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: