Shoveling Through a Madame Gres Dress and Six Feet of Snow

So, I managed to kill off Madame Gres before she killed me. It was a war of slidey jersey knits, sticky power mesh, and numerous sharp objects, punctuated by meals on demand for my snowbound and crabby men. The only one I’m still speaking to is Karl!

When we last left off on this project:

Gres pattern

There were merely two feet (less than a meter) of snow on the ground in Boston. You can read about making the muslin by clicking here, and the early stages of construction by clicking here.

The snow was still kind of a novelty after storm number one. People were jovial in the snow, and it looked pretty:

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Then, storm #2 hit, with two more days off from school. My husband was in one room working, and my son was in his room doing homework, which stranded me in my tiny kitchen, laboring to create the large half-circle drape that attaches to the underdress. The diameter of the drape is at least six feet (two meters).

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The first thing was to make and stabilize a slash on the straight edge of the drape, which would attach to the shoulder and then go under the arm. Since I was using lightweight, stretchy wool jersey, rather than hand-roll the edge hem as called for in the instructions (which would have led to hari kari), yeah, I got out the old Steam-a-Seam 2 Lite! I’m not ashamed! For the uninitiated, Steam-a-Seam is a kind of mesh fabric glue with paper backing.

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I glued that sucker down and edgestitched it, and decided I could live with it. Many of us had a long, depressing hiatus from Steam-a-Seam last year when apparently there were production problems with the product. I myself became a hoarder and even bragged about it on InstaGram, which made things worse because people started begging for it. (I refused to share.) But now you can find it again on Amazon, hallelujah!

I learned about Steam-a-Seam from the Craftsy.com course Sewing on the Bias with Sandra Betzina. She recommends laying down the paper strip and tapping it quickly with an iron to get the glue mesh to separate from the paper, which really helps.

I used the Steam-a-Seam again on the long hem of the drape:

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From there, it was easy to flip up the hem again and sew it without pressing or pinning. It avoided the wonky wrinkles you can get on a circular hem like this.

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The great thing about using wool jersey is that even if the edges get a little lettuce-y after they’re sewn, the wool shrinks back with a light steam press, so it’s flat but stretchy.

I know I never got around to profiling Madame Gres and her innovations with jersey (because I was so pissed at her) but you can read all about it here.

Here’s one of her gowns from the same era in the 60s, made of silk jersey, in the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute:

Evening dress

She hated to cut her fabric. Girl after my own heart!

Another great article about Madame Gres, by Arlene Cooper, is in this special issue of Threads Magazine, released this summer. I wrote about it here: (“$9 Couture Course”).

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It’s well worth downloading a back issue if you’re into vintage couture techniques. The article includes pattern drawings of several of Madame Gres’ knit wraps:

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Here’s a quote from the article, which I wish I’d read more thoroughly before I started: “Her work is known for its prodigious use of luxury fabrics in a personal method that is time- and labor-intensive and virtually impossible to copy.” Hoo boy.

Back to the salt mines:

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(I briefly kicked my son out of his room, then it was back to the kitchen for snow day #4.)

It was time to attach that giant drape. On the underdress, I had hand-basted the jersey to the power mesh underlining, and now I decided to machine-baste it with a narrow zigzag to stabilize it (that’s a big diagonal going down the front and back of the dress).

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Then I pinned the drape on the dress.

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Since I had elected not to put in a zipper, I knew it was going to be dicey sewing the thing on smoothly all the way down the length of the dress. I left the shoulder seams detached and headed in from the top and bottom.

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(I was seriously nervous about that part, but Karl the Bernina 560 pulled it off!)

Ta da! I love how the angle of the drape is exactly parallel to the angle of the French dart on the left.

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Now we were up to four feet of snow!

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When the next storm hit:

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it was time to do the fiddley shoulder seams. After messing around trying to line them up inside out, I decided the only way to finish them was right side out:

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I used a kind of running stitch/fell stitch hybrid to try to mimic machine stitches, and went over it a couple of times to avoid wardrobe malfunctions.

Because…it would be terrible if my shoulder seams unraveled when I was standing next to George Clooney, and he said something like, “Dammit, you should have reinforced those shoulder seams, and by the way, those markings on the power mesh still look like crap!”

George Clooney

Sigh. I forgive you, George.

When it came time to do the hem, the dress was so big I had to put the drape on a chair.

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Okay, maybe I’ve become a little too in love with Steam-a-Seam…

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I hand-basted the jersey to the power mesh at the hemline, trimmed the power mesh, glued up the raw edge of the hem, then turned it up and hand-sewed the hem. Are we there yet?

Last stop…the snap to close the drape’s big slash under the arm:

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Finally!

By then, we were beyond six feet (two meters) of snow! Everyone in Boston was in a horrible mood!

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And then it was time for the trickiest part…getting my design know-it-all and tact-challenged husband to take some pictures. He’s worse than George Clooney.

Picture #1, so far so good:

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Picture #2, well, can you tell by the look on my face that my husband had pointed out that a half sheath/half tent-dress is not flattering from all angles on a middle-aged body?

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I’m not even showing you the angle on the other side…

I briefly considered trying to ratchet in the drape a little bit at the waist, but then I thought, hell to the no. It’s about the design. I set out to make a Madame Gres dress, and I’m not going to mess with it.

Though I don’t thoroughly love the dress, I do like it. And going through the process of re-creating the design has helped me have a deeper understanding of Madame Gres’ genius, which is why I’m sewing up these things.

So Madame Gres and I will see you on the red carpet, George. And now I’m enjoying the day when my husband’s in the doghouse and he knows it. He just made me an espresso.

As I was fiddling away on this irritating project, fave blogger Oonaballoona and I had this brief exchange on InstaGram:

IG Oona

So Funkytown is exactly where I’m headed next…

Halston-YSL patterns

How’s your sewing going?

(Just a reminder, for details about the machine-loan arrangement between BERNINA of America and JetSetSewing.com, please click the “Bernina Collaboration” tab. With the exception of this collaboration, Jet Set Sewing does not have advertisers or affiliates. All of those links you see are just good clean fun!)

41 thoughts on “Shoveling Through a Madame Gres Dress and Six Feet of Snow

  1. Well, you’re not going to get my sympathy over the snow (I’m too Canadian for that…and we pretend we love it), but I think you look beautiful in the dress! I’m not yet at the stage at which I can imagine making something like this. Just lovely! I’m also intrigued by the Halston plans…do share!

  2. I can relate to so much in this post, Julie: deep snow, getting meals on the table, middle-aged body, hemming wool jersey (aargh). I think the dress looks great on you. And I’m intrigued by that McCall’s Halston pattern–looking forward to seeing what you do with it.

    • Hi Patricia, I know you must be snow-bound like me. More on the way! I will be cooking up a Halston, though it may not be that pattern. I’ve decided to make a few things that don’t need underlining or seam finishes…enough is enough!

  3. I am sorry you have all of the snow in the country. There is damn little skiing in Washington because we have….almost none. We will have no hydro power this summer. Can we come send the car around for it? We’ll give you a lift to the disco (and won’t make you walk in the slush in those heels) in exchange!

    That Halston is kind to us middleladies, especially if you still have the legs. It’s all about the obi belt (Pleather for sure!)

    • I’m FedExing you several truckloads of snow as soon as possible. It’s looking like it’s going to be a long time before I can wear my wooden stiletto slides from Candies.
      Halston’s having a bit of a renaissance, and the great thing is that those early patterns drafted from his designs still don’t break the bank.

  4. The fabric you chose is beautiful, and you put so much work into this number. I understand your husband’s comments, but I hope you get some wear out of the dress after all the work. I haven’t seen “french darts” on clothing except on vintage patterns from the 50’s and 60’s they seem to be popular then. The Halston can be sexy and fun, in a retro disco way. I have a few Halston patterns, which if i make them up for my mom, will update the style, shorter skirts etc, more of a gogo outfit instead of disco.

    • Don’t worry, I’ll wearing it very soon. Sometimes my husband only sees the 30-year-old he married, which is a good thing. I do love those Halston patterns, and many of them are wearable now. They’re also much easier to make!

      • You will have to post of pictures of the “event” you go to in the dress. When I saw the fabric, I would have used the fabric for an 80’s Anne Klein/Donna Karan number. She did a lot of wool jersey during the 80’s and her patterns would have been perfect for the material, and no french darts. I just watch a video on youtube by peggy sagers trying to bring back the french dart. I think i will pass on them.

      • It’s true that Donna Karan used a lot jersey, and there are Klein/Karan patterns that show them. They were so easy to wear! Donna Karan was a big fan of Claire McCardell, who popularized wool jersey in the U.S.

  5. Well, let me just say that I never would have attempted such a project–but I have learned from you! It’s in the eighties where a live in Southern California, and I wish you could send some of that snow our way.

  6. The dress is lovely, and I’m sure you’ll be turning George’s head!

    I’ll be seeing that YSL + Halston next week, and I’m really looking forward to it. Then in March, Halston will be showing with Warhol in Charlotte. I need to get my act together for a Halston dress for that last one.

    • I knew you’d be the one to figure out where I was going with that, Lizzie. I’m heading to that exhibit a little later, but I’m working on my wardrobe. I’m looking forward to your report from the Halston/Warhol exhibit!

  7. Accessories!!!! Scarf, long necklace, something. The dress has beautiful drape and amazing color but it’s a bit of a blank canvas, and lots of it.

  8. First of all, I am seriously envious of your snow. Please send more to TO! And I love your dress. The colour is spectacular, and I can just imagine what a treat that wool jersey is to wear. It’s gorgeous and well made. I enjoyed reading all the construction details!

  9. Sometimes the process is more important than the product, although I kind of like the look of the finished dress, especially on you. It’s distinctive-looking, and you look elegant in it! And just think, it will last a lot longer than all that snow…

    • Thanks Karen! I knew it was a crap-shoot going in, but of course I didn’t think it was going to be so hard to make. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did, and when its “event” days are through, I can hack off pieces of the drape and have a post-modern Japanese-inspired sheath.

  10. Read this last night in bed while Ruggy slept and almost started wailing Funkytown.

    Men! Sometimes extra fabric means extra fashion! I love the idea of keeping it as Fred –um, no, autocorrect, Gres– intended.

  11. For some reason, my iPad wouldn’t let me see your pictures until now. I had to keep checking back. It’s gorgeous, and I would bet it’s super comfy in that wool jersey! Such a sneaky way to get all gussied up. Looking forward to seeing the pictures of your big night.

    • Glad you got to see it. It is pretty comfy, and the power mesh keeps it from being too formfitting (extremely important at this age…) I can pull that drape around if it gets cold lol!

  12. Ok, just peed my pants reading this! I think we are married to the same man?! Love your dress, luv,luv. Seam a seam is our friend for sure. Tfs

    • Let’s see, is your husband the utmost authority on fashion and sewing, even though he’s never worn a dress or sewn a hem? Yep, same guy! I only care about what George Clooney thinks, though.

  13. I can’t even deal with how much I love this dress! It’s absolutely fabulous. Not flattering? Um, every woman in the room with you will want to tear it off you and abscond with it! It’s absolutely, completely, unbelievably amazing.

  14. Loved how you used the snow time to create a spectacular dress. I went to NY for the first blizzard and got out of town. No plan to return till mid March when hopefully the nasty snow is gone. Boston has gotten more than its share.

    • Hi Mary, what a good plan for you to get the heck out of the snow! I have to admit that it was mighty hard to get on the plane back to Boston after a long weekend in the Cali sunshine. Having grown up in Northern Michigan sewing and knitting my way through the long, snowy winters, I do think it’s good to have a project to keep your mind off it.

  15. But love your dress. Husbands be very cruel sometimes … it is normal be moody with the snow, I hope you have a great wear that dress, because it’s wonderful !!

  16. Pingback: Oscars Report: Karl’s Feud With Meryl (and Georgia O’Keeffe, sewing peep) | Jet Set Sewing

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