The Value of Fine Work


This is a sewing post. You’ve been warned.

I accepted a job to make a dress while I was also working on the costume design for House of Blue Leaves. Initially, it was presented as a fairly simple project; the client wanted a dress made that she could wear to an evening wedding in the Midwest. I suggested that she go with a silk Dupioni body and line it in silk charmeuse, to be made from an existing commercial pattern and then fit to her. I expected one mock-up (where the garment is built in muslin or similar fabric, or if you’re me, from old sheets because they are cheap), a few minor fitting issues then into fashion fabric, one fitting before lining, and viola! a finished dress.

Not to be. The pattern, Vogue 8959, was poorly represented and badly plotted. The proportions on the dress photographed for the cover were different than the actual pattern proportions and differed wildly from the illustrated depictions. We were going with a different view than the photo, View B because it had sleeves. Now at the very beginning my gut said, “Needs something really classic, few pieces, exceptional fit, fabric to be the main impact.” This was based on what I could see my client wanted and where her anxieties were concerning stepping out of her comfort zone and wearing a very rich, very tailored dress to a semi-formal sort of event.

The first mock up fit terribly and was completely wrong for her figure, and that is where the whole project went down the rabbit hole. Here are photos of what ended up being three mock-ups for a dress that I ended up flat-pattern drafting and draping myself:

Kathleen Mock Up Collage

Each different color is where a change had to be made. I split and move the dart out of the side seam and into the shoulder and waist to compensate for a low bust line. I re-drafted the neckline from more of a scoop to a jewel neckline. I completely re-drafted the armscye to bring it closer to the body to allow more movement. I did away with the funky waist yoke completely, raised the front waist to compensate for a short waist, and added curved darts to skim over a pot belly. In the back I drafted the center back seam to be curved to compensate for a curved back and then cut in at the waist and drafted a curved waistline and long darts to fit a flatter behind. I eliminated the panels on the skirt entirely.

If none of that made sense to you, just know this: I made this dress three or four times before we had what we wanted and we went through four fittings before I ever cut it out of the Dupioni. This dress will never fit anyone but my client and it is transformative when she puts it on–she looks like a million bucks. Here’s why:

Dupioni silk–a classic fabric, very rich, with cross-woven fibers to give it luminescence. She chose a pewter-y blue with green cross weave. Dupioni has the slubs that provide a very luxurious texture to the fabric and takes it out of the cheap shine of satin or tafetta. Here is a shot of the outer fabric once assembled:

Kathleen Dupioni Dress 1

There is a 3/4 sleeve with a facing and vent at the seam line to grant movement. The fabric is absolutely the major feature. We chose to wash and dry it in a machine on delicate to bring it down just a bit and soften the hand. Other details that matter greatly are an invisible zipper closure:

Kathleen Dupioni Dress 2

It is slightly torqued in this picture because my cheap-ass dress form does not reflect my client’s body. It’s possibly the cleanest invisible zipper I’ve ever installed.

I did a vast amount of hand sewing, including the hem, so that there is not a single stitch visible on the outside of the fabric:

Kathleen Hemming Final

Those purple things are my CMC splints, which I have to wear for hand sewing. The lining is just about as beautiful as the dress:

Kathleen Finished Lining

The drifting at the sleeves and hemline is due to the inclusion of vertical ease, meaning the lining is slightly bigger than the dress so that it moves easily and doesn’t constrain the outer shell when in motion. The lining is hand sewn to the zipper facing, to the bottom hemline, and to the sleeve facings.

This is the finished dress:

Kathleen Finished Dress

So I originally quoted a price of $175-225 for the easy, from a pattern, single-fitting package. As the project morphed into something else, I realized that I was not going to be able to charge what it should be worth, which at $40 an hour would make it a $1600 dress. It would be worth every penny, but that just wasn’t possible. What I ended up getting from the project was a much stronger sense of how to charge out my work, including charging for Stylist Services (people think that asking a professional what jewelry to wear and what shoes and what makeup isn’t a separate service, but it is) and also when to assert my authority as the expert. I got the chance to flex my flat patterning muscles and create a dress to fit a real person’s body that makes them look and feel great. In the end, I explained the number of hours (at least 40) that went into this garment and asked for $350 in payment. That’s less than $10 an hour, less than I pay my cleaning lady, but if I also then count what I learned as part of the payment, I feel like I can say it was fair.

Most happily, the dress is finished, delivered, and the project is done.


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