The Start Of A Sewalong: Sketching And Conceptualizing A Two Piece Cocktail Dress.
Brainstorming: The Design Idea
This week marks the beginning of a new project... something I’ve been mulling over for a while now and finally found the right fabric (and the time!) to bring to life. Unlike the functional oriented work I usually focus on, this project involves a dressier design. I’ve always been a fan of two piece cocktail/evening dresses but never actually made one for myself, partly because I never came across the right fabric with the appropriate structure and color scheme for the very specific design I had in mind. That being said, I may be a little out of practice but let’s see how the process unfolds. Recently, the perfect material fell into my lap as I was browsing the fabric store for something completely unrelated. In a number of tutorials to follow, I’ll be going back to basics and retracing my steps from the beginning of a design idea to the eclectic construction process in between. Hopefully, you can find some inspiration in the process, or maybe just entertain yourself on the journey as I’ll take a fashion design concept from paper to finished product.
First thing’s first, the design process for me usually starts one of two ways. I get an idea (or a partial idea) in my head which is then followed by a search for the right fabrics and trims. Vice versa, I may be inspired by a unique fabric, texture, color combination or simple trim first before jumping into the design process. Regardless of which it is, my mind then goes on an analytical roller coaster of working out all the details, from fit to sewing patterns to how the garment will function and all the little details in between.
In this instance, I fell in love with the fabric first, including both the print and its medium weight, structured quality. I’ve always loved those 50’s inspired silhouettes and thought this particular fabric was perfect for a vintage inspired look with a modern twist. Relying on the fabric’s unique drape, a high waist skirt with deep box pleats would hold its fullness and structure, creating the perfect look for a two piece cocktail dress.
While I bought the fabric with this skirt design in mind, I couldn’t wrap my mind around combining it with a top that may not necessarily fit stylistically. A full high waist skirt works well in combination with a crop top or tucked in blouse. However, since this is an evening wear look, a tucked in blouse or a contrast fabric crop top may not do the skirt justice, or even risk downgrading the whole look (in my head at least). Luckily, I bought just enough yardage to have some extra left over for the perfect little crop top!
Planning The Pattern Drafting Process
Before getting to the sketching portion, I like to make sure that before I move forward, the design is doable and within my means as far as the construction itself and the tools available to me. Since I’ll be working completely from scratch, one of the main questions to consider is what basic sewing patterns can I use to generate the new patterns for the design at hand? The truth is, I’ve never actually worked with/from commercial sewing patterns (available at the fabric store). I have to admit, I find them to be a bit unnecessarily confusing, and I try to keep things as simple as I can when possible. Alternatively, I've collected a range of basic dress, blouse, skirt and pant patterns from college and various projects over the years, which are now altered to fit my own size. I'll be using one of them as a starting point in this process. You may not necessarily be able to size patterns as a beginner, but I suggest you save and reuse simple dress or blouse patterns you find best suitable with your body type. You can then use them as a blue print to generate other sewing patterns as you become a more experienced patternmaker.
For this two piece design I’ll be sewing two separates which means I have one of two choices: I could use a separate basic bodice pattern and a separate basic skirt pattern, or I can use a form fitted basic dress pattern (with all darts included) to separate into the two pieces desired. I personally prefer the latter- Using a dress pattern allows you to draft both top and bottom pieces without worrying about how the two will fit together later on. A dress pattern also helps to visualize the transition from waist to hip which can help narrow down desired fit and other design specifications. As you’ll see in the patterning tutorials to follow, I’ll be separating the dress pattern into two pieces along the waistline. These two separate pieces will serve as basic blouse and basic skirt. Each pattern piece will then be manipulated individually to create the final design. I can already tell the skirt box pleats will be a bit more time consuming and require more pattern paper *making mental note*.
Merging The Design Idea Into A Functional Garment
The truth is, I never sketch out a design anymore until I have figured out the hows and whats of the garment’s eventual functionality. If I still don’t know where the zipper goes, it makes no sense for me to draw a finished sketch. Why? Well, for me personally, a design can easily change based on the location of function-based additions such as zippers, clasps, pockets, etc. The final design is also influenced by clean finishing techniques applied in the sewing process which can often end up altering the design lines quite a bit. All of these factors come together almost instantly after I get the design idea. For me, designing analytically has become an automated process. I can’t think of a design concept without putting the construction process together in my head. As a beginner, you may not think of everything up front, the way I do. The more you sew however, you’ll find that covering all your basis at the design/conceptualizing stage will save you some time and a bit of drama when putting the garment together. It comes with practice though so don’t put too much pressure on yourself, especially if you are designing and sewing something from scratch!
Fasteners, zippers and trims almost always come into a play when designing a woven (non-stretch) garment. The most important question to ask yourself is how will I get into the clothing item once it is completed? Even if you are designing a loose fitted clothing item, you still need to make sure the neckline is large enough to accommodate it being slipped on and off over the head without creating discomfort. I speak from experience as I’m guilty of making this mistake in my own learning process. In an attempt to skip sewing zippers, I’ve often designed garments that were loosely fitted. That then presented another design challenge as I was always confined by a lower neckline in order for the garment to be taken on and off easily.
That being said, there are quite a bit of technical aspects to consider when designing a fully functional garment. Before putting the design down on paper, it is good practice to work out how some of these functional aspects will come together into the overall design. Of course, you don’t need to have it all figured out from the start, but deciding on basic functional aspects such as how will you get into the garment and where the zipper goes are essential in the initial brainstorming process.
Due to the tailored look in this two piece set, both the skirt and crop top will need closures that won’t visually take away from the clean design lines. I know I won’t be able to skip sewing zippers as both pieces are form fitted at the waist. For that reason, I’ll add an invisible zipper into the side seams of both crop top and skirt. The zipper will blend into the seam without visually altering the design.
Considering Clean Finishing Techniques
This satin jacquard fabric, while beautiful, is highly fraying so I know I’ll have to be very careful in handling it during the sewing process. In addition, choosing the right finishing techniques to effectively keep the fraying edges contained has to be a priority. Since the crop top is a classically tailored style, it will benefit most from being fully lined. Not only will the lining contain all fraying edges, but it will also give the blouse structure and increased durability over time. As far as the skirt, all its top edges will be contained into the waistband which means I don’t have to worry about them fraying out of control. The side seam allowance edges, will work best with a dense serging (overlock) stitch. If you don’t have a serging machine and are working with a high fraying fabric, using a zig zag stitch on your home sewing machine instead, programming it to the densest and longest setting available.
While lining is regarded as a high quality finish, it is not appropriate as a finishing techniques for all designs. In the case of a full pleated skirt like the one in this instance, it’s important to consider bulkiness and how the addition of lining may affect the final fit. This fabric is medium to heavy weight and the end design features deep box pleats on both front and back for added fullness. The addition of the deep pleating means that the waistband will have to house a multitude of fabric folds. Considering these factors, the potential use of lining in this case will not only add unwanted thickness and bulk to the waistband area, it will also weigh down the drape and fit of the skirt- so no lining for the box pleat skirt! However, in keeping with my love for on-seam pockets, I will be adding a contrast color (pink!) pocket to the skirt’s side seam (the side that doesn’t house the invisible zipper). This is actually a fairly easy process which you’ll find in the steps to come. I always prefer using contrast scrap fabric for the pocket bag as it creates a unique design feature, plus you get to use up all those fabric scraps.
Sketching The Final Design In Color
Now that all the construction planning and logistics are out of the way, the design finally comes together in a colored sketch. Drawing a detailed final sketch allows you to really see the design develop visually which in terms, helps nail down the concept even further. I find that aside from just thinking of a design idea in my head, putting it down on paper allows for additional fit and design factors not previously considered to come to light. While you can visualize a design being short or long, sketching it out can help you narrow down exactly how short or how long the final garment should be. Other aspects of the design process such as fit, sleeve length, and neckline depth (to name just a few) can also became much clearer in the sketching process.
Before I start the final sketch, I usually test out a rendition of the fabric(s) and skin tone using various techniques and color combinations. It's good practice to sample the markers (or whatever media you are using) separately before applying color to the final sketch. If possible, I recommend sketching next to the actual fabric as it will help you capture the appropriate drape, print, colors and fit. Drawing fabric movement, of course, comes with lots of practice and experience over time so don’t feel disappointed if those first few attempts don’t come out as well as you envision them. Just keep practicing! Once the final sketch is complete, I add some quick design/construction notes and attach fabric swatches to reference later. It sort of helps keep everything organized and makes shopping for supplies much easier.
So you know how the garment will function, you know what patterns you'll draft the design from, you've figured out most clean finishing techniques you'll be using, and you now have a visual sketch with notes and fabric swatches to work from. As a last step, gather all supplies and trims before finally starting the construction process. Stay tuned to see this two-piece cocktail dress come alive in the sewing and pattern drafting tutorials to come!
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Designer by trade and dressmaker at heart. I spend most of my days obsessing over new fabrics and daydreaming new ideas.
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