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.

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