darling ranges birthday dress

IMG_1641happy birthday to me!  don’t worry, i wrote this monster yesterday, because today i’m doing…NOTHING!  this, you guys, is a very special dress for many reasons.  it’s a dress i wore to commemorate my final birthday in my twenties, the most complicated garment i’ve made for myself so far (intermediate, heyo!), and created with a pattern and a fabric with unique and memorable origins.  i have a lot to say about this dress, but i think i have enough photos to break it up into manageable pieces.  where to begin…


let’s start with the fabric.  quick, what’s your first reaction?  are you thinking, “what is this amazing vintage print she has?!” or, “that looks like a ratty old bedsheet from my grandma’s house.”  two sides to every coin, friends.  you’d both be right.  sort of.  remember the trip i took to toronto recently?  my first night, i stayed with at the home of my dear old friend erika’s boyfriend, chester.  of course, erika and i were up talking until the wee hours, so by the time i ascended this slightly intimidating structure to retire for the evening, it was already dark.


it’s been a year now since i’ve slept in a city, and i awoke early to the now unfamiliar sounds of traffic and activity outside the window.  in the dim light, i immediately took notice of my bed sheet.  it was soft in the way only something that’s been washed a thousand times can be, and i could vaguely make out a vintage looking floral pattern.  in that instant, i knew the sheet had to be mine, and i asserted as much in the second conversation chester and i have ever had.  i hear all the time of people thrifting vintage bedsheets with lovely patterns and major yardage, and i’ve always been envious.  no longer.


while it turns out there was no profound sentimental attachment to this sheet (chester took it from his mom’s house years ago when he left for college), it does happen to be his only sheet.  fortunately, erika has apparently been begging him for months to burn it or dispose of it in some way, so she hurriedly promised to get him a new sheet if he’d just part ways with it.  i was overjoyed with this acquisition, akin in my mind to yards upon yards of liberty of london tana lawn (tell me you don’t see the resemblance).  in spite of her wardrobe being 90% thrifted, erika could not see beyond the loathed bed sheet to the lovely garment it would become, but i toted this prized possession around all corners of ontario, back to michigan and to california with real tlc.  i promised chester to make him a bow tie (don’t worry, i examined photographic evidence that he can, in fact, pull that off before i committed) with the remnants so the sheet would always stay with him.  his beloved declined my offer for a matching garment.  eh, one man’s trash…  but beware of inviting me as a houseguest, as even your linens may not be safe.


the pattern.  this is the darling ranges dress by megan nielsen.  i had seen a few versions of this dress around the web in the past year, but once i started looking into adult sewing more seriously in the last few months, i began reading a lot of megan’s design diary, full of great sewing tips for her patterns and otherwise.  when i had the real pleasure of meeting shop owner and sewing icon karyn on that same canadian adventure, i bought the darling ranges pattern as a memento of the lovely visit i had with her.  i knew the fabric and the pattern were meant to be together.


i really felt this would be a suitable birthday outfit for myself.  i love the significance of the pattern and fabric, and making a special dress for myself (vs. buying one) out of a virtual stranger’s old bed sheet that i negotiated from him felt so incredibly ME, i knew i’d love nothing more than to wear it on the occasion of my own birthday.  so that is the backstory…notice how everything i make has a backstory?  i don’t know, i think that’s part of what makes sewing fun.


anyway, a little nitty gritty, in case you or i attempt another darling ranges in the future.  good lady seamstress that i am, i first set out to make a muslin.  i’d been drafting patterns and sewing for myself feverishly for two days at that point–i was excited to sit and just follow a professional pattern.  cutting and muslin were my final tasks of the evening after 12 hours of sewing because they require no thought.  while i’m far from experienced in women’s garment construction, the bodice muslin is practically theoretical for me at this point, since i’ve never actually had to adjust bust darts in any way.  because of this, i felt it was totally appropriate to help myself to one beer (i’m a lightweight) and rock out to some phil collins so i could really enjoy what’s sometimes a tedious part of the sewing process.IMG_1599

i also feel i need to take a moment to explain the phil collins.  i didn’t set out to listen to phil collins, i was listening to probably my tenth episode of this american life of the day, which is what i listen to when i sew.  it so happened that this amazing episode featuring phil collins came on, and maybe it was the beer (or maybe it wasn’t), but all of a sudden phil collins was really resonating with me (although i’m *not* going through a painful breakup) in a way he hadn’t during my soft rock phase of the early 90s.  maybe because i was 8.  anyway, phil collins is awesome, i’m not embarrassed to say it, and i’ve been singing “against all odds” nonstop ever since.  so take a look at me now.


back to the muslin.  the dang thing didn’t fit.  not at all.  so bad.  WHAT?!  the darts were totally in the wrong place.  too low, too shallow, too something.  oh god.  the beer, the phil collins, everything was hazy, i wasn’t prepared for this.  i sort of pinched it and redrew the lines, and sewed it again.  bad AGAIN.  no!  one of my goals for this month was to really delve into pattern adjustments and fit, but i didn’t quite make it there.  i know small and full bust adjustments are a thing, but haven’t properly learned either.  and my measurements matched the pattern perfectly, and my boobs just shrank a whole size!  no, no i thought.  it can’t be that complicated.  so, i just kept pinching and drawing and basting and trying and ripping, repeat, for an hour.  finally, i was too tired, and i sewed my second guess dart one more time…all of a sudden, it was looking pretty good.  so i went with it.


the rest of the pattern came together pretty easily (no more alcohol was involved in the process).  i put my new serger to work, though honestly i don’t really know how to use it.  one day i’ll learn.  for now, i can use it juuuuuust enough to get the job done. this is the first time i’ve set in sleeves for an adult and in a nonstretch fabric.  it was scary, and then not scary.  finally, it was time to try it on and figure out the button placement.  o-m-g.  the bust came back to haunt me.  all of a sudden, without exhaustion and beer buzz present, the darts looked goofy again.  and it barely closed over my chest.  the shoulders felt tight, and i was afraid i wouldn’t be able to close it with buttons at all.  noooooo!  but it was too late.  i had to keep going.


then i realized this pattern asks for 10 buttons.  10!  who has 10 of the same buttons just laying around?  probably no one, but most people also probably check these things before 11pm the night before their project needs to be finished.  the best i could do was 9 fabric coverable buttons.  given the tight bust, i decided to go with 2 buttons on top instead of the recommended 3, figuring i could add a hook and eye closure at the top if there was any spillage since i’m apparently so busty.  so, i cut out 9 little circles, pushed 9 little buttons through the buttonmaker, made 9 little buttonholes, and sewed on 9 little buttons.  i’m nothing if not perseverant.  i tried it on again…i wasn’t thrilled with the fit and even the print was looking less appealing to me, but my ample bosom appeared contained, and while i wouldn’t do the backstroke or spike a volleyball in it, the sleeves weren’t popping off the body with normal movements (importantly, you *can* climb a tree in it).  and so i went to bed.


and the next morning, i can’t quite explain it, an (early) birthday miracle transpired.  i put on the dress (with a new belt; now i have two) and some shoes, and all of a sudden, it was looking kind of good.  the longer i wore it, the better it looked.  the bust darts are still a little funky, but not noticeable, and the neckline sits really well on my chest.  the print once again looked fashion forward vs. old bed lineny.  i wore it to a very memorable birthday linner at chez panisse (!) and then fabric shopping (i know, david did well this year), after which two unprecedented dress-related events occurred:  first, while walking off our meal on the lovely berkeley campus, a girl walking opposite us gave me a good once over and said, “cute dress!”  later, at our favorite outdoor bar/restaurant, i got hit on while david was in the bathroom (and i was totally awkward and weird, so that took care of things quickly).  this dress, you guys.  it really came through in the end, AGAINST ALL ODDS.


if i’m to make it again, it probably does need some [sober] thought about bust darts, and i think i’d remove some gathering from the back if using a fabric with similar drape to this, since it gives me teletubby butt from certain angles (see below), a phenomenon i first read about on one of my fave grownup sewing blogs.  other than that, it really surprised me in the end and turned into the perfect birthday dress i had envisioned.  i knew it had too magical of a beginning to be simply mediocre, and it turned out to be great.


and since it’s my birthday, i guess i ought to comment on life more broadly than just sewing…i know i always say too much, so i will just say this.  it’s been an amazing year for me, full of unexpected growth, adaptation, and learning.  i had some major surprises this year in terms of life goal/priority/identity readjustment, and i have worked through some heavy stuff i wasn’t anticipating (and by “worked through,” i mean sewed through.  so healing!).  but i’m so elated that well in time for my birthday, i have really embraced these changes and couldn’t be happier with the rather charmed life i lead.  truly, a large part of my happiness has been exploring my creativity and being a part of this online community.  thank you for your ongoing support, your comments, and your camaraderie that help more than you know in making me happy being me.  and that’s what growing up is all about.  i hope you’re all enjoying my birthday as much as i am!  see you soon.


24 thoughts on “darling ranges birthday dress

      • Me too! We love Eliana and Reese! They are “the sweetest and kindest toddlers in the world”( I am quoting Zahra). It truly is a joy to be around them. I hope they can celebrate Halloween with us. Hugs.

  1. Happy birthday girl. The print of this sheet/dress is so yummy. I think I can feel how soft it is. What a fantastic job! Someday I will tackle an “intermediate” sewing project for myself (gasp), and I have my fingers crossed that it will turn out as lovely as yours. Cheers.

    • thank you, nicole! you can definitely handle intermediate. it’s still an independent designer, so there are step by step diagrammed instructions the whole way. it was very straight forward and i know you can replicate it (provided you snag an equally awesome bed sheet).

  2. Bravo! Adorable dress! Enjoy your day and then come here and read about how fantastic you are… YOU ARE AMAZING! Erica and I were just discussing how inspirational your sewing blog has been. Not that we’ve sewed anything, but we love to see what YOU sew! Keep at it!

    • adrienne, you’re so funny. i’m really flattered that you and erica were discussing the blog! i hope eventually i can inspire you to start sewing yourselves…are you out west permanently now?!

  3. Happy Belated Birthday Ashley! Your well constructed beautiful dress is so appropriate for beautiful you. Wishing you fulfilling year wherever your paths take you. Marsha

  4. Happy birthday! The dress looks great but I suspect with those tanned legs a hessian sack would look good too! I love the cheek of stealing someone’s bedsheet, and yes, I can imagine how lovely it must feel. Great sewing.
    As for Phil Collins, was he STILL making music in the nineties?… Now I feel old. 🙂

    • i had to look up what a hessian sack is. i am slowly leeching a whole new vocabulary from you! move to northern california and your legs will stay tan year round, definite perk 🙂

  5. Holymoly you did a great job on this dress! Seriously, I think everyone has had trouble with the Darling Ranges bust darts, so that’s just part of it. But good for you for sticking with it — I’m very impressed that you tackled this project in your early days of women apparel sewing, but it looks awesome. Happy belated b-day ! ! !

    • what’s going on with these bust darts, really? i’m just curious at this point whose breasts these darts are based upon. the tele tubby butt is an issue in itself, but the dress is wearable and the pattern alterable. thanks for the bday wishes!

  6. Happy belated birthday, Ashley! Such a lovely dress –it looks great on you! And you were so resourceful with the fabric 🙂 Hope you had a fabulous day celebrating!

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