My 1940’s vintage dressmaking experience

me and lynn

I am often busy answering questions and emails about what you can learn in my sewing classes, but what I don’t often convey is the inspiring side of being in a sewing class. By that I’m not suggesting that I inspire everyone, more that my customers inspire one another. I try to set my classes up so that the social side is easy, I think learning should be fun and chatting and sharing tips and plans with other class members only enhances the experience. As the teacher I’m lucky to have this experience in every class and often feel inspired by the people I teach.

About a year and a half a go Marilyn started coming to my classes, she wanted to learn to make 1940’s style clothing to wear to 1940’s events that she enjoys going to all over the country. Luckily many of the pattern manufacturers today are printing vintage style clothing patterns and Marilyn has made several lovely well fitted items now. She got me interested in making some authentic vintage style clothing. After a bit of research I came across an amazing Ebay shop selling reprints of original vintage patterns. This would be an interesting exercise to step back to dressmaking patterns from the 40’s!! I was like a kid in a candy shop, Vintage pattern shop has over 2000 patterns from all vintage eras to choose from, all of which are copied onto decent weight paper.

With an event coming up locally at Great Central railway I decided to make an outfit and go along wearing it. Lynn another member from the same class also took up the challenge of making a vintage dress and worked through it in class. I chose a dress and coat (never knowing what the weather will be like). I wasn’t sure what to expect when the pattern turned up. I had spotted the patterns were single sized and the measurements written on the front of the pattern were scarily small. The dress pattern a size 14 with a 32″ bust!

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I started work on the dress first. The dress pattern although single sized had recognisable pattern markings. I had a pretty large grade up as well as a full bust adjustment to do which I decided to tackle together. In hindsight now that wasn’t the best decision, it became over complicated and in the end my brain started to hurt. At this point in proceedings I made my first toile, sometimes I think you just need to see the three dimensional dress and access. There were quite dramatic alterations but I was able to tailor the toile to my shape and amend the pattern. I was careful to retain the proportions of the original. I cut a second toile, which fitted well.

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I used a beautiful Liberty tana lawn to make the dress, the dress was reasonably economical on fabric so decadent fabric didn’t make the dress overly expensive.

dress progress 40s

The construction was fairly straight forward for the dress. I planned to be purest about the construction and make it up exactly as the instructions asked. However I overrode that rule fairly early on. The dress instructions suggested bound buttonholes, which although would have looked beautiful and were probably reasonably achievable I needed to weigh up how much time I had left if I wanted to make the coat as well.

The second thing I ignored was the hook and bar fastening down the side of the dress. I believe the zip fastening was invented and being used by the 40’s but perhaps they were not readily available to home sewers. I decided to opt for the cleaner finish and feeling of safety of an invisible zip at the side seam.

belt 40s

Nearing the end of the make I turned my attention to the finishing touches. I was pleased to find that Harlequin are still in business. (It was many years ago I used to have button loops and covered buttons made by them for bespoke wedding dresses). They have a great service offering lots of different sizes and styles of covered buttons and belts. Both of which seemed ideal to complete my dress.

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The jacket pattern was even tinier – size 12 with a bust of 30″ My waist isn’t even that small!

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Inside the envelope of this pattern I found a light grey pattern with a series of circles all over the pieces, no grain lines, virtually no wording, not much to go by! On first view this seemed quite daunting but after a bit of studying I worked out that two random circles in the middle of the pattern joined together were the grain line and although some of the markings didn’t make sense I think I worked out the key ones.

I made the coat in a navy blue wool suiting fabric kindly given to me by one of my customers who had inherited a fair bit of vintage fabric from a neighbour. It seemed truly authentic with a fairly strong smell of moth balls, but after a wash and airing that disappeared. I used a duck egg blue and red paisley lining found on eBay.

Again I had a large grade to do on this, and made my first toile. I discovered a very strange method of joining the side front seams. The seam was joined from the armhole to one of the marks in the normal method, with right sides together. The rest of the seam was over laid and top stitched pulling in a larger seam. On my first toile I stitched it together in a standard way but the side seams didn’t match and pockets weren’t aligned properly. I knew it was necessary to work it out properly.

coat

The top-stitched part of the seam also stitched the pocket bag in place. Quite clever but tricky. The larger seam amount at the lower end of the seam pulled the waist shape in.

I had to cut my own lining pattern because of making alterations to the size and with the way the front seam was constructed I had to play about a bit with making sure my pattern piece would not distort the outside of the coat.

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I felt it was much more important to make bound buttonholes on the coat. The fabric had a slight spring to its quality which made it difficult to press sharp lines. I was happy with the end result.

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The finishing touches are always important to me. So I turned my attention to the accessories, I found vintage earrings and brooch on eBay, seamed tights, duck egg blue and cream shoes that by plain luck matched the colours in my dress and the fabric I bought to make a hat and clutch bag.

I bought this pattern for the hat and made the lower middle style. I made a simple self drafted envelope clutch bag. Then studied u tube for make up and hair tutorials!

The day of the event was beautifully warm. Definitely not coat weather, I took it in the car just in case it changed!

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Me and Lynn had a lovely day, we traveled on the trains feeling very much the part. We perused the vintage markets.

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We watched singers and dancers on various stages.

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I loved these ladies who got up to dance in perfect timing. I just missed the opportunity to take a picture of a couple doing the Lindy hop before this. We saw couples romantically dancing to the tunes being broadcast at Leicester station. It was great to see a real mix of ages and so many people making the effort to dress up in clothing from the era.

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A great fun sewing experience and a fun day out! I am definitely feeling inspired to sew from more original patterns and would love to go to more events like this too.

The great thing about being able to sew your own clothing is the amount of choices you have. Styles, shapes, colours , fabrics all variations are truly possible all it takes is some skills and some time and hopefully a few laughs along the way.

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Julia Claridge

I was about 6 or 7 years old when I had my first go on a sewing machine, it was an old hand crank machine that my mum used with her patients, she was an occupational therapist. I still vividly remember watching with amazement as the tiny perfectly formed stitches were created as I turned the handle. I Grew up in the 70’s and 80’s when buying clothes was less affordable and dressmaking was an answer to updating your wardrobe more regularly. My own mother was a talented dressmaker who made most of my clothes and my sisters clothes as well as a many for herself. I soon got involved with making my clothes, I loved the whole experience of picking out fabrics, trims and a pattern to create a new outfit, then going home to make a new garment or outfit. When it came to leaving school I visited a careers advisor who asked what I wanted to do next. My answer was ..Sew! Read more...

4 Comments

  1. Leila on June 13, 2016 at 2:55 am

    I love 1940s clothing!
    It’s elegant,Class and
    Dignified!..”VERY”…
    Different today sadly!
    Could you please Inform me if you know
    Vintage Dress Maker!
    Highly Appreciated!

    Kind Regards,
    Leila Araujo.

    • Julia Claridge on June 13, 2016 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Leila, sadly I don’t know anyone who does dressmaking, obviously would love to teach you to make your own if you were interested and local to Leicester.

  2. bella lauren on November 28, 2016 at 7:16 am

    You look really gorgeous in this stunning vintage outfit

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