This is the first post in a series about something we all know about but nobody talks about:
Yes there’s nothing quite like cutting into $120 a yard fabric and realizing you just goofed up! But rather than living in fear of mistakes and procrastinating projects to avoid mistakes, I’ve learned to embrace them as sort of a form of creativity. Some of my best ideas have come from figuring out a way to fix some mistake!
My mother always said to quit while you’re ahead, meaning when you start to get tired or make small mistakes, put it away for the day. Take a break. Sewing when you’ve had enough leads to more mistakes. But even if you are at the top of your game, they still happen sometimes!
That said, I’d like to start off with a project where I did actually cut into $120 per yard fabric and realized I just messed up. Big time! I ordered the embroidered silk taffeta from Ebay to make a 1760’s waistcoat, which is a LONG waistcoat. So it’s going to take a little more than a yard of length to do this. I am pretty sure I originally ordered 2 yards. Lining up pre-embroidered fabric is a royal pain in the ass – it is rarely setup to make mirror images since it is made for the decorator market. So I usually cut out the first side and then turn it right side down and try to line it up on the remaining fabric. Works great as long as you remember to turn it right side down! I laid the piece on the fabric right side up and ended up with two left sides.
There was no way to cut another piece since the mistaken left side came right out of the middle. I didn’t want to spend another $240 so I ordered one more yard, knowing that I would not be able to cut one entire left front out of it. Why is this OK? Piecing!
Piecing is a period correct way to deal with fabric shortages. Basically you join two pieces of fabric together in an invisible way or in a place where it will not be noticed.
My fabric is very busy which makes piecing easier. The important thing is to match the pattern carefully. I was able to cut a right front that matched up OK with the left front with only a small bit on the shoulder missing.
First I cut out the large piece of the waistcoat right front (shown above) and then I located a smaller piece of scrap fabric that matched the pattern. I folded under the raw edge of this smaller piece and pinned it on top of the waistcoat right front, matching the pattern as closely as possible:
Fold under bottom of the piece and line up the pattern – pin in place. I then put the right side down on top of the left side again and cut out around the pieced shoulder.
Unless you look really, really close, it is impossible to tell the front of the waistcoat was pieced:
What to do with the extra expensive fabric? I will probably make him a 1770’s waistcoat out of it as well. Being much shorter, I can use the incorrectly cut left front and still have enough to cut the right front, even if it is also pieced.
Getting a nice looking en fourreau back is one of the most noticeable struggles when sewing an 18th century gown. Like it or not, you will be judged on the back! For most of the 18th century, the robe a l’anglaise, English gown, or English nightgown was cut with a one piece back. The back is then pleated onto the lining, usually in 4 pleats that taper in towards the waistline. These pleats must be hand tacked to the lining before the sides of the gown are sewn.
I recently made up two test dresses to fit two different patterns that are on the market right now. The first is Larkin & Smith English Gown:
I have to say this pattern has THE BEST instructions I have ever seen in a pattern, historical or otherwise. It is like getting a workshop in a pattern!
The other pattern is Reconstructing History’s Open Robe Anglais pattern:
This pattern has some unique features that are not available in other 18th century costume patterns, such as the robings and bottom center fronts that nearly meet. This is PERFECT for early 18th century – 1740’s (think Outlander) and I don’t think there is any other pattern out there that has these features. The sleeves are also very wide, suitable for early 18th century. If you want to make a gown for 1750’s or 1760’s (or later) use a sleeve from a different pattern – I used JP Ryan’s English Nightgown as I already have that pattern fit to myself. Interestingly, the pleating template for this gown’s back is more suitable for 1770’s-1780’s and I will explain why in a moment, just stick with me here. It is hard to make one pattern to cover every little style change over the course of 80 years, so you have to know the style changes and know what time period you want to recreate, and mix and match patterns accordingly.
The pleating pattern from Larkin & Smith is spot on for mid 18th century.
My research in online images from museum costume collections (The Met Museum and Victoria & Albert primarily) and the opinions of many other experienced 18th century seamstresses is this: the width of the pleats for both the robe a l’anglaise / English Gown and robe a la francaise (Sacque Gown) became more narrow as the century progressed. This includes both the pleats in the back – en fourreau back and watteau pleats – and the pleats in the skirts. That said, the size of the skirt pleats is wider depending on how heavy the fabric is. Wool or heavy brocade is around an inch while chintz gowns are more like 3/4 inch and then thin silk taffeta gowns of the later 18th century can be as small as 1/4 inch. However, the fabrics also tended to get lighter as the century wore on, although much older fabric was also remade to update the look. So this trend isn’t 100% – it is just a guideline. Here are some illustrations:
And here is a comparison for the English Gowns:
By the 1780’s some gowns were being made with separate gowns and skirts, often with a deep V in the center back. It is not easy to tell from a full length photo if the gown has very tiny pleats that face the CB, as the yellow example above has, or if the skirt and gown are separate pieces entirely:
Having done the research, on to the sewing!
The Red Dress was inspired by this:
I just lucked into some dark red print cotton while shopping on Etsy one day, and decided to make this. The original is a wool/silk blend, but my dress is cotton. I used the Reconstructing History pattern for this because it has both the narrow center front and the one piece front – the shoulder strap is cut out with the front, and it only has one seam where it joins the back. There is less margin for fitting this way but I found it was pretty easy to fit just tweeking the back seams. I did not have enough fabric to make a petticoat, so the petticoat and stomacher are made from cream colored cotton matelasse.
For the second dress I used a dark purple fabric with a small woven stripe in it – it is a cotton / linen blend. In 18th century terms this fabric was known as fustian. I did have enough fabric for a petticoat front (the back being made from a similar colored linen) but I wore it first with a stomacher and petticoat made from linen embroidered with a pattern that imitates tambour embroidery.
The Larkin & Smith pattern instructions tell you to use pins to mark the pleats, and then remove the template without moving the pins, but I have used tailor’s chalk for marking these pleats for years without any problems. Just to be on the safe side, I put the line just slightly on the underside of the pleat, and overlap the second line enough to hide the chalk, if there is any left by the time I am done handling it. Use whichever method works best for you.
So the first thing I did was sew the center back seams per the pattern instructions, and then lay the pleating template from each on top, and marked the pleats. Then using my fingers, I finger press the fold line for each pleat.
Once the pleats are all pinned in, it is time to fit to the back lining. You want to sew the back lining together at the center back, but not at the side seams or the shoulder strap. Line them up with the center backs together. It helps to stick a pin up inside the seams to match them perfectly, then pin in place.
Once they are pinned the next step is to “stitch in the ditch”, meaning sew the back and lining together through the center back seams. Sewing it this way will make the seam invisible. Do this before beginning to stitch the pleats down, or you risk having the lining shift on you.
Now we are ready for the real fun, sewing the pleats down! First smooth the lining down and pin it through both layers in a few places to prevent shifting. You can use a running stitch to secure the pleats, but I prefer to use a narrow prick stitch. I find it is nearly invisible if done carefully enough. If you are really accurate and not as worried about authenticity, you can machine top stitch the pleats down 1/16 of an inch from the edge. But I don’t recommend it. Stop stitching just below the waistline. This is indicated on the pattern(s).
To do the prick stitch, come up through from the back so you are just barely catching the edge of the pleat, and then go down just over the edge of the pleat:
Move down 1/8 of an inch, rinse, lather, and repeat. I do not tie off between each stitch. When the pleats are sewn down, they look like this on the inside:
Next, trim the fabric along the top and sides so the match the lining. Cut a slightly upward sloping line for top of the skirt panel. Bigger side hoops or pads = more drastic upward slope. The length of the sides of your two skirt panels should match the length of the side back skirt panels. Your pocket slits will be in these seams.
Note: Only cut about 1/2 inch in along the bottom of each side of the lining. This will allow you to sew the side seams. Once the side seams are sewn, sew the skirt fronts to the skirt backs and put in the pocket slits. At that point, it is safe to trim the rest of the bottom lining, to just slightly under the back pleat on each side. Now you are ready to pleat the skirt and attach to the bodice!
Note 2: If I had this to do over, I would make the back of the red lining shorter below the waistline. This deep V would look great with a separate skirt and bodice, but the extreme slope of the back skirt top edge that resulted from this made it REALLY difficult to pleat nicely to the bodice. Note for next time!
I will try to get better photos of the completed dresses next time, but here are two photos of the completed gowns:
As many costumers will tell you, looking at original garments is the best form of learning and inspiration there is. While studying 18th century gowns I found this really interesting example of an 18th century petticoat with adjustable sides. This will allow the petticoat to be worn with different sized hooped petticoats, side hoops, hip pads, or bum roll. Given than petticoats often due double duty with several different outfits, this is a really great feature. So I decided to figure out how to replicate this. Here is the original gown:
Bless whomever took these photos, they included a closeup of the construction details of the petticoat!
There are quite a few take aways from this photo:
They used blue linen for the upper part of the back panel – a great thing to do to save expensive fabric. This will not work for a later century dress worn retroussee (looped up in back) but it is a wonderful hack for gowns mid century or earlier.
The pocket slits are finished with a running stitch.
The waistband is narrow and fastens on the side with a hook and eye. Hooks and eyes were around in the 18th century (and indeed much earlier) but they are not the first thing we think of for 18th century petticoat closures. Most of us are accustomed to having them tie in the front and back. With 18th century originals one must always keep in mind that the Victorians loved to alter these garments and recycle them for fancy dress occasions, but blowing this up very large it doesn’t appear to me that the waistband has been altered. It looks like the back is made from the same linen as the back panel, and the front is made from the same silk that was used to trim the gown. It is likely there is an identical fastening on the other side, but we don’t know for sure from the picture.
The skirt in the front and back is sewn into the waistband, but the sides are narrow hemmed and have a drawstring. The change happens approximately where the skirt support meets the hip.
The drawstrings emerge from either side of the pocket slit.
After putting the petticoat on, the sides can be drawn in or let out to make them hem horizontal.
I planned two petticoats to be worn with several different mid century and later gowns, so they will be my guinea pigs in working out the details of this waist treatment. One is embroidered linen that looks like tambour, and the other is cotton matelasse. Cotton matelasse is a woven fabric with texture that is a pretty good fake for quilted fabric, so many of us use it to make “faux” quilted petticoats. I used the Charleston Oyster colorway, the maker is Pindler & Pindler, from The Online Fabric Store:
This type of fabric is also available from big box stores like Jo Ann Fabrics, but the patters are less elaborate and they tend to have some synthetic content. But I have used them before with perfectly acceptable results. The Pindler & Pindler is 100% cotton but is more expensive than Jo Ann’s.
You really don’t need a pattern to make a petticoat! The main measurement you need is how long you want the petticoat to be in front, which will of course depend on how tall you are (with shoes) and how long you want it to be. 18th Century petticoats can be anywhere from ankle length to mid calf. Work and everyday petticoats would be shorter than formal gown petticoats. To this measurement add the hem at the bottom (I used a 1 1/2″ hem) and 1/2″ seam allowance at the top, AND extra length for the sides and backs. I have found that 3″ is enough to accommodate the underpinnings I wear. So that is 35″ (my finished front length) plus 1.5″ hem plus .5″ seam allowance plus 3″ for the back is 40″. Unless the fabric is really narrow (less than 45″) I use 2 lengths of fabric, so I cut 2 panels of fabric 40″ long.
Next, fold the front panel in half and scoop out 3″ from the center front TOP, tapering to nothing at the sides. This keeps the pattern of the fabric straight along the hem.
Next, sew the two sides seams leaving about 8″ for the pocket slits on each side, and hem the bottom of the skirt. Now you have a big tube, all ready for pleating. Pleat the center front and center back to the approximate point where your skirt widening device (bum roll, hip pad, etc) meets your leg:
Now sew the pleats down using the 1/2″ seam allowance:
Here is the linen petticoat with the pleats sewn down:
And the rest of the cat ….
Then I made a cut 1/2″ in right next to the pleated section. This will allow me to turn down the seam allowance and make a casing for the drawstrings on the sides:
Next, fold the seam allowance for the side casings down and sew to create the casing for the drawstrings. Since my fabric is very thick, I zig-zagged the raw edges and just turned it down once. If your fabric is medium or light thickness you can turn down 1/4″ twice to make a neater casing.
Next I threaded some narrow 1/4″ grosgrain ribbon through each casing and stitched it down firmly where the casing ends and the waistband begins.
Since I am using a 3/4″ linen tape for the wasitband, I trimmed the seam allowance down to 1/4″.
Time to apply the waistband! If you are not using a finished tape, sew the waistband on normally. Since I am using the tape, I sewed the tape to the back side first, then the front, so that errant seam lines would not show on the front. This can also be applied by hand for a truly authentic finish.
I did not put a hook and eye on both sides, so the right side just has the waistband sewn in half where the casing begins.
On the left side, I turned the ends of the casing in 1/4″ and sewed them together:
Completed left side fastening of waistband.
Finally, I sewed a hook and eye on the left side. Gathering up and tying the side casings, it looks like the original!
A mini-post for sure this is, but it is so smart I just had to post it! When making a chemise, drawers, or a dress from a very thin diaphanous fabric (think: voile) you need to use a French seam so that your garment seams don’t unravel. With very thin fabric the seams are often slightly visible from the outside and the French seam looks very neat. However they are a PITA. You first sew the seam wrong sides together, press, trim the seam allowance (hard to do evenly), fold the remaining seam allowance to the inside, and sew again. Then press, again!
Here is a great tip from the Martha Pullen newsletter than landed in my inbox this morning: serger enabled French seams!
Three-thread rolled hem Stitch length: about 2.0 Differential feed: .7 to 1 (normal)
1) Place the fabrics wrong sides together and serge using a rolled hem (L=2.0) (fig. 1
2) Fold the fabrics, right sides together with the serged seam along the fold.
3) Using a straight stitch (L=2.0) by sewing machine (and a pintuck foot, edge joining foot or baby piping foot), stitch against the serged seam. (fig. 2). This stitch will enclose the serged seam between the two fabric layers creating a very small French seam. According to the foot being used, adjust the needle position as needed to stitch close to the serged seam.
No seam trimming! It goes without saying that the serger thread color needs to match your fabric – not a problem with white fabric!
For years I didn’t think I needed a serger for historical sewing, but they are actually wonderful for making ruffles (very even and VERY fast) and flat lining, among other things.
Metal eyelets did not appear until the second quarter of the 19th century – before that, eyelets were hand sewn with thread. Here is a great tutorial on making hand sewn thread eyelets.
However if you are like me, you are always looking for ways to use technology to make this easier and faster. I discovered this great accessory for my sewing machine that allows me to make thread eyelets. This product is for Husqvarna Viking but I would be surprised if similar accessories are not available for other sewing machine companies, especially more expensive brands like Babylock, Pfaff, etc.
Here is the eyelet plate installed on my Husqvarna Designer Diamond. It comes in 4mm and 6 mm sizes – I find the 4mm to be the best size for corset eyelets. When using the eyelet plate, the feed dogs must be lowered in the machine’s settings.
In a nutshell, you are going to set the machine to a basic zig zag stitch and then rotate the fabric around the eyelet plate as you sew. The width of the zig zag stitch can vary depending on how thick the fabric is. I always do a test eyelet on scrap fabric from the project first, but usually the stitch width is between 4 and 4.5mm.
First, mark the placements of your eyelets. This can be done with a regular ruler, or with an expanding ruler (one of my favorite tools):
For the examples I am using green thread on white fabric to make it easier to see, but in practice you would use thread to match the fabric.
Next, using an awl, work a hole in the fabric for the eyelet, just big enough to fit around the eyelet plate:
Now begin sewing – slowly! I usually go around the hole quickly as a first pass, and then go around a second time more slowly to fill in. But in this example I just began sewing so that it is easier to see how the thread is sewn around the eyelet hole:
Here are the front and back appearances of the eyelet: