Sunday, October 16, 2011

Buy Nothing New: Thrifty French Maid Costume

What do you do when you decide at the last minute you need a costume and nothing in your wardrobe fits the bill? In the spirit of Buy Nothing New Month, buying something new was out. I also don't like buying things that will get limited wearing. I could have gone to Savers to see what I could get second hand that could be reworked into a costume. However, thrifty sort that I am, I decided to see what I could do with what I already had to hand. This led to the Thrifty French Maid Costume.

The finished costume: Front, Side and Back views
 I used completely reclaimed material from my refashion/reuse stash including:
  • An old pair of black/dark grey satin pajamas I gave up on wearing as the polyester was too sweaty
  • An old white work shirt
  • Some offcuts of white netting from making curtains
  • A zipper reclaimed from a previous garment
The pajamas and shirt were disassembled into their separate pieces. I was going to make the dress from the black satin of the pajamas, the apron from the shirt, and a petticoat from the netting. The basic dress design was a fitted bodice, pleated short skirt, short puffed sleeves, and a zip at the back. I'll confess there was not a lot of preparation and planning that went into this project, so there was a fair bit of "design on the fly" and "winging it". It's also why there aren't any "before" or "in progress" photos. It was serious last minute sewing. However, I have drawn up a little diagram of how the dress pieces came out of the pajama pieces. The black line is the pajama piece and the red line is the dress piece.

I laid out the pieces of fabric I had to work with and started to plan pattern pieces. I used the bodice from a dress pattern that I'd recently fitted as a base and re-worked it to suit the shape I wanted. No time to do a muslin, I went straight to cutting out pieces, leaving a generous seam allowance where possible. I did a quick self-fit as I went along. For the skirt I cut eight slightly trapezoidal panels and sewed them into a circle. I then stitched the netting fabric to the top of inside of the skirt panels, then added some extra tiers to the lower edge of the netting to give it some "floof". To attach the skirt to the bodice, I put in box pleats placed to hide the seams of the individual skirt pieces. The zipper was inserted so it went down centre back of the bodice and into the skirt (so I could get it over my hips/shoulders). The small puff sleeves were made from the pajama sleeves buy cutting the sleeves in half and attaching the lower half to the upper half to create a wider circle to be gathered in to the bodice armscyth and create the puffed look. To do the gathering quickly, I used a trick I'd read recently and turned the sewing machine tension right up to 10. It effectively gathers the fabric as you sew, then you can just fudge the fabric along the stitching line to make it fit. On the ends of the sleeves I sewed a channel and inserted some thin elastic.
The "petticoat" layer under the skirt

I decided at that point that the dress really needed some kind of trim. I cut a bunch of long strips around 2" wide from the white shirt, pressing them half to create a smooth edge. I applied this around the bottom of the skirt and the bottom of the sleeves. I then used the white satin piping from the pajamas to edge the neckline.

The apron was fairly simple. A square for the top and a trapezoid for the bottom, plus a waist tie. I made a bunch of white strips from the shirt (as above), then gathered them using the sewing machine method above, to create a ruffled edge for the apron. I then soaked it in starch and pressed it to get that crisp feel.

 I also needed a little pleated head piece. I ended up using the shirt cuffs, which were nice and sturdy. I removed the buttons and cut off the bit with the button hole and stitched the two cuffs together to create a longer piece. I then pleated it and sewed it into what was the shirt collar band. It wasn't quite right until I folded the sides of the pleated cuffs down to the band to create a curved shape. Stitched those bits down and made the band taper thinner towards the ends. Tried it on and it stayed in place with bobby pins, so worked nicely.

And voila! The costume was made complete by the essential pair of black seamed stockings and a pair of black and white heels from my wardrobe. Not bad if I do say so myself.

A pair of pajamas, an old shirt, some curtain offcuts + 10 hours sewing = One thrifty (and sexy) french maid costume.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Buy Nothing New Month: Make Do and Mend

One of the easiest ways to avoid having to buy new things is to look after and maintain the things you already have. You'd think that would be a statement of the obvious, but in the current throw-away consumer culture, people seem unwilling to consider making simple repairs to extend the life of an item.

The "Make-do and Mend" slogan  arose during World War II, where all kinds of resources were being redirected to the war effort and civilians had to learn to make-do with strictly rationed items of clothing, food, and other items. An interesting post on Make-do and Mend and rationing can be found over at the Coletterie blog here.

Some Make-do and Mend media from WWII, though I would recommend getting your bloke to take off his pants first before attempting to mend them.
There were a couple of notable books on how to make-do and mend, both in the UK and in the USA. Make And Mend For Victory was from the USA and published in 1942. The lovely Susannah from Cargo Cult Craft has put this on her website as a two part downloadable pdf. Make Do And Mend was from the UK and published around the same time. Reproduction copies can be bought from Amazon and similar places.

This is a darning mushroom
This weekend I decided to tackle my mending pile, which contained a couple of socks with holes, a pair of knickers with an unravelled side seam, a pair of pj bottoms with a rip, a dressing gown sash that had come apart, and a carry bag where the handles had almost pulled off. I was fortunate in growing up with a mother who sewed and often mended our clothes and household furnishings. I found out that not everyone had this experience growing up when I discovered that most people have no idea what a "sock mushroom" is. So let's start with my socks.
What I grew up calling a "sock mushroom", is more accurately called a "darning mushroom". It's a mushroom shaped item that you use to stretch the rounded toe or heel of a sock over so you can darn it. My mum had a plastic one where the "stem" could be unscrewed and you could store needles and pins inside. I'm more low tech and use a light bulb. It does the job quite adequately.

I'm not going to go into detail on how to darn socks. There are a variety of tutorials on Basically it involves sewing some base threads and weaving a patch over the offending hole in the sock. It really doesn't take long to do once you get the hang of it. It's something I often do in front of the TV in the ad breaks.

The grey pair I did with black thread so you can see the darned patch more easily. When darned with matching colour thread, it really isn't very noticeable, as you can see in the black pair, where I've circles the darned patch so you can actually find it!

The other items in my mending pile I repaired using the wonders of modern technology - the sewing machine and the overlocker (or "serger" if you're American). The overlocker is great for sewing up seams and finishing edges at the same time. I fixed the side seam of my knickers in about 5 seconds flat.

The pajama bottoms had torn where the fabric was getting a bit worn and thin. I'd previously stitched it up with the overlocker, but it had torn along the stitching line. So this time I decided to do a more stable repair and use a tight zig-zag stitch over the tear. It means the repair is more visible, but these are just pajamas so I'm not concerned about that.

The carry bag was a straight forward fix. It was a freebie with another purchase and a really good sized bag for carry larger items. Unfortunately, my partner had taken to using it to carry heavy tools and it had been picked up by only one handle, which caused it to rip away from the body of the bag. The repair simply involved finding some matching thread and resewing the handle back on along the original stitch lines. To prevent future repairs, I added some reinforcement stitching at the top. 

The dressing gown sash was a slightly more fiddly repair. It had mostly come undone at the join, but the fabric had also frayed. So the seam was completely unpicked, the frayed edges trimmed and joined with the overlocker, then flipped inside out and top-stitched in matching thread to close the seam.

On the whole, maybe an hours work on a Sunday to clear my mending pile and get six items back in use and avoid having to buy replacements. Next time you go to throw something out, think about whether it could be repaired and put back into service. It will save another item going to landfill and save your hip pocket from shelling out for a replacement.