22 June 2011

Graduation Dress

I'm sure you remember Becky, the math whiz.  Well, she's fourteen now, and she is finishing the eighth grade.

There will be a little promotion ceremony tonight.  For this, she needs a dress.  The brand-new white dress with matching shrug that she wore at her confirmation at the end of May won't do.  Nope.  She needs a new dress.

And not just any new dress.  She informed me that she wanted a white sundress with elastic smocking across the bustline.  She owns such a dress, but it's really just a beach coverup, since it's made out of terrycloth.  (And it's way too short for any use other than beach or poolside.)  I told her the terrycloth coverup would not be appropriate for a graduation.  "Your dress should be made of cotton, or satin, or something like that," I said.  "A dressy fabric."

"Let's go to Simon [our local tailor] and see if he can make a dress just like this one, but in satin," she suggested.

Off we went to see Simon.  He wasn't in his shop, but his wife was.  We showed her the terrycloth dress, and Becky described what she wanted.  We were quoted a price of $400 to custom-make such a dress.

$400 for a one-occasion dress for a fourteen-year-old?  A dress that is, essentially, a tube with some elastic across the top? This woman must be insane.  "No, thanks," I said.  "That's a little bit beyond our budget."  I escorted a very disappointed young girl out of the shop.

"But that's what I wanted, Mom," she protested.

I can sew.  "I'll make it for you," I told her.

"Are you sure?" she asked, brightening.  "You'll have time?"

"Sure," I said.  Why wouldn't I have time to make a graduation dress for Becky?  What else do I have to do?

I have a fair amount of sewing under my belt, but I have never created anything with elastic smocking on it before.  My first step, therefore, was to do an internet search to learn how it's done.  I quickly found a handy little tutorial, complete with pictures, here.  I learned that elastic smocking is made with two threads:  you thread the sewing machine needle with regular cotton thread, and the bobbin with elastic thread.  Then you simply stitch straight, plain rows across your fabric, and it gathers and elasticizes evenly and beautifully.  How hard could this be?  I went to fabric.com and ordered a couple of yards of white satin and several spools of elastic thread.

I spent a few evenings practicing on muslin.  The first thing I noticed was that my sewing machine did not like the elastic thread at all.  That's okay, I reasoned; I can wind the bobbins by hand.  I did so.  Frequently.  Because the very next thing I noticed is that the elastic thread was about four times as thick as the cotton thread and therefore ran out much more quickly.  The elastic thread and the cotton thread were acutely aware of their differences, and about every half-row of stitching, I had to open the bobbin case and settle a brawl twixt needle and bobbin.  But I eventually got some smooth rows of stitching, and they did indeed look like elastic smocking.  I was ready to move on to the satin.

Here's the problem with satin:  unlike muslin, it's slippery.  It makes every attempt to slide off the ironing board when I am not looking, invariably landing on the dirtiest spot of the basement floor.  And it doesn't particularly like being ironed in the first place; it has to be covered with a cloth first, to avoid melting and scorching.  And pins leave big, visible holes in it.

Basically, my dreams of being a graceful, skilled seamstress, fulfilling my daughter's every sartorial wish, disintegrated into late nights spent in my poorly-lit basement, punctuated by the occasional f-bomb as I made mistake after mistake and tried to figure out how to fix each one with minimal collateral damage.  I yelled at the kids for their every insignificant offense.  Stop watching The Dog Whisperer!  It's so annoying!  Turn down that music!  I can't concentrate here!  Hey Becky, you better have a backup plan, 'cause this dress ain't happening!  We measured Becky about fifty times.  We tried on the dress.  We pinned and modified.  We adjusted.

And it happened.  Like Christmas in Who-Ville, it eventually came together, despite all the odds stacked against it.  Last night, I made a bias-strip neck strap, hemmed the bottom of the dress, and sewed a little "Handmade by Mom" label into the side seam.  I pressed out the last few wrinkles.  And Becky, absolutely thrilled, modeled the dress for a quick iPhone publicity shoot.

I posted a picture on Facebook.  Her godfather said, "You're amazing.  I don't know how you do it."

My only response:  it's a piece of cake.

Congratulations, Becky.  You look awesome.


❀ⒹⒺⒺ❀ said...

Ah very sweet!


⚜ ↁℯℬℬᴵℰ⚜ said...

Very cute indeed! Thanks so much for sharing.

Rev. K.T. said...

I am SO impressed! My mom's a great seamstress, and she taught me the basics. But there are two things she refuses to do: smocking and satin. Jennie, you rock!