Thursday, January 24, 2013

Getting Into F.I.T.

Something interesting has been taking place at my studio in New Orleans. A prospective Fashion Institute of Technology in New York contracted with me to teach her to sew while working on her three garment submissions. I must admit that I was a bit leery about taking on such a project, since the time frame was rather small, about two weeks, and I had not seen her sketches. I have seen many design sketches from budding designers and frankly, the designs were conceived by someone who had no sense of garment construction. They usually tended to look a bit avant garde and quite complicated to construct so I was a bit worried whether I could actually be of help to her. I decided to make an appointment for the very next day so we could discuss the details.

Upon meeting India Barnett for the first time, my initial impression was of a young girl who possessed confidence and willingness to learn. I questioned her about her sewing skills and paid close attention to her personality traits so I could decide whether she would be a good apprentice. Her sketches were quite extraordinary; nothing avante garde about them but still very stylish and fashionable. She also brought in the fabrics she had previously purchased in New York and surprisingly, not only were they the appropriate choices for the designs, but they were of good quality. She impressed me as someone who had an innate sense of how fabrics work without ever saying so. She seemed unaware of her abilities and listened intently to my suggestions; in essence meeting all the criteria for an apprentice candidate so I decided to take on the job. With no time to spare, we left immediately for the nearest pattern store.

I learned instantly that she had never used a pattern in her life. She didn't know even the basics such as notches and grain line or even how to read a pattern envelope. I heard myself explaining how the pattern companies gave fabric suggestions for each pattern, listed in order of preference. Inside my head I heard a tiny voice telling me to run away as fast as possible and another telling me to jump right in and enjoy the ride. I tried to ignore them both and proceeded with my instruction for choosing the correct pattern for the design. As luck would have it, we managed to find three patterns that I could make work with her sketches and as we left the store, I secretly celebrated my bravery, or idiocy whichever the case. There would be no turning back now.

Back at the studio, we wasted not a minute of time as we proceeded to cut muslin for the first sample, a school-girl like dress with closely fitted bodice and full skirt with inverted pleats. She had chosen a wool and silk blended mini plaid for the dress with a black tulle underskirt beneath. The neckline was scooped and there were no sleeves. I decided that India would do all the sewing with my guidance in cutting, pinning, and fitting. The muslin fit almost to a "T", with minor alteration to the underarm.

The next sample was to be a strapless dress with a sweetheart neckline made of faux leather. She indicated cutout slits in both sides of the dress and an over sized exposed zipper on back. The hem of the dress would be lined with safety pins placed approximately one-half-inch apart. The muslin was constructed and surprisingly the exact same alterations were required as the first sample. The pattern alterations and design changes were made to the working patterns and a master pattern was drawn onto doctor's paper for each garment. We were ready to begin.

The very trendy faux leather dress with cutouts and safety pin laden hemline. India chose to line the bodice with purple silk dupioni.

The schoolgirl mini plaid dress, which ultimately grew to be my favorite of the three samples, featured a full mini skirt with inverted pleats and a funky black illusion netted tutu skirt. the bodice was lined but the skirt wasn't.

The next day, I decided to have India learn about how to work with plaids. Because this plaid was so diminutive, matching wasn't as critical but I still wanted her to learn how to match so she would be ahead of the game later. Unfortunately, fabric was at a premium so we had to contend with that problem as well. After positioning and repositioning the pattern pieces, she finally managed to fit all the pieces perfectly aligned. We both cut out the pattern pieces and marked them accordingly. We also cut out the pleather dress, which went rather quickly without having to worry about nap or matching. We both left for home feeling weary and triumphant. Tomorrow would be another story.

Allowing a full week to construct the two dresses, India began working on the most difficult dress first: the plaid. With every stitch, her confidence grew and soon India was busily sewing away while I worked on checking seams and pressing. The entire dress took only two days, leaving the rest of the week for the pleather dress and for finishing details such as zippers and hooks. The tutu was already made having only to add a few more streamers to the waistband. This being my first tutu, I was a bit perplexed about the way it was to work with the confinements of the dress skirt. Luckily, I didn't have to worry about that; there were bigger fish to fry. We allowed a full week for the final dress: a red satin ballgown.

Here is India modelling her adorable schoolgirl plaid dress and matching tutu. I love the juxtaposition of the innocent plaid paired with the edgy tutu. Those booties are the perfect complement to this precious design.

This is the back of the schoolgirl dress. The fit is perfection!

We began the final week with the construction of the infamous red dress. First, the muslin. I cannot overemphasize the importance of making a muslin shell before cutting into your fashion fabric. The muslin is the best way to get out all the kinks so you can feel confident to cut and construct the actual dress quickly and without fear of it not fitting. Once the muslin was completed, corrections were made to the sample pattern and a master pattern was drawn on doctor's paper. This dress was the most complicated to draft as India wanted to add a train to the skirt and I was not overly confident in my abilities. Thank goodness India has a casual attitude about jumping into the deep water towards life. She figured it out mathematically and the pattern turned out amazingly. We decided to leave the cutting for the morning.

India's lovely sketch of the infamous red ballgown with its pretty red net rose appliqued train. The dress was constructed of crepe back satin and lined in red satin lining. The overskirt (train) is made of red netting.

The next day, we cut out the entire dress and began to strategize about the lovely rose appliqued netting she chose for the train. It was decided there would be no hem on the netting but cutting through the roses was to be avoided. Once the train was cut out, I had India unstitch the roses in the path of the seams and along the edges. We left the rose in tact if more than half was remaining on the edges. By Wednesday evening, the dress was completely assembled with exception to the hem in the skirt and final handwork. It was such a wonderful feeling to have reached the end of our lesson with three completed garment samples, well before the deadline of January 22nd. I sent India home to make final preparations for her departure to New York and I completed the handwork on the final dress. In the end, we decided not to put the safety pins on the pleather dress and we eliminated the huge rosettes she planned to put on the flounce of the red dress.

A gorgeous gown for a gorgeous girl! Not bad for someone who learned to sew two garments before.

This view shows the beautiful rose net train India insisted on adding to her ballgown. What a lovely choice!

Here, the full sweep of the train is evident. The two train halves were sewn together in the center using my technique for the tiniest French seam. It was almost invisible.
India has received a provisional acceptance to F.I.T. in the fall based on her academics. She will soon find out if her sample garments earned her a place in F.I.T. I have no doubt of the outcome.


  1. WOW!!!!! Congrats to both you and India - will keep her acceptance in my prayers. Wendy, I think its absolutely wonderful that you helped India's dreams come true.
    Many blessings to you both - Jody

  2. What a darling and talented girl! I hope she gets accepted. I love the dresses, especially that red one with the train.