Saturday, December 26, 2020

...And Living and Learning

The other day, a memory popped up on Facebook. Two years ago, Facebook reminded me, I had just completed an 1860s dress made of white Swiss-dot cotton fabric. I knew the dress was flawed, but I was proud of having completed my very first dress and was overall pretty dang pleased with my effort. So I drove up to Gettysburg, to the Victorian Photography Studio, to get a real wet-plate photograph taken. This was the process used at the time of the Civil War and involves standing still for a few seconds as the prepared plate is exposed. Then the plate is dipped in a series of chemicals. The last bath turns the image from a negative to a positive, which is a fun process to watch. It really is like magic.

Anyway, I smiled to see this memory, because I happen to be working on that dress right now. I recently finished a Victorian paletot (I'm sure I will eventually blog about that), and I'd told myself (sternly) that I would go back and fix up a few of my older pieces that needed work before starting something new. This dress was top of the list.

Now, let's start with looking at the photo:

And let's talk about what I got right: firstly, the fabric is lovely. It's a soft, delicate cotton with cute little tufted dots all over ("Swiss dots"). It's period-appropriate. It was a little difficult to work with, but I did a decent job, considering my lack of experience. I also chose a good pattern, the Truly Victorian sheer bodice, and I chose the correct sizing (the beautiful thing about TV patterns is that it gives you instructions for choosing a front and back to better fit your size). So it fits quite well in the back and at the ribcage and waist. I altered the sleeves (they were *way* too long), and the length and puffiness are right. I'm wearing a corset and hoops, and my hair is okay.

Now, let's talk about the things that I improved over the last two years, aside from the dress itself. I altered my hoop skirts to be less A-line and more bell-shaped. I made myself a better, more accurate corset. I improved my hair game (and I now have both a hair net and a bonnet).

Now, let's talk about what was wrong with this dress.

Oh boy. The construction is...not good. I didn't know what to do with the front opening, where the two layers of the bodice and the skirt all come together. The stitching is a bit wonky, and I threw on some pre-bought bias tape here and there. For all that, from about two feet away you can't really tell (especially with a helpful belt hiding it). What you *could* tell, however, was that the shoulder seam was way too high. I ended up with fabric bunched up above my shoulders as if I were constantly shrugging. Also, the skirt was much too long since I'd altered the hoop skirt.

I decided that there was a limit to what work I would do to the dress. The whole thing really needs to be taken apart and put back together, but at that point I might as well make a new dress. I also wanted to preserve this as a "look how far I've come" kind of memento. But I also quite like the dress and wanted to make it wearable. So my efforts have been focused on that. I redid the shoulder seam, bound the neckline, and hemmed the skirt. I ended up taking 7" off the bottom of the skirt, and I decided to use that excess to make ruffles. One row of ruffles has been sewn onto the skirt, and I'm trying to decide whether to add another row (I think I will not). I am going to add a placket to the skirt opening for stability, redo the cuffs (which are a mess), and sew on not-plastic buttons. The rest will just be as it is. I will say that I tried it on after pinning up the hem, adding a belt and bonnet and gloves, and it looks pretty darn good.

When the whole thing is done, I will share the result here.


I've finished the refurbishment! As promised, I didn't fix everything that was wrong about this dress--that would be basically impossible. But as you can see here, there are a lot of improvements. The first is not the dress itself but the proportions. Because I adjusted the hoop skirt to be smaller and less A-line, the overall shape and proportion (in relation to my body) is much better. The problem with the shoulder seam isn't super evident in the photo above, and the improvement isn't evident in the "after" photos, but trust me, it's better. You also can't see that I added a placket to the skirt opening (previously, the vertical seam at the center front simply stopped a few inches short of the top of the skirt; I added a flap and finished off that seam). You can see that I added a ruffle. If you look closely, you can see I put on new cuffs, bound the neck line, replaced the plastic buttons with mother-of-pearl buttons. You can also see the belt, which is a different belt from the "before" picture. This belt is black with a rosette at the center front (I actually bought this online for a good price). The bonnet is something new I created earlier this year. The dark charcoal color of the bonnet and the beautiful red ribbon look great with the white dress. (The bonnet needs a little work--the ends of the ribbon need to be hemmed and the inside needs a lining.) I also have gloves that I'm not wearing in these pictures.

Friday, November 20, 2020

. . . And Peter Davies's Signature

I think that my blog-related to-do list needs to include a "short story" version of the Llewelyn Davies family history. The more I write about it, the more I want to have a short version I can send people to to catch them up if need be, rather than doing a summary every time I write about the Ll. Davieses.

But in any case, here's the short-short version for the purposes of this blog: 

Peter Llewelyn Davies was one of five brothers who inspired the creation of Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. The character ended up with Peter's name through happenstance: Peter was a baby in a pram when Barrie started telling Peter's two older brothers, George and Jack, stories about how baby Peter could fly. The stories morphed, as they do, and eventually we ended up with the Peter Pan we know, the one who never grows up. The real Peter, however, did--of course--grow up. He was seven years old when the play Peter Pan premiered in 1904, and from that time he couldn't disassociate himself from the character, especially because of his name.

Within six years of the play's premiere, Peter and his brothers were orphaned and became Barrie's wards. Peter was at Eton (on scholarship, I feel I should add, rather than on Barrie's dime like his other brothers) and was in the Officer Training Corp when war broke out in 1914. He and big brother George immediately signed up. He was 17 years old, which was old enough to sign up for the army but not old enough to be sent to the front. George went off to the trenches, while Peter remained in England in training. In March 1915, George was killed. At the end of that year, Peter was sent to France. He had a bad experience during the war, watching friends die and cowering under the unrelenting threat of the artillery shells. At one point, he was sent home to England to recover from shell shock, but then he was sent back to the front. He was a signalling officer (meaning he laid and repaired telephone wire, etc.), but during the fighting he, at twenty-one or twenty-two (I should check the dates...), became the commanding officer after all the senior officers were killed. For several days, he led a fighting retreat, and as a result he was awarded a Military Cross.

Last autumn, I had the immense pleasure of viewing the Llewelyn Davies papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Among the papers are Peter's 37 letters home from the trenches to J.M. Barrie, whom he and his brothers (except Jack) called Uncle Jim. (As a note, Peter later carefully added the year to the date of each letter and numbered them--or at least, I'm fairly certain that that's Peter's handwriting. Also worth noting, it was kind of insane to be holding actual letters sent from the actual trenches of the Great War, in fact the actual letters from Peter to J.M. Barrie.)

I've been working on transcribing the letters. They're incredibly rich and vivid, and there's a strong undercurrent of world-weariness and nerviness, with a good dose of acerbic, very English, wit. For instance, he says the whole unit is in good fighting order, including "the signalling officer"--which is, of course, himself. This isn't a joke, but it's a wry way of stating things that I greatly appreciate. There are also some really descriptive, affecting bits, like this: "It is quite delightful going out under the trees with a book and Balkan cigarettes and a box of chocolates while the gramophone plays. One almost forgets the practically permanent noise of the guns." Peter is an excellent writer, in spite of being very young. I find his words at least as evocative as those of his adopted father, J.M. Barrie, perhaps more so for being less sentimentalized.

I got about two-thirds of the letters done, then took a break. I'm only up to mid-1916, but you can begin to see the psychological effects the war is having on Peter ("Honestly, Uncle Jim, I can't write about it - I don't believe anyone could, and I'm not particularly anxious that anyone should."). One of the things that struck me is the signature. He begins his correspondence signing himself "Yr affectionate Peter". Later, it's "Yr loving." In one of the last letters, here, it's what appears to be just "Your" or "Yr" or "Yrs". As you can see, the signature in 1918 is pretty untidy. Though his handwriting is mercifully fairly legible throughout (unlike JMB's!), it does appear to get looser and quicker towards the end of the war, as evidenced by the signatures. Of course, he was writing these letters from the field, and sometimes conditions necessitated him to write quickly or on a less-than-ideal surface, which might explain the sloppiness. In any case, I thought it would be interesting to look at Peter's signatures when he set out for France in 1916 and after two years in the trenches and a struggle with shell shock (a struggle which I contend he never really won and, in fact, lost in 1960 when he committed suicide):

Peter's signature late 1915: Y[ou]r affectionate Peter

Peter's signature 1918: "Ever"? "Your"? Peter

You can see a definite deterioration there, though this isn't scientific and it's impossible to say why the 1918 signature is so sloppy. But he definitely missed the "t" he was meant to be crossing...

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

. . . And Victorian Unmentionables


Over recent weeks, I made a few Victorian underthings: a mid-Victorian corset, a mid-Victorian chemise, and a late Victorian/Edwardian petticoat. 


I made the corset because the corset I had was fine but wasn't very historically accurate, didn't give me quite the hourglass shape I wanted, and was too long at the sides so that it pressed on my hip bones. Also, the pattern for a new corset was on sale.

I made the chemise because, again, I wasn't happy with the shape of the chemises I had, and I wasn't going to go to the trouble of making a better corset only to wear it over a chemise that looked wrong. Yes, I know that when the whole look is put together, no one will see the chemise, but this is the 21st century and sometimes we take pics in our Victorian "undies" (which are less revealing than most modern outfits).

Finally, I made the petticoat because the dress I'm working on currently definitely made it necessary. It's made of sheer chiffon, so I needed something to go under the skirt.

I should add, these were stash-busting projects for the most part, meaning I used mostly stuff I already had on hand.

The Specs:

Pattern: Redthreaded 1860s gored corset (
Fabric: Single layer of heavy white twill (about 1/2 a yard)
Hardware: Grommets for back lacing, 11" busk for front closure, zip ties for the boning, twill tape, bone casing, and cording to lace it.

Pattern: Started with Truly Victorian Chemise and Drawers (TV102)
Fabric: White cotton lawn (about 1 yard)

Pattern: Started with Truly Victorian Late Edwardian Petticoat (TVE14)
Fabric: White Cotton lawn (about 1 yard) and some lace (about 1.5 yards)

Making the corset:

My first corset was a 1910s long-line corset (my Rilla corset--see my blog here), and it went really well, so I embarked on an 1860s corset with optimism. I ordered my supplies (I needed a busk and cording) and made a mock-up in the meantime. I had purchased the medium size pattern based on my bust size (I possibly should have gone smaller, given what happened later, but, well, you'll see). I made a mock-up of muslin, taped on zip ties, and attached a 2" strip of fabric in the back to mimic the lacing gap. This meant I didn't have to fiddle around with a lacing panel, holes, and lacing. I put it on and was pretty pleased. It fit pretty well in the torso, the hip gores hit in a good spot, and the bust gores seemed fine. I noticed the side seam was too far back. Instead of being right at my side under my arm, it was along my back.

And then I realized I hadn't added the lacing panels, which would add another inch-and-a-half or so on either side.

Mock-up. Sewed in the busk with contrasting thread to make it 
easier to take it out again.

Messy mock-up.

Well, damn. My solution to the corset being too big around was to kill two proverbial birds with one stone: I lopped an inch off the side of the front panels, which took 2" total out of the circumference of the corset and moved the side seam forward. To take even more out of the circumference, I tightened up the seam allowances in the lacing panels. By taking these bits away, I compensated for the addition of the lacing panels, and it ended up fitting well, like it did when it had no lacing panels.

Honestly, it still is probably a little too big all the way around. When I lace it shut, the gap at the back is barely 2", which is basically the minimum. On the upside, the lacing gap is even all the way down. On the downside, I can't tight lace, but I wasn't going to do that anyway.

Anyway, those changes were really pretty simple to make. and I was really happy with this pattern and how it went together. I started in on the final product, that is with the twill. I did only a single layer because it's easier and it's cooler to wear, and I'm quite happy with a white corset. Fancy colors are fancy, but . . . fancy isn't totally necessary. I inserted the busk, sewed together the panels and gores, constructed the lacing panels, sewed in the boning channels, and added the bones. Then I bound it around the top and bottom and added the lacing. And it was done.

I was pleased with the final product. It's a bit big in the hips, so the proportions look odd. It could/should be padded to create the proper silhouette, but then again, it will be under a hoop skirt and not visible, so why? The bust is a bit gappy along the top edge, but apparently it's a Thing to have a little drawstring at the top of the bust, which I might actually do. That or sew in tiny darts. Or add padding. Oh, and I had trouble with the grommets. A few popped out. So I need to sew those. Okay, so a bit of work still needs to take place here, but not much, and it's really fine as-is.

The back of the corset. The bunny ear loops
help with lacing and look like a villain's mustache.

Corset's inside, upside down. The tan is a waist stay.

Making the chemise:

For this piece, I started with a Truly Victorian pattern which was, in fact, the very first thing I ever sewed (aside from a really, really simple dress for the Ren Faire in middle school lo these many years ago). That chemise has served me well, but the fabric is a bit stiff, and the shape is . . . not what I was looking for. I was looking for a wider, scoop-ier neckline. I also wanted to finish everything off nicely.

So I got to work. I wish I could describe what I did. It involved measuring the width of my shoulders and the depth I wanted the neckline to scoop, and doing some math and guessing and head-scratching. I penciled something I hoped was correct onto the original pattern. I could've done a mock-up, but I frankly didn't want to use up the fabric and time. So I traced my new pattern directly onto my cotton lawn and cut it out with a whole lot of seam allowance all around.

I then draped the result onto my dress form, and, whoo boy, it's good I left lots of seam allowance. The outer edges of the front and back shoulder seams just barely met. I did a bit more adjusting, but I was basically happy with the result. All of this fiddling and cutting took most of a day.

The next day I started sewing, and I didn't stop until I was done. I decided the neckline was right where I wanted it, so I bound it with double-folded strips of bias-cut fabric. I had never actually tried this technique, and it turned out beautifully. I did the same thing with the arm holes. The side seams I folded and then machine-stitched down (no hand felling for me; I'm not Bernadette Banner, ffs). In addition to binding, I wanted to try pin tucks. It was getting a little late in the day, but I was determined to finish this thing, so I added three pin tucks along the bottom, which really go a long way in making it look VICTORIAN.

I might add a bit of lace around the neckline to soften it and make it, well, lacier. Otherwise, this thing is LEGIT and it is DONE.

I considered trying insertion lace for the first 
time but decided against it.
The finished product, with American Duchess shoes.

Corset with chemise. Even though my hands
are there, you can still kind of tell my hips should
be padded out a bit.

Making the petticoat:

This, like the chemise, was somewhat ad hoc. I started with the late Edwardian petticoat pattern from Truly Victorian. What I needed was a fairly plain skirt that didn't add much volume or shape. 

However, quite fortuitously, I found this image of a petticoat from about the time period I needed my petticoat for (1919--and yes, I'm aware that that is *not* Victorian; I'm stretching it a bit/a lot, but the resulting petticoat can, I think, work for a variety of styles). 

If you notice, this shows quite a bit of gathering at the waistband. The TV pattern calls for a bit of gathering at the back but is otherwise quite fitted. The TV pattern also shows a slightly different configuration of front, back, and side panels. My first step was to ignore the back panel; I would just cut two of the front panel. Then I went up several sizes. For the front panel, I drew a straight line from the "attach dust ruffle here" line to the very top corner of the waist line. This was now my fold line, thereby doubling the width of the panel after going up several sizes. For the front panel (which would be the pattern for both the front and the back), I just went up several sizes. All of this fiddling preserved the lines where the pattern pieces met, so I wouldn't have to worry about making curves meet neatly and so forth.

Anyway, with all that figured out and a lot of volume added to this petticoat, I went ahead and cut it out of my cotton lawn, then sewed together the four panels. I was pretty pleased with the volume. I ran some gathering stitches. It was again getting late in the day, and I might have forged on, but partway through running a line of gathering stitches, my bobbin ran out of thread, which was a sign from the sewing gods to give it up for the night. I came back to it, finished the gathering stitches, cut out a waistband, turned in the edges, gathered the skirt to the waistband, turned it out, folded the waistband over the top of the skirt panels, and stitched it down using a machine top stitch because I was too lazy to do it by hand when it really would never be seen.

I tried a drawstring as a closure but it didn't quite work, so I sewed on a hook-and-bar closure, and it worked perfectly. I hemmed the bottom, and it was magically almost the exact right length to go under the dress I made it for. For pizazz, I added some lace that I bought as part of a lot on Ebay. It was a perfect addition. Finally, I ran some light pink ribbon through the holes in the top of the lace.

Petticoat: check

Monday, August 17, 2020

...And George Llewelyn Davies at Cambridge

At the end of last year (oh Lord, that seems like a bloody age ago, doesn't it?), I went on a trip (fancy getting on a train and going somewhere!) to New Haven, CT (God, I miss traveling).

Why might I have gone to New Haven? Well, because New Haven is the home of Yale University, and Yale is home to the papers of J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family. To catch up anyone who might not be aware, I became deeply fascinated with the story of the Llewelyn Davies brothers, who inspired Peter Pan, about two and a half years ago now. I wrote a novel about them. And then I decided to go to New Haven to see the papers. That seems backwards, but I had access to most the info in those papers via a fabulous book by Andrew Birkin: J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys. Much of the photos and letters are also available via, and a lot of it is digitized by Yale (e.g.: The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island). Besides, I didn't realize the papers were there at Yale until after I finished the ms.

In any case, in going to Yale to actually see the collection (at the Beinecke Rare Manuscripts Library), I was able to hold in my hands the actual letters that I had read copies of, including George's and Peter's letters home from the trenches of WWI. I was also thoroughly delighted when I came across this spectacular photo of George:

Does dear George not look fabulous? It's clearly a costume (this is not standard 1910s men's garb, obviously). It's part of a group of photos of him in costume, sometimes with fellow actors posing as if taking part in a scene. George was in the Amateur Dramatic Club at Cambridge, which is where these photos come from. Being the unofficially-adopted son of a famous playright and the real inspiration behind one of the stage's most beloved characters (that is, Peter Pan), acting was surely in his DNA.

The costume is from a time that was bygone even in 1914, when this was taken. I have an iota of knowledge about historical dress, and I pinned this to the 1790s or early 1800s. I was only about 80% sure of my guess, but this costume is pretty amazing in its detail and, frankly, accuracy. It seems quite extravagant, too. One wonders--well, wonder--whether Barrie provided financial backing to the ADC. In any case, a friend on Facebook confirmed that it looked very 1790s.

Today, I was browsing through (for funsies) and realized that this photo was online there (I don't think it was previously) and that it was labelled as being from 1914 and from a production of A Tale of Two Cities (which takes place partly during the 1790s).

It's delightful to be validated in my placing of the costume's time period. It's also fantastic to know exactly what play it was from. It also hurts more than a little to know that this was taken just a few months before war broke out--a war that killed George the following year. But mostly I was just pleased to have a little more knowledge about this story.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

...And a Bonnet

Yep, I'd say this blog has shifted pretty thoroughly to costuming stuff, at least for now. I'm fine with that. I'm a little backed up as far as the costume posts--I've been busily sewing but not blogging about it.

At the same time I was working on my yellow '20s dress, I worked on a bonnet to match my new blue 1860s dress. I already had a bonnet, but: 1. it was white, tan, and yellow, which absolutely did not match with the blue-white-and-red dress, 2. it was not all that well-made, 3. I made that one in crappy polyester (a mistake), and I wanted to make one with real silk, and 4. I just wanted to.


Fabric: 1/2 yard of *beautiful* charcoal silk from Timely Tresses. $15.

Structure: about half of 1 yard of buckram I bought from Timely Tresses for $11.

Wire: got some 18 gauge wire from Home Depot. You're supposed to use millinery wire, but this worked beautifully. About $4.

Pattern: Timely Tresses Clara Christine pattern--previously bought, so free(ish)!

Trimming: Red silk ribbon ($10), various paper flowers (total of $9) all from Timely Tresses.

Doesn't it look pretty just sitting there?


I had made this pattern before, so I knew the general idea. Although I love everything I got from Timely Tresses, the directions can be confusing for a first-timer, and when I first made this bonnet, I made mistakes, especially in wiring it. But this time I was more careful.

The first step was to trace out the pieces--the tip (or back), headpiece, brim, and bavolet--onto the buckram and then cut them out. Nothing special there. The next step was wiring the edges. This entailed butting the wire against all the edges, taping it on temporarily, and then blanket-stitching it all around. Everything on the bonnet is hand-stitched, and I'm slow with hand-stitching, which is why this project took me a while to complete.

In the process of wiring, with tea cup handy.

While I was at it, I had to create a bowl-shaped tip for the back of the bonnet. In the picture above, it's just to the left of the tea cup. To make this shape, I cut a circle out of the buckram and tried to use steam to form it over a cannoli container (that's what's sitting beside the tip in the picture above). I had gotten myself pizza and a cannoli for dinner a night or two earlier and held onto the little plastic container the cannoli came in. I was trying to figure out how to form the tip and thought of this container, which magically was just the right size and shape. I used that and a cereal bowl to help shape the tip.

I did run into some trouble. In my infinite wisdom (ha), I thought I should spray starch all over the tip to . . . make it stiffer, I guess? I'm not sure what my thought process was. But it got wet with the spray starch and went limp, and I was pretty sure I'd ruined it, because it was just like a wet piece of netting and it needed to be stiff. I shaped it with my bowl and cannoli container and used a hairdryer to dry it. Look, no one said the making of these pretty things was glamorous. My unorthodox methods worked, the buckram dried and stiffened, and I had a tip. It ended up having folds in odd places and not being quite as nicely shaped as I would've liked, but it worked perfectly fine for my purposes.

In any case, with that minor crisis overcome, it was on to binding the edges of the pieces. I cut bias strips out of an old muslin mock-up and wrapped them around the edges, then did a running stitch to secure them. Easy. Somewhat time-consuming, but easy.

Edges bound. Tea cup still present and accounted for (top right).

The next step was to butt all the edges against one another and whip-stitch them together. The wire tail from the brim stuck out long enough to wrap around the bottom of the bavolet (the back flap) and give it structure.

Bonnet form completed, sitting with my hero ,the cannoli container, and the charcoal silk.
Another view.

Next, it was time to chalk the pattern onto the fabric...

...and then cut those pieces out and hand-stitch them down. I sewed the tip on first. I had to do tiny pleats to make it fit, and there was some fiddling to make it as even as possible. But then I just did a running stitch to secure it. I did the headpiece next, sewing the center back seam first, then fitting it over the form. I turned under the back edge and slip-stitched it to the silk tip (that is, I didn't secure it to the buckram form, just to the silk, which was secured to the form). 

Then I did the brim. This is a long rectangle, gathered down. I had some trouble with this, so to help get the gathers even, I actually sewed my gathering stitches on a curve, rather then right along the edge of the fabric. At the tips, I just tucked the excess fabric in and sewed it down. Along the edge with the headpiece, I turned under the brim fabric and slip-stitched it to the headpiece fabric. I think I did this out of order and that it might have been easier to do the brim first, then the headpiece, but whatever.

Finally came the bavolet, the frill on the back. This is just a long rectangle gathered and sewn to the back of the bonnet (with more slip stitches). I did make a mistake here--I didn't make it long enough, and I'm slightly dissatisfied with that part of the bonnet. I had to go back and wrap the white buckram bavolet in black silk so it wasn't so visible, which wouldn't have been a problem with a longer bavolet.

Covered. On the outside, at least.
Can you see the stitches where I attached the brim or the bavolet
to the headpiece? No? EXACTLY. Hurray for slip stitches.

The next step was, of course, to decorate my bonnet with my ribbon and flowers and some netting on the inside of the brim. This was all totally straightforward. I took a length of the netting (which was left over from my first bonnet) and gathered it to fit inside the brim, then stitched it in place. I fiddled around with the ribbon and flowers until I had an arrangement I liked. No science to it, and very little art, but I'm pretty pleased with how it turn out.


Overall, I was really, really pleased with this bonnet, so I wouldn't do too much differently. But I would have perhaps added a layer of fabric between the buckram and the silk, just to soften the look. This probably isn't necessary, so I'm not too upset about not doing that.

I also didn't line the inside of the bonnet. This is something I really should do and might do in the future. It would help with getting it on and off without messing up my hair.

Oh, and I should have made the bavolet about an inch or two longer, as mentioned.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

...And a 1920s Dress


Normally, I wouldn't consider the '20s to be in my "sweet spot". I'm mostly interested in the 1830s-1860s and the Edwardian-Great War era. That puts me right up against the 1920s, so I was willing to fudge a bit because the novel I most recently wrote more-or-less ends in 1921 and because there's a '20s event in September that I want to attend.


My planning for this one was a bit all over the place. My original plan was pretty much "make a '20s evening dress". Where to go from there, I wasn't sure, not being very familiar with the era. I had the vague knowledge that most people have of what the '20s looked like. I also knew that that popular image is, mostly, not correct.

As I started poking around, looking at patterns, I came across some really neat cotton fabric with a brown base and all kinds of art-deco designs in white and pink and red and tan, all shot through with silver pinstripes. I got super excited and decided I would definitely use this fabric for my new dress (spoiler alert: it didn't work out that way, obviously).

I bought a pattern from Reconstructing History and followed it and had all kinds of problems. It was too big in pretty much every way, and it hit me in weird places, and I didn't really like the shape. My attempts to fix the fit around the shoulders and chest meant the gathering at the hips was too high, and... And anyway, it just wasn't working out. (I should note that I went as far as making it up in the brown art-deco fabric before abandoning this attempt.) Frustrated, I went online and poked around, trying to find inspiration and a way forward. I found the following diagram--"cinq rectangles=un robe."

It seemed simple and like something I could do. And I did. I sketched out a "pattern"--more of a diagram--according to my own measurements. The mock-up looked pretty good. But then I did it in the brown fabric, and, again, it just didn't work. The problem with this diagram is that you gather a lot of fabric into a small width at the shoulders, and when you bring the back skirt around to the front, you have this awkward bulkiness at the sides because of that fabric that reaches from right under the arms at the back down to the waist at the front. That fabric is meant to wrap around to the front for effect, but there's a lot of bulkiness. Looking back at my failure, I think it might be the fabric I used. A mid-weight cotton probably isn't quite the right medium. It probably needed something much lighter weight. I might retry at some point in the future using something lighter.

In any case, I went back to the Internet, poring over fashion plates and patterns. As I mentioned, actual '20s dresses aren't quite what most people think they are. The dresses were longer than you might think and almost never actually had fringe, for instance. Though I ended up making a dress with blocky straps, most dresses had little sleeves and/or a wide, scooped neck. And these gowns were generally made of layers of very light fabrics like chiffon. I liked the looks I was finding but was struggling with exactly how to bring it to life without 1) buying new fabric or 2) buying any more patterns. Because as I wrote on my calendar to remind myself: "No more fabric, FFS!"

Anyway, I came across the following image and knew it was the ticket. Firstly, it's adorable. Secondly, I had light yellow crinkle chiffon that would be exactly the right thing for it. Thirdly, I had a good idea of how to make it.

Now, the source of this picture is Pinterest, and it seems to be an image from a vendor of some pretty nifty vintage-style clothing. At first, I thought it was an original '20s dress, but when I looked into the origin, I wasn't so sure. Dig as I might, I wasn't able to resolve that entirely. It has an original look, but the site doesn't seem to be selling actual vintage clothing. But they might post pictures of actual vintage clothing (as inspiration or what have you). In any case, the look comported pretty well with what I had seen in fashion plates, so I felt comfortable using it as my inspiration.


This dress was entirely self-drafted, which sounds considerably more impressive than it is, I think. The dress is, not so unlike the "cinq rectangles" diagram, made up almost entirely of rectangles. A rectangle for the front of the bodice and one for the back, and two rectangles of fabric for the skirt. Well, four, really, but we'll get to that.

For the bodice, I started with my bust measurements, then added 2" for seam allowance and 3" for ease. I suppose I could have made it one big rectangle that I sewed into a tube, but I did make a front and back panel. For the front panel, I measured up from the center of the rectangle by 1.5" and drew a curve down to side seams. This was to give a little more bust coverage, to make me feel more comfortable in the dress. As for the length, I measured from where I wanted the dress to start under my arm to where my hip bone sticks out (because '20s dress are very low-waisted). Because I was still in the "figuring it out" stage, I added a few inches for a margin of error. I should add, I was using white lawn, which would serve as both a trial run for the chiffon and as the under dress, because obviously I couldn't wear a dress like the one above without some kind of under dress.

That was pretty much the bodice figured out. I puzzled a bit over the ruched section of the dress. Was it a strip of fabric covering the seam where the skirt and bodice met? Was it a strip of fabric that was connected to the bodice on top and the skirt on the bottom? Eventually, I figured out that the strip of ruching was the top of the skirt, gathered to the bodice with several lines of gathering. So, I went ahead and ruched the top of my skirt panels. I had cut two panels, each of which was as wide as the entire bodice and 20" long (which seemed to be the right length for my short frame). When I gathered the panels down, it was a ration of 2:1, skirt:bodice. I did five lines of gathering for the ruched effect, all of which I sewed by hand.

In retrospect, I should have created a strip that was the right length (the length of the bodice) and height (the section of ruching is 3" high) and gathered the skirt down to the panel before attaching it to the bodice. This would have helped in making the gathering neat and even. Actually, in retrospect, I shouldn't have ruched the lawn under-dress at all but left that un-gathered so I could gather the overdress to it. But as I said, this was basically a trial run for the overdress.

I pinned on some temporary straps (just pieces of ribbon) and was pretty pleased with the effect of the dress. I now had proof of concept. I went ahead and cut out pieces from my yellow crinkle chiffon. I can't recall if I mentioned this fabric in another post, but this stuff is hard to work with. It tends to warp really, really easily as you try to transfer your pattern onto it and cut it. I made use of the selvage edge for the skirt panels, of which I cut three because I decided I could use more volume in the chiffon skirt than I had in the lawn skirt. Thankfully, the pieces for this dress were basically all rectangles, which made it easier to keep the lines straight.

Anyway, the next steps were simple enough in concept: sew up the side seams, sew the skirt panels together, run the gathering stitches, and gather the skirt to the bodice. However, this was somewhat fiddly work, what with the chiffon being so given to warping. I had to measure and remeasure everything to ensure it stayed even and level. I also decided that two skirt panels would suffice and set aside the third panel (a fortuitous decision in the end). In any case, with the chiffon outer dress put together, I pinned it to the under-dress and sewed the layers together at the top edge. I rolled the chiffon over the edge of the white lawn (I'd cut the chiffon about an inch longer than the lawn) and stitched it down to the lawn so that the stitching isn't visible from the outside. I also connected the two layers at the waist.

Another retrospect thing: If I were doing this again, I actually might forget about what I said above and just flat-line the chiffon to the under-layer, treating them as one layer.

I attached more-permanent ribbon straps to the dress and had what amounted to a completed dress. I was satisfied with this as a base, but it still didn't have quite the right shape and look.

The dress as completed without any added touches. It
looks quite pink, but I promise it's yellow.


I had three major issues to resolve and a few assets in my corner. The first major issue was the skirt length. The skirt came to just above the knee, which was too short, as all the fashion plates showed skirts ending around mid-calf. The white under-dress also peeked out under the yellow chiffon. The second issue was the straps, which were nothing but two 13"-long white ribbons. I'd never intended these to be the final look but to be the structure on top of which I would add....something. Sleeves? Ruffles? Lace? More yellow chiffon to make wider straps? This was TBD. My third issue was that the overall look was too plain. It needed more visual weight at the bottom and top to balance the ruching in the middle, and I also just wanted it to look more more.

What I had to work with was the following: that third skirt panel I had set aside, pieces of a failed bodice from a different project using the yellow chiffon fabric, and various bits of lace and trim. I took apart that old bodice and quickly realized that the waistband from that would make a lovely bow for the middle of the bust line and that what had been a peplum would be perfect for a tie around the waist (like in the inspiration picture). I wouldn't need to hem or alter these pieces at all, just attach them. Hurrah! That helped.

Pile of scraps from an old bodice, on top of my comforter.

I played around with that discarded skirt panel, and thought about making it a little shrug thingy like in the inspiration picture, but it just didn't quite work. I considered making flutter sleeves out of it. Then I realized that the perfect solution was to cut the panel in half lengthwise so that I would have two panels the same width and half the height as the skirt panels already attached to the dress. I would then sew those to the bottom of the skirt, making a flouncy little flounce. To hide the spot where the flounce was attached, I would apply some kind of decoration.

The unadorned dress, but with the added skirt flounce

Thence commenced a lengthy scouring of the Internet for some kind of trim to cover the line where the flounce attaches to the skirt. Should I use a lacy trim with gold accents? A Greek-key trim? Then, as had happened a few times already during this project, inspiration hit. Recall that art-deco-design fabric I failed to make good use of? Well. Here was a good use for it. I would cut out a strip of only the lotus flower part of the design and stitch that in a long strip over the place where the flounce was stitched to the skirt.

Done and done.

The lotus flower design.
Ironing my strip flat (it's folded over in thirds, envelope-like).

This brain-wave helped solve the problem of the straps, as well: I would use more of that fabric to make wider straps. I went ahead and did that, then thought it needed a little something more to ground it. So I made little ruffles using more leftover bits of that failed bodice.

Oh, and I should also note that the weight of the dress made it sag from the straps. I'd added 1.5" to the top of the front bodice, but it was sagging between the straps so badly that it was straight across. So I added a band of ribbon all the way around the bodice, and in the front I added some "boning" (a zip tie) to help it keep it's shape, and that worked. It still sags a bit from the straps, so I'm going to keep this folded for storage rather than hung.

The dress, without the ruffles on the straps and
without hair/makeup done. Also, without shoes.

And so I had a dress! A whole dress, almost entirely of my own design, and it turned out *so well*. I was really, really proud of the different design decisions I made and the problems I solved. I was most pleased with the fact that I used stuff I already had.

A few notes. In the below, I'm wearing a wig for volume and some dark lipstick (which I actually really like and might wear more everyday!). The shoes are actually 1860s reproductions (American Duchess), but they're simple white shoes and therefore unobtrusive and versatile. The gloves are cheap Halloween gloves, and I think I'll get white one to match better, though the contrast is kind of nice. You can't see it very well, but I am wearing a white headband in this pictures, too.

The dress on a hanger. It looked really pink in all
the pictures I took in this spot, so I color-corrected and now 
some of it looks a bit green, but the color of the dress is closer to correct.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

...And a Blue 1860s Dress


Fabric: bought via Facebook directly from a fellow costumer who was de-stashing. Blue cotton "Marcus" reproduction fabric with red-and-white flowers. According to buyer, originally bought at Needle and Thread in Gettysburg.
Fabric cost: $65
Fabric amount: used nearly all of about 7 yards.
Lining: bodice is lined with white cotton lawn; sleeves and skirt are unlined.
Trim: black braided trim, about 1"; used about 6 yards; also bought directly from fellow costumer de-stashing. Got a bolt of many yards for $15. [Note: the trim isn't included in any of the pictures here; I applied it after my little photo shoot.]


I have to say, I feel like I have come a long way on my sewing journey and have travelled quite a learning curve. I've come out on the other end with new sewing and problem-solving skills, and a lot of pride in both the things I've produced and the hard work I put into them. See, I'm not always a natural at things, but I'm a quick learner and quite persistent when I get the bug. It may take me a bit, but I can usually work through almost anything and make a good showing of it, even if I'm not brilliant at it.

I say all this because I was thinking of some of the other dresses preceding this one that were...not up to scratch. There are a few I'd rather forget about. Since I've made a few other 1860s dresses, I can compare this one to them. The very first dress I sewed, a white 1860s dress, is actually quite nice, though fairly simple. The second, tan dress is lovely and may still be my favorite historical costume--but it wasn't very well-constructed. There are loose threads and some weird little things here and there. But this new dress not only turned out looking nice, it's also solidly constructed. It bears close scrutiny.

But anyway, having made a number of 1860s dresses before, what possessed me to sew another? Well, I was only satisfied with two of the dresses I made, and the aforementioned poor construction bugged me. So I wanted to do it and do it well. Also, I have grand visions of myself wearing these to various events (which events exactly, I don't know), and so I would like to have a few dresses to choose from. That's probably wildly optimistic, but mostly my motivation was just to have another pretty dress, one that I was fully satisfied with in look and construction.


Once I had decided I wanted another 1860s dress, or rather had decided that I was going to act on that aching need for another pretty dress, I needed to decide what pattern and fabric to use. Lemme tell you, I spent a lot of time considering patterns and fabrics.

I started with the fabric: I purchased a dress length of blue-and-brown stripey cotton. It's nice fabric. I quite like it. But I realized that it was most suitable for a wrapper-style dress. And while I did strongly consider a wrapper pattern, I didn't really want to do a wrapper. Eventually, I settled on Simplicity 4551, a day dress pattern that is out of print (I bought this used, though not via Facebook). The pictures looked pretty, the bodice was gathered (which I understand was the standard for cotton dresses, while wool or silk used darts; I already have a pattern for a darted bodice), and there were three interesting sleeve options. I was planning to use the blue-and-tan stripey cotton for this dress, even though it was really more suitable for a wrapper.

Then, in one of the Facebook groups I'm a part of, someone was selling a dress length of blue, red-and-white-floral-printed fabric. It was a good price, it was pretty, and in spite of the fact that I already had blue cotton fabric for an 1860s dress, I bought this stuff. It seemed more appropriate for the pattern. And you know what? I do not regret it one bit. Because when I got the fabric, this was how happy I was with it:

Okay, so that might be because this fabric took an epic journey through the US postal system and I was VERY happy to finally get it. I live in Virginia, and after this package was mailed from, uh, Ohio I think it was, it started bouncing around from Washington DC to Southern Maryland to Virginia and back again--for three weeks. It got stuck in a circle because the sender had put in the wrong ZIP code (and apparently, this caused the postal tracking system to completely melt the eff down and send my package in an endless loop of existential, tautological dread). I had to pay to have the package "intercepted" and finally received it like a month later (the seller did reimburse me for that).

After it took that epic journey and made me smile, I just knew I wanted to use this fabric for this 1860s dress, and I knew I wanted it to be my next project.


By the time I got the fabric in the mail, I had already spent some time working with the pattern. For logistical reasons, there were times I had to set aside my 1910s project for a bit, at which point I worked on the 1860s project.

As mentioned, I started with Simplicity 4551, but, of course, I had to make major alterations (for those who don't follow along, I'm 4'11", with a strangely-shaped torso and very short legs). To describe the bodice pattern a bit: it consists of a darted lining layer (the pattern calls it the "under-bodice", but it's basically a lining) and a fashion-fabric layer that is gathered at the waist in the front and back. It buttons up the front, and the sleeve I chose has a lot of volume at the shoulder and becomes narrow just below the elbow (similar to a leg-of-mutton of gigot sleeve). It's an unusual shape, but I liked the look of it, so I chose that over the other options.

I've struggled with fitting in the past, but this time around, I used the advice in this article: worked like magic. I used tracing paper to draft a pattern with a shorter shoulder seam, and with my first mock-up it fit like a glove. It was beautiful, just beautiful. It almost brought a tear to my eye. Almost.

I had to work a little harder to make the over-bodice fit. That took a few attempts. It also took cutting up the mockups from my 1910s outfit. I figured that whatever worth there was in keeping the mock-ups for the future (in case I ever wanted to make the pattern again and couldn't figure it out from the pattern pieces or the finished product...), the fabric itself was literally more valuable. I want to try to waste as little fabric as possible. It saves money and, uh, the planet.

In any case, for this project I also had my fancy new dress dummy, which was a life-saver. It really helped in making sure the under bodice and fashion fabric matched up neatly.

Also worth noting: as a result of my fiddling with the pattern, it ended up being a little too short-waisted. I made a point of trying on the mock-up with my hoop skirt, and I'm glad I did, because I needed to add some length in the back and at the sides so that the bottom of the bodice was right at the top of the hoop skirt. The bodice needs to end right where the hoop skirt starts or else you'll get a strange, triangular dead space, with the torso and hoop skirt as two sides and the skirt itself as the hypotenuse, if that makes  sense. In any case, that problem was fixed, and I moved on.

Sleeves can be a real pain in the ass. And I had fears of these sleeves in particular just murdering me with their complexity. I was sure I would find myself defeated by the pleated tops of the sleeves and the way it tightens at the forearm. I envisioned the elbow being in the wrong spot and everything being twisted. But, as luck would have it, while I altered a lot about the bodice, I didn't alter the armscye. Which meant that I didn't have to change the top of the sleeve at all. Huzzah!

The problem was the length, and how to shorten it while keeping the proportions correct. I accomplished this by pleating the pattern piece where I wanted to take out length and bulk. This broke the nice smooth lines of the pattern piece, of course, so I free-handed some lines to connect it all back up. It took just a little refining of my free-hand lines, but all things told, it went shockingly well. The poof poofed in the right spots, and the sleeve tightened at the forearm in the right way. Bonus: I now basically have a leg-of-mutton sleeve pattern if ever I should want to make a dress that involves such a thing.

On the bottom is the original sleeve pattern. On
top is the revised sleeve pattern.
Mock-up on the dress form, with an unrelated hat.


Being satisfied with my mock-up, I went ahead with cutting out the fabric for the finished product. I cut the darted "under-bodice", or lining, out of white cotton lawn--lightweight but sturdy, soft without adding bulk. This went together easy as pie. It's just three pieces (the back of the bodice, for both the lining and fashion fabric, is one piece, and the front, for both the lining and fashion fabric, is two pieces). It was just a matter of sewing four seems: the two shoulder and two side seams., then sewing in the darts I also marked a line two inches from the bottom, where the waistband would sit and along which the upper bodice would be gathered. At the front, I turned under the center front edges, making sure to offset the left from the right by about an inch so I could lap the right side over the left to button it and still have everything centered.

Then I got to work cutting my pieces from the fashion fabric. I did my damndest to match the pattern so the front two panels mirrored each other, and glory be, it worked. To conserve fabric, I actually cut the waistband out of two pieces of "cabbage" and stitched them together at center back. I left plenty of leeway in the length of the waistband, just so I had some "wiggle room". I've found through experience that it's better to err on the side of too much than too little.

With that done, I sewed the side and shoulder seams, hand-stitched gathering stitched along the front and back of the outer bodice, stitched the lining and bodice together at the neckline and the center-front, and gathered the gathering stitches until the bodice fit to the lining. Then I stitched the bodice to the lining at that 2" mark I mentioned earlier. Those last two inches, currently comprised of the lining only, would be covered by the waistband.

I'll be damned if I know why the lining and outer layer didn't match up at the armscyes (see picture below). I carefully trimmed my mock-up to fix exactly this problem, then transferred it to my pattern. Or at least, I thought I had, but maybe I somehow missed that step. In any case, when I forced the layers together and piped around the armscyes (more on that next), all was well. Huzzah!

The next step was piping. I hate piping. It's finicky and takes forever, but it really is necessary for an 1860s dress--and it does look nice. Previously, I've done piping entirely by hand. This means 1) cutting out strips of fabric on the bias, 2) folding some cord into those strips of binding and 3) stitching it together, then 4) stitching it to the right side of the fabric, with the raw edge of the piping matched with the raw edge of the fabric and 5) turning all those raw edges inwards in order to 6) stitch it all again so it stays in place, then, finally 7) trimming the middle layers away and pressing it in place. Yeah. But, hey, I figured out how to attach the zipper foot to my sewing machine! I was ecstatic at this, thinking I would be zipping through this piping like nobody's business. Alas, the tension was wonky and I couldn't make it work well, so while I did that first stitching by machine (that is, stitching the cord into the bias strips), I actually attached the piping to the dress by hand. It was a lot of hand-stitching, but honestly it wasn't that bad, and anyway it's much more precise to do it by hand. It turned out quite well.

I started by piping the top of the waistband, then attaching that where it was meant to go, directly to bottom 2" of the lining. I had barely enough width in my waistband, so I had to finagle the bottom edge, but it worked out fine. I piped the neckline and the armscyes, as well.

Along the way making this bodice, I did multiple "gut checks". That's a weird way to put it, actually, because it sounds like that might be literal, but no. I just mean I tried it on at various point swith and without all the underthings, just to be sure everything was still fitting like it should. Above, I took the mock-up sleeve and pinned it on, just to be sure everything was sitting correctly. It looked kind of cool with the contrasting color sleeve, like a varsity jacket from the '90s.

And the above is how it looked with sleeves attached and buttons/buttonholes completed. The waistband was lacking closures and the sleeves were lacking cuffs.

Annndd, here she is with the collar and cuffs exactly as the pattern called for. With that, we had a completed bodice.


Unfortunately, I did not take any pictures while making the skirt. However, it was a pretty straightforward process. I've made skirts like this multiple times now. I cut off some of the uneven excess from my length of fabric and had about 5 yards of 44"-wide fabric. I'm quite short, so I needed a finished length of 35". The top 2" would be stitched into the waistband. The bottom seven inches would be my hem. So I went ahead and hemmed first. Then I used a scrap of muslin as a waistband to pleat the top of the skirt to. My method is to mark off every 32nd of the skirt and the waistband. Then I match the marks and fold the excess skirt fabric towards the front or back, depending on which direction I want the pleats to face.

Believe it or not, I had the worst time with these damned pleats. I had to redo half of them once and then the whole thing once because I just kept doing it unevenly. It's actually hard work for me, because it can only really be done on the floor, and it's hard to get up and down, up and down. But, I told myself that I couldn't do a crappy job just because I was tired. I was under no deadline, so I would take a rest and come back and do it right. And I did.

But then I realized that when I was measuring out the muslin waistband onto which I pleated my skirt, I did it wrong. Don't ask me how; I don't know. Even though I measured it against the actual bodice to be sure, that skirt waistband was like 3" too long. As I said, I don't even know.

My brilliant solution? Just scootch over the hook-and-bars and let the volume of the skirt hide my mistake. It basically worked. I may at some time in the future go back and actually gather the skirt. But then again, I may not... I'm fairly sure other projects will distract me.

I now had a completed skirt and a completed bodice. They needed to be sewn together. This was straightforward. The skirt waistband was 2", and the bodice waistband was 2" (by design), so I sewed the skirt to the waistband at the top and bottom of that waistband, "stitching in the ditch"--that is, I used the gap where the piping meets the waistband to hide the stitches.

With that, I had a complete dress. Trying it on, however, I quickly discovered that I did not like the collar as it was shown in the pattern, and the cuffs were too big, even though I'd reduced their width by something like an inch. To fix the collar, I just pinned the points together with a brooch. I turned in the cuffs and pinned them temporarily.

See, I was determined to get some pictures of myself in my dress the next day: a fun quarantine activity around my apartment complex. I didn't have time to redo the cuffs entirely. But I DID (apparently) have time to fiddle with my hoop skirt. I read a tutorial online and compared it to my hoop skirt, the shape of which I wasn't entirely happy with (not bell-shaped enough). I discovered that part of my problem was that the top hoops were not wide enough. I made them as wide as the fabric of my hoop skirt would allow, and it actually helped quite a bit. It would also help, I think, to have a fluffy petticoat. But I, uh, don't.

Before I regale you with some pictures of me in my dress on a lovely early-summer day, let me regale you with a picture of the innards of my dress.

1. The bars for the hook-and-bar skirt closure, matching up with the hooks (#6).

2. Internal strap attached to the skirt waistband at front and back and long enough to be looped over a hanger to take the weight off the shoulder when hanging (it's better practice to store flat, but I don't have that option).

3. Stitching that connects skirt waistband to bodice waistband. You'll see it's stitched at the top and bottom, because these stitched have to take the weight of 5 yards of skirt. You'll also notice that just to the left of the 3 and where the internal strap connects, I stopped stitching the skirt to the bodice. The last few inches of the skirt and bodice are separate so that they can be closed separately.

4. Buttonholes. Don't mind the messy threads.

5. Bodice waistband closures. Two hooks and eyes to close it horizontally, and one vertical hook to that the bodice and skirt don't gap apart at the front where they aren't connected. If they did, that white waistband on the skirt would be really obvious.

6. Hooks for the hook-and-bar skirt closure.


The order of operations for getting dressed is:

1. Chemise.

2. Stockings.

3. Drawers.

4. Shoes.

5. Corset.

6. Hoops.

7. Dress--on over the head, close the skirt with the hooks-and-bars, close the bodice waistband with the hooks-and-eyes, button up the bodice.

8. Brooch.


I took these around my apartment complex, which has some lovely old trees that offered lots of shade on a warm day. I was really quite comfortable, even in quite a lot of layers. Cotton is breathable, and the hoops keep the skirt away from my skin, so my legs were only covered by drawers and stockings. Anyway, I set up a tripod and took these pictures, and had so much fun that I decided to hop in the car and drive over to a nearby park on the site of a Civil War fort (I live in Northern Virginia; you can't throw a stone without hitting something CW-related). And, yes, I was able to drive. I just skooched my hoops out of the way of my feet and it was fine.