Saturday, April 25, 2015

Inside a Vintage Dress

I picked up this dress at a junk sale antique festival with no information on its origin or later life.  I think it's from the 1920's, but I'm not sure.  It has the hallmarks of 1920's dress design-- dropped waist, no shaping through the bust.  On the other hand, I have no way to tell the difference between a dress that was actually made in the 1920's, or one from a later date that imitates 1920's style.

It's too small for me to wear, particularly in the hips, so all of my photos are taken of the dress flat.
The upper part of the bodice is translucent fabric with embroidery; the lower part of the bodice has rows of tucks.  There's a band at the waist, and the skirt is gathered, with more tucks and another lace insert at the bottom of the skirt.
The back bodice is plain, and it closes with buttons.  The skirt back is the same as the skirt front.

What really won me over, however, was the details of the construction.
The main dress fabric joins to the translucent fabric with a zigzagged edge to highlight the pattern of the embroidery.  I don't know the name for the stitch used to join the translucent fabric to the main fabric.  There's another inset with embroidered translucent fabric down the center front of the dress.  The neckline is finished with bias binding.
Here's a detail of the embroidery, the tucks, and the join between the two types of fabric.
The armholes are also finished with bias binding.
Here's a detail of the waist.  That band of fabric is topstitched.
Here's a detail of the back with the buttons and buttonholes.

I thought the level of finishing on the inside of the dress was amazing.  There are no raw edges anywhere.
The seams for the center insert have been turned and stitched.
A duplicate of the band for the waist has been topstitched on the inside, too.
On the back as well.
The side seams are French seams.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the photos!  If you know anything more about the dress or the techniques used to construct it, please let us know in the comments!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Rocking the Polka Dot Circle Skirt

April 23, 2015 marks the day I first realized I could stick a flash behind my head and look like Jesus.
And verily, I say unto you:  Thou shalt press as you sew.
Oh, the joys of rim lighting.

Let's talk about circle skirts.  This was one of my first really successful projects, and I pulled it off with a minimum of problems.

The fabric, a white, mid-weight linen with polka dots in light and dark purple, lime and Army green, and black, was purchased at the late lamented Silk Road Fabrics in Austin, TX.  The linen originally had a fairly stiff hand, but has gotten soft and drapey as the years have gone by.  It was also one of the survivors of the Great Apartment Mold Disaster of Grad School.  Long live the linen skirt!
I didn't have a circle skirt pattern, so I adapted the skirt from a re-issued 1950's Vintage Vogue pattern, V2902.  The skirt in the pattern is a circle skirt formed from two half-circles; I didn't have enough fabric for that, so I used a half-circle for the skirt front and two quarter-circles for the back, with a center back seam.
I generally prefer to use as few seams as possible when I'm working with a print, but in this case, I think the back seam is hardly noticeable.
I added an invisible zipper as the side zipper, and inserted it by hand.
From there, I made a waistband out of a rectangle of fabric and sewed it on.  The width of the waistband was more or less dictated by the amount of fabric I had left.  At the time, I didn't have hooks and eyes for a closure, so I used snaps.  Conventional wisdom would suggest that this is bad, but I've had this skirt for years at this point, and I've never had problems with the snaps coming undone while I was wearing the skirt.
From there, I hemmed it with a narrow-ish hem (1").  It's just turned and stitched; nothing fancy.  It's important to keep the hem of a circle skirt narrow so you don't have to deal with too much fullness.  It's also important to let the skirt hang for a while so that the bias can stretch out.  If you don't let the fabric stretch out beforehand, the hem on the finished skirt won't be even, and can actually distort badly.  After the fabric stretches out, you'll probably need to cut additional fabric off at the bottom of the skirt to make the hem straight again.
So, when the skirt is hanging straight down, I feel like it's not all that remarkable, and that it falls at kind of an odd length.
It has a lot of fullness, though, which is really fantastic.
But the best part is that IT'S GREAT FOR TWIRLING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Did I mention that it feels awesome to wear?
EXTRA TWIRLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
You know, I think I actually can't fault the length-- the weight of the fabric keeps the skirt from flipping up too much when I twirl.  Horray for the polka dotted circle skirt!

In other news, I have to pass along this article featuring color portraits from 1913-- I love how the clothes are more than 100 years old, but still look modern and timeless.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Take Better Photos with Off-Camera Flash! PLUS--Transistor Radio Skirt

I ordered my first hotshoe flash, and today it arrived in the mail.  I'm so excited, guys!  So, for those of you wondering what I'm talking about, DSLRs usually come with a built-in flash, like this:
What I got is a flash that can sit in the hotshoe on top of the camera.  It's larger and more powerful than the built-in flash, can be rotated to point in any direction, and has a set of manual controls which allow you to adjust the power and spread of the light.  And, if you have a way to sync the flash with the camera, you can take the flash out of the hotshoe and position it wherever you want.  Obviously, this opens a ton of creative possibilities. 
(The hotshoe is the bracket with the silver dots on top of the camera.  It mates with the bracket and gold-colored pegs on the bottom of the flash.)

Of course, I had to take some outfit photos to play around with the flash and test how much better it really is.  I'll talk about the skirt at the end, but I had to nerd out about my new camera gear first!  If you're not interested in this, just skip down to the words Now, The Sewing Part!

First, I set up the flash off-camera.  There are several different ways to sync the flash with the camera when the flash isn't in the hotshoe, such as flash cables and radio triggers, but I used optical synchronization.  This sounds a lot more complicated than it really is-- I set the built-in flash on my camera to fire, and set the other flash to fire whenever it saw another flash fire.  I set up the camera on a tripod maybe 10 feet in front of me, and I set the flash on another tripod about five feet away and slighly above head height, forty-five degrees to my right.  And...tada!
I like it.  The light falls from above, highlighting my face and the waistline of the skirt.  My legs and feet are in the shadow and don't draw attention away from the skirt. The raking light gives three-dimensionality to my face and highlights the pleating of the skirt.  The shadow adds drama.

That approach gave me relatively harsh light, so for soft light, I took a different approach-- I put the flash in the hotshoe and rotated it so that the light would bounce off the ceiling.  
This also turned out well-- there are still shadows in all of the expected places for three-dimensionality, but the shadows are soft and I'm evenly lit.

Now, for comparison, here are some shots that don't use the new hotshoe flash.  First, here's a shot using the on-camera flash:
Honestly, this is terrible.  The light is harsh and comes straight on, which leads to very harsh and unnatural-looking shadows right behind me.  Personally, I hate, HATE on-camera flash, and I never use it for exactly this reason.  Blegh.  If you're wondering how I didn't get this effect when I was using the on-camera flash to trigger the other flash, it's because I cranked the power on the on-camera flash as low as it would go, and so it was simply drowned out by the power of the other flash.

Next, here's a shot that uses no flash at all, just the ambient light from the overhead lights in the room.
This gives more or less the same effect as bouncing the hotshoe flash off the ceiling-- even light, soft shadows-- but other objects in the room cast shadows, and the picture looks mushy because the amount of ambient light was so low.

Now, for comparison, here are some crops of the above images to show close-ups of the skirt.  Remember, 1 = off-camera flash, 2 = hotshoe flash bounced off the ceiling, 3 = built-in flash, and 4 = ambient light.
The top two photos, the ones which use the new flash, still look good.  In the photo taken using the on-camera flash, the shadows look increasingly odd.  In the photo taken using ambient light, the detail looks mushy and the colors look sickly.

Here are some even tighter crops.
So, the first three crops are all out of focus to some degree-- sorry about that!  There are still two take-home points.  The first is that the raking light in the first picture really brings out the texture in the fabric. 

The second take-home point comes from the effect of the low light levels in the fourth picture.  To compensate for low light, the camera adjusts the sensitivity of the sensor, which is measured by the ISO (or ASA).  Low ISO, or lower sensitivity, gives more detail.  Higher ISO, or higher sensitivity, gives less detail and a grainier image, but it allows the sensor to capture more light.  The first three photos were taken at ISO 100; the fourth was taken at ISO 6400.  The fourth image only came out looking as good as it did because I used a DSLR which is well-regarded for its low-light performance; if I had used my point-and-shoot, this image would have been completely unusable. 

In conclusion, even if you have a DSLR, a hotshoe flash will help you tremendously if you want to take good outfit photos.  You can still use an off-camera flash even if you don't have a DSLR, as the portrait and editorial photographer Zack Arrias so aptly demonstrates in this episode of Pro Photographer, Cheap Camera.  (If you're not familiar with the premise, the host takes professional photographers and makes them do photoshoots using decidedly non-professional equipment.  In this episode, Zach got a dinky point-and-shoot and a flash, and was instructed to shoot portraits on the streets of Hong Kong.)

If you're interested in learning more about off-camera flash, I highly recommend The Strobist.  It's a fantastic resource.  I can't wait to learn more!

Now, The Sewing Part!
This is another one of those projects I completed years ago and only just now got around to posting.  It's a skirt made out of a transistor radio print cotton-linen blend.  I love this fabric.  Tiny vintage radios!
I didn't want to disrupt the lines of the print, so I drafted my own pattern.  Actually, "drafted a pattern" is really overstating the matter-- I folded the fabric over so that the top of one row of radios was the top of the skirt, and used the print to make box pleats at the waistline.  Every other transistor radio in the top row is folded out of sight into the box pleats.
I stitched the box pleats down about an inch, and stitched grosgrain ribbon along the inside of the waistband to hold everything in place.
I inserted the side zipper by hand, and added a hook-and-eye closure for the grosgrain ribbon.  Actually, is that really a hook-and-eye closure, or is there a different name for the big ones?
For the hem, I turned the edge of the fabric under and stitched it.  I then turned the fabric under again so that the bottom of one row of radios was the edge of the hem, and stitched the hem by hand.  As I've worn it over the years, a crease has formed in the hem, and no amount of pressing will get it out.  Does anyone know how to fix this, and how to prevent it from forming in the first place?
Anyway, the skirt went together quickly and easily, and it's become one of my favorite skirts.  Fun to wear, and matches a lot of my wardrobe.
If you've made it to the end of this excessively long post, I'm impressed!  I hope you found it useful!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Vintage Pattern Shopping at the Austin Antique Mall

Today I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite places to shop for vintage patterns, the Austin Antique Mall.
(Disclaimer:  I'm not getting any compensation for endorsing them, or any compensation for anything else I post on this blog, for that matter.  I'm just happy with what I find there.)
I have a favorite booth, which is the one shown below.  It seems to specialize in vintage clothing, sewing patterns, sewing machines, and sewing notions.
There's always a huge stash of vintage patterns.
Here are some of the ones that I thought were particularly awesome.
Here are some of the notions.
A couple of their vintage dresses were particularly cool.  This one is from the 1930's, and has a corded skirt.
This one is from the 1950s.  I really like the seaming in the bodice.
Of course, there are vintage patterns scattered all over the antique mall.  This stall focused on knitting, but still had some sewing patterns.
It also had some great 1950's knitting magazines.
One stall just sells vintage irons.
Plus, there are some really interesting clothes to be found.  Hot pink poofy petticoats!  YEA!
A chenille skirt?  Not sure who thought that was a good idea...
An awesome cowboy dress!
This is also one of my favorite places to buy cowboy boots, but that's a story for another day.
This was my haul!  A 1950's shirtdress, two 1960's patterns, and then a couple of more recent patterns which have neat designs but really unfortunate fabric choices on the pattern envelopes.  The prices are entirely reasonable-- I don't think I paid more than $7 for any of them. 
Should make for fun sewing!