Third Time’s a Charm
A couple of years ago, I tried to make Gertie’s Shirtwaist Dress to no avail and after some serious contemplation, I decided to purchase the shirtwaist dress pattern to end them all, McCall’s 6696. Purchasing a well-documented pattern really saved my sanity and gave me the confidence boost I needed. I loved it so much I made two! And a half!
Well, actually, I’ve since made three.
I knew I wanted to make one last summery version. I was in a vintage store on Bedford Avenue a couple of weeks ago where I got to try on this lovely thing.
Neil said it looked alright, but I explained I wasn’t entirely comfortable in it. The bust was very tight (you probably know to look for the straining against the buttons) and the waist was missing a hook and eye — I’ve tied the bow in front to cover it up, but you could totally see my belly. The annoying thing was, when I inspected the garment, I could see signs that there used to be another closure there. I do not pay $70 for vintage garments that aren’t perfect, so I snapped this picture and left it in the store, vowing to make my own floral version.
When we were last in London for a friend’s wedding, I told Neil I’d like to visit one of the two major fabric districts, either Goldhawke Road or Walmsthow Market. I’m not sure why I ended up picking Goldhawke Road in the end, but as we were staying near King’s Cross, we jumped onto a tube and headed out. I went out there with a mission, and that mission was flowers. Tiny little Liberty flowers, big flowers, it didn’t matter. When I saw this particular fabric, I knew that this is what I wanted to make my summer shirtwaist dress out of. It’s a different kind of fabric to the vintage piece, but as the main inspiration was the flowers themselves, I considered it a win. Alongside the bright flowers, there’s also a paisley print embroidered in black swirling throughout the fabric. I found out later that it doesn’t press very well at all, which is slightly annoying, but it’s hard to know that in the middle of a fabric store.
There are other alterations I made that make this dress different to the vintage one. I already had two shirtwaist dresses, the black one being the most similar, so I thought it would be nice to switch things up a bit. I also knew I always wanted to return to the shirtwaist dress from Gertie’s book, in particular the shirred back. Rather than using Gertie’s pattern, I added shirring to the McCall’s version. Instead of the back being four back pieces — the yoke, the back, the waistband and the skirt — I made two, the yoke and the back. I just laid out the back, the skirt and the waistband overlapped on the fabric and winged it and it worked out okayyyy… more on that later.
I also made tulip sleeves, as inspired by the second shirtwaist dress in Gertie’s book. They were very easy and satisfying to make up, although once I put the dress on, I realised that I would probably make them cap sleeves rather than actual sleeves. It’s hard to tell what Gertie’s done on her dress as she has her arms down. Anyway, I would make cap sleeves first — this is how to make that adjustment — and then make the tulip sleeve adjustment after that. I finished them with a narrow hem, which I’ve never done before. It came out lovely.
I also undid the sloping should adjustment from the previous version. Much better!
The buttons are from Pacific Trimmings. I learned from my last shirtwaist dress (the black one) the perils of choosing buttons that are Too Big, so I made a concerted effort to find some in a more appropriate size. I love these little guys, they’ve kind of got that swirls-on-swirls look that the fabric has. I swore I wouldn’t use shank buttons again, but I couldn’t resist them.
This dress came together much easier than the previous two. I spent less time with the quik-unpick than normal. At first I was skeptical. “Wait, that just went together like that?” Then I realised that I may have been experiencing some imposter syndrome. I always feel like the rug is going to be pulled out from underneath me when I’m at work. I guess the thing is that something usually does go wrong with my sewing, given the tactile nature of it (when I’m at work, I can just backspace and try different code, no harm no foul). I think I especially felt like I was getting away with something when I realised just how terrible my cutting was.
Oh my goodness, my cutting. So, I have been extra careful lately. I have been tracing pattern pieces and then cutting them with shears, and if I couldn’t trace because the fabric was too finicky, then I just used my rotary cutter (I have a huge A0 cutting mat which I love, but I don’t love my rotary cutter in the same way). This time, because the fabric laid itself out so nicely and I couldn’t trace due to the embroidery, I figured I would just cut around the pattern pieces. And it appears my first few pieces, like the bodice and the collar, came out just right. My button placket was a mess, but I didn’t realise it until I was attaching the interfacing. It’s meant to be straight, but it dipped by almost a centimetre in places! Although this dress went together very easily, the placket was definitely problematic. I’m not 100% convinced that it’s perfectly straight in places and there’s some sneaky handstitching on the inside to prevent any fabric edges showing up. The waistband on the front suffered a little too. The shirring has helped with some of these sins, along with the drape of the fabric, but still. The lesson here is: can’t trace? Use the damn rotary cutter.
The other thing I learned on this project was about “winging it”. Instead of making a new pattern piece for the back, I just laid out the back, the waistband and the skirt piece and cut around that. I wondered about it as I was doing it — I chose the straight skirt from the pattern envelope, which has a slightly curved hem at the waistline. This means that I couldn’t place it exactly 4cm below the back piece (the waistband is 7cm wide, minus the seam allowance of 1.5cm x2). Plus there’s every chance these pieces moved as I was cutting because as explained, I got a bit giddy. So when I attached the front to the back, I found I was out by around 2cm (!!) at the waist. Given the flexible nature of shirring, I let this 2cm fall down to the hem and just cut it off there, but next time I want to make such a dramatic adjustment, I would like to do it on paper. That way, I can walk and true any seams and basically have my shit together so I don’t lose it later. I got away with it on this project, but I haven’t always, so it is something that I need to keep learning and remembering.
By the end of the project, I must admit, I was a little… well, bored. It’s my third version of this pattern, plus I used a variation of it on my gingham skirt. It’s a detailed garment to make, there are a lot of pieces, and it can be a little more time consuming than other projects. I mean, when you’re sewing on eleven buttons (twelve if you’re like me and sew a spare onto the inside of the placket), you can be forgiven for thinking, damn, are we done yet? There is one more version of this I’d like to make, with long sleeves for the winter, but I think I might leave it for the actual winter.