Sunday, 25 September 2016

Simplicity 1777, pattern-hacks

After my grumble the other week about the lack of period details in Simplicity 1777, I thought I’d better write a post about the changes I made to give it a (to me, at least) more authentic 1940s look.

First up, the easiest thing to alter; the length. Early 1940s styles were slightly below the knee, so I added a generous 10cm / 4” to the skirt length, and then shortened it at the end.

A model in a Utility dress, 1943. From Wikimedia Commons

Next, not a ‘period’ alteration, but something to note. The skirt is quite straight at the back, so I had to go up a size between the waist and the hips to accommodate my sway back. For me, simply adding extra width at the side seams usually results in unattractive wrinkling across the skirt back. Instead I cut the whole skirt back to the larger size, and took in the excess at the waist by adding an extra dart on each side. This made the skirt hang beautifully.

Perfectly fitting skirt back

Moving upwards to shoulders. My primary source for 1940s fashion facts (aka ‘Mum’) tells me that not all dresses had shoulder pads. However for me the military-inspired, square-shouldered silhouette is a critical part of the period look. Plus a great many of my 1940s patterns include pattern pieces and/or instructions for making shoulder pads, so I decided to add them to this dress.

Square shoulders from Norman Hartnell's 1942 Utility collection

It might have been possible to just make up the dress and insert shoulder pads, especially with the soft, drapey fabric I used, but I decided to do the job properly. I measured the depth of the (bought) pad, and redrew the shoulder seam so that it was that much higher.

Alteration for shoulder pad, bodice

For the back, this involved folding the dart closed, drawing the line, and then opening the dart out again. For the front, I laid the bodice front over the bodice side front, matching the seam lines, and drew the new shoulder line across the two.

On the sleeve head I added the extra length (the depth of the shoulder pad) below the notches, so that it wasn't affected by the gathering at the top.

The area where I extended the sleeve head

Finally, I re-positioned the notches and dots so that they matched.

As ever, I added pockets in the skirt side seams. Thanks to my friend Kebi for this article on how this particular alteration is a small act of rebellion!

The biggest change I made to the dress however wasn’t a pattern alteration, it was in the construction. The instructions follow standard modern dressmaking techniques, where two pieces are joined by laying them right sides together and sewing a 1.5cm / ⅝” seam. For Simplicity 1777 this makes joining the skirt to the bodice very fiddly, because the dress simply wasn’t designed to be constructed like that.

In the 1930s and 1940s (and possibly later, I’ve just not had the time to investigate this properly), a lot of clothing construction was done with what were called 'lapped seams'. These involved turning under the seam allowance on one piece, laying it over the other, and sewing through all three layers. Vogue 9546, which dates from 1942, uses this technique for the central waist section.

Vogue 9546, constructing the bodice

Vintage Vogue reissue 9126 is from 1947, four years later than Simplicity 1777, but has a similar shape. It also uses the overlaying technique.

V9126 also has a centre panel, gathered bodice and pleated skirt

I used this method to attach the bodice backs and bodice side fronts to the skirt pieces. Several of my vintage patterns mention using a contrasting thread to sew these types of visible seams, to give a decorative effect. Unfortunately the line of my sewing isn’t regular enough for me to want to highlight it!

This is also a good time to mention that there are a lot of pleats at the centre front of the skirt. I marked the top and bottom of each pleat line with tailor tacks, using different colours for the solid and broken lines. Then I pinned the pleats top and bottom, and secured them with two rows of tacking stitches. It was extra work, but worth it.

Pinning the pleats in place

Next I cut out the centre front section in non-fusible interfacing, and then trimmed off the seam allowance from the sides and the bottom point. Then I basted it to the fabric.

Interfacing attached to the centre front, with the bottom folded over

Next I turned the seam allowance over the interfacing, and pressed and basted it.

Raw edges pressed and basted down

Then I laid this over the skirt/bodice side pieces, and basted it into place from the shoulder seams down to the start of the pleats and gathers. (Yes, there was a lot of basting involved!)

After this I did the rest of the dress construction. I put in the zip, using the lapped method the instructions suggest, but hand sewing it because I’ve developed at strange addiction to hand sewing zips. I sewed the shoulder and side seams, and put in the sleeves. (One thing I should mention is that the sleeves do have small, period-appropriate darts at the elbow.) Then, and only then, did I tackle the centre front properly.

Several online reviews I’ve read of this pattern mention that the gathered section can go a little baggy/unflattering/plain downright weird. By leaving it until I had an almost completed dress, I could try it on and fiddle with it until I was happy. I found two things.

One: on me at least, it was far better to have most of the gathering lower down. This makes some of the gathers radiate upwards to the bust, which just looks more flattering.

The completed gathered section

Two: I needed to pull the side fronts in a lot at the waist. This photograph show just how much of the bodice sides I pulled in to the centre.

Compare this to the photo of the centre front section above

Once all of that was done, I top stitched the bodice centre front in place.

Top stitching and padded shoulders - pure 1940s!

Then I made up the facing and attached it. The instructions are to machine stitch the facing 'in the ditch', but I hand sewed it in place with slip-stitch, so it doesn't show on the right side at all.

Pinning the facing in place

Finally all that was needed was the hem and the decorative buttons.


  1. This dress looks fab and I can't wait to see it on you. There was a lot of nodding going on my end as I was agreeing with you on the changes, especially top stitching the centre section on. That's probably how I'd tackle it too. I've been tempted by this pattern myself but I generally shy away from modern ones now, mainly because I can't be doing with all that cutting out! xx

    1. Thanks Cate, it's good to know that I'm on the right lines!