1930s | Dresses | Vintage Sewing

The Jessie Matthews dress

June 6, 2012
Simplicity 2786 - 1930s dress and bolero pattern

From the moment I saw the pattern cover, that wide-eyed, round-cheeked girl with her tip-tilted nose reminded me of 1930s star Jessie Matthews. So this was dubbed the Jessie Matthews dress… I finished it just in time for a party a few days after Christmas and have worn it quite frequently since – albeit usually sans sash in order to tone it down a bit as a day dress.

I originally acquired the pattern courtesy of Wearing History – Lauren had it for sale in her Etsy shop at a very cheap price because the bolero pieces were missing. As it happened to be my size and style (buttons! and sleeves! high waist and skirt below the knee) and because I didn’t like the bolero design in the first place… I bought it. This was in fact the first thing that I ever ventured to buy over the Internet!

In practice I had to enlarge the skirt at the hips, since the dress was sized for 32-27-35 in place of the 1980s 32-26-36: Thirties fashions were evidently more tubular. I actually discovered later that I’d added my extra width to the mid-back seams instead of the side seams, owing to a trifling miscalculation as to which side of piece H was which… it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.

The other change I made was to extend the darts at the bodice back all the way up to the point, instead of leaving them open at the halfway point, producing a fully fitted shape. This was originally a misinterpretation of the pattern (I’d never encountered half darts before), but I liked the effect and decided to keep it. The collar pieces, on the other hand, I had a lot of trouble with. As you can see they still don’t stay lined up properly at the neck, despite some major alterations (and collar-button-shifting). This may be why the pattern suggests that you should fudge the issue by installing a set of snaps under the buttoned edge.

About half the sewing on this project was done by machine, as opposed to my previous garments which had been made entirely by hand; this was because I acquired a hand-cranked sewing machine (an Alfa 301, more common in Europe than here) and used it to save time on the endless long skirt seams. (One advantage of using a 1930s pattern was that the cutting layout was designed to cater for 36″ widths of fabric like the one I had: however, the economy of fabric use was achieved by splitting the skirt into six separate panels, all of which required sewing and finishing!)

Being used to hand sewing, however, I found it easier to do most of the fine work with my own needle as usual. I wanted the dress to be fully washable, so in the absence of a serger or zigzag stitch every single raw edge in the garment had to be entirely enclosed. That meant mainly French seams, save for the side seam incorporating the zipper, which had to be bound with bias tape, and the matching seam on the other side. In practice it turns out that the red areas in the pattern tend to run even in cold water, so washing has been limited so far to squeezing out the armpits under the tap and/or hanging the dress for a couple of days in the garden to air. I’ve had it suggested that I ought to try rinsing it in vinegar.

In accordance with the pattern directions I finished the cuff edges with self bias strips and a bias facing where the snap fasteners are sewn on at the wrist, and inserted an enclosed zipper placket with an additional underlap to cover the zipper tapes on the inside. Both these operations had to be done twice after I misinterpreted the instructions and tried to be too clever the first time round, but I am very pleased with the result: now that’s a really invisible zip!

The bound buttonholes and bodice facings were also sewn in entirely by hand, although I consciously didn’t even try to stitch down an invisible hem around the bottom of the skirt, simply taking small even hemming stitches and assuming they wouldn’t show amid the strong fabric pattern (they don’t).

What I like best about this dress is actually the tailored one-piece sleeves, which are very economically constructed with a gather at the elbow to allow the arm to bend and set elegantly into the armholes. They fitted perfectly first time and look very smart – but they are really easy to make.

  1. Oh my gosh, I love it! I totally remember this pattern and selling it to you, so it’s really exciting to see it made up and on you 🙂 Hurrah!
    I just got a hand crank machine and am a little intimidated by it. Hearing you used it made me not quite as scared 😉

    1. Oh, hand-cranks aren’t scary at all – they’re the ultimate in precision control 🙂

      (That’s why I held out for one when I went looking for a sewing machine!)

      They do exactly what you tell them to, up to the tiniest needle movement: no need for a needle up/down button, for example. They go incredibly slowly (and my Gift Horse spent a lot of time doing just that!) without the slightest clutch strain; the moment you let go, they stop. They don’t slide around on the table, because they weigh a lot more than even the heaviest dress project. They stitch absolutely straight (because the needle only has the one position and never wavers from it).

      Just don’t get your fingers trapped in the hinges when trying to clean the fluff out from underneath! (I almost did….)

  2. To help with the dye bleeding, you may also want to look for some dye catcher sheets in the laundry section of a drug store or grocery store. I used them on a baby quilt I had made. It got wine on it (long story) and when I washed it, the crochet thread I had used to quilt it with bled all over. Many, many long vinegar soaks and dye catcher sheets later, it is like new!

  3. How nice that you handsew garments. I have been doing this for several years now, and I find great satisfaction in it. At first it was because I had moved, and the machine was in storage. I reasoned that people make quilts by hand, so why not? I find that it is much easier to set in sleeves. I can make a blouse in about four or five days.

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