Tuesday, 8 December 2015

irish dance dress - how hard can it be

the backstory
So I am not too sure of the sequence of events, but somewhere in between my saying to my sister, Eithne, that making a dress had to be easier than replacing the skirt of last years costume (her first solo dress), and her saying that it was difficult to find a new dress for her daughter Donna (neither of them saw anything they liked in the secondhand dresses for sale), that the idea of me making the dress came into play, and both of us having the same attitude, how hard can it be..... 

Donna's taste in dresses is relatively restrained.  She seemed to admire certain styles, but equally shied away from actually wearing some she admired, and by a process of elimination we came up with a style she wanted, and the fabric was bought in July (I had a toile made in June).   Her taste is muted, and it was decided a one colour dress, a pure purple, and Donna wanted an opening on the front which was so fiddly to get even!  

I drew up some embroideries, as Donna doesn't like celtic knotwork, and I naively thought I could do it in free-motion embroidery.  I am using the word naive loosely as in truth, I had never done free-motion embroidery as such (I was going to hand embroider originally but all the dresses are machine done now).

So after doing the drawings, I digitised one (another story) and emailed it to a friend far away who has an industrial embroidery machine...... and then I saw how the hand drawn and the machine lines don't work so well together, my hand drawn 'smooth' curves, became rather scratchy looking, I retraced, but it was still slightly off so it was back to the beginning.  I really could not figure it out, and seemingly some dressmakers send the pieces off for embroidery and then make the dress, but I didn't even know how you would approach this, and who to send it to, and its now mid-September so I started looking at home embroidery machines.  This is the type of desperate aunt I am!

I ordered a machine in October, and  I got to start on the machine 3rd November and had roughly 8 days of sewing and embroidering (I work part time) to the 14th.  the first few evenings I went through the machine stitches and got a feel for the machine, and from then on it was 'dress dress dress', and the work room re organised to have a second table for cutting and second sewing machine, as well as the embroidery machine on the main table! 

Day 1 - Samples of patterns stitched out
Day 2 - More samples, and 1 skirt panel embroidered (later changed) 
Day 3 - Front bodice embroidered and began running out of thread, sourced thread and                                                ordered from Dublin to be posted down.
Day 4 - Back bodice embroidered  - but ran out of thread midway (so had to be ditched)  cut                                         linings, and prepped sleeves
Day 5 - Back bodice  and sleeves embroidered
Day 6 - Basted linings, bodice sewn, 1 new skirt panel embroidered
Day 7 - 2nd skirt panel embroidered, net skirt made. basted skirt to dress

making an irish dance dress

The embroidery takes the longest time, after 'setting up' each skirt panels took about 4 hours each, and I also found out that it was better to have a more generous cut to each piece to keep the grains even while hooping.  I downloaded some digitised swirls and joined some to make up the design.  The brath design is also downloaded from urban threads. The embroidery machine is electronic which took some adjusting to, and I had a rather steep learning curve overall.

My sister and niece arrived for the fitting the following evening after work, and I sewed that evening and next morning, fixing the skirt, taking in the bodice (my niece is 12 so her measurements are changing fast!) adding more to the tutu underskirt, drafting and adding collar so they could leave the following day with the nearly finished dress to bring back as the 'bling' had to be bought and the dance teacher to see the dress, and we decided I would go up in a fortnight to help sew the bling.

The dance teacher liked the dress, and suggested HUGE stones to the front.  We had decided on lattices earlier on so my sister made a start on hand sewing that and by the time I arrived 2 weeks later, she had that done, and I started hemming the dress correctly (I had it tacked), and fixing the tutu (net underskirt) and we had Donna walking, hopping, dancing, to make sure the dress was moving correctly.

The large stones were glued in place then sewn, they are quite amazing as they are crystal so really catch the light.  My sister blinged the 'brath' (back cream panel which is held on with poppers) and its stunning as it has fushia and AB (Aurelia Borealis) crystals so it really pops (seriously, its like fairy lights), and then we put a small amount in the neck embroidery, as well as the sleeves, I can only take credit for the neck and sleeve placement and have now decided Eithne has a flair for the bling (I  am rather conservative I have now found out).

So...... its now done-ish, the tutu/underskirt needs an adjustment (extra layers) but that will be done after Christmas.  My niece is very happy with the dress and the dress was ready for the feis and she danced very well in it - and I am thinking of her next dress already!

the details

the dress took about 2 metres of duchese satin (I bought 3 metres, and had to cut an extra back panel and skirt panel), .25m cream gold satin for brath -the satin was so forgiving - only one tiny thread pull after countless rushed pinning and resewing.
the tutu (net underskirt) - 2 m of purple plain net, and 1.5m of shiny net although I now think it should have another layer which would be another .25 or .5 metre
the bodice lining - white handkerchief linen remnant from TWI
the pattern - 1960s ice-skating pattern - bodice used and adapted, sleeves,collar, and skirt own draft.

the machine

Few shops in Ireland sell embroidery machines, and getting to view one was a bother.  I went up to a shop in Dublin (and had phoned ahead) and they could only show me the machine but not demonstrate it (less said about that the better).  I bought my machine over the phone after talking to the Singer shop in Waterford, and although I wasn't able to visit the shop (v far away), they sell a good enough variety of brands for John (owner) to go though the pros and cons (and at this stage had watched shedloads on youtube).

Topaz 25, its probably the more basic Husqvarna embroidery, but it also had the biggest available hoop (280x150mm) in my budget.  I was able to join motifs to get a larger spread (ie front bodice), I still don't fancy my chances on doing a fully aligned border. It is also a sewing machine, and the only thing I didn't like sewing on it were darts.  There is a baste stitch on it which is a dream (which I used a lot, both to fix dress before fitting, and also to attach stabilizer pieces to the dress).  My Singer Excelle has not been put to one side though as I well prefer it for tailoring.

 the verdict........

It was as well in ways it was left as late as my nieces measurements changed a lot from June to September.  I am glad now I got an embroidery machine as its leading me to some other ideas and will expand my sewing.  At the time I felt a bit crazy buying it, but as some extra money came my way in September I justified it that way, that, future dance dresses and having a happy niece.

Donna got two sashes* in 'the big feis' - (as well as other trophys in ard grad), when the 'sash' awards are presented its a full on fanfare affair and at the end the competitors all have to put their cups in the air - and heres a photo of one!

* I am not very au-fait with the process but my sister explains it as similar to premier league, first division, second division etc in football, and that dancers start off as bun-grad (beginners/third division) and progress up to mean grad to ard grad(high grade/first division) and there is a process which I am not sure of which allows you to dance in the championship dance (premier division), which Donna is beginning to qualify for and if you place in these you get sashes...............


  1. I'd say ROCK hard - blimey Eimear - you've totally pulled out all the stops for this one - you must have one very happy niece. I'm staggered by all the effort you've put in and the results are nothing short of phenomenal - you must be so proud and what a lovely thing to do for your family. I'm really impressed by your tenacity - I can be quick to give up and lose sight of the bigger picture when I make mistakes / things don't go exactly to plan. But if I step away, I can see that this is when we learn the most. So very well done :)

    1. Aw, thanks Aimee, in truth, I am living off the reflected glory of the weekends wins. I did get very stressed and my niece thinks I am a very slow worker (no point explaining it to her - she confided in my sister that she will give me a years notice the next time), but as it worked out well in the end, so very little of that matters. I didnt have a chance to walk away (anything else I would have run) and like you, i had to step away, and break it down into smaller jobs and concentrate on each one at a time. however, now that its all done, I am rather blase about it all!! (and embroidering anything I can think of since) - lovin Maudes guest appearances, I am just wondering where she will pop up next

  2. Hi Eimear, the dress is beautiful, your niece looks lovely in it. The embroidery is fabulous, and the entire dress is so much work! You always get more stressed about makes for other people because you want it to be perfect for them and for them to love it!I love the colours, the embroidery and, of course the bling. I can see a lot more embroidery refashions coming from this and your new machine, enjoy!!

  3. What a stunning creation - your niece is very lucky to have such a talented and loving Aunt.

    1. Thank you very much Gillian, well my niece is a fine young lady and well deserving. she adores her dancing and i love that she found a 'passion' as i know at that age i loved making things and when you find that what makes you happy - you are set up. a lot of young irish dancers are like her, when you see them out helping their moms in the grocery store shopping they will be always foot tapping or working out steps in queues - just standing and shuffling feet and doing counts, its really so sweet! and lastly although its competition, there is great sisterhood and genuine support among the dancers

  4. Hi Eimear - the dress looks AMAZING! I am currently making one for my daughter and it has made me feel like a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown for weeks now. Bodice is now done, sleeves on, applique beads and sequins applied (no crystals for this first effort) but now I am wondering what to do with skirt. Could you give any details about how you constructed the underskirt??

    1. hi, I did the skirt like a 50s underskirt...... as I had fixed up a skirt for her dance dress the previous year (blog post -https://theupsew.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/and-now-for-something-completely-different-replacing-an-irish-dancing-dress-skirt-2/) I went looking for my notebook and could only find notes from the first skirt and I made it like this site. I used an aline underskirt, and on top atttached a band of satin with interfacing and onto that I gathered 3inch long strips of net, and onto that I gathered 2 4inch long strips of net. for the purple dress - I cut lengths of net the length I needed, and I think had 4 layers with a shiny one on top and had them 3 times the width of the underskirt which I laid flat and gathered, pinned and top sewed it on. if you want to email me (eimeargreaney@gmail.com) I will draw something out. delighted to know someone else is giving it a go, and it is worth the effort, would love to see what you have done (as I am planning a new dress here, my niece adores this dress so keeps telling me she doesnt need one, but as she is getting taller....she will)

  5. This is an extremely well written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. 
    Lawn Embroidery

    1. Thank you very much! I have another dress to do shortly so I am hoping the learning curve will not be as steep this time

  6. Oh my, what a stunning creation! I would love to see more of these dresses. Have you sewn another one for the next year?

    1. thank you very much, I have! and they are still a lot of work!!!