Such a good idea in my head: my Belle gown

Sometimes a project seems like a really good idea in your head. Then the reality turns out a little different.

After last year’s ball, I came to the conclusion that I really needed another ball gown. Not needed as in “I really want another dress.’ but needed as in

(1) Whoever thought trains on a dress were a good idea  was wrong. Very, very wrong.

(2) Floor length skirts are totally the wrong length for dancing.

(3) No foundation garment on the planet was going to make the bodice fit right. Major alterations were necessary.

So, with that, I determined I would make a new gown.

Sometimes something is such a good idea in my head, but when things get underway they go sideways fast. It all started so innocently, there was no reason to suspect here there be dragons.

My usual mode of sewing is to set up a forty-eight hour marathon and just sit down and get the whole thing done in one fell swoop. I have been told that is not the ideal way to do things, that I should (that word alone should have clued me off!) take my time and do things carefully and deliberately. So I planned two weeks for the project. But before that, I needed to design the new dress and for that I needed a period piece for inspiration.

Design and Inspiration

A jaunt over to the online MET museum produced this beauty:

 Given that I already had a drawer full of gold satin and gold organza, it seemed like the perfect piece to launch from. 

I certainly would not be able to copy the dress exactly, although the main ideas would definitely find their way into my new gown. But for that to happen, I needed to redraft some of the pattern. Since I’d planned to do that to make the bodice fit properly, that wasn’t a real problem. Still it was new territory as I usually just eyeball things give them a go. But determined to do things ‘right’ this time, I made the new patterns and even worked out on graph paper how to do the sleeve embellishments and how to take the best advantage of the ivory and gold beaded sari I had to use as an overskirt. 

Awesome, great, this doing it ‘right’ thing might just have something going for it.


Too good to be true

Out came the cutting board and the sewing pins and I actually pinned the pattern down. So what, big deal, right? Yeah, well, I rarely pin, I usually use weights, or books, or a solid pair of scissors, whatever’s in reach. But doing it right this time…

 I picked up the best sewing scissors I have (inherited from my mother)–and they would not cut the fabric. They chewed and frayed the edges like a dog with a bone. It took three attempts to find a pair of scissors just to cut out the pattern.  I should have known at this point it was an omen.

Pattern finally cut and scissor blisters tended, I started doing all the prep work on the pieces: sewing gathering stitches, stay stitches and sewing in interfacing. I’m happily chugging along and ~~CLUNK~~. No matter what you’re doing, that is a bad sound. A really bad one. In this case, it was the sound of a sewing machine seizing up with an enormous knot of thread bound up in the works. I need to see if there’s a good regency era curse to describe a sewing machine that has just had its timing knocked silly.

A week later I get the machine back from the repair shop.

Now I’m down to a week for sewing, but that’s all right, still plenty of time to ‘do it right’.

Now it gets complicated

Time to start on the bodice.

First the sleeves and all the fiddly embellishing on them. A dozen buttons, gathering, pleats, lace–good grief, what didn’t these silly things require? But still, they came together and actually looked like they were supposed to.

The streak of bad luck had ended.

Or not.

Moments into making the bodice I discovered the lining that I’d cut from spare sari bits was not going to work. No way no how. That meant a mad scramble for satin scraps, just enough for the lining. Only eighteen pieces on this stupid bodice, not including the sleeves which were another ten. *headthump*

Since I was going to do this ‘right’ I pinned every seam even though I very rarely pin things. I quickly remembered why. Every stinking, bloody seam in the bodice had to have parts picked out and resewn in spots where the slippery satin decided not to behave. It just slid along the pins instead of staying where it belonged. *face palm*.

Basting in the sleeves like my grandmother used to didn’t work any better. More picking and restitching. Breath deep, just breathe deep.

Surely it would get better now. Sewing the skirt was always easier. Except when it wasn’t.

Catastrophic failure

The stupid satin would not, could not come together in a neat seam on the first try. But there were just three of them, so not too bad. On to the overskirt. That would need fiddly French seams (like blue jeans) to keep from fraying, but that wouldn’t be too bad.

It wasn’t, but only because this devious project has something worse in mind for me. Far worse. I went to put the two skirts together in a nightmare moment of catastrophic fails. I still don’t know how, but I managed to cut the sari wrong, so it was angled three inches longer in front that in back. Without the gory details, there was no way of saving it.

Holy sewing needles Batman! What am I going to do? I’m down to the forty eight hour mark and I have to effectively redesign the dress! Ran back to the inspiration piece for help. Maybe it was being in the familiar forty-eight hour time mark that did it, but the creative juices started flowing. I’d take the organza lining and turn it into an overskirt, find some trim to finish out the bottom of both skirts and the waist. It was doable.

The home stretch

 A fevered trip to the fabric store with dress scraps in hand produced six inquiries as to whether I was making a Beauty and the Beast ‘Belle’ costume–which is why it’s now called the Belle dress–and six yards of three different trims for skirts, sleeves and waist.

I ditch the pins this time. Trims go on like their supposed to, held steadfastly in place with my fingers–which I managed not to catch in the sewing machine. Yeah! Something’s going right. What matter that it takes four tries to get the skirts sewn to the bodice–blast it, I pinned it, that must have been the problem! Toss the pins and I’m golden. 


We’re leaving tomorrow for the dance weekend and all I have to do is sew in the hooks on the back of the dress.

Two hours before we are to leave, I try on the dress for the first time. Yeah, really, the first time. I know, I hear you yelling at me. You already know what I’m about to say.

Murphy strikes again.

Something is horribly wrong, the dress is pulling and puckering and looking beyond horrible.

Foul, foul, filth and foul! At least I have my old ball gown…

A tiny light bulb goes off in the back of my very frazzled brain. Something like this happened before…

I dash upstairs and frantically look for my other gown and stare at the back hooks. Yes! I forgot the extra-large hooks had to be double sewn! A mad dash to the sewing box for needle and thread. An hour left and the last hook is sewn down again!

I’m holding my breath as I hook up the back of the dress. If it doesn’t work this time, I’m packing the old gown and the sewing box and we’re out the door.

And now, once I have resigned to the inevitable crash and burn of this project–what happens?

It fits. Exactly as it is  supposed to. Just like it looked in my head. Whoda thunk it?

Lesson learned?

Perhaps, just perhaps, doing it ‘right’ is highly over-rated.


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    • Teresa Broderick on October 14, 2017 at 5:29 am
    • Reply

    Hilarious!! I hope after all that the dance was a success.

    1. It was. Thanks, Theresa!

    • Catherine on October 14, 2017 at 8:09 am
    • Reply

    Ah, there is just *nothing* like “slash-and-burn” sewing (as one of my friends termed my method). Comes from being short before they invented petite sizing – if I wanted it to fit, I had to wing it. So I have no mental safeguards against “gee, I want this to happen, so let’s just cut this, and move that, and put a dart here” and all those other adjustments that perfect-size-whatever people quake in their boots to consider.

    I have found with “slimpsy” fabrics (my sister-in-law’s term for slippery, flimsy, hard to work with fabric) that the direction of pinning is crucial. Longitudinal pinning let the fabric slide and slump like mad; latitudinal holds better. Not perfect, but better.

    In the end, the dress looks even better than the museum sample – and YOU look gorgeous wearing it!

    1. So cool to run into another ‘slash and burn’ seamstress! Love that term! I’ll have to keep that pinning trick in mind. Usually I only pin when there are gathers or many layers involved. For me, just holding it together works better. LOL

      Thanks so much!

    • J. W. Garrett on October 14, 2017 at 8:54 am
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    Oh, I remember the days of making my own clothing. People today have no idea. Since I read a lot of Regency, I was enamored with wanting to make a cape… yeah, I love looking at Regency patterns. Shades of Carol Burnett… I used drapery material. It was batiste and I figured if I messed it up… who would know… right? I had an extra package of drapes I didn’t use and thought… here is material… why not use it. So, I did. Of course… I cut one of the panels incorrectly… my brain goes weird on reversals. Any way… I needed a new panel and so I took one off the window in the back room. It was a small window and one panel can drape across the window just fine… right? Well, I finished it. It is not perfect, but I have a cape. Now, where the heck am I going to wear a full length cape? OH well….

    I loved this post and love the pictures. Your gown is beautiful. It is amazing what we can do when under stress. Congratulations on a job well done. Remember, only you know where the errors are. Well and all your followers… however, I bet you only told half of the problems you had. Those that sew… understand… mums the word.

    1. You must share a picture of that cape! I have one that is still half done. I have worn it for warmth in costume despite the face it remains unhemmed and I have not yet finished the hood!

      Yeah, you’ve outed me about only half the problems. Figured it would become unbelievable (and boring!) if I included stuff like accidentally cutting into the lining when I was trimming the seam and not having enough fabric to cut a new piece… LOL

    • Mary on October 14, 2017 at 9:04 am
    • Reply

    Congratulations. It looks lovely.
    Just one question…what do you mean by needing to “double sew” the hooks?

    1. The hooks were extra long so after sewing down the back of the hook, I had to add another row of stitches along the shank of the hook, otherwise it pulled up from the fabric and left it pulling and puckering. Hope that makes sense. Thanks, Mary!

    • Glynis on October 14, 2017 at 1:07 pm
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    Wow Maria. You look amazing! Congratulations on your eventual success. I have never been able to sew, maybe because my mum made all my clothes from being little. She taught herself from necessity as we didn’t have a lot of money and at the time my dad was an engineer at a print works so used to get cheap materials.
    We had to do sewing for one year when I was at the Grammar School but the teacher was very old fashioned and insisted we made a knee length gathered skirt and blouse. Now we were talking of the sixties here so an a line mini skirt would have at least been wearable. As it was I didn’t actually finish mine and my mum made something else with the material.
    My forte is crochet and knitting although I don’t actually think a knitted ball gown would work.
    Anyway you looked absolutely fabulous Maria so I would go with that last minute, cut corners method every time 😉

    1. I have seen some stunning crocheted gowns–considered one for my wedding way back in the dark ages. 🙂 Thanks!

  1. I don’t sew. I’m not blessed with the patience to deal with fiddly things. My husband, however, is the magician with the sewing machine. When we were first married, he made me skirts, blouses, and dresses, and his most recent sewing project was making a quilt for our son’s bed. He’s also a far better cook than I am, too. His private high school made all the boys take cooking and sewing and all the girls had to take woodshop and autoshop. This was after the boys had taken the shop classes and the girls had taken cooking and sewing, so they all learned how to do both. 😉

    Your dress turned out beautifully!! The color and sheen to the material are gorgeous on you!!

    Susanne 🙂

    1. I am impressed that your husband sews! That’s pretty awesome! I know other men who cook, but none that sews too! I would have loved to have taken woodshop and autoshop as a kid!


    • Carole in Canada on October 14, 2017 at 10:23 pm
    • Reply

    Gorgeous ball gown! I’ll never forget my first and only dress I made in home economics…it looked like a curtain! My step-mother made me wear it! Yup…one of those! I never took to sewing after that! Though now I would love to learn but that means buying a machine and taking a course and having less time for reading! No, I will stick to mending things with needle and thread!

    1. I think I made that same sort of dress too! It is a little traumatic, isn’t it? Enough to turn one of sewing forever, for sure, Carole!

    • Ann on October 25, 2017 at 6:52 am
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    I love your Belle ball gown, Maria Grace. The colour is lovely and the whole dress looks lovely with you on the arm of your very own Mr Darcy.
    In the past I have had a go at sewing skirts and my own wedding dress. That was exciting as made the wedding dress with my sister. Would really love to get back to the sewing maybe a very late New Year resolution to get back to sewing that could go into the New Year.

    1. How awesome that you got to make your wedding dress with your sister. I made mine as well, but was on my own with it. Doing it with a sewing buddy would have been great fun.

    • Sheila L. Majczan on November 4, 2017 at 10:03 am
    • Reply

    There was a time when I made much of my own clothing. And I even made smocked dresses for my two girls and a niece. But never again. I can just imagine your frustration. Glad it all worked out. Unless you sew you cannot understand all the attention to details and if your body does not match the measurements on the pattern: curses!

    Your dress does look amazing! Good job.

    1. Having to made all the adjustments when the pattern doesn’t agree with your shape is definitely annoying! I’ve always wanted to try smocking, but never had daughters for whom to do it. Just can’t see the boys wearing it…

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