Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cowls and Cowardice

Cowl dress pattern available here in a 34" bust!
I've had cowls on the brain lately. You see I've been thinking of other variations I could make of my draped midriff wiggle dress (last version here), and a cowl neckline keeps popping into my thoughts, especially in a nice jewel-toned crepe for fall. They're a more advanced draping (and sewing!) technique for sure; the use of the bias grain makes things notoriously tricky. But I was amused to see this sidebar tip in the book Professional Sewing Techniques for Designers:
"Note: Bias is an advanced technique. If this skill has not been mastered, save this technique for later design work."
So . . . is this as hilarious as I think it is? Let me get this straight: they're suggesting that if you haven't mastered the bias, you should come back at a later date . . . when you've somehow mastered it in the meantime by not practicing it at all? I'm so confused!

I certainly understand (and agree with) the concept of building up a good foundation of basic skills before getting into the tricky stuff. Perhaps that's all they're saying? Or that you should save cowls themselves until you've mastered the bias in other, simpler designs? (Yes! I do actually think that's what they're saying now. Whew! Only took me about twenty-four hours to work that one out.)

Anyway, I thought it was a funny quote and a good one for discussion. How often has a more advanced technique intimidated you or made you back away in fear? That quote certainly made me think twice about trying my hand at cowls! But the paradox at the heart of the quote holds true: if you never reach the point where you're ready to throw yourself into a scary new skill, you will most definitely never master it. There are always things you can do to make it easier on yourself: using an "easy" fabric or a simple pattern to start out with. But, at the end of the day, the only way to master the bias is to sew with the bias. A lot.

Cowls, here I come! (Gulp.)

P.S. For more information on sewing cowls, I picked up a tip on Pattern Review last night: Claire Shaeffer's High Fashion Sewing Secrets gives detailed instructions on constructing a cowl stay, which helps a cowl lay beautifully. I ordered a used copy for $2.53 on Knowledge is power!


  1. I love that look! what an odd note for sewing instruction book! I agree- throw yourself in!

  2. But the paradox at the heart of the quote holds true: if you never reach the point where you're ready to throw yourself into a scary new skill, you will most definitely never master it.

    Amen! ;) Bias is one of those things I haven't worked with a ton, if only because few designs that appeal to me utilize bias. Although I'm really interested to see what your foray into cowls brings--I'm sure you'll get me wanting to try my hand at them too! ;)

    Good luck!!! :)

    ♥ Casey
    blog |

  3. Cowls are much easier than you might think. For a very good reference on drafting one, get hold of Helen Armstrong's Draping for Fashion Design book. That gave me all the information I needed to draft one myself.

  4. "How often has a more advanced technique intimidated you or made you back away in fear?"

    Never. Slowed me down a bit, maybe, while I practice, but this is what the public library, my own library, and my sewing friends are for. And my stash of free or very cheap fabrics from Craig's List and opportunistic "roadside rescues".

  5. I have the opposite problem, I jump in without thinking I might need to look something up in advance. Eg. I tried to whip up some 1950s pedal pushers last week without consulting a trouser-sewing reference guide and ended up with a bad fit. Commenters on my blog advised me to think about my "back crotch curve" (oo-er), a new lesson learnt!

  6. Well I definitely say go for it. I've cut shirt yokes on the bias: you turn the grain 45 degrees; not that difficult provided you have a ruler and one of those right angle thingies. If you don't try you don't learn, period. I'd try anything.

  7. Welt Pockets. I have never even attempted one. They just frighten me into inaction. I will sew just about anything else...but welt pockets...shudder.

  8. If you don't push yourself, you'll never develop these skill. And who wants to do the "same old thing" forever?

  9. At this point in my sewing career, all of the techniques are new, and some are scary. I am still working with basic patterns, and I find that studying the pattern super carefully, so that I am sure I understand every step, still means I will mess up one or two. I consider these early projects to be as much about learning as actually making wearable clothing, and I find a lot of what I work with, patterns and materials, secondhand. It is your blog that I credit with inspiring me with enough caution and patience to make clothing that looks a bit less homemade.
    As for your cowl concern, I am sure there is not a reader among us who has any doubt that you will positively master the technique and turn out a lovely dress. That is what you do!

  10. Thanks for the book tip... I ordered a copy before breakfast.

    Despite a long history of sewing, there are many things I've tended to avoid rather than mastering. I've decided recently to face ALL my fears, one at a time. I'm getting better at attaching shirt collars. I'm working on my first shirtwaist dress ever... Next up, fly front zippers?

  11. Don't fear the cowl! Especially if you're draping your pattern since you have total control of what you're doing that way, because you aren't working backwards from a 2 dimensional paper pattern piece and a vague idea of what you'll construct. Make sure you have good directions or guidance about creating he self facing on a cowl for sure, because that's he portion that doesn't apply to normal facing common sense, but otherwise it's the height of drapery sculpture, and you can just drape it over until you're happy with it. My suggestion is, drape your bodice on the bias with the cowl, but keep the skirt on he straight grain, because then you're not dealing with letting a bias hem hang for 24+ before you're able to hem it.

    I'm anticipating something very va-voom from your foray into cowls...

  12. And what I will always avoid is a convertible collar or a collar with a stand. I'm never satisfied with my results, and I steer away in general using the excuse that I don't wear them much in RTW either.

  13. I agree. Just do it. That's how you learn. I love the drape of a cowl. It will be gorgeos.

  14. I think there's something to be said for having a good foundation. I was looking for an intermediate sewing class but none was available. So I took a couture class, for which I was technically qualified. I learned a lot, but I had to do everything four and five times. There were over 30 samples and I wasn't able to finish everything because I was exhausted.

    For example, the teacher said to cut a rectangle of silk organza as prep for one sample. I figured, how hard could that be? I didn't realize it would be so slippery.

    Weeks later, I was still working on it, having used five different methods for cutting slippery fabrics.

    I didn't realize that cowls were that difficult (I don't think they are), but they don't teach them in introductory draping classes.

    I commend a book that actually observes that design and garment instruction aren't easy.

  15. My latest project was a 1946 little girls' dress that had a scary new skill in it-- it suggested bound buttonholes. I've never done one before, though I did get my hands on a bound buttonhole tool on ebay. Because of all the work going into it before the buttonholes, I skipped them and did regular ones; they were optional anyway. I'm determined that I'll learn how to do it... just not on a deadline with a dress that I spent a week embroidering.

  16. I read somewhere recently that when you start sewing, you should put a zipper in right away. The idea was that you shouldn't be scared of them.
    This makes sense to me, because the only way to learn a skill is to try it. Sometimes you have to rip it out and try it a few times, but eventually you will learn! There has to be a balance between gaining confidence by starting with easier things, but not being scared to try new things.

  17. I'm freaked out CONSTANTLY with new sewing skills, but how will I learn if I don't try? Failure's a way of learning, too -- learning how NOT to do something, not learning how to give up.

    Hurray for the new cowl adventure!

  18. How often has an advanced technique made me back down in fear?

    Never. In fact, the desire to create something that I am excited about, but that incorporates an unfamiliar advanced technique, is the perfect motivation to learn the skill.

    Who wants to sit down and say: "Today, I am going to go through the challenging (and perhaps frustrating) process of learning an advanced skill that I may SOMEDAY want to use?"

    It is much better to learn it in a motivating context. Where it begins to be overwhelming is when you are trying to learn too many advanced skills at once. I think they call that "in over your head!" But ONE advanced technique? Totally doable! Enjoy!

  19. I usually have more enthusiasm than skill or experience, so I just jump in. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's just fabric, for pete's sake!

    Love the cowl neck pattern! I snapped it up, to have in my stash for the day that I decide to make a sexy sheath dress. The sheath can be tricky for the flat-chested pear shape, but the cowl will help balance my proportions. In theory, anyway. Maybe in raspberry silk jersey...

  20. I love this book. I've had it for years and this is the place to look for instructions on some tricky little detail. Many years ago I made a silk crepe de chine blouse with a cowl neck and I was not proficient in bias. It came out fine.

  21. I will try anything because I love the challenge. I usually design from drawings; and the construction-thought-process of how to accomplish the design is an all consuming joyful/agonizing activity for me. I'm a real geek that likes that journey, I guess. But I also feel such an accomplishment when the piece is finished.....well, usually. :)

    Should I mention that when I come across something that has me baffled or just isn't working - I go for solitary drives. I do my best thinking while driving. I go for a lot of drives! :) I recently finished a gown that gave me more issues than any other thing I have ever sewn. In my umpteenth time out the door for yet another drive my son said, "Mom, you're probably over thinking this. What is the simplest solution?" Bless his heart; he solved my problem!

    When my kids were young enough for Halloween was the best time! They would design the costume or give me the basic idea - no holds barred!! Then I could try something new without the fear of failure; after all, it was just for Halloween! That's what started me trying anything and everything, I think.

    I am a voracious reader when it comes to sewing. I frequently come across a technique AFTER I have just finished an item. It's nice when I figured it out correctly. If not, well...I just remind myself that there is more than one way to do everything; that you can't make a 'Mona Lisa" every time; and it's a lesson learned. Besides, even if not is still made better than most RTW!


  22. Seconding (thirding? fourthing?) the Helen Armstrong rec - the book has a whole chapter on cowls and goes into quite a bit of detail. And is generally very awesome and extremely useful.

    Go for it - like you said, you'll never learn if you don't try.

  23. Do it lady, do it! I believe in you!

  24. Gertie, you might consider practicing that bias cowl pattern at half-scale, just to get some experience with the technique. I've been trying everything small-scale first and am learning so much. If a patten doesn't work half-scale then I don't even attempt a full-size toile or muslin.
    That's a great cowl pattern and seems like it would be a nice complement to the wiggle dress - even if you left the curved bodice insert (but maybe not the bows...although you could incorporate them at a slant along the stitched part of the cowl).
    I love your experiments!

  25. Cowls are my fave neckline the first shirt I ever made was a cowl - no one bothered to tell me it was difficult! (Of course, I didn't know anything about sewing anything, so it was much of a muchness to me.)

  26. You are absolutely right. You never know whether you can swim or not unless you take the plunge. I am new to sewing and have adopted that philosophy. I make sooo many mistakes but I learn even more. So go for it! Good Luck!!


  27. Advanced techniques have never stopped me from sewing. (However, fear of breaking my machine did keep me from sewing for about a year after it was purchased!) I always figure there's a book or blog post on every technique somewhere, or someone who knows better and will help me out. My mother has actually had to keep me in check a few times when we've been out buying patterns and fabric together. She's reminded me that I'm still a beginner and more advanced projects will most likely look "beginner" so it may not be smart to spend lots of money on fabric I love to sew with now.

  28. Well, I have yet to try an FBA, so so far I have only made top patterns that come with cup sizes, or tops that are too small in the bust ;) I don't know why, but this technique is scary - maybe because there are so many ways of doing it? But you are right, if I don't try it out, I will never learn how!

  29. I guess I would say I'm an intermediate sewer, but I have never made a bias cut garment.
    Those scary diagonal lines going across by cutting mat can be pretty intimidating!
    I have some store bought bias dresses in my wardrobe, and they are really figure hugging, so I know in sewing them, getting the proper cut and fit must be huge.
    I just bought a bias skirt pattern though, and I think I'm almost ready to take the plunge!

  30. That's how I learned to sew. I just jumped right in. Like I always say, "Before you're good at something you are going to be bad. And if you're bad at something long enough, eventually you'll be good."

  31. You never learn unless you try! How surprising to have this comment in a teaching book!
    Bias is not that hard anyway! You just need to understand how the cloth behaves. Unfortunately most books only cover the topic briefly, and there can be a lot of trial and error!
    I was going to suggest it in yesterday's post, but since we are on the topic of bias today - I would consider putting the outer bodice panel of your yellow dress on the bias, so pleats are on true bias - you will then be able to avoid the bust dart and it will give a nice smooth look. Try it!

  32. While I totally agree with everyone about throwing yourself into new skills (both to learn and to have fun!) I also must say I tend to have the opposite problem. I think, "oh, I can just whip that up, no problem, it doesn't seem that hard" only to realized after much wasted fabric and advil that yes, it is that hard.

  33. Eeep! I love that look, but am too scared to try it.

    Go forth and conquer, Gertie! :)

  34. The after learning how to make a cowl pattern I immediately dove right in. It's not that bad, just remember to cut on the bias.
    Draping actually scares me

  35. Oh, that's a pretty cowl.

    I go for the fancy tricky stuff first, it's the basics I don't understand. I can make perfect-fitting tailored pants with welt pockets and a tidy fly and inseam front pockets and belt loops - the whole shebang - from a pattern I worked out myself.

    Long-sleeved shirts with button cuffs and lovely collars and yokes and all kinds of princess seams and darts? No problem.

    But damned if I can figure out how to block fabric. And I can't make a skirt that fits.

  36. Cowls and Cowardice - the lost Jane Austen novel... I'm forever getting in over my head, and I'm not nearly as good as you at doing things correctly. I say go for it, fortune favors the brave.

  37. well for me, sewing a collar is an advanced and scary technique. But luckily that's not standing in the way of completing my first dress from a vintage pattern! (what IS standing in the way is that I don't own a sewing machine, so all sewing takes place over at my sister's, which thankfully is only walking distance away).

    So, meh, I say go for it - and if it doesn't go right first time, well that's why you make muslins, right?

    xx Charlotte
    Tuppence Ha'penny Vintage


Thanks for your comments; I read each and every one! xo Gertie

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