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Follow the Leader

Say Yes To The Teamstress: Part Two

By Kaylee Anderson

I held up the bolt of chiffon with wide eyes. “Are you sure you don't want this anymore?”

Hannah nodded, laughing a little at my surprise. “I'm sure.”

Piles of shiny Lycra and extra rhinestones lay out in front of me, the lace appliqué and fabric scraps a field of endless possibilities. I clapped my hands excitedly. “I'll take it. I'll take it all.”

Very graciously, Hannah Alyea had offered to let me have her unused ballroom sewing supplies for a fraction of their original cost. There was so much stuff that I was giddy with excitement, and couldn't wait to try it out—especially the Smooth/Standard dress pattern she was offering.

Now that I was faced with an actual ballroom dress pattern, I found myself at a loss for what to do. Up until now I had only ever tailored thrift-store clothes so they would be suited for dancing, or even made a couple of my own skirts to wear with shirts or leotards. Never before had I attempted to make my own dress from scratch, out of spandex and chiffon no less. Thankfully the prospect of having my own semi-professional ballroom dress outweighed my apprehension. I only wished I hadn't told anyone what I was going to do, so that way no one could hold me to my word if I tried and failed miserably.

Most patterns aren't very straightforward to begin with, and this one was worse. Even though the directions were quite extensive, there were still so many parts that were completely unexplained. I know you told me to attach this thingy to that thingy, but how?! I ended up having to do a lot of Googling to figure out how to get the fabric to cooperate.

As much as I love my trusty, dusty, 37-year-old sewing machine, it only really had two settings when it comes to the stitching tension: a little bit too tight, or so loose it jams up. As you can imagine, this posed some difficulty to the process. I also didn't have the same special zig-zag stitch that the pattern wanted me to use: I only had the normal one. This didn't bode well for my seams because instead of stretching nicely as intended they just sort of pulled apart. I ended up having to stretch the Lycra as a sewed in order to get a nice stretchy seam that still held the whole thing together. My machine also tried to eat any fabric lighter than cotton, so the chiffon and lining fabric were not easy to work with in the slightest. If all this technical business is too confusing, I'll summarize: my sewing machine was not on my side for most of the project. What I wouldn't have given for a serger to make my seams look finished and to prevent my chiffon from fraying! The entire dress was an exercise in making things work without the proper equipment

After making the inner leotard, I was starting to gain confidence in using Lycra. Then it was on to the beautiful indigo of the outer shell, then the sleeves, etc. The great part about this dress was that it came together in stages. I could see it taking form quite nicely, and it made me excited to forge on. At one point, before I tried to insert the white godets in between the points of the indigo Lycra, I tried it on to show my roommates how exciting this whole process was. Their opinion as non-ballroom people was “Wow! You look like an octopus.” I had hoped for something more supportive, but I had to give them points for accuracy.

I started this process during winter break, my goal being to finish before spring semester started. Unfortunately, my initial estimated deadline didn't account for all of the seams I would have to redo, the hems I would have to even out, and the number of alterations I would have to make. The original pattern was fine, but I wanted something individual to me, something that would make me stand out. I wanted to be able to say I made this dress my own, and so I made the back deep and elegant with a strap across the back to hold it on my shoulders. I made the points where the chiffon begins higher so it would be more flattering on my torso. With each thing I changed, however, I had to do research. I inspected the seams on the gorgeous professional dresses of my friends for reference and asked far more experienced dancers like Neli Petkova what they thought would work best. The only reason why I managed to make these changes work was because all of my friends were so helpful in coming up with ideas and offering solutions.

With two weeks left before DanceFest I was well over a month past my self-appointed deadline, but I had so many alterations to do for others that I brushed my dress to the side and kept working on fixing articles of clothing for my teammates. My thought was that people would want their things back around a week before the competition, so I figured I could save those last few days leading up to the competition to finish my own dress. Let's just say I can always find a valid excuse for procrastination!

The last thing I had to do before I could perform in my dress was to hand-sew the white lace appliqué all over the torso. I spent a good eight hours with my body form laid across my bed, struggling to sew the lace onto the first layer of Lycra and not the inner leotard. Oh no, I couldn't just glue the dang thing on, I had to hand-sew it! Talk about being in over my head. Much to my relief, I finished just before I had to rush off to Dancefest. I hadn't met my deadline, but at least it was over with now! If you want a picture for reference, it's the same one I'm wearing in my author photo.

When I pulled it out of my garment bag to put on, I was so nervous to see what others would say. I knew exactly where I had messed up, which seams were off-kilter, and what parts of my dress were barely being held together. But as I stepped out onto the floor for rehearsal, my teammates were so supportive of my creation that I couldn't focus on the little slip-ups I had made along the way. It wasn't perfect, but it looked so dang cool that it didn't matter. It had given me the chance to prove that this was something I was capable of doing, and that making ballroom dresses was worth pursuing.

On both days of DanceFest my family came to watch, and in true motherly fashion my mom filmed every bit of it. Not only did I get to see how my partner and I did, I also got to see my dress in action, the white chiffon floating out over the floor and tracing the path my partner and I took. Even though making my Smooth/Standard dress had been both emotionally and physically exhausting, it had been entirely worth the effort.

One of my friends, Ali Crampton, was also wearing a dress she had made from the same pattern, and I couldn't believe we had started from the same base. Hers looked so beautiful and professionally made, and it also had a sweetheart neckline mine didn't and gorgeous ombre-chiffon as the skirt. It was also in my most favorite colors ever (green and blue), so that was an awesome bonus. It was so cool to see what other people could do with the same starting pattern, and I can't wait to see what else we create in the coming months.

Over the summer I'm hoping to make a Rhythm dress of my own design, as well as a strictly Smooth dress so I can deck out my indigo one in all the the fun Standard fixings—floats, extra lace, rhinestones, the whole nine yards. Now that I've got one under my belt, the rest of it should come easy, right? Don't tell me otherwise—I want to live in this blissful land of fake confidence for as long as I can. I'm hoping to create some things that will be able to span a myriad of competitions, from those that allow sparkles and fun things to those that don't. If any of you readers have any tips for me on what I should do while trying to make ballroom dresses, or if you know any dress creators who would like an apprentice to take under their wing, feel free to send me an email at and03493@umn.edu. I'm open to whatever advice you've got, especially since I'm learning as I go. Wish me luck!

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