Party dresses for grown-ups

This is about little girl dresses for grown ups. I’m an enthusiast of Marcy Tilton’s cirque dress – so much so that I’ve made enough to warrant a blog post solely on the different incarnations I’ve made. I will do that soon. But my latest excursion into dress-up world is Marcy Tilton’s French apron dress. I bought the pattern because I saw it modelled at a craft show. I’d looked at the pattern & thought, hmmm those shoulder straps – quite complicated & not sure about those deep pockets. Then I saw it in person and thought, lovely mix of fabrics & what a great thing to do with left-over stretch fabrics. In other words I was sold.

French apron dressFortuitously Helen & I had an all-day sewing workshop planned, so I bought some stretch knit, cut out the pattern pieces – so many! – & took them along to the workshop. What I didn’t have were all of the instructions. Pattern companies should realise that some less-than-organised sewers cannot possibly get the pattern pieces and the instructions back into those too-small envelopes. I’ve taken to putting the little envelopes into bigger envelopes but this pattern had eluded my new system & the instructions had fallen out, somewhere. I’d looked in all the usual places to no avail. Oh well, I thought, if anyone can make sense of this pattern without instructions, it’s our mistress of calm, Anne from Sew Classy. She raised an eyebrow when she saw the one sheet I had – fortunately that was for the frightening pockets – but she assured me that we could nut it out together.

We could & we did. I’m wearing the dress as I type this. Do I love it? Well, I’d have to admit that I don’t love it yet. Quite. I think the shape isn’t particularly flattering. When I put the original dress on, the back, which is shorter than the sides, looked weird so I added a piece of the mesh fabric that was my second contrast fabric to equalise the lengths. I didn’t use three contrast fabrics because a) I’d failed to buy one & when I looked through my stash there was nothing suitable and b) I just felt it would all be a little overwhelming. This additional strip might mean that the back doesn’t hang the way the original should, but it does look less – well, frankly, less as though something is missing.


Although I don’t think it’s a particularly flattering garment, I do think it’s very wearable. The vivid colours mean that it is an immediate autumn & winter pick-me-up. The deep pockets mean that you can attend a wine-tasting & shove your sunglasses safely away. The dress is made to go with leggings – making it an ideal in-between season wear, but also extending it into winter wear – and I like the mesh lace I’ve used which means that the leggings are also on display.


I think my daughter’s quite right – Marcy Tilton’s dress patterns are little girl dresses for grown-ups. I could put a small doll in one of these pockets, or a shell collection. The bottom is swingy & in today’s strong winds, I felt I might just be blown up into the clouds. There’s something festive about wearing a dress that speaks to your inner child. Will I make another? Now that I’ve actually found the missing instructions sheets, I might.

Where were they? Oh, you had to ask, didn’t you? They were in my office. I had searched that room. I’d claimed to have been through it from top to bottom. The instructions were sitting in plain sight on the auto-tray which holds my (overdue) library books where I can’t miss returning them to the library. They were right beside those books. Quite probably I’m not emotionally ready for tailored suits and knife-pleated skirts….


Not-so happy pants…

Helen says…

As you might remember from my inspiration, I love cropped trousers (talking of inspiration, check out my cropped trousers pinterest board). That little bit of bony ankle poking through makes me feel much more slender than I actually am! Whether you’re wearing heels, ballet flats, or sandals, I just love them.

I’m also a fan of high-waisted trousers, I just find them more versatile and flattering.

Enter Burda 4632, or that vintage pattern Catherine found for 25c at the opp-shop;

View ‘b’ has belt loops and centered splits at the ankles, while view ‘a’ has welted pockets (optional) and side splits at the ankle. Both have darts at the back and two pleats on either side at the front. I made view ‘a’, and in the end left the welted pockets out (more on that later).


Enter major problem #1. All in a fluster when I found some whimsical, lovely blue checked fabric, spotted with daisies, at Spotlight, I asked for the wrong amount. I read a different pattern and got about .6m too little. No worries, I thought, I’ll just make them a little shorter or something.

Enter major problem #2. This pattern does not include seam allowance. Did I read the instructions first? No. So off I go, carefully arranging the pieces so they just fit (when I say just fit, I mean they were lying exactly next to each other, edge on edge). Then I cut them out. Then I read the instructions. Then I cry.


This fabric has no stretch, so I couldn’t just keep my fingers crossed. In the end, I made my seam allowances as small as possible, left out the pockets so there would be no extra bulk, and only put one pleat in the front. And viola! They fit perfectly…at the waist and bum.


I actually can’t walk upstairs or sit in these, because the calves are too tight. Do I have abnormally big calves?? I did try cutting off the bottom legs of the pants, so they finished just below the knee, but that looked awful. So I’ve sewn them back on, and while they look great in photos, they’re totally impractical.

Really the solution is to turn them into a great pair of high waisted shorts, which I will do soon. I’ll update this later when my heart is a little less broken.


Having said all this, I still love the pattern. I’m not happy with the fit at the back of the thigh, I wish it was a little tighter – although I understand that is not how this pattern is supposed to fit, and also it couldn’t be tighter in a non-stretch fabric. I’ve bought some cotton sateen with a slight stretch, so I’m going to try again with this and make a pair for work. I must look up how to keep those front and back folds nice and crisp, however.

Wish me luck and common sense!

Ferns and thread and more ferns…

Helen says…

I always check the upholstery section at Spotlight for bargains, and this was one of those – 100% cotton for $4.99/m. I subconsciously fell in love with this print, and have been back three times for more fabric. Than the other day it hit me why – Sew Over It and Lisa Comfort. In one of the very first sewing vlogs of hers I saw, Lisa was wearing a cropped t-shirt in a similar green and blue fern print. The bright, almost washed-out video reminded me of sitting in a colourful cafe on a Summer morning.

This print is not quite as good as Lisa’s, but like I said, the association is strong. I wanted to make a top and dress that would be comfortable on hot days, but layer-able for the crisper mornings before a hot day. On those morning I might add a light grey base underneath, or a cropped jumper on top.


1. This is the third ‘twirly top’ I’ve made from McCall M6751. It’s an easy project, although it takes a long time to do the bias binding. I was in a rush so I left out the pocket. This one hangs a bit better than my last 2 because the cotton is stiffer, it also doesn’t fly up at the back when it’s windy. I must admit, in this photo it hasn’t been ironed, so it doesn’t look as though it hangs better. But it does, you’ll have to trust me!


If you make this pattern up yourself, I would consider putting a press stud in the back to stop it flying up in the wind. Otherwise, this is a great, easy pattern and the sizing was perfect for me. Really easy instructions to and I can see this working on a lot of different women.

My only problem with this is the bias binding – although I love glitzy stuff and it’s really pretty, it’s also really scratchy even after a wash. Hopefully a couple more washes and it will settle down, but that is preventing me wearing it without a layer underneath.


2. The fern shift dress was a pretty easy pattern to work out, the only difficulty for me being the front seam – one of those fitting-a-triangle-int-a-square type jobs. Having said that, once you start it isn’t really as hard as you think, and I’m sure I’ll get better at this the more I practice. It also is a lovely seam, so flattering for my bust line and shape. So worth it.


The only adjustments I’ve made to the pattern are adding a hook and eye at the back and shortening the length. I also  machine-stitched in the zip, in my own rather uncouth method without a zipper foot. I also didn’t line the dress or use a facing, finishing the arm holes and neck with bias binding. You are supposed to use interfacing, but again I felt the fabric was stiff enough without it.

So I do love this dress, but I have one tincy problem with it – there’s a bunch of fabric around my stomach. Does anyone else have this routinely happen with shift dresses, and how do you fix it? Just scrap the idea of a ‘shift’ and add princess seams?


3. And last but not least, and in fact first in order of making, is a second fern top. This was a self-drafted pattern from a little top Catherine found for me at an op-shop. I spent ages working out how to try and make the pattern and I think I can confidently say I failed miserably. I have no idea how to draft patterns. This is definitely something I’d like to learn in the future.

A really dodgy picture of the original…

The struggle I had was working out how to insert darts into a pattern piece – I could find instructions on how to move them, but not how to insert them. I knew that bust darts were the gem of the original. In the end I decided I would sew the darts in once I’d fitted straps and tried it on. Typically, I forgot – and did all of the bias binding.

I love the idea of this, but I think I really will have to unpick that bias binding and add the darts, because it just doesn’t fit properly and looks nothing like the original.


I also did the shoddiest possible job on the straps because I couldn’t work out how to use Catherine’s tube inside-out-er gajiga-thing. If you know what I mean. Finally, the straps aren’t cut on the bias so they have no stretch to them at all, which does make it hard to tie up.

So plans? Unpick bias binding. Add darts. Take off straps. Buy some matching leather or tubing or complimentary straps. Redo bias binding. Sew on good straps. Wear and smile.

Goodbye for now, and wish me luck & common sense!!


Winter must be coming – soon!

Catherine says…

Okay, I admit it. It’s too hot to knit. However, earlier this summer when it was really really hot, we went to the beach – which is an hour & a half drive there, an hour & a half drive back. (Why yes, I can do simple maths!). This led to at least 9 hours knitting time during which I finished the Crescent Phases shawl, which is the colour of the ocean, and will always, now, remind me of those Phillip Islands trips with combinations of my husband, daughter & step-daughters.

The pattern was modified when I read on Ravelry that some knitters found the shawl a little narrow – a narrow shawl was not going to be a good use of this hand-spun warmth. I added some rows, which I think also meant that the shawl is a little longer than it would otherwise be. Due to its shape, it hangs beautifully from the shoulders & it will be very warm – the fibre is soft, squishy & luxurious. The fibre is the Loch Ness Mystical spin along fibre from Ixchel Fibres – the colours are glorious. I didn’t have enough, I didn’t think, to make an entire shawl, so I plied it with some merino tops I bought at Open Drawer. The Loch Ness fibre was a blend of North Ronaldsay-Valais Blacknose, Silver Infused Seaweed, Cashmere & Angora.

I can’t wait until winter!

Crescent Phases Shawl


Unfinished Sewing Projects…

Helen says…

I’ve found there are usually three reasons why I will abandon a project partway through. Most commonly, after cutting it out and sewing most of it together, I will find it doesn’t actually fit very well. I’m not experienced with placing darts, making muslins, or adjusting patterns – so these are definitely skills that I need to learn this year.

The second most common hiccup is that I have run out of thread, don’t have a zipper or button, or other notions I might need. Even today, I have been working on a shift dress that I first had to put on pause because I hadn’t bought a zip, and now my thread has run out (and it doesn’t fit well!). With a little organisation, this could be easily fixed.

The third reason is that I crave instant gratification. I long for 2-hour dresses and skirts. If only all commercial patterns were made simply and for my exact size so that I could just piece them together, literally in a jiffy! So often I will start a day with a new project, hoping that this one will be more simple than the dress I started the day before that isn’t quite working properly. Then I will end that day with 2 partly finished projects, no instant gratification, and the feelings of frustration and incompetence.


Sewing should be fun, and should provide satisfaction and finished projects, as far as I’m concerned. For too long I have been doing things half-arsed, as something to do, and giving myself more frustration than joy. If I want to enjoy this blog, and a me-made 2016 wardrobe, something has to change. I need a goal, and a plan.

My goal is to end 2016 with no unfinished projects.

My plan is;

  1. To make lists of sewing to do and unfinished planning in Evernote, and be scrupulous in updating these
  2. To stick to the patterns I own, as repeatedly making and adjusting them will allow me to eventually ‘learn’ the pattern and be able to complete it more quickly
  3. To book in for a casual sewing class with my local seamstress when I need help to finish a project – for example when something needs darts put in or to be taken in
  4. To buy all the notions, interfacing, and thread at the start of a project, before even cutting it out, so that I don’t have to stop halfway through to go and get them.


So for the moment, here is a gallery of the unfinished projects I will be working on, for this first quarter of 2016:



Self-portrait with Frida

Catherine says…

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I discovered the work of Frida Kahlo but her stern self-portraits with their challenging, sometimes even hostile gaze, enchanted and disturbed me. I read a biography of her and was charmed by her suffering, her wildness and her impetuosity. Back then I believed in art and style, and thought that suffering might well be a necessary part of that equation. My own physical suffering was limited and I read about Kahlo’s with grim, vicarious interest.


I grew up in Brisbane – in the sub-tropics, and I’d been to Central America when I was fifteen, with my step-grandmother. I’d visited Mexico and seen beautiful pottery in a museum, I’d see women weaving by the roadside in Cusco and walked through markets in Guatelmala. Long after the details of the trip faded, the vivid colours, handweaving and playful pom poms remained in my memory. I wasn’t brave enough to buy anything other the ubiqutous poncho, but when I became interested in Frida Kahlo I had a tactile memory of the clothes she wore in those self-portraits.

If I had a style back then, it was eclectic and based more on economics, reading and a wistful imagined life, like those I read about so voraciously – Anais Nin, Colette, Colette2Kahlo and others. A phrase from a novel could inspire me – D. H. Lawrence’s mention of coloured stockings in Women in Love sent me on a search for coloured tights – I don’t think I found any in Brisbane in the early eighties! I bought a pale blue Country Road dress because I imagined it was the colour of a prairie sky. I wore khaki overalls I found in Paddington Market in Sydney and which I’d embroidered with an illustration from Le Petit Prince.LePetitPrince

At eighteen, I purchased a hand-spun, hand-knitted shawl – it was unbelievably expensive and ate up a good deal of my student allowance, but I had it for years. There was something about the quality of the undyed yarn that I’d coveted. I had a spinning wheel and could spin then, but I wasn’t a knitter and this shawl, with it’s lace border, gave me a sense of what I could aspire to, one day.  I was delighted with the old-fashioned nature of the shawl as a garment. Wrapped in it, I could imagine walking on the moors, composing heartbroken poetry as I laboured against the wind and the rain to reach my home and the meagre warmth of a small fire.

My relationship with clothes was like that – I had an exiled Russian princess dress, an ‘Edwardian’ silk blouse, a Colette French dress and an androgynous corduroy jacket that was part Annie Hall, part Radcliffe Hall.Radclyffe_Hall I op-shopped keenly but was just as capable of imbuing new clothes with the same glamour – a sequinned boob tube was my answer to Nicholas Roeg‘s doomed protagonist in Bad Timing – a movie I saw at least three times. I didn’t wear it much – the sequins scratched and the stretchy elastic flattened out my already flat-chest. Still, when I put it on, I was Theresa Russell in my head, if not in my mirror.

Theresa Russell

What has all this to do with Frida Kahlo? I’m now at an age when I can unravel and embraace my own style and eccentricities. I’ve long since relenquished any notion of being ‘groomed’. I just don’t do that well. I love colour, texture, an eye-catching handcraft feel which isn’t too shoddy. One of my favourite garments is a black wool stole my mother bought for me on my twenty-fifth birthday. The folkloric embroidery is a vibrant mix of colours – it’s very Frida.

Last year I found some machine crocheted material at Spotlight in a similar mix of colours. I snapped up a metre. Helen looked at it with disdain and my best friend tried to hide her scepticism. When I put on that skirt with its carnival colours and scalloped festivity, I feel happier and braver in Melbourne’s grey winter. It’s very Frida.

12607117_10153415744100698_893093648_nThis year I’m restriciting my purchase of new clothes to necessary items I can’t make. I might add a couple of warm basic garments in winter – I have my eye on some available from a local store, that are made from beechwood. I might have to spring for a new bathing suit – if I can find anything that is a flattering one-piece, rather than a tankini. I will buy boots in winter – that’s as inevitable as catching the winter cold. Other that that, however, I’m making things or buying clothes on ebay. In the making department, I’m embracing colour, texture and eye-catching handcrafted detail. I can no longer get away with an exiled Russian princess dress, but I can add appliqued exotic flowers to the hem of a black linen shirt. I can afford a ruffle. I can ditch balance for assymetry, factory banality for handstitched details and make some flowers to attach to my hats. It can all be a little Frida – at least in my own head!Frida2


Sewing Plans

Helen says…

We’re expecting it to be quite a hot Summer in Australia this year, and in fact we have already been blasted by heat a few times. So over the next few months I’m going to focus on heat-resistant clothing – simple shift dress shapes, shell or airy tops, and slightly longer skirts which aren’t uncomfortable when you’re sitting on sweaty seats.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

  1. This Burda cropped top is so cropped! I have made one in a striped linen which looked lovely, except it’s impossible to take advantage of the cool a-line shape when it is this short and you have to wear something underneath it. I can’t wait to try this again though, extending the front to my hip line. Not sure which fabric I’ll choose for this one.
    2. Catty found this pattern at the op-shop for 25c! Such a bargain. I love high-waisted slim trousers. For Summer, I’m hoping to make it work with a shorter length, cut just below the knee.
    3. I originally had this pattern to make trousers from, but actually I think the pattern Catty found is much more sleek and attractive.
    4. So this is my fabric for the first go at these trousers. It’s a simple cotton gingham, but the little daisies are kind of sweet.
    5. A while ago I bought a black linen pencil skirt off ASOS that finishes below my knees and features a split at the center front. It’s very flattering, cool in Summer, and doesn’t let you stick to seats! I’ll be making view C, with a slim waist and a bit shorter than shown here.
    6. This is the soft chambray I will use to make the pencil skirt. I’m going to try and find some dark wooden buttons to match this fabric.
    7. Ever since I watched Lisa from Sew Over It UK’s vlog on her shift dress collection, I’ve longed for a shift dress pattern. I hate printing and cutting out patterns from all the A4 sheets though, so I haven’t bought her pattern. Instead, I’ve found this one with my favourite v-neck, and a couple of others to round out my options.
    8. Originally I was going to make this into pyjamas, but I kind of think the fabric is too unique and interesting for something hidden. So I’m going to showcase it with the shift pattern, and try and find some white embellishment for the neck.
    9. Aren’t the cape and jacket adorable?! I can’t wait to make them in Winter. This is another potential shift dress pattern, for when I don’t want a v-neck.
    10. I’m going to give this a go without sleeves or the belt. I’m trying to dress more bravely like Catty does – so I think the option for contrasting fabric will be a subtle way of achieving this.
    11. Vie Domestique has made the most beautiful interpretation of this dress! That’s why I bought the pattern. Again, there is the opportunity to use a contrasting fabric.
    12. So, this is actually an old sheet of my step-dads…Because it is so old, the fabric has become so lovely and soft. I have always loved the print too. This will become a simple shift that’ll be great for heatwaves.
    13. Again, an old sheet. I’m not sure what I’ll make from this – another shift with contrasting yoke in the blue?
    14. So this is the most versatile fabric I have ever bought and I am In. Love. I also have it in grey tones and it was only $5!! A meter! At spotlight in the upholstery section. I have it in these greens and also in  grays. I might make a shift dress from this, or another open back tank top, or who knows…
    15. I think this will be a really useful pattern to wear under sheer shirts with high-waisted trousers or skirts. I love vintage patterns, as you can probably tell. I don’t like looking all pin-up or all rockabilly though. Something like this is great for me, because I can pair it with very modern shaped shirts, leather-look jeans, etc.
    16. I think this fabric is so adorable, it reminds me of a Kimya Dawson song. I’m going to make it into the halter top.
    17. O.K so this fabric was originally a tulip dress, which was never very flattering on me. The bodice is beautiful, and I’m thinking of leaving it intact and just adding some matching halter straps, again to wear under sheer shirts.
    18.Another little halter top will be made out of this, to match a full circle midi skirt that I have already made. This will probably be my first go at the halter top pattern. This fabric is synthetic something, and not the nicest to touch, but it does look nice and it’s not super uncomfortable. But I still don’t mind wasting it if the pattern doesn’t turn out right.
    19. This open-back tank has been an absolute lifesaver during the couple of heat waves we’ve had already this year. I’m definitely making more!
    20. I got this as a remnant for $1.65, and it matches a Zara shirt I just got perfectly! It’ll be a simple, high waisted straight skirt.

I mean, that’s not too many projects…right??


Catty says…

Plans for 2016 sewing (with a little bit of knitting!)


  1. Beat the heat – I love Marcy Tilton’s cirque dress & have made three now, all collarless. I’m planning on making another two out of summer weight fabric & a third for winter to wear with long sleeved t-shirts.
  2. Merchant & Mills factory dress – I ordered this pattern ages ago but it wasn’t until I saw a version that had different fabrics for the bodice & skirt that I decided I had to make it. I also want to make some more from the All Season Wardrobe Workbook.
  3. Working on finding a good long-sleeved t-shirt pattern for winter. I’ve tried a Burda boatneck & might modify that.
  4. Working also on some good cardigan patterns for winter & in-between
  5. Also want to find a good short- & long-sleeved top pattern, suitable to wear with skirts & jeans. At the moment, I’m tempted by Style Arc.
  6. I also want to try the Marcy Tilton patchwork dress for an in-between seasonal dress.
  7. More leggings! There was a beautiful cherry red velvet pair in one of the Poirot series which made me crazed with envy – I am definitely on the look-out.
  8. The long-sleeved Marcy Tilton shirt might be one of my shirt answers, too. I have a pale blue chambray denim for this. I plan to have feature buttons.
  9. A pair of knitted socks each month – how hard can that be?
  10. More hats – I won’t actually make these….but I might make the patio lounge pants to go with them.
  11. Knickers – part of my waste-less year. Beautiful knickers from scraps.
  12. Spinning! Yes, please….


2016 sewing is going to be about colour & texture & handstitched details. It’s going to be flowers & appliques & artful patches. It’s going to about fabric combinations that are unexpected & pleasing, buttons that draw the eye. I want hats for summer, shawls for winter & berets with pins. I want bold tights, gorgeous leggings & colourful socks. I want strappy summer sandals & stompy winter boots, boots & more boots! Marcy Tilton may just be my favourite designer at the moment, but I’d like to give Merchant & Mills a run for their money & I will be returning to Style Arc & Burda, too. This is the year I’d like to trace patterns, keep better track of patterns & make pattern notes. I’d like an organised stash, an organised workspace & a mending basket. I’d like to reduce impulse buying, but be bold about colour choices & fabric mash-ups.

I want to also try my hand at some fabric printing – oh the plans, the joyful plans. Now, if I can just ditch my day job….