Sewing Modern Vintage with Mary-Ellen

Vintage, but make it modern.

My love affair with vintage fashion started long before I started sewing. For years, my ready to wear wardrobe consisted mainly of reproduction vintage styles. As a curvy girl, shopping for authentic vintage fashion can be a gruelling task. It can take a lot of searching to find a piece that works for you and your body. And if you do find a cute garment it can often require a bit of DIY with needle and thread to make it look good. Otherwise, you can run the risk of looking like a drab historical relic. Modern vintage fashion filled my gap in the search for clothes that replicated the beautiful silhouettes of the 40s and 50s.

For a while, I revelled in reproduction clothing but after a few years some labels started to change their size charts and inconsistency became a problem. As the reproductive fashions became more popular, many brands started increasing production levels and the standard of making got worse. After a few buys where things arrived with seams unfinished or the colour washed out after a wash, I became disenchanted with reproduction brands. After a little research, I also discovered some of these brands were having their clothes made in factories which exploited human labour and my love affair with reproduction clothes ended.


My Sewing Journey

 At the same time, the country was spinning towards lockdown. My partner had bought me a sewing machine for Christmas, and I decided that, while I was working from home and saving commuting time and my social life was dead in the water, that I would use my time wisely and learn the art of sewing. Since then, I haven’t bought a single item of ready to wear clothing – it’s a really empowering feeling. Even at the start of my journey, the fit of my handmade clothes was no worse than the ready to wear garments in my wardrobe.

I’ve been sewing for fifteen months now and my skills in fitting have come a long way; however, there’s still a long way to go. That’s one of the things I love about sewing – it’s a constant learning process. Even when you think you’ve mastered fit by getting one garment right, you realise quickly when you embark on the next garment that the learning process has started all over again.

For the first year of sewing, sewing itself was where I got my satisfaction; now, with that whirlwind of excitement behind me, it’s all about getting the fit right for my body. I’m also pretty lucky to have made a friend through the Instagram sewing community, Lisa (@bobo_bun) who respects me enough and loves the art of sewing so much that she was prepared to say, “that’s great, Mel (that’s what she calls me) but it’s time to go to the next level”. It’s no wonder she’s in demand as a dressmaking teacher!


Butterick B6556, Two Ways

I’ve owned this pattern for around the same length of time as I have been sewing; it was one of the first patterns I bought. I hoard patterns just like I stash fabric; I am sure there are a lot of you reading this who do the same thing. When I bought this floral print cotton from The Rag Shop a couple of months ago and started going through my pattern collection, I rediscovered B6556 and I thought it would be the perfect pattern for this fabric.

I’ve been sewing Gertie’s patterns ever since I started on my sewing journey and this pattern was one of her early designs for Butterick; it is quintessentially ‘Gertie’ in style; it is close-fitted, has a lined bodice, a full pleated skirt, a centre back lapped zip, and generous pockets (you can fit a lot in there).

It has both a sleeved and sleeveless option. I’ve been drawn to square necklines lately, and this dress features one on both the front and back necklines. I’ve been looking for a go-to bodice for a while now, but I get distracted really easily. If only I could sew as quickly as patterns as released!

I toiled this before I sewed up the final version – I heard the voice of Lisa saying “you can do this” and she’s right. A little patience, determination and a toile later, I sized down for the high bust measurement (to get rid of the gaping at the back and fix the shoulders as they were falling off) and graded out at the waist. I always have problems with the fit on the shoulders; it was always my biggest problem with RTW dresses, too. It was one of those epiphany moments for me, reading By Hand London’s Bodice Companion that I didn’t need to faff about with trying to adjust shoulders and necklines; I could just size down and do an FBA instead.

I made the mistake of not being all that thorough about the zip fitting, though, so once I added the lapped zipper (which really is one of those techniques that makes a garment more authentically vintage) I realised I could do with a little extra room so I would need to increase the bust adjustment to allow a little more room next time.

Even though I’m only 5’1″ I decided not to shorten the skirt – I love the real vintage feel of a longer length.

For a commercial pattern, the instructions for this pattern were pretty thorough. I didn’t have to double guess myself at all. There is a common misconception that vintage styles are difficult but they’re not. I particularly loved that when you line the bodice you leave a gap in the shoulders before turning the bodice out which allows you to get a fair bit of under stitching done – it never hurts to get that tidy finish.

No sooner had I finished this dress I wanted to make another. I tend to do that with patterns I enjoy. Since I made a print version, I decided to make a solid colour this time and turned to the emerald green linen look cotton that I’d bought along with the floral print cotton. Have I mentioned how well curated The Rag Shop’s fabrics are?

When you put in the effort to make a garment fit well for you, you make the most out of it, right? So, I decided to make this bodice with different skirts; since I’d already made the pleated version, it was a toss-up between a circle skirt and a gathered skirt. In the end I went for the gathered skirt as it’s a bit more casual and better suited to the windy Irish weather. I’ve had too many Marilyn moments in swing skirts. I’m not sure which version I love most!

While I love prints – particularly florals – I am trying to make more solids, and jewel tones like this emerald really appeal to me. As an added bonus, solid coloured garments look really good with all my cute acrylic jewellery pieces which always stand out more against plain colours.

For me, vintage styles are where it’s at. Personally, I think vintage shapes suit all body types. And sewing has helped me build the perfect vintage-inspired wardrobe. Sewing vintage inspired styles actually appeals to me much more than buying vintage pieces ever did because not only can I get the shapes I love that work for my exact body measurements, I’m also able to modernise those styles by using today’s fabrics. It’s the best of both worlds for me.

Thank you to Steph for having me on the blog today.

Mary-Ellen x




  • Thanks for the inspiration. I sew a lot but am not great at fitting and have retreated into loose shapes. I will look out the FBA instructions. Love both these dresses.

  • That green is perfectly you Mel. Grand fit too, you’re a fine Sewist you star.

  • What a lovely read. I have really loved your words and omg girl, you are such a creative sewist! So much to learn from you 💜💜💜


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