Fustan Raqs in red, part 3: the dress

There are several ways you can approach the shift part of a dress for a project like this. By far, the easiest is by starting with a full pattern that you’ve adapted to skim your body. This is important. There’s nothing worse than looking like an overstuffed sausage when you should feel comfortable and self-assured.

Fustan Raqs in Red

Cabaret dress, full body

I made the pattern for this dress from a bustier from Vogue, adapting it to my exact measurements then extending it downwards. My first attempt with the pattern resulted in a cute 6-pieces A-line black jerset dress with vague industrial leanings, for going to concerts. It has a straight cleavage and looks a lot like a pinafore, but it’s light and comfortable and, in extremely stuffy environments like clubs and concert arenas, works a treat. You can read how I created this pattern in this post.

My second attempt consolidated the 6 pieces into 3 (one front, two back), and resulted in my black and silver fustan raqs shown in the flouncy sleeves post. My third attempt was this dress, and the fourth has been turned into a vaguely 50s style off the shoulder dress again in black cotton jersey. So it’s well worth investing the time to get the pattern right, as you can use it for several things, and the more you use it and refine it, the better (and easier) it will be to put together a great costume or outfit. For this one, I also wanted a bit more of a siren shape, so when drafting I made the sides of front and back flare starting above the kee, and added a semi-circle of fabric starting right under the end of the zipper (end of my bum) to increase the siren effect.

The foiled fabric proved to be a total nightmare to sew with the straight stitch machine, and I ended doing most of the work on it on the overlocker, simply because it wasn’t bunching and making holes in the fabric every other stitch. Let this be a lesson to you: when working with vynils or knits, ALWAYS USE THE RIGHT TYPE OF NEEDLE (I was) and ALWAYS MAKE SURE THAT YOUR TENSION IS RIGHT (I did). And if that fails, try using a different bobbin; sometimes the tension on the bobbin itself isn’t right, be it because it went wrong during manufacturing, or because you’ve been sewing by hand a lot and rewound the bobbin yourself and ended with uneven tension on it. So another lesson to keep in mind: always have a separate bobbin to sew by hand, if you can. Needless to say, my problem ended being a rogue bobbin, and once sorted, it was much easier to deal with.

Also, when working with foiled fabrics, which are rather popular for costumes at the moment, remember that the foil effect can get easily damaged if you stitch it too much, or poke and prod at it. Like vinyl or leather, the more you prod it, the weaker it becomes, so keep that in mind when working with it and try to keep pins to a minimum.

Assembling the dress was done pretty quick, adding the bra was the tricky part but that always is. All I can recommend if you don’t have a dress form to help you with this stage is to either find someone you trust to help you pin both of them together while you’re wearing them, or to do what I did and go for a stuffed cushion to double as your torso. The cushion has the advantage that you can pin the fabric to it and it won’t complain, and this can make it easier to assemble both parts. I also added more gross-grain ribbon along the top’s inside to prevent the fabric from stretching and dropping, and to help with the overall structural integrity.

Fustan Raqs Bra decoration

Close up of the decoration of the red fustan raqs

To set up the decoration, it helps if you’ve got an idea of what you want to achieve. I knew straight away before even starting that I wanted something scroll-like and asymmetrical, so I looked around for potential sources, then I did a mock up in Photoshop first, then laid the dress down with the pillows behind it and tried arranging the parts I had until I got something I was pleased with. As you can see by the picture, while the decorations are fairly monochrome, there’s plenty of different pieces: the black and silver applique, tear-shaped faceted AB crystals, round AB crystals on settings, tear-shaped faceted smoke crystals, flower-shaped metallic silver beads and even the odd seed bead to anchor flowers that don’t have the tassels.

I added the decorations without a backing on the bra, as there were several thick layers already there. For the dress itself, I used a layer of medium interfacing on the inside for the appliques, double layered when I was creating the crystal flowers. The tassels have a small square of interfacing folded in 4, I knot all three threads of the tassels to it, then finish it all off with a point of fabric-friendly glue to keep the knots tight. I’ve used this method for both fustan raqs I’ve done so far and I haven’t had any tassel  falling off the fabric, after several uses, so I suspect I must be doing something right! Trim the interfacing on the inside after you’re done.

Red Fustan Raqs body decoration

Close-up of the body decoration, before adding crystal flowers or hip tassels

I’ve also used liberally some flower-shaped beads/sequins which I used to anchor the tassels, I rather liked the effect I got this way. My one main complaint right now is that the crystals I used in settings have all been falling pretty regularly, and I’m wondering whether I wouldn’t have been better off getting bigger sew-on crystals and adding those. I also lament not buying all the silver and black appliques at once as the seller only had a limited amount and apparently won’t be getting any more of them any time soon, so I had to use the few I could get to set up the strong diagonal shape and just compensated the hip area by having plenty of tassels, with some focal points created by flowers made using petal-shaped AB crystals. Eventually I would like to add more silver and black scrolls around the hip area but that won’t happen unless I can find the right pieces again.

Overall this was a fun project, the results were stunning and I got plenty of compliments on the dress.  I did add double-layered flouncy sleeves, with the armband in this fabric, and the flounces made in black and red chiffon. They add a great effect to it. As for the down-sides, when looking at the photos from the events and performances later on I did notice that the halter neck was really causing the back to drop too much, despite the gross-grain ribbon. My only options here are to tighten up the back (not likely) or to change the halter neck into either straight or cross-backed straps, which is what I will be doing.  And I will need to reduce the semi-circle at the back to a quarter or third circle, as the extra flare is a bit too much and gets under your feet when dancing.

Hopefully these are all things I will be able to address before tackling next project.


Fustan raqs in red, part one, or how to cover a bra…

My job sometimes finds me with several things up in the air, when I’m waiting for third parties to contact me for whatever reason, and because of that, starting anything new in terms of work would not be a good idea. These are the times when I try to sneak in some sewing.

Today was such a day, and therefore I decided to start my costume for the Littlehampton Carnival, a fustan raqs (evening gown) in red patterned vinyl with black and silver decoration, and black, red, clear and silver beaded tassels. And if it sounds like a handful, it’s because it IS.

I did all the beaded threads ages ago; those will in time become the tassels once they’re grouped. I will no doubt need to  redo a few or add some when adding them, so I will talk about them when I get there. Right now, the first part of my job was to prepare the bra.

Anybody that has seen Egyptian costumes will notice that the bras are pretty much armour-plated. They’re so rigid you can actually knock on them! Me, I am not much of a fan of the look, and since I can’t really find that sort of moulded cup over here without resorting to some creative work with papier mache and balloons, I’ve gone instead for a foam-cup bra that fits me well. Some people advice going for a size bigger; this is because they might add padding on the inside. I am not planning on adding any padding to this one, and all the strength layers will go on the outside, so I’m keeping it simple and for my own size. Still, the cups will get quite a bit of work, and quite some heavy beading/embroidery, so they need reinforcement, and the whole cup needs stabilising. This is why it is a good idea to do this reinforcement with several different materials.

Firstly, assemble your materials. You will need:

  • a bra that fits you well; it’s ok if it’s a touch loose on the cups, but don’t make it too much; it’s also recommended that it has foam shaped cups, and underwires, as they help tremendously with the shape and overall structure of the gown
  • a GOOD thimble with a metal top, or at least a tailor’s thimble; you might want both if you can; DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS, you will thank me; your nails and your fingers will thank me too!
  • good scissors
  • Swedish Pattern Paper or similar, you can also use muslin, or thin fabric, but the paper lets you draw on it far easier.
  • lots of pins
  • gross grain ribbon in two thickness: some about 1″ wide, and some about the witdth of your straps.
  • sharp needle and thread.
  • calico fabric, coutil, denim, canvas… basically a strong, quite rigid fabric that will help your bra keep the shape once you cover it
  • your fashion fabric and an idea of what you want to do with it
Edges with gross grain ribbon

Edges with gross grain ribbon

Most if not all of the work you’ll be doing will be done by hand, so the thimbles are a necessity unless you want to end with very sore fingers. Grab some background noise (I find some pretty series that I don’t mind half-watching), arm yourself with patience, and get going!

Start by removing the straps from the bra, and sewing the attachment points in, to get a smooth finish on each end. Elastic straps on costumes are not a good idea because eventually they DO stretch, and will ruin the effect. You want something that is engineered to sustain a lot of abuse and movement, so you’re better off replacing them. We won’t get back to the straps for a while, but you can throw away the ones you’ve removed, unless you want to keep the hardware for whatever reason.

You first need to stabilise the cups edges by sewing the 1″ gross grain ribbon along the top edges. You should make sure that both edges of the tape are sewn into place, and this is done along the cleavage and the armpit sides. This will prevent wardrobe malfunctions, keeping your bust in check and gaping *just* enough to be enticing, without the risk of it all stretching in the near future and making all your hard work unusable unless you get a pair of implants.

Bra pattern making

Once the first stabilising layer -the gross grain ribbon- is done, you need to create a pattern for the cup with the Swedish paper or muslin. The shape of your pieces will depend a lot on how you’re planning on making it, and the overall shape and size of your breasts. I’ve done a single piece with a dart at the bottom before, but I’ve found that it tends to produce a bit of a conical effect, which, while desireable in some cases, is not what I was after this time.

Bra pattern making close-up

Bra pattern making close-up

I started by cutting a thick long strip of paper that I carefully pinned flat along the top edge. It is highly recommended that you do this pinning in the manner I’ve done it in the photo, using the pins vertically and not horizontally. I then drew the line along which I wanted the bottom two pieces to be. I cut two more big shapeless pieces of paper and proceeded to pin them in place, only caring that they were flushed against the cup, and once both were in place, drawing the edges on each where necessary. This will take time and requires patience, and will probably need adjusting a couple of times, but if you’re using the same model of bra for several projects, only needs to be done ONCE, and it’s worth doing right.

You can see a closeup of it all to the right, and the pieces I obtained below. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this, and the shape of your pieces, and even the quantities, will depend a lot on the shape of the bra, the size of your bust, and the type of stabilising fabric you’re working with.

Bra Pattern pieces

Bra Pattern pieces

Bra Pattern making, fashion fabric pattern

Bra Pattern making, fashion fabric pattern

If you want your fashion fabric to follow the same shape as the base, then you’re done. But as should be patently clear by now, I am a sucker for punishment, so I decided I wanted my bra to have a pretty gathered effect at the centre. This meant that I had to do the pattern process again, except with a single piece of paper this time, making small pleats along the inner edges of the wires. Delightful work, I tell you *sigh*. I then marked the edges as before, removed the pins, cut off the piece along the lines I’d marked, and I had a pattern piece ready.

The rest is pretty much as expected. I cut 2 mirrored pieces of each of my new patterns, remembering to add seam allowance; two cups in the calico, which I serged along the edges by hand then pinned together and machined-sewed. If you’re cutting the same pieces I am, it’s far easier to first sew the two bottom pieces together, then add the long rectangular one. Once you’ve got the two cups, you need to sew them to your bra, making sure while you sew that you are going through all the layers of the bra: foam and gross grain ribbon, or else elastic and wire casing. Be careful when sewing around the wires as it is easy to misjudge and try to put the needed through a wire. Also make sure that you have the thimble in your “pushing” finger, and you use it when pushing the needle through so many layers.

Bra covered

Bra covered

Once I’d done the stiffening layer, I cut two mirrored versions of the gathered pattern piece from the fashion fabric, and attached them to the cups. This time, I made sure that the excess fabric was turned towards the inner side of the bra, to cover the edges of it too.

I decided to make this a halter-neck, to leave my back free. So I cut two strips of the thinner gross-grain ribbon and wrapped them with the fashion fabric, then put through the sewing machine with straight stich along the seam, and along the other side of the strap to stabilise the cover and prevent it from twisting or bunching. After this, I attached each strap to the top of the cups, and ideally I will be adding a hook and slide to them once I get closer to the final stage.

This will have the decoration added once the rest of the dress is assembled and both parts are together. But the process I described above is perfectly suitable to use for creating a bra for a bedlah or for a different kind of costume. I’ve done this process before for the bra for my tribal/gypsy/ghawazee costume, so I will be adding notes on what else needs to be done when discussing them.

Tomorrow, I cut the dress and hopefully will assemble it!

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