Les Bijoux – or How to Sew Beaded Fabric…Really.

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In the evening you have to knock ’em dead with glitter.” – Norman Norell.

A shitastic amount of beads...

A shitastic amount of glitter…

I can’t think of a truer statement. Beaded embroidery has been around for centuries dating back to ancient times; but with the advent of the 20th century, we’ve seen it transform through incarnations of 20’s flappers, 50’s fashion glam, and 70’s mermaids – up to the over-the-top designs seen in the 80’s by Bob Mackie and Nolan Miller. You still see it today, used in various haute couture showings, but also in a number of low-end designs for the masses, thanks to cheap labor from the Far East. But make no mistake – just because it’s accomplished through inexpensive labor houses, doesn’t mean it’s cheap.

Fabric sketching...

Fabric sketching…

I have always been dazzled by beaded fashion. In my endless pursuit of frippery, beading creates a visual like no other – it’s glittery, shiny, and sparkly touch implies glistening fairies dancing across the surface, much like we might see in Fantasia. It’s other-worldly, this shimmering effervescence – and one that can stop me dead in my tracks like a religious freedom cause to a conservative, right-wing Republican.

A new drape - or Princess Leia...you decide...

A new drape – or Princess Leia…you decide…

Through my many trips to Paris, courtesy of living in England during the 90’s and those from Tonner Doll, I acquired many densely beaded silk chiffon cuttings, in various colors and patterns. I was addicted to them, and after a drama-filled negotiation with the staff at the now-closed Maupiou fabric house on Rue de La Paix, I was finally able to convince them to sell me quarter-meter cuts (after buying a few batches of half-meter cuts already!). I make clothes for les poupées, and they just don’t need that much. Well, that, and the heavily beaded versions can cost upwards from €450 for a square meter. Yeah, that’s right

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I’ve done quite of bit of dense beading, with my most recent Le Phénix commission showcasing a bodice front and half sleeves covered heavily in seed beads – the beading took about 16+ hours for that tiny amount of coverage – just imagine what it would take to fill a square meter. And that’s exactly why it’s expensive – it’s all done by hand. Unlike many sequined materials, which can be largely done by machine these days, beads are typically hand-sewn.

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Now, back in the 70’s when Norman Norell created his sequined sheath mermaid dresses, that wasn’t accomplished by machine – though you can find fabrics like that these days that are. No, Puddings, Norell’s Atelier would spend roughly 250 hours of hand-sewing sequins onto oneyes, one, gown.

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The method is simple, but labor-intensive. Typically rendered through tambour hook beading or single needle and thread (sometimes a combination of the two), the silk chiffon backing merely serves as the canvas – for when the beading is done, the intertwining threads used to secure the beads have created a virtually new textile in and of itself. It has some stretch, but you can’t rely on it for that as seen in a knit. Nevertheless, draping a muslin toile might not bring the fit you’re looking for – so I decided to use a simple poly knit to drape this pattern.

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You rarely see much design artistry in these types of beaded fabrics – full coverage, color and texture are the goal rather than a perceivable motif. The precise designs of such a house as Lesage require much more design thought and execution. Beaded fabrics are heavy, bulky, and must largely be pieced by hand with some exceptions, which I will cover further down…

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Using a fabric like this calls for a simple silhouette – mostly because of bulk, but also because of the emphasis brought by the tactile surface. Simple isn’t always my forte, it requires precision and symmetry that can escape my design aesthetic where I am easily distracted by bits, bobs and fripp. For those that are more seasoned sewers, or even formally trained – well, they probably laugh at my self-learned techniques in draping and design. But while many were in school learning to horrify teachers with their ‘visions’ of the fashion future, I was buying nuclear weapon navigation components for the United States Navy – so there. I also was sewing, too – and building, through trial-and-error experiences, a seasoned knowledge base in pressing forth with new concepts and new techniques. I love learning something new…and I’m not above it when sitting down to each project.

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I’ve received emails from people that ask my prices, and I’ve even had some actually tell me my prices are too high. You know what? Then you make it. I personally feel these people have little value in hand-work, and an unrealistic sense of perceived perfection. I don’t make ‘perfect’, I make beautiful. There are plenty of artists out there that execute with such precision, I find it almost blinding. I don’t consider them competition – I consider them inspirational. I have a great deal of respect for that type of mastery – but it doesn’t make that work any better than another – it only makes it different. In the eyes of the beholder, beauty is an emotion – and those that enjoy my work see it – and sometimes, will gladly pay for it. But I’m not going to discount my efforts to something that isn’t even a minimum wage rate just to satisfy someone else’s lack of understanding or appreciation in time and skill. I value my time more than that, and you don’t have to buy it. Many will pay $500+ for a repainted doll, after supplying the artist with the doll – what the fuck? You got some paint added to your doll’s face, really. I think you understand my point then…

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The reason I bring all that commentary up is when you look at a project like this, there is a great deal of hand-work involved, and not always by my own hands. The fabric took hundreds of hours to make – by someone else, just for me to score a tiny quarter-meter. I know the material was made in France, but I don’t know the company or the workers associated with its creation. It will save me a mercy load of time in not having to do that beading myself – but because it is what it is, it will also require more time than that of a simple satin or taffeta gown. There’s a reason why it’s so damned expensive – it may be a time-saver, but you will still ultimately pay a price for it.

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Many of my readers have commented on how they enjoy the ‘how it’s made’ posts because they sew themselves, and they love the exchange of ideas and techniques my blog offers. For those folks, here are things to know that will help you if you decide to take on a fabric like this…

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Use decent, but not fine, scissors when cutting it (scissors you will only use for this type of cutting) – and make sure you wear some type of incontinence protection – the first cut will bring you close to pissing and/or shitting your pants. I use an inexpensive pair of Fiskars – because cutting this material will ruin the blade. I suppose a heavy duty scissor or a X-Acto knife could be used, but you have to evaluate the level of precision they offer versus the drawbacks of how they are used.

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You cannot cut pattern pieces in duplicate layers or on the fold – you must do each piece individually on a single layer of fabric, and with the beaded side down. Cut gently with your scissors, allowing for a natural parting of the beads as you cut – and not trying to cut through beads. This will yield some inconsistent cut lines, which you will need to clean up later before sewing. Be careful to also observe the direction of your pattern piece if it’s one that mirrors itself along say, the center back – make sure you flip the pattern over to get your reverse piece. I speak from experience here – listening to lovely instrumentals while cutting patterns is soothing – but it can also be distracting, and you simply can’t afford to not pay attention, which may result in two pattern pieces that are exactly the same when they need to be opposites. Yeah, I learned that the hard way…with quite a few expletives tossed in for good measure. When in doubt, take a Xanax and let your scissors do the walking. While cutting, be sure to reserve any detached beads for repair work later.

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Crush the beads in the seam allowance to not only allow for some machine work (typically with a zipper foot), but also to reduce the bulk of excess beads in your seams, and to not break the threads used in a chain of tambour hook beading. I use small jewelry pliers with a wide, flat-nose – it allows for good control; in addition, chain-nose (needle-nose – but not round-tip or curved nose) pliers help with critically small areas. This process takes time, and a well-exercised hand – get one of those hand grip exercise things if you are not a man (I’m not even going to explain why the sexism in that comment is relevant – it has nothing to do with any notion that men are stronger than women, I can assure you). Expect little blisters to form on your hand and fingers where the pliers come into contact – and all those minuscule glass shards will cut and abrade your skin. Take time to wash your hands frequently, and make sure the glass dust is removed from under your fingernails. It is not recommended to drink alcohol while doing this – but having some on hand never hurt anyone, and it can actually serve as a good antiseptic.

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While crushing beads with the pliers, I hold a cut pattern piece over a baggy – one that allows for enough room for you to work, but is capable of catching the debris (plenty will end up on the floor, table and chair – so don’t do this in on your plastic-covered sofa living room or over scratch-prone floors/surfaces). Wear safety glasses! I can’t emphasize this enough. Because even though you’re taking all the precautions, you will still see shards pop out in all directions. Vacuum regularly and thoroughly, even if you’ve never done this before in your home.

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Smash the beads along the seam allowance face down toward the baggy – this captures the bulk of the glass – but then repeat face side up so you can see if you’ve missed any beads. Some beads smash more easily that others, and you’ll find polished seed beads to be particularly mischievous. The last thing you want is to hit one of these suckers with your machine needle – breaking it, and launching a sharp broken metal projectile right into your face – your eyes might be protected, but it will still smart if it hits you in the cheek or chin, possibly requiring a tetanus shot.

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Sequins don’t always need removing if using a heavy duty needle in your machine – or if they don’t add bulk to the seam allowance. I had to remove them from my bodice darts, but not along the side seams or hemline.

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Machine sewing is helpful for long, unbroken seams. Use a heavy duty needle (just in case you do hit a bead) – and be patient with your zipper foot, using a slow speed stitch. Observe the feed of your material – if it hesitates, you probably have a bead caught under the foot – it also has the tendency to creep (a walking foot won’t help – it’s too wide) Raise the presser foot, and guide the fabric through by hand, while manually turning the crank to stitch as you go, or at least until you pass a troublesome area. Commercial machines are much better than home variants because the presser foot is narrower, and they have greater control when needing to intervene manually. Hand-stitching is a necessity for tiny, tight areas such as armcyes.

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Once you have your garment sewn, you will need to examine the seam allowances from the right side to see if you need to do any bead repair work. Whether it be lack of precision in your bead smashing, or your machine eating your seam allowance, there will be some degree of repair required. Use a beading needle and your reserved beads to replicate the pattern of beading over the seams. You will marvel at the virtual ‘seamless’ look your garment delivers once it’s completed.

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The fit has to be tested often. With all the smashing, sewing and cursing, you are bound to experience distortion in your pattern pieces. I observed this in my project along the center back – my symmetry was off, requiring repair work to one armscye and along the neckline. As I said…I make beautiful, not perfect. But if this is a pressing matter for you, you can employ extra techniques to mark your seamlines with a marking pen, or with thread if you are intentionally trying to make yourself insane.

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Lining this type of fabric is a challenge. I originally thought because of the stretch observed, that I could line it with a knit. Wrong. The fit of the seamed pieces still behaved very much like a woven material, so I went with a particularly troublesome China silk used previously on Jetson. Despite using a brand new, fine needle – I still saw pesky warp yarns being pulled by machine and hand sewing. Whatever – the feather weight of China silk is very desirable for a heavy material such as this. I installed the lining completely by hand, and closed the armscyes at the shoulders. I opted to not use a hook and eye at the center back neckline – it just wasn’t necessary, and I hate the perception that one must always use a hook/eye at neckline closures – especially when it’s not needed.

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I chose to do my repair work along the seams after the lining was installed, and while on the doll. If you’re not as confident, fearing you might catch the lining – then make your repair beading before adding the lining. A magnifying OttLite desklamp comes in handy here.

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If any of my sewing readers want to put on their big girl panties, and try working with a fabric like this – please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions – it may save you a great deal of high blood pressure-related discourse.

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When it came to the cape, I went with a simple shape, fitted at the shoulder with darts. A fabric like this is the star, so keeping lines simple truly showcases its opulence. Using a contrasting silk brocade, the cape would be reversible – but as I found out later, the fine silk threads in the brocade caught on the beading. I opted to only display it brocade-side out to keep it from marring. Besides, how decadent is it to have all that fabulous beading peeking out from the inside when the light captures it just so. Fabulous.

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In the end, the little jewels came together into one stunning Bijou. This outfit will be for sale when I get around to adding it and others to my sales page – keep your eye on it here. This evening ensemble was fit to 12inch Poppy Parker by Integrity Toys, and it will fit Victoire Roux. It was too tight on Silkstone Barbie, zipping only halfway up in the back (sorry, Babs – it’s a boobage thing)…

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Sparkly, no? Enjoy the big camera pics!!!

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Integrity Toys’ 12inch Poppy Parker wearing BIJOU by Tommydoll; Photo by Tom Courtney.

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15 thoughts on “Les Bijoux – or How to Sew Beaded Fabric…Really.

  1. Fascinating read on the techniques you used,and beautifully done. I can empathise with the whole price thang. I don’t think I charge much (my doll clothing is a by-product of my patterns, so I can sell the outfits at a little less when they’ve been embellished) But I do get messages from people asking why I charge “so much.” My stock reply is usually to ask them it they’d do a week’s work for say £60. I never usually get a reply…..

    • Totally agree…and I do know artists who choose to charge less for their work – that’s their choice. I have little patience with the people who think that all artists price their work in the same way. Thank you for reading!

  2. One has to admire your patience and determination. It sure is a beautiful dress.
    I don’t think you charge a lot if the base price is $200-600 for a creation. Has anybody checked how much couturiers really charge? I just checked Valentiono’s prices and one of the dresses was 23 000 dollars. Are you cheap, or are you cheap?

  3. Wonderful dress. It is indeed very difficult to sew heavily beaded and/or embroidered fabric, which I would mostly sew by hand, and cut using the same technique as cutting fur, from the back, and cutting each pattern piece individually is essential. I agree about pricing – if people are not prepared to pay the asking price for something unique and handmade why do they bother asking about it? See you at Long Beach in October hopefully?

  4. Wow, this is a FABULOUS gown and cape! Poppy looks so lovely in it. The detailed walk-through of how you made these is very interesting, thank you for sharing!

  5. The dress & cape are simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on sewing with beaded fabrics. With such stunning results, trust me, no one will ever laugh at your draping techniques. Besides, there are no schools teaching Haute Couture for Fashion Dolls. You’re way ahead of the game!!!!

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