Very Secret Mysteries, no 6: Making Clothes

Green silk ball dress with silver embroidery

OK, people, let’s drop the pretence that this is a Wednesday series, shall we? I am not, nor ever will be, Havi Brooks, the indisputable [pirate] queen of ritual blogging. Be that as it may, here is the sixth post in the series, which so far has covered knitting, sewing, crochet, embroidery, and quilting. As ever, if you do these crafts I’d love to hear how you got started!

“Making clothes”, of course, is a subset of the “sewing” category. But it is also a distinct craft of its own. (And like so many of these crafts I write about, it’s been far too long since I did any. All to change on foot of the glorious dawn of String Revolution, says you. Quite.)

Making clothes, once you strip away the cultural connotations, is simply about turning planes of woven string into three-dimensional containers for the human body (or, well, canine or equine or whatever, I suppose, if you’re into that sort of thing), usually by sewing of some kind. Two things make the task trickier: (1) the body’s irregular shape, and (2) its inconvenient habits of stretching, shifting, bending, and similar.

To get around the first issue, you manage transitions between areas of more or less fullness with shaping techniques – such as curved or sloped seams, pleats, darts, gathers (or simplest of all: a belt). This shaping can mean you need fastenings – zips, buttons, ties, etc – to allow for dignified entry and exit, or just as a feature in their own right.

To address the second issue, you generally add a little extra room, known as “ease” – a term knitters may recognise – unless you’re working with very stretchy fabric.

That said, stripping away the cultural connotations is a bit daft, really, because cultural connotations are what clothes are all about. (Barber is brilliant on this, by the way, in the book I’m not at all obsessed with, honest, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years.) Clothes are the supreme cultural performance, a complex communication about status, allegiances, preferences, intentions: a language we all understand without even thinking about it.

Now. Pardon me for a moment while I digress to talk semantics. (Because I’ve just spent ages thinking about this, and I’m damned if I’m letting you lot off the hook.)

You’ll notice that this post is about “making clothes”. In fact, what I usually say is dressmaking – a term generally defined as “making garments for women”. Don’t know about you, but when I consider that word, it conjures up quite a particular range of images. Wholesome, full-skirted sun frocks in floral cotton, for instance. Or matching velvet party dresses for matching little girls. Coffee-coloured satin blouses made by dressmakers: perfumed and whiskery ladies who wear their glasses on a chain and never quite straighten up. All of which suggests that the word could do with some political reclamation, at least in my prejudiced head.

Contrast dressmaker with tailor. Tailors are worthy businesspeople; they possess gravitas and command respect and all that good stuff. They have agency. Dressmakers have some agency, maybe, but not much. Their influence does not extend far out into the world. You don’t hear about things being “dressmade to your needs”, do you? (Mind you, they have more going for them than seamstresses, who don’t even get their own verb.)

Actually, I should note that my dressmaking endeavours have so far produced, overwhelmingly, dresses. (My one attempt at trousers so far was an abysmal failure.) And apart from my father, who got a tie in 1994, and a small stuffed-toy frog called Rhadamanthus, whom I kitted out with a formal suit for the Trinity Ball in around 2001, I have only made garments for women. Perhaps I should put my shingle out as a dressmaker who only makes dresses.

That’s my 1996 Trinity Ball dress up there at the top (sorry about the photo quality – it’s a full-length dress, in case you’re wondering). My friend brought me the silk from Beijing, years before I made this. I was experimenting with a curved empire line and dart-free princess-line bodice, and I seem to recall wanting to show as much breast as I dared. I was particularly pleased with the silver hand-embroidery – although I’d originally planned that it would wind all the way around the dress to the hem.

I’d been making my own patterns for several years by then. In fact, I used only a handful of commercial patterns before buying Pattern Drafting for Dressmaking,which convinced me that I could do anything – anything!

Most of the things I made are still hanging around in various wardrobes. For this post, I went hunting and came up with a small selection. Here’s a cotton summer dress from 1993, which I made after trying on something similar that was far beyond my means:

Navy dress with white collar

It didn’t turn out anything like the commercial version, but I loved it dearly nonetheless. (I wonder if it still fits?)

I started another dress later in 1993, but didn’t finish it until the evening of the 1994 Trinity Ball – I remember frantically sewing the hem as I waited for my taxi to arrive:

Black and red brocade dress

This is also made of Asian silk (I think my aunt bought it, but I don’t know where), and it was so scant that I designed the pattern to squeeze every square inch out of the fabric – above-the-knee hem, three-quarter-length sleeves, deep neckline. I had enough scraps left to cover the buttons, but very little else.

I was pretty comfortable with the pattern drafting by this stage. The best fit I ever got was with this blouse, which I made for a wedding in early 1995. The sleeves hung just so, the finishing was beautiful (the patterned buttons all face the same way!), and I was delighted.

Patterned blouse

Pity about the colours. I’m a total summer-colours person, but for some reason I convinced myself for years that I looked best in autumn colours. (I think it was a handy way of giving myself a hard time. Let’s not dwell on it.)

Then just as I got into my stride, I stopped. I altered a silk dress of my grandmother’s for my 21st birthday in 1995. Those disastrous trousers I mentioned were from summer 1997. And as far as I remember, I haven’t sewn any clothes since.

It’s funny – I still think of myself as an enthusiastic dressmaker. Dormant, I suppose. Stirring, perhaps.

3 thoughts on “Very Secret Mysteries, no 6: Making Clothes

  1. Love the semantic discussion! I myself can only claim to be a messmaker. I have long dabbled in sewing (in a self-taught, reinventing-the-wheel, strictly handwork sort of way) but have only made about three actual garments, none of which I actually wear.

  2. YES to the “dressmaker” thing. I love love love that red short 3/4 sleeve silk thing, by the way, love it MADLY, and I WANT ONE.

    Oh, wow, I must get the hang of clothesmaking.

  3. @Tracy: Oh, I made a fair few garments I never wore too! Mostly, though, I seemed to gravitate towards formal wear, possibly because I couldn’t afford to buy the quality I wanted.

    @Ailbhe: It’d be so exciting if you started making clothes!

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