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Failure before Success...

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

I'm constantly seeing quotes on Pinterest about how you can't succeed without failure. How many posts are out there that talk about just how epic-ally you can fail? I'm not sure, I don't know that I've seen many aside from a cute anecdote in an article about someone who is now successful. I'm working on being successful, but I'm not there yet, so let's talk about my failure; it all came together in the end, but for several months it was the gift that would NOT stop giving.

Several years ago I was hired to make the skating dresses for a synchronized skating team; I had a few skating dresses under my belt at that time and it was a win-win, the team got custom dresses at a reasonable price and I got to gain some more experience in making those dresses while also getting paid. It all went well at first, the design was approved, the girls' measurements had been taken and the fabric was ordered. I altered all the patterns and got to sewing so that they would be ready in time for the first fitting.

My impromptu model trying on one of the newly completed dresses.

The first fitting date arrives and the team shows up in the locker room to try on their dresses. This is when it starts going bad, I don't have a dress for one of the skaters because I didn't clarify the name of the girl who left the team and no longer needed a dress. I had made enough dresses, just the wrong dress for the wrong girl. I pretended that that last dress was for the remaining skater even though it wasn't her size. You know what though? That didn't even matter because most of the girls' dresses didn't fit. It hadn't occurred to me that these were adolescent girls going through some crazy growth spurts in the 1-2 month time span that I had been making the dresses. Imagine a young teen girl who is now so tall and lanky that her skirt hits her thighs at least 10 inches higher than everyone else's. Or the smallest girl on the team that I mentally called "peanut" because her dress was so small, only for her to show up and me think that she must be a completely different girl because that cute little dress I made didn't even come close to fitting her. It was a disaster and I quickly made up a game in my head called "musical dresses".

"Oh that one is too small? Here, try this one."

"Yes, I see that that skirt is way too short, how many inches have you grown this year? Wow, that many? Don't worry, I'm going to take a couple of new measurements and make sure your skirt (and sleeves) are long enough."

"No, no, that's ok... yes, I can see that the entire shoulder seam has come out, that will be all taken care of before the final fitting."

Oh, did I not mention that the dresses were also falling apart at the seams? They were. The bodices were all piece work made of stretch lycra and stretch mesh and I hadn't yet learned that you should anchor every seam junction because those dresses undergo a lot of pressure. Skating dresses aren't just beautiful, they are intense athletic wear.

An example of the piecework on the bodice.

As if that wasn't all bad enough, then the coaches arrived. This was my first experience with coaches, no one had told me that they get final say (in most circumstances) and they wanted changes. First, they were unhappy that I had applied sequins and rhinestones. The sequins had to go! I know, I know, I am not a huge fan of sequins either, but they are an affordable way to get more sparkle and keep the price point where it needed to be. They agreed they could stay when it became evident that the parents' did not want to pay more money to have the sequins replaced with rhinestones. I could not simply remove the sequins as they were heat set and would have left glue residue on the fabric.

Next, it was the skirt length, "the skirts should hit at the knee in front and be 3-4 inches longer in the back". As it turns out, the final, approved dress design had skirts that were 3-4 inches above the knee in front and were knee length in back, which was what I had made. The coaches were really unhappy about that, especially since there wasn't time to order all new skirt fabric and get the longer skirts added by the deadline (not to mention the additional cost). I learned later that they had been very hands off during the design process and had left it up to the team moms to organize the dresses.

At the end of that first fitting, I took home all of the dresses to be repaired along with notes about the additional 5 that needed to be made because, "musical dresses" can only get you so far. I still have a couple of the leftover dresses hanging out in my studio if anyone is interested. No? Ok, then.

Flash forward 2 weeks to the final fitting: all seams have been repaired and anchored, the additional fabric had been ordered and over-nighted at my expense and the additional 5 dresses had been made. The skaters had been notified to arrive X amount of time before practice for the final fitting. They had also been notified that anyone who did not turn up for the final fitting accepted their dress as is. Most of the girls turned up and all of their dresses looked great, however, I was surprised at the number of girls who did not. I had already been paid in full, so after the window had closed and practice had started, I went home.

And that's it, right? Wrong. I mean, this gift really kept giving. I received an email about one of the dresses, the girl's mother let me know that her daughter wasn't happy with the fit of it and was refusing to wear it even though they hadn't turned up for the final fitting. I kindly explained to her that by not turning up for the final fitting, they had accepted the dress as is and that I would not be making an additional trip for further alterations (the team skated in a different city from where I live). I did offer to make an appointment with them if they were willing to come to me, which they weren't. The only other option at that point was to offer her a choice of one of the leftover dresses to see if she liked the fit of those any better. They decided to go that route. The kicker? The girl chose a dress that was the exact same size as the dress she already had.

I attended the first show that the team skated in that year and the dresses looked so pretty on the ice. It was fun to see the girls enjoy wearing them as well. Would I do it again? Enough time has passed that I can now say yes, but I'm also better prepared than I was those years ago.

What I learned:

  1. I didn't ask enough questions - I should have asked about the sequins ahead of time, had I known the coaches would be opposed I wouldn't have added them, the dresses would have just had less sparkle since rhinestones can get so expensive. We had no conversations about what the embellishments should look like or consist of.

  2. I needed to be more careful with my record-keeping - There should have never been a dress mix-up like there was. This experience taught me to double check any changes or discrepancies before proceeding.

  3. Make sure that the coaches have reviewed (and approved) the final design. The moms did a great job, but I don't think that any of us anticipated the feedback or changes that they requested.

  4. Anticipate growth - I've gotten really good at finding ways to build in extra space to accommodate a growing skater.

  5. ANCHOR THE SEAMS - Seriously, no skating dress leaves my studio until I've confirmed that this has been done. I glued/fray checked the serger threads for most of these dresses just because I couldn't easily reach some of the seams without sewing through the dress lining as well. That probably would have been ok, but I wanted to keep the clean appearance. Now I use a straight stitch to anchor the serged seam to the dress, it gives the junction areas more support and puts less pressure where seams tend to pull apart or pop.

The Wins: Believe me, at the time I felt like the biggest, suckiest loser seamstress out there, my pride took a huge hit and I couldn't wait to be done with the job. It is a terrible feeling to have. BUT, there were a few things I took away from this experience that I am proud of.

  1. I didn't miss the deadline, even with an additional 5 dresses; they were all delivered on time, as promised.

  2. My skater information forms were exactly what I needed to keep the girls' information organized. They were just a simple half page form created in excel that had areas for all of their measurements and any misc. info/notes that I needed.

  3. Adding hang tags was invaluable - Trying to keep track of that many dresses, many of which are very similar in size was not easy until I decided to add a hang tag to each dress with the skater's name. I removed the hang tags before delivery. You can buy a hang tag gun on Amazon pretty cheaply and they really do come in handy.

  4. Having extra fabric - Because hey, you never know when you will need 5 more dresses. Actually, it helped that I had extra, really I only ended up being short on the stretch mesh for the skirts.

  5. Sticking to my guns - After everything that happened I'm surprised that I didn't make an exception for the additional fitting. By that point I had hit my limit and was annoyed that they had not attended the final fitting. Plenty of advance notice had been given and no one reached out to me prior to let me know they couldn't make it. Saying no can be really hard, even when it needs to be said.

  6. I didn't break down and lose it at the fitting, but I'm sure they could see I was on the verge. I can't say enough good things about those supportive moms, kindness is everything.

Wow, that was a long post, if you stuck it out to the bitter end, thank you so much for reading and re-living one of my most trying jobs. I can (sort of) laugh about it now.

The team prior to their first skate in the dresses.

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