In my visit to the pop up shop in Nottingham, I had found a McCalls pattern (M7084) for a shirt dress with different variations in style. This was one of my bargain patterns as it was in their sale for £4 and I fell in love with the style! I had bought a similar style of dress from H&M a couple of years ago, but I found that the fit was all over the place. While it was baggy around my hips, it was also quite baggy around my top and I wanted to have something that fitted me properly.
The pattern itself is quite complex for a beginner. There are about 19 possible pattern pieces depending on the variant you are making. I went for option A without the sleeves to start me off but also because it looks so summery, and as it is July it felt like the best one to go for. I had bought a beautiful poly cotton from my favourite Love Fabric shop in a deep red/burgundy polkadot (although depending on the light it either looks bright red or like a rusty brown colour!) so the two combined were a match made in heaven!
This was my first dress attempt, and I thought I might as well go big or go home! It consisted of 4 bodice pattern pieces (cut 2 of each), and 4 skirt pieces (cut 2 of each again) so just the top and bottom were 16 pieces all together and when put together created a lovely panelled effect. Then to add to the complexity, I was going to attempt some in seam pockets, a collar and neckband and a button band, finishing the edges of the arm holes with some binding. I knew what this called for! The last bed sheet and spare pillowcases in the cupboard for a practice run.
I began the toile on a Saturday afternoon. I managed to get most of the bodice and odd bits out of the pillowcases and then the skirt sections from the sheet itself. The first set of instructions were simple. Stitch the bodice together – top 2 back pieces then the back sides, and then the front. Simple. Then came the pockets into the skirt and follow the same structure. Stitch the bodice to the skirt and voila – main dress put together! I wasn’t finishing the seams of this toile, and I also realised I had ended up with the seams visible in my pockets. Memo to self to look at that for the real one.
The fit wasn’t quite right in that the bodice was fine, but I needed to grade the skirt sections out by another one or two sizes to go round my hips. I had noted to make another skirt toile and to check if i could easily extend the pattern I had already traced (turns out it wasn’t this easy and I ended up with some nice pointy hips that weren’t smoothly graded so a re-trace was going to be required!)
Next it was onto the button band and this was where I got really confused. Press the notched side and then do something to stitch it together. I drafted in my mum to read through the instructions and then we had a Skype call to talk through. Turns out it was sort of like binding again. Press one side and trim, stitch the 2 sections of the button band together on the opposite sides. Then attach it to the edges of the dress like binding – stitch one side and trim, fold over and stitch on the other side with a slip stitch. I wasn’t sure on the slip stitch technique either so I initially just stitched it on both sides using the machine. It looked really nice like this so I decided to stick with this technique on the real one too when I got there.
Button band conquered (sort of!) I realised again for the real thing I’d need to under stitch in the same direction on both sides to make sure it was symmetrical (take note of that point too) and I felt confident enough then to have a bash at the neck band and collar. I hadn’t got any interfacing so I was making it all without, but I had realised I would need it for the collar on the actual dress. The neck band was fairly simple as it was attached in the same way as the button band. I half stitched it and then took it to my parents for mum to show me some hand sewing techniques. We decided that the slip stitch wasn’t going to be sturdy enough for this so I opted for a sort of whip stitch to properly secure it in place.
I was happy with the arm binding techniques and the hem so I didn’t do those on the toile, nor did I do the button holes or buttons as again I was fairly comfortable with these. I had a lovely dinner date planned with a friend from work in the week I got back from my parents so I had decided I would try and make the real thing in time for that. I realised that left me with a day and a half to do it. It would be fine right? I’m a total pro now…
I decided I’d get the pattern pieces cut when I got home. I had forgotten how long this bit took especially with about 16 pieces to cut in total (and I couldn’t just rush them like I did with the toile!) I got these cut out, notched and marked and made my target for the evening to finish the bodice. Mission accomplished! I had bought some Gutterman thread after reading such great reviews about it, and that combined with the silky smooth fabric it was like sewing through butter! I’ve never known the machine to be this quiet and I am still amazed at the difference some thread can make to the experience. So that left me with the full day on Wednesday to get the rest done. Mark was out for the day so I had a full day uninterrupted sewing ahead and felt confident that I could do it!
I cracked on with the skirt, including the pockets. Again, I’ve ended up with seams in the pocket itself, so I think I’ve misunderstood the instructions again! I think I didn’t put the fabric right sides together when I stitched the pockets in to each side piece. I’ve got a skirt pattern from New Look to try with in seam pockets and the instructions are a lot clearer, so I can give them another go and work out where I went wrong for next time. They’re hidden though so only I know (and anyone else who makes it this far in this mammoth blog!)
Button band time and I was confident with this one now. I put this together and stitched it on no problems now. I top stitched it with the machine for both sides and apart from a bit of wobbly stitching this looked really lovely. Onto the collar and the neckband, and again it was all starting to look great. I had the interfacing for these bits and that made it a lot better (although my mistake of not reading the patterns resurfaced itself when I interfaced all of the neck band and collar pieces when I only needed to do one side of each – I’ll have an ultra sturdy collar if nothing else!) I attached the neck band with the whip stitch on the back which looked really neat and tidy and that was done.
It was time for tea at this point, but that then only left me with the arm binding, button holes, buttons and hem. I could get this done. It was only around 7ish so I had a good few hours left of the day to do it!
I finished the arm binding, and that was a little trickier to sew than I anticipated. It wasn’t fully like bias binding in the way it was attached (folded on the roll line, stitched, trimmed and then rolled over on itself) so my stitching around the arms is slightly wobbly. If anything on this dress, I have learned and followed the rules of basting – that allows me to pucker the fabric in a couple of places but then get a neater finish on the actual stitching itself! The hem was simple again and that just left me with the button holes. I decided I could get up and sew the buttons on in the morning once it had had a quick wash.
I had used the automatic button hole foot on my Janome Sewist 725S for when I made the Sew Over It Ultimate Pyjama shorts, so I was happy with how it should work, how to mark the button holes and how to stitch them. The practice one looked great and the first one on the bottom of the band was a breeze! Only 7 more to go… and that’s where I started to run into some trouble.
Number 2 went perfectly again, and number 3 looked like it might go the same way. Until it got to the top left corner of the button hole, and then seemed to just get stuck stitching there instead of coming across to the right and back down like the others. (S**T!) I left that and moved onto number 4 hoping it might have been a blip. S**T – the same happened again. I kept unpicking and retrying but they all kept getting stuck, with the exception of another 2. My practice ones in between the panic all looked great. My conclusion was that the button band was too thick underneath it and the automatic button hole foot was getting stuck somehow, but to this day I’m still not sure why.
I was about to give up, but then I realised there must be a way to do these things manually even if I had to do a very tiny zig zag and have some wonky ones. Low and behold in my instruction book, the complete game changer:
Manual Button Holes!
I worked out how they needed to be done on some scrap fabric. Very similar to the automatic one with the difference being I had a different foot, and I had to stop it top-left, pull forward the button hole lever and then control how far back down it stitched. Where had this been all of my short sewing life? I did the last 4 fairly stress free, and from this moment on vowed to forget the automatic button hole foot and do them all manually forever more so that I had control over how far up it went and the overall size and positioning. No more stress.
By this point it was about 10pm. I’d had mini melt downs, but now I had conquered it! I threw it in the washing machine for a quick freshen up wash, and managed to get it out and drying by 11. My plan to wear it for lunch was back on track!
I thought I had all the time in the world. I’d opted for some cream hemline buttons from Sew Essential, and I chose to hand stitch these on in the interest of time and less stress than the machine might offer me. I had to quite quickly get these rushed on, so that I could give the dress a final iron. I had done it! Made my first dress, in a day and a half and had a chance to go out and show it off!
I opted for a brown waist belt to finish it off which looked really nice. I wanted a small cream one but couldn’t find one small enough that wouldn’t need belt loops. Photos below.
Things to be happy with:
- The Gutterman thread. My goodness, I’m converted!
- My seams – I had finished them all with zig zag stitching where they weren’t encased and overall it looked really neat inside, especially after a trim!
- My collar and neck band with hand stitched finish – I love doing a collar. It’s really satisfying and looked great.
- The overall look and finish was good. The button band especially looked lovely despite the wavy stitching.
- The button holes eventually when I switched to manual ones! Although maybe not as neat in places as the automatic ones, the fact I could control them fully made it a lot more enjoyable than the “shut your eyes and hope” technique.
Things to improve on:
- Straight line stitches. I think I am trying to sew too quickly and I kept going off course with the straight lines, so in places it’s still wavy. I have some projects with Viscose to start with the walking foot so I will be interested to see if this helps with my technique.
- The arm binding could have been neater in the stitching again but it was a similar issue to above.
Thanks for reading if you made it this far. This is becoming a bit like sewing therapy 🙂