The Sad Tale of the Brown Birds Dress:

4 Dec

Or, in which we learn the dangers of falling in love with vintage fabric.

I found this beautiful vintage fabric in an op shop some time ago and have hoarded it ever since; it was one of those that I took out and sighed over, wondering what I could use it for that would do justice to its fabulous brown 70’s bird pattern. There was not a lot of it either, so I had to be sure of myself! No mis-cutting, no slap-dash pattern matching. Eventually I settled on making a dress, a very simple dress from a pattern that fit me well and that had few design features so that the fabric could speak for itself. I used Simplicity 6194, a very plain 1960’s sheath dress with a basic bodice and an a-line skirt. I would wear it out in summer sipping coconut cocktails at the tiki bar or dancing on warm nights, and I could stand in the corner looking fabulous, not saying a word because that fabric would do all the talking for me.

I spent forever arranging the pattern pieces just so, making sure the main feature of the two birds would be centred on the bodice, and that no darts would mess up important parts of the print. I cut carefully and finished each piece neatly before sewing the dress together. I faced it with a sunny yellow quilting fabric so even the inside looked nice. There were a few tears in the fabric, sure, but I cut around them and patched what needed patching.

Then it came to putting in the zip. It went in perfectly, but as I went to press the last bits flat, the fabric tore under my fingers right next to the zipper. I patched them up; they tore again. The fabric was too fragile, too brittle. Having spent long years as a curtain (I imagine), the sun had done its dirty work and weakened the fabric too much. I interfaced next to the zip to stabilise the fabric, but being next to an area of stress meant the mending would not last long. The fabric was old, the pattern was old, and this dress was old before I even got to wear it once!

These photos are probably the only time I will wear it. Perhaps, if the opportunity to stand at a bar in high heels (so I can’t move), in an air-conditioned room (no sweating!) comes up, I’ll put on this dress and have a genteel drink to toast its former curtain-esque glory. More likely, I won’t be able to resist having a dance, and the whole thing will tear right down the back. In that case I will cut it up and re-use the good bits to make something like a lined handbag – I think those brown birds deserve to live a little bit longer, don’t you?


34 Responses to “The Sad Tale of the Brown Birds Dress:”

  1. Carla Hills December 4, 2009 at 10:40 am #

    So sad 😦 You did a gorgeous job; the dress is beautiful 🙂

  2. Valerie December 4, 2009 at 11:18 am #

    You could use clear vinyl and sandwich the fabric in between it to make a handbag. It would preserve the fabric and protect it as well. That fabric is fantastic, and it’s a shame that it’s so brittle.

    Alternately you could put it under glass and hang it like a painting/picture. At least you could look at it, if you can’t wear it.

    • whipstitchsewing December 4, 2009 at 8:29 pm #

      I really do like those handbags with the plastic covering, that may be the eventual fate of this dress if it gets too bad. Live on, fabric!

  3. knottywitch December 4, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Oh, that has got to hurt. I *love* that dress. You did a great job – it looks wonderful. At least you have the pictures…

    • whipstitchsewing December 4, 2009 at 8:28 pm #

      Hee, that’s what I thought! At least it can live on in photos.

  4. Jen Thompson December 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    That’s a tragedy! It’s such an amazing dress!

  5. greenwords December 4, 2009 at 12:10 pm #

    Oh, that is a sad tale. That dress is sublime, and so are you in it! And as for that gorgeous green chair…

  6. sarah December 4, 2009 at 12:52 pm #

    You would have to take it apart, but you could use a fusible interfacing on the whole thing — then the fusible would take all the stress and the bird fabric would become more or less an embellishment. A weft interfacing with some drape would be my pick. I hope you can save it — it’s so lovely, and they way you made the bodice is sensational! Good luck!

    • whipstitchsewing December 4, 2009 at 8:27 pm #

      I already patched some of the bits that were tearing with fusible interfacing… just to stabilise the most fragile parts! Wow this is really turning into fabric conservation isn’t it…

  7. Andi B. Goode December 4, 2009 at 5:53 pm #

    That’s such a pity because it’s gorgeous and the dress looks fab!
    Also, I think Valerie’s ideas are good, too.
    -Andi x

  8. Debi December 4, 2009 at 9:13 pm #

    Oh NO! that’s so sad. BUT I think your idea of using it as super fabulous lining for a handbag is great. You did a fantastic job on the dress…I love how the little birdies are on the front. You look great!

  9. Kibble December 4, 2009 at 9:44 pm #

    I got sad reading this! After all that effort, it really is a tragic end… all the more so because the finished product is so beautiful! I hope you do find someway to conserve that beautiful fabric 🙂

  10. Trudy Callan December 4, 2009 at 10:19 pm #

    What a shame because it’s such a beautiful dress.

  11. Kibble December 4, 2009 at 10:25 pm #

    ps: there is an award for you over at my blog!

  12. Miss Emmi December 4, 2009 at 10:27 pm #

    Which I forgot to leave a link to, let alone sign in with my correct name! *facepalm* I also have a terrible feeling that the ethernet ate my other comment about your dress – it’s a tragedy that something so beautiful is at the end of its life so shortly!

  13. Karin December 4, 2009 at 11:37 pm #

    If you don’t make a bag from it you must hang it where you can at least look at it, it’s gorgeous, and it would make a really nice decoration (I love hanging my favourite clothes where I can see them!).

  14. Myra December 5, 2009 at 12:29 am #

    Amazing job with the motifs. You could do the handbag with laminate, that’s a good idea or cut birds from the scraps to applique a plain blouse or A-line skirt with, fusing them with interfacing, then fusible web to attach before sewing down. Check out Country Girl Couture’s blog for examples.

  15. susan December 5, 2009 at 2:21 am #

    I found you through sew retro.

    First, that dress is marvelous. I am especially impressed with how you lined up that bird motif on the bodice. It’s tragic you won’t be able to wear this. Is there *no* way of saving it?

    If you were up to it you might take it back apart (oh so carefully) and, using the design as a go-by, stitch it directly to a more stable fabric.

  16. Cedar December 5, 2009 at 2:24 am #

    Such a shame! It really turned out to be a beautiful dress.

  17. Katara December 5, 2009 at 7:28 am #

    What an amazing dress! You have put so much work into the perfect placement of the pattern for the dress, it would be a shame to make it into something smaller. I would want to keep it, even if I couldn’t wear it. Like get a dress form to have it as a permanent display!

    But first, a rescue attempt! Is all the fabric so delicate, or just the back? If the front is good and it were mine to play with, I would remake the back in a matching dark brown (linen if it works), so you can have your dress and wear it too. Then you will have the back fabric for another project if it can handle it. I’m not sure about the bag idea if you intend to use the bag, because they do get a lot of wear!

    Good luck, and I can’t wait to hear of the eventual fate of the fantastic dress!

    • whipstitchsewing December 5, 2009 at 9:14 am #

      Great idea – I could do the back in a different fabric, because the front feels a bit stronger. Just my luck to put the fragile bits on the stress lines! If I were to make a bag, I would probably do the ‘layer it in plastic’ idea because otherwise it wouldn’t last long for sure!

      • Katara December 5, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

        I actually think it is a stroke of luck that the front is stronger, because a brown back to the dress can still look like it was the intended design! And a fragile front would be a disaster once it showed it’s true colours!

        Good luck with the laminating, I haven’t heard of doing that yourself!

        Do you live in country SA? Or was that a lucky trip out and about? I spent six weeks in Adelaide recently. I did not find one craft/sewing shop (not counting spotlight)! Hard going there, unless you’re a local I guess!

      • whipstitchsewing December 5, 2009 at 9:58 pm #

        Oh yeah, Adelaide is a pretty dry spot where crafting is concerned! I actually live just out of town so a day trip to the country op shops is a big treat for me… sometimes you get lucky! More often than not – just shelves and shleves of unwanted Valleygirl cast offs 😦

        Putting a new back on the dress is a great idea. Will keep an eye out for suitable browns!

  18. mindxxxslaughter December 5, 2009 at 6:46 pm #

    the dress is adorable, but what im REALLY interested in are those red shoes! oh my friggin god! i remember wearing those when i was like 10. hahahahahahaha where in the world did you get them???

    • whipstitchsewing December 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

      The brand is Melissa… got them on sale a few weeks ago! Melissa does have a website, I think they send out as well. Good luck!

  19. juliab December 5, 2009 at 10:24 pm #

    Beautiful dress! Nice blog.


  20. Pattern Junkie December 6, 2009 at 7:54 am #

    Oh, it’s just gorgeous! You did such an amazing job with the fabric placement.

  21. Melynda December 7, 2009 at 4:02 am #

    At least you got your fabulous photos to sigh over. Great fabric, great dress, great photos, well done.

  22. Linda L December 9, 2009 at 8:44 pm #

    I can understand why you fell in love with this fabric. It is fantastic. I am so sorry to read that it is falling apart and that you could only wear this once! You did a great job with the layout.

  23. Alyssa December 9, 2009 at 11:26 pm #

    What a shame! Now I’m going to be horribly nervous the next time I use an old curtain for sewing.
    There are companies that will take old fabric for you and copy the pattern and make a new print of it, although it is a little costly. Erin at knows a lot about it.

  24. Janet December 16, 2009 at 1:36 am #

    I found you from Sew Retro of PR (Pattern Review). I love what you have accomplished. The work is excellent. The French fabric is something I would love to find (Pink French fabric dress). The purple feather hat band – in the 1960s I had a pink one and my husband use to tease me that it looked like bubble gum. I had a pair of T-Strap shoes like you are wearing above and have been looking for another pair ever since (they wore out) in the 1960s. What fun you are having, I enjoy your blog. Blessings, Janet

  25. wisergneiser January 19, 2010 at 4:50 am #

    This is an old thread so not sure if anybody is still reading it, but I had to comment since my daughter had a similar experience. She used pink satin that her grandmother had once purchased and then never used (eloped later) AND the original wedding/bridesmaids dress pattern to make a dress for her (my daughter’s) high school prom (sorry about all the US cultural references here…), but where the bodice came to a v-shaped point in the front, there was too much weight from the VERY gathered skirt, and the fabric tore during the prom. Since she had planned to enter the dress in a contest to go to the state fair (again with the US culture…) she recut the entire bodice and used fusible interfacing (somebody had suggested this in a comment here). It did NOT work out well; the satin puckered and it took a LOT of work and redoing to make it look good. She was beat out in the contest by a much simpler dress that according to contest rules shouldn’t even have been eligible to win.

    Well…. now, over a decade later, she is quite determined to use the white satin for part of her own wedding gown. HOPEFULLY the pattern she has chosen will not have any stress points that the fabric cannot handle. The top layer of the bodice has more fullness and gathers than the under layer and lining, and hopefully they will bear the weight in the back around the zipper so that will work. She hasn’t decided yet on the skirt; she may use it as a second layer under a semi-opaque chiffon or something, but it is narrow fabric and her pattern has a very wide angle on an a-line wrapped skirt, so it would require extra seams somewhere in the front of the skirt.

    Any thoughts or comments would be welcome, it was nice just reading about people with a similar mindset about garment sewing! It seems to be a dying art here in the states.

    • whipstitchsewing January 19, 2010 at 9:43 am #

      Yes this thread is still very much alive! It’s lovely that your daughter wants to use part of her grandmother’s fabric in her wedding dress, even after all the trouble she has had using it. Could she not use it as trim or even just sew in a panel of it in a decorative spot? I also like the idea of using it as an under layer. I know that vintage satin is one of the hardest fabrics to work with; it generally doesn’t respond well to interfacing at all. I might get away with using interfacing on the Brown Birds fabric as it is cotton, but satin is so temperamental… What kind of a state fair contest did your daughter enter? I am intrigued by these bits of American culture! I do hope it works out for your daughter, even if there is only a token bit of her grandmother’s fabric left in the end.


  1. In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines… « - January 13, 2010

    […] used the bodice pattern of the Brown Birds dress, which has proven to fit me so well, and added a basic gathered skirt made of two rectangular […]

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