Making a solo dress is a hefty project and should not be taken on lightly. There are many little things that will positively affect your end product and overall dressmaking experience. Invest time in preparing your pieces and you will not only get better results, but you will find the process much more enjoyable. These points are generally, but not necessarily, listed in the order in which you would do them.
Make a Mock-Up
Making a mock-up is always a good idea. Everybody is shaped differently, so while you know the dress will be the right size around the chest and waist, you don’t know how it will fit in other places; the armhole, shoulders, neckline, etc. Use a muslin or similar cotton to cut out the bodice front and backs, and at least one sleeve and sew them together with a machine baste. Pin the Skirt Block front and back pattern pieces together at the side and fold both pieces along the side pleat fold line. Pin the Skirt Block patterns to the waist seam on the right side of the mock-up (or trace them onto another piece of paper to have two of each, thus creating the whole skirt instead of just half). Try the mock-up on your dancer, and adjust to fit. Check out THIS POST for more details on adjusting your mockup. BONUS: You can recycle your mock-up by using it as a sewn-in lining later!
The Bodice Base
Constructing the bodice with only one layer of fabric can have a few negative effects. There will be puckering as the weight of the dress pulls differently on the stiff embroidered areas and the softer plain fabric areas. Also, the number of holes we put in fabrics when we embroider can cause weak points in the fabric. Both of these are more apparent when the dress is built with thin fabrics like satins. The bodice base is a layer of sturdy fabric that is flat-lined to the underside of each bodice piece. Cut each pattern piece out of both fabrics, then lay the dress fabric piece over the bodice base piece. Machine baste around the edges (in the seam allowance), then treat them as one piece, serging or zig-zagging the edges. For thinner dress fabrics, I like using a light-weight twill for my bodice base. For small dresses, or when using thick fabrics like velvet, I’ll use a ‘quilting’ cotton for a lighter, thinner option.
Mark Important Lines
Taking time to mark seam lines is one of the best things you can do to improve the quality of your dress. I prefer to draw all seam lines for the bodice on the bodice base fabric, and don’t mark them on the dress fabric since the two will get basted together and treated as one. Depending on the color of the base fabric, I’ll use a fabric pencil or marker that won’t disappear in a few days. Tailor’s chalk is a good option for temporary use, but will disappear with enough handling.
A thread baste is good for anywhere that I know I’ll want to see a certain line from the right side of the fabric too. You can use white thread, or a similar color to the dress if you’re afraid the thread will get caught in a seam. Places I’ll thread-baste include: Center front, dropped waist seam, sleeve hem, the fold-line of any skirt pleats, and any seam line that important for mapping embroidery.
This pattern does not have seam allowance built in. That may be new to some people. I did the pattern this way for a few reasons. 1) It is much easier for the dressmaker to mark seam lines (see above). 2) It is easier to change the amount of seam allowance being used. 3) It is easier to map out embroidery designs on the pattern when you can see exactly where the edge of the pieces are. Some patterns with built in seam-allowance will have the stitching line drawn in as well, but that doesn’t work when the pattern includes more than one size.
The amounts of seam allowance suggested for each pattern piece were carefully thought out. I like 1/2″ seam allowance for most seams. It is narrow enough that construction is easy and seams are not bulky, but wide enough to be away from fraying fabric edges (plus wide enough that a slight alteration can be made if necessary). I like to have 1″ of seam allowance in some seams, and these are generally the places where the dress is likely to be altered. In the bodice it’s the side seams, center back, and the dropped-waist seam (bottom edge). In the skirt it’s the center back and dropped waist seam (top edge). No one will stop you from using whatever width of seam allowance you choose. But if you do stray from the suggested widths, think about how extra bulk will look in certain seams, and whether you are giving yourself enough room to alter the dress when your dancer grows.
Solo dresses are all about the embroidery. Whether you’re using an embroidery machine or free-hand satin stitch on your sewing machine, it’s important to test out at least part of your design before trying it on the real thing. You don’t want to come out of 4 hours of embroidery with a front bodice that’s ripply, puckering, or lop-sided! Get to know both the shapes you’re making, and the supplies you’re using. Invest in quality stabilizers and always do your sample with the real fabric and stabilizers! If you are new to satin stitching on your sewing machine, there are many great tutorials available online. Most importantly, go slow and be patient!