I love a challenge, and working with a new fabric provides that, so I recently decided to sew a sheer fabric. I chose Butterick 5456, which is a sheer shirt meant to layer over a sheath dress. I found a polyester chiffon in lovely shades of blue and yellow.
Whenever I sew a new fabric, I dig out all my sewing books and read up on whatever tips and information I can find. Claire Shaeffer's book "Fabric Sewing Guide" is my bible in this area; she covers almost every fabric imaginable and, at the back, are good directions and diagrams for seam and hem finishes. As well, I checked out Sandra Betzina's "Fabric Savvy"; Sandra only has one page dealing with sheer fabrics, but it is still useful to read her tips. I also found an issue of Threads Magazine proved helpful with an article by Tom and Linda Platt on sewing fine fabrics. I used their directions for hemming. I used regular polyester thread for sewing, but I did downsize the needle to a 70/10 universal. It is important to use a fine needle when working with fine fabrics. It is probably a good idea to use a finer thread, such as an embroidery thread. Even serger thread can be used in place of regular sewing machine thread.
This fabric does pose its problems - it does not just behave like cotton or linen or wool. It slips and slides all over the place; if any hangs off the table, it brings the rest of the yardage down with it. You almost feel as if you are dealing with air.
So cutting is the first challenge. Laying the pattern on and pinning is tricky; the fabric shifts and moves and it is difficult to cut out accurately. From an episode of Sew Perfect, I took Sandra's advice and laid the fabric out over paper. I have a roll of medical paper (the kind that your doctor uses on the examining table). It comes in a big roll and is very cheap, is stronger than tissue paper and is see through so it is perfect for tracing patterns and making alterations. Check out your phone book for medical supplies if you want to purchase some. It comes in awidth of about 16" so it accommodates most pattern pieces. I laid this on the table first, then placed the fabric over it, then the pattern pieces, and cut through all three layers. The fabric didn't shift at all and I could cut through it evenly, knowing that I was cutting accurately.
This pattern has a front band that is formed by folding the fabric over twice to form self-interfacing. I found it was hard to press this accurately as well. Again paper came in useful. This time, I left the pattern tissue on the fabric and pressed both pattern and fabric together. After the two folds were pressed in, I simply removed the pattern tissue. It worked like a charm. The paper stabilized the fabric and it also gave me the line for pressing, without having to mark it on the fabric.
On the shoulders and side seams, I decided to sew French seams. This is a fabric which frays badly and the best way to finish it is to encase those edges within the seams. The serger would not work here. The serged finish would simply pull away from the chiffon and the fraying would be worse. To sew French seams, place the fabric wrong sides together, sew a seam that is only 3/8" wide, then trim that seam allowances down to about 1/8". Press it open - this is an important step - then turn the fabric right sides together and press right along that stitching. Now sew at 1/4" seam allowance; this sewing encases the previous seam allowances. You end up with a tiny 1/4" tuck on the inside of your garment. Contrary to most sewing books, press the shoulder seams towards the front of the garment; press the side seams towards the front as well. They are less visible in terms of bulk than if you pressed them towards the back. If you press them to the back, you will see the little bump of the double seam allowance. Pressing them towards the front means that that bump is visible from the back of the garment, rather than the front. It's just a little thing, but sometimes important. In this sheer fabric, it didn't make a difference which way they were pressed.
On the armhole seams, I sewed them as usual, setting in the sleeves to the garment, right sides together. Then I trimmed that seam down to 1/4" all around and finished it with a Hong Kong finish, using a sheer fabric cut on the bias. To sew a Hong Kong finish, place the bias strip of lining or lightweight fabric over the right side of your sewn seam. Stitch at 1/4" from the edge, then press the bias strip towards the seam allowance, then wrap it around to the back. From the right side, stitch in the ditch of the seam just formed to catch the bias on the underside of the seam. Trim away any excess fabric from the bias strip. Usually this is done to each seam allowance separately. Since this was an armhole and both seam allowances were pressed into the sleeve, I applied the Hong Kong finish to both seam allowances together. I also used this plain sheer fabric as the interfacing in the collar and cuffs. Fusible interfacing would not work on this fabric and, even if it did, it would be too stiff. I wanted to maintain the softness of the chiffon.
For the bottom hems, which were meant to be turned twice as a typical shirt hem, I followed the directions in the Threads article and did baby hems. These were really nice and I enjoyed learning the technique. Stitch along the edge of your hem, 1/4" from the raw edge. Then press that to the inside, right along the stitching line. Stitch again, very close to the fold. You will now have two lines of stitching visible on the inside. Trim the extra fabric away, very close to your last line of stitching. Now press that again to the inside. This time, your fold (which is now your hem) is a mere 1/8 to 1/4" wide. Very tiny, very neat. Stitch again near the fold through all thicknesses (there will be 3). What makes this technique work is that your first two lines of stitching serve to stabilize the fabric, so that you can actually fold over the smallest hem and stitch. If you simply tried to press the fabric over twice and stitch it, you would have no control of the fabric. It wouldn't press well and you wouldn't be able to stitch it well either. This is a lovely technique.
The one area I was not totally happy with was the side slits. Because I did French seams on the side seams, all my fabric was folded one way and I now wanted to fold each seam allowance differently. So it was necessary to clip one to do this. I hate clipping into seam allowances if it is going to be visible. I made the same baby hems on the slits and did a hand bar tack at the top of the slit to reinforce where that clip was made. If I were to do this again, I would eliminate the slits and simply sew the side seams straight down to the bottom.
Oddly enough, the buttonholes posed no problem. I thought they would be difficult in such flimsy fabric. I simply held the fabric tight front and back of the presser foot and let the machine do its work. Since these buttonholes are not going to be used, I didn't even slit them open. Why create little thread whiskers if you don't have to? I did cut the ones on the cuffs because they will be functional.
I really enjoyed this project. One thing that made a difference is that I was under no time constraint to sew this garment. So I could take my time and really enjoy the learning process. That, for me, is one of the greatest joys of sewing.
Julie Culshaw 2012