When you’re learning to sew, it’s awfully easy to get discouraged. You have wonderful ideas, but in the execution something is lost and the result is shoved in the back of a cupboard.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. My aim in writing this article is to give you three of the best and quickest techniques I know to give your costumes an instant kickstart, without having to spend years perfecting your craft first.
Don’t get me wrong, perfecting your craft is a very worthwhile pursuit and will give you years of pleasure and growth, but here I'm giving you three big head starts that’ll set you on the road to costuming success and attract the maximum number of compliments with the minimum of blood, sweat and tears from you.
This, in short, is the best and simplest of what I’ve learnt in my fifteen years of sewing historical costumes and wedding gowns.
Even if you should leave YWU in the future, you're free to download and keep this Masterclass in full by clicking here.
Enjoy them all - and more importantly, use them all!
It was already Spring, and I was to be married in May. I’d spent the last six months working on costumes for an event that I was determined to make spectacular.
Although I’d only been sewing for five years and making historical costume for twelve months, this wedding and these dresses were not going to look amateur. I was determined. I bought books. I studied fabrics for the best choices. I tried to work out what I would do if I had ten years’ more experience than I really did.
The wedding turned out wonderfully well, even if I say so myself. The parts of the costumes that I did well were spectacular enough even for me, and the parts that didn’t work so well were well hidden.
But the thing that everyone remembers, the one element of those seven costumes that stood out in the guests’ minds and made the whole tableau earn all the superlatives I’d been hoping for, was the easiest thing to make of all.
I put a train on my dress. That’s it. The velvet coats, the embroidery, the corsets I worked so hard to perfect, all of it paled next to my train. And here’s the key as to why: it was big.
Now don't get me wrong: by a train, I don’t mean an extension to the skirt, and I don’t mean a detachable thing that was buttoned to the waist. It wasn’t even made in the same fabric as my dress.
A few weeks before the wedding, I bought four and a half metres of red velvet, cut one end of it into a semicircular shape, lined it and hand-tacked some white feathery trim around the edge. I put a couple of big, clumsy pleats in the top and added four loops of ribbon, sewing four buttons on the back of the shoulders of my corset bodice.
Those fourteen feet of velvet took me an afternoon to make – honestly, you could have done it in your sleep – and had the most extraordinary impact of anything I made all those six months. Guests standing in the pews said that when I passed by them as I proceeded down the aisle, the velvet just kept coming, and coming, and coming. It was magical, they said.
So how does this apply to you?
I’m not telling you to add velvet trains to everything. I’m telling you this story to show you that brilliant sewing is not the be-all and end-all of a costume. One of the simplest and most spectacular ways to make a difference to your costume – and do it without improving your sewing skills one bit - is simply to use plenty of fabric – too much, even!
If the skirt has three panels in your pattern, or three widths of fabric, add an extra one. If you're plus sized, add even more. Pleat it into the waist and watch the "wow" factor increase. Think about it from the other side – some of the most sorry costumes you’ve ever seen, I’ll wager, are those in which the maker skimped on fabric, trying to make a yard or two of bargain-basement stuff look “sumptuous”. You only need Google for cheap gothic clothing and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
Use lots of fabric and your costumes will instantly improve by light years without your sewing having to improve at all. Be generous; the extra cost is well worth it in impact, and inexplicably, everyone will begin to tell you how talented you are...
We all love a bustled skirt, whether you’re a bride, a Goth, or a Victorian wannabe, and everyone seems to think that bustled skirts are terribly complicated to make. All those swags and folds of drapery must be a devil to get right for a beginner… right?
Wrong. If you look inside Victorian skirts held in our museums – and you can do so in books such as Costume in Detail by Nancy Bradfield - you’ll notice that the dressmakers of the Victorian era were more inventive than you might think.
The vast and complicated drapery you see on the outside was often little more than an inventive use of ribbons and loops. Loops were sewn inside the skirt and ribbons, pulled through them and tied in bows, formed the puffs and swags, much like modern curtains or drapes.
The secret is knowing where to put the loops. But don’t worry, there’s even an easy way to do that: all you need is some safety pins, some string and your finished skirt.
Lay your dress on the floor with the wrong side uppermost and pin the safety pins in the types of positions suggested in the diagram (link below) to simulate the loops. (Make sure you pin right though to the outside fabric if it’s lined.) Then thread long ribbons or pieces of string through the safety pins, pull them up so that the dress bunches up, and tie in a bow. Try the dress on and experiment with the length of the ribbons and the placing of the pins until you’re satisfied, and that’s really all there is to it!
Oh – except for three more tips.
Firstly, the shape of the skirt doesn’t need to be complicated – just big! The skirts featured here are little more than huge rectangles, pleated onto a bodice at the waist. One is literally rectangular; the other simply has the bottom edge rounded.
Want to make your bustle really big and puffy? Try lining the skirt with stiff net – the stuff that net petticoats are made of. It’s very cheap and it’ll give your skirt plenty of extra “oomph” that stays in place all day.
If that still isn’t enough and you want extra credit, make a small cushion and stuff it tight. Attach ribbons to two of the corners and tie it around your waist under the skirt for a surprisingly authentic, and even more “poofy”, Victorian bustle!
Want to see how it was done in the two gowns featured here? Let's go behind the scenes...
Photo 1 | Photo 2 | Photo 3 | Photo 4 | Diagram of ribbon and loop placement
Ever tried to make a circular skirt? In fact, have you ever made any skirt that has a curved hem (bottom) edge? I bet you have.
What happened when you came to hem it? You tried to fold the edge over and sew it down, but it ended up all bunchy, and you realised that it was futile even to try to make it smooth because the amount of fabric you were folding over was more than there was room for. What a headache!
Well, here’s a trick I learned some years ago that’ll put all those headaches in the past and give you perfectly smooth hems.
I don’t know why more professionals don’t know this trick, in fact – I was recently astounded to see another sewing “expert” trying to explain how to gather up all that bunchy edge and distribute it evenly and then sew it down somehow – which is no better at all!
Here’s the secret to smooth curved hems with no bunching up.
- Make sure, when you buy fabric for your skirt, that you’re going to have a little more than the pattern says you need.
- When you finish your skirt except for the hem, go back to the pattern and that leftover fabric and cut out just the bottom couple of inches of each piece of the skirt again, so you end up with a series of curved strips.
- Sew these curved strips to the hem of the skirt, right sides together. At each join between strips, fold one edge over and overlap it with the edge of the next strip. (This works a lot better than joining them all together first and then fitting them to the skirt.) Click here for a diagram
- Trim the seam a little and clip triangles out of the seam allowance, as you would on any curved seam.
- Press the stitching on both sides, then turn the strips to the inside of the skirt, press and handsew the edges down – and hey presto, a perfect curved hem!
But wait - there’s more!
Not only will this method give you perfectly smooth hems – there are other benefits too.
Firstly, having this extra bit of fabric weighs the hem down just a little, making it sit nicely and look professional - and that’s a subtle detail that always shows up the quality of your work.
Secondly, this simple method really sets you free to play with hems. You could make the hem as complicated a shape as you like now – just cut some strips in the same shape and you can make the hem perfect. I know a bridal designer who makes wedding dresses with the most beautiful trains, shaped like clover leaves or pointed like church windows. Use your imagination and wow everyone with your new-found skill!