Thursday, June 18, 2015

Self-Drafted Pattern: 1930's-Style Bias-Cut Silk Crepe de Chine Evening Dress

Many years ago, when I was relatively new to sewing, I fell in love with a 1930's evening dress by Lucien Lelong.  I can't find the picture any more, but I can tell you that what I found so fascinating about the dress was the diagonal seaming and diamond-shaped insets.  I had to have one of my own.  In red.  I searched for patterns, but couldn't find anything that quite matched what I wanted.  So, I drafted my own.  It was a difficult undertaking, but I think it was a great success!
The dress is made from dark red silk crepe de chine, and it's lined with black silk habotai.  If you're not interested in the drafting and construction details, skip down to the bottom for more pictures!

Successfully drafting the pattern took a major conceptual breakthrough, and it was this.  Fabric cut on the bias distorts under its own weight-- it stretches out in the direction of the pull of gravity.  The diamond-shaped inserts in the Lucien Lelong dress were taller than they were wide, so it was probable that they had originally been squares when the dress was first assembled.  Sewing squares cut on the diagonal is trivial with the bias cut.  In fact, it is the easiest way to sew seams, because it means that you're sewing on the straight grain, not the bias.  Seams on the bias tend to stretch out and distort as you sew them, which is a pain.  So consider this close-up of the dress bodice:
The center piece, the diamond, was originally cut as a square, with the grain running parallel to the sides of the square.  In fact, all of the angles in this picture were originally right angles (with the exception of the non-topstitched seam joining the two bodice pieces).  As the dress has spent time on the hanger, the fabric has lengthened under the pull of gravity, and the angles have altered.

So, here is the seaming in the bodice:
And the seaming in the back is nearly identical:
The skirt front and back are simply a quarter-circle of fabric each. 

The jumping-off point for this pattern is the basic strapless sheath dress pattern I more or less use as my sloper.  I should really write a blog post about that pattern one of these days.  I traced the pattern out onto some paper, and then took a large ruler and L-square and used them to draw straight diagonal lines across the paper pattern.  When I had something I was happy with, I'd cut apart the pieces, add seam allowances and draw out new pattern pieces, mock it up in muslin, see what I liked and didn't like, and make adjustments.  I repeated this process numerous times.  It took months.

Assembling the dress was very tricky.  I opted to topstitch all the diagonal seams, first because it would help the seaming show up better, and second because it's the best way I know to handle difficult corners such as these. 

Figuring out which order to sew the pieces together was a mental puzzle.  I'll spare you the details, but I more or less tried to sew them together in such an order that I would minimize the number of tricky corners I had to sew, and to make sure that I was working with the smallest possible groups of pieces for as long as possible, because they were easier to control in the sewing machine.

The dress is made out of silk crepe de chine and silk habotai, and let me tell you, sewing topstitched seams in those two fabrics is very difficult.  It's hard to cut them out precisely to begin with, and then the pieces tend to slip around and distort.  The best method I came up with was to take the piece to be stitched on top, fold the seam allowance under and press it, arrange that piece on top of the other piece and pin it, and then topstitch it down with the machine.  Still, it takes a lot of control with the sewing machine.  Despite my best efforts, the topstitching still didn't come out quite as even as I would have liked.  On the other hand, most people probably wouldn't notice when I'm wearing the dress.
As I mentioned, the dress is lined with silk habotai, but I didn't want the black silk habotai to show through at the front and back necklines, so I cut doubles of the upper bodice pieces as a sort of facing.  The lining is constructed in exactly the same way as the outside of the dress.
The hem is just a narrow hem. 
Enough with the construction details.  Onwards, to the dress pictures!
The seaming isn't as obvious as I'd like, but it still turned out beautifully, and the fit is fantastic.
You can't see it here, but the armholes stretched out quite a bit.  Next time, I'd reinforce them with a line of stitching as soon as I cut the pattern pieces out.
I wanted the back to be low-cut, but I wasn't expecting that it would turn out quite this low-cut.  It's still possible to wear it with a standard strapless bra, but just barely.
The bias cut really does a good job of molding itself to my curves.
This dress actually has a pretty full skirt.
The same in the back.

In conclusion, I love this dress and I am very, very proud of it!  I don't think I'd make this particular pattern again, but I would definitely consider drafting another pattern along the same lines.  I would not recommend such a project to beginners, but if you have a lot patience and a lot of experience with slippery silks and sewing on the bias, you should definitely consider giving it a go.

Also, this post was brought to you by my new light stand, or as I like to call it, the "fiance replacement."  No longer does my sweetie have to stand there holding the flash while I take a kazillion pictures of myself!  Horray for the flash stand!


  1. that is stunning, and good point about sewing the squares. very inspiring post, bias skirts dont suit me (i love bias cuts tho) and this has me thinking of trying a top.... amazing shade and gorgeous dress - thank you for the share

    1. Thanks! The Center for Pattern Design has a lot of bias-cut patterns ( ), if you're interested. I've made this top before ( ), and the pattern turned out well, though my finishing skills weren't quite up to the task.

  2. That is a phenomenal dress. I'm impressed by your skills, and the result is absolutely gorgeous. Just wow!

  3. Beautiful dress! Congratulations on a splendid project!