Ballgown vs Ballgown!

Thumblenina teal silk ballgown 4

If there are two words guaranteed to strike joy into my heart, they are black tie. Whilst I may enthuse about brilliant basics and I do really aspire to making my own jeans and underwear, there is nothing that gets my creative juices going like a chance to really, seriously, dress up.

I grew up on a visual diet of gowns: BBC period dramas, Grace Kelly films, Bond girls. I loved paper dolls (the sort whose clothes come with tabs on) and spent hours designing and drawing my own ever more extravagant evening dresses for them. (I remember one in particular: pale pink, with floating tiers, covered in garlands of bright pink roses and strings of pearls. Completely OTT.) When I was nine or ten, my mother altered a bridesmaid’s dress she’d once worn and paired it with a little pair of white lace gloves as a gift to me, my first ballgown. When I grow up, I thought, I’m going to dress like this ALL the time.

Well, it turns out that even the most diehard ballgownista would feel a bit of a twit wearing one down to Asda, so it’s fair to say my childhood dreams haven’t quite come true (yet). But I have been lucky, and been to my fair share of fabulous balls. If I’ve counted correctly, I’ve made a total of thirteen ‘ballgowns’, from my first boyfriend’s prom when I was only seventeen through to this very latest, made and worn two weeks’ ago.

This last occasion was my dear friend’s wedding, and what rendered him all the dearer to me was his specification of a black tie dress code. I immediately began to dream and scheme. But there was a slight hurdle: in a professional capacity, I was making the bridesmaids’ dresses. I had to choose something that would be stylish without being too attention-grabbing (I guess that’s kind of a standard wedding guest dilemma). And I had to make it in a very short space of time, with very little money. Oh AND I was feeling completely sapped of inspiration and sewjo after three back-to-back rounds of wedding commissions.

All of which can go some way to explaining how I ended up making two dresses.

The lesson of this tale is never go to Goldhawk Road with only one fabric in mind. The fabric in my mind was primrose yellow silk, and it simply didn’t exist. This was three days before the wedding, and I panicked. I saw some very pretty mauve tulle and grabbed it. I then ended up with lilac georgette for the base fabric. It was all very pretty and all very, meh. And so, two days before the wedding, I went to Soho in search of a dupion – I was going to make a bustier dress with a contrasting tulle skirt. I drafted the bust cups myself, lined them with bra form and inserted underwires. I got 80% of the way to making a bustier ballgown with a tulle skirt. And then I stopped for dinner and over the course of the meal decided I wasn’t going to wear it (the perils of eating, living and working in the same room). The bustier top was, well, too busty. I’m fairly generously proportioned in the front, and the dress was looking positively Amazonian. My public justification was that it was too aggressive for a wedding, but the truth is I just didn’t want to wear it.


So, with 24 hours to go, it was back to the drawing board, and back to Goldhawk Road. After half an hour in Unique Fabrics, with the poor shop assistant laying out every shade of every silk for me to um and ah over, I ‘made his day’ by taking his advice and leaving with 2.5m of a blue-green silk I would never have picked for myself. (Next time I need dress fabric I’m just going to that boy and asking him to choose some for me upfront.)

I then proceeded to recreate a dress I’d originally drafted 18 months ago for a Christmas ball. It was inspired by this stunning number worn by Caterina Murino in Casino Royale.

Caterina Murino Casino Royale

Back then, I made it in royal blue silk, with a By Hand London Anna skirt and a BHL Holly hack for the top. This time, I wanted to avoid the sexy slit but retain the slinky silhouette. I first drafted the top so that the front was a deep bias-cut cowl with a facing, attached to a low-cut back (not cut on the bias). Using my sloper, I drafted a v panel, inspired by vintage 1930s gowns for the skirt front and back. I then tried to work out how to draft a half circle skirt with a square/diamond instead of a circle at the ‘waistline’. Nope, I didn’t get it either. In the end I draped the skirt from the v-panel using my dress form and went around marking the hem with pins.


The actual stitching was super quick. Once the drafting was done, this was probably one of the fastest dresses I’ve ever made! The skirt only has one seam, the centre-back, and that was cut on the selvage so I had no lengthy seams to finish. I even machined the hem. So yes, oddly, this has turned out to be one of the quickest and cheapest makes I’ve done in a long while. The whole thing was done in under a day, and cost under £40. And I truly love it.

Thumblenina teal silk ballgown

Thumblenina teal silk ballgown 8

Thumblenina teal silk ballgown 2

The silk ripples and flows in the most extraordinary way; the colour shimmers and alters like oil. It felt comfortable and flattering, and I never wanted to take it off. It was a wonderful wedding celebration, a beautiful summer evening, and I had the best time, feeling like the best version of myself. It also helped that I was really chuffed by how the bridesmaids’ dresses turned out…

I’m going to be sharing more details on these once some less orange, more professional photographs are available!

Anyway, now I’ve got to plan my outfits for pretty much the opposite kind of dressing up: I’m going to Wilderness Festival next week and so I’m thinking pom-poms, face paint, hair glitter and WARM clothing… But for now I’m just going to post another photo of me as I’d like to be, all the time. Perhaps next year I’ll start the world’s first black tie festival! x

Thumblenina teal silk ballgown 7



Sew Over It Eve Dress

I think it’s one of the perennial questions that plague bloggers – does anyone actually notice if my blog goes quiet? I’ve not quite fallen off the blogging wagon, I’m more still being dragged along behind it clinging to a loose plank, but I’ve certainly been absent more often than not this year. It’s left me with the feeling that I’m behind everyone else, the last person to reach every trend. For example, by the time I finally get around to starting a vlog, I might just be the very last stitcher on the planet to do so. And whilst I may have been one of the very first to make a Sew Over It Eve dress from the now-not-so-newly-released paper pattern, I’m probably the last person to actually share it!

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina full length 4 copy

I was lucky enough to be a pattern tester for Eve, and opted to make the seemingly more popular flutter-sleeve version. I should say right away that I adore this design. I fell in love with the lines immediately, and had visions of myself languishing on lawns in the long summer evenings that, when I was dreaming, still lay ahead. As a tester, the fabric was provided by Sew Over It and I chose a floral lawn in soft smoky shades; it’s now out-of-stock at SOI, but I have seen it elsewhere online.

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina full length

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina back view

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina skirt

The pattern came together as smoothly as I’ve come to expect from Sew Over It. However I rather complacently cut and sewed up a straight size 10 without any toile, as I’ve had such perfect fit experiences with other SOI patterns, so I was a bit surprised and disappointed with myself when it came up roomier than I’d like. Some of the roominess can be attributed to using cotton rather than something with more drape, but even so I have to pull the wrap as tight as possible and it’s still spacious. The cotton stands away from the body accentuating all of this, particularly the gaping across the bust. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the pattern is at fault; I think I simply should have made a smaller size. And next time I am without doubt going to use a fabric with drape; Sew Over It have some fabulous floral crepes online at the moment that must surely have been bought with Eve in mind.

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina full length 2

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina close up 2

Oh, and another thing about the fabric: NOT my colours! I really need to get a grip on my whole ‘ooh, soft and sophisticated shades!’ fascination unless I want to also embrace looking washed out and weird. I mean, I know these photos were taken on a grey day in April but seriously, I’d just been skiing in the sun; I didn’t really look that moon-faced! (Although thanks to the skiing I was feeling pretty much like the moon: round and made of cheese). I mean, to be truthful I think there’s something else going on here: since working for myself I’ve gained a few pounds and lost a bit of style direction. I spend so much time alone in my flat, in daytime pyjamas, that I think my sartorial compass is somewhat off course. It’s seen me make some dubious fabric choices. Not that here I haven’t made a dreamy Eve dress, perfect for garden parties and evening picnics, it’s just next time I’ll probably make one in bright red 🙂 x

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina close up

Sew Over It Eve Thumblenina full length 3


Winner of the Vogue 1484 giveaway!

And the winner is … Rachel! I’ll be leaving a reply to Rachel’s comment to notify her. Anyway thank you all for your lovely comments; you may not appreciate how happy and smiley they make me 🙂 (I can be a bit slow at responding but that’s just my life being hectic, not me being ungrateful!)

And sorry if you were unlucky this time but stay tuned as I have another fantastic giveaway lined up!!! x

Cocktail Hour – Vogue 1484 and a GIVEAWAY!

Club Tropicana drinks are free; fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone …

I haven’t managed to get Wham out of my head since finishing this dress! After the success of last year’s Big Vintage Sewalong, I was delighted to be asked to take part in the Cocktail Hour blog series, once again raising money for the Eve Appeal. The Eve Appeal is a charity raising awareness of, and funding research into, the five gynaecological cancers, and every Cocktail Hour pattern purchased this year sees a donation going directly to the Appeal. Making a cocktail dress (and a cocktail!) for a good cause? No need to ask twice.

Out of the 20 patterns to choose from, one jumped out at me from the get-go: Zandra Rhodes’ Vogue 1484. It just looks so fun! It’s quite funny really that of all the patterns on offer it’s the closest in design to the vintage pattern I selected for last year’s sewalong; I clearly have a narrower taste spectrum than I usually imagine. I adore the organza yoke with its cute little pointed collar and unusual armhole and sleeve bindings, and that pointed skirt hem.

The dress requires up to four different fabrics – two for the contrasting body panels, another for the collar and sleeve bindings and finally an organza for the bodice yoke and sleeves. I spent weeks scratching my head over fabric choices, initially considering satins, dupions and brocades. But none of these offered complementary prints and plains. I was at my wit’s end when John Lewis of all places came to the rescue with this sensational John Kaldor printed cotton. Brocade-brain that I have, I hadn’t even considered cotton. But as soon as I saw this, and the rows of plain cottons close by, I knew I had my fabrics. I was especially pleased as obviously Zandra Rhodes is ALL about the bright colours!

I have a bit of a thing for underlining at the moment, and so to give the soft cottons some body I underlined all the dress panels with a plain white cotton. This is obviously a hot weather outfit, so to keep things cool and breathable the dress is lined in cotton voile. London has turned on the sunshine these past few days so I’m currently feeling pretty smug: I have made something I can wear RIGHT NOW. At least until normal UK weather service resumes.

The organza is a nude poly from the Tooting Craft Superstore. I have to admit I was momentarily surprised that the instruction booklet provides no advice on stitching and stabilising the organza, particularly around the zip – I guess I’ve been spoilt by all the hand-holding offered by the indies! Anyway I tried to strengthen the zip area with slender strips from the organza selvage.

I also found the sizing rather off on this pattern. I’ve put on a bit of weight lately so was careful to grade and cut the sizes that the finished measurements indicated I should fit, namely a size 12 at the bust graded down to a 10 elsewhere. (The sizing chart itself put me in the 12–14 range.) I toiled and hey ho, whaddya know: one pretty capacious muslin.  So I decided to go with a straight size 10 overall and take in the seams where needed. I shortened the dress along the shorten lines but the yoke was still far too long (or deep?) – I took probably an inch off the base of the yoke just to ensure the main bodice sits high enough to cover a bra(!). This inevitably shrunk the armholes but (and I don’t have small arms) without any problematic consequences; I simply had to ease a little additional fullness in the sleeve heads. The size 10 now fits nicely but is far from snug; I could/should probably have graded down to a size 8 or even 6 at the waist, where there’s still plenty of ease.

I know I’ve written about this before but I find it intriguing how I see myself drawn to muted tonal outfits on other women, and then keep returning to wild brights when choosing for myself. Why is it that we generally associate neutral colours with maturity and sophistication? Am I just not ‘growing up’? (My intense feelings about small animals, celebrity crushes, inability to look at my bank balance without a buddy present, and basically entire inner monologue would suggest YES.) Will I ever switch out hot pink for ‘champagne’ and ‘camel’? Will I EVER say no to a cocktail?

Vogue 1484 Thumblenina upper body

Um, no.

Anyway… If you would like to win a copy of Vogue 1484 all you need to do is leave a comment below! I’ll close the competition at midday on Friday 2nd June, and announce the randomly picked winner then. It’s a fantastic design that I think will make a fantastic winter dress too… And don’t forget that we’re only halfway through this fabulous vodka-fuelled sewalong, so keep your eyes peeled for #sipandsew posts and the following bloggers:

10. Jen Sanders, Gingerella
9th June

11. Charlotte Powell, English Girl at Home
23rd June

12. Elisalex de Castro Peake, By Hand London
7th July

13. Kerry Patterson, Kestrel Makes
21st July

14. Gabby Young, Gabberdashery
4th August

15. Abigail Norton, Sew Abigail
18th August

16. Karen Ball,Did You Make That?
1st September

17. Rachel Wain, Rach Against The Sewing Machine
15th September

18. Elle Harris, Sew Positivity
29th September

19. Rachel Pinheiro, House of Pinheiro
6th October

20. Amy Thomas, Almond Rock
13th October

21. Jane Marland, Handmade Jane
20th October

22. Jennifer Walker, Ginger Thread Girl
27th October

23. Marie Koupparis, A Stitching Odyssey
3rd November

24. Elena Rosa Brown, Randomly Happy
10th November

25. Laura Clarke, Sew for Victory
17th November

26. Janene Spencer, Ooobop
24th November

And on a final note, the cocktail really does taste yummy. I had two, just to help with the, ahem, ‘modelling… By the end my cheeks were starting to match my collar! x
cocktail hour - eve appeal


A Simple Sew Bardot Ballgown

Thumblenina Simple Sew Bardot Ballgown pic 1

Oh, how I love a ball! Dressed up to the nines, dancing … there are few ways I’d rather spend an evening. Sadly life these days is a little short on balls, so hurray for Crafty Sew and So and next week’s Dressmaker’s Ball!

I decided to return to the Simple Sew Bardot dress for my gown, after my pleasing first version of this pattern, and simply adjust the skirt to full-length. An off-the-shoulder neckline is often seen on evening dresses from the 1950s and I loved the idea of a dress that would evoke that era of high glamour. Duchesse satin seemed the perfect fabric choice, and I was beyond thrilled when I opened my parcel from Sew Essential to discover that the enclosed satin was the perfect shade of summer red: the vermilion of a poppy.

I made no adjustments to the top apart from completely self-lining it. The skirt on the other hand is rather further from the original: the box pleats were deepened and the side flare increased, with the length extended to the floor.

Thumblenina Simple Sew Bardot Ballgown pic 2

Thumblenina Simple Sew Bardot Ballgown pic 3



It was only after I’d completed the main construction (sans hem) and was showing off on Easter Sunday in front of my family that I came upon the idea of a high-low hem with a contrasting lining. A flash of black within the red –just like a poppy! (As a child, I loved the Flower Fairies, and the Poppy Fairy was one of my favourites …) This meant ordering more fabric and then (because I will avoid unpicking like hard labour) measuring the red skirt to create a black replica. This was then stitched onto the waistband over the original line of stitching. The bodice lining is hand-stitched down to conceal the seam – the satin frays monstrously so the skirts are French-seamed and there are no exposed raw edges.

Using my dress form I hung the dress and pinned both skirts together all over to make sure neither would be pulling at the other once they’d been hemmed together. I then pinned the line I wanted for the high-low hem (a sort of curved moustache outline, regarded from the front!) and cut away the excess. The hem was all stitched by hand, rolling the two skirts in towards each other. The skirt is of course now very weighty, so I’m hoping to find time to add a waist stay before the 12th of May.

Thumblenina Simple Sew Bardot Ballgown pic 4

Thumblenina Simple Sew Bardot Ballgown pic 5



I think the wonderful thing about this dress is how essentially simple it really is. It just goes to show what a difference fabric choice and a bit of hacking (even if I’d simply lengthened the skirt with no other alteration it would still be dramatic) can make to a pattern’s outcome. I am so pleased with this resulting look! I feel it nods back to the ’50s but at the same time the hemline gives it contemporary drama. I’ll just have to resist the urge to keep hoisting my skirt to flash that black inside … x

Thumblenina Simple Sew Bardot Ballgown pic 6



Dressmaker of the Year – Vote for me!


Friends, I’ve been shortlisted for an award! It’s super exciting and just the boost I need at a time when my personal sewing has felt so overlooked. I’m nominated in the Customisation Category for Dressmaker of the Year with my embroidered denim refashion, and there’s also a Reader’s Choice Award for which you can vote here.

jeans refashion with embroidery.jpg

It seems a little odd chatting about voting in such a lighthearted and happy way when Britain now has a destiny-defining general election looming, but hey ho, life can’t all be political drama (or politics and Coachella, as my news app would have me believe).

A bunch of super fellow dressmakers have been shortlisted for this award and it’s really quite something for me to see myself alongside them. It’s odd; I’ve been having a bit of a funny time since launching Nina Lee – I realised that for so long simply launching was my goal and now I’ve achieved that it’s taken me a while to regroup and refocus. Being self-employed, and working solo, it can be difficult to benchmark your successes without falling into the trap of negative comparisons, so the external validation that comes from things like getting through to the final of an award make all the difference. And, as always, I really appreciate everyone who takes the time to read my blog, and those who comment. You always make my day 🙂 x