The Fifties finish
Added Jul 3, 2011
London, United K...
I’m afraid I didn’t make this gorgeous dress myself – someone else did that before I was born; but I did put an awful lot of work into it!
This was an impulse purchase from a ‘vintage’ shop – Beyond Retro – that just happened to be located next to the international bookshop I was patronising at the time. I went in to see what it was like: what I discovered was rows and rows of ‘day’ dresses, literally hundreds of them, in precisely the style I like to wear and in my size. I was tempted… and I fell. Crucially, the prices were just within my twenty-pound limit. I told myself I could buy one dress, and I picked this one because of the attractive print and because of the silky feel of the fabric (too many of the others were too obviously nylon: I’m sure this is artificial, but it feels pleasant to wear).
I’m not sure about the date; it carries no label, and is clearly home-made from the state of the internal seams (wherein the work!) I’ve assumed that it’s probably 1950s, and I’m guessing that it was worn once only, made for a specific occasion to a very tight deadline, and that the wearer simply ran out of time: the skirt seams and shoulder seams were finished, the vertical bodice seams were not. At all.
In fact, after I’d worn it only once, the inside was already beginning to fray quite badly (pic 2). The side seams hadn’t been trimmed at all, and had two-inch wedges of fabric dangling off them (pic 3); conversely, the princess seams up the front of the bodice had simply been clipped off raw extremely close to the stitching line (pic 4) without any allowance for fraying, let alone any scope for subsequent finishing off. As for the waist, it had simply been sewn rapidly together with the seam allowances often twisted one way at the waist and the other way at the other end of the seam, making it quite impossible to get a flat finish thereafter even if the seamstress had had time.
So the very first thing I found myself doing was picking open seams – at the waist involving two or three rows of stitching – re-folding seam allowances, and sewing these sections back up again individually by hand. Luckily I don’t have a sewing machine, so I would have been sewing them up by hand anyway: not an intimidating prospect!
In the local haberdashery department, I discovered the existence of black satin bias binding, which (at a premium) gave a lovely slippery finish that matched the inside of the dress, and used this to bind up the raw edges of all the multiple seams around the waist (pic 5): I had just enough left to do the armholes as well, but not only would it have come rather expensive to do all the other six bodice seams this way, it would also have been rather bulky. So, since I now had too much fabric in some places and not enough in others, I improvised….
I cut the wide strips of spare material off from the side seams and from the gusset inserted under the sleeves (pic 6), leaving just enough seam allowance to turn over and fell down the raw edges remaining using the tiniest stitches possible. I folded over and felled down all three seams (pic 7) along the length of each sleeve (which again involved a certain amount of unpicking and re-stitching to get them to lie flat on top of one another, as they had been machined down hastily in all different directions!)
Then I used these ‘spare’ offcuts of matching cloth to cover over the fraying edges of the four princess seams, where there was not enough fabric left for any kind of finish. They had been made with a row of top-stitching on the outside, so I hand-stitched my half-inch strip as accurately as possible over the actual seam line, 1/8" from the edge (pic 8), then turned under 1/8" on the other edge of the strip and felled it down over the raw edge of the seam, creating a quarter-inch binding all along the curved line of the inside bodice edges. It wasn’t strictly ‘bias’ binding because my strips were perforce cut on the straight grain; but the seams were so narrow that they went round the curves fairly easily.
This is the part that does show through from the right side of the garment, as a slight bulky gathering parallel to the top-stitching; but I think it shows less than bias binding the whole thing. Fortunately the print is so bold and the little line of black hem-stitches so tiny that it really isn’t detectable from any great distance: anyhow, if anyone should be peering in close-up at that particular portion of my anatomy, they might have some explaining to do!
Even after all these hours of hand-finishing there was still one further problem: some of the curved seams had been clipped so deeply that the cuts on the inside extended past the first line of stitching and approached the second. I couldn’t make my strips wide enough to cover these raw edges intersecting the seam itself, so first I had to put in tiny flat darns (pic 9) in the double thickness of the fabric to mend the slits… ‘tiny’ being a relative term when you consider the quantity of thread that has to be woven into a cross-hatch of fresh cloth over and around the damaged area! Properly speaking I should have used finer threads, pulled from the garment itself: but I didn’t have any more bits accessible to easily cannibalise, or sewing needles quite that fine.
I have to say that I’ve done better darns on other repairs; but being on the inside of the seam allowance, these are quite invisible. And the dress is now, finally, washable without further disintegration, which is what matters.
Of course before I could wear it in earnest, I had to make a net petticoat to give body to the skirt; but that was another story….
Satin bias binding.
Spare strips cut from the seam allowances of the dress itself.
- Dress found at