The gown: Dyeing and Sewing Velvet(een)

Posted by Margo Anderson on

When I started this project, I knew I wanted the gown to be made of purple velvet. Now, "purple" means different things to different people.  

I could have gone with the most authentic choice, Tyrian Purple, the color that was the true "Royal Purple"... no, actually I couldn't.  True Tyrian purple is made, according to Wikipedia, from a certain species of predatory sea snails, and it takes tens of thousands of them to make enough dye for one garment.  Aside from the difficulty of finding the wee beasties and extracting the dye from them, I have a severe gastropod phobia and just the phrase "predatory sea snails" makes me break out in a fine sweat.  

So, scrap authenticity..but I could use a fabric dyed with modern materials to the same color, right?  Well, yes...but take a look at this: 

Pretty intense, right?  and not really what I want at all.  

I really don't love a  red-purple, let alone this shade which seems more like fuschia or magenta. Even if, as I understand, it can be made darker, it's not flattering to me.  So to heck with it, I'm going with  my favorite color,  deep violet purple.

I also decided that I didn't really want to use a true velvet.  Synthetic velvet looks cheap and shiny to my eye.  The silk velvet that's most commonly available is actually a rayon pile on a silk background, and is far too drape-y for this use.  That leaves cotton velvet, which is gorgeous, but very heavy and very hot.  Due to medical issues, I need to take care not to get overheated, so I decided to compromise with cotton velveteen.  Velveteen has a much shorter pile and is thinner than cotton velvet, while still having a lush velvety look.

I looked and looked online, but had no luck finding purple velveteen. I also asked friends who were going to the LA garment district to look for me, to no avail.  Then, as I was going through my stash, I found a length of cornflower blue velveteen I'd bought for a subsequently abandoned costume idea.  And right in the middle of it, I discovered a large faded spot. 

I was sad for about two minutes, till I realized that what I had here was velveteen fabric that needed to be dyed.  Yay!  I went to  and bought Procion dye in Imperial Purple.

I should have thought of this, but if you dye over blue with purple, what you get is a nice dark blue with a hint of purple.  Oops.  So I dyed it again, this time with bright red, and that turned it to exactly the shade of dark purple I wanted. 

The next step was to decide which way I wanted the nap of the fabric to run.  If you run your hand over a piece of velvet or velveteen, you'll notice that it feels smooth if you run it one way, and somewhat rougher the other way.  This is the "nap" of the fabric.

My mother taught me to always cut napped fabrics with the nap facing downwards.  It turns out that that's not always the best idea. Most napped fabrics will look smoother and shinier if cut that way, but if you cut with the nap facing upwards, the fabric will look darker and more lush. So that's what I chose to do. 

Each pattern piece should be cut with the nap facing the same way, otherwise you'll have darker and lighter areas.  I personally find that I have a hard time with this, especially if I'm cutting the fabric in several folding configurations or if I'm cutting different pieces at different times. Since I'm losing weight right now,  I'm going to wait until June to cut the bodice. This means it's VERY important that I keep track of which way the nap is going, so I did this on the back side: 

And then cut my skirt panels.

Because the trim I'll be using is quite stiff and doesn't like to curve, I'm making my skirt out of three straight panels, the full width of the fabric.  This means I can simply stitch just inside the selvedges and not have to worry about seam finishing.

Velvet is notoriously hard to sew because the pile causes the layers to wiggle around and get out of alignment.  Velveteen is a bit easier, but not by much.  There are a number of solutions to this problem.  A walking foot attachment for your sewing machine is considered to be one of the best.

A year or two I bought a walking foot for my new-to-me sewing machine on Ebay. When it arrived I was in the middle of moving, so I tossed it into a box and forgot about it.  Well, I pulled it out to use it and it doesn't fit my machine!  It's my own fault for not trying it right away.

Not wanting to wait to get another foot, I resorted to a low tech, but effective solution: Double pinning.  Run a row of pins on each side of your seam line, far enough apart to accommodate  your machine's foot, and stitch down the middle. The pins need to be placed fairly close together. This nails everything in place and keeps it from shifting when you stitch.


All I had to do afterwards was press the seams open.Seams in velveteen are best steam pressed over a seam roll to keep the seam allowances from marking the right side.  I hate having to keep reaching under the fabric to move a short seam roll, so I use a 1 1/2 yard piece of cotton velvet, rolled into a long cylinder.  The same piece of fabric gets unrolled and spread on my ironing board as a surface for pressing velvet or velveteen.

Next post: Embellishing the skirt!

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  • I want to add something to Anne comment.
    When I need to put a arrow I put the line at the base like the movers boxes. This way I am sure I will not make a mistake. The base of my arrow is always down.

    Sylvie on
  • I got the table and the cutting mat off Craigslist for $90! One of the best bargains I’ve ever gotten.

    Margo Anderson on
  • That velveteen is beautiful… but what I’m really admiring is your awesome cutting table! sigh

    Michelle Lampson on
  • I hope you noted if the arrows should be pointing UP of down!

    anne on

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