Left: my sister, Heather; Right: My Great Grandma Gretchen

Or Great Grandma in this case.

Every year in February my family celebrates the German Dinner. Someone different hosts it every year, which means every year is slightly different, but usually we can count on eating delicious German food, visiting with our extended family, and enjoying some sort of program that celebrates where our family came from which is Germany (we don’t call it the German dinner for nothing!). It is always a good time and I’m always grateful for the opportunity it gives me to reflect on my ancestors and my family’s history.

Obviously, every year is special, but this year in particular gave reason to celebrate: it was 100 years ago, in October, that my great grandma Gretchen, my great grandpa EE, my grandpa Henry and his sister Charlotte landed on Ellis Island to start their life in the United States. Of course, there was a party this last October as well. But my family is no stranger to parties, so another one is in order. For this year’s German Dinner, a series of contests are being held. Truthfully, I feel ill equipped to enter any of these contests, but one category is Art. A sewn dress is certainly not what comes to mind when you hear the words “art contest” BUT I wanted to participate and this is the best way I could think up with my skill set.

My first step, and probably my favorite part of the whole process, was to find photos of my ancestors from the era and brainstorm ways I could replicate the clothing. Luckily, we have a good collection of books about my family members and, especially the most recent ones, have a good amount of photos to go with it. The photo on which I’m basing this dress was pulled from a book about my grandpa, Henry, written by my uncle, Robert (Bob) Lifferth. I’m so grateful to have these resources and grateful to the family members who did intensive research to produce those books. Another great resource for me was Family Search. It’s a website and also an app. It’s free to use but you’ll get the best results if you create an account. One of my favorite things to do on the Family Search app is to click on Memories, where you can often see photos, documents or stories that others have shared. What you see is entirely dependent on what others (or yourself) have uploaded, so you won’t always have things to look at in this tab. Here’s a screenshot of the Memories tab for Gretchen. There are even more photos than this, which is so awesome! I’m so grateful for my family members who’ve taken the time to upload these so that everyone in our family can have access to them!

If you look closely at the photo on the right with the group of people, Gretchen is on the far right and she’s wearing a dress that very similar to the one she’s wearing in the top photo, although it would have been maybe 15 years later. So maybe she really liked that look or maybe it was really in style or maybe both.

Anyway, I chose to copy this particular dress because it is clearly displayed and because it is a simple design that felt approachable. I went online and searched “sailor collar dress pattern” and found lots of options that sort of kind of worked but eventually found this:

See & Sew 3873, and it felt like a really good match. I’d have to eliminate the cuffs on the sleeves, lengthen the skirt and create ties, but otherwise it is seemed very similar. It would have been crazy and so cool to find a pattern that was actually from the 1920s, but I think it’s pretty difficult to get your hands on something like that. This particular pattern is from the 80s, so definitely retro although not quite vintage.

I am just going to be totally honest here and say that this was a difficult make for me! My first problem was the fabric. I bought this bubble gauze fabric from Joann. I am scared of buying white fabric online and I didn’t want to spend a ton of money since this falls more into the Costume category than the Wear All the Time category. The fabric itself is actually pretty good quality, just the slightest bit sheer and a really nice color (Joann’s website calls it “birch fall” but I’d call it “natural”). But the bubble gauze really stuck it to me. It’s got a stretch to it that is just kind of like someone getting all up in your face singing, “Neener, neeener!” I mean, it’s a woven but it has stretch but the stretch can technically be ironed out. Oh, it was a headache. And, in fact, I ironed the fabric and then laid it out to cut out my pattern pieces. But after fiddling for a solid few minutes trying to get everything on grain, I ended up ripping the fabric off of the cutting table and marching it right back over to the ironing board to give it another go. It looked better after that second press, but getting it on grain was still rather trifficult (thank you, Bluey, that word fits perfectly here).

And then came the issue of interfacing. I chose woven interfacing because this fabric is woven but I truly should have used knit to fully embrace the stretch quality of the fabric. The bits that had interfacing (the collar and ties) weren’t very nice to sew because there was no give and matching notches to their un-interfaced counterparts was a joke.

If I had taken the project on in a more responsible manner, I would have given it a proper muslin and would have decided to attach the ties onto the collar in the cutting out phase. Instead, I sewed the ties onto the collar with a pretty messy finish. It works, and the ties have to be, you know, tied, so it mostly hides the poorly executed addition, but if I were to make the dress again, I would tape the collar and tie pattern pieces together and cut out as one. To make the tie pattern pieces, I just sketched out the right shape in a size I felt was good and then added a seam allowance.

Sewing this up I realized that, aside from button ups, I don’t recall sewing any other collars. This collar wasn’t too tricky (aside from the interfacing fiasco) and I know it’s not currently in style, but I do think it’s a pretty look. The facing is attached at the same point as the collar. It has a hard time staying in its place but that’s on me as the instructions said to tack it, and I didn’t.

I did really enjoy discovering the instructions common for the 80s sewist. They were very brief! My favorite part were the instructions for sewing the sleeves in the round rather than the flat way that’s common nowadays. I asked my mom about this and she said that that was how she was taught to sew sleeves and the only way she’s done it! So sewing practices and techniques do change!

Speaking of differences between sewing patterns now and sewing patterns then, the sizing seemed a little bit whack to me. I purchased the larger size range (sizes 14-16-18) to fit my current bust measurement, 40 inches, which put me at the end of the size range, size 18. First off, it’s crazy that that was the end of their size range. Secondly, it seemed crazy to me that the coordinating waist measurement with the 40 inch bust is 32 inches! I did some research to compare current bust to waist ratios and actually there are still pattern designers who use this ratio but more commonly I saw a 35 inch waist with a 40 inch bust, which seems so much more standard to me. Obviously there’s no right or wrong ratio; every body is different, it just had me surprised and then curious.

I sewed this while staying at my mom’s house which is always nice in that I get to use her very nice equipment but it’s a bit like cooking in someone else’s kitchen: everything takes a little bit longer because you don’t know where anything is and all the tools are a bit different from what you’re used to. Between that and the fact that I was visiting with the kids but without Ben, I was feeling a little frazzled about getting this finished. And I can’t even tell you how forcefully I hated the idea of wrangling the weird stretchy woven fabric into a hem, so my wonderful mom hemmed the dress skirt and the sleeves for me (thank you, mom!!). Otherwise this dress might be lying in an unfinished heap on my mom’s sewing room floor! But as it were, she magicked the fabric into a blind hem that looks really nice. In the photo of Gretchen, her skirt is long. Our version goes to about mid-calf. I didn’t have enough fabric to do ankle length and mid-calf seemed like a good non-awkward length so we went for it.

You may have noticed that’s not me wearing the dress! I ended up making it for my sister according to her measurements, since I won’t be able to attend the German Dinner in person this year (but we are planning on hosting our own and inviting some friends so we can share the German Dinner love!).

Pattern: See & Sew 3873
Size: 14
Adjustments: Adding ties to the collar, eliminating the cuff from the sleeves (and subsequently removing excess fabric from sleeves as well)
Fabric: Bubble Guaze from Joann
Cost: Fabric $40 ($10/yd; 4 yards total); Pattern $8 (including shipping); Interfacing $3
Would I make this pattern again?: I would. I like how it turned out and I think with some simple alterations it could be easily worn anytime

I really did have a great time researching for this project and then carrying it out, even despite my difficulties. After celebrating the 100th anniversary of my family coming to America in October I’ve thought a lot about how grateful I am that grandma Gretchen and grandpa EE made that choice. I’m sure it was difficult and terrifying not only to have to pass through the officials of Ellis Island with the fear of being sent back to Germany, but also to take your family to a new country away from family and where you’d have to learn a new language. And I’m sure that’s glazing over the struggles they faced, but what a blessing it’s been to my family! As I hope I’ve illustrated, my dad’s family is invested in our family’s legacy and they have worked out that Gretchen and EE have 675 descendants! That’s a lot of people (and the number is growing!) who have been blessed by that huge choice and sacrifice they made just over 100 years ago. It makes me teary eyed to consider. I may not have met them here on earth, but I sure love them.

I wanted to share just one more photo of great grandma Gretchen:

Photo from Family Search and uploaded (and I believe digitally enhanced and colored) by my cousin Jed Johnson

If there’s an opportunity for me to sew another #DressLikeYourGrandma, I’m going to copy this look because it’s pretty darn fabulous.

2 thoughts on “#DressLikeYourGrandma

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