Sometimes a dress isn't just a dress. It's also a plate of beans.
February 7, 2021 12:25 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to sew a dress for the first time. I'm using a Butterick pattern (B4443 dress E) and sewing by hand. I'm currently making a muslin, but the final dress will be made of shweshwe (woven cotton), and Bemberg lining (woven viscose). I have questions about seam finishes, thread, and knots, especially as regards strength vs. bulk. Any other advice also welcome! Halp.

I'm planning to hand wash the dress, but it would be nice to have the option to machine wash it in a garment bag on occasion, and I also really don't want it to fall apart in general, so I'd like the construction to be as durable as possible without adding too much bulk. I have read a bunch of sites and looked at a whole lot of videos but I'm still not sure how to proceed.

On seam finishes: The bodice of the dress is lined (hence the viscose) but the skirt is not. The princess seams are notched (which I need to be braver about) and staystiched. The pattern calls for all seams to be pressed open and trimmed but doesn't specify anything else. A lot of sites suggest that you don't really have to worry about finishing internal seams like those in the bodice and can leave them raw. Is that actually true? The viscose, in particular, seems like a slippery thing that might fray easily.

If not, what seam finish would make the most sense for the bodice given that the lining seams and main fabric seams will be sitting on top of each other? What about the unlined skirt? The options I've been considering are: overcast (is that actually enough?), pinking, a line of backstitches, pinking with a line of backstitches, clean finish, and maybe french seams for the skirt only, though I am scared of messing that up.

Also, how much should I trim the seams, especially on the notched bit? Should I trim before sewing on curved seams? I'm assuming I don't need to worry about grading if I'm finishing the seams open. Does that sound right?

On thread: I'm using a full backstitch throughout. Should I be doubling my thread? I was raised to always do so since it makes the stitches stronger (maybe because I was mending things?), but that means my backstitch is a whole lot bulkier than a machine stitch would be. Could I get away with piecing things together with a single strand of thread? What about using a single strand for seam finishing or staystitching?

Also, I recently read that you should always use the same kind of thread as your fabric, which makes sense, but I've already purchased Gutermann Sew All thread, which is polyester. Should I buy cotton thread instead? Do I need to use rayon thread for the lining?

On knots: Should I be double-knotting my thread, which feels more secure but adds bulk? Or knotting after the first stitch? My instinct is to batten down the hatches in every way possible, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm overdoing it.

Bonus question that is unrelated, but hand sewing gives you a lot of time for your mind to wander: is there a reason that people don't seem to hand-sew using a machine-style stitch, i.e., piercing the fabric with a needle with an eye near the tip, pulling a second thread through the loop, and then pulling the needle back to the other side? Would there ever be an advantage to doing that?
posted by evidenceofabsence to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Good for you for starting a new hobby! Hand sewing is so nice and meditative and is a great way to spend some time during a pandemic!

Leaving seams raw is fine if you're using a machine to sew the dress because the stitches are locked. With something like viscose, though, if I were using my machine, I would do a pretty tight zig stitch on it to keep the fraying at bay. With hand sewing, I might consider seam allowances that are a bit longer and then, instead of ironing the seams open, I would do a french seam if the extra line of stitching wouldn't look weird on the waist. If it would look weird, you could iron the seam to one side, then fold it and iron again (like you would a french seam) but instead of sewing it down, you would just sew a line of stitches near the fold and that would do the trick.

You can practice french seams by making a sandwich of all the fabrics that will be coming together at the waist (probably something about 8 inches long and at least a few inches of the fabrics on either side of the seam) and then play around with different seams/backstitching and see what seems to be the best plan of action.

Don't trim any seam allowances until you're completely done sewing and fitting the dress. You may find you need to let part of it out or something and you'll wish you had that seam allowance to work with.

I think one strand of thread would be ok. I think I wouldn't backstitch, per se, I would do a running stitch all the way and then start back at the beginning and do another running stitch that fills in the "blank" areas from the first line. Backstitching as you go can make things pucker and be a lot bulkier than a running stitch. Now, I would do a bit of a locking stitch (so one tiny backstitch) every couple of inches or so. If you do the running stitches, it goes a lot faster too and the lines are a lot straighter. And, if you feel like it needs it, you could add a third line of stitches without it adding too much bulk.

For thread, I think the polyester will be ok since you'll need that with the viscose. Just make sure you wash and dry your cotton before you cut it and sew it or you'll end up with puckers at the stitching.

For knotting, yeah, don't make a huge knot. You could make one that creates a bit of a loop and then catch that loop as you start your stitching.

I'm having trouble envisioning what you're describing about the last part but I think maybe it would make puckering happen or that the seam wouldn't be even all the way across.

Good luck with the dress and, remember that your first outfit probably won't be perfect and that's ok. When you show it to people, resist the temptation to point out all the things you don't like about it because they likely won't even notice those!
posted by dawkins_7 at 1:07 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I don’t have time for a super long comment right now but - don’t backstitch the whole thing. Garments meant for hard wearing and washing have been sewn for centuries with a tiny running stitch with a single strand of thread. Take a single back stitch every 10 stitches or so (every needle full) and the seam will be plenty strong. To do this correctly you need the appropriate needles, a thimble, and a little bit of technique practice. It’s FAST when you get it right. Begin and end the thread with three back stitches.

I would not leave viscose unfinished, except perhaps if cut on the bias. I’d probably suggest binding the edges with a Hong-Kong style binding for simplicity and protection. Instead of bag lining the bodice and needing to do two sets of seam finishes you might consider flatlining instead; then you can finish the lining and face fabric edges together.
posted by peachfuzz at 1:14 PM on February 7, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I am a relatively inexperienced sewist and haven't worked much with the materials you're talking about, but...

re: backstitching and bulk: I recently learned about the running backstitch, which is quicker to sew and less bulky than continuous backstitching but locks the thread every inch or so to prevent unraveling in case of breakage. On preview: I think this is what peachfuzz is describing.

re: unrelated bonus question about hand-sewing with a machine-style stitch: Sewing awls like the Speedy Stitcher are precisely what you describe. They are mostly used for heavy materials like canvas and leather, though you can DIY a light-duty one by putting a sewing machine needle in a pin vise. I have a Speedy Stitcher and find it very slow compared to regular hand sewing, but that's probably in part because I mostly use it for heavy material, often doing awkward repairs on things like shoes. Even on identical seams, though, I doubt a sewing awl could match the speed of a running stitch or running backstitch where you can make several stitches with a single pass of the needle.
posted by sibilatorix at 1:16 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For a lightweight way of finishing the edges (especially if they’re concealed within a lining) I do recommend a hand overcast stitch - adds almost no bulk but keeps things from fraying. This is what I used to finish the edges on my wedding dress (duchesse silk satin with silk/cotton lining, mostly machine stitched). It’s time consuming but not difficult.

You can also pink + overcast stitch.
posted by mskyle at 1:22 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: On thread: you want your thread to be a similar weight to your fabric, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the same material. I'd stitch silk with silk, but it's fine to use Sew-All for most other fabrics. Cotton thread (like cotton fabric) oxidises with the years and becomes more breakable, which is why most people use polyester.

Doubling thread
: unless it's a load-bearing seam in a heavy fabric, or a buttonhole, there's no need for this. Effectively it makes your thread heavier than your fabric, which means the fabric is *more* likely to tear as the years go by.

I would double thread for:
- eyelets
- buttonholes
- sewing buttons on (unless the fabric is very light)
- sewing ends of elastic together
- probably a couple other things I can't immediately think of

But for most things it's unnecessary.

Backstitching: peachfuzz and sibilatorix have this covered. Even on seams where I backstitch every stitch, the backstitch is much shorter than the forward stitch-- just enough to anchor the thread.

: you're right that the viscose is likely to fray. This is where a machine with a zigzag stitch comes in very handy. If you have Fray-check or a similar product, this is a good place to use it. Otherwise, you can:

- trim and whipstitch together (though you'll need to press with care afterward, using a ham or a rolled-up towel)
- French seam - assuming you're using a 1.5cm margin, sew the initial seam to 1.0
- Felled seam - trim one side of the seam allowance, fray-check it, wrap the other side over it and stitch to enclose.
- overcast as mskyle suggests

: I always double knot when hand stitching. With a single thread the bulk is not that great. I rarely knot after the first stitch, but with the viscose it might be a good idea. To be extra safe, baste the viscose first-- with a fabric that slippery, pinning may not be enough.
posted by Pallas Athena at 1:32 PM on February 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The previous answers here seem to have most of your questions covered (and to be from people who know a lot more about proper dressmaking than I do), but can I mention that it is very important to wash and iron shweshwe before you cut as it is starched when sold, and will lose a lot of its stiffness. It may also shrink slightly and, depending on the colour you are using, run a bit at first washing - the indigo runs especially noticeably, which also means that it ages nicely. Since it is pretty close-woven, I have always got away with just pinking to finish seams.
posted by Fuchsoid at 3:21 PM on February 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I’ve hand-sewn two sundresses out of similar cotton (albeit hand printed) The bodices were lined in the same fabric; neither one had Princess seams but the neck and armholes needed to be clipped. I used a combination of French seams or top-stitching to finish seams. So you could notch, press open the Princess seams, and then top stitch those flat. I used a running stitch (with a back stitch every so often) because I like the look of hand-picked seams. This plus the fact that it is lined should prevent fraying.

I pre-washed the fabric to control shrinkage and to get the excess color out and I hand washed the dresses afterwards because the dye still bled. You can buy Synthrapol from Dharma Trading to keep the color in suspension so that it doesn’t bleed onto other fabrics but it’s possible that the lining will become discolored. It’s just the lining though.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:54 AM on February 8, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Just went and checked my closet and overcasting the seam allowances on a loose handwoven cotton princess-seam has survived years of machine washing (probably no machine drying, though). Just a single thread, stitches maybe 1/4 or 3/8 inch. But they're also topstitched -- clipped separately, pressed towards the side seams, topstitched down, possibly pressed over a ham?, and then it looks like I overcast them together.
posted by clew at 12:13 PM on February 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so, so much for the time and thought you put into providing such detailed answers! Seriously. I have spent hours reading websites and looking at videos and I feel like you all have taught me more in a day than I learned in that time.

I'll try a few of the seam finishes on the muslin to see what seems to work best, and will start practicing a running backstitch with a single thread. That seems like it will take so much less time than what I've been doing once I get the knack of it. And yes, I totally have tiny puckers on parts of my curved seams. I'll stick with the Sew All thread since it's sounds like it might work out. I think I'm going to stick to bag lining because I feel like it might help hide mistakes a bit better and I'm a little worried about the fabrics shrinking/stretching at different rates, even though I promise to pre-wash. (I tried to prewash by hand when laundromats were still closed, which involved a tea kettle and a lot of ironing, but I might as well run things through a machine now that I can.)

And I had no idea that the Speedy Stitcher was a thing! I am definitely intrigued, even though it 100% looks like something I can and would injure myself with.

One final question: I've been trying to get something like 12 stitches to an inch to approximate the sewing machine length. Does that seem right? If not, at I got some practice making tiny stitches in straight rows.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:28 PM on February 8, 2021

12 stitches to the inch seems pretty small -- this Threads article says short machine stitches are more likely to tear the fabric than the thread, if the seam fails, and that 3.5mm is reasonable for garment construction -- But! -- I would be surprised if the optimal stitch length doesn't depend on the material, just as optimal tension does. Making test seams on scraps of the real fabric and yanking on them to see how they do helps me.
posted by clew at 1:39 PM on February 10, 2021 [1 favorite]

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