Circus Act Tunic

ON January 18th of this year, I took this picture of Fiona while she was trying out her new scooter (Christmas present).  I had let her pick out her clothes that day, which usually consists of her figuring out how to apply the maximum amount of pink that I let her get away with.  Her other demand was to wear her polka-dot skirt– which was part of an outfit I had made her last year.  Unfortunately she has grown out of the leotard part of that outfit, but can still put on the skirt, although it is getting small. I tried to talk her out of the polka dot skirt, since I don’t think it matched well with the pink top (I am very particular, she is not) but she INSISTED that she wear a polka dot skirt that she could “twirl in.”  Hence, this outfit:


I took this picture not because of the questionable outfit, but because of  a detail that you might miss at the first glance: That she had put on her new headband OVER her helmet.  One should not sacrifice style completely to safety, right?

This was Friday, and I had been thinking that week about Project Run and Play’s Stripes & Polka Dot challenge. When I heard about the theme I immediately thought about this quirky Polka Dot Echino fabric I had bought- it was actually the first cut of fabric I purchased after moving to Japan, but just hadn’t figured out the right project for it. I mean, this fabric has a stag on it- I would pretty much buy almost anything deer-head related– but not only that, the stag is wearing hipster glasses!  Yes, cutting into that kind of fabric requires some guts, at least for me it does.

 I wasn’t sure about pairing stripes with it though, and also knew that I wouldn’t have much time to work on it that week.  I had pretty much given up on the sew-along, but when I turned and saw Fiona in this getup, and remembered how she was longing for a pink twirly skirt, I thought…..hey, I should just try it.

So I went home, sketched a few designs out and started making the pattern. I pretty much figured that I wouldn’t get it done in time, but I often need a bit of an impetus to finish a sewing project, so I thought I would try. As has happened probably four or five times this year, I didn’t get it done to submit with the rest of the linky party people, but I really enjoyed seeing what everyone else had done and it was a great way for me to have a goal and think of fun ideas.

The mostly unfinished dress sat in a to-do pile for months until…..a new theme came along where I felt what I had started with the dress really applied.  This week’s theme ” All in the Details” reminded me instantly of the Polkadot tunic because I had tried corded piping for the first time and was really happy with how it turned out.

So, I worked on it when I could this week, and then had the afternoon devoted to finishing it up and taking these photos. So here it is, what I’m going to call the Circus Act Tunic, a little top or short dress with a lined empire-waist bodice, little cap sleeves and corded piping at the bust and hem and flat piping on the sleeves.  Circus Act because the polka-dots and stripes and full tent-like skirt make it somewhat circus-y. And because a buck wearing glasses belongs in the circus, and so does my little girl who came up with so many crazy poses on the way to the trampoline.



When I was drafting the pattern, I wasn’t really loving what I was coming up with. I felt that my own aesthetic or what I wanted for the fabric was fighting with what Fiona wanted. I wanted (and still want, since I have more of it) the fabric to be the lining of a black blazer. But Fiona with her pink polkadot twirl skirt request sold me on figuring out a dress of sorts.


I wasn’t sure I should do a circle skirt or a gathered waist. Since the pink fabric is heavy-weight, I realized there would be way too much bulk if I did the gathered waist. I was leaning toward a mod A-line, since I felt that fit the fabric better, but I knew Fiona really really wanted to be able to twirl.


Like So.

I think it is probably a bit too short with Fiona’s height to be a dress. Although, when her leggings got wet, she shed them, and then it reminded me of my grandmother Lillian when she went square dancing in petticoats. I like how the heavier weight of the fabric, the circle skirt cut and the underskirt really gives the dress a lot of volume.


I thought of extending the striped underskirt farther below the pink fabric so that she could have the option of wearing it as a dress or a top, but when I attached a second 3 inches of striped bias-cut fabric to the underskirt I felt it just didn’t look as clean. So I folded the 3 inch addition in half and stitched the bottom edge to the seam allowance. That way there isn’t any stitching line showing.



I honestly wasn’t sure I even liked how this dress turned out until Fiona tried it out. And when I say tried it out, she really put it through its paces.  There was a lot of spinning, jumping, climbing,  modern dance moves, vaudeville and even trampoline action.






 Now I really like it, and unless she demands to wear it multiple times a week, I am very happy with it.

So to speak to the “DETAILS” of this dress- the piping.

Armed with some string…twine? I had on hand, this really nice black fabric I have been cannibalizing for the past six years and the book “The Sewing Bible,”  I followed the instructions…..somewhat and created my own corded piping which I set into the bodice seam and the hem of the tunic.

I’m not trying to do a tutorial for piping here- I’m sure there are lots of them and of course the book I used is a resource I highly recommend- but I wanted to record my thought process for how I did it.


First  I cut 3/4 inch wide bias strips, sewed them together, folded the long strip in half & pressed it. The book said to then hand-baste the cord into the fabric strip.  I don’t think I audibly laughed at this, but internally I was guffawing at the concept of taking the time to hand-based over 100 inches of cord.  BUT then Fiona wanted some quality time, and I partially multi-tasked by coloring a picture of Princess Celestia with her while I hand based some of the cord.  Meaning- when it was her turn to color pink and blue, I could sit and watch her and sew, but then when it was my turn to color (purple, green & yellow) I had to put the sewing down.

I didn’t get to basting the whole length of cording, but I did do enough to make a comparison.

In short: Hand basting wasn’t as annoying as I thought it would be, and went pretty fast.  BUT, when sewing attentively, it didn’t really make much of a difference. In the future, unless it was some sort of extra special or slippery material, I wouldn’t bother hand-basting.

Yes, it was helpful having the cord basted in- it helped to make sure that it didn’t slip, but since I was pretty careful about feeding the length through the sewing machine, I didn’t even realize that I had gotten past the part that I had basted until I was well down the length of the cord. When I went back and looked at it, I couldn’t tell the difference. Of course, I have a lazy tendency to avoid pinning and basting when I think I can get away with it.


Once your piping is made, then you have it ready to put into your garment. I felt that having black piping would be a really nice accent to the detail of the glasses on the Echino buck.


When I attached the piping to the hem, I decided just to use an overlock stitch and sew it straight onto the raw edge of the main skirt, without turning up the pink fabric first. Hopefully after washing it doesn’t fray too much.

I think if I had had more time and patience today with it, I would have done that extra step of finishing the hem to make sure. However, Leif has had a fever for the past two days and threw up a couple times, so this finishing up of the dress was done in between taking care of him and doing loads of laundry.  Did you know that I found a pea casing today which had been partially through the digestive system and the washing machine? It was very clean.


This is what it looks like after it is sewn on.

So, I had done MOST of the skirt and then ran out of piping. This was very annoying, I guess I had mis-remembered the skirt circumference. Since putting in the piping had gone so smoothly with the overlock stitch, I thought….COULD I get away with laying in the cord and stitching the bias strip to the hem in one fell swoop?

YES I could. Although I’m not sure I recommend this.  Basically, I cut a new bias strip to the right length, pressed it in half and then sewed it onto the corded strip that I had just left on the machine. I had cut the cord long enough, so I just laid the cord inside the fold and skipped the step of “making” the cord first. When I sewed the strip and cord onto the skirt I essentially created the piping as I was sewing it to the garment.

Mostly I did this because doing anything to the hem of a circle skirt takes FOREVER. I felt like I would never get to the end and that when I looked up Fiona would be 16 years old.  At that point, I was prepared to take the risk of skipping steps.

However, laziness or skipping steps does not pay off when it comes to JOINING the piping. In preparation for the hem work,  I re-read the section on piping from The Sewing Bible, and it talked about carefully abutting the cording so that there is a clean looking join.  So this is a tip I would like to champion.


The book said to unpick  3/4 inch of the sewn part of the cording so that the cord is exposed. BONUS! My skip stepping meant that the cord wasn’t yet stitched to the black bias strip, so I didn’t have to do that, I just stopped stitching it. On the strip you want to join to, you don’t unpick the cord out of it, but you just make sure the piping strip has about 1/4 inch edge NOT sewn to the garment.


You lift the short, sewn corded piping into the “envelope” of the unsewn piping.  Then you trim the exposed cord so that it perfectly abuts the cord of the other side.


Fold over the top of the raw edge of the longer piece, enclosing the joined cord. Tuck under so it looks nice and even (I used the tip of my seam ripper to help with this) and stitch in place.


There- see that nice joined seam! Looks pretty good and it wasn’t that hard.  Also, note my nice soft tiny hand.  Ok, that isn’t my hand, Leif reached up to mess with the sewing machine right when I took that picture.

Guess what. I was lazy and didn’t take the time to unpick, trim, fold, stitch etc. etc. when I joined the piping on the bodice. Probably because I was trying to finish in time, or Leif was climbing on my lap trying to nurse on me (it happens), my sewing machine was malfunctioning again, or I was feeling guilty for sewing when kids needed me.  I honestly have no memory of doing this, but I know I did it, so here is the ugly proof:



See that! What is that?!! That ugly bulb where I must have squashed the two pieces together, closed my eyes and stitched. Even the deer looks disappointed. This was obviously premeditated too because I put it under the armpit area where…of course it wouldn’t be as obvious. However, it really doesn’t take that much more effort to get such a nice looking seam.


Also, as you can see here in the photo, the overlock stitch edge of the piping is turned under and pressed, so only the nice piping shows. I could have stitched it with pink thread all the way around, but I didn’t want it to show. So I just did a little hand-sewing in black thread all around the hem to tack it into place so it doesn’t flip up.  Yes it takes forever, but if you do it while catching up on Project Runway, it’s not so bad.

So there it is, my first experience with the detail of piping. It was less intimidating than I thought it was– just as time consuming– but I feel the finished look of a garment with piping is worth the extra effort. I’m glad I can add this to a technique I have successfully implemented and look forward to using piping again!

Next project: Fiona’s Bento box lunch sack & finishing the Flamenco bags!