Sunday, May 20, 2018

In-Progress: Apple Green Wool Cotte

Something I haven't done for a long time is to share my dressmaking process as completely as possible from start to finish. Over the years, I've developed my methods, and they often repeat exactly from one dress to the next, so it's a bit weird for me to go into the details since it's mostly just repeating myself. This time, however, I had a few things I did differently, and it gave me an opportunity to more fully document the process for you.


If you've read my two dress color blogs (here and here), then you may already know that I've been looking for a very specific shade of green wool for quite a while. It's hard to put a descriptive word on the shade that shows up in the early 15th century manuscripts, but apple, spring, or moss green come close. It's not at all an easy color to find, and making it even rarer is that I had been looking for a lightweight wool so that I could enjoy wearing the dress through as much of the year as possible. So a lightweight apple green wool was essentially my holy grail.

Enter the Pendleton Wool Outlet in Washougal, WA, where my BFF regularly checks for nice dress-making fabric at ridiculously low prices. In late March, I got this:

Y'all. It was $5.99 a yard. 

So, she got me 5 yards and a bit later, I got it in the mail. I tossed it in the washer on my cold delicate cycle with no detergent, then put it on the line outside to dry for 24 hours. 

The wool is a lightweight flannel. The weave is tight, and it's been somewhat fulled. It's got flannel's distinctive subtle hairy quality, but it's lacking the plushy heft that comes with a regular wool flannel. The first impression I get, and most of the people who've handled it has gotten, is that there's a felt quality to it, without it actually being felt. It's not solid in color, which is the only thing I wish was different, but the "heathered" look is not too striking or distracting and helps a bit with the character of the green. Washed up, it came out to 56.5" wide.


I'm using the same dress pattern I've been using. I've gained some weight since making it, but the dresses I made with it all still fit well enough, so it didn't make sense to start over with a new pattern. I did add some ease in when I marked everything out, just to be sure the dress wasn't overly tight, as I do want to wear other lightweight dresses under it.

Initially, I laid the fabric out using my standard method, below. The diagram shows the fabric laid out full width, but since I do a symmetrical pattern for my dress, I do all the pattern layout on the fabric folded in half along its length. I usually cut a standard length of 60-64" for the panels (depending on how much length I have to work with), and 45" for the gores. That last length of unused fabric could be used if I wanted wider gores, but since I can never bet that there will actually be a full 45" there, I never do it that way. I often like this additional extra piece, since it sort of feels like "bonus" fabric that I can make something else out of (like a hood, bag, or something for the kids). However, there's also always a part of me that feels like I haven't taken the most advantage of the available fabric.

Most of the time, the fabric I'm using is 57-60 inches wide. In my standard layout, width plays a role in the bottom width of the gores, so if I'm using a 60" wide material, the gores will be that much wider than the gore on a 57" wide material. Generally, I don't make adjustments to how I lay the rest of it out. As long as I can fit my four panels across the width in one column, which I can down to 52" wide at the absolute minimum, I can get a cotte out of 4 yards with just enough left over for buttons and facings.

On this narrower material, using my standard layout, the skirt hem would be roughly 156" around. (Less than that after trimming to the correct length all around.) The method I used for this dress, however, uses angled panels that increase the panels' hem width, PLUS half gore sets that are wider than the half gores in the standard method, for a hem of about 200" around (again before length adjustment). So I use more of the fabric and get a fuller skirt. There's still leftovers, but nothing substantial.

Now, I suppose the question is why not just do the wider gores using the extra length at the end of the fabric, fudging the lengths as needed to get everything to fit? The easiest answer is because I wanted to try this different skirt construction method, to see if I liked the fullness and drape better. (Spoiler alert: I don't, but we'll get into that later.)

I ended up borrowing the sanctuary of my mom's church to lay the dress out on the fabric since I felt like I needed to see the entire thing to make sure my cutting plan would work. After a quick test of the layout, I felt good about everything fitting. I took a ton of pictures through the process of getting the dress cut out, too many to share here. You can check them all out on this Google album.

The gores were the easy part. They were cut from the entire length of the cloth. I cut off the wide strip (I think it was 17" wide), folded the whole thing into quarters, then cut diagonally across. Only really good heavy fabric scissors will work for this type of process with wool. This gave me four sets of half gores.

The rest of the layout was getting the dress panels laid out. I used centering lines to guide the placement. I folded the pattern pieces in half along their length, and lined the fold up to the chalked center line, then carefully unfolded the piece. Then help to ensure that everything stayed on-grain and lined up correctly in the panel's dedicated width.

I used a combination of a tape measure and quilting ruler to assist me with drawing out the angled skirt panels. I'm actually quite thrilled that while this was a bit of labor, it wasn't that difficult. Having my layout figured out, complete with actual measurement beforehand was a real benefit. Also, I only had to do this once. The fabric is folded in half (there's a fold on that front edge in the photo above.)

I used a small ruler and my chalk to measure and mark out my seam allowance. You can hopefully see in the image above the little dashes that make up the line. I used about a 1/2" measurement for this, knowing that I would use a narrower seam allowance to sew, giving me that ease I wished to add.

Initial Sewing & Fitting

I decide for the sake of time that I would use the machine to sew the dress together. I used 3/8" seam allowance.

With the top part of the panels sewn together (gores were still not in place), I was able to try it on to test the fit and make my first adjustments. In order to get the best test, I made sure to wear my chemise (and no bra) to make sure everything was going to the right places.

Please excuse the terrible self-timer shot. There were a few things I needed to adjust. Using my chalk, I marked a higher insertion point for the back gore to relieve the wrinkling happening at the base of my back. There was also too much curve in the center back between my shoulder blades. After marking and adjusting those, I moved forward sewing.


The first thing to do was to marry the half gores together and finish their center seams. This was the point when I decided on the seam finishing I would use for the entire dress. I decided on a flat fell technique. One seam allowance is cut in half along the length, then both are folded over (wider seam allowance on top) and stitch down. Since this wool doesn't fray, I did not have to turn the raw edges in. I used a felling stitch for this.

I inserted the gores into the skirt using machine sewing and proceeded with finishing the remaining seams.

I decided that I wanted to give myself a chance to add a side-laced opening on one side, so when I got to that seam, I did a temporary finish.

I used a top stitch type running stitch right up next to the seam line on both sides to basically "set" their relative positions. If I open the seam up, I can be assured that the seam allowances won't shift in their widths. I have since decided not to include the lacing, since I do not need it and adding it would just be a waste of time just to show off. While that might have been a cool thing to do in period, my mundane time is precious.

Second Fitting

I had left the armhole fitting adjustments for the second try-on, so with all the seams finished, I get it another wear. This was a really awkward picture to take!

I marked two adjustments, one in the armpit and one on the back, on both arms. These will open the armscye up a little more to provide my shoulder joint with a more comfortable range of motion. While I had the dress on, I also inspected the result of the skirt.

There are a few things going on that I'm not thrilled with. For the most part, the majority of the skirt's drape is falling into the gores. On the other hand, the skirt looks full and I like how roomy it is. If I'd known that this would be the result, I probably would have gone a different way with the skirt. However, I also feel that the hand of this fabric has a lot to do with how the skirt drapes. There's a very high chance that no matter how I cut the gores and panels, it would have looked something like this. Thinking through possible solutions, I think that fully integrated gores would be the only way the entire skirt would have fairly even drape. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough yardage for that. 

I decided, however, that I'd committed to this skirt, so I'd get over it and move on.


I wanted to do buttoned sleeves. Not just buttoned, but lots of buttons. One item I determined I needed to work on last year was the size and number of buttons I include on my sleeves.  I've been making somewhat large buttons and putting usually less than a dozen on each sleeve when I including them (which I don't always do.) For this dress, I decided that the buttons should span from wrist to elbow. In addition, I'd like to have more of a cuff over the hand than I've done in the past.

I wanted to take a break from sewing, so moving on to making the buttons seemed like a nice productive change. To start, I did an experiment with sizes to decide just how large the buttons should be.

In the picture above, the buttons start of with circles of 1.5", 1.25" and 1" respectively, left to right. While the smallest button is cute and perfectly period, I picked the middle size.

I used the same process to make the buttons I normally do, but this time, pre-cut the circles, and I used doubled-up sewing thread. My thought was that the buttons were smaller than I was used to, and I was concerned that a thicker thread would crowd the button, making it harder to close up. As I made the buttons, I got frustrated with how they were turning out. They were lumpy and I wasn't getting nice round balls. After working through the issues, I realized that the wool was opening back up on me any time I gave the thread a little slack, so I was fighting the wool instead of controlling it. I wondered if the thread was too slick or thin.

I switched to pearl cotton, which is what I normally use (or a silk equivalent if I have that available), and immediately the buttons were easier to create and looked considerably better. Above is a comparison of the two. Once I had that issue figured out, I made 30 buttons.

This is where things are currently with the dress. Next step is to pattern and create the sleeves themselves. Then I will attach them, and complete the remaining finishing on the dress (neckline and hem). 

Again, I have more photos of the process available here! I've also been periodically posting my progress on Instagram. If you miss me posting often here, please consider following me there!


  1. Marvelous! I really love the color of wool you have chosen for your dress also. Where did you get it, if I may ask?

  2. Serves me right for posting my comment before thoroughly reading the article. I can't visit the Pendleton outlet in WA, but maybe I can find something close from their Internet site. Thanks.

    1. I haven't been able to find the deals online, sadly. Dorr Mill has a similar range of green wool, just in the heavier flannel weight. But it's much more expensive.

    2. It still may be worth my checking it out, though. Dorr Mill? Thanks for the tip. Looking forward to seeing your dress completed.

  3. What a lovely wool! Great to read about your projects again. I look forward to seeing the finished dress!