I’ve always loved tulle. When I was little and taking ballet lessons I was disappointed to learn that you didn’t automatically get to wear a tutu and pink satin slippers. So while I practiced tour jetes in a serviceable black leotard I only dreamed that I could hear the whisper of netting, feel its light scratch against my skin.
So while I never made it very far in ballet I found other ways to surround myself with tulle. Halloween costumes, petticoats, dress-up hats with little wisps of tulle veils in the front were a big part of my childhood. Later, I insisted on wearing formals with tulle appearing somewhere on them. I use it to wrap presents in place of ribbon, as a styling prop while on photo shoots. I even made my own wedding veil out of antique white tulle.
Still, wearing everyday garments out of the stuff simply never occurred to me. Until my daughters told me about Molly Goddard.
This avant-garde fashion designer caught on to the fascinating ethereal properties of tulle; her creations are big and ruffly and come in luscious shades of pink, blue and gray. They are completely SEE THROUGH. Yes, that’s what tulle is and that’s a large part of its beauty. I was to discover other joys (and challenges) of working with tulle when my second daughter Caroline asked me to create a long tunic for her to wear over her prom dress.
A few observations from my first non-costume tulle garment:
- 1. Find a Pattern. Caroline showed me a bunch of images capturing the design she wanted. Based on that, I searched old sewing patterns to get something reasonably close. This one had a pretty “kimono” effect without a lot of pieces (I was given one week to make the garment).
2. Make a sketch. Here is the way I modified the pattern, based on what Caroline wanted. I made bell sleeves and added a series of pleats to the bodice and to the skirt. The waist is gathered, but the gathered seam appears on the outside. She wanted the neckline open to the waist since she was wearing a satin gown underneath.
3. Shop for tulle and notions. Tulle comes in a large array of colors; really, a stunning array even at chain stores like JoAnn’s. They also vary in drape and texture. Most of the tulle I see readily available is called Bridal Illusion — it’s made of nylon, has diamond-shaped holes and is kind of crispy yet airy. The other two main types are English and Silk tulle; if you feel yourself becoming a tulle fan read more about the features of all three.
Because the structure (seams, gathers, raw edges and all those other garment parts you were taught to hide all those years in sewing class) is part of the look of the piece, I purchased a bunch of seam binding, a shade or two darker than the fabric. Seam binding acts as a highlighter, drawing attention to the long center seam, the neckline and the back opening. I love the fact that tulle doesn’t fray at all. The only reason I turned hems was to add a little weight to the skirt and sleeves. I bought lavender ribbon and beautiful little buttons, which ended up unused (I’ll explain later).
4. Prepare to sew like you’ve never prepared before. Here is where it gets fun. Tulle is tricky to sew. I figured out on my own that I would use a very long stitch — I used the 4 setting on my Brother NS40e machine. I also used a tip I found online somewhere: To keep the fabric from getting caught up in the presser foot gap, put a piece of cellophane tape on the bottom of the foot. The needle pokes through easily but the tape covers the rest of the gap. The most important tip? Use your glasses! Tulle is maddeningly invisible, especially in a single ply so you’ll need all the help you can get.
5. My biggest mistake and how I fixed it. I am not experienced in modifying patterns, let alone working without a pattern; I am completely in awe of talented artists who can pull that off. Despite careful measuring, I didn’t make the back pieces wide enough for a button closure. Ugh! All those pretty buttons! My eye went to the satin ribbon I purchased impulsively (I am a ribbon freak). I decided to make buttonholes on each side of the back opening, on top of a length of grosgrain ribbon sewn to the back seam, then thread satin ribbon, like a corset.
6. One last tip: ruffles are required. The garment was really pretty when I finished hemming but a little on the plain side. I took my tulle scraps and added two sleeve ruffles on each side. Tulle is relatively easy to gather — I used the traditional double stitch row at 5/8 and 3/8 of an inch from the edge (use a long stitch setting) but you can use your machine’s gathering foot and wide zigzag stitches as well. I would have done that, but by this point I was too worn out to teach myself something new. Next time.