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.



The Dressmaker’s Library: Vintage books on-line

I’ve just discovered two on-line vintage books  you’re sure to enjoy browsing through.  They are complete and available for viewing.  You’re able to print one page at a time but not download the entire book.

“The Mary Brooks Picken Method of Modern Dressmaking” by Mary Brooks Pickens was published in 1925.  Many of the new techniques Mary promotes are now very familiar to the home sewist.  What I found interesting were the chapters dealing with figure types and standard measurements.  The average measurements give some indication that women did have curves and were not at all the wispy, tubular shaped girls we  imagine when we think of the 1920s.  There are many photos of garments, seam finishes and Mary at her sewing machine.

Use this link to get to the on-line book:;cc=hearth;idno=4116088;node=4116088%3A4;view=toc;frm=frameset

“Pattern Drafting, Pattern Grading, Garment Making, Garment Fitting” was written by a professional tailor named Edmund Gurney.  He teaches a method of pattern drafting using standard measurements.  This is done to keep the drafting, as he says, simple.  A method for adjusting the resulting pattern to your own measurements is provided.

Mr. Gurney must have had what I’d consider a sparkling personality.  He intersperses pages of poetry and witty quotes between the technical chapters.  He does draw the reader in.  I especially liked his family history and how one of the earliest ancestors became a tailor.

This book was published in 1939.  The basic shell has the beginnings of what we see as the fitting shell used today.  The main difference I see is that the 1939 fitting shell had an A-line type of skirt.  Today ours is closer to a pencil skirt.

This book is available at:;view=1up;seq=1

1930s Sew-along with Norma: Bias binding instead of facings

Update on my participation in 1930s Sew-along with Norma

Please check out Norma’s blog to see her pretty 1930s skirt.

1930s Sewing Technique Challenge:  How do I finish a neckline and the armholes of a sleeveless dress?

I found the answer to why so many 1930s patterns do not have facing pieces for necklines and armholes on sleeveless garments.  The pattern that inspired my project also does not have any facing pieces in the pattern diagram.  I went through one of my reference books “Paris Frocks At Home” to see what was an acceptable finish.  It turns out that bias binding was often used.  There isn’t a diagram or mention about armhole facings although there are some facings for necklines.  I have decided to use either organza or a poly china silk for the binding once I start sewing with the fashion fabric.

The binding of my copy of “Paris Frocks at Home” is fragile.  I won’t scan it but can photograph the pages I referred to.  I’ve typed the pertinent text in along with close-ups of the illustrations mentioned.

I’ve decided to put the toile together by hand. This gets me into the groove for sewing the dress.  Many of the finishings in the 1930s were done by hand.  In this sense dressmakers in the 1930s were closer to the spirit of haute couture than I previously realized.

Photos of what I’ve done so far follow at the end of the posting.

Continue reading

Draping: The art of patternmaking with fabric

Draping in action

As part of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma I’m going to use draping to create a pattern for a simple 1930 dress and shrug.  The outfit is based on a 1930 Butterick pattern featured in the book “Paris Frocks at Home.”  You can see scans of the outfit in this posting.

The draping technique is very different from what I learned at school.  This will also be the first time in over 15 years that I’m relying exclusively on draping to create the entire pattern.  Three years ago I renewed myself with basic draping techniques when I draped the bodice for the Dirndl Dress.  I’m so excited by the big challenge that lies ahead for recreating the Butterick pattern using an authentic technique from the 1930s.

Norma had wanted to know more about draping.  I also needed to see some YouTube tutorials just to get back into the flow.  So here are two different teachers sharing their techniques with us.  There are as many ways to drape as their are to draft so you will see many differences between bodices and dart placement, dart sizes and so forth.

The tutorial by Tutor Couture shows a technique that is very close to the one I learned in French Fashion Academy.  I think this video gives a good example except that the front bodice looks like it’s pulling a little bit at the side panel.  It should be absolutely smooth.  Since she’s working with a larger size dress form with very straight shoulders there is no neck or shoulder dart.  A smaller dress form with shoulders that slope a little will end up with excess fabric needing shaping into a dart.  Still, I like the simplicity and clarity this video offers as an introduction.

Sten Martin’s tutorials are more freehand in that he does not draw any grainlines or guidelines.  I do not recommend starting out like this unless you have many years of experience.  The value I find in his tutotials is that they motivate you to get started and give a good idea as to how the fabric is manipulated.

I hope this answers questions about what draping is all about.  It’s basically an exicting way to create patterns and experience the behaviors of different fabrics.  To get started, though, I highly recommend the Tutor Couture method first.  When you have more experience and awareness with grain lines then you can try Sten’s approach.

Tutor Couture

Tutor Couture: How to Drape on the Stand, Taster of Lesson 1

Draping tutorials by Sten Martin

1. How to drape a basic pattern, ladies’ front – by bespoke tailor Sten Martin

2. How to drape a basic pattern, ladies’ back – by bespoke tailor Sten Martin

RetroGlam Tutorial:  How to create a dirndl skirt in your size plus sample pattern in Misses Size 4

Using the technique in this tutorial will result in the correct amount of gathers for your own size and body shape.

Part 1: The Dirndl Skirt: Flat Patternmaking using the Basic Skirt Pattern

Part 2: Dirndl Skirt Pattern Diagram for Misses Size 4

Draping the Dirndl Dress


Back bodice drape for the dirndl dress.  Note the corrections needed  The shoulder dart didn’t look good for a sleeveless bodice so the fullness was shifted to a neckline dart.


Front drape of the Dirndl Dress bodice with French darts.  The corrections for the dart are marked in purple on the muslin.


Completed drape of the Dirndl Dress.  The skirt portion was created from a basic sheath flat pattern.  I provide a link to the tutorial plus a pattern for size 4.  You can use the technique for any size.




At long last–Secretary Blouse & Sheath Skirt completed!

Lessons Learned From This Project

It’s been 18 months since I started this project.  Along the way I think I’ve gotten my groove back in terms of patternmaking, sewing, working with synthetics and selecting suitable fabrics.  One of the biggest achievements has been making buttonholes with my sewing machine’s 4-step buttonhole attachment.  Through trial and error I have devised a method that satisfies my needs:  after the buttonhole is made and opened, I then hand sew buttonhole stitches around the completed buttonhole.  The result is very neat with no shredding.

Another sensibility I got back is recognizing when a print fabric is suitable and when it isn’t.  For this blouse the details are better appreciated by the selection of a solid color fabric.

The blouse has a total of six dart tucks that control fullness from the waist to the hipline.  This creates a very neat look when tucked into the blouse as shown in the photos which follow.  There is still, however, quite a bit of blouse to tuck in and I’m not so sure if in future projects I will make a blouse this way again if the intention is for it to be tucked in.  As an over blouse it is very flattering to use the dart tucks.  The provide some shaping but not so much as for the blouse to restrict movement.  I have to say, though, that after making the Donna Blouse with the waist yoke I prefer to design this kind of blouse when the blouse is to be tucked into a skirt or pair of slacks.

The finished zipper is barely noticeable from a distance.  This is the fourth time I’ve sewn a zipper using a running stitch as described in Claire Schaeffer’s “Couture Sewing Techniques.”  It is less noticeable than a pick stitch and also very flexible.

What was most difficult in this project was using synthetic fibers.  The blouse, skirt and lining fabric are all some form of polyester.  The skirt is a poly gabardine, the lining and blouse a poly crepe by the name of “Whipped Cream.”  With natural fibers quite out of my budget I look at this exposure to synthetics as a valuable experience.  If I were given a choice of designing high fashion clothing in luxury fabrics for a very few wealthy women I most likely wouldn’t accept the opportunity.  My heart is with the working women who commute each day to work in offices and are contributing to their family’s upkeep.  These women need practical, simple, adaptable clothing that will not force them to choose between good food on the table or a few very expensive silk and wool dresses in the closet.  By being limited to synthetics I have some insights into what must go on when designers and patternmakers have to design for budget priced line.

Photos and Details


Original 1950s pattern illustration that inspired the outfit (View #1).


The touch of glam is added by using these earrings to complete the outfit.  They are shown against the blouse fabric.  I did not consciously go out seeking them.  They came my way when I went to the variety store to buy paper towels!


3/4 view of the blouse tucked into the sheath skirt.  To accommodate the bulk the blouse I had to include extra ease to the waist band measurement.


Another thing to consider when making a blouse that will be tucked in is to check if the buttons will bulge and create an unattractive outline below the skirt.  I was fortunate that did not happen.


The Donna Blouse with waistline yoke.  The buttons stop slightly above the point where the waistband of the skirt is.  From that point down, the blouse is closed by a hook and eye at the waist and snaps below the waist.  The waistline yoke does not create any bunchiness beneath the skirt.


The dart tucks on the Secretary Blouse create a soft curve from waistline to hip that make it very attractive as an over blouse.  If I were to make this blouse again as a tuck in blouse it would have a waistline yoke. 


Back view of skirt with kickpleat.  The four dart tucks in the back control fullness below the waist and create a nice blousy effect when the blouse is tucked in.


The zipper installed with a running stitch is durable, flexible and strong when sewing it as described in Claire Schaeffer’s “Couture Sewing Techniques.’  It also is barely noticeable.


A smaller hook and eye are used at the end of the waistband.  The larger ones are used at the point where the waistband closes because that is the area of most stress.


Here you can see the placement of the hooks.


One of my favorite parts of completing a project is sewing in the label.


1930s Sew-along with Norma: Draping vs. Flat Patternmaking

For the 1930s Sew-along with Norma things continue to develop at my end. I hope my readers get a glimpse into just how fluid and changeable a project is when you decide to create your own patterns. I have located a very reasonably priced book at Amazon about 1930s draping techniques.

“Draping and Designing with Scissors and Cloth” by Sandra Ericson contains genuine 1930s draping techniques that will help when I create the pattern for the half slip. You can see scans and a description of the book at The Center for Pattern Design. I was delighted to find a used copy at Amazon for $19.95 and have just purchased it.

I want to study this book and the technique because the draping method does not look as complicated as the one I learned in school. If the process and illustrations work out well for the slip, I might try to drape the blouse and/or the skirt. One of the great things about draping is that you actually see how things look as you make the pattern in muslin. Flat patternmaking can be tricky because it’s not always easy to assess how much style ease to add or just how the design will look in the fashion fabric.

With this book I know I’ll be in a better place as far as getting closer to the spirit of the 1930s and learning something new! Stay tuned as this project continues to evolve.

1930s Lingere: Sweet and very simple

I’m at a happy meeting place of many influences that are feeding into the 1930s Sew-Along with Norma.

First, research for my family history project has my Uncle and I immersed in the 1930s newspaper archives of “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” at the Brooklyn Library’s online Brooklyn Newsstand Archives. We are finding lots and lots of advertisements in each edition of the paper that provide great details about women’s clothing and accessories of the 1930s. Second, Carol of By Way of Thanks has been helping with research into the finer details of clothing construction. Tonight she sent me two scans of pattern drafting instructions for 1930s slips.

I found two vintage pattern envelope illustrations for a very simple half slip and full-slip. These illustrations are right in line with the adverts from “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” during the 1930s. The lingerie was simply cut. Most of the decorative touch came through seaming. Lace was sparingly used. Perhaps because prices had to be kept reasonable in terms of manufacture and retail. I notice that half slips had darts and no elastic at the waist. I think they half slips may have been closed at a side seam with snaps or later in the decade with zippers. Spaghetti straps look like the norm on full length slips. I don’t think they had the kind of adjustable straps slips had later in the 1940s and 1950s.

Since neither Carol nor I have found ANYTHING at all about lining skirts or dresses I’ve decided to take the plunge and make a slip. I do not think the lining fabric I bought, a 100% lining weight polyester, will work well on its own as a slip. I’ve read about Bemberg lining which is satiny and medium weight as being a good substitute for real silk. Otherwise I think a poly crepe back satin will also work. I plan to make the slip in navy blue or black. I do not think a white slip will look best under the blouse and skirt fabric.

Here are the pattern envelope scans:

I might try to drape the slip. I have a very lightweight dotted swiss poly-cotton I have no plans for. I think it would work well for the draping. I find when having to make something close fitted like a slip that is as simple as one of these designs, draping is preferable to flat patternmaking and adjusting for contouring. We’ll see once I get started.

I have a few more weeks to work on the sheath skirt. Slowly but surely making progress each weekend. I’m nursing a cold at the moment so will wait until I’m really back in the groove to resume that work. It’s cold and damp here in Brooklyn. Perfect for a hot cup of tea, a good book or a vintage film. How is everyone in their part of the world? Sewing or hibernating?