I’ve meant to sew a few things and review the several-years-old Tanya Whelan’s Sew Many Dresses, Sew Little Time for a while now, but given the lack of blog posts, etc, from other curvy sewists for this book, I kept putting it off. However, with it being Pattern Hacking Month here at the CSC, I thought that this would be the perfect time to dust off my copy and dive in.
Why now? Sew Little Dresses is essentially a guide to pattern hacking, once you’ve perfected the fit of a dress bodice. For those not familiar with this book, it was one of the first “mix-and-match” sewing pattern books to be published in the past few years. (Others using a similar format include Boundless Style by Victory Patterns’ Kristiann Boos and the girls’ dress book Oliver + S Building Block Dress by Liesl Gibson.) These books allow you to match a handful of bodice patterns with a handful of skirt patterns to create a huge variety of dress patterns. Sew Many Dresses goes a step further by including multiple neckline templates, a button band extension, and extensive tutorials on dart manipulation. Basically, if you have an idea for a dress design involving a fitted bodice, this book can help you create the pattern for it. The great thing is that once you’ve got each bodice fitting the way that you like, you can use it over and over with different variations.
Size Range and Curve-Friendliness
If I can vent for a second, my main source of frustration with most sewing pattern books is the size range–many top out with their largest size having a hip measurement around 44-46″ (112cm-117cm), leaving those of us with larger measurements to have to either grade up a few sizes or be unable to use the patterns. Sew Many Dresses actually does have a nicely inclusive size range–up to a 50.5″/128.5 cm bust and a 52.5″/133.5cm hip measurement:
The downside to the Sew Many Dresses size range is that all of the sizes are drafted from the same B-cup block. If you’re large-busted and you’ve gotten used to working with cup-sized patterns, it can be a little jarring to deal with a B-cup-sized pattern again. For reference, here is the Sew Many Dresses princess seamed side bodice piece compared with the side bodice piece for my Cashmerette Lenox dress. The two pattern piece outlines are highlighted in green (ignore the non-highlighted black pen–that was a tracing error):
If you’ll notice the non-highlighted tracing error in the above picture, that’s an example of a another non-curve-friendly aspect of this book. You’ll need to trace the individual pattern pieces, which are nested by size. (Thankfully, these aren’t overlayed in a roadmap style like magazine patterns.) Unfortunately for those of us at the upper end of the size range, instead of using different colors or line styles to denote the different sizes, the different sizes are marked by a gradient of decreasing darkness, meaning that the last few sizes are a bit difficult to see through the tracing paper. This is a usability issue in the largest few sizes.
Additionally, some of the bodice styles aren’t particularly bra-friendly, in that they are either strapless or a tie-halter style. That’s a fairly minor quibble to me, though–there are tons of styles that you can make from the other included bodices.
Sew Many Dresses includes four fitted bodices, two skirt patterns, and instructions on how to draft numerous skirt variations:
- Darted bodice (very similar to the Cashmerette Upton dress)
- Princess seam bodice
- Wrap bodice
- Strapless bodice
- Straight skirt
- Bias skirt
- Gored skirt
- Full, half, quarter circle skirt (drafting instructions)
- A-line and flared a-line skirt (drafting instructions)
On top of the bodice/skirt options, there are also a number of neckline templates and various extensions (e.g. cowl or button band) that you can use to further modify your patterns.
The transition pages within the book provide inspiration of all of the ways that you can mix and match these combinations and the options for hacking the bodices to extend your choices further:
The instructions are clearly written, and I thought that the diagrams were very helpful. For example, the following two pages show part of how to convert the darted bodice pattern to a one-shoulder bodice with shirring:
The downside to the instructions (if you need them) is that given the nature of the format of the book, you’ll be jumping around quite a bit to find the right “chunk” of instructions that you need at a given point. Are you sewing the cowl bodice? Flip to the instructions on that. Want to match it with a half-circle skirt? Flip to the page with those directions. The book does also include some basic sewing instructions, so a newbie could use this book, but sewists with more experience will probably be more comfortable with it.
My Dress Project
I’ll admit that I had a pretty bad case of indecision paralysis when it came to determining what I wanted to sew from this book. I knew that I wanted to go with a design that included either the darted or princess seam bodice (where I could use the Cashmerette patterns that I had previously fitted to my large bust as a sloper…cutting down on some of the work of trying to alter a B-cup drafted pattern).
I wound up mashing up my own design, which I intended to be reminiscent of the 90’s-style rayon dresses that I loved to wear back then and that seem to be somewhat back in style. Since this wasn’t one of the “straight out of the book” styles, I drew up a quick fashion sense to get a visual representation of what I would be doing:
My design used the following elements from Sew Many Dresses:
- Princess seamed bodice (altered using the bodice from my Cashmerette Lenox dress)
- Scoop neck template (+ self-drafted facing)
- Button band
- Self-drafted flared A-line skirt (per the Sew Many Dresses instructions)
- Cap sleeve
I have to say that I’ve always freaked out over the thought of drafting my own skirts in the past–it always seemed like an oppressive amount of math was involved. However, the methods shown in Sew Many Dresses rely more on simple geometry and a few measurements–for the first time I felt like I “got” how to do it.
Even though I muslined the bodice, the overall fit of the dress from my “good fabric” turned out a little roomier than I would have liked. My only guess on this is that the rayon fabric I used “grew” over the course of sewing the dress. However, it’s still wearable and is very comfortable in warm weather.
Overall, I had a lot of fun with this project. At the very least, it provides a lot of inspiration for ways that you can hack bodice patterns that you’ve already worked out the fitting issues for. I definitely plan to use it again.
Book Rating and Final Thoughts
Size Range (1-5): 4.5 (Size range is fairly inclusive. I docked a half point for having to deal with the B-cup-iness in the plus range, when at this point, most pattern makers draft their plus patterns with a somewhat larger cup size.)
Instructions (1-5): 4 (The instructions for the different components are good, but you’ll probably feel more comfortable with this book if you’re already comfortable with standard orders-of-construction for dresses with waist seams.)
Selection of Patterns (1-5): 5 (Even though I’ll never use the strapless bodice or straight skirt templates, there are tons and tons of dresses you can come up with using the included styles.)
Overall fit of project (1-5): N/A (I’m not going to score this because my muslin actually fit pretty well, but somehow, moving to a non-stretch rayon caused my dress to “grow”. I suspect that it was probably user error in some way, but I’m hesitant to comment on the sizing/fit of the book patterns at this point.)
Overall Rating (1-5) + Explanation: 4.5 (Average score of other entries.)