Sunday, 8 June 2014

On your marks, get set, sew!

I’ve had this project in mind for a couple of months now, but it’s been on the back burner while I worked on Historical Sew Fortnightly challenges and other things. However as series two of The Great British Sewing Bee is currently being repeated on BBC2 (and yes, I am watching it again!), it seemed a good time to do it.

If you’re not familiar with it, The Great British Sewing Bee is a television competition to find Britain’s best amateur sewer. Each week there are three challenges; challenge one - make a garment from a pattern provided by the judges (the same pattern for each contestant) to fit a mannequin, challenge two - alter a high street purchase (the same garment for each contestant for five of the eight challenges), and challenge three - make a garment to fit a live model, using a pattern of the contestant’s choice.

Most of the techniques covered each week have been reasonably familiar to me, even if I’ve not tried them myself, but there is one thing which mystifies me completely. How do the contestants get their garments made in such a short time?

Seriously. Three hours to make a patterned, box-pleated skirt, with the pattern matching perfectly over the pleats, four hours to make a blouse from a 1930s-style pattern, six and a half hours to make a pair of velvet trousers.

Then The Dreamstress posted about a fabulous 1950s dress she’d made, including various alterations, with the comment, “A few hours of cutting and fitting and sewing later...”. (I do like the explanation of how she ended up with the fabric; it sounds oddly familiar!)

All of this made me suspect that I sew very, very slowly. So, I decided to do some research, and time exactly how long it takes me to make a dress.

I needed a new dress to go with some jewellery (I know, I know; you’ve heard some excuses in your time, but this one takes the biscuit). Some years ago Mr Tulip bought me a lovely pair of earrings, made from three different colours of amber set in silver. Then I found an almost-matching necklace.

What started it all

However I only have one dress with greens and browns in it, and it’s a winter dress. Something more summery was needed. New Look 6093 is a pattern I’ve had in my stash for a while, and it has an ideal neckline to show off a necklace. Then I found the perfect cotton poplin in my local fabric shop; the colours are just right.

I chose view A

Close-up of the fabric

The centre panel of the dress front, the two bodice pieces, and the main part of the back are all cut on the straight grain. Then there are four side panels cut on the cross, meaning that the side seams are mostly sewn on the bias.

Front and back views

The dress fastens with a zip at the centre back. The bodice pieces are gathered at the bust, and the sleeves have a side ruching detail.

For the first challenge in the Sewing Bee, the contestants are given a pattern which will fit the mannequin without any alterations. Therefore I didn't include the time taken to alter the pattern to fit me. Cutting out, marking and pressing were all timed, though, along with the actual sewing.

The fabric was 148cm wide, which made the cutting layout quite simple.

All the pieces laid out and ready to cut

Cutting out - 50 minutes, total - 50 minutes

The two bodice pieces are stay-stitched, then gathered along the lower part of the curve and stitched to the centre front piece. I managed to catch part of the centre piece in my sewing, so had to unpick and redo a section. The seams are then top stitched.

Completed front bodice

The lower part of the centre panel is stay-stitched, and the front side panels attached. Next the back pieces are stay-stitched, the centre back seam sewn up to where the zip ends, and the back side panels attached.

Completed dress front

The shoulder seams are sewn, the facing pieces interfaced, the facing constructed, and attached to the dress. Unfortunately I was so busy sewing that I forgot to note how long each of these stages took.

Initial construction - 2 hours 15 minutes, total - 3 hours 5 minutes

The instructions are for a lapped zip, but I ignored them (something which is frowned upon by the Sewing Bee judges!) and the end result is not the neatest, so no photo here!

Zip - 35 minutes, total - 3 hours 40 minutes

Next should be the side seams and then insert the sleeves, but I ignored that as well. The sleeves are ruched by attaching a length of stretched elastic, which I did do. I then did my usual thing of setting the sleeves into the flat dress piece.

The sleeve set in

Sleeves - 30 minutes, total - 4 hours 10 minutes.

I tried the dress on after I'd sewn the side seams, and found that it was a bit tight at the top of the hips. Redoing the side seams fixed the problem, but added extra time.

Side seams - 20 minutes, total - 4 hours 30 minutes

For the sleeve and skirt hems I used my preferred method of overlocking the raw edge first, then pressing the hem and hand sewing it with herringbone stitch.

Overlocking hems - 5 minutes, total - 4 hours 35 minutes

When it came to marking the hem, Nancy showed just what I'd been missing by using my other, standard dress form. Sad to report, but the hem at the back, where the skirt has to accommodate my sway back/large derriere (delete as appropriate) is less than half the depth of the seam at the front. Another New Look pattern on my to-do list has a large contrast band around the bottom of the skirt; before I make it up I'll have to redraft the skirt pieces to allow for the longer back.

Marking and pressing the hem - 20 minutes, total 4 - hours 55 minutes

I must confess that I didn't time the hand hemming exactly. This was because I sewed it while over at my parents' house for Sunday lunch, and a fair amount of chatting was going on at the time. I did time a short section however, and used that to work out the likely time if I'd been concentrating on the job in hand.

Hemming the sleeves and skirt - 1 hour 10 minutes, total - 6 hours 5 minutes

A final 5 minutes to attach a hook and a hand-sewn loop at the top of the zip brings the grand total to a whopping 6 hours 10 minutes. For a fairly simple dress. Ouch.

I am pleased with the end result, though. The bias panels make the skirt hang really nicely, the bodice construction works well, and the ruched sleeves are an unusual and faintly retro touch. I think that the choice of fabric helps though; if the dress were made up in a plain fabric the construction details of the skirt would be more obvious, and probably not that flattering on me.

The finished dress

So, I finally have something I can wear with my amber jewellery. Time to clear the decks ready for my entry for the next Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge; The Politics of Fashion. I'm really looking forward to this one!


  1. I loved watching the first Sewing Bee on you tube but I wasn't able to see the second one. I'm in America where permissions for that was denied. =(
    How great that you found a matching necklace and fabric. It all looks great!

  2. Thank you! A few weeks ago I read that an American version of Sewing Bee was looking for contestants, so hopefully you'll have that to watch soon - and I will be the one looking for it on Youtube!

  3. I love the Great British Sewing Bee--so much better than Project Runway in that the actual construction is more important than originality or avante garde. What does it matter if your plastic bag and paper cup gown is stunning if you can't sit in it?

    Also, I really liked reading the breakdown of your sewing time! I sometimes feel like it takes ages to finish something because I can only work on it a little bit at a time (like one sundress that's been in the sewing basket for almost 2 years...). I think I might start timing myself too to see how long it really takes!

    1. Thank you Gabriela. Now that I've worn the dress a few times I find I really like it - it's so comfortable, and it always looks good. I'm thinking of making it up again in a different fabric - and seeing if I can improve on my time!