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Getting Started In Historical Costuming Series #1 – Choose One Historical Period to Begin

I am getting asked this question a lot, which means it is time for a series of posts on this subject.

I am limiting the scope of the information to historical costuming – it is not the only type of costuming out there!  There is Steam Punk, Cosplay … many variations and some crossover.  But to keep things simple, I’ll stick to historical costuming, which means (to me at least):

The design and creation of clothing that is a historically accurate reproduction of clothing worn during a known period of history.

There is a lot of wiggle room here – we all differ on our definitions of historically accurate, sometimes even from one project to the next.  It is also an ongoing process of discovery.  Especially with the availability of quality images of museum collections online, we are always learning something new.  This quality and quantity of information did not exist when I began over 25 years ago.

So, you want to start?  First Question: What historical period do you want to start with?

You may be like me and answer “all of the above”.  But realistically you have to start with one.  This choice will be part personal preference and part opportunity; some historical periods have more resources available than others.  It is not much fun to sew outfits and have nowhere to wear them.  You will want to consider groups that already exist for the periods are interested in.  

Reenacting vs Costuming

The easiest people to find in most places are the reenactors.  I am including volunteer interpreters at historical sites in this group because both of them have interests beyond just costuming.  Reenacting is focused on re-creating a specific war, while historical sites interpret a period of history that is relevant to their site.  In both cases the costuming is part of the larger goal, so if you join one of these types of groups you must remember that. For this to be a good experience you need to be interested in more than just the clothing.  It may be military history, home making practices, schools, or other institutions and situations.  Read the websites and other materials put out by the group and only join it if you feel their interests and missions are compatible with your own.

These groups have their own mixes of personalities.  Some are very welcoming to newcomers and others can be downright catty and mean.  Spend some time with them before you commit and make sure their goals and group culture are a good fit for you.  Nobody should make you feel bad because you are a beginner, or want something different from what they do – we were all beginners once.  If you encounter people like that, run and don’t let them steal your joy!

I started with a Civil War Reenactment unit.  It is the most popular reenactment period so it is not difficult to find a group to join.  Since then my interests have changed and now I belong to a French and Indian / War of 1812 group.  If you go this route, keep in mind that your group will have its own standards and you will need to work within those guidelines.  Reenactment groups involve a lot of other activities – like camping – and usually travel.  You will need to buy additional gear to participate fully – eating utensils, plates, mugs, tents, camp equipment, weapons, etc.  I personally do not like camping and always stay in a nearby hotel.  In camp, I represent a seamstress and that is how I get a lot of my hand sewing done!  If it is a large event and I am going shopping, I can dress as a fine lady without looking out of place. 

If war is not your thing, volunteering with one of your local historical sites is a good way to go.  You will not need to buy a ton of gear other than a few personal items for your impression.  You will need to fit in to and enhance their program in some way – it is not fair to expect them to just give you an opportunity to dress up.  However, many of them welcome costumed guests on their main event days, just be sure to check ahead of time.  If you do come as a costumed guest, please wear an outfit of the right period.  Don’t stick out like a sore thumb in a Civil War dress at Rev War living history day.  They will not welcome you if you detract from their event.

Decide Who You Are

Before you can start to narrow down your choices further, you will need to have an idea of the type of person you want to portray.  If you are fascinated by period laundry techniques and want to develop a laundry display, you will not need a wardrobe of ball gowns!  Some of us (myself included) go at this backwards and decide to portray a certain type of person BECAUSE we want to make a certain outfit.  But in order for that to work, you have to have a good idea of what venues are available and what their requirements are, so that you do not find out $2500 in that your group does not want a Victorian ballet dancer.

Beyond that, having an idea of who you are portraying will give you some targets to go after as far as fabric and trim choices, accessories, etc.  It will narrow you choices and help you focus, and help you avoid buying a lot of things that you like individually, but don’t go together well.

Costuming for Its Own Sake

If you are lucky, there may be groups in your area specifically for historical costuming, a gathering place for those who want to make and wear historical clothing for its own sake.  They can have their own events, join with other sites’ events, or even have timeline events where people can wear clothing from more than one period to one event.   There is a national group, The Costume Society of America (if you are not in the US check for a similar umbrella organization for your country).  Check to see if they have a regional group near you.  There are also large single events dedicated to costuming like Costume College – a great opportunity to learn and show off that outfit from a period you cannot find anywhere else to wear!

1690’s Gown – Not Many Places to Wear!

If there isn’t a costume group in your area, you can always start one!  I did this and now we have the Pittsburgh Historical Costume Society.  Here is a great blog post on how to start a group from American Duchess – Where to Wear – How To Throw Your Own Costume Events

STOP!  Do Some Research and/or Find a Mentor

You will need to decide how historically accurate you want to be, based on the guidelines of your reenacting unit/historical site and your own personal preference.  There is a huge market out there for “costume” historical wear and I use the term in the worst sense – “costume” as in Halloween!  Some of it is even sold at larger reenactments and other places you would expect there to be some standards.  This is why it is a good idea to spend time researching before spending any money.  Buy or borrow some good books on your chosen time period.  See if your reenacting unit / historical society has information for new members.  Look at images of original garments online (Met Museum and V&A are two of my favorites).  There are also great Pinterest boards out there – just make sure they are pinning originals and not copies sold on Ebay or Etsy.  Not that there are not good vendors out there, but to learn you want to look at originals. 

My Pinterest Boards – Original garments only

Movie costumes are great eye candy but are often wildly inaccurate and are not recommended for learning the ropes UNLESS you are going to an event that is into fantasy or movie costuming, like Costume CON.

If you show up at a Civil War Reenactment in this, you might be shot on sight.
If you show up at a Civil War Reenactment in this, you might be shot on sight.

Ideally have a mentor, or at least an active online group focused on your chosen time period, to go for advice.  You will have lots of questions!   When you go shopping at a large event, take your mentor with you for advice before you buy anything.  Garb is expensive and it is no fun to find out later that the item you bought is historically inaccurate and now you are too embarrassed to wear it!   It is better to attend a few events in street clothes and go slowly rather than have this experience.

Next Post in the Series – Make It or Buy It?

18th Century Sewing Kit

A great thing to do at events is sit and sew!  Period correct activity + getting your hand sewing tasks done – what more could you ask for?  Add to this the endless problem of how to carry around all of your stuff – some of it modern that must be kept out of view – I decided it was time to put some more thought and effort into this.  I have a reproduction sewing box, but it is large and bulky to carry around.  I need something that fits in my carry all basket.

Work Bag, Pin Cushion, and Housewife   Looking around on the internet and Etsy for inspiration, I decided to make a work bag, a pin cushion, and a housewife sewing kit all with the same fabric remnant I bought years ago.  I found it on Ebay – SO SAD I was never able to find any more of it – like an entire bolt for a gown … Lucky for me it matched some silk I already had in the stash.

Nevertheless, I thought it would make a beautiful housewife, which is a sewing kit that folds up.  And is incidentally also good at holding cash, credit cards, and your driver’s license (he he).

The Housewife: has a space for scissors, two pockets, and a needle book.

There are a lot of ways to make these and different options.  Some have a pin cushion built into the housewife but I decided to make mine separately to make it less bulky.  I had a pattern which I adapted, since I wanted at least two pockets and a needle book.  The needle book is just 3 pieces of wool broadcloth trimmed to size with pinking shears and sewn down.  All of the pockets and accessory holders were sewn to the silk lining, then the lining was sewn to the outside cover and turned right sides out, and slip stitched closed.

The only thing I bought are some of the accessories!

Beeswax, Scissors, Bodkin, Stiletto, Tape Measure, and Thimble.

I had the beeswax  – which honestly will probably just be loose in the work bag – and the thimble.  The scissors, bodkin, and stiletto I ordered from Burnley and Trowbridge, the adorable hand labeled tape measure came from Fashionable Frolic on Etsy.

The Tools: Thimble, Tape Measure, Beeswax, Stiletto, Scissors, Bodkin.

What are they you ask?

  • Thimble – put over your finger to prevent the needle from poking holes in your finger.  Happens a lot if you don’t use one.
  • Tape Measure – measuring things, obviously.
  • Beeswax – running the thread through this before sewing helps avoid tangles.
  • Stiletto – for making holes in things.  Specifically, hand made eyelets.
  • Scissors – cutting stuff.
  • Bodkin – for lacing ties through casings, ribbon in insertion lace, etc.

This, plus some needles, a few pins, and a project – are the basics of a hand sewing kit.

Pins – speaking of, here is my matching pin cushion that has an attached ribbon so you can pin it to your apron or skirt.  In the 18th century pins are for more than just sewing.  Women’s clothing was held on primarily through ties and pins.  So you never leave home without extra pins!

And to hold it all, plus cell phone, head phones, car keys, etc is the work bag:

Work bag – just a draw string bag with a lining!

So now I am ready for some hand sewing this weekend!

Work Bag, Pin Cushion, and Housewife

Civil War Wardrobe Malfunction! Period Underwear Can Be Hazardous … Period

This story is entirely to disgusting and bizarre not to share so … you’ve been warned!

This past weekend I attended the first annual Civilian Civil War Weekend in Capon Spring, VA.   It is an exceptional event that will be happening again next year!  And they bear no responsibility in the events that follow …

I must first explain that due to some unbelievably bad timing, as soon as I pulled in the parking lot on Tursday evening, I discovered I had gotten my monthly bill, fallen off the roof, or had a visit from Aunt Martha – however you want to put it.  I have never had this experience while dressed in period clothes thankfully, and I hope never to again!  

Really, I am too old for this shit.

Friday night was OK since we were only dressed for a few hours.  Saturday?  Not so much.

I arrived back in my room Saturday afternoon to take care of business.  I found doing that – while wearing a corset and cage crinoline, plus 2 starched petticoats, drawers, and a dress – to be pretty near impossible.  I also discovered that my cage, being a good many years old, had gotten rough around the edges a few places.  While engaged in aforementioned battle, I scraped the back of my hand on a sharp piece of metal in my cage and ended up with a nice gash right below my thumb.  I will spare you pictures of this.

So there I am, thankfully in my room, trapped on the can and bleeding out of both ends like a stuck pig!  I couldn’t get up or try to get undressed without bleeding seeming endless yards of fabric, so I had no choice but to sit there and apply pressure to the cut with toilet paper.  It took 30 minutes, more or less, for the cut to finally stop bleeding.  At which point I started carefully removing garments, still having to stop every few minutes and re-apply pressure as the cut would start bleeding again if I got too vigorous with the undressing.

This took yet another half hour.  By then I was back in normal underwear and had washed off blood from the hem of my dress which got dripped on while I was getting my maimed hand out from under my skirt.  Really I was surprised it wasn’t worse!  I called my husband .  I was ready at that point to chuck everything in the car and just go the hell home.

Fortunately he talked me out of it and suggested I take a nap instead.  Which I did, and by then the cut was more stable and I was able to get dressed for the ball that evening, albeit slowly ,and make my way to the front desk where I got a band aid to ensure that I didn’t bleed on Grandma Anderson’s last pair of clean white kid gloves.  

Ready for the ball at Civilian Civil War Celebration, Capon Springs WV.

I missed dinner but that turned out to be no problem since there was plenty of food and drink at the ball.  Turns out it was one of the nicest balls I have been too in a long time!  It had everything you could want:

Food
Alcohol
Water
Alcohol
Lemonade
Alcohol
Caller who could be heard clearly
Alcohol
Logical order to dances so that you are learning new steps gradually
Alcohol
Enough people mixed in who know what they are doing so that as soon as someone gets that WTF look, intervention occurs.

I am very glad I didn’t give in to PTSD and leave early.

Fixing Mistakes – Piecing!

This is the first post in a series about something we all know about but nobody talks about:

FIXING MISTAKES

Now what????

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. 

Blah!

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.

Left Front – whole and cut out correctly.

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.

Laying left front right side down onto new piece of fabric – now I can see where to piece.

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.

New right side with pieced shoulder pinned in place.
Getting ready to slip stitch piece with matching silk thread.
Closeup of pinned join.
Starting to slip stitch join by hand.
Tiny slip stitches to the right of the green leaf are nearly invisible. I used matching green thread to tack the leaf.
Finished join – front.
Finished join – back.  The last thing I did was trim the extra fabric so that the seam allowances on the pieces were about the same.

Unless you look really, really close, it is impossible to tell the front of the waistcoat was pieced:

Bill is on the right wearing the pieced waistcoat.

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.

Battle Of The Stays: RESULTS!

Phew that took a long time!  The worst part of making stays?  Binding.  Ugh took forever!  But they are finally done and photographed.  Photographing them was almost as much work as making them.  The photos were taken in two different sessions with helpers and with a selfie stick, so the hair and chemise change sometimes.  I learned a lot about how to do (mediocre) photo shoots though!  But here it is – a comparison between four different 18th century stays patterns.

I am a modern size 14/16 so this gives a good idea how these patterns will look on  the average lady of today.  Compared to the standard measurements of these patterns, I am slightly longer waisted between waist and bust, and slightly shorter waisted from bust to hip (details like that matter when making corsets).  My waist is wider than the assumed waist on the patterns because I am apple shaped, so I sized the pattern using bust size.  I am reduced three inches which is about the maximum for most 18th century stays.  They are not really designed for tight lacing.

High Level Comparisons

Stays: Larkin & Smith, Reconstruction History Front & Back Lacing, Reconstructing History 1790’s, JP Ryan Diderot Stays

Contestant # 1  Larkin & Smith Front and Back Lacing Stays

Larkin and Smith Front and Back Lacing Stays

I have worn these to several events and they are VERY comfortable!  Great for most of the 18th century, these will get you through both the French & Indian and Rev war (unless you are going super high style, then use the Contestant #4 JP Ryan stays).  These are easy to get on and off and give me a nice (as can be expected) figure.  The inner layers are cotton canvas and the outer covering is red silk; construction notes can be found here.  This pair is boned with synthetic whalebone, which is very light weight and thin.  It was also very easy to work with.  I highly recommend this pattern if this is your first pair of stays or if you only plan to make one pair.  The pattern is worth its weight in gold just for the amazing instructions!  Once you go through them, you can use the method on any pair of stays, including diagrams from costume books.  They are easy to fit, and stays without shoulder straps are easier to move around in.  Front lacing makes it so much easier to put them on and take them off by yourself.  Most of us don’t have ladies maids so this is an important consideration.  Here is how they turned out:

Front of red silk Larkin & Smith Stays – I thought about binding them in black but ended up using self fabric.  I like the black lacing which I used because I could not find ribbon in the right color.  Red is red, right?  Not!
Back of red silk Larkin & Smith Stays
Side of red silk Larkin & Smith Stays – pretty straight in front despite fat gut assuming you stand correctly and don’t try to be a fucking fashion model.  These stays have excellent tummy control!
Full side view red silk Larkin & Smith stays – standing straighter.  Boobs look better because I am using a cheat – stick a rolled up pair of socks under each boob.  Not kidding!  Makes a huge difference!  Apples on a tray, people!

Contestant # 2  Reconstructing History Front and Back Lacing Stays

Reconstructing History Stays

This pair of stays is longer than the others, and is boned with reed.  The reed is thicker than the synthetic whalebone, but interestingly my waist measurement ends up exactly the same in this one as the Larkin & Smith stays above.  Go figure!  The bust is two inches smaller as it is a much more long, narrow stay.  Perfect for the first quarter of the 18th century, and surprisingly comfortable!  I was not sure about the reed but it worked out quite well.  My only recommendation is to use steel bones on either sides of the eyelets both front and back.  I did use them in the back, but not in the front.  I could hear them complaining as I laced it up and I had to be careful to tighten it gradually or the reed would have snapped.  The inside layers are cotton canvas and the outer fabric is blue silk brocade.  Construction notes are here.  This pattern has great bang for your buck as you get four different stay designs, including the rare 1790’s stay (Contestant #3 below).  Drum roll please ….

Reconstructing History Blue Silk Brocade Stays Front – no room for “boob socks” in this long lean stay.  They pop out pretty good on their own.
Reconstructing History Blue Silk Brocade Stays Back – sorry this one came loose in back but I was too exhausted by this point to care.  It does lace evenly when one is not being lazy.
Reconstructing History Blue Silk Brocade Stays Side
Reconstructing History Blue Silk Brocade Stays Side – curving out at the bottom due to fat gut, but has a pretty straight line from waist to bust, where it shows.

Contestant # 3  Reconstructing History Wide Front 1790s Stays

Reconstructing History 1790’s Wide Front Stays

These are one of the two pairs of half boned stays, and for half boned stays I use spring steel boning.  The unique thing about these stays is the very wide front.  This is to help create the wide pooched out front bodices of the 1790’s.  They are also much shorter than the other three pair, so they are not as flattering by themselves.  However I do believe they will create the perfect silhouette for the 1790’s, which is not about looking thin!  They are lined with cotton canvas and the other covering is white silk taffeta.  As I plan to wear them under a chemise a la reine I wanted to stick with white that will not show through the thin fabric of the dress.  I cheated and used metal eyelets with cross lacing on these, because I was afraid they would be hard to lace up on me otherwise.  I also discovered that it does much better if I leave off the bottom three eyelets.  I cannot remember if I copied the eyelet placement from the pattern, but most likely not.  You really only need the eyelets to go down a couple of inches below the waist, and the ends – which are really tabs – know what to do.  Construction notes are here.  Without further ado ….

Reconstructing History Wide Front 1790s Stays Front Close Up
Reconstructing History Wide Front 1790s Stays Full Length
Reconstructing History Wide Front 1790s Stays Side – front pooching nicely.  Stuff a fluffy kerchief down the front and yur done.
Reconstructing History Wide Front 1790s Stays Back

Contestant # 4  JP Ryan Half Boned Diderot Stays

JP Ryan Half Boned Stays

This pair of stays is also half boned, and therefore boned with spring steel.  It has cotton canvas as the lining and green silk taffeta for the cover.  Interestingly this pattern has slightly different pieces for the outer layer, but they do fit together correctly.  I love the shape of these stays!  One of the differences between stays in the earlier part of the 18th century vs. stays from the latter quarter is the shape of the front.  Earlier stays have a conical front, that is a straight line from the waist to the top of the bust (tends to curve out a bit at the bottom on me, due to fat gut).  Starting around 1780, the stays began to curve outward from the waist to the bust.  This is most extreme in the example above but this pair is also cut that way, and is perfect for the 1780’s and into the 1790’s (before waistlines started to rise).  They are very comfortable, but somewhat challenging to get on and off by yourself, but it can be done.  I love how long and slimming they are!  They are good at what they do – I feel like I am wearing a lard tutu as it squashes all that fat downwards with great efficiency.  Don’t need as big a bum roll!  I had some fun with this one and the new selfie stick.  Pardon the side shot glasses – I just could not get a decent side view without being able to see.  Construction notes are here.  Last one!

JP Ryan Diderot Green Silk Stays Front
JP Ryan Diderot Green Silk Stays Front with Selfie Stick – you can’t see the lard tutu surprisingly.
JP Ryan Diderot Green Silk Stays Side
JP Ryan Diderot Green Silk Stays Back – lacing nice and even steven.

So there you have it!  Which one is your favorite?

 

Allegheny West Christmas House Tour 2016 – Garnet Bustle Dress Debut

December 10, 216

One of the nicest Victorian Era historic districts around Pittsburgh is Allegheny West.  Originally a different city (Allegheny City) it was built up right after the Civil War and has some really spectacular examples of Italianate and Second Empire stow row houses, and a few giant mansions.  Back in the 1970’s the city was selling them for a dollar.  Not kidding!  A DOLLAR.  My mother wanted to buy one but my dad was like, no way.  Long story short of why I don’t live there.

Anyway!  Lots of people did buy one and now most of the surviving houses are restored.  Many are done with period wall papers and furnishings and they are a delight to see!  Every year, since at least the 1980’s, they have had an annual Christmas House tour where you can see some of the houses.  I thought this sounded like a grand place to go in a bustle dress – they match the houses well!  Being kind of last minute, this year only four of us went, but I hope to make this into an annual event and draw in more people.  We met up with some friends from years ago who have been trying, unsuccessfully, for years to get the home owners to dress up in period costume.  And … they aren’t having it.  So … if you can’t bring Mohammed to the mountain, perhaps we can bring the mountain to Mohammed.

My husband Bill and I with our good friend Christina and Kevin, in front of a decorated mantle.

The rest of our photos were taken in Holmes Hall, a huge Renaissance Revival mansion.  Odd coincidence that back when I was researching how to paint my walls and ceiling for my Renaissance Revival parlor, I ended up using photos of this one as inspiration.

Painted ceiling at Holmes Hall, now owned by John DeSantis.
My painted ceiling and walls. The cat is the reason I painted them instead of using (expensive) wallpaper. She chews wallpaper!

Yes mine is not as elaborate, but even with the simpler design I barely managed to keep ahead of the guy putting up the woodwork, and I had a terrible case of tennis elbow for months afterwards.  But, it is cat proof.

So back to the photos!  I started this bustle dress several years ago as part of Jennifer Rosbrugh’s Bustle Day Dress class.   I got the skirt and overskirt most of the way done, and life intervened, and it sat for another year.  I took the class again this spring and finished most of the dress.  I planned 3 bodices and the first to be completed is the day dress bodice.  More details about the dress can be found in the portfolio page, here.

To say that this place has high ceilings is an understatement!

It was quite cold that and snowed during the tour, so I wore my ermine fur.  It is all antique and was purchased on Ebay.  The cape with lappets came from Scotland and is of 1930’s vintage, I think.  Someone was cleaning out a “Downton Abby” type house and selling all the stuff on Ebay!  There is a smaller wrap over it that is probably Victorian.  I am not sure how old the muff is.  It was all very warm!

Dress with matching hat and ermine fur set.
Closet of ermine set
Side …
And back ….
Closeup of back.
Day dress without fur.
Closeup
Side Back
Back – interesting shot looking in the mirror.
Two shots of Bill and I

 

Part of the fun of putting together an outfit for an event is accessorizing!  In addition to the fur and matching hat, I wore Manhattan button boots from American Duchess, a pair of white kid leather gloves, a set of antique bohemian garnets that belonged to my great grandmother (brooch and earrings), and carried an antique Victorian purse.

Accessories!

I can’t wait for this even again next year!

18th Century Gown En Fourreau Back Tutorial

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:

 

Larkin and Smith English Gown Pattern
Larkin and Smith English Gown Pattern

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:

RH822 – OPEN ROBE ANGLAIS WITH POLONAISE OPTION
RH822 – OPEN ROBE ANGLAIS WITH POLONAISE OPTION

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.

Why?

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:

Saques were pretty much out of style by the 1780's but were still worn for court functions.
Sacques were pretty much out of style by the 1780’s but were still worn for court functions well into the early 1800’s.

And here is a comparison for the English Gowns:

English gowns were in style for nearly the entire 18th century, with pleats and fabric weight getting lighter as the century wore on.
English gowns were in style for nearly the entire 18th century, with pleats and fabric weight getting lighter as the century wore on.

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:

Same yellow gown on the left compared to a gown with a separate bodice and skirt. Hard to tell!
Same yellow gown on the left compared to a gown with a separate bodice and skirt. Hard to tell!
But close up, they are not the same!
But close up, they are not the same!  You can see the seam coming down the center back of the purple stripe gown with no pleats.

Having done the research, on to the sewing!

The Red Dress was inspired by this:

Original red print gown from Victoria & Albert.
Original red print gown from Victoria & Albert.

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.

Pinch, pinch those pleats in!
Pinch, pinch those pleats in!
Here is one pleat pinned, one pinched.
Here is one pleat pinned, one pinched.
Pin those bad boys down, just over the chalk lines!
Pin those bad boys down, just over the chalk lines!
Both purple and red gowns with all four pleats pinned down. The pleats on the red dress are VERY close together - only about 1/8 inch apart. This is a more narrow pleating style from the third quarter of the 18th century.
Both purple and red gowns with all four pleats pinned down. The pleats on the red dress are VERY close together – only about 1/8 inch apart. This is a more narrow pleating style from the third quarter of the 18th century.

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.

Pinning with center back seams aligned.
Pinning with center back seams aligned.

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.

Stitch in ditch is invisible on the front - use thread that matches your fabric.
Stitch in ditch is invisible on the front – use thread that matches your fabric.
Dark thread will show on the lining side.
Dark thread will show on the lining side.

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:

Swing pleats with prick stitch.
Swing pleats with prick stitch.

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:

Since the red dress pleats were only 1/8 apart, I sewed both pleats at the same time. This clearly shows how much wider the purple pleats are.
Since the red dress pleats were only 1/8 apart, I sewed both pleats at the same time. This clearly shows how much wider the purple pleats are.

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.

Inside of gowns with pleats done.
Inside of gowns with pleats done.
Outside of gowns with pleats done.
Outside of gowns with pleats done.

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:

Purple Fustian Gown at Ft Ligonier Days with my good friend Sally (in a silk sacque jacket).
Purple Fustian Gown at Ft Ligonier Days with my good friend Sally (in a silk sacque jacket).
Red Print 1760's Gown
Red Print 1760’s Gown

Battle of the Stays: Contestant #2 Reconstructing History Front and Back Lacing Stays in Light Blue and Gold Brocade

RH Stays_

I also did a mock up of these stays, as they needed a bit of tweeking to fit me.  I made them longer overall, and I had to do some fiddling to get the tabs somewhat even especially using the front lacing option.  There are fewer pieces than the Larkin & Smith stays and none of them have curved 3D boning channels.  That said, I assembled them exactly the same as the previous post.

For these stays I will be using reed boning.  It is shown below on the right in comparison to a piece of synthetic whalebone:

Synthetic Whalebone vs Cane Boning
Synthetic Whalebone vs Cane Boning

The boning is a little thicker than the synthetic whalebone and a little harder to slide into the boning channels.  It does look interesting as it is rounder and has more texture.  It will be interesting to see how it wears in comparison to the synthetic whalebone.

The difference in construction comes at the assembly stage.  Sewing all of the pieces together using a hand whip stitch is a PITA!  So for this pair, I decided to try it using the machine.  So I lined up the pieces, front sides together, but instead of whip stitching I used a 3.5mm machine zig zag stitch – I like how this turned out!  It is much more even than the hand whip stitch so it will be easier to cover with trim.

This is much easier with zig zag ...
This is much easier with zig zag …

Binding is also somewhat simplified, at least for the top of the stays and stomacher – using the cane instead of the reed.  The reed can be sewn through, using a strong enough needle and going very slowly:

Binding the stomacher by machine - the inside will be sewn down by hand.
Binding the stomacher by machine – the inside will be sewn down by hand.  Don’t try this with synthetic whalebone!
Stomacher with binding, ready for hand finishing.
Stomacher with binding, ready for hand finishing.

Let then hand sewing commence!  At this posting, the stomacher and top binding is done.  Binding the bottom, with all the tabs, takes forever but I will do my best to finish this while it is still 2016 and conclude the Battle of the Stays!

Adjustable Side Length Petticoat Tutorial

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:

Blue Robe à la Française at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1760 - 1770
Blue Robe à la Française at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1760 – 1770

Bless whomever took these photos, they included a closeup of the construction details of the petticoat!

Blue Robe à la Française at The Metropolitan Museum of Art showing construction details of petticoat.
Blue Robe à la Française at The Metropolitan Museum of Art showing construction details of petticoat.

There are quite a few take aways from this photo:

  1. 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.
  2. The pocket slits are finished with a running stitch.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. The drawstrings emerge from either side of the pocket slit.
  6. 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:

Pindler & Pindler Cotton Matelasse in Charleston Oyster
Pindler & Pindler Cotton Matelasse in Charleston Oyster

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:

Using the perfect pleater to measure pleats.
Using the perfect pleater to measure pleats.  I love this thing!
Cotton matelasse skirt pleated.
Cotton matelasse skirt pleated.

Now sew the pleats down using the 1/2″ seam allowance:

Sew 'um down!
Sew ‘um down!

Here is the linen petticoat with the pleats sewn down:

Linen petticoat with pleats sewn at 1/2" seam allowance. Pardon cat foot.
Linen petticoat with pleats sewn at 1/2″ seam allowance. Pardon cat foot.

And the rest of the cat ….

Big Mr Red kitty working hard.
Big Mr Red kitty working hard.

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:

Clip the seam allowance right next to the pleated section on each side. That is 4 clips per petticoat.
Clip the seam allowance right next to the pleated section on each side. That is 4 clips per petticoat.

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.

Turn down seam allowance for drawstring casings.
Turn down seam allowance for drawstring casings.
Sew casing for drawstring.
Sew casing for drawstring.

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.

Inserting the drawstring.
Inserting the drawstring.

Since I am using a 3/4″ linen tape for the wasitband, I trimmed the seam allowance down to 1/4″.

Trim that bad boy down to 1/4".
Trim that bad boy 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.

Applying the cotton tape waistband.
Applying the cotton tape waistband.

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.

Right side with no closure.
Right side with no closure.

On the left side, I turned the ends of the casing in 1/4″ and sewed them together:

Fastening side of the waistband (left side) with raw ends turned under.
Fastening side of the waistband (left side) with raw ends turned under.

Completed left side fastening of waistband.

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!

Completed closure, left side.
Completed closure, left side.

 

Thinking of Making A New Chemise This Year? Here’s A Great Tip!

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!

Serger Settings:

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.

Serged French Seams
Serged French Seams

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.