Monday, March 22, 2021

...And A New-Old Blue 1860s Dress


Being on that good old "learning curve" can be difficult. There are different stages. There's the "I'm just going to buy a few cheap underthings and one ready-made dress" phase. The "this doesn't fit me, so I'm going to try sewing myself one dress" stage. The "this is great, maybe let's try it again with quilting cotton from JoAnn's!" stage. The "well, if we're going to all this trouble, let's try some more period-accurate fabric". The "let's try fixing the fit" stage. The "let's try a different era" stage. The "it's really not going to look right unless I actually get it right" stage. The frustrating "I know what I'm going for but don't quite have the skills to get there" stage.

I'm currently at about that stage, moving on to the "acquiring those skills and starting to be satisfied with the fit and overall accuracy" stage. Hopefully, soon I'll be at the "historically credible and satisfactory to me" stage.

Yeah, that's right. I started this journey not planning to actually sew anything. But obla-di, oblad-da, life goes on.

The dress I'm blogging about today was sewn somewhere around the "let's try some more period-accurate fabric" stage. I had made up a fitted 1860s bodice (the Truly Victorian Darted Bodice, TV446) a few times (in cotton, which isn't quite right; cotton was usually gathered, while silk and wool were darted). But what I wanted was a gathered bodice. I also wanted more appropriate fabric (though I was going to stick to cotton, now knowing, as I did, that cotton should be gathered). So I got some lovely blue fabric on a destash page (and let me tell you, that fabric went on a journey before it made it to me in the mail!). After much waffling, I decided on Simplicity 4551 as my pattern (it seems to be out of print and currently quite expensive, but I got it for a good price).

The pattern choice was...not a good one. I should have stuck with Truly Victorian, or perhaps Laughing Moon. But I liked the look of the image on the front of the Simplicity pattern. I was drawn to View B. So I took the time and trouble to alter the pattern for fit (have I mentioned how drastically I have to alter everything to fit?). I was quite pleased with the lining, the sleeves were remarkably easy to redraft, and I was good with the gathered overbodice. I felt pretty good about it.


But it was too big around the waist, the gathered layer puffed out too much and looked too blousy, the sleeves fit great for what they were but just didn't seem right for the1860s, the collar looked clunky, and the pleating on the skirt was wonky. All in all, it just looked . . . off.

Since finishing the dress, I had really started diving into fashion plates and period photos to get a better idea of what was right. And I found I wasn't satisfied with this dress. I thought it could be quite nice. But it wasn't. I'd put a lot of time and effort into it; I didn't want it to sit in my closet because I was lukewarm about wearing it, and I didn't want to put it on and feel not-quite-right in it. So I determined to put a bit more time and effort into it so that I was at least mostly satisfied with it.

Which meant I had to tackle all the things I mentioned above. The game was afoot.

The first thing to tackle was the bodice. This was several weeks ago now, and many life things have happened in the interval, so I don't recall the exact sequence of events. I think I took off the sleeves before tackling the waistline and gathering, but I could be wrong. In any case, I did start by unpicking the gathered bit of the front bodice from the waistband, tugging it down to make it less puffy and blousy, and re-stitching it to the waistband. I did the same at the center back where there was more gathering. I also moved the closure on the waistband in to tighten it up a bit. This sounds simple. It took me days to get this right.

My poor dress, dismembered.

The next thing to tackle was the sleeves. I definitely detached the skirt from the waistband before (or during) working on the sleeves. I took off the puff sleeves and drafted new sleeves from scratch. I didn't have enough left-over fabric for two-piece coat sleeves, but I was able to make a one-piece "coat sleeve". The shape isn't great, but it's credible. In any case, it isn't as obviously obnoxious as the puff sleeves.
New sleeve, old sleeve.

The final hurdle was the skirt. My main problem was that when I first made the dress, it was too loose around the waist. I just lapped the closure over and called it a day because the volume of the skirt hid the fact that it was a bit wonky, and I definitely didn't want to re-pleat it. Since I was going to all this trouble, however, I wanted to redo the skirt. I should say, early 1860s skirts are about as simple as it gets: they're a big rectangle gathered down at the top to the waistband. The shorter side of the rectangle is the length you want your skirt to be (plus hem allowance at the bottom and seam allowance at the top), and the long end is how much yardage you want for the circumference of your skirt (I usually use about 4 yards of fabric; it needs to be full around the bottom of your hoops). Because I'm short, I usually just use the full width of the fabric so that each long edges of the skirt is the selvedge and I don't have to worry about fraying. I just attach one selvedge edge to the waistband and turn up the bottom however much I need to (usually it's quite a few inches).

In any case, I decided not to redo the pleating but to actually gather it. This ended up being more work and trouble than I'd bargained for. I don't actually know how much fabric is in this particular skirt, but I'm guessing it's more like 5 yards. It's also mid-weight cotton. The combination of yardage and fabric thickness made it very difficult indeed to gather that beast of a skirt down to my waist measurement. I ran machine gathering stitches (like I was going to sew two 5-yard-long lines of stitching by hand!) and pulled until it couldn't be gathered down any more. And each eighth of the skirt (I divided it up into sections) was still an inch or so too long. If you're counting, that means it would be 8" too long for the waistband, which is obviously not going to work. So I had to kind of bunch up the gathers as best I could and smoosh it into submission. And I did: I smooshed those gathers into submission. Once they had bowed to my superior will and strength, I sewed it all down to the waistband (which was still attached to the bodice at the top). A little more hand-sewing to keep everything together and shift some closures, and voila, the revamp of my dress was done!

But wait! I did forget one important bit. The collar. I happened to see somewhere that collars were usually a single layer of fine fabric, whereas mine was two layers stitched around the edges and turned out. The collar I had was also too wide by about 3/4". It's all about proportions. I'm petite, so things like collars need to be proportioned a little smaller for me. Instead of starting from zero, I just unpicked the collar I already had and used one layer of the fabric. I trimmed it down around the edges to make it narrower and hand-sewed a little hem. It looks much less clunky now. Another minor note: I added a second line of the black trim to the bodice to better define where the dropped-sleeve seam is. (In my before picture above, there is no black trim at all, but after taking that photo I added a line to the skirt and to the bodice.)

I am much happier now with this dress. I consider it historically credible, which is currently my aim. I think I'll get much more use out of it and feel better about wearing it when I do wear it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

...And a Paletot


Having a whole bevy of historical dresses/separates (of varying quality!) is all fine and good . . . so long as you only plan to wear them indoors, or outdoors in warm weather. If you--that is, I--want to wear them in cold or even cool weather, some outer wear is needed. (Oh, should I note that a paletot is a Victorian jacket? It is.)

Coats are more than a little intimidating. To do them, er, properly, you're really meant to interline and pad stitch and all kinds of things that are probably not as difficult as they seem to be but are still, as I said, intimidating. I mean, people like Bernadette Banner can do it, and while she's much more experienced than I am, I, too, am a person who sews and has two hands, so theoretically I could do it, too.

But did I? No.

Might I have ended up with an even nicer product had I done so? Perhaps.

Do I regret not doing it? Nope.

Am I entirely satisfied with the final product? No. I'm about 85% satisfied, but that's not bad.

In any case, I like to start out by showing you all the final product. On a cool, though not particularly cold, day, with highs in the low 40s, I decided to get dressed up and drive up to Gettysburg to walk around a bit and give my new(ish) paletot a spin:

Abe's bench is pushing my hoops forward here,
so the skirts look bigger than they are.

Here you get a better idea of the proportions of the skirts
to the rest of me, which I think are just about right. The skirt of 
the paletot is blown open, though; hence the big gap.

The specs:

Fabric: wool (possibly wool-cotton blend), a little under 2 yards on the "remnants" table at a fabric store, for $9.99/yard.
Lining: navy-blue cotton, gotten at JoAnn's for around $4/yard.
Trim: Two different types/widths of cotton fringe (because I didn't have enough of the wider fringe); bought online from someone de-stashing; white velvet ribbon bought on Amazon.
Pattern: self-drafted

Getting started

As noted above, I self-drafted this pattern. I did this for a few reasons: I didn't want to pay for a pattern since I'm trying to trim costs as much as possible, and I would have to heavily alter the pattern anyway (patterns are always pretty far off for me). I also happened to come across the following diagram via The Lady's Treasury:

I thought the finished look was pretty (here it what it looks like) and I realized I could most likely start with a pattern I had already fitted to myself. In fact, it's the pattern for the lining of the dress I'm wearing underneath the paletot in the picture above. (Long story short: the lining fit well, but I wasn't satisfied with the dress as a whole, so I am currently taking it apart and putting it back together, but that's a blog for another day.)

I actually started working on this ages ago--last summer, I think, when I had notions of going to the Remembrance Day celebrations in Gettysburg in November. Because of pandemic reasons, that was cancelled anyway, but it's just as well, because that attempt was a total failure. At that point, I didn't have the diagram above, and I was just going to kind of . . . wing it. I used the old mock-up and didn't do a new mockup, and I pulled out some wool blend polka-dotted fabric left over from a skirt (that may or may not end up in the back of my costume closet forevermore). The fabric was all wrong, using the old mock-up was a failure, and even though I put hours (and hours) of work into it, it was a failure. I tossed it aside.

And then I moved.

Almost as soon as I had unpacked my everyday clothes, I was itching to sew again. I had had a really rough month of it, with the massive stress of finding and buying a home for the first time and with health issues on top of that. It wasn't pretty, but once I had moved, an enormous weight was off of me, and I felt almost normal again. Because of the move, I hadn't done any sewing in probably a month and a half, and I just needed a creative outlet, so I dove right into the paletot.

I knew I had to start essentially from scratch because my previous effort wasn't salvageable. I believe this is when I found the diagram above. In any case, because I'd confused myself with the previous mock-up, I decided to go back to the under-bodice pattern for the blue dress. My plan was to start with that and use the diagram above to get the general shape of the pattern pieces. In order to turn the under-bodice pattern into a paletot, I would need to add the skirt, convert two darts (per side) into one and extend that dart into the skirt portion of the paletot, and draft the pagoda sleeves and cape.

And . . . it was not an immediate success. It fit okay in the shoulders and chest but not around the waist, and the skirt was way off. It folded over itself at the side but didn't reach all the way to the front. It was also quite long, though that wasn't much of a problem. It's easy enough to hack off a few inches at the bottom edge.

After much fiddling and pinning and repinning, I was able to get a shape that I was happy with, or at least happy enough to be getting on with. As for the sleeves, those were fairly easy. Some time ago, I found a good resource on how to draft sleeves, and it served me well here. As for the cape, it wasn't too difficult. As per the diagram, I just extended the lines of the bodice pattern outwards from the shoulder, decided how far down the front I wanted it to come, and drew in the shape I wanted. I had to modify the mockup a little bit to make the front angle deeper, but that was no problem.

Once I was satisfied that I was pretty close to where I wanted to be with the shapes, I cut out a second mock-up, this time from a navy blue cotton I'd bought for the lining. My plan was to save some fabric and time by making the mock-up out of lining fabric. As long as it wasn't too far off, I would simply take apart the blue cotton mockup and use it as lining.

Here are the pieces cut out of the blue fabric:

Going clockwise from the top left, we have the back, the front, the front cape piece, the sleeve, the second front cape piece, and then both the back cape pieces.  Notice the dart cut out of the front piece.

Here, I'm trying to figure out how to get the whole paletot out of less than two yards of the black wool fabric I bought for the project. The wool here folded in half lengthwise. I ended up having to piece the top of the front pieces at the shoulder, but since that is covered with the cape, it doesn't show.

Worth noting: I often use newspaper when drafting patterns. I have a ton of it, it's big, and I don't mind tossing it out if the pattern doesn't work out. More recently, I was turned on to the idea of using wrapping paper with a grid on the back. I got several rolls on steep discount after Christmas. The grid helps SO MUCH in drafting. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

Here in all her glory is the mock-up over my hoops. No, the fit still isn't awesome, but it fits better on me and I figured it would do.

I made a few adjustments to the blue mock-up, particularly adding more width to the center front so the skirts came together. Here, the measuring tapes continues the line of the center front a few inches, since I decided not to recut the front in blue and just make the adjustment when cutting out the wool. You also see here where the front piece doesn't quite fit onto the black wool; that's the bit I pieced.

I went ahead and cut out the wool. The next step was to assemble all of this. Looking at the paletot in the image, I had no idea how it closed. I saw it had buttons down the front of the cape. Were these decorative or functional? If they were functional, how did they manage to traverse all the layers of fabric there? Because the edge of the bodice and of the cape are both turned under there, there are a lot of layers of fabric. I considered having the cape layers wrap around the bodice layers and have it all button as one, but that seemed like it would be too bulky. So I worked out a somewhat complicated system of closure that is probably not historically accurate at all. The cape is only attached to the bodice at the neckline (though not all the way around). The bodice is closed by hooks and eyes down to the waist. On one side, the cape is attached to the bodice at the neckline all the way to the center front edge. The other side is unattached for the last few inches so that it can reach overtop the layers on the other side and attach to the other edge of the cape (by means of a hook-and-eye). Essentially, the separated cape and bodice layers on one side end up sandwiching the stitched-together cape and bodice layers of the other side. 

With the top edge of the cape thusly secured, it lays closed pretty happily on its own, but I added one hook and eye to the bottom edge to secure it. All of this required massive amounts of cogitation and a lot of fiddling to make the angles meet up neatly.

My suspicion is that the Victorians simply managed to make the buttons functional.

Above, we have the body of the paletot in black, all assembled. And a bonus cat.

The next thing to tackle was the decoration. I hadn't attached the sleeves yet because I wanted to do the Greek key design from the image, and I knew that I would have to do that while the sleeves were still flat.

I had to redo this design several times. I painstakingly mitered the corners and pinned it all down, only to realize that my 1" velvet ribbon was too wide. Luckily, the ribbon was backed with something synthetic, so I trimmed it down to 3/4" and melted the edge, and it worked great. I also realized that the velvet ribbon was just too white compared to the fringe. It was glaringly WHITE. So I dyed it with tea (the plush part of the ribbon must be cotton, because it dyed quickly and easily). I pinned on the narrower, less-glaring ribbon only to realize that the ribbon wasn't totally opaque and the mitered corners showed different shades of white where the ribbon folded over itself. Like with the WHITE ribbon that was too white, this didn't look good. If I was going to all this trouble, mitering the trim and all, then I decided I ought to take the extra time to fix this problem. So I unpinned bits of it at a time and slipped some 1/2" white satin ribbon underneath. I started stitching it all down. Then I realized that that didn't totally solve the issue, either, because at the corners I'd folded over the satin ribbon instead of mitering it like the velvet ribbon overtop, and that was visible. So I undid it again and did it properly, mitering the satin ribbon as well as the velvet ribbon. This time, it turned out looking great. Finally.

The next step was to finalize my trim plan for the body. Above, I'm trying out some different configurations. I went with an edge of wider fringe around the bottom of the cape with a line of the velvet ribbon (dyed but not trimmed down) above it, a line of narrower fringe around the sleeves, a double line of the narrower fringe edging the skirts (to match the width of the trim around the cape), a line of velvet ribbon at the neckline (trimmed down to 1/2"), and some buttons. It was difficult to get the velvet ribbons to follow the curves of the cape and especially the curves of the neckline. I had to make little pleats in it to make it work, but it does work.

Work in progress:

And with that, we had a completed paletot:

I'm really pleased with the result. Unfortunately, I really didn't have anywhere to wear it, given the pandemic. But I finally got the courage to get dressed up a few weeks ago and go up to Gettysburg. In addition to the paletot, I wore tall socks, an extra petticoat against my legs, and gloves (which go with a Victorian outfit anyway). I did get a bit chilled walking around in the 40-degree weather, but honestly it wasn't too bad. I did discover a few things. I should add another hook-and-eye to the middle of the cape, because when moving, it sometimes gaps open. I also might add some kind of closure to the skirts, because they kept blowing open. It wouldn't be an issue if the lining were black, but the blue, while fun and colorful, is really evident when the thing blows open.

Overall, though, this is one of the projects I'm most satisfied with.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

...And a Gazette and a Morgue

This may be exciting only to myself, and perhaps I should have come across this already, but even well after finishing the manuscript for a novel about the Llewelyn Davies brothers (George, Jack, Peter, Michael, and Nico, who inspired the creation of Peter Pan), I can't help poking around the available resources. Much to my delight, there are a lot of rich available resources, and I can continue to learn. Most of this won't end up in the manuscript, since it's finished and I did, as thoroughly as possible, research everything that does appear there. What I'm finding is a wealth of additional info that just can't be fit into the novel I wrote.

Today, there was a slight exception. I was looking back over the manuscript and realized that I might be able to double-check a fact that seemed to be hazy in my sources. The fact in question was when George and Peter were "gazetted", that is, when they were summoned in the official London Gazette to go to training for war. They enlisted as soon as war was declared August 4, 1914 and were commissioned as Second Lieutenants, but they went home until being told to go to training at Sheerness. That's what happened on September 11, 1914: they were gazetted. In the manuscript, I had written that it happened in "October". When I got to that point in my re-read, I was thinking of my sources, which I'd recently revisited. They both said the brothers were gazetted in September (no date), so I'm unclear why I wrote "October", but today it occurred to me that I might be able to look up the London Gazette online, and I did. Here is what I found:

This link is to the page that shows George's and Peter's names. This is what they saw and what they read to inform them they were about to go to war. Peter wouldn't actually see action until 1916, but George went to France in December of that year (1914) and was killed in March 1915.

The other thing I found--which might have been there for some time--was Peter's "Morgue". Later in life, Peter started to put together a family history. It included family letters from the previous several decades with Peter's intelligent, eloquent commentary. He wryly called it the "Morgue." Ultimately, he never completed the project, probably because of how difficult it was for him to revisit the past. The manuscript still exists, however, and can be found here:

I want to go through it more carefully, but I haven't done so just yet.

Friday, February 5, 2021

...And Godey's Lady's Book

 I recall, somewhat vaguely, hearing about "Godey's Lady's Book" in my AP US History class in high school, lo these many years ago. If I remember, it was mentioned in the textbook, one of those bolded words you're meant to take note of. Apparently, I did take note of it.

Godey's Lady's Book was a monthly lady's magazine out of Philadelphia, begun in the 1830s. Magazines at this period were very popular and included all kinds of information and features. It was something of a catch-all resource for women, with short stories, poetry, literary notices (that is, notices of books about to be published), "receipts" (what we now call recipes), architectural plans, music, tips for pressing flowers, drawing tutorials, embroidery designs, all the latest fashion "chit-chat", and full-color fashion plates.

All of which is to say that I was familiar with Godey's Lady's Book when my father's cousin contacted me to say he had a volume of the magazine. I was interested and mildly enthusiastic. On a day when I had another package go awry in strange circumstances, I got the package containing this volume. When I got it, I was preoccupied with that other package.

And when I opened it, I became more than mildly enthusiastic. I was thrilled.

This was a volume of all twelve monthly issues of Godey's Lady's Book from 1864. A whole year's worth! This volume, according to my father's cousin, had come down through the family (he suggested it had come with the family out to Kansas in the 1850s, but of course that isn't possible since the volume was of 1864 issues). It isn't in very good shape. There is no cover, the first few pages are torn and detached, and the binding it starting to fall apart. In fact, I sat down and immediately engrossed myself in it, flipping through the pages, and I went through it again a few days ago taking pictures of anything that might be of interest, but I will do my best not to open it again. Just going through it twice caused more cracks in the binding and therefore caused more sections to come loose from the rest of the volume.

Going through it that first time, I was delighted. I didn't read any of the stories, but I did glance at some of the poems, which were, I'm afraid, pretty maudlin Victorian fare, focused on death (not a big surprise in 1864, right in the middle of the war). I can't really read music, so I skimmed that. I didn't want to sit down and read the many stories and serials, either. But I was very interested in the various fashion items.

These fashion items came in various forms. There were the gorgeous, full-color fashion plates, of course. These were double the width of the magazine, were a "landscape" orientation, and folded in half fit into the magazine--you know, fold-outs. Sadly, over the last 157 years, some of the fashion plates went missing, lost the half of themselves that once folded out, or were torn along the fold. None were entirely intact. But what did survive is pretty glorious:

(This is just a sampling. About half to two-thirds of the fashion plates survive, reckoning in the plates that are half-missing.)

Aside from this, there was a sections called "novelties", with etchings of various items of clothing, sometimes for children and sometimes accessories. There were images of bonnets and caps and undersleeves and what I would call chemisettes:

There were also line etchings of outfits, ensembles, hair decorations, and coiffures:

I particularly enjoyed this etching of bathing costumes:

There was, alas, only one pattern diagram, but I quite like the bodice it supposedly makes:

Now, if you've seen any other part of my blog, it's pretty evident that I'm into costuming. I've been trying hard to up my game recently as far as accuracy. I've been less than satisfied with what I've sewn, though I'm getting closer as I learn. How better to make an accurate ensemble than to base it on the information in Godey's Lady's Book? This volume can show me the cut and silhouette of dresses, but it also has information about accessories and styling and how everything went together as a look. The hair stuff would be helpful if I weren't so utterly useless when it comes to hair. That is a weak point of mine and is oh-so-important in getting the right look. I'm working on it.

In any case, I am extremely grateful to my father's cousin for sending this to me.