I have always had a thoroughly romantic view of sewing. If my mum would ever mention how she had handmade my older siblings clothes I felt utterly hard-done by, lamenting my off-the-peg garments – even the hand-me-downs had a label. And so when I recently decided to actively pursue some hobbies, top of my list was, of course, dressmaking.
With visions of gowns for grand ballrooms I set about searching for the perfect pattern. I tirelessly scoured eBay for the frock awaiting my nimble fingers. Unsurprisingly it was the cover picture that hooked me … a perfect 1950s lady donning an extraordinary dress of fitted bodice top and the fullest skirt you ever did see. My excitement was palpable. Oh Lord please make sure I’m not outbid by the surely hundreds of other beginner sewers with delusional aspirations. I lot-watched obsessively, terrified that I would fail to notice being outbid and miss the chance to higher my own offer. After 4 days of anxious log-ons, I finally received the much anticipated email … the pattern was mine! The other bidder just couldn’t match this shark’s mean offer of €3.25
The pattern arrived yellow-tinged and musky smelling – I was thrilled with the assurance that the instructions had been pre-loved by someone now 50 years older than when they first created their ‘modern’ frock. I wondered if they still had it or even remembered making it.
Although the pattern evoked great excitement and ambition in me, it was a number of months before I actually took up a dressmaking class. I had been waitlisted for the course and when I finally received the call I was so eager to begin that I took no notice of the gentleman caller’s advice on materials, fabrics and most importantly pattern types. I took myself off to Hickeys with a spring in my step and the persona of dressmaker extraordinaire. I purchased scissors, chalks, measuring tapes, pins, buttons (all good seamstresses have lots of unnecessary buttons), cushions, needles, thread, remnants … I had arrived! Then on to choosing the fabric … a beautiful white and pale blue floral material caught my eye and it was instant love. Straight to the counter… only they didn’t have enough fabric for a skirt that size and my charming, perfect material was an end of line product. Not one to over-react I felt my previously perked chin begin to tremble. ‘Hang on now love – they might just have some left in Galway’ reassured the unconvinced assistant. Low and behold they had it! And didn’t this just make it all the more exciting? I’d receive a package of material … in the post … probably wrapped in brown paper and string … I was Laura Ingalls for goodness sake.
On my first day of class I met the teacher Michelle, an elegant lady that I imagined to have a house full of mannequins and works-in-progress. She spent time with every student at the start of class, examining their choice of fabric and talking them through cutting their pattern: their basic beginners skirt pattern that is, as recommended by the gentleman caller that had been drowned out by my over-active imagination. When she approached, a mild panic overcame me as I envisaged being scolded for my lack of concentration before the course had even begun. Happily there was no such lecture. Michelle told me that the fabric brought a smile to her face and she looked forward to tackling the pattern with me – of course it needed a lot of work as the sizing was over 50 years old and also originally from America so the sizing differed greatly – how long exactly had I been making such dresses??
It didn’t take long to establish that I had jumped in headfirst with not a thought for the execution of my new project. Thankfully all involved seemed to find this endearing and I was given generous attention and guidance. This began with the working out of sizes on calculators and sticking the resized pattern together with masking tape – not what had been offered on the course description. The encouragement ensured that I enjoyed every minute of my classes and sewed (and more often unpicked) with gusto. Unsightly pin-pricked fingers and puckered hems were obliviously overlooked. And oh, the thrill when my dress bodice first took shape. And when I added my first zip? Joy beyond compare!
It took a couple of full classes for me to even cut out the skirt but once it was fully pinned it dawned on me that I was really going to complete the dress. Michelle told me that it reminded her of Paris in the springtime and I was prouder than a child with a finger painting. By the time it came to adding the tulle the class would gather around with much ooooohhhing and aaaaahing. My project had become Michelle’s project and I was delighted that someone was as invested in it as I was. The classes came to an end after 10 weeks and I was left to finish the bias binding myself and instructed strictly to hand-sew the lining with care. I assured Michelle earnestly that I would. The dress was immediately hung in my room where it remained until a few days before the Galway Races to which I was planning to wear it. Emergency! I needed to finish it urgently. There was only one thing for it … to Mama’s house.
Of course my mother lovingly finished all of the parts that I should have done myself and not only did she not tell me off or suggest I was cheating but she took on the role of proud co-creator. She gave me notice of a collection time and when I got there not only was the dress hemmed but there was a pair of beautiful short white vintage gloves and a headpiece of straw and lace that she generously made for me herself. There was great trying on of pieces, suggestions of angles and fittings of brooches. I couldn’t believe that my pattern had become a dress and now my dress had become an ‘outfit’!
A few days later we hit the west of Ireland where I donned all of my garments, applied a matt red lipstick and felt that I was playing dress up. It occurred to me that I now really knew what it meant to have a labour of love. There can be no greater feeling than achieving a goal you have set yourself (yes of course by this time I had blocked out all the help I had received). As I excitedly supped on bubbly with the girls and we soaked up the stylish atmosphere in the racecourse I began to wonder … had anyone worn a similar dress to the Kentucky Derby 50 years previous?