Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Back Words Top, or, How to Wear Horizontal Stripes and a Wild Print

If you're like me, you've purchased some prints that drew you to them, then had you wondering how you would ever incorporate them into your wardrobe. There are many prints I pass by because they're just "too much" for my large body. But some are irresistible, begging to linger in my fabric collection so they can tease me until I figure out what to make with them.
Back Words Jersey (Yes, it's readable in a mirror!)
With its dry hand and wonderful drape, this printed viscose/elastane jersey from Sawyer Brook was one of those teasers. I knew the print flattered my personality, and I knew the colors flattered my body. I also knew I could make a simple top to wear underneath a solid jacket or vest. But I didn't want to hide this stunning print that way - at least, not totally. That's when it dawned on me to make a collage top.

I get lots of sewing and design inspiration from the Tilton sisters, and I've long admired this collage top made by Katherine (you'll need to scroll down the page a bit). I noticed it again while browsing her blog last month, and set out to find fabrics that would combine well with my print. I knew I wanted to incorporate a black mesh purchased from Marcy some time ago. I also wanted to use a stripe, if I could find one that complimented the print.

This is where having my studio smack dab next door to a fabulous fabric store is the biggest blessing ever! I took the fabric to Sawyer Brook to see what I could find, and was pleased to discover that Fay, a bamboo and cotton striped jersey with a beautiful hand and drape, is a very close color match to the taupe in the print. Stripe mission solved!

To round out the grouping, I wanted a solid. At first I thought the violet jersey used in my previous garment would look good. While it echoed the red violet in the print, it was waaaaaay overpowering in the collage. I stepped back from the fabrics for a bit, then realized black would be the perfect finish. Black can be a bit harsh on me, especially an all-over black garment. But piecing it would lessen that harshness, and I just happened to have a black cotton jersey on hand. I was fortunate these four fabrics had similar drape and weight, another key to collage success. I had also achieved a pleasing mix of color, pattern, texture and solid.

One big reminder that came to me during the fabric selection process was the colors didn't have to match perfectly.  I grew up in an era when a stylish look required carefully matched colors, including shoes and handbag. As fashion trends have become more relaxed, so have I. This took all of the pressure off as I "shopped" for my fabric combination. I love how these fabrics speak to one another, and how the black and taupe visually calm down the wildly colorful and busy print.

Fabric choices resolved, my next task was to determine which fabrics to place where. Katherine had given me some good advice on this via email, specifically the importance of placing visually weightier fabrics lower in the garment, and flattering colors near the face. There was no doubt the print would go near my face, so I placed it on the upper right front, upper back and a sleeve. The mesh was a no-brainer; there are times when mesh worn high on a 50-something body is a good thing, but this wasn't one of them! I knew I would want to place it at the hemline and the lower part of a sleeve.  Taupe isn't a very flattering color for my face, so the stripe went to the lower front, upper back and a sleeve. Black balanced everything else out.

Now the cutting began. Using Katherine's version as a template of sorts (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery!), I took my altered Vogue 1261 pattern and traced off the front and back pieces. I determined where I wanted the seams to be, and added seam allowances. I also drafted a lower, slightly asymmetrical neckline. Since I didn't have a photo of the back of Katherine's version, I used the opportunity to play a bit. I moved the vertical seam to the center, and carefully positioned the horizontal seams in flattering places. Katherine advised me to not make the back placement just like the front, and not to try to match seams at the side seams. Viewed from the side, all of the horizontal seams fall at different places. To avoid over-matching the fabric placement, I switched the black and stripe on the back.

In order to obtain a good fit, construction of the top was somewhat unconventional. I sewed the top four pieces together, leaving the vertical seams open toward the bottom. Then I attached each lower piece seperately, tweaking the fit and length as I went.

My biggest challenge in piecing the collage was the sloped seam on the front between the print and the stripe. I cut both of these pieces about 2" longer than needed, so I could achieve some fit in the angled seam. Without doing this fitting, the stripes on the lower front piece would have sloped to the outside (because of my rounded torso). Using the print on top proved to be fortuitous, as it allowed me to add some length over my bust, in order to make the pieces fall evenly. No option for adjusting unevenness at the hem of this top!

Another challenge was to avoid having a bright blob of color on my breast. This took some work, and I'm not sure how well I succeeded, as it looks like I leaned into a freshly painted blue wall! At least I don't flaunt a big dark square or a large cream blob ladened with big letters.

For the sleeves, I cut them out to about 3/4 length, leaving a couple of extra inches to play with. I figured out the lower sleeve shapes later, when I assembled them. This helped me make them proportional to the body of the garment. I sloped the seams 1" on one sleeve, and 2" on the other.

Wanting a clean finish that didn't add more busy-ness to the top, I stitched the hems and neckband by hand. First, I used my favorite ultralight Design Plus fusible bias tape to stabilize the fabric edges. It shows through a bit on the mesh, but I didn't like the look of the mesh hem without it. The mesh is very large, so there isn't much fabric to stitch together. The tape gave me something to sew into.

Ok, time to talk about the elephant in the living room, so to speak. Stripes, you say?! Yes, stripes can perform a strong balancing act in a collage. I really lucked out in this case, as the taupe and black striped knit is so subtle. A cream and black stripe would have been much louder, and would have commanded a lot of attention. The size of the stripe makes a big difference, too. Imagine the same colors in a 1" stripe. Way too LOUD!

But horizontal stripes?! Isn't that a no-no? Don't they make you look fat? Once again, it all depends on how bold the stripes are. I'm a big girl, no doubt about that. But because of the other design lines in this top, the horizontal stripes recede to the background.

This project was a blast to design and execute. It took a lot of patience, ingenuity and double-checking, but once I got into the groove, the process moved along quite smoothly.  Katherine was a huge inspiration, and her advice was very helpful. I so appreciate pattern designers who are willing to communicate with those of us who are using their patterns and ideas!

This top is very comfortable and really reflects my personality.  I just love wearing it. Best of all, I have enough yardage left over to create another collage top. I'm thinking a more summery cut...

Horizontal stripes and a wild print? Oh yeah!


  1. BRILLIANT combo! This is one of my favorite tops ever of yours!

  2. That's some terrific print and color blocking. All the rage right now, and not easily accomplished.

  3. Absolutely fantastic top! I love it on you.

  4. Oh yes...it's perfect!!! What fun!!!!

  5. I'm in awe of your expertise with knits. I have a bugger of a time with them between finding patterns that flatter and then figuring out adjustments both with the pattern and those tricky fabrics. Your top is lovely!

  6. You did a great job of combining fabrics. Great looking top!

  7. Thank you all for your compliments. I appreciate them!

  8. Absolutely love your color blocked top! You look great in it! I love the colors and the pieces. Thank you for the inspiration.