A tried and tested pattern – Butterick B4386

posted in: Finished projects | 7

I have made this pattern five times, two for me and three for Esme. It’s not a very special pattern. It’s just a one-piece dress.4386

A friend of mine who is a professional dress designer laughed when I used the expression one-piece dress. “Aren’t all dresses one-piece?”, she said. No! A two-piece dress is a skirt and top that work together as a dress. It was a very popular look in the 1960s and I have several patterns thus described. But I was taught that a one piece dress is one made in one-piece for the front with just darts and side seams to shape it. Other styles of dress – say one with a waist seam, or with princess seams – would not qualify. I may have made up this definition, but I am pretty sure one of my slightly elderly dressmaking tutors used this description. She also used to call a suit a “costume”.

So when I returned to sewing in March 2013 I started with a one-piece dress – and this simple, classic Butterick pattern was the one I chose. Almost block like in its simplicity I felt it has what I needed to make a dress I could not buy in the shops. For me a one-piece dress is impossible off the peg because those that fit at the top are impossibly tight at the hips, whereas a dress that fits in the hips is huge around the neck, shoulders and bust.

The first dress I made was this one, view F on the pattern envelope above (the turquoise, bottom right version). It looks a bit battered because it has had a lot of wear. You can see the lining peeking out. I hadn’t really worked out the best way to finish a lined dress at this point.

The silk and cotton one
The pink one

I know when I made it because I dated the lining! This serves to remind me that I have now been sewing (again) for about 18 months and I am improving. My friend Mary thought the lining was by far the nicest part of the dress and suggested I make the dress from the lining fabric in future.

Silk lining painted in pink and yellow dated March 2913
Hand-painted lining

I was pretty pleased with my efforts and put a photograph of me in the dress on Facebook and the company that sold me the cloth, Dragonfly fabrics, asked if they could put it on their website. I was a bit surprised! But it was quite a nice dress for a first attempt.  It is a comfortable and adaptable dress that looks nice with red, yellow and even with thick brown tights and a brown jacket.

Kate Davies in B
B4386 in pink silk and cotton

I then made myself version E, (pea green, bottom left on the pattern envelope). I didn’t fancy the twisted detail at the waist. I used a shiny Indian silk brocade. I have a fatal attraction to shiny – I am not sure its my best look but I keep picking up fabrics that wink at me. I bought the brocade from the same internet  firm I got my lining silk from.  I painted the lining of this one too, and while it feels really nice to wear it is a bit dressy (and shiny) for everyday use, so I don’t wear this one much.

Butterick 4386 in turquoise patterned Indian silk
The shiny one

Esme then said she would like a dress, so I made up Version D, (the red/white/blue patterned one) but without a belt. I used the same pattern, just scaling it down a bit as she is slimmer than I am (but roughly the same shape). I made a really special lining for this one too. It is bright pink and you can just see it peeking out.

Butterick 4386 in brown and pink patterned cotton
The brown one

Esme liked this dress and asked for a similar one for work, with sleeves. I had a nice piece of cotton boucle, which I got from Simply Fabrics. Esme calls this the “little grey dress” but actually the fabric includes beige, navy, cream and white. It’s rather a nice textured cotton and I also used it to make the first toile for my Chanel-style jacket (which turned out so roomy I binned it).

I made version A, but with the pockets from C. This version is a bit raggety and I am rather embarrassed to show it to you. This version includes my first attempt at pockets and they should have been interfaced and lined – this is why they are so droopy. Also they are not even. It took me a while to crack the challenge of  symmetry – now I am religious about measuring everything  very carefully, both in terms of cutting out and placement. I used an ordinary synthetic lining for this dress. Like the other two it is with me for repairs at the moment. I think I need to fix the hem. It is longer at the back than the front, so I will sort that out. And probably the pockets too – they look like they are crying at my pathetic efforts!

Butterick 4386 in grey boucle
The grey one

The final version of this dress I made up for Esme to wear last Christmas (Christmas 2013), using purple fabric from Simply Fabrics and lined with some left over Habotai silk from Goldhawk Rd. I have gone back to style F, the one I started with. This was quick to make and it is reasonable, in terms of construction.

Butterick 4386
The purple one

The term TNT (tried and tested) is often used on sewing blogs to refer to the sort pattern that you love so much that you keep going back to it. Sewing your own clothes gives you so many options from the same basic pattern. In fact you could probably survive on one dress pattern your whole life if you found the one you loved and kept varying the fabrics and details you used. Many designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, keep repeating the same styles year after year, with different fabrics and slight style changes.

TNT also implies that the pattern you are using has now been altered so that it fits you perfectly, and can be dashed off quickly without any worries about how it will turn out. I am pleased with the pattern and fit and would happily use this pattern again if I (or Esme) needed a straightforward dress. For me this was really an exercise in getting a really good fit, and I achieved that.

But I am ashamed on my beginner-level sewing abilities evidenced with these items. Thankfully my sewing skills and knowledge are improving. I was very rusty indeed and found I could not remember lots of techniques. 18 months later, sewing steadily for three or four sessions most weeks, I now feel confident to take on much more challenging projects. An architect friend told me he was always dissatisfied with each building he created, always feeling he could have done better. But this feeling is what spurs him on to designing the next one. And in a much more modest way it is the struggle to get closer to perfection that spurs me on with my dressmaking. I want to take the lessons I have learned with each item and do it again, only better.

These are not the best dresses in the world. They are wearable and because the fit is good I think their shoddy construction will suffice. In retrospect, working on one basic item until it is mastered is a good approach. I don’t know if you have watched Uma Thurman in Kill Bill but she took her training very seriously, building her strength and accuracy over a prolonged period, suffering indignity and pain, until she could survive being buried alive.

7 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    Thanks for this post! I enjoyed seeing the thought process that went into all of these dresses and I take your point about starting with something simple, getting the fit right and refining the details as you go. Simple items that fit well are often the best, anyhow. Your creativity applied to these dresses is terrific! I agree, too, that sewing is great in this regard because it is difficult to find something that fits well in the stores. I have the same issue with dresses, even though I also hardly have an extreme figure type to fit. I sometimes wonder how anyone fits into anything in the shops.

    Incidentally, the steaming and gentle pounding (with a wooden ruler) worked beautifully! It gave me a little thrill to see how nicely the hem came together. Thank you! Now I need a clapper.

  2. Galina

    What an interesting story! Even though made to the same pattern all of the dresses are so different. My personal favourite is the first one, I think the design works really well in that fabric. I also love the boucle version, and possibly because of the pockets! I think their ragged look breaks the symmetry of the dress and makes it look more individual. Also the pockets complement the texture of the fabric. I would probably consider enlarging them or possibly adding another one (a smaller one on or above the bust) to balance the look.

  3. Galina

    This post reminded me of a Dutch film I saw years ago. It’s called De Jurk, the Dress. It tells the life story of a dress, conceived in frustration, owned and loved by different women, causing lust and obsession in men. The film is a bitter-sweet mix of drama and comedy. Lots of passion, but very thought provoking. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://youtu.be/_5jjWH7QNok

  4. Joyce

    A delightful post. At present, this is my goal…..to own a tried and true pattern, in a pant, skirt, and shirt, that fits and can be counted on.
    Thanks for sharing —
    “everyone starts somewhere”.
    I can never buy a “one piece dress” either—- what fun that we can custom our fits in any material we so choose. Fun fun fun :~ )

  5. Brenda Marks

    I wonder if you have a current T & T.

    Mine has been adjusted over the years (add a flare in the skirt, change the sleeves, etc.) so that I now have a great every-day pattern. I “franken-pattern” on details such as a button placket to make a shirt dress when I want some variety. The key for me was to get a fit that could stand being in the car for a 40 minute commute to work and then not be overly wrinkled. My job is stand up, sit down all day, so it has to look good in both positions, too (not too short when sitting!).

Leave a Reply