In order to improve my sewing techniques I decided to make a silk chiffon blouse with lace inserts, using a 1959 Vogue blouse pattern. Before I started I researched the theory. Finally I have finished, and worn, the blouse. In case you are interested I wore a dark bra and purple stretch lace vest. This was just the job.
I need to say, at the start, that I am happy with my little blouse. It is light as a feather, translucent, vintage-pretty, delicate and fun to wear.
But making it was really hard work. Mainly because I did not know what I was doing. It was my first time with sheers and lace. I prepared as best I could with reading, taking advice, buying and watching a Craftsy class, and practising on scraps of the material. I was fairly well prepared, but I made some mistakes, and consequently learnt a lot. Making mistakes which involve unpicking tiny stitches, zig zag stitches, in lace and delicate silk with a fine guage unpicker is the best way to learn.
I don’t know if you have watched Kill Bill 2, but the way that Uma Thurston learns from Master Pai Mei is definitely the hard way, carrying heavy buckets of water long distances until she is allowed to learn the finer points of Kung Fu fighting. His punishing tutelage eventually saves her life as she breaks open the coffin she is buried alive in. OK, it’s far fetched fiction. But learning to sew well requires much patience, tedious work and time spent communing with mind and body, machine and fabric.
I have already explained what went wrong. Here, distilled, in my guide to Sewing with Chiffon.
- Start with a good sewing machine. I have a high quality sewing machine that can cope with very light weight fabrics. If your machine can’t handle delicate silks then personally I wouldn’t even try.
- I cut the chiffon out with shears. Silk chiffon is slightly crepey with a matt appearance. It doesn’t slither. It is very light weight and may give you trouble if you have the windows open. I do not have rotary cutters so I cannot say if they would have been better. I pinned the pieces down well, using long, fine silk pins. They didn’t create marks. I did not use tissue paper, gelatine or any other aids. I honestly believe if you stick to quality silks, and you are both firm and careful, they behave quite well.
- I utterly relied on my tailors tacks to mark the seam lines. They are a godsend if your cutting is not perfect. Always sew to the tacks, rather than using the edge of the cloth as your sewing guide. Next time I would look for a finer thread. I experimented with silk thread for tacking and it worked very well.
- I used French seams throughout. I wouldn’t have used them on the curves without encouragement. But they worked perfectly, even on the curves. Of course the secret is to make them tiny. The dimensions I quoted from the books are a little wide for my taste. I say go as small as you can. With practice I think my seams are now something like 1/8th of an inch.
- Sew Slowly. I usually enjoy sewing fast. On this occasion I slowed it right down. This is my best tip ever. It just meant that I could control the fabric, the lace, the seams etc.
- Don’t backstitch. I am not a keen backstitcher in any event. But, when I tried it, it just mucked everything up.
- I used Gutterman multi-purpose thread. I actually prefer cotton for silk, but I had a perfect colour match and I like Gutterman when I am not economising. It worked fine.
- Similarly I used the narrow hem technique for the hem (stitch close to the edge, press, trim back, stitch again on the stitching line). It worked well and complemented the French seams.
- Silk organza is the perfect fabric for delicate interfacing as it disappears into the chiffon, producing minimal opacity, just enough stiffness and ease of use.
- My lace insertion was the most difficult part and where I had the most to learn. I actually made a big fuss about finding the right lace, and in the end made a silly compromise. Bunny was spot on with her advice to get the right texture and weight of lace. Chiffon is very delicate and light weight. Match it with a lace trim which has similar qualities. The nylon lace I used was too heavy for the chiffon when I backed it to increase the width. It’s OK, but not the best. After I had finished the job I bought some beautiful vintage handmade cotton lace from France. It is white but I could have changed the colour.
- My sewing machine coped just fine with the button holes. I was worried about them being too heavy. But of course, stitched on a sandwich of chiffon/ organza/chiffon, the material was robust enough for the machine made buttonholes. I practised with different styles and shapes, and stitch length. I moved away from a dense stitch to one which was more open but still effective. I was very happy with the quality of the button holes and would certainly do them again. I didn’t have the nicest buttons, but again, on another occasion I would source fine, high quality, light weight buttons, probably vintage mother of pearl (dark in this case).