1930s Sew-along with Norma: Contrasting trim needed

Greetings sewistas!  I thought I’d have another love fest with my 1930s dress project this weekend.  The neckline was scheduled to be finished until I cut out the bias binding using the same fabric as the dress.  There was absolutely no way to discern all the work that will go into creating the bias cut binding and the fine hand sewing involved in its application to the neckline and sleeve hem.  So…it’s back to considering another approach.

I’ve decided to look for a solid color fabric that will pick up on the lovely shade of Spring Green in the print of the dress.  This will provide just the right touch at the neckline and sleeve.  What I’m now concerned about is how will I handle the belt.  If I use just the dress fabric for the belt it will look as if the buckle is floating around on the waistline without the belt to hold it together.  What I’m thinking at this point is that perhaps I will use the print fabric for the dress and the solid fabric used for the trim to create a belt that is braided or a combination of both fabrics.  This seems overwhelming to consider right now with all the other details coming into play.  I think if I live with it for awhile it will become more approachable.

So here are the swatches I’ve ordered from FashionFabricsClub.com  for the next phase of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.  The screen shots are from the Fashion Fabrics Club website with the link to the description below each fabric.  I will have to test the weight of each of these against the fashion fabric for the dress.  I’ll also have to be careful that they do not bleed if steam pressed or dampened.  This was an unexpected development but if I get the right shade of green the trim will work very well with the buttons.  We’ll have to see what happens with the belt when the dress is finished.  I think it’s best to leave that until last.

Fashion fabric for dress with vintage glass buckle and buttons.

Swatches on order for bias trimming at neckline and sleeve hem.

Spring Green Crushed Velour

Spring Green Crepe

Aqua Green Crepe

Dark Aqua Green Faille


Adapting to change

  1. Here are some excellent illustrations to add to our library of 1930s inspired styles. Thank you, Carol. Once again your research has turned up some lovely works.



Laura Baldt was the author of Clothing For Women; Selection, Design, Construction; A Practical Manual for School and Home, by Laura I. Baldt. Published in 1916 and reprinted in 1917. Her book can be viewed online at hathitrust.org


In the mid 1930’s in the midst of the Great Depression she was the editor for a newspaper pattern company. These few ads show a very current and chic outlook.

The first two are from 1934 and the last is from 1936.

Laura Baldt also authored pamphlets for the Department of Agriculture that were used in education programs during the Depression.


This “shirtmaker frock” is from 1936 and features the scalloped binding so popular at the time. Scalloped bindings are often seen in Depression era quilts. It’s possible that women in sewing groups sponsored by the federal government liked to show off their skills this way.


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The Seamstress Tag

I picked this up from Emily at Self Assembly Required.  Although this is called “The Seamstress Tag” Emily left it up to other bloggers to pick up on this only if they wanted to.  I prefer participating on this level as it doesn’t feel so heavy and I’m more light hearted about answering the questions.  So here goes…

Who are you?

EmilyAnn Frances May, born in Brooklyn, New York and still living here.  I’m descended from Italian, Sicilian and Galician Jewish  immigrants who settled in the U.S. between 1892 and 1930.

When / Why did you start sewing?

My maternal Grandma Josie was a big influence on me from childhood.  She taught me how to hand sew doll clothes when I was 5 years old.  We cut out circular shapes from tea cups and saucers.  Then slit the back to make the seam and put in a snap for the finished skirt.

Then when I was 6 Grandma Josie and Grandpa Sam bought me a little hand crank sewing machine that made a chain stitch.  Eventually when I was 12 I got my Mom to move her old 1950s Singer Sewing machine up from her room into my room.  I made many mistakes but by age 13 I had made my first dress.

Favourite/Proudest make?

An evening gown made for an exam when I was in design school.  It was the first strapless bodice I’d made.  The teacher gave me scraps of a silk brocade.  He had sunburst pleated material left over that I begged him for.  We used it to create the skirt and a dramatic cape.

I think the proudest part of the history of this garment was when I finally released it from my portfolio.  I knew I did not like the business side of the garment center and that I was not going to do this professionally after 2 years of an unsatisfying job.  I met a young woman who was a performance artist at poetry readings and also had a rock band.  She could fit the gown and some other pieces I made to a “T”.  It was as if everything was waiting for her.  When she put the gown on I knew it was meant for her and I released it.  Knowing someone actually made use of something I’d designed and made still gives me a high.

More recently, I had made a Dirndl Dress in 2013 out of quilting cotton.  I put an ad that the dress was up for a new home.  A woman contacted me who knew of a young teacher in Manhattan that she wanted to give such a dress to.  It turned out once more that this woman, unknown to me, was a perfect fit and match to the style.  I was happy to pass the dress on to someone so worthy as a teacher who had deeply impressed the daughter of the woman who answered the ad.  This dress was made for my new portfolio but I wasn’t 100% enthusiastic about the results of using quilting cotton.

Disastrous make?

Without a doubt the mess I made of a dress while in design school.  I used purple silk velvet and eggplant colored silk satin.  At the time everyone in class was cutting on the bias and I got caught up in the enthusiasm.  I didn’t realize how much the dress would stretch from the weight of the velvet.  It ended up needing so many alterations it was too tight to wear.  All the intricate seaming I’d envisioned stretched down too far.  The hipline sash of satin that I’d sewn into the dress ended up at an unflattering point right above the backside.

Favourite place for fabric shopping?

Nowadays I have to shop online.  Brooklyn has no old school style fabric shops in my area.  In Manhattan there are still a few shops but they’re very expensive.

Most used pattern?

My own.  But when I used commercial patterns my favorites were Vogue Paris Originals.  I also loved any patterns by Betsy Johnson.

Most dreaded sewing task?

Machine or hand made buttonholes.

Favourite sewing task?

Cutting and stitching up the toile and refining the fit.  The muslin toile is the purest form of expression for the creative vision.

Favourite sewing entertainment?

I prefer to have it quiet most of the time.  If I’m in the mood, I’ll listen to “The Moth Radio Hour” on PBS.  It’s a show where people tell funny, touching or shocking stories of events that have changed their lives.

Printed or PDF patterns?

Hand drafted.

What sewing machine do you use?

A Janome 3/4 machine I’ve nicknamed “Kitty”.

Any other hobbies?

Cultivating the “Simple Abundance” path and lifestyle.
1:6 Scale sewing for fashion dolls.
Family history-collecting our stories and preserving our memories.


1930s Sew-along with Norma: Buckle and buttons arrived


Thank you Norma, for encouraging me to get the green glass buckle for the 1930s Sew Along.   The buttons finally arrived and I was knocked out by what a great match they are to the buckle.  Both are Czech glass and deemed vintage by the respective Etsy sellers.

I had to wait for the buttons to turn up as my package acceptance service kept telling me.  Two weeks had gone by and even though the post office got a signature for the delivery the envelope was nowhere to be found.  Finally, the little envelope with the tiny box containing the buttons “turned up” after I showed up to find out what was wrong.  It’s a good thing the seller wrapped these buttons so well.  The envelope had fallen into a space between the wall and a table where deliveries are stacked up.

The buckle dates to the 1950s but for some reason it reminds me of Art Deco.  It might be the grooves in the circular shape of the buckle that adds to that impression.  The buttons could not be dated but I think these, too, are 1950s or perhaps 1940s.  Together I think these will add a nice touch to the dress.

The buckle and buttons are weighty.  I have to figure out how to strengthen the rayon challis so that it will work up into a good belt for the dress.  I have a belt making kit with everything I need but I have to think about how to back and stabilize the rayon challis.  Since we’re going for 1930s techniques I can’t rely on a fusible.  I’ll need to see what kinds of under linings or interfacings were used in that time period.



1930s Sew-along with Norma: Zipper installation completed

Update on my progress in the 1930s Sew-along with Norma…Hello everyone!  Here’s the latest development in my 1930s inspired dress.  While the construction details do not always reflect 1930s techniques, the end goal of a comfortable garment that can  be put on and off easily is working out.  I used an old fashioned slot application for the zipper that worked very well with the rayon challis.  Some of this is due to the preliminary work I did which includes:

  1. Sewing lace hem tape to the wrong side of the fabric inside the seam allowance on each side of center back for the entire length of the zipper.
  2. Allowing 3/4″ seam allowance because rayon challis shreds.
  3. Finishing the seam allowances off with hand overcasting that begins slightly deeper inside the seam allowance than is usually used.
  4. Using Claire Shaeffer’s recommendation to apply a couture touch by using a small running stitch instead of a pick stitch.  The result is a softer appearance in the finished welts on each size of the zipper opening.
  5. I hand overcast the edge of the zipper to the edge of the seam.  This has greatly reduced shredding and gives the zipper a secure anchor on this very shifty fabric.
  6. I found a size 9 sharp hand sewing needle worked well for the hand overcasting stitches.  I used a size 6 sharp in sewing the running stitches for the zipper.  I’m still in the process of learning which size is best for which kind of stitch.  This dress is a learn-as-you-go experience.

The most time consuming part of the construction is the hand overcasting of seams which was used by home sewistas in the 1930s.  This finish is also used in haute couture so in some ways this experience is taking me closer to the spirit of couture.  Hand overcasting doesn’t come easily to me but I think I want to develop this skill.  The finish works well for fabrics like rayon challis.  So it will be in my interests to make it work–I like the look rayon challis creates so I must treat it in ways that bring out the best characteristics of the fabric.

Progress shown in photos…

Sharps and Betweens are turning out to be the kinds of hand sewing needles that work best for me.  Having the thread conditioned makes threading the tiny eye of these needles much easier.

Here you can see the hand overcasting stitches and the running stitch used for the zipper installation.

This is a close-up of the couture slot application zipper.  The stitches are run 1/4″ in from the seam on both sides.  The welt is visible but the stitches aren’t.  Invisible zippers tend to be stiff so I’m not sure they’d work with a delicate and moveable fabric like rayon challis.  I’m very pleased that the 22″ nylon zipper I used has worked out well.









1930s Sew-along with Norma: Conditioning basting and hand sewing threads


In  Courture Sewing Techniques Claire Schaeffer describes how the seamstresses who work for the Paris couture houses always use waxed thread when hand sewing.  Each strand is cut a particular way, run through beeswax and then ironed.  The heat from the iron melts the wax and ensures the thread is evenly coated.  The result is an abosultely straight strand of thread that will rarely, if ever, knot or tangle when doing fine hand sewing.

I am not sure if this technique was in use among the home sewistas of the 1930s but since it is used in fine dressmaking I have adapted this technique to working on my dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.  The rayon challis I’m using requires much TLC so I thought it would be good to condition not only the hand sewing thread but the basting thread, too.

What follows is an adaptation of the technique Claire describes.  In all honesty I’m not down to the level of granularity she presents in her book.  I simply do not have the time to wax and press one strand of thread at a time.  I also don’t have the time to examine the ends of each thread to make sure I’m putting the best end through the eye of the needle.  I’m limited to an hour or two of sewing on the weekends so expediency is what I go for.  While this isn’t true to the couture technique it’s working well for me so far.  Maybe it will for you, too.  As in all things, I believe each sewista eventually works up her own repertoire and techniques.  So go with what works best for you, the fabric, the pattern,your creative vision and the time available.

Conditioning the threads

I found that beeswax strengthens the sewing thread which is a good thing when using it to sew a seam.  For basting thread I learned, by trial and error, that using a new dryer strip was good enough.  Upon pressing the basting thread it was rendered soft, straight and easy to remove from the fashion fabric.  I always use mercerized cotton thread for basting since poly/cotton thread is much finer and harder to pick out of the seams.


1.  Organize your supplies.:  cotton basting thread, a new dryer sheet, your sewing thread, beeswax, tape measure and a small sharp scissor.  Measure out strands of each thread so that each measures between 18-26″.  The important thing is to keep the thread running in the same direction.  Place each cut end next to the other.  According to Claire, the end that is cut is the best one to put through the eye of the needle.


2  After cutting many strands of thread, knot them at the top.  Here you see the basting thread ready to be pulled through the dryer strip.  This step replaces conditioning one strand at a time.  I find that running the threads through the strip 2-3 times gets them very soft and manageable.


3.  The best way to condition the basting threads is to enclose them within the dryer strip and then pull them through.


4.  Cut the ends of the basting threads on an angle.  This will make threading the hand sewing needle easier.


5.  Do the same thing for your sewing thread except run it through the beeswax 1-2 times.


6.  Iron the basting and sewing threads from the top where the knot is down to the end.  Do not iron back and forth.  Go in one direction, top to bottom until the threads are straight.


7.  Threads after conditioning and pressing.


8.  I thought about winding the threads around a piece of cardboard and storing them with the other supplies for the dress.  But then it occurred to me that the waved thread might need ironing again.  So I came up with the idea of pinning the threads to a roll of toilet paper.  This worked out because when I take the knotted strands off, they are straight and do not have any dents or need further ironing.

Place a pin in the knot and then insert the pin into the roll.


9.  The conditioned threads can now be safely stored until ready to use.

So far the sewing is going very well.  I’m finding the waxed thread is behaving very well as I use it to hand overcast the seams of the rayon challis dress.  The big test will come when I hand sew the zipper into place.  I’m starting this part of the construction tonight.  The next posting will be an update on how that process is working out.

1930s Sew-along with Norma: Facings, interfacings and seam finishes

I was apartment bound this weekend since the weather was chillyand rainy.  I have a cold coming on so staying warm, rested and of a positive outlook was the top priority.  Between cups of tea and naps I worked on my dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.

The considerations I had to go over before sewing commenced had to do with the kinds of interfacing, facing, and seam finishes to use.  Rayon challis is a fabric with a lovely drape.  I’ve read that it does not work well with interfacings and any kind of structure.  But experience is teaching me this might not always be the case.  I found an interfacing that is a blend of rayon and poly that is working our very well.  The areas where the interfacing are do not look stiff or have any pulls.  The combination is just right as you’ll see in the photos.

Rayon challis is also a very shifty fabric.  It will stretch easily if not handled with care.  For this reason I have hand stitched a 1/4″ cotton stay tape around the neckline and the hem of the sleeve.  I also plan to follow Claire Schaeffer’s couture technique for hand stitching rows of easing thread on a sleeve cap.  I think I will make a tutorial for that since it’s slightly different from the usual way of putting in the ease stitching on the cap.

I am not using tear away or water soluble stabilizer since  I’ve also discovered that using a double strand of mercerized cotton basting thread helps hold the stitching line in place.  Using lots of pins and basting before stitching are worth the extra time as it will give greater control when sewing.

Conditioning the basting and sewing thread has also been very helpful.  I will post more about this in a week or so.  I came up with a simplified version of conditioning the thread because in all honesty I cannot follow Claire Schaeffer’s instructions for  waxing and pressing one strand at a time.  What I’ve come up with might not be exactly as her book instructs because it’s a shortcut but the resulting thread is working as she describes.  As I use the thread in the next sewing session I’ll get a better idea if my “speedy thread conditioning” approach continues to work.

The center back seam will need more stabilizing than the stay tape will give.  Rayon challis does not respond well to steam pressing so a fusible is not something I want to use.  I washed and softened and steam pressed a length of lace hem tape that provides the right support and stabilization needed.  I’m finding that rayon challis requires different treatment in each part of the garment.  For this reason I may have to use different seam finishes on different parts of the garment.

On the sleeve dart I  had to trim the dart after machine stitching.  It has a depth of 3″ at the hem and would be too bulky if left untrimmed.  I used a hand overcasting stitch. to finish the trimmed dart.  Since rayon shreds a lot I made the stitches about 1/4″ deep.  Overcasting is usually 1/8″ from the edge but with a fabric that shreds this much I’d rather go inwards a little more. I’ve recently learned that pinking shears were available in the 1930s so I will use this finish when needed.

The interfacing is on the inside and the stay tape on the right side because I plan to enclose the sleeve hem and neckline seam under the bias binding that will finish them on the right side.  I’ll show how the process works once I start that point of the construction.

And now onto the photos…


Note:  The difference between the end of the dart and where the apex is below it.  This is the first time I’ve used a dart running from the center of the front shoulder down along the princess line.  I found it looks best when the dart legs end exactly 1″ above the apex.