Ballroom Dance · Fashion History

I made myself a gown!! Here’s how.

My home-made gown! Photo taken by my wonderful studio.
My home-made gown! Photo taken by my wonderful studio, FADS.

Among my more random and little-mentioned pastimes is sewing, which I’ve been doing since when I was little. I sometimes design costumes for local theatre productions, but I mostly just enjoy making costumes for myself which I have far more occasion to use than one might expect. Most recently, I made myself a ballroom dance practice dress. I picked this project primarily for the challenge, rather than because had a specific occasion to wear it, but I definitely knew that having a dance dress option between my competition dress and a regular party dress would be quite useful. (I also had a birthday coupon for Jo-Ann Fabrics that was about to expire, so I figured I should choose my next project quickly!) I knew from the very beginning that this dress was going to be quite an adventure, so I started posting photos of my progress on my Facebook page and was surprised to find that people actually followed and enjoyed the updates. Although it is a bit of a departure from my usual subject matter, I figure that maybe my blog readers will like it too, so tell me if you enjoy this and would like me to post more sewing updates or tutorials in the future.

Fabrics

My fabrics.
My fabrics.

I usually buy my sewing supplies at Jo-Ann Fabrics. In addition to being the closest fabric store to my house, it consistently has a large and varied selection of fabrics at reasonable prices and runs sales and promotions regularly. I looked at the Jo-Ann’s website before I went to the store, but it’s important to see and feel the fabrics and hold possible combinations up to each other before making any decisions. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to use some kind of stretchy knit material. I don’t have much experience with the special issues involved in sewing with stretchy materials, and I really wanted to learn to work with them. I’ve steered away from them in the past, but a practice dress that doesn’t stretch would be pretty useless. I had a pink color palette in mind and ended up choosing a pink lemonade-colored knit for the body of the dress, a raspberry reddish-pink for the trim, and a flesh-tone knit for the lining.

The concept & the sketch

My sketch. Don't mistake this for actual drawing skill. I traced a lot of it from the back of the pattern envelope.
My sketch. Don’t mistake this for actual drawing skill. I traced a lot of it from the back of the pattern envelope.

Because I primarily dance American smooth style, I wanted my practice dress to have a proper smooth/standard skirt. For those unfamiliar with ballroom parlance, the more traditional, European dances (waltz, tango, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, and quickstep) are characterized as “smooth” or “standard” dances and are performed in full-length ball gowns, while Latin-American dances such as cha-cha and rhumba are characterized as “Latin” or “rhythm” dance and require shorter dresses. Smooth gowns aren’t constructed in the same way normal ball gown are; they lack a waist seam and get their fullness from a series of triangular pieces called “godets”.

Four un-attached godets.
Four un-attached godets.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any patterns for this type of skirt, so I knew from the beginning that I would have to improvise. This was not a comforting thought. I’ve experimented with pattern-making before, but I have no training of any kind in this area, so my results can be quite hit-or-miss. For the top of the dress, I decided to use a pattern I’ve worked with before – New Look 6048. It has a seven-paneled bodice, a sweetheart neckline with contrasting band, and a choice of shoulder straps or a halter. I made this dress in yellow and orange with the halter last year, and I decided on the shoulder straps this time around. Above is my little sketch of my concept for the dress. The letters on the skirt refer to some measurements I took.

Measurements

I mentioned before that I didn’t have a pattern for the skirt, but that doesn’t mean I was planning to conjure one out of thin air. I am lucky enough to own a beautiful and sparkly blue competition gown. It has exactly the kind of skirt with godets that I wanted to make, and I planned to base my pattern on it. There was no sense in worrying about the skirt before the bodice was ready, but I did need to take a few measurements in order to get a sense of each godet’s height, placement on the body of the dress, and location relative to other godets of different sizes. My competition dress has two large, four medium, and two small godets. I initially decided to use four larger and four smaller ones, and I later simplified further to make all eight the same size.

My blue competition dress.
My blue competition dress. I took this photo while getting ready for a competition this past summer.

My measurements did make one thing very clear, though. I would need the torso of my dress to extend much further down that the relatively high-waisted New Look 6048 would allow for. (Remember that ballroom gowns have no waist seam.) I could have tried to extend the pattern pieces down to the appropriate length, but my last attempt to do something like that didn’t end too well. Instead, I decided to employ another pattern, Simplicity 4940, which features a similar seven-paneled shape in a full-length dress. I recently used this pattern to make myself an Arwen gown and found it great to work with. I decided to cut my panels from Simplicity 4940 and then modify the neckline to match New Look 6048. I further decided to modify both patterns by eliminating the zipper and making the back two panels out of a single piece of fabric. The stretchy fabric eliminates the need for a zipper, and I successfully eliminated it last time I made Simplicity 4940, even with a non-stretchy fabric.

Constructing the bodice

Adding the contrasting band and straps.
Bodice in progress.

Constructing the bodice was relatively straightforward. I cut the Simplicity 4940 panels out of my pink fabric, folding the pattern pieces over to shorten to the appropriate length. I sewed the side seams together, tried in on, and felt pretty good about my result, so I did the same exact thing with the lining fabric and then based the bodice to the lining.

Here, the bodice has been lined by the straps haven't been attached yet.
Here, the bodice has been lined by the straps haven’t been attached yet.

Then, I made the straps and neckband out of the raspberry fabric, pinned them onto the bodice, and used them as a guide to re-shape the neckline. It wasn’t a perfect process; I had some trouble getting the band to lie flat when I finally sewed it on, but this may have had something to do with the fact that I made the back higher than the original pattern called for in order. I think it turned out okay looking in the end, though. After this, I tried on the bodice, saw where it didn’t fit quite properly, and added darts accordingly. It took a few of this “fittings” to get everything in exactly the right place, but adding the darts fixed most of the remaining band issues as well.

The first fitting.
The first fitting.

One interesting thing I saw in this phase of the project was how different it was to work with the raspberry knit than it was the pink. Aside from it being a little slippery, the pink and tan knits behaved much like any other fabric. The only thing I had to do differently with it was pay close attention to where I laid out my pattern pieces and how I placed my seams. (Unless you use a zigzag stitch, seams don’t stretch.) By contrast, I found the reddish fabric difficult to cut and stick pins through, although it was thinnest of the three fabrics I used. Initially, I also had problems with the sewing machine needle failing to pierce through the raspberry fabric all the way and missing stitches as a result of that. I guess that’s why you’re supposed to use a ball-point needle on knits, but since I didn’t have one, I compensated by making the stitch length shorter so that a missed stitch would be less problematic.

Making the godets

Measuring to draft my godet pattern.
Measuring to draft my godet pattern.

This was the part I was most nervous about, but it was actually a lot of fun! First, I laid my competition dress out on the floor, thoroughly measured the sides and angles of the godets. Then, using a mixture of skills I learned in high school geometry and intro to theatre technology, I drafted myself a godet pattern on thick white paper.

Cutting out the godets using the pattern I made.
Cutting out the godets using the pattern I made.

I based my pattern on the smallest of the three types of godet and intended to enlarge it somewhat to make four larger ones as well, but after adding seam allowance and some wiggle room to my initial measurements, the resulting pattern looked so voluminous that I decided to make all eight that same size. I probably paid for this decision later on, but I didn’t realize this at the time. I cut the eight godets out of the pink fabric and then sewed them all together by connecting the bottom 17″ of each side to the adjacent side of the next godet, just as I observed on my competition dress. Because the underside of the skirt will be highly visible when I spin, I used a narrow seam allowance and zig-zagged the raw edges together to keep everything nice and neat. When I was finished with all those seams, I ended up with this massive and gorgeous flower-like circle.

The un-attached skirt, aka the world's biggest daisy.
The un-attached skirt, aka the world’s biggest daisy.

Attaching the skirt

This is the part that I freely admit I could have done much better. My initial plan was to pin the godets in place directly over the bottom section of bodice, make sure everything was lined up properly, turn under the edges of the godets, sew them in place, and then cut away the extra bodice fabric now hidden under the skirt. I was perfectly aware that this wasn’t exactly a dress-making best practice, but I chose it because it would allow me to wait as long as possible to make any cuts. Cutting into fabric always limits your options going forward, which I wasn’t too keen to do when I was making things up as I went along.

Leveling off the bottom of the bodice. Measuring from the floor is an old trick usually used for hems.
Leveling off the bottom of the bodice. Measuring from the floor is an old trick usually used for hems.

I started by leveling off the bottom edge of the bodice, hanging it from the back of my bedroom door and measuring from the floor to make sure it was the same length all around. Then, I pinned on the godets, using the bottom edges and the seams as fixed points to measure from. This was a rather labor-intensive process due to the volume of the skirt, but it went pretty well.

I used a cut-up cardboard box to keep the layers of fabric separate and laying flat while I was pinning the skirt on.
I used a cut-up cardboard box to keep the layers of fabric separate and laying flat while I was pinning the skirt on.

I didn’t start having problems until I began trying to turn under the edges of the godets so that I could make nice, neat seams. It turns out that there is no good way to neatly attach eight triangular panels to one, continuous piece of fabric. I struggled valiantly for several days to come up with a solution, pinning and re-pinning several times before being forced to admit that I needed a different strategy. In the end, I decided to sew the skirt pieces on the way I had originally pinned them – directly over the bodice fabric – using a zig-zag stitch to cover as much of the raw edge as I could. It wasn’t ideal by any means, but it was sure to work and wouldn’t involve cutting into the bodice, which I was now even more hesitant to do than before.

This is what it looked like when I attached the godets with a zig-zag stitch. As you can see, this is not quite the neat and crisp look I was hoping for.
This is what it looked like when I attached the godets with a zig-zag stitch. As you can see, this is not quite as neat and crisp as I was hoping for.

My chosen technique served its required purpose well enough but did not create the crisp, clean lines that a regular seam would have. Instead, the upper portions of the godets look a bit wavy or wrinkled. This probably contributed to some of my problems with the way the skirt draped (more about this in the next paragraph). I tried to compensate by running a second seam in a slightly darker shade of pink thread in an effort to better define and accent the triangular pattern of the upper edges, but it only helped a limited amount. Now that the dress is finished and the extra bodice fabric has been removed (I’ll talk about that in a minute), it will probably be easier to run a better seam, so I may go back and try to do that.

Alterations and finishing touches

I'm wearing the dress but being a tease by not showing you the whole thing yet.
I’m wearing the dress but being a tease by not showing you the whole thing yet.

Attaching the godets meant that the dress was finally wearable, though not entirely complete. The next day, I wore the dress to practice in order to see how I liked it. While I was pleased for the most part, I realized that there were two small issues with the fit. First of all, the bodice was slightly too big; this was easily fixed by the addition of two short darts in the front. Secondly, there was something about the drape of the skirt that I wasn’t satisfied with, and this was more difficult to correct because I struggled to identify exactly what was wrong. The skirt wasn’t too big, per se, but I thought that it was unflattering, particularly in the hip area. I eventually came to the conclusion that my mistake was attaching all eight godets relatively high up on the dress. On the competition dress I modeled my practice dress on, only the two largest godets were placed so high up on the dress; the four middle-sized ones were placed lower down, and the two smaller ones even lower still. I have definitely seen ballroom dresses and skirts in which all the godets are the same size and occupy the same position on the length of the skirt, but I’m pretty sure they tend to be narrower, start lower, or both.

This was taken when I was first pinning the skirt to the dress. See how all of the points are pretty much in line with each other? I now realize they shouldn't have been.
This was taken when I was first pinning the skirt to the dress. See how all of the points are pretty much in line with each other? I now realize they shouldn’t have been.

By placing my godets as close to the waist as I did, I had created the same extreme flare in the skirt right around the waist and hips that I was trying to avoid by foregoing a waist seam. I thought of two ways to fix this – lowering some of the godets, or narrowing all of them. I decided to go with the first option. The two most likely candidates to be lowered were at the center front and center back. They occupied the same positions as the smallest godets on my competition dress, and since the center front and center back panels of the bodice were somewhat narrower than the side panels, full-sized godets looked a bit awkward in those spots. I removed the stitches connecting them to the bodice and then shortened their triangular upper sections without interfering with the rest of the skirt. After making these alterations, I tried the dress on again and was much happier with the way the skirt looked.

Now, I was finally comfortable cutting into the bodice and therefore trimmed away the extra bodice fabric that was now underneath the upper portions of the godets. I wanted the skirt to be able to move freely without being restricted by the limited width of the bodice. Additionally, the pink fabric is slightly translucent. Since there is a great deal of fabric in the skirt, I didn’t need a lining to make it look substantial or appropriately modest as I did on the bodice, but I didn’t want to risk the possibility that the bottom of the bodice fabric would show through the upper portion of the skirt.

The hem. It's kind of difficult to see, as a good hem should be.
The hem. It’s kind of difficult to see, as a good hem should be.

Finally, my last step was to do the hem. I had originally planned on using the rolled hem foot on my sewing machine, which turns under the hem twice and stitches it in place all at the same time. However, I found that the skirt was already about as short as I wanted it to be even before turning it under; this is probably another side effect of placing the godets too high up. I didn’t want to lose any more length, so I simply zig-zagged the bottom edge twice in the darker pink thread. I use this technique often, as it finishes the raw edge nicely and also created an elegant scalloped effect. Truth be told, the bottom of the skirt is not completely even, but there was very little I could do about it by the end of the project, and I decided that it was less noticeable than any potential fix would have been.

My dress in action! Photo taken by my studio.
My dress in action! Photo taken by my studio, FADS.

The result

Photo by my studio.
Photo by my studio, FADS.

I didn’t begin making my dress with the intention of wearing it at any specific event, but my studio had its annual in-house show at the end of February, so it made sense to attempt to get the dress finished in time for the event. (Of course, my pretty pink lemonade dress wasn’t ideal for my dramatic tango routine, but neither was my Cinderella-esque aquamarine competition dress. I figured it was still close enough to Valentine’s Day to get away with it.) I was very pleased with how it looked, felt, and moved. Some of the other dancers knew the origins of the dress either from my having told them or from my regular Facebook updates, and everyone seemed to think it had turned out very well.

Anybody want new pink curtains?
Anybody want new pink curtains?

My other result was several yards of left-over pink fabric. I clearly over-estimated the amount of fabric I needed for this project. I am considering attempting to make a skating dress with the remaining fabric. That will be another challenge entirely, so stay tuned.

If I were to make this dress again (we all know I will)

Next time, I will definitely need to figure out a better way to attach the godets. My way clearly didn’t work too well, but I’m still not entirely sure how to do it better. I have a feeling that it would prove much easier to attach the godets to the bodice before I attach them to each other. I also think that I definitely need to cut the bottom of the bodice into the appropriate shape before I attach the godets, so that I have two matching edges to sew together. Trying to put the triangular upper sections of the godets onto the complete, unbroken circle of the lower bodice seems very close to the literal definition of trying to fit a square pen into a round hole, and in retrospect, attempting this was probably my first and biggest error. Once I made that lapse in proper dressmaking technique, I trapped myself into requiring more and more questionable technique in order to solve the problems I was creating. I will need to find a pattern of some sort to base my next dress on. Even if the pattern isn’t exactly what I want, it will at least be an effective guide. When I was doing my initial research before starting this dress, I stumbled upon this really great ballroom and sewing blog. I wrote to the blog’s author, who was kind enough to recommend some patterns she has used in the past. I will definitely try to get these in time for my next project. One of them is for a leotard/bodysuit, which I decided to forego on my practice gown in favorite of just wearing dance shorts but will definitely try to tackle next time.

With my teacher. Photo by my studio, FADS.
With my teacher. Photo by my studio.

So what do you think, readers? Do you like my dress? Equally importantly, did I do a good job in explain how I made it, or were you all bored to tears? Would you be interested in hearing more about sewing? If so, what would you like me to write about?

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5 thoughts on “I made myself a gown!! Here’s how.

  1. I know you wrote this a while ago, but I really enjoyed reading it. I liked hearing your plan, your process, your problems, and your solutions, and am impressed by your ambitious project.
    I’m currently making my own first freestyle skirt, making it up as I go along. I will try to remember this sentence, hopes it will nudge me towards better choices: “Once I made that lapse in proper dressmaking technique, I trapped myself into requiring more and more questionable technique in order to solve the problems I was creating.”
    I’m not a very experienced sewist, however, so it may turn out kind of crazy. But I figure it’s a learning experience.
    And yes, I would be curious to read more of your sewing adventures. I definitely learned from this one. (:

    1. Good luck on your skirt! Just remember, there’s a reason we call them sewing adventures. 🙂 Things are bound to get interesting, but that’s part of the fun. My advice would be that as you’re planning your design, try to find clothes that have various aspects of that design and really study how they’re put together. If you decide to put yours together differently, just be sure you have a clear idea of why you’re making the change and what you’re planning on doing instead. The problem really only comes when you start making unconventional choices without thinking them through first (like I did here).

      I haven’t had any sewing adventures since this project, but I will certainly be happy to write about them when I do.

      1. Thanks for the advice! Luckily the skirt I chose as my model is fairly simple, and I’ve found ways to simplify it even more. So far, so good. Most problems are coming from my pattern making. I forgot to include seam allowances when I cut the pattern, so had to add an extra panel to the skirt so it fits around my waist, but so far it seems to be working out ok…

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