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The Cheongsam Odyssey Begins: Self-Drafted Red Crop Top With Mandarin Collar

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

The quest:

To self-draft a cheongsam or qipao - the traditional Chinese dress.

Why? Many reasons:

Reason 1:

The dress you see above was sewn by my maternal grandmother. She made it for my mom as her wedding dress. My grandma is my sewing muse, and I want to sew like her. So this heirloom is my inspiration. After 50 years, every stitch is still in its place which is a testament to the sewing prowess of my grandma.

Even though the dress follows the traditional lines of the cheongsam, My grandma was also an innovator. The fabric she used for this is a stretch polyester knit, which is unusual for a traditional cheongsam. There are 3 darts (at the armhole, the side seam and under the bust) to shape the bust area on each side in this dress. Usually, there are 2. The opening is a back zipper, with the collar almost completely detachable from the dress. The traditional cheongsam has a front opening, often on the right side. When she made this dress decades ago, she was doing her contemporary version of the cheongsam. And I endeavour to do the same.

Reason 2:

There are a few cheongsams in my closet that are RTW, but I have not found a RTW cheongsam that fits perfectly. A good cheongsam skims the curves of the wearer from collar to hem - so a close fit is mandatory. All my RTW cheongsams have fitting issues that I've closed a blind eye to. The only way to attain a perfect-fit cheongsam is to get it custom-made. Where I live now, I can't find a seamstress who understands the ins-and-outs of this traditional dress. And even if I do find one, I won't be able to pay the price of a custom made garment. So the next best thing is to DIY it.

Reason 3:

Then why not buy a sewing pattern? Why choose to self-draft? Because I want an adventure and a challenge. I want to pave my own way the way my grandma did. I want to work out my sewing muscles.

How to do this????? The Process:

First, I started with drafting my own bodice block, or sloper. I decided to focus on the top part of the cheongsam to figure out some of the details that are more challenging in the task: the high mandarin collar, the front opening, the sleeveless opening and the bust darts. From the bodice block, I will be able to carve out the shape of all the afore-mentioned elements. I can also take this opportunity to do something which I've been curious about, and that is to draft my own bodice block.

I hatched a plan to make a crop top that will go with my Pietra Pants. This will be a good first goal to aim for. With near zero experience in drafting, I needed some guidance, which I found through Diane Deziel's YouTube channel. I used her videos to draft the front and back bodice block:

Then I made a muslin of this to see what adjustments were needed. It's challenging (and painful) to do this part of the fitting without a dress form. There was quite a bit of unintentional self-jabbing with pins as a result.

The fitting led to shaving off a quarter inch off the side seams, and shortening the bodice by 1&1/4'' so that the waistline will sit on my waist.

Then I went about redrafting on paper. I moved the shoulder dart to the side seam. It's a fun process manipulating darts and I enjoyed all the mesmerising videos that came up on YouTube regarding how to do it. I especially love Isntthatsew's video on the pivoting method.

Together with moving the dart, I started to work out on paper the shape of the crop top. These are the pattern pieces from the first draft:

Pattern Pieces For The Crop Top:

1) collar

2) Front Left Bodice

3) Front Right Bodice

4) Back Bodice

5) Facing on Left Bodice for Thread Loop Band

6) Front Armhole Facing (not included in picture)

7) Back Armhole Facing (not included in picture)

This draft produced another muslin:

With this muslin, I was happy and eager to start with the actual fabric. I knew that this first go at the pattern would still be kind of rough at the edges, but I didn't want to make another unwearable toile. My mind was already deep into the details, which led to the planning of the sashiko pattern on the right side of the front opening. First, on paper:

This design was embroidered on the right front bodice before piecing the crop top together.

The Rough Edges:

The only way to understand how to do this properly is to go through the process of not doing it properly. So here are some things to improve on for the next crop top make:

1) This garment really needs a lining to give it more inner structure and protection around the front opening. In addition, the collar needs it as a foundation to stand tall and high. At this point, I wasn't ready to do the mind gymnastics of installing a lining. Either a lining or an all-in-one facing for the neckline, and armscye is lacking in this version. I needed to make the outside frame to understand inserting the inner lining. Now I know!

2) I am rubbish at making thread loops. I must figure out another way. Maybe rouleau loops or some coloured elastic cords. Or I can make my own Chinese frog buttons. Another side project, yay!!!

3) The collar can be more even on both sides.

Things I Love About This Little Number:

1) I love the agate beads serving as buttons. I figured out how to sew them on after many tries. Yay!!!

2) I love how the sashiko turned out.

3) I love how it goes so well with my Pietra Pants!

4) I love how this is my first big step towards that cheongsam goal. I am so proud!

This blog is a 5 minute read but this project took about a month to plan and accomplish. I am already working on my next project, continuing with the cheongsam theme: a cheongsam jumpsuit. But I will shut up now and reveal more pictures:

#selfdrafted #cheongsamtop

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