The Dressmaking Retreat: What I Made

Purple roses and spiderwebs dress

Earlier in the summer on a whim I decided it would be a great idea to sign up for one of the Beacon Dressmaking Retreats led by Gretchen Hirsch of Gertie’s New Blog For Better Sewing and various pattern and book publication fame.  The location for the class is only a few hours’ drive from my house, and I definitely felt like I could do with some more guided sewing instructions since my general approach is a bit… fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants.

I took Friday off for the class, but since my husband still had to work and wait around for me I sprung for the fancier hotel stay at the Roundhouse.  We got in Thursday night, which meant we woke up to a beautiful view Friday morning and had plenty of time to have a walk along the Hudson and get breakfast before I had to report to class.

Beacon Falls from our room

Now, to be entirely honest with you, I was pretty nervous leading up to the class.  My first project idea had been vetoed as too much of a frankenpattern, so I had sewn up a muslin of the basic bodice from Gertie’s Ultimate Dress Book and it had not gone well — in fact, I couldn’t even put the muslin on to try it because I couldn’t get my arms through the sleeves.  Not only that, but I hadn’t been able to find a fabric I wanted to use for the project.  I figured that since the class was taking place at a fabric store I’d be able to get something there.

As promised, we spent the morning working on fitting and altering our muslins.  I don’t know why I was so worried — Gretchen is lovely and nonjudgemental in person — only cutting corners in your sewing process got you the raised eyebrow and teacher voice of disapproval.  I went through about 3 muslins, first altering the front and then the back until she was satisfied with the fit.

Gertie's Ultimate Dress Book bodice with alterations

These are my original pattern pieces at the point where we’d made so many alterations that I needed to trace them on to a new pattern.  Sway back, adjusting dart width, moving darts, coming up with a new armscye, a small bust adjustment… so many new things!  I’ve always been pretty terrible at fitting and altering patterns (usually the vintage ones fit well enough out of the envelope that I can get away with not doing anything) so it was great for me to learn in person.  I think seeing Gretchen demonstrating the changes and the sewists making them at the very least gave me a lot more confidence that I could alter a pattern on my own.

Purple roses and spiderwebs dress

In the end, I think all the fitting was worth it.  The bodice on the dress fits really well, and I understand a lot better how to fix fit issues.  Other techniques I learned aren’t visible on the outside of the dress, but you’ll have to take my word for it that the inside of this zipper placket looks amazing compared to my older makes.  Gretchen’s system for zipper insertion was very helpful, and I think my zippers are tidier for it.  She also talked about pattern matching, which I haven’t tried to do before but did for this dress, and I think that paid off nicely!

Purple roses and spiderwebs dress

Needless to say, I found fabric to make my dress.  I ended up choosing a rose and spiderweb print from Cotton + Steel, plus I came home with yardage of several other fabrics and I’ve got sewing plans all lined up for them.  One of my favorite details in this dress was a bit of fun I had with inserting rick-rack into the sleeve, inspired by a classmate who had a whole bin of rick-rack with her that a friend had passed along.

Purple roses and spiderwebs dress

Purple roses and spiderwebs dress

Purple roses and spiderwebs dress

All in all, it was a really wonderful experience.  I learned a lot, and I came home with a beautifully fitted new dress, a second dress well underway, and a lot more confidence to make alterations and try new things.

Purple roses and spiderwebs dress

Black and purple rose dress: Made by me.  Pattern from Gertie’s Ultimate Dress Book– Basic bodice with boat-neck, short sleeves, and three-quarter circle skirt
Black and purple rhinestone earrings: Antiques shop in Wisconsin somewhere
Black elastic belt: H&M kids section
Black suede and lucite heels: Miss L Fire


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  1. Catie

    I am curious to know how to know when to reduce dart width… I am really new to fitting and miraculously got a bodice to fit my sister properly with dart movement, but I wonder when width reduction is necessary? I plan to one day do one of her retreats, but I was very pregnant this time lol. Also, this dress is amazing, it came put fabulous. Sleeves are another thing I need to figure out too lol. Lots of learning to do!

    • Frances

      Darts are how fabric goes around curves, so more curves means bigger darts and less curves means smaller darts. Since I’m on the flat side, my bust darts need to be shallower because there’s not much curve there.

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