Harley helps.

Harley helps.
Harley, my hard-working sewing assistant.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

completed: Alabama Chanin fitted dress

Yeah, I can't believe I'm saying that either! It's going to be a long post, so here we go.

Design choices


  • Size and alterations: Straight size medium, with neckline raised a few inches and made into a scoop neck; the original v-neck is really deep
  • Fabric and thread: Alabama Chanin medium-weight cotton jersey — top layer in Sand, bottom layer in Dark Grey (only Dark Grey is currently available on their site) — and red craft/button thread
  • Stencil: Anna's Garden
  • Paint: Tulip fabric paint in Black, watered down and applied with an airbrush
  • Embellishment: Outside reverse applique -- in which you stitch slightly outside each shape and then cut out the shape exactly on the lines
  • Stitch type: Straight stitch for outlining and construction, Cretan stitch for binding
Here's how it looks on me:



Hanging up:



I picked the color scheme after seeing it in a sample book at the two-hour workshop in New York last year. (Highly recommend either ordering the color cards or checking out their sample cards in person if you're interested in doing a big project.) Someone at the workshop pointed out that high-contrast colors tend to work really well in Alabama Chanin patterns; I tend to agree.

Once again, I need to sing the praises of Alabama Chanin's medium-weight organic cotton. It's by far the best cotton I've ever worked with — strong, stable, and extremely soft. I've bought cheaper cotton from other sources and nothing compares. Buy the cheapie stuff for muslins (or use old t-shirts) and save your hard-earned cashola for their 20% off sales.


The #1 question people ask: How long did it take?


Eight months, give or take. I started back in December 2015, with a deadline of MPB Day, and worked on it pretty steadily, except for a three-week trip to the Netherlands (where I was still able to knock out a few shapes). Each panel took four to six weeks; final construction and binding took just over a week.

I'll spare you the list of stuff we binge-watched while I worked on this, but let me say that we watched all seven seasons of Buffy just about twice. (We have long, boring winters in New England.)

The #2 question: Why would you hand-stitch an entire garment?


As I was telling Peter at MPB Day, my first thought when I first heard about the Alabama Chanin method of hand-stitching entire garments was, "Is she crazy? We have machines!"

But I fell in love with the aesthetic — hand-sewn garments look really different from machine-sewn. The seams are slightly puckered; the edges are raw; you'll wind up with lots and lots of imperfections. And that's okay!

(As Natalie said during the two-hour workshop, at some point in the reverse appliqué process, you will screw up and cut through the back layer of fabric. What should you do to fix it? "I don't know," she said, "call attention to it. Sew a bead on it or something." Words to live by.)

I'm gonna fix that hem, though.
Also, I found hand-stitching garments to be really mellow and relaxing. I missed it when I wasn't able to do it (I'm missing it now that this project is done!), and it's portable entertainment on planes/trains/buses. And when keeping an eye on convalescing cats.

Process


If you've read the books, you know there are five steps to the process:
  • Prepping/cutting
  • Stenciling
  • Embellishing
  • Construction
  • Binding
I found Natalie's Craftsy class to be really helpful when it came to stitching and cutting. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available anymore, so I've included some of her tips below.

Prepping/cutting


I made a muslin first in a size medium to check the fit. To cut the final dress pieces, I laid the top-layer piece on top of the bottom-layer piece to make sure they matched up and used my trusty magnifying glass to check the grain. I then chalked around the pattern pieces, removed them, and then cut out each fabric piece with scissors.

The book recommends basting around the neckline and armholes. I suggest basting (or at least pinning) at the sides too, because the fabric tends to shift as you work your way down.

Stenciling


Whoo, this was tough. I did some test swatches (and even a test dress), but had a really hard time keeping the paint from bleeding outside the lines. Eventually I figured out that the best ratio was half fabric paint to half water — but it still came out blotchy and uneven. Maybe real airbrush paint is the way to go.



What I learned:
  • Tape the stencil on top of the fabric with just a few pieces of painter's tape, and use something very flat (like kraft paper) underneath. That way it's easy to pull up when you're done.
  • Push down on the airbrush trigger (not up, jeez)
  • After airbrushing, blot the excess paint with a paper towel, then immediately (gently) pull the stencil up and away from the fabric. Hang it right away on a towel rack.

Embellishment


In her Craftsy class, Natalie recommends using longer stitches, taking them two at a time. That saved my sanity! I also found that if the thread is twisted when you first pull it through, you can tug on the knotted end to straighten it out.

I found it really difficult to stitch outside the lines of each shape without stitching really close to (or on top of) other shapes. Haven't figured out how to address this yet. Also, the top layer seemed to pucker and contract a bit as I went. (It looks this way in some pieces in the books too, though.) This could affect the sizing, I imagine.

Cutting the shapes out was the most difficult part. I used a brand-new pair of Fiskars embroidery scissors and still had trouble getting really clean edges, especially on corners. I welcome any tips — I might email Alabama to see if they have any! Also, Natalie had one great tip from the Craftsy class: Don't go in with the scissor tips down. Hold the fabric horizontally and slightly pull the two layers of fabric apart before making a small snip horizontally in the top layer. You're less likely to cut through the bottom layer of fabric that way.

front
reverse


Construction


Pretty straightforward. As with all AC projects, I did two rows of straight stitching on each seam to close up any gaps, taking as small stitches as possible.

Because the top layer contracted a bit as I went, I first outlined the seam edge of the "real" top layer with pins, then used that as a guide to pin the two top layers right sides together before stitching. (I wish I had a picture so that would make more sense!)



Binding


I used this tutorial for the Cretan stitch. Almost have the hang of it!



Finishing


After construction, I pressed the whole thing — especially the binding — then washed it on the delicate cycle in a washbag. I don't know if the pressing did anything, but I thought I read somewhere that it "sets" the thread? Even on knit fabric? Y/N?

I've washed it twice now and so far it seems to be holding up. It dries pretty much overnight!

What it's like to wear


The book suggests going with a snug fit, because over time the jersey will relax and conform to your body. I agree — at first it felt too snug, but it's already loosened up a lot. I might even need to do some restitching because it feels too loose up top!

I've seen some reviewers on PR say that it's not comfortable having the knots against their skin. It doesn't really bother me, but you can feel it. I guess you could always wear a slip or a tank top underneath.

I found it to be surprisingly comfortable in hot weather (even in a NY heatwave), but it's heavy enough that I think it would work for fall or winter, too.

My favorite comment so far was from a guy at Mood who yelled at me halfway down the aisle, "Excuse me! Is that Alabama Chanin?" I said, "Yes," and he said, "That's what I thought! Nice work." :)

Final thoughts


I'm not totally thrilled with my paint and stitching on this first dress, but overall, I think I like it.



I might make a couple of additional edits (cutting or lengthening the uneven bottom, tightening the center seam a bit, and fixing the left shoulder, which is a bit loose — that means undoing and then redoing the binding, though).

The finished piece feels really solid and substantial. Strong fabric + strong thread = strong dress. This is not something I'm going to need to donate in a year — it feels like it'll really hold up.

I want to keep going, expand my skill set and improve my hand-stitching and cutting. Eventually I'd like to make an Alabama Chanin capsule wardrobe — I'm thinking two more dresses (one for summer, so not fully embellished), leggings, a light underskirt and a blazer. I wish they had a blazer pattern, but I've found a Vogue pattern that I think will work.

My hands are already missing this project. I need to start the next one!

Please feel free to comment if you have any questions or tips!

16 comments:

  1. That is really, really nice, pretty, perfect.

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  2. Love it! Which blazer pattern are you eyeing?

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    1. Thank you! I'm looking at V9039 because the lines seem pretty simple (but interesting). What do you think....? https://voguepatterns.mccall.com/v9039

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    2. Putting my oar in to say good choice. The pieces would lend themselves to the AC process very nicely.

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    3. Thank you! I'm hoping...my one question is whether I can get that very narrow collar to lie down.

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  3. Really nice! That is a ton of work and yet you make it sound do-able. Thanks for all the tips. I swear someday I'll make one.

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    1. Thank you! Please let me know if you do -- I'd love to see it.

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  4. Why is the paint stenciling necessary? I've checked the A. Chanin book out from the library, but was still (sadly) confused. ... Thanks for your detailed review and instructions! Love the dress!

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    1. Hey, thank you! From what I understand, it's possible to use other methods to transfer the stencil pattern to the fabric -- like outlining each shape with a Sharpie (or someone on PR recommended a washable fabric marker). But airbrushing or using fabric paint with a spray nozzle is really quick.

      I hope that helps! If I'm misunderstanding your question, please let me know.

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    2. Nope, you got it. You mentioned the efforts to get it just right. I just know it would bleed if I tried an air brush. Sharpie or fabric marker is more my level. :) Thanks again.

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  5. Saw your dress on Instagram - it looks great! You are so brave to start with a whole dress! I've only made t-shirts so far, but here are some things I discovered: before pinning your seams, mark one pattern piece with a disappearing/washout marker and then pin the seam loosely with pins at right angles to the seam (it's a knit, it will forgive you). Before you knot off a length of thread, run your fingers over the seam to work out any 'gathers', you want it to be looser rather than tighter (do the same thing when felling). If you're doing negative applique, poke a hole in the middle of each shape with your very sharp scissors before you start embroidering, it really reduces chances of cutting the backing when you're cutting out the shapes (if you do, you can put a little patch on from the back). The best scissors I have found are either Gingher 4" like they sell at Alabama Chanin or Klasse embroidery scissors, these both have VERY sharp points and good action. I still find it's best to sew a bit and then cut a bit - don't wait until the end to cut everything.
    Happy sewing!

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    1. Thank you so so so much for the tips! I think I'm definitely going to invest in a pair of Ginghers (I didn't pick up a pair when I did a two-hour workshop with them a couple of years ago, and always regretted it!) And I'm going to try pre-cutting the shape before embroidering -- that's a great idea. (And, yes, sewing and cutting instead of doing the cutting all at once -- it's good to break it up!)

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  6. I've made a few Alabama Chanin items as well, including a dress with beading. My first project, the Bloomers swing skirt, I sewed using only a single thread - lesson 1 (I pick it up and resew it every once in awhile now). It's still holding up like a champ, and it's got to be at least 8 years old. I love my dress; I love the weight of it and how substantial it feels even though it is sleeveless. My neckline is a little low (think I took basting stitches out too early - lesson 2), but it's not scandalous (hah!). I have the fabric for another dress and bought an air brush. I haven't used it yet, but I'm hoping to soon. The skirt came to me already stenciled as did the dress (which I started at an AC workshop). On a corset top I used a Sharpie, which was fine.

    Finally, I also made a t-shirt for my son's then-girlfriend, and yes, cut through both layers. Thankfully it was centred above her bustline so it worked well as an accent. It's all about how you sell it.

    Nice work!

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    1. Hey, thank you! I checked your blog and your Alabama items look amazing! I have so many questions...do you have any posts on the making of? Did you use FOE on the skirt, and do you like it? (I tried it on the first skirt I ever made, and it always feels like it's going to tear off.) And which colors did you use on the skirt? (Also, the colors you used on the dress are next up in my queue!)

      And I also like hockey and art!

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    2. Okay, clearly I hadn't hit "notify me" of follow-up comments, so I totally apologize for not responding. Thanks for the compliment. The first skirt I made I got as a kit and chose two greens whose names I've forgotten but are olive and light grass (?!). Because it's two layers, it feels solid. I also made a simple one in red (no stenciling or reverse applique), which is obviously a bit lighter, but still wears well. I made it in a larger size and would prefer it in a smaller one as they tend to stretch to form. The FOE is a champ; it won't tear off. Trust it.

      Hockey and art go together like peanut butter and bacon - amazingly! Feel free to email me via my blog for further conversations. (I don't think I posted about the actual making of my items - doh!)

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