This week, I hacked the Kalle Shirtdress into a cheongsam-shirtdress.
This hack took up all my brain space for 3 whole days. Now I’m sitting here writing this blog and I feel a little overwhelmed as I want to share all the deets about the hack, but writing all of it down will take me another 3 days. So I will do a compressed version. If it gets all too technical for you and it puts you to sleep, I apologise in advance. But maybe this nerdy-sewer stuff appeals to some readers the way it appeals to me. If so, then I imagine it might be thrilling – so hold on fast to your seats!
First bear with me while I do a little exposition about how this idea was hatched. Ever since I set out on the quest to self-draft my own cheongsam, I have been considering different sewing patterns that can be hacked to showcase the high mandarin collar and the distinctive front flap of the Chinese traditional dress. The Kalle Shirtdress designed by Closet Core Patterns is one such pattern that is a good fit for this particular hack. One reason is that it is one of my all-time favourite sewing patterns, a definite TNT. In the past, I’ve reviewed the pattern here and here. So far, I’ve made 3 shirts – 2 cropped and a tunic – and now it’s high time to make the dress version. And to make it extra special, I will put a cheongsam spin on it.
What makes this an extra-extra special Kalle is the fabric. I knew from the get-go that I wanted this shirtdress to have a different feel from the other Kalle versions that I made in the past. Those shirts were made with woven fabric in cotton and linen, and I wanted a fabric for my shirtdress that would have less structure and more drape than the previous makes. I was thinking along the lines of a silk or a viscose that also had enough opacity so that I wouldn’t have to wear a slip under the dress. In addition, I was looking for an eye-catching print.
Enter the Jonh Kaldor Liza Crepe Fabric (Multicoloured) from Minerva – a fabric with the perfect print for my make. A big shout out here to Minerva for gifting me this amazing fabric. I love the splashes of colour like an abstract painting of brushstrokes on a black canvass. On second look, these splashes of colour also resembled bouquets of flowers and green leaves spread across the fabric. It is visually stunning, and I knew that the crepe would have the right drape and textural feel I was looking for. But hang on! It’s 100% polyester, and being a natural fibre snob, I had reservations about it.
My main concern with polyester is its breathability or lack thereof. I’ve had a couple of bad experiences sewing up garments made from polyester fabric. The end results produced garments that felt like I was wearing scratchy plastic bags. Since then I’ve stayed clear of polyester. However, this John Kaldor crepe is changing my strong prejudice against it. I guess not all polys are created equal. And choosing a top quality polyester like a John Kaldor does make all the difference. This crepe feels great on the skin, and is light and airy to wear. I haven’t broken a sweat in my newly made garment, and it’s currently sweltering hot here in Tel Aviv. And the best thing about this crepe is that I probably won’t need to iron it, ever.
Originally, I wanted the whole garment to be made out of the same crepe. But as I was drafting the changes on paper, I began to gravitate towards using a contrasting fabric for the front flap and back yoke. The trouble was that we were stuck in the middle of a lockdown with stores closed, so I couldn’t go and choose something to go with the John Kaldor crepe. Then like magic, another fabric from Minerva arrived separately at my doorstep the next day – a pink Viscose Challis with black spots. At first glance, it looks like this challis and the crepe wouldn’t be a good match since the pink of the challis doesn’t show up on any shades of colour on the crepe. However, it was in the right colour palette. Also, both fabrics have similar drape and movement. In addition, the black spots of the challis are like brushstroke dabs that fit in perfectly with the colourful abstract brushstrokes on the crepe. The more I looked at the 2 fabrics juxtaposed together, the more I liked the match. I like the combination so much that I added more pattern pieces with the pink challis (sleeve cuffs and collar). Each fabric, by juxtaposition, made the other more beautiful.
I learned a few things about working with a polyester crepe that is in the category of delicate fabrics. Definitely, a microtex needle was needed to prevent snags in the material. There was quite a bit of testing that I had to do with the stitch length and tension to get it at the right balance. I also gave up on backstitching after an attempt led to my machine eating up the fabric. It is also best not to start sewing too close to the edge of the fabric – that’s when the machine gets really hungry. When it comes to ironing, the fabric surprisingly did make a crease when pressed, but I had to use a low heat setting so as not to melt it onto the board. Ask me how I know this. I now have a shadow of the fabric print pressed into my ironing board. Oops!
For all of you that were holding your breaths for the details of the hack. Here goes. Word of warning: this hack is not a straightforward one. It’s probably doable for an intermediate sewist with some drafting experience. But maybe some confident beginners out there will prove me wrong. If there is enough interest, then I may consider making a video. Perhaps the moving visuals will be more helpful for those who learn best visually.
There were quite a few changes that I made to the Kalle Shirtdress pattern to make it into a cheongsam shirtdress. First, I chose to size up to a size 4 from size 2 for a roomier fit. Then I added 8 inches or 20cm to the length of the front and back pieces of the shirt (at the “lengthen/shorten here”line provided in the sewing pattern) so that it will be a midi-length dress for my height of 160cm. I also added another inch (2.5cm) to the centre back (the fold line) of the back shirt piece. This is so that I can gather up the back (where it meets the back yoke) for a more voluminous dress. The gathers were done in place of the original pleat in the pattern.
The more complicated redrafting happened to the front of the shirtdress. First, pattern piece B – the popover placket version of the shirtdress – was used as the base template for the drafting changes to be made. I mirrored the pattern on paper so that it can be cut on fabric on a single layer instead of on the fold.
This also allowed me to draft out the new button-loop slope line of the front flap on the right side. How do you draw this button-loop slope? Well I kind of eye-ball it. I draw in pencil on the paper pattern and then hold it up to my body to see whether the angle of the slope works for me. The rule of thumb is that the slope line should fall gently around your curves around the bust, about 1-2 inches above your bust apex. From the centre line to the right side seam, this curve tends to look like a long flat S-line. The four new pattern pieces can then be drafted from this base template:
1) High Mandarin Collar (cut 2 plus 1 interfacing)
I didn’t use the original band collar (piece H) provided in the sewing pattern because I wanted a very distinctive mandarin collar that will sit closer to the neck. To figure out the neck circumference, draw in the 1.5cm seam allowances along the neckline and shoulder seam of original patterns D and B. Then measure the length of the neckline on both pattern pieces. For example for size 4, the measurement of the neckline in the back yoke is 8.5cm; and the measurement of the front popover neckline is 10.5cm. For a high mandarin collar, I like at least 4.5cm as the width. With these measurements, you can now draft a mandarin collar according to this YouTube video.
After I draft the mandarin collar, I go ahead and trace another paper pattern for the collar interfacing, which does not have seam allowance on the top edge. Seam allowances for the collar are 1cm to facilitate easier installation. This means that seam allowances for the neckline on pattern piece D (back yoke) and the following left front dress and right front flap have to be trimmed down to 1cm instead of 1.5cm. For example, this is what I did for pattern piece D:
Make sure the seam allowances for the neckline on left front dress and right front flap are at 1cm as well.
2) Left Front Dress (cut X1 self fabric)
I put in 1cm seam allowance from left neckline to right side seam. The mandarin collar is attached to the left front dress by making a slit in the seam allowance on the centre front line on the front bodice pieces. This separates the seam allowance for the collar/neckline on the left from the seam allowance for the front button-loop slope on the right. Cut a corresponding slit into the fabric at this place. On the left front bodice, the slit looks like this close up:
Be careful not to cut all the way to the seam line when cutting into the fabric. Leave at least a millimetre of space before hitting the seam line. This prevents fraying in a potentially weak corner of the garment.
3) Right Front Flap (cut X1 self fabric and cut X2 lining)
The top slope line marks the line where the left front dress (button-loop slope) will meet the right front flap. The space between that line and the bottom sloped edge is 2 inches or 5cm. Seam allowances for the neckline and the slope is 1cm. Again, make that slit in the seam allowance at the centre line:
4) Left Neck and Button-Loop Facing (cut X1 self fabric and cut X1 interfacing)
From the left front dress pattern, trace a facing connecting the left neck and shoulder to the right side seam. Remember to make the slit into the seam allowance for this pattern piece as well. Then cut out the pattern on fabric by inverting it to make a mirror image for the lining. Interface this pattern piece to stabilise the edge needed for the button loops.
Additional (Optional) Pattern Pieces:
Button loops are optional because the front flap may be secured to the left front dress with Chinese frog buttons and/or metal snaps. I’ve also used Prym Jersey Snaps for this purpose and it works really well. But if you choose to use button loops, then what I did was making a long and skinny rouleau strap from a one inch bias tape cut from the self-fabric. Each rouleau loop is 2 inches or 5cm long and I have a total of eight buttons. So what I did was cut out at least a bias tape that is at least 50cm long. This way, when edges do get frayed while turning the loops in the loop turner, there will be enough length for 8 loops. The buttons I used are actually jewellery beads made form pale blue magnesite gemstones.
I also added an optional waist tie strap for the shirtdress that is 1.5 inches wide and 36 inches long. The strap has the two contrasting fabrics on each side so that I can change the dominant fabric to be shown depending on my mood.
Finally, a shirtdress must have pockets! So I used the pockets drafted for the Peppermint Magazine Wide Strap Maxi Dress by Peppermint Magazine and Elbe Textiles. The elegant pocket construction with a rectangular cut-out at the opening is a great add-on as side-seam pockets to this shirtdress. Or you can use any side seam pockets you prefer.
1) Prewash/Pretreat fabric(s)
2) Cut out pattern pieces on fabric(s)
3) Interface collar and left neck/button-loop facing
4) Make rouleau loops
5) Prepare bias tape for hemline
6) With right sides together, attach front right fabric to lining by sewing at the S-slope from the right side seam all the way around to the point of the slit at the centre line at 1cm seam allowance. Stop sewing just before you hit the neckline at centre front line where the slit is:
Grade seam, and flip right side out. Understitch (with seams towards the lining) wherever possible along the slope. Press. Line up the fabric and lining at the neckline and shoulder. Staystitch both layers together within the seam allowances.
7) Position and baste button loops on the left front dress at the slope line on the seam allowance. I space mine 1.5inches apart. The first button starting at 1 inch from the centre line. Then with right sides together, sandwich the button loops between by the left front dress and the left neck/button-loop facing, and sew at 1cm seam allowance. Stop sewing before you hit the neckline at the centre front line where the slit is.
Flip right side out and understitch (with seams towards the facing side) wherever possible along the slope. Press. Serge or zig-zag stitch the bottom edge of the the facing. Line up the facing with the left front dress at the neckline and the shoulder line by staystitching both layers together within the seam allowances.
8) Hand-baste left front dress to right front flap at button-loop line so that the front of the dress is temporarily held together while the shoulder seams are sewn together between back and and front dresses.
9) Gather the back dress at the seam where it meets the back yoke. I start the gathers at 6inches from the armscye. Mark a corresponding notch of 6 inches from the armscye on the bottom edge of the back yoke so that you can work out how much fabric to gather.
10) Attach back yoke to back dress according to Closet Core Instructions.
11) Attach left front dress and right front flap ( both already hand-basted together) to back yoke at shoulder seam with burrito method according to Closet Core Instructions.
12) Attach side seam pockets according to Peppermint Magazine Wide Strap Magazine instructions. Or attach your favourite version of side seam pockets.
13) Attach front and back dress pieces at side seams with French seams. Or sew up the seams and finish them with a serger or a zig-zag stitch if you prefer.
14) Hem dress with bias tape according to Closet Core Instructions.
15) Before attaching collar, mark the positions of where the buttons will go on the front flap with the help of the button loops. Then remove the hand-basting stitches connecting the left front dress to right front flap at button-loop line.
16) With right sides together, sew the bottom edge of the outside collar to the neckline of the dress at 1 cm seam allowance. The collar will extend beyond the centre front neckline by 1cm on each side. Press the seam allowance up towards the collar.
Press up the 1cm seam allowance on the bottom edge of the inner collar, wrong sides facing together.
With the right sides of the outer and inner collar facing together, sew the top edge of the collar at 1cm seam allowance. Turn right side out, grade seams, press. Hand stitch the bottom edge of the inner collar to the neckline, enclosing all seam allowances.
17) Sew arm cuffs of the shirtdress to the armscye according to Closet Core instructions.
18) Sew in buttons on the front flap.
19) Optional: make a waist tie in the self-fabric.
If you’re still reading this, I’m impressed you stuck it out. It is very dry, dense and condensed instructions and reading it may feel like digesting raw sawdust. But it is a window into my process and this was the stuff that my brain was entangled in for the last three days. A big part of the crafting process is rather unglamorous. More importantly, I wanted to share information with anybody who might be attempting a similar hack. Hope this has been helpful even though it might have been deadly boring.
To conclude, I am super happy with this major hack of the Kalle Shirtdress. It wasn’t a breeze getting there, but the end result is a breezy version of a cheongsam. From the back, it looks like a regular shirtdress,
but from the front it’s a cheongsam.