Cotton Canvas Shift Dress
Posted in Projects on Thursday the 11th October 2018 by Vicki Ormerod
I don't know about you, but when it comes to fabric shopping, I'm like a child in sweet shop. The brighter the colour and the more fun the print, the more likely it is to catch my eye. Even if I was after a plain fabric, I'll go home with prints galore. Lengths of floral or cars or animal themed fabric make it into my basket, without a solid colour in sight. The result is that I have a wardrobe full of fun, homemade clothes, but nothing to coordinate with them. I need plain too. Please tell me I'm not alone?
This time, knowing my tendency and with considerable determination, I opted to review a plain colour fabric. A solid royal blue. It's still a fun colour. Bright, but not over the top. It's a cotton canvas so as you would expect, it is a fairly stiff fabric, which makes it so easy to work with. No slipping. Folds can be pinched into place with less pins required. Maybe not the obvious choice for this fabric, but I knew a shift dress would work well with it. Perfect to wear when I need to give presentations at work, and I can rely on it staying put as I move around.
I have to admit that this fabric still surprised me, but more about that later.
I opted for Butterick Pattern 4386, which I've used a few times before. I may be stuck in a rut with this one as it is, hands down, my favourite pattern to use for work outfits. Hopefully no one notices. I use different fabric and there are enough variations to this pattern to ring the changes. One tip I will give is that, as long as you're not adding the waist sash, it's best to ignore the instructions and fit the zip before you sew up the side seams. Otherwise you end up fitting a zip into a tube. Not an easy process.
Back to the fabric. There was no noticeable shrinkage when I pre-washed the fabric. I line dried it. The fabric length kept its shape and the colour remained strong. It has no stretch. There were no obvious undyed patches on the surface. Lining up the grainlines was a doddle as the grain of the fabric is obvious. I still checked it, but there was less fussing around, making it a good choice for beginners to use.
To cut down on the bulk at the seams and neckline, I used other fabric for the facing and the sleeves. For the neck facing, I dug around in my stash for a floral cotton poplin. It doesn't show when I wear it, but looks so pretty on the hanger and cuts the weight of the neckline.
I need to move my arms around easily in this dress and I wasn't convinced that the sleeves in this fabric would aid movement. Maybe a less narrow sleeve shape and a roomier armhole would have worked, but this pattern design had no excess room for manoeuvring. So instead I went for a Lace Fabric for the sleeves. In retrospect, I might have made them longer to create balance, but there you go. I would never finish anything if I didn't stick to the 80/20 rule.
I finished the armhole seams with cotton binding to stop the cut edge of the lace scratching the delicate skin, under my arm. It worked. I can move and it helps to keep me cool too, with no chaffing. The lace also visually breaks up the solid fabric too. Adding interest.
Progress went well with the dress. It was easy to sew up. I altered the darts a tad as usual, to fit my shape. So easy to add topstitching to the edges to give a crisper finish. Then I tried it on. It fitted. Perfect, but the plain fabric was too much. A certain member of the family, who will remain nameless, pointed out that it reminded him of a nurse's uniform.
He was right. Looking in the mirror, I could see his point. Not the image I was going for. Even worse, the front of the dress looked like an endless wall of blue, going from my neck to my ankles. A wee bit boring, despite the lace sleeves. I needed to add some interest.
Never to be defeated, I dived into my ribbon drawer. First up, I added daisies to the neckline. I had a small length of big daisies and a slightly longer length of small daisies. Neither would cover the front of the neckline by themselves. Instead, I cut them up into individual daisies and mixed the flowers up. I sat out in the garden and spent a glorious, quiet hour, hand stitching all the flowers onto the dress. I'm truly pleased with the result.
The daisies helped, but I needed something else. The obvious choice was to break up the length of the dress with pockets. Plus, who doesn't like pockets in their dresses? Again I searched my trimmings drawer for daisies. I still had a few of the small daisies. To these, I added a different white flower and a red ribbon, on each of the pockets.
It was starting to look less like a uniform. More a pocketful of posies.
Now on to the part about how the fabric surprised me. Whilst working on the darts, I somehow snipped the smallest of holes, below the dart. Grrr! I couldn't ignore it as it was showing up as a light blue/white against the blue of the fabric. The fabric is woven and then dyed blue, which means that the white of the original fabric will show through at the cut edges. Or small accidental snips, in my case.
I mended the hole and used a fabric dye pen, to cover up the white. Not perfect, but it certainly didn't shout out anymore.
Now I'm a big believer in working with a fabric's features, rather than against them. It struck me that I could use it's property of showing the half dyed white, to my advantage. I hadn't tackled the hem yet and I could see a way to use this contrast property.
I knew I wanted to reduce the bulk at the hem. Folded over it might be rigid, which would make the hem stick out and not move as I wanted it to. I couldn't leave the hem unfinished as I'd be creating a trail of blue frayed cotton, wherever I went. I also wanted to add a bit more interest to help the daisies at the neckline and pockets.
So, I frayed the hem.
Fraying is very easy to do. Not as quick an option as you may imagine, if you've never tried. One of my favourite off-the-shelf, linen dresses has a frayed hem and I love it. I knew it would work in the same way for this canvas fabric. Using my existing dress as a template, I sewed a tight zig zag stitch all around the hem. About an inch away from the edge of the bottom of the dress. Next I pulled out the horizontal weft of the fabric. It took a good few hours, or maybe it just felt like it, to pull all the threads out.
Bulk was reduced and it added a shimmer of white to the hem, which will only improve as the dress is worn and washed. I can see that the warp threads will untwist up to my zigzag stitch line. I may be teetering on the fabric nerdy side with this one, but bear with me. I think that some interesting effects could be achieved by pulling lines of threads from the centre of this fabric too, without the strength of the fabric being lost. Certainly something to consider.
The dress is complete. It ticks so many boxes. Easy to move in, but stays in place at the same time. I love the addition of flowers, which I hadn't planned. The pockets are a bonus, of course. The hem gives it a slightly more casual look, while the shape is still business like.
The fabric would be brilliant for bags or cushions, but don't rule out using it for clothes too. I think is will be hard wearing and stand up to the rigours of every day life. A pair of shorts for my eleven year old son would be a good choice. He'd certainly test its strength. The royal blue is a rich colour. I used the partially undyed parts to good effect, but it is perfectly possible to make something without the undyed bits showing. No one needs ever know about this fabric's hidden depths! The fabric comes in a range of different colours, so a versatile choice.
Thanks for reading,
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