up in winter, but I braved the chill since I was now obsessed.

e-pattern printouts

Miss Mini "helps" me lay out the pattern. By sitting on top of the printouts.

First I needed to print out the e-pattern. This was not as easy as it seemed since the sizes only come out right if the scale is perfect. The e-pattern comes with a test page that you print first. It has a ruler on it, and you match that up with a real ruler to determine your scale. I had to bump up the pattern to print at 102% in order to get the ruler to print right. Then once I printed all the pieces I laid them out on the floor, and taped them all together. It was a rather messy process, but since I always trace out patterns on to tracing paper, I was not as careful about trimming margins as I might have been. Once I had the paper pattern pieces taped together I cleaned off the cutting table in the sewing room and started tracing.

Everyone comes to sewing differently. Some people are taught by their mothers and sew all throughout their childhood. Some people come into it as teenagers, or possibly even adults. I got into sewing in college when I wanted more historical outfits and could not figure out where to buy them. This means that although I can use a pattern, I’m much more comfortable sewing something from the 16th century than the 20th. Zippers? What the heck is a zipper? There were a lot of things about this pattern that were completely new to me. One of which was the suggestion to sew the dress together first in a cheap fabric to get the fit right before even attempting to sew it for real. The whole dress. I’m used to making up the lining of a dress first to adjust for fit, but a complete muslin! The sew-along was going to do one, and there was no sense making the dress badly. So I dug out some green cotton broadcloth purchased a long time ago and cut out my “muslin” pieces.

The sew-along was really incredibly helpful. There was a tutorial for making bust adjustments, how to sew the shoulder yokes, even how to add pockets! One of the things I had to get over was the fact that the dress was designed to be sewn on the machine. My backwards way of learning to sew involved mostly making outfits that went out of style long before the sewing machine was even dreamed of. But here was a style of dress designed for the sewing machine. What a strange concept. This dress actually has visible stitching, on the outside of the dress! My green muslin looked pretty ridiculous, the top was too tall, the hips too wide, and the skirt not nearly full enough for actually dancing in. But that is what a muslin is for, right? I struggled though the muslin process stealing precious minutes from my stays project, and anything else that I could steal a few minutes from until I was satisfied enough to cut out the fabric, and think about actually putting the dress together. I was1 week away from Reenactorfest, with an entire Sunday free and only two rows of eyelets to go before the stays were finished.

On the Sunday morning before Reenactorfest I managed to wheedle Stephen into fixing my serger so I could finish all the seams as I sewed them. Once he was done with that, I set to work on the swing dress. Before the day was out I had most of the dress pieces put together: the bodice, the front and back skirt pieces, even half the side seams! But I had also broken a needle on the serger, so it was out of commission again. I used the evening to finish the stays (yay!) and went to bed contemplating the schedule for the week ahead:
Monday – Dance classes (so much fun, but no time for sewing)
Tuesday – record a podcast (takes all evening, no time for sewing)
Wednesday – Finish off my colonial skirt (more urgently needed for reenactorfest than the swing dress.)
Thursday – pack for Reenactorfest, (will I have time to finish the dress?)
Friday morning – Fly to Chicago.

Yup. I was actually attempting to finish the dress ahead of the sew-along, to have it done for Reenactorfest. I told myself no, but do I ever listen to me?

I was rationalizing my hurry by telling myself that it would be good to wear the dress on Sunday. Since we check out of the hotel and fly home on Sunday, it makes changing from historical clothes into airport clothes a pain, but there was no reason I could not wear a simple dress through the airport, I could be at least somewhat historical, and face the TSA. I would not get to dance in my swing dress; the dancing happens Saturday night and Stephen and I had already agreed to wear our Colonial America outfits, but I would get to wear it.

On Tuesday we recorded a really fun podcast, we talked about our obsessions of the moment. It was easy to talk about the things we’d been spending so much time on and I got to talk about The Swing Dress (It had acquired capital letters somewhere along the way.) When I mentioned that I WAS NOT planning on finishing the thing before Reenactorfest, which was then only 2 days away, Stephen leaned into his microphone, looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and declared to our listening audience that he would not be surprised if I left the ball on Saturday night after the historical dancing was done, only to come down a bit later in my brand new Swing Dress. The pressure was on.

Wednesday I finished all my other Reenactorfest-related sewing obligations, and got everything else packed. All the other outfits, normal clothes, electronics, I was even ambitious enough to set out a pile of undergarments that would be needed to go under the swing dress, if I could finish it. Thursday evening Stephen fixed the serger for a second time and I set to work. Add the sleeves to the dress? Piece of cake. Hem the skirt and the cuffs? Smooth sailing. Add a Zipper? Well, this part was not as easy, but I managed to fudge my way through, and by 10 pm I had a completed Swing Dress! I packed it along with the under-things, my dance shoes, and a nice scarf and cardigan to complete the look. I fell into bed so we could fly to Chicago a few short hours later.

All weekend I watched the lovely ladies in their WWII suits, uniforms, caps and stockings. I knew my one dress in only semi-appropriate fabric could not compete, but still, I was looking forward to it anyway. Sunday morning we packed up early, I put on my lovely Swing Dress, then my hair refused to cooperate! So I shoved it in a quick French twist, and ran to the vendor’s room. There was a lady with lovely 19th century hats that had some vintage ones tucked in among the ribbons and frills. There was a little black one that I’d been eyeing since Friday. The vendor was so nice and told me the right way to wear it (cocked over my right eye), and how to use the hat pin to secure it (hold it by the tip, push it through the hat first, then run it around the inside of the hat, before pushing it back out). She was nice enough to say I looked like Hercule Piorot’s secretary, I assume she meant in the TV series or movies, since the books are not terribly flattering. I had not really thought about character to match my new outfit, but the idea of a French (or Belgian) secretary is certainly appealing! Once I’d completed my outfit with the hat Julie took some photos, then we did two more interviews (coming soon to a podcast near you) and one panel discussion before getting on a plane, and flying home!

Now I need more excuses to wear my lovely dress!


  1. This is awesome!!! I love the fabric choice and you look gorgeous in it!! :-)

  2. Wow! It's stunning - love the color! The hat is darling too : ) Beautiful : )

  3. It's beautiful ! I love it. I didn't join Casey's sew along, regretfully, but I did buy the pattern and I can oly hope my (hypothetical) swing dress turns out as good looking as yours !

  4. Your fabric is beautiful and the hat complements your dress perfectly. Wonderful job!

  5. Wow! I LOVE how this turned out!!

  6. I love your fabric. It looks so cute on you. Your styling makes it look so cute, too.

  7. You dress turned out beautifully--the color of the fabric is so lovely and looks gorgeous on you! :) I'm just so glad that you participated in the sew-along and were able to finish it in time! :)

    ♥ Casey

  8. Alena, that fabric is gorgeous! I love wine-coloured dresses (they seem to flatter every colouring) and the little flowers are just perfect.
    As to when to wear it... you're now a swing dancer/lindy hopper, aren't you? : ) Throw a fun-coloured slip under the skirt and you're good to go!
    I am so impressed by your garb sewing -- I know I've bought patterns for historical outfits, but always got intimidated by the eyelets and drawstrings involved (I'm terrible at measuring twice and cutting once). Your pink stays are amazing!

  9. Squishyfishy, Thanks! Though I'm taking classes in swing dancing, I'm not sure we're ready to get out there quite yet, unless the music is real slow, and we do only the most basic steps!

    As for tackling historical outfits, I started very small, with skirts and tunics, then worked my way up. It helps that I am married to an expert who is willing to give me guidance whenever I need it. What period clothing are you hoping to make?