Sunday, 7 November 2021

Trimming the dress

I've posted before about the double-edged sword that is being able to sew; namely that it gives you Ideas, some of which are brighter than others.

For example, most people would look at a densely embroidered vintage couture dress and think, "It's beautiful, but a) it's tiny and b) it costs a fortune", and leave it at that. I thought, "It’s beautiful, tiny and very expensive - but I wonder if I could make something along the same lines?" And so it goes.

Which is why it's time to reveal the purpose of the black velvet dress - six years after I first saw it, I'm finally having a go at making my version of the Pierre Balmain holly dress. This is probably my most ambitious/daftest (delete as appropriate) project yet.

This may not be a good idea! Image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

By dint of piecing together various close-ups from the original Kerry Taylor Auctions listing (yes, I had kept all images for reference, just in case) I worked out that there are approximately 200 berries on the dress and 300 leaves, all hand-embroidered by Maison Lesage. Unusually for a couture dress, it doesn't appear to have been lined, so it's possible to see the wrong side of the embroidery, and the stitching holding the red velvet berries in place.

Interior view, image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

My version will have rather fewer berries and leaves, and they won't be hand-embroidered (I may be wildly over-ambitious, but I'm not that wildly over-ambitious). The berries will be made from some bobble trim which I bought for this purpose from Barnett Lawson's old London shop years ago, and have dismantled to leave just the red bobbles on a single cord.

Stored on card to stop it from tangling

After considering various options, I decided to make the leaves out of felt. However, just leaf shapes cut from plain felt would look too much like Fuzzy Felt Christmas, so I am going to needle-felt the leaves with other colours to add some depth.

First, I needed to get an idea of the leaf size. Working from this image of the bodice, which also appears on the back of the printed catalogue, I drew leaves freehand onto my toile using a Frixion pen. This meant that I could iron out any bits I wasn't happy with, and try again.

Bodice front, image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

I roughly copied the original's layout of approximately six leaves between waist and neckline. The resulting leaves were bigger than I expected.

Drawing (and removing) the design

It took 33 leaves to cover the front of the bodice toile. I traced them all off onto tissue paper, and will re-use the shapes over the dress. Using a leaf pattern as a guide, I needle-felted some green wool rovings into black felt. Then I pinned the tissue pattern onto the embellished felt, and cut it out.

The needle-felted felt

The leaf cut out

I wasn't sure whether to use green or black felt as the base, so I tried both, and pinned examples onto the faulty back piece which I cut out originally. Green gives a sharper line, but think that I may include some black, to add variation to the design.

Two black felt leaves, and a green felt one in the middle

This close-up of the embroidery shows that there are two different styles of leaf. One is all sewn all the same green thread with a blue-grey tinge, with a dull metallic thread added near the centre. The other style is sewn in what, in some lights, appears to be a slightly warmer green, and on one side of the leaves there are stitches in light green and rust, and tiny spangles.

Embroidery close-up, image © Kerry Taylor Auctions

I have been experimenting with different colours of wool roving added to the green, and also metallic threads and shredded sari waste. I don't feel the need to stick rigidly to the Lesage colour scheme, but I do think it's a useful reminder that I don't need a huge range of variations. I've still to decide on the amount of embroidery to add, and how to attach the leaves to the dress. So, lots to think about!

Leafy experiments


  1. OMGosh what a lovely "little black dress" for the winter! I can definitely see why you have kept those fashion photos and idea waiting for the right moment. I would cavaet that with be careful where you put those pompoms on the bodice ;-) Looking forward to progress pics

    1. Thank you! Yes, from my dance costume-making days, I'm very conscious of the need to avoid 'boob flowers' - or worse! This is where a dress form comes in very handy.

  2. Oh my goodness I cannot wait to see this one all finished! This is one of my favorite vintage pieces and one that I have thought about making for myself. I know you will make something absolutely stunning and I cannot wait to see it. The leaves already look great and what a great technique to do them in.

    1. Thank you. My leaf-felting technique is slowly improving and speeding up, but it's going to take a long time.

      Thank you also for commenting, as it has introduced me to your blog. There are so many lovely makes on there - I'm looking forward to reading it properly.