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.