Seeking a simple wool dress

Stepping out of the comfort-dressing zone

Apologies for the blog silence over the last month – if you’re reading this then you’ll probably have spotted the reason why. We’ve been busy overhauling the ClothSpot website – with little time left for sewing, wardrobe planning or even writing about it.

It’s the perfect example of how a style crisis can creep up on you – life just takes over. The challenge some mornings is to find a clean pair of pants and a bra that doesn’t have the underwire poking out – achieve that and frankly, everything else falls by the wayside. Over the last month or so I’m afraid I’ve been living in the familiar old jeans and T-shirts again and – oh dear…

We’re now well into autumn – those lovely glowing leaves are finally drifting to the ground and getting soggy in this morning’s heavy rain. The heating’s been on for a while and we’re all layering up. These days I don’t step outside without a scarf and gloves – and the scarf usually stays on for the rest of the day.

Despite all that backsliding and comfort-dressing, I’m completely inspired by the fabrics that have come through the ClothSpot workshop this season. Aside from the luscious coatings and classic suitings, I’m particularly taken with our lighter-weight wool twill fabrics as well as some of our crepes, too.

New fabrics 10 Nov 2017 for simple wool dress

Those wool twills – of which we found a supply in a range of colours (two for starters, although we’re going to indulge in more, I’m sure) are perfect for a little simple autumn-winter elegance. They’re 100% wool and have rippled in from Italy. Originally intended for a high-end UK-based designer (we’re not being deliberately mysterious – we’re just not allowed to say) we’ve managed to pick up some bolts that were surplus to requirements. They’re certainly not surplus to ours – and amidst all the digital distraction of the last month or two, I’ve finally managed to have a play – determined to cast off the oversized knitwear indoors at least.

A simple wool dress – the pattern hunt

Whether I call it a shift, a tunic or just a wool dress – I crave the simplicity of putting one garment over my head that would dress me for the day – plus tights, shoes etc. No co-ordination required – just a straight-forward garment that ideally would be as uncomplicated to make as it would be to wear. A little bit of elegance wouldn’t go amiss; nothing too tight but not a tent either. I don’t want anything too fitted as is to be a work garment and I can’t drape a mannequin, heave around rolls of fabric or sit comfortably in a fitted bodice. Sleeves are an essential – as is a pattern that can land above the knee as I find anything floating around below there just too impractical. I fancy a bit of a collar – or at least not a plain round neck – and a design that perhaps has a little bit of interest to it.

The reality, inevitably, doesn’t match up. A week on from my initial idea, having trawled through every pattern book and website I could find, I begin to feel a bit like Goldilocks. I remember the same problem a couple of years ago hunting for a cardigan. On that occasion I sought a cosy affair with a collar, long sleeves, pockets and fastenings. Like my dress pattern hunt, the Holy Grail, apparently.

Most of the designs that I like the look of are meant for knit fabrics – and I really am set on our lovely wool twill. Of those meant for woven fabrics – well…this is what makes it to my shortlist.

BurdaStyle Cargo Pocket Dress for Simple wool dress
Cargo Pocket Dress 02/2014 by BurdaStyle

Not sure about that waist seam cutting me across the middle.

BurdaStyle Sheath Dress for simple wool dress
Sheath Dress 09/2012 #109 by BurdaStyle

If I was looking for a shift dress, then this might have been the one – but no collar and perhaps a bit plain without a handy white swan to perk things up?

Named Clothing A-Line_Dress for simple wool dress
‘Lexi’ A-Line Dress from Named Clothing

Pleats into a dropped waist? Well, hello again 1982 – but not with my hips in 2017.

BurdaStyle V back Dress for simple wool dress
V-Back Dress 01/2011 #128 by BurdaStyle

Would it be too much to ask for a dress with a back as well as a front? This might be appealing to my inner librarian but it’s November for heaven’s sake.

BurdaStyle Shirt Dress for simple wool dress
Shirt Dress 09/2011 #129 by BurdaStyle

OK – let’s give this one a go. It has a raised collar band, some buttons and some shape.

As our wonderful technical partners have discovered over the last month or so, I do have the capacity to morph into Little Miss Picky on occasion. I decide that ‘good enough’ will have to do in this instance and I get on with it.

The tricky bit

It starts so well. Based on the BurdaStyle measurements the pattern is true to size. The front is pleated from the shoulder so isn’t particularly fitted, but the upper back width is usually the critical point for me and this fits nicely. As it happens this dress is lined – I’d been easy either way, but the lining in this pattern is an integral part of the structure of the dress given that it has front facings and a collar stand. I opt for our ‘Simply-draping black crepe-de-chine fabric

Lining for simple wool dress

as the lining as I’m aiming for maximum drape without any stiffness. The lining isn’t an issue until it comes to those pleats into the collar stand.

Oh me, oh my.

I am a great advocate of tailor tacks when I mark up a pattern and I’m certain I marked those pleat lines so accurately. However achieving a satisfactory and balanced drape with the pleats from the neckline is a bit of a tussle. Without a mannequin it would have been impossible to ensure the pleats fell from the neckline as opposed to looking and feeling as if I was wearing a scarf. With the lining too, there’s quite a lot of fabric to fit into the attachment point and it’s testament to the resilience and pliability of the wool twill that it survives at least four attempts (more on one side) to achieve a good line.

Neckline pleats for simple wool dress

I’m still not convinced I have it 100% right but I’m also aware of the danger of revising this single element to destruction. I re-invoke the ‘good enough’ clause and move on.

The confusing bit

All goes according to plan until I come to a grinding halt on the front fastening. I’ve mentioned before the zen-like state one has to enter in order to make sense of BurdaStyle’s instructions. As far as I can make out, the front opening of my simple wool dress is fastened at the top with three visible buttons. Below, there are three concealed buttons which fit into buttonholes worked into the front facing of the right-hand side of the dress.

As I reach the front buttonhole stage I realise that the last of those three buttonholes is in the same position as the top one of the three buttonholes in the facing. I go back to the pattern and, sure enough – there are only five buttonholes marked on the front pattern piece. This surely contradicts the haberdashery requirements where it states that three flat buttons are required for the concealed fastenings, as well as three visible buttons.

Whether this is a pattern error – and that 6 buttonholes really are required – or whether I’ve missed some critical piece of understanding is irrelevant. I now have a buttonhole inside my facing, exactly where I need to position the bottom of my three external buttonholes.

It’s too late to reposition the internal buttonholes or add another lower down, without dismantling the entire front of the dress. NOOOO! I am so not doing those pleats again!

Initially I decide to top-stitch the lower part of the placket together with a vertical as well as a horizontal line of stitching but after three attempts at this, the dress just isn’t hanging right. I therefore decide to reposition the top three buttons and then add another four buttonholes to the front, thereby making the dress a completely button-fronted affair without the partial fly-front placket effect.

The good news (Yes! There is good news!) is that the wool withstood the repeated unpicking-and-restitching with aplomb. A careful press later and you wouldn’t have a clue about the trauma it had undergone. I just wish the same could be said for me.

The wearing

My (not so) simple wool dress is comfortable to wear. The front pleats sit well enough in the end, and I like the collar stand. It’s evident that for me it’s a style that works better either with shorter hair or with my hair up – otherwise there’s just too much going on around my neck. Although lined, the dress isn’t too hot and it moves well as I do all the things I need to do during the working day. Plus – pockets!

Pocket for simple wool dress

I’m disappointed though, that despite the suggestion in the model shot on BurdaStyle, there’s nowhere near enough shape cut into the dress for it to look as I might have hoped. I suspect the strategic use of bulldog clips in their photograph – and perhaps if I wanted to spend the day posing around like a catwalk model then there might possibly be moments when you might see a little bit of shape. Most of the time however, I don’t feel it looks particularly elegant – a concern compounded by the way I wear it.

The thing is, I like my legs to be warmly tucked away in the winter – and open-toed boots (as worn by the BurdaStyle model) do even less for me than ‘cold shoulder’ tops. I won’t bother to ask if I’m missing something here. It’s just stupid. Especially in November. Full-length images however, suggest that my ‘flat & black’ approach with opaques and brogues clearly isn’t working. The dress itself is an inverted triangle shape – my sturdy legs and practical shoes striding out below seems rather out of balance. It makes me feel a little like Miss Trunchbull – or at the very least, Head Fabric Monitor.

Miss Trunchbull simple wool dress styling
“Did someone order denim?”

I suspect my simple wool dress requires styling with a little more elegance. Full-length boots and/or charcoal tights have been suggested – and boots are what I went for here – although they’re not particularly practical for work.

Full length simple wool dress

Any other ideas – including alternative patterns – would be gratefully received, as ever.

I’ll continue the search for a stylish and practical winter work outfit – meanwhile enjoy the new website!

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25 thoughts on “Seeking a simple wool dress

  1. Ellie says:

    Really glad you went for a shirt dress – when i read your wish list that is exactly what I was thinking of.

    Try the Maria Denmark Edith shirt dress: https://www.mariadenmark.com/shop/402-edith-blouse-and-dress/ I haven’t made the dress, but the shirt is super comfortable and well drafted – a couple of darts for shape, but nothing pinching. Beautiful classic elegant trapezoidal shape. I would add in-seam pockets to a dress for practicality (everything is better with pockets).

    If you want to be able to add longer sleeves (the Edith has kimono sleeves) try to the Sally shirt dress from serendipity studios. https://sewserendipity.com/sally-shirtdress-pattern/ this is a similar trapesoidal shirt dress with waist darts that you decide how much you want to take in (i.e. how fitted it is). I have sewed it up in a cotton and it’s my favourite dress – i have done all sorts in it, including cycling to work. It’s not quite as well drafted as the edith – it needs a front facing adding, and again, added in-seam pockets work a treat.

    I quite fancy sewing one of these up in some of that wool twill myself, for a winter favourite dress.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Ellie – great minds think alike, clearly! Thank you very much indeed for the link to Maria Denmark – shamefully I hadn’t been aware of her patterns and thanks to you I’ve just had a very enjoyable coffee & click! The shape of that dress is perfect and I think it would work really well. And yes indeed – I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t be improved with pockets, you’re quite right. I was just then thinking ‘but, sleeves?’ and you were ahead of me – the Serendipity dress is a find and I like the idea of fitting those waist darts. I can foresee a busy winter!

  2. Roswyn Glenny says:

    Am so impressed with your fight and ultimate win with “the dress” looks great. I have made a few items with those draped pleats and they have certainly challenged me. The new website is simply terrific, easy to get around , wonderfully designed. The website was always good but now it is great.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Than you for the encouragement Roswyn – I was determined!! I certainly learned a lot (not ‘arf…) and I will be very wary of pleat-draping on an angle in future. So chuffed that you like the new site – and thank you for those lovely comments! It’s a relief to know that all the hard work was worthwhile *wipes brow*. I hope we can do it justice!

  3. Caroline says:

    Feeling your pain but it looks good non the less. You could try the Farrow or Hadley by Grainline Studios. I haven’t made them myself but they look like they might suit this type of fabric although you may need to wear a close fitting long sleeved t-shirt under the Hadley. Good luck.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello Caroline – thank you for the empathy! Now the Grainline Farrow looks like a very elegant, simple line – no dratted pleats and I like the way those pockets work on the front panels – excellent idea. You’re right about the need for an underlayer with the Hadley though – there is definite potential for inadvertent embarrassment there and I would definitely need to play that safe…. Much appreciated!

  4. Marion says:

    The dress looks really good on you in spite of all the problems. If it is any consolation, I hate Burda patterns and now avoid them at all costs. I never find the instructions particularly good and the fitting always seems a bit tricky. It’s as shame because the designs often look so inviting. Must be me.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Hello there Marion – thank you very much indeed for the vote of confidence! Re: Burda patterns – no – not just you. I am *so* often tempted and on occasion am rewarded royally – my ‘Vintage Kim’ coat is now in its third winter. However their instructions are terse to say the least and I have been caught out more than once. ‘Would a diagram or two kill them?’, I ask myself…

  5. Let’s Get Sewing says:

    How infuriating to have searched for the right pattern, but for it not to turn out as planned! I have to say, I do love the dress on you. The denim is such a lovely colour, and I am a big fan of shirt dresses. Maybe a belt would make the shape of the dress feel a bit more flattering? Good luck!

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thank you very much indeed for the thumbs-up! I got there in the end and sometimes a challenge is a good thing – it kept me off the Kettle Chips for an evening 🙂 I may well experiment with a belt – I will give it a go and update accordingly.

  6. Di says:

    Love the new website. Your latest dress looks good Alice, and the colour is flattering. I see Colette Patterns have a new pattern suitable for lightweight woollens (Claudette?). It has a raised waist and slight cowl. Kickpleat at the back. Lots of options, some which will probably make you pull a face ( I did ), but the overall style looks OK. Didn’t see any pockets but easy enough to add some inseam ones. I’ve made McCalls 6460 view B, in a lightweight triple crepe— a doddle to fit. Used the same fabric for the sleeves and added interest with lots of topstitching. Other option is to colour block, but maybe that doesn’t appeal As others have said a shirtwaister style is a go’er then you can roll your sleeves up.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Now Di, what on earth makes you think I would ever pull a face! (I can’t think….). I do like the idea of something a bit more fitted and now that you’ve thrown down that particular gauntlet (aha!!) I it’s perhaps time I ventured down that route. I like the wider neckline on the McCalls pattern and as you say, the different options on the Colette Claudette offer lots of scope – it’s just a case of whether I can cope with that seam at the waist. I might give it a toile… They’re both perfect for the wool twill – and I do like the weight of our triple crepes too. Choices, choices…

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Eek! Scary bow! Ah – I see – other views. Ooh – I agree – that looks like a lovely basic pattern with lots of potential for fitting nicely and sleeve/pocket options. Thank you! This is so brilliant – all these pattern ideas that I just hadn’t spotted before. I really appreciate it – thank you!

  7. Penny says:

    The dress look great – well done for perseverance! I have this Burda pattern, in the end though, I didn’t make a dress, but have used the pattern to make 2 (unlined shirts) – one with sleeves, one without, and neither with concealed buttons, just button on show all the way down. It sounds like I made the right decision 🙂 . I love the neckline on this pattern, subtle but definitely different.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thank you very much, Penny – I will wear my Perseverance Badge with pride! I think a shirt sounds like a great way to use this pattern – especially since when I wear it I feel as if it would work really well worn open at the front (over a layer underneath, obviously!!). and perhaps with trousers.

  8. Penny says:

    Oh … and one more thing … the Kalle shirtdress from Closet Patterns now has a sleeve expansion. I made the sleeveless version in the summer – again an unshaped dress, but it has style imo. I’m on the look out for the right fabric for a winter version with sleeves

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Ooh – good to know – that’s such a classic pattern – thanks for the heads-up! We’re trying to get more of the wool twill I used for the dress – it would be lovely as that shirt dress as it has a little substance but would still be very easy to work the collar and front placket (I think!)

  9. Hayley says:

    I love the dress! I think it would look great with booties (ie ankle high boots) and either leggings or tights. You could add a tan belt if you want a bit more shaping.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Well Haley – it’s funny you should say that as the following weekend I went out and took advantage of the ‘20% off boots’ sale at Clarks and did just that! Look out for their appearance on a blog near you soon! Thank you for the reassurance that it might be a good route to go down. And yes – the belt thing. I will definitely give it a try and promise to reveal the results (maybe 😉

  10. Hayley says:

    Oh and another thought – sometimes when I feel frumpy in something, I find shortening the sleeves (perhaps 3/4?) makes a big difference. It just makes the block of colour less overwhelming somehow. Try rolling them up a bit and see what you think.

    • aliceclothspot says:

      Thank you for that idea too, Haley – my sleeves invariably get pushed up as I work – I will try rolling them for a neater effect. It hadn’t occurred to me that doing that might help with the appearance in that way but now you mention it…. 🙂

  11. aliceclothspot says:

    Hello all! I just wanted to pop another comment on here to say ‘thank you so much!’ for all the positive and creative feedback. It’s completely wonderful to have all your ideas and I’m so sorry it’s taken me more than a week to acknowledge all your contributions. Our new website has given us quite the to-do list and the blog has suffered this week – but we’re definitely waving not drowning! My next project is being lined up…

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