Sunday, September 18, 2011

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Welcome back, friends! It's Oktoberfest season, and do I ever have an appropriate entry this evening. Matt's Czech polka band, the Royal Klobasneks, are in full two-beat swing this time of year - what better excuse for a new costuming post? Despite the current leaning toward polkas, sausage, beer and festivity, my thoughts have been focused almost entirely on sewing... and my ongoing longing for a dirndl.

Now, I should explain tonight's title. About a year ago I had attempted, via a Butterick costume pattern, a "stand-in" dirndl - a basic Renaissance bodice and full skirt, complete with boning and a fully-laced front closure. It wasn't a great success - binding in the chest, and downright uncomfortable. The main complaint was that it didn't perform like an Austrian dirndl - in other words, it didn't slope off at the breast level, and rise to create the traditional shelf at the center. I salvaged the skirt, but the bodice was a wash.

This season, I decided to take the bull by the horns, and do this project correctly. I can't imagine how many hours I spent researching dirndls - their silhouette, tradition, history and, most importantly, construction. Initially I turned to Folkwear, hoping that their dirndl pattern would do - but was disappointed with the results otherwise skilled sewers had come up with. Worse yet, the pattern involves a dart at the armpit - a serious no-no, unseen in authentic examples. I decided to utilize Folkwear for the blouse, skirt and apron patterns - but the bodice would have to be engineered on my dress form, from start to finish. First of all, two photos of the finished garment, to show the overall silhouette I was aiming for...

The bodice is the main element I'll be talking about here, but I'm very happy with the overall design. Before I delve further into the construction details, I'll mention that the fabric is a remarkable cotton I found at Joann's - I didn't pre-wash, preferring to retain color and clarity at the expense of dry-cleaning. The apron is a quilting cotton, and the blouse is simple white cotton, with soft blue polka dots - trimmed with eyelet. My socks are German, as well as my Tyrolean hat (a gift from Matt).

Now on to the guts of the thing. Adjusting my dress form a size or so downward, I used pins to delineate the curved edges of my bodice, along with the curved back seams, and subtle front seams. While making a muslin dummy I discovered that most of the shelving up front happens at those two front seams, only several inches from the center - there's the slightest bit of give as the join reaches the top, just near the widest part of the chest. Here's a close-up, showing that tiny outward curve...

As well, the interior of the front and center, lined with alternating hooks and eyes. This is a trick I learned from studying and collecting Victorian-era garments - regardless of how the wearer moves, the closure won't give. Many dirndls utilize a heavy zipper for this front closure, but I wanted the fabric design to match up perfectly when brought together. Another interesting point regarding the closure has to do with the structure - while I usually turn to featherweight boning for milder bodice work, this time around I needed something stronger. I frankly didn't want to bother with steel boning - I wasn't completely sure of the length I would need, and had no desire to spend a large-ish amount of funds guessing. I read on a sewing blog (I wish I could remember which!) the perfect item for such a job - heavy duty cable ties. I bought a bag of duct-strength plastic ties, and cut two down to suit the final length. I then sealed the cut ends with electrical tape, so there would be no cutting through the fabric, a typical problem with boning. The result is fantastic, and will be repeated in future corsetry projects.

This photo brings up two neat points - the quilting of the inner and outer materials, and use of bias tape. I lined my dirndl bodice with duck-cloth, to reduce the stress overall, and absorb perspiration. To reduce the separation between the two, I quilted the fabrics together - a detail is shown below. As well, I used bias tape to seal up the seams inside - this is an old practice that I tend to use in corsetry and Victorian costuming. Outside of the center closure, there is no boning in the dirndl - so much depends on the seam placement and "give". The photo below was taken after two days of wear, and shows the stress points along the back seams...

A flower in the print, showing the quilting method I used...

Matt and I together, with a somewhat skewed blend of smiling (him) and staunch (me)! The bodice is finished with cotton cording throughout the seams and edges, a conservative substitute for the often elaborate trims that grace many dirndls. The apron features a new technique to me, shirring - rows of small gathers along the top edge, just beneath the tie. I did this on my machine, using a zig-zag stitch and buttonhole twist thread - the bottom of the apron has horizontal pleats and machine embroidery. Underneath it all, the hem is reinforced with crinoline, and I'm wearing eyelet-trimmed, seersucker drawers - patterned directly from a pair dating from the early 1900s. As I'm (very happily!) married, my apron is tied on the left.

I'll admit that this was initially one of the more intimidating projects I've tackled - I wanted to do justice to the dirndl, and find that balance of comfort, while flirting with constriction. Although I could have purchased a ready-made piece, I wanted the fit to be perfect - no gaps, no heavy binding... and without need of alteration. Our good friend Valina (who, with her husband Ross, perform as "Das ist Lustig!") helped me move forward on the home-made route - her mother makes her performance dirndls, unhappy with the modern ready-made examples. Her construction advice was most useful, and gave me the courage to invest in the needed materials and Do Something. I'm thrilled with the results, and look forward to more Royal Klobasneks shows this season, and in the years ahead.

To you all, Ein Prosit der Gemutlichkeit!


  1. I just came across your awesome blog while trying to research dirndls. WOW! Your is fantastic. I have found it hard to find much info about traditionally cut dirndls and your photographs and commentary are so helpful. I am making one to use up scraps of wool I have lying around, for modern wear, but I would still prefer to it to have traditional construction and shape. I know now what I need to aim for. Thanks so much! You look gorgeous in your dirndl!

  2. So glad the post helped you - it pleases me greatly to know I could assist! Best wishes to you and your creative endeavors!