Monday, September 3, 2018

The Tsarina Gown - Planning and Executing the Sequins

For anyone that's been keeping up with me on Instagram, you'll know that the bulk of my sewing this past year has been devoted to sewing sequins. Lots and lots of sequins. Twenty six thousand of them.

Haha not all 26,000... This was the sample order!

After Costume College last year, I was super inspired by the Royalty theme. I finally settled on a direction because of my husband. While taking the Orient Express a couple years back, his beard had earned him the nickname, The Tsar (not by us, but it stuck). Well, Romanovs it had to be! I chose this particular dress (designed by Lamanova and worn by Alexandra Feodorovna) because it stood out as something complex and challenging that I wanted to tackle. In truth, it didn't end up being especially complicated, but it did take a lot of patience and careful planning. And time. It took about 200 hours to sew 26,000 sequins. I diligently kept track. 

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I was a slave to this dress. It was indeed time consuming, but I gave myself enough time out from the event (almost a year), that I could accomplish it in a relaxed fashion. I set up the frame in the living room, behind the couch, and worked on the sequins on weekday evenings mostly, when we would be watching tv. Eventually it became that my husband would read on the couch and I would listen to audiobooks. He's not that into TV and when I listened and didn't have to look up at the television, I sewed much faster. Many nights I didn't work on this at all. A couple months, I didn't touch it. So, it ended up being very doable, with no burn out. The sequins were actually very enjoyable to work on!

I started just like any other project. I made a muslin. On paper, I took Truly Victorian's Edwardian circle skirt pattern and extended the train to about 70". I was mostly just eyeballing from a few small pictures I found on pinterest. Actually, I planned most of the gown with only those. Possibly because of the language barrier when searching, I had a terrible time finding where the dress was housed (it ended up being at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Thanks to Instagram, by the time I started the bodice, someone was kind enough to share close ups of the gown's back. It was amazing to not have to guess!

Once I had a skirt I was happy with, I went super low tech and printed out large pictures of the skirt's motif and hand traced them onto pattern paper, making sure the motifs lined up properly at the center back seam. 

It was huge!!!!

 Once everything was on paper, I used the grid on my cutting mat to mark the 1" sequins.

At my local craft store, I was lucky enough to find a king size quilting frame that disassembled. I needed to be able to put it away when I wasn't working on the sequins. It rolled up and I wrapped the work in a bed sheet to keep it dust (and cat) free. 

The paper with all the designs and pattern outline marked, was basted to twill tape on the wooden poles. Then I laid the silk tulle over it and basted that to the paper. I also basted the skirt pattern outline in thread on the tulle. Then the whole thing rolled up and was placed on the frame.

Then the sequining started. There was a learning curve to this. I started with silk thread because that seemed like what to use with silk tulle. No. The knots in the silk thread were too slippery and after about 100 sequins they started to work loose when I would roll everything up to store. Major panic moment. I switched to cotton thread and the knots stayed beautifully!

The 1" sequins were knotted individually, while the floral motifs were done with a continuous length of thread. They went very quickly.

Something that really sped up the process was using a blunt tip needle. When I started, I had a sharp needle and it was catching the paper with each stitch. Something I never changed, but would have helped was using a little velvet pad instead of the felt I used to keep my sequins. The star sequins pointy edges would catch on the felt.

When it came time to do the bodice, there was an element that didn't come up in the skirt. The sleeve edges, and leaves at the neckline, were buttonhole stitched and cut out. This was extremely time consuming! The sleeves and bodice were tackled the same way as the skirt: on paper first.

When working on the smaller bodice motifs, I didn't need my giant skirt frame, so I made a little frame from pieces of wood from the hardware store. This was very small and mobile, so it was great to take with when traveling.

When I finally took the tulle off the paper I was so scared! But it was delightful to play with! Unfortunately, my biggest regret of this process was that the tulle grew and grew with the weight of the sequins. In the future, if I did something like this again, I would stretch the tulle before mounting it.

An odd part of the skirt process was an extra band on sequined tulle at the bottom of the skirt. From pictures of the original dress, you could see this era band with sequins run on, not individually knotted. It indeed helped with the weight of the tulle, but I may go back one day and remove it. I would like to redo it, with the sequins individually knotted because the thread snagged terribly when I wore the dress! Perhaps it was a last minute addition to the original dress, because it was much faster than knotting, but not nearly as secure. 

When all this sequining madness was over, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I got it done in time... and then the dressmaking started! More on that next!

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