My mission: to design, draft and make a dress for Catherine, secret ninja, BFF and ultimate perfectionist to wear to the By Hand London party. Simple, non? Actually, no. This was a task fraught with peril at every turn.
First of all, let me tell you a little more about my lovely friend Catherine … Behind that beautiful smile and those sparkly eyes lies a warrior princess. Seriously … don’t be deceived by the banana grinning loon, she is actually trained to kill. With nine years in the army, not only is she at home with a variety of lethal weapons, but she can also do combat rolls (personally verified) and can still do wonderful marching if you make loud tsch, tsch, tsch noises (despite being a civilian for almost two decades).
In addition to her military skill set she is also a proud guardian of all wildlife and is the only person who has ever convinced me to drive two and a half hours with an injured crow on my lap to take it to the wildlife hospital in the hope it would recover. (Yes, actually, it did). It also pecked my hand, cawed and poohed on me during the journey – just saying. From bees to beetles and frogs to hedgehogs, no rescue is too small or too arduous. Trouble is, this has rubbed off on me, and I now rescue all kinds of creatures for rehousing from inside our little cottage. (Rumour has it the spiders of the world would like to personally thank her for my re-education.)
More astonishingly, this new skill set of mine has proved useful. Having watched Catherine save all manner of creatures over the years, I recently had the chance to try one of her wildlife saving tips for myself when a very poorly bee landed on a blanket right by my hand. The poor thing looked exhausted and couldn’t even get up the energy to fly. I moved it to a spot in the full sun to warm it up and then administered a teaspoon of honey mixed with warm water on a spoon as per my carzy friend’s instructions. To my astonishment, the battered bee crawled towards the spoon and then drank almost all the honey nectar. After half an hour or so of cleaning himself, warming up and wing testing, he then flew off restored.
Amazing! I only knew how to do that thanks to intensive training because I am besties with crazy nature girl.
To top it all Catherine is an hilarious and brilliant person to have adventure with. We have had some epic days and riotous evenings in the many years we have been friends, from the night sharing an upside down bed in the dairy of a medieval castle to a long weekend foodie trawl through Antwerp (who knew that there is actually a limit now much marzipan ice cream two women can eat?) We’ve even donned kaleidoscope specs and sailed in a mini fruit slice rowing boat through a spangly banana tunnel underneath pineapple island and breathed in the banana smoke (there were no drugs involved in that incident I can assure you.)
The only other thing you need to know about Catherine is that she is a high maintenance perfectionist. At this point in the proceedings she will of course protest that she is in fact low maintenance – but it’s not true. She is like Sally in When Harry met Sally when she orders food … “I would like that but without the dressing, and with that on the side, oh and can I swap that for this, and I’d like this in this way …” She is the only person I have ever met who will try on every single size 6 shoe in the shop in the style she likes to make sure she gets the optimum fit for both individual feet. (Nope, I am not joking.) As you can imagine, it makes shopping a little bit like an endurance race and the assistants think she’s a little bit “special” while the whole ‘every shoe in the shop’ trying on ensues. This is just a weeny example of her “just so” attitude … and I am telling you the girl can’t help it. I love her for it and normally it makes me laugh, but then normally I am not making a garment for her.
Anyhow, I digress. It was summer and as a contributor to the By Hand London ladies printing start up campaign I received an invitation to their little launch do up in London. I asked Catherine if she’d like to accompany me up to London for the evening, and bless her, she said “yes”. (I am aware that it is a great sacrifice for a non sewing person to agree to spending the whole evening in the company of sewing fanatics, but I did add to the appeal of the event by telling her about the Prosecco that would be flowing). And then I thought, “Ah, but as everyone will be sporting handmade garments, so perhaps I should make Catherine a dress …”
I know, I know, at that moment I didn’t even think about what I was getting myself into (that only happened later). I should also tell you that I have only once before tried to make something for Catherine and that was when I got married. I foolishly thought that in the run up to the wedding, as well as making shirts for two ushers and a pageboy, that I would be able to make my wedding dress, a shirt for my bloke and two bridesmaids dresses (one of which was destined for Catherine). Three toiles later, and with a fit that still resembled a sack of potatoes in silk dupion, we piled the whole lot in the cupboard, drove to the department store and bought her a bridesmaid dress.
With just a couple of weeks to go before the “do”, I did rationalise a little and plumped for a knit fabric for the new dress, as with a serger this was a more realistic and manageable goal. Then, when I couldn’t find a pattern that either of us liked, I turned instead to a jersey maxi dress that Catherine had recently bought. “Well”, I said flippantly, “I can make you one just like that.” *Sigh* My mum always said my mouth would get me into trouble one of these days! Actually, to start with I thought it would be okay. After all, it was just like a long T-shirt dress, how hard could it be?! It was only when I started to lay out the dress onto my tissue paper and stick pins in through the seams to mark out my new garment seam lines that I realised this was going to be very tricky indeed … as the dress I was copying was an extremely lightweight and slippery viscose jersey and moved as if it was alive. Once this hurdle was overcome (pinning down the offending garment with every manner of tin from my larder as improvised pattern weights) I realised I had absolutely no idea how I could work out the volume of the fabric that was extra in the puffs at the top of the sleeve or the gathers around the neckline. Oops.
After a couple of sleepless nights of putting it off I realised I was just going to have to improvise, or Catherine would be going to the party naked, so I cut the dress out with my best guesses at the neck and sleeve head. The construction was okay, until I got to the neck band. On the original dress this was a kind of bias rollover finish, but I couldn’t figure out how they then got the gathers in. I tried it like this and then after a very tearful evening in the company of a large glass of wine and the stitch ripper I realised that wasn’t going to work. Instead I gathered and basted the front neckline and then stitched the folded band on, a bit more like my lady skater dresses and that worked a treat. Not so neat on the inside as the shop bought version, but mine laid flatter and had a lovely curve.
I still love the fabric I used, a bargain buy off ebay at just £3.99 a metre. Green is Catherine’s favourite colour … from peas to frogs … and as soon as I saw this print I knew it was the one. There was some drama in the hemming of the frock, as by now we were two evenings away from the function, but in the end it all turned out fine. The hem has dropped a little since its first wearing so I think another wee chop and rehem will be in order soon. I was so relieved that I finished the dress (in the nick of time) that the bits that aren’t so perfect I’ve decided to ignore.
Luckily, Catherine seems to love it anyway. Here is the dress on party night attending a train picnic (courtesy of Catherine ably assisted by Marks and Spencer), and outside the venue chatting to the gorgeous and leggy Rachel from House of Pinheiro. We had an absolute blast that evening.
The moral of the story? That I can draft a dress from an existing garment, even if I end up stabbing myself repeatedly with pins in the process and swearing enough to fill up the largest swear box in the world. I also learnt not to obsess over perfection when making for your friends as it will cause you an awful lot of additional stress and worry, and let’s face facts … how many totally perfect garments have you sewn? I probably have two things I have made that I can find not a single fault with – it’s a tricky business this sewing lark. Lastly, try and remember that the recipient will almost certainly be delighted by the fact that you took the time and effort to make something for them, and even the ultimate perfectionists out there will overlook any flaws, because that is why they are your friend!