Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thinking Outside The Bolt - Fabric Alternatives

As a seamstress, sometimes the biggest challenge we face is simply finding some fabric that will work with the project we are trying to create.  Seems like it would be/should be something pretty easy to do right?  But, strangely enough, finding the perfect fabric can be harder than anticipated.  All my dresses start out with research, then into a sketch, then into reality.  I can find the perfect researched gown made of an incredible fabric, but then I can never seem to find that exact ideal fabric when I want it.  I think that is why we all have "working stashes" and like to store good fabric deals when we find them, because experience has taught us that chances are we will not find "THE" fabric when we need it.  So, "Shopping the Stash" can go a long way towards solving that dilemma!  

I was out shopping at "The Barn" antique mall looking for vintage trims.  It was a bit before Halloween, so every booth had something interesting to look at.  In one costume booth, this seller had two wedding gowns.  Now, I like wedding gowns, the bigger the better!  And if I can get silk wedding gowns with 6-8ft trains, and these gowns are under $23 each, I consider that a "win-win" situation.  Add in the 20% Halloween Discount for the "Bonus Win" and I bought both of them!
The first was a 1950's white silk faille with a six foot train.  Someone had spilled a lovely pink cocktail down the front of it, but that was not going to be a problem.  Looking at the gown, I noted a tremendous amount of gathering at the waist, so I knew I had plenty of fabric to work with.  I like natural fabrics such as silks, linens, and cottons for my gowns.  I find gowns constructed of these fabrics are SO much cooler to wear as the fabrics "breathes", as compared to synthetics, which traps your body heat against your skin.  If I must use  a synthetic it is going to be the foundation skirt, or extraneous parts of the bodice, like a cuff or collar.
Top piece is cotton & bottom right piece is polyester
 So, how do we know a natural fiber fabric from a synthetic?  The tried and true method is the "Burn Test".  If you have never done a Burn Test, I strongly encourage you to try it even just once in a safe environment.  Take a small piece of a 100% natural fabric and a small piece of a 100% synthetic.  I used a piece of tinfoil as my safety mat, and I imagine a metal pie tin would work just as well.  Light the natural fabric first and watch what happens.  Then light the synthetic.  Once you watch this, you will understand why baby clothing is never suppose to be made of synthetic fabric.  The synthetic is highly flammable and does not just burn, it MELTS!  Your natural fabrics, if they burn, burns to a fine ash.  Check out YouTube for some sample videos, but nothing compares with doing a sample test yourself.

So, back to the wedding gowns.  The second gown looked to be a 1980's gown made of a heavy duchess silk satin that is just amazing.  (I have plans for this one for a future project!)  Again, it had some issues, one of which being such a dated design style, that the seller was just looking to unload it for a Halloween costume.  Lucky me!   So, my point here is sometimes, as a seamstress, we have to "think outside the bolt" and see potential in different places and different ways.  Curtains, especially vintage curtains, have made for some fabulous ensembles.  Re-purposed wedding gowns work.  An embroidered Sari. Sheets and bedspreads.  These are all basically pieces of fabric that are just waiting to start a new project with you!  

So, in conclusion, I dyed the first wedding gown a "plum" color to compliment the base color scheme of my Bustle Gown.  I had enough fabric to create an apron/bustle combination using four yards with enough left over to use pieces for contrast on the bodice, and finally to make some small silk roses for the vintage hat I will will wear with the ensemble.  I also kept the stays in the bodice and will probably re-purpose those for a corselette belt.  Next, I used the ribbon-trimmed tulle underskirt to make a new 1950's petticoat.  Lastly, I sold the vintage trim on the wedding gown on EBay for $10 plus s/h, so the finally cost of the silk gown ended up being approx $11.  (Five yards of a silk faille could run approx $250) It's all about recycle and re-purpose!  So, next time you are out shopping for fabric, don't just stop at the bolt! 
Vintage bridal trim sold for $10 on EBay

Full-sized BedSkirt - 20ft of 12" pleated satin for $8


  1. I like how you put to words what I've always thought when I bought fabric that I liked but didn't have a use for yet; because I would HAVE it when I decided to make a dress from the time period it fit into, and I got it at a good price.
    I've made an Edwardian tea gown from a cotton batiste embroidered shower curtain that was so gorgeous I had to go back and buy another package (this time in ice blue) for a future project, just because I know these wouldn't be around forever. And I was wrong. They're gone now.
    Never thought of using old gowns but I'll save that idea when I'm looking around next time.

  2. I always shop the thrift stores and yard sales for "fabric".Made a lovely pair of pantelettes from an embroidered eyelet sheet,"found" 5 yards of 12" wide lace trim from a curtain,look for stretch velvet tops for gloves.Planning to incorporate some burgandy taffeta from a $2 prom gown in my new Christmas dress.half the fun is in the hunting!

    1. NS - great post! Half the fun IS the hunting! I think you have had a lot better luck out your way, from some of the goodies you have shared - lucky you!

  3. I like the concept of thinking outside the bolt. I just finished my daughter's Princess Bustle Dress and it only costed me $10 for a tablecloth, a bedsheet and walmart trims. Plus I was able to use up some leftover ruffles from another project.

  4. Gail! Glad you like the posting! Sounds like you have been having great success as well!