# I was so, so wrong

Do you ever spend six months working on a quilt project only to find that one of your basic assumptions was wrong?

I started my hexagon quilt last November and since I tend to plan everything out in Excel I used the grid to work out how many hexagons I would need. I know that when you are calculating how many blocks are in a given top the formula is the same as the one for square blocks on point — that is, xy + (x-1)(y-1). Unfortunately, calculating how many rings you need to make for a top is NOT the same for hexagons as it is for squares or diamonds. Surprisingly enough, the first ring is 6 blocks, not 4, and it goes up by 6 for each ring. Also you can’t fit as many hexagon rings into a top of a given size as you can square blocks.

In my previous calculations I believed that I would need 14 “rings”, plus the centre block, giving me a total of 365 blocks. However, I recently found some hexagon grids online and plotted the layout using the correct grid, and the result is very, very different. If I stick to the plan of applying each flower to a 3″ hexagon (finished size 6″ point to point, 5.25″ side to side), then I have two options, both of which give me a quilt top measuring roughly 75″ x 85″. [NB: each hexagon here represents the background square — the colours are just to help visualise the larger structure.]

The first option has each hexagon flower arranged vertically (points at north and south) with the rings oriented horizontally. This would require 257 blocks in 6 complete rings with partial rings in the corners, and the top size would be roughly 74″ x 87″.

The second option has the hexagon flowers arranged horizontally (points at east and west) with the rings oriented vertically. This option has 281 blocks in 8 complete rings with partial rings in the corners, and the top would be roughly 78″ x 89″.

Both options 1 and 2 could be made either as a complete top to be quilted, or as a “bind as you go” project (subject to finding backing fabrics that aren’t too jarring).

There is, however, a third option. If I attach a grey hexagon at each V in the flower, I get a “virtual” hexagon measuring 3″ on a side — the same as the appliqué block. I would need the same 281 flowers as for Option 2 but only a small fraction of the background fabrics. Placement of grey hexagons for the larger rings would require attention to detail so as not to get the fabrics in the wrong position, but it’s doable. It would mean a lot more hand sewing but that’s not a disincentive *g*.

Hmm … decision, decisions.

At the rate I’m sewing (wrists permitting) I should achieve 281 hexagon flowers by the end of July. That gives me nearly two months to think things over.

# You know you have too much fabric when …

… you completely forget about two drawers of fat quarters.

In my defence, the drawers are situated under the cutting/ironing table, facing the fabric shelves, and I don’t see them as I walk by. I only remembered when I’d finished cutting strips off my recent FQ purchases and went to put them away.

I feel so stupid now.

The funny thing is that I had another “stupid me” post for today but this had to take precedence. You’ll get the other one tomorrow.

# Jewel Box Door Quilt (a squirrel project)

Size: 26″ x 74″ (66 x 188 cm)
Fabric: 100% cotton batiks (various manufacturers) and Emma Louise black solid
Batting: Matilda’s Own 100% cotton
Pieced: 23-25 May 2023
Machine: Janome Horizon MemoryCraft 9400 QCP
Basted: 26 May 2023
Quilted: 27 May 2023
Bound: 28 May 2023

The house I’m moving to in Tasmania was built c. 1910, with hardwood floors and two fireplaces. I love it but it has one significant drawback — all the bedroom doors have glass panels which let the light in. Consequently, I decided to make a quilt to cover the one in my door (I have a feeling I’ll be making more of them for my cousins once my machines are down there).

I needed a quick and easy pattern, one that was adaptable to the door’s dimensions. After reviewing various alternatives, I settled on the Jewel Box block in a 6″ size (unit size 1½”). Four blocks across and twelve blocks down give 24″ x 72″, and I added a 1″ border for the final dimensions. This pattern also made it very easy to quilt in straight diagonal lines.

I picked out 48 of my batiks and cut one 4″ x 8″ rectangle from each colour, sub-cutting it into one 4″ square and two 2″ x 4″ rectangles. I also cut 4″ and 2″ strips from the solid black. For once I actually cut the backing and border strips before the blocks so I have borders on the warp grain, which is important for a hanging quilt.

I put the batik and black squares together and sewed either side of a drawn line to get the half-square triangles. Instead of cutting individual black rectangles for the four-patch units I used a technique I’ve seen online (I can’t remember which channel) where I sewed the 2″ x 4″ batik rectangles to the 2″ strips. I pressed them, cut each rectangle apart, drew a line down the middle and stitched a scant quarter inch from the line. I re-cut them, pressed them and trimmed the excess black fabric.

Once I had my HST blocks sewn I played around with layout, since it was a lot easier to do it with 4″ squares than with the completed blocks.

I wanted a value gradient from light at the top to dark at the bottom. My first attempt wasn’t too bad, but when I checked the black and white version I found that it needed several adjustments. Unfortunately when I started making those adjustments I ended up with very similar colours next to each other, which I did not want.

My second attempt also used a value gradient but this time I worked on the diagonal, from top left to bottom right, with colour groups also in diagonal lines. This worked much better. There are some anomalies in the bottom rows but I had fewer colour options by that stage and I ended up making only one change (I swapped blocks 3 and 4 in the bottom row). Once the layout was settled, I did the rest of the sewing, pressing and trimming (so much trimming!).

I tried really hard to keep all the blocks in their proper places as I assembled them and put them together, but after I had pinned the rows I realised that I’d webbed each row upside down, so the value gradient runs from top right to bottom left and the long diagonal lines of colour aren’t as clear as I had intended. My wrists hurt and I was on a deadline so I didn’t re-do it, and now that I’ve got used to it I think it may look better this way rather than having long lines of the same colour running along the four-patch blocks.

I added a narrow black border (I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like attaching bindings directly to blocks — it’s too hard to coordinate all those points) and took it to my sewing friend’s place for basting. I managed to cut my backing an inch too short so we basted what we could and I added a strip to the bottom before quilting. Borders, backing and binding are all the Emma Louise black solid so it wasn’t much of a problem, except that I obviously wasn’t paying attention when cutting the backing.

Quilting was simple diagonal lines done with the walking foot. I used the same black Rasant thread I’d used for construction along the black diagonals, and then two different Gütermann 30 wt cotton variegated threads for the coloured diagonals. To be honest I wasn’t very happy with the end result of the variegated thread for two reasons. Firstly, the thread is loosely spun and the thread ends unravelled very fast once cut, making burying threads a challenge requiring a large darning needle. Secondly, I think it takes the viewer’s attention away from the colours of the fabric. With so many different colours, though, the only viable alternative was monofilament and I’ve never been able to get the tension right, no matter what thread was in the bobbin. I was pleased to note that my in-the-ditch quilting is getting better, although there is still room for improvement.

I added a hanging sleeve to the quilt, but split it to allow the weight to be carried on three hooks as I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get over-the-door hooks and might have to use Command hooks which have low weight limits (not that this quilt weighs much, but the hooks may have to cope with cats hanging on by their claws). I added triangles to the bottom corners so that I could insert another dowel to prevent the quilt from moving too much.

Binding was attached to the back and pulled around to the front. Would you believe I used the lint roller not even five minutes previously? Those cotton fibres are worse than craft glitter.

This has to be one of the fastest quilts I’ve ever made. I settled on the design on Sunday 21 May and would have started cutting except that my rotary blade was blunt. I bought new blades on Monday and did almost all of the cutting that day. Tuesday and Wednesday saw me sewing the block units; Thursday I completed the blocks and assembled the top; Friday was basting day at my sewing friend Sue’s house (hence the deadline); Saturday was quilting and Sunday 29 May was binding. I did my best to pace myself, doing a little at a time with rests in between, but my wrists are not happy so it will be several days before I can resume work on hexagons.

A final thought: my usual practice is to press seams open and then use lots of pins, but it does take about three times longer than pressing to one side and nesting. Since I was working to a deadline I opted to press to one side and I didn’t even spin the seams. This didn’t matter much for the HST units because I always cut large and then trim to size, but my four-patch units were all a bit small — sometimes more than 1/8″ too small — because my pressor foot and the way I position the fabric under the foot is calibrated for open seams. My seam intersections are a lot bulkier, too, but my machine powered through (luckily I was using a 90/14 needle — I think a smaller needle might have had difficulty). I’m not fussed about seams pulling apart, though, because this quilt isn’t going to be handled much and the quilting is quite close — every piece is quilted and no point is more than 1″ away from a quilting line.

Overall I love how well the pattern turned out and I would happily make another Jewel Box quilt if the opportunity arises.

Lessons Learned:
1. Measure twice, cut once!!!
2. Value gradients work better on the diagonal.
3. Pressing to one side vs pressing open has a significant effect on unit size.
4. If you are webbing your quilt from top to bottom you need to have the right-most blocks at the top of each pile or you’ll get everything back to front.
5. I don’t like 100% cotton thread for quilting, especially when it’s thick.

# If it’s ugly but functional …

… it’s good.

I’ve been doing a little utility sewing this week — the result aren’t exactly pretty but they work and that’s the main thing.

A. Cat collars.

My cats are going on an interstate journey this week so they need harnesses. I bought the largest cat harnesses I could find but they were still too small, so I had to make some alterations. Every part except the neck loop had to be extended. The front strap was too small but was a good size for the back strap so is relatively unchanged. The back strap (which was doubled) was unfolded and became the front strap. The chest strap had to be enlarged by two inches for Vanima and almost four inches for Verya. I used 1.2 cm polyester woven tape because the smallest webbing I could find was a full inch wide and that’s a bit too much, even for my chonky girls. The chest straps are actually a little too large now but I retained the adjusting buckles so they can be tightened once the cats are secured.

Before you ask … yes, I have tried dog harnesses but the proportions are all wrong and the webbing used is a lot thicker — too much even for my strongest machine (the Janome Combi). I don’t anticipate moving the cats again but if so I might try to get narrower webbing and buckles and make harnesses myself.

B. Tote bag

Accompanying the cats will be four trays of cat food, already broken open and resorted into order of use (because I am functionally brain dead in the mornings and it helps that I only have to grab the next can in line). They are pretty heavy and I don’t have a suitable bag for them so I bought some canvas at Spotlight and made one to size. It wasn’t very difficult but of course I had to have a bright idea in the middle of construction that actually made things harder. The cat food trays are fairly heavy so I cut all the panels individually so that the warp grain would take all the strain and I didn’t have to waste any of the 150 cm fabric (I cut one strip of 12″ and two strips of 3″ for the handles). I also added a lot of reinforcing stitches. I decided to topstitch every seam as well, which is a good idea, but I chose to do it before attaching the base to the sides — while it was definitely easier to do at that stage it made attaching the base a lot harder and the corners are rather bulky as a result.

The handles go right under the base and are butted together, because I tried sewing the end seam and turning it but it was way too bulky and I wasn’t sure that the Combi would be able to cope with eight layers (nine if you include the base itself). Instead I sealed the ends with glue and stitched over the join several times.

I didn’t photograph the lining but it’s plain muslin, nothing exciting.

In spite of the mistakes I made I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. It fits the cat food trays and the chance of it coming apart because of the weight is minimal.

Edit: I know I was critical of the Wonder Clips a few weeks back when I was using them for hand piecing, but they were absolutely fantastic for this project — multiple layers of canvas were too thick for pins and the clips held everything together perfectly.

Lessons Learned:
1. Canvas needs half-inch seam allowances (they were starting to unravel towards the end of construction).
2. Don’t topstitch the side seams before attaching the base.

# Small Project

My big machine is still in the shop — I presume that they have had to order parts. I’m chugging along with maple leaf blocks but I’ve already made one post about that. Instead I have a new project to show you.

I’ve been watching a lot of quilting and other needlecraft videos lately and on Saturday I came across Emma Jones’ video on The Perfect Quilt Project, so I decided to try it out.

I pulled a length of border fabric from the stash and something suitable for the backing. I already had a set of hexagon templates so I picked one with 3″ sides as the inner (6″ point to point) and 3½” sides as the outer (7″ point to point), which I thought would give me a half-inch seam allowance all around.

The geometry of hexagons, however, means that the seam allowance was only 3/8″, and with the thickness of the batting it left me a turnover of only a generous 1/8″ inch. Of course I had cut all seven backing hexagons at once before realising this. Still, I went ahead with the first one, using my iron and some PVA glue to help secure the turnover.

The result wasn’t great — not only was I battling with the small seam allowance, but the batting was quite dense and not easily compressed (it was an offcut from the batting I used for En Bourgogne in 2019).

I used a zigzag stitch to secure the edge on the remaining hexagons which helped considerably but the small turnover was still tricky. I also noted that the corners were a little upturned (something I will have to be very careful about in future).

I discovered about halfway through stitching it that I had assembled one of the hexagons with the backing fabric reversed. Since I had already decided by then that this was going to be a standalone piece I didn’t bother to undo it but left it as a testament to poor planning.

The seven hexagons were assembled by whip stitch without any further issues, and in spite of all the problems I like the finished result. I’m not one for quilted decorations but this would make a lovely table topper or centrepiece.

I may try this method again — it’s very portable. To be honest, though, I don’t think it will ever give a result that is as flat and smooth as a top quilted all at once.

Lessons learned:
1. Bind-as-you-go hexagons need a backing that is cut at least ¾” bigger in side length (or 1½” point-to-point length if you are using Matilda’s Own templates). A difference of 1″ (2″) is better if you have thick batting.
2. Zig-zag stitches around the edge of the fabric and batting make the turnover much easier.
3. Glue-basting is much better than pin-basting for this technique.

# Starch (and another cautionary tale)

One of the projects I’m working on at the moment involves machine appliqué of fairly large shapes, which means that the background material needs to be reinforced. Products I’ve used previously include:
— spray starch (not stiff enough);
— spray stiffener (fantastic, but no longer available);
— synthetic fabric stiffener (doesn’t wash out well, especially after ironing);
— very heavy fusible interfacing (good, but has to be removed after stitching unless you want a board-like quilt);
— water-soluble backing (not stiff enough); and
— paper (also very fiddly to remove and it makes the needles blunt very quickly).

This time around I decided to use natural starch. I used a variant of Paula Storm’s recipe (which I would link to but her website has disappeared — I’ve copied it below). I made two changes. First, I increased the proportion of starch to water — the original is 1:30, while this batch is 1:15 (if I use this batch for appliqué pieces I’ll dilute it by half). The second change was that I left out the alcohol. The reason for this is that alcohol reduces the solubility of starch so it preciptates out, leaving you with a starch suspension rather than a colloid. It works if you shake the bottle before pouring, but it’s difficult to get a consistent mixture. I have to admit, though, that the alcohol has done an incredible job of preventing mould — I’m still using the batch I made back in 2017, and while it’s been in the fridge for a lot of that time, there have been months at room temperature and it’s still good.

So, here is the liquid as it first appears: 4 tsp (20 mls) starch + 300 mls cold water. (Don’t worry about seeing a metal whisk in a non-stick pan — it’s almost 40 years old and the coating is in shreds, so it hasn’t been used for food in a good ten years. I only use it for boiled eggs and non-food projects now.)

And here it is when it’s almost at the boil — you can see how much clearer it is. It doesn’t thicken like a white sauce does, but it should be a little thicker than water. Most sites say to aim for a “milky” feel; I think it’s more like a very thin gravy, but then I did double the starch.

Once the starch had boiled for five minutes I covered the pan and left it to cool on the stove. It took about an hour to cool down to the point where I was happy to pour it into a jar.

Because I’m not adding alcohol I had to make sure I used a clean container. I washed an old coffee jar and its plastic lid, rinsed them both with 99% ethanol and left them to dry upside down on an oil column heater. I did consider sterilising the jar in the oven as you do for jam, but I couldn’t find a jar of the right size and shape that had a metal lid (I think I need to buy more Beerenberg jam). I’ll monitor this batch and I’ll let you know if/when it goes off.

In order to apply the starch to the background fabrics, I poured some of the mix into a shallow container and used a sponge roller to saturate the fabric. This isn’t the best container, actually, as it has a gutter around the bottom, but I managed. I think I’ll use a loaf pan or lasagne dish next time.

The fabric was then placed flat on an old towel to dry overnight. I didn’t have any excess starch this time but if I had, it would have been discarded — never put it back into the bottle. I covered the squares with another towel after I found Vanima sitting right next to them when I returned from washing up (no photo, sorry).

The next morning I ironed the fabric. It turned out to be roughly the same stiffness as light card stock (210 gsm for metric countries, no idea how that would translate to American units). It’s not quite as stiff as I’d hoped for but much better than spray starch, and since my appliqué pieces will be backed with fusible web I think they’ll do well. If these were destined to be the appliqué pieces themselves and not background, I’d still want fusible web as I don’t think they are quite stiff enough to resist buckling under zigzag stitch.

One thing I was not prepared for was the amount of shrinkage on the cross-grain. The intended block size was 9″ square, so I had cut the fabric 10.0″ square, allowing 5% shrinkage, but in some cases the shrinkage was closer to 10%, with a couple of the blocks ending up at less than 9.5″ wide. It’s not a disaster by any means, though (thank goodness). The appliqué will still fit, and the design calls for vertical sashes that I haven’t cut yet, so I’ll simply cut them wider and have blocks that are 9″ x 8.5″. However, it’s definitely something to bear in mind for future projects.

Lessons Learned:
1. Doubling the amount of starch in the recipe leads to a good useable stiffness in background fabric.
2. Starch will cause shrinkage, particularly on the cross-grain (weft). Allow at least 10% when cutting blocks.

Paula Storm’s Recipe:
10 ml (2 tsp) cornflour
1 cup (250 ml) water
50 ml vodka (unflavoured)
5 drops essential oil (optional, just for scent)

Combine water and cornflour in a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for five minutes, whisking throughout. Remove from heat. When cool, add vodka and (if desired) essential oil. Mixture should be the consistency of milk — if too thick, add more water (up to 250 ml). [Note: A whisk allows you to keep the liquid moving without it creeping up the sides of the pan.]

# How NOT to stencil on fabric

I’ve been working on a project for Aussie Hero Quilts recently and decided to stencil a design onto fabric, as it wasn’t really suited to appliqué. While the idea was fine, I made three bad choices in the process:

1. I ironed two layers of freezer paper together over a soft ironing surface, which caused the layers to wrinkle.

2. I compounded this error by using water-soluble PVA glue to adhere the design to the freezer paper so that the paper stretched when wet and shrank again when it dried.

3. Instead of using a brush to lay the paint onto the surface gently, I used a sponge and pressed it down on the stencil. (There was supposed to be a photo of the stencil sponge here but for some reason it won’t display properly, no matter how much I tweak the code.)

The result was absolutely awful, as you can see from this photo:

The wrinkled stencil didn’t adhere to the fabric evenly and the pressure from the sponge forced paint out under the stencil, so that instead of a neat design I had a splodgy mess. I had to throw it out (although I did salvage as much of the unpainted fabric as I could).

The freezer paper technique is valid, though – I was much more careful with this star (on a different project) that was also too small for appliqué:

I made sure that the two layers of freezer paper were pressed (rather than ironed) together on a hard surface, and then the design was drawn on top (traced around a small star template) and cut out. The stencil was pressed onto the fabric on the same hard surface and left to cool. The paint was laid onto the edges of the design very gently and allowed to dry before filling in the rest of the design, and there were three coats in total. The edge is about as clear as freezer paper edges get – there are tiny projections that serve to remind us that fabric is not actually flat and has a three-dimensional structure.

If you have a complex design and you don’t want to trace it onto freezer paper, you can use fusible webbing to adhere it instead since it doesn’t distort the paper as PVA glue does (I had temporarily mislaid mine which is why I used glue but given that the doubled freezer paper was already wavy I don’t think it would have improved matters much in this case).

# 1790 Round Gown in Gauze

… or, “How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.”

1790 round gown modelled by Caroline

Before I go any further, I have a piece of advice for anyone who is contemplating making a similar doll dress out of gauze: DON’T DO IT. It was never-ending hassle and frustration and absolutely not worth it. I have come to hate this project and am only posting it because I need closure.

Although this resembles a chemise à la reine from the front it’s not. The chemise is basically a tent dress open at the front, with three drawstrings (neck, under bust and waist) and usually has long sleeves and one or two deep ruffles over the neck and at the hem. This dress has short sleeves and a fitted bodice back with gathers on the back of the skirt.

Pattern:
The pattern I used as a base was the 1790 Open Pelisse and Regency Dress by Thimbles and Acorns, purchased through Pixie Faire. I know I had issues with this pattern when I made it in March but they don’t apply here because I made several modifications for this dress. All the new issues are due to the modifications I made and the fabric I chose.

I wanted to avoid a closure for the bodice because the fabric is so sheer that any snaps or Velcro would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Given that the neck and waist were going to be gathered, I re-drew the pattern, adding about 5″ to the centre front of the gauze overlay pattern piece and cutting one bodice back on the fold. This yielded a neckline of 17″ circumference and a waistline of 26″ which allows the dress to be lowered over the head and arms of a doll (it actually helps if the strings are a little loose so that the arms can be more vertical). The front skirt was a rectangle that matched the bodice width, while the skirt back was both widened and lengthened with a train. Both front and back skirt pieces were allocated a half-inch seam allowance at the waistline to enable a casing to be made (more on that later).

Fabric:

The fabric I used was a gauze-like “muslin” from Lincraft — much looser in weave than the muslin from Spotlight that I have used previously. After a trial run of stitching the back and side pieces to check the pattern (wise decision, as I did need to make an adjustment to the bodice back) I found that it moved around constantly and I knew that I would never be able to cut or sew it without some from of stiffening. I didn’t want to treat the whole 2 metres so I tore off a strip.

Pro-tip: don’t do this with gauze. The weave is too loose and many threads will pull. I managed to straighten out most of the pulls but it was one more hassle I didn’t need.

I knew that my fabric stiffener was pretty strong so I diluted it by half in tap water (1:1) but the gauze ended up much too stiff all the same — I would have been better off diluting it 1:3 or weaker (but see below for more issues). However, it made marking and cutting the gauze a breeze. I used an old rotary cutter blade and paper scissors as I wasn’t sure if it would dull the blades. I rinsed some of the stiffener out before stitching down the gathers on the sleeves and skirt back. Even so, the stiffness affected my wrists so I was only able to stitch for about 1-1½ hours a day (as opposed to 2-3 hours on a normal day — I have issues with my scapho-metacarpal joints in both wrists).

For the sash I used 80 cm of red organza ribbon.

As usual, all stitching was by hand. All seams and seam allowances were stitched with Superior Threads Kimono 100-wt silk thread (no cotton floss in this dress).

Construction:
Bodice

I first stitched the bodice back and side seams together. Given the transparency of the fabric I elected to trim the side back seam allowance to 1/8″ and fold the bodice back seam allowance over it. The raw edge was secured by herringbone stitch. For the shoulder seams (and the side seams at the waist) I did the same trimming of one side but stitched the folded seam allowance down to the dress so that there would be no loose pocket to catch the gathering cord when it was inserted. It looked a little messier because of the pull on the threads, but it had to be done. There are no photos of the seam treatments because white silk thread on white gauze is almost invisible (even with a 5x magnifying lamp I had difficulty seeing the stitches at times).

I faced the neckline with a bias strip to make a casing for a drawstring. Once it was stitched on I made two eyelet holes with a hera at centre front and secured them with white coton à broder (50 wt) from DMC. The facing was narrow enough that I couldn’t make the eyelets big enough for my bodkin but I managed to get around that (see below). I discovered when basting down the turn that I had applied the facing to the wrong side of the bodice, not the right side. Oh well, it doesn’t look too bad and it’s all going to be obscured by the gathers. It was also at this point that I realised I would have to rinse the remaining pieces to remove some stiffening as there was no way I was going to be able to stitch down gathers with the fabric literally as stiff as a board.

Sleeves
I inserted the gathering stitches on the sleeves (both top and bottom) and then rinsed them in cold water. This enabled the gathers to be stitched down more securely. It proved impossible to turn the gathered seam allowances so they were trimmed to 1/8″ and overcast with blanket stitch using coton à broder. The binding was stitched on and then, after the side seams were sewn, turned and basted in place and left until after the hem.

Skirt

I stitched the side seams first and finished the seam allowances with herringbone stitch as for the bodice. For the top inch I stitched the seam allowance down so that it wouldn’t catch the bodkin later on (a wasted effort, as it turned out). Next I started on the hem. I had drafted a half-inch hem allowance (a quarter-inch turned twice). Because of the curve around the train I inserted a gathering stitch at a quarter-inch from the edge. When the hem was turned twice this thread allowed me to ease in the excess without much puckering. A steam iron greatly helped with the turning as it softened the fabric temporarily. I basted the hem in place then left it while I attended to the waistline. The gathering stitch along the top of the skirt back was inserted and then the skirt was gently rinsed. Once I had attached the skirt to the bodice I realised that my original plan of turning it down to make a casing wasn’t going to work for the back as it was all gathered. I didn’t want to make a separate casing so I decided that because the back bodice wasn’t gathered I could get away with only having the drawstrings run from the side seams to centre front. The front skirt seam allowance was turned over the bodice; two eyelets were inserted at centre and then it was stitched down to make a casing (I didn’t want the eyelets to show on the bodice so the waistline has to be tied from the inside, but the skirt has plenty of fullness so it isn’t too fiddly).

Drawstring
I tried to find some very fine cording but was unsuccessful. Instead I made my own from white cotton floss. (Oops — I lied. There is cotton floss in this dress!). The finished waist cords had to be about 20 cm / 8″ long and I wanted them to be four-ply so I cut two lengths of 1.2 metres which gave me a comfortable margin in case twisting took up too much length or the swing point wasn’t exactly in the centre. I folded the cords in half and marked the centre of the doubled length. Then I hooked the floss through a door handle and started twisting. There was a lot of twisting — about ten minutes for each one — and my wrists definitely did not like it. The cords ended up around 9″ so there wasn’t that much excess.

Of course, three days later I found a YouTube video on making rope using a marlinspike — that definitely would have made things a lot easier. Unfortunately that particular design (with the crossbar) isn’t common at all but I’ll keep looking. I’ll probably end up with a normal marlinspike and an improvised crossbar … or basically anything vaguely cylindrical with a neck and a freely moving crossbar.

In order to get the cord through the casings I had to resort to an intermediate line because the cord wouldn’t fit through a needle and the eyelets were too small for a bodkin or safety pin. Instead I threaded a tapestry needle with some leftover basting thread and looped it through the end of the cording. I had to massage the cording through the eyelet but after that it was fairly easy. Once the leading edge of the cord reached the side seams I stitched it down — luckily the twisted end made it easy as I could poke the needle through the loop. Once that was done I trimmed the back bodice and skirt seam allowances to 1/8″ and overcast them as one.

I started to make a drawstring for the neck using the same method, but my starting length was 4 metres and I figured it was going to take forever. I made the very stupid decision to double it before twisting and use a single twist. Those of you who have ever attempted this will know what happened next: as soon as I cut it free it started unrolling so the whole thing was useless. Instead I opted for 3 mm white ribbon — given the previous mistake with the neckline casing it was probably a better choice anyway, as the ribbon is visible at centre front of the bodice.

Washing:
Even though I had rinsed pieces of the gown while working on them, there was still a lot of stiffening in the fabric and I wasn’t able to get it to fit well enough to be confident of placing the petticoat neckline correctly. Since I had some white flannelette to wash I put the finished gown in a lingerie bag and threw it into the hot wash with the fabric. It came out as a tiny ball which took me a while to straighten out but most of the stiffness was gone and I thought it would be fine when it dried. Unfortunately, it wasn’t — it was still very much stiffer than the original gauze. A second wash produced no further improvement. I’m not sure if the stiffener reacted with the fibre itself or was fixed into the fabric when I pressed it, but either way it’s now there to stay.

When it came to pressing, I was able to use my Clover mini iron on the bodice, and I improvised a tiny ham for the sleeves by using an old cotton sock. I also have a miniature sleeve board that I made from a 6″ wooden ruler so I used that for the sleeve bindings. For the skirt I used my normal iron on the standard sleeve board.

Fit:

Although the dress looks a lot better than it deserves, there are still issues that are clear to see. The neckline casing is too thick and bulky and doesn’t sit right. The waist seam is a lot bulkier than I like, too. The skirt back doesn’t flare out as I intended because the front panel is too narrow at the base — I should have made it a trapezoid instead of a rectangle. The back and sleeves are good but they are the pieces I didn’t change (well, I took a quarter inch out of the centre back but that’s all). The petticoat doesn’t sit just inside the bodice as I hoped it would and the margins are clearly visible under the gauze.

All in all the dress is pretty much a failure … but I have learned some important lessons so it wasn’t a waste of time.

Lessons Learned:
1. Never use gauze for this scale of work. Just don’t.
2. Never tear gauze. Cut it instead.
3. Synthetic starch doesn’t wash out completely. If you need to stiffen fabric for clothing (human, animal or doll) use actual starch, preferably starch you make yourself from rice or cornflour.
4. Skirt backs with a train need a trapezoidal skirt front to avoid that dip above the ankles.
5. Casings at neck and waist need to be planned more carefully to ensure that the thickness is kept to a minimum.
6. A cord made from hand-wound floss is feasible for short lengths but if a long cord is needed I need some sort of two-axis spinning device to speed it up.

Notes for future versions:
Yeah, no.

# 1790 Regency Dress

1790 gown with heirloom insert, modelled by Marie-Grace 1

Pattern:

The pattern I used was the 1790 Open Pelisse and Regency Dress by Thimbles and Acorns, purchased through Pixie Faire.

I modified the pattern by removing the gathered overlay from the bodice, inserting an heirloom strip at centre front and adding a lining to the skirt.

Fabric:

For the dress I used the 100% cotton pique that I bought from Australian Needle Arts School last year. It’s a lot stiffer than cotton voile at doll scale and unfortunately it frays easily, but otherwise I was happy with how it handled. I was very pleased to find that the half-metre I bought is enough for two doll dresses, so there will be another white dress somewhere along the line. Because this is a fairly substantial fabric I didn’t use the overlay pattern pieces, just the base. For the lining I used white muslin.

As usual, all stitching was by hand. I used Superior Threads Kimono 100-wt silk thread for the seams and single-strand embroidery floss for the overcasting.

Construction:

Bodice:
I avoided gathers by having a plain bodice but I added lace and ribbon to echo the skirt embellishment. Making the bodice went well with no significant issues. The puffed sleeves are shallower than the ones in the previous dress and the gathers are concentrated into a smaller area of the armscye which made them more fiddly, but they are still very pretty.

Here’s what happens when I don’t pay attention:

I remembered to add 2 mm to the armscye of the bodice lining. This helped enormously and I was able to turn and stitch the lining over the sleeve seams.

The closure is off-centre, as is usual when buttons are used. I planned on using hooks for the closures rather than buttons, but I don’t like using the metal eyes at dolls scale because either they show or the hook has to be set so far back that the opening gapes. Instead I intended to baste a strip of 2 mm white ribbon to the proper right before stitching the bodice neckline … guess who forgot that step. Now I’m undecided between buttons (which will require buttonholes, and I hate making buttonholes at this scale) or snap fasteners.

Skirt:

I’ve wanted to do an heirloom-style insert for ages, even though it’s not really true to the period (it belongs to the late 19th / early 20th century). Rather than a true insert I chose to apply laces and ribbon to a fabric base, so instead of cutting one front skirt on the fold I cut a straight central strip to act as a base and then cut two side-front pieces. In retrospect I should have anticipated the slight shrinkage that happened while stitching all the lace to the base – an extra quarter-inch at each end would have made all the difference. I tried to remedy it by stretching it to fit the side fronts but there is a slight buckling that you can see along the seams. It ended up about 1/8″ short at each end, but the waist seam is covered and the hem is twice-turned so I don’t anticipate any issues.

I used various polyester laces that I’ve had for a while plus some ribbon beading and two puff strips made from the same white muslin that I used for the linings. My original intention was to use pink for the ribbon insert, with a wider strip of ribbon in the same shade on the bodice. The single length of pink ribbon I had was a bit too wide for the beading so I went up to Hobbysew and got what I thought was three pairs of ribbons: light pink, hot pink and pale green, all in 6 and 9 mm widths. Unfortunately the lighting in Hobbysew isn’t daylight spectrum and when I got home I found that the light pinks were slightly different shades. *sigh* The hot pink was too bright for the fabric and the green didn’t thrill me so instead I chose a 6 mm lavender ribbon that I’ve had for years … I could have saved myself the trip if I’d been sensible.

The actual stitching went together without any problems. Because I was making a skirt with a lining (rather than with a gauze overlay) I layered the skirt and lining wrong sides together rather than both sides facing up as directed in step 16 of the instructions. I made sure to overcast each seam as soon as it was done, and I pinned up the hems temporarily so fraying was kept to a minimum.

One thing I didn’t really like was the the two sides are different: the placket on the proper left is turned under but the proper right placket is finished first and then stitched with the raw edge at the bodice seam … I checked the pattern three times because it felt so wrong, but it’s definitely what the pattern says. It made a difference to the tightness of the gathers which I can see but I guess isn’t immediately obvious to the casual viewer. If I make this pattern again I’ll add additional fabric to the proper right so that I can turn the edges and still retain the modesty underlay.

The skirt back pattern is in two pieces in the document and I stuffed up initially by mistaking the joining mark for the point at which the centre back seam stops. I realised this when I came to put the dress on the doll so I had to remedy that– the lining made it a little harder but not impossible (and I had to fix the lining too). This would have been extremely difficult by machine so it’s one point in favour of hand stitching.

I added a small bustle pad, made from scraps of white fabric and some polyester stuffing. For this version I used a long half-oval rather than a rectangle, and made the outer layer larger than the inner, easing it in with not-quite gathers and a couple of pleats (rather like a biscuit quilt unit). The tie is 6 mm cotton twill tape.

Fit:

Unlike the bib-front dress, this bodice is a fixed size and was very loose on the first doll I picked up (Felicity 2, the Pleasant Company version). I tried it on Addy, my largest doll — the bodice circumference was fine but the neckline stood away from the body when the bodice back was aligned (her shoulders are too square) — if I made the neckline fit, the bodice fastening was at an angle and the waistline ballooned out. The colours looked fantastic on her, though.

I compromised with Marie-Grace 1, who has a chest only 1.5 cm smaller than Addy, and it fitted reasonably well, but it’s not great — it’s way too loose around the waistline and the neckline is still a little proud. If I make it again I’ll alter the bodice pattern to fit a particular doll (and no, it won’t be Marie-Grace — I do have other dolls and I need to dress them all).

The length was good and the dress was fairly easy to get on and off. I’m very happy with the way the heirloom strip looks, and I may try another insert later on.

Lessons learned:

1. Any applied trim will have a shortening effect. Plan accordingly.

2. When choosing colours that have to match, make sure you have a daylight spectrum light source to compare the colours.

3. If you are making any changes to the pattern, make a note in the instructions so you don’t forget!

4. Bodice fit is important but a fitted bodice won’t fit most dolls.

Notes for future versions:
1. I really think that the shoulder seams in this pattern are too slanted for most American Girl dolls, who tend to have very square shoulders. I’ll reduce the angle by 1-2mm at the neckline and see how it fits.

2. The bodice circumference is fine for pre-Mattel dolls but not the newer dolls. I could make the bodice a little narrower or add a ribbon at the side seams to pull in the excess fabric.

3. I’ll add another quarter-inch to the proper right bodice back so that I can turn the skirt placket on both sides.

# That’s going to leave a scar …

So, as I think I’ve stated before, I really prefer to do hand stitching at night and leave the machine work for daylight hours (not that I see many of those since my retirement but that’s another story). One of the reasons is that it’s much more relaxing. The other is that I am much more likely to do stupid things, like cutting a strip off the tip of my finger with the rotary cutter.

I make no apologies for it being out of focus — in the two seconds it took to get the picture it bled so much that it dripped onto the recliner (no big deal, it needs a wash anyway).

There was way too much bleeding for a simple plaster to cope with so I found some Combine dressing and cut that down to a reasonable size. Unfortunately I was unable to locate either my medical tape or my gauze/crepe bandages so I did what any quilter would do — I pulled some selvedge strips out of the scrap bag and improvised.

And now I’m off to take some Panadol and go to bed. I hate to think how long it’s going to take me to soak it off in the morning.*

* Twenty minutes.