Tuesday, March 15, 2016

My First 1860s Dress

I have long held a love for mid-19th Century fashions, but up until now I hadn't made any for two simple reasons:  1. I did not have the proper undergarments, and 2. I had nowhere to wear them.  But last fall I was invited by my friend Melissa (the one who taught me how to tat) to participate in the Battle of Hampton Roads weekend at the Mariners' Museum, March 5-6.  My next blog post will be about the weekend itself, but first I want to share the dress that I made in just under a week.  (I should stipulate I was only able to do so because I am self-employed.)

I bought this beautiful plaid cotton voile at SR Harris, which is probably my favorite fabric store ever.  I was initially torn between the two Simplicity Patterns:

I preferred the one on the left, but I worried that the plaid was too large for the design of the sleeves.  However, after getting input from friends, I decided to go for it anyway.  They pointed out that the other pattern is better suited to wool or a heavier cotton with more body.  My voile is very light and slightly sheer.

I started with a muslin mockup of the bodice and sleeves.  My measurements put me at a size 16 according to the pattern envelope, but the sizes in the pattern I had only went up to 14.  I therefore gauged up when cutting out the pieces, guesstimating the amount to add based on the distance between the lines for the smaller sizes. I've done this before with good results, as it's fairly simple to gauge up only one size. 

It turns out I needn't have done this, as the resulting bodice was too loose.  I guess I should have looked at the finished garment measurements before cutting:

So I took my mockup apart and re-cut the pieces on the size 14 lines: 

Then I tried it on again over my corset.  (I used the corset for fitting the first time, too.  I just don't have any pictures of that.)

Good fit through the waist.  Large in the bust, but that's by design - it will be filled out by bust pads.
Kind of tricky to get photos of my own back, but it looks pretty good.
Next I attached one of the sleeves to check placement and fit/length.  Looking at it now, I realize that the armscye is too low off the shoulder, but I was unsure at the time how it should look.  I didn't bother making the sleeve puffs for the mockup, but I probably should have. 

Now it was time to start cutting the fashion fabric!  This is always the moment when I get nervous about a project, and this time it was intensified by the prospect of pattern-matching.  I usually only have one main driver when cutting fabric, which is to make the best use possible of the yardage.  Pattern-matching, especially with such a large plaid, works against this driver and makes me slightly crazy.  Then it got worse when I realized that the three sleeve pieces were all cut on the bias, which really eats fabric! 

I found that the selvege edges had the same amount of overlap in the plaid as the center front pattern pieces have in the design.  Which means that I could cut out both pieces flush with the edges of the fabric on either side of the full width of the fabric, and as long as I lined them up vertically, the finished bodice would have a perfectly lined-up center front closure. 

Do you see the flaw in my plan?  I see it now, but did not realize it at the time.  I'll elaborate in a bit.
Here are the pieces side-by-side and overlapped as the finished bodice will be: 


The last piece cut out before the skirt gave me the most anxiety: 

I took apart my mockup, pressed the pieces and basted them to the fashion fabric pieces around the edges.  My first attempt at pattern-matching the side back seams was less than successful:  

I had followed the tutorial for matching stripes from Historical Sewing - roughly.  I kinda cheated because I didn't want to waste fabric, and here we see the result.  It works beautifully when I follow the tutorial exactly!  Why didn't I listen??? 

Anyway, I picked the pieces apart: 

Re-pinned the seams, carefully matching up the horizontal and vertical stripes and ignoring the seam allowances entirely: 

Sewed the seams, seamripping and adjusting small sections as needed: 

And finally I had a back bodice I was happy with! 

So much better! 
I assembled the bodice and bound the top and bottom edges with piping, which I made from bias strips cut from the scraps left from cutting the bodice and sleeves. 

Being frugal (and in a hurry), I did not purchase any cord specifically for the purpose of making the piping, and instead used up small pieces I had leftover from past projects.  I had to piece them together in a couple places to make the piping long enough;

Then I tried it on, pinning the center front edges closed: 

Now the flaw in my plan should be more evident.  I wasn't thinking about the darts when I carefully lined up the center front edges to match the plaid pattern perfectly, and now one side has only dark stripes and the other has only light stripes.  This bothered me, but not enough to cut a whole new front or even half of one.  I decided to chalk it up to a lesson learned.  The back looks good, though. 

Added the sleeves, not even attempting to pattern-match them at the seams.  The sleeves themselves are lined, but the puffs at the top are just the voile. 

Finally all that was left was the skirt.  I measured my remaining fabric and got quite a shock - I had much more left than I needed!  I'm so used to just eking out the garment I want to make with barely or not-quite-enough fabric.  But I had enough left to cut six panels to the length of the skirt, and I only needed four.  So I have lots of extra fabric, which is very unusual for me!

Anyway, I cut the panels very carefully along the same line of the plaid each time, counting the number of repeats needed (13) to comprise the length I needed:

I used the pattern pleating templates only for marking the fold line at the top of the skirt, and pleated it into a waistband of the voile backed with white muslin for stability:

I added a skirt hook at the side front closure and tried it on with the bodice over my corset, a quick-and-dirty corded petticoat I made up in about three hours, and a totally anachronistic bridal crinoline that I happen to have.  I eyeballed the hem by mentally noting which horizontal stripe met the floor in front, and later hemmed it by machine by simply turning up and pressing all around the hem at said stripe for a 4" deep hem.  I also pinned the bodice to the skirt at the seams, then took the whole thing off and carefully tacked the skirt waistband to the lining of the bodice.  The last thing I did before going to bed at 2:00 AM the night before the event was to baste 16 buttons to the center front, which has as yet no closure.  Getting dressed in the morning, I simply pinned the bodice closed. 

Brian the Engineer was kind enough to come visit me and take photos both during and after the event.  Here are the after photos from Saturday:  

Because cannon.

Because sonic screwdriver.

Blog post on the event itself coming soon! 


  1. I love big plaids, and I can not lie.

    The mid-19th century suits you! Embrace it! And I love the sleeves.

    1. Me too! That is, I love wearing big plaids. Not as big a fan of sewing with them, it turns out. :p

      And thank you. I didn't think the hairstyle quite suited me, but then I'm so used to my hair being parted on the side.

  2. Lovely! What a fun first foray into the mid-19th century! And given wartime mentality, not re-cutting and not worrying about pattern matching is very accurate--even if it drove you a little nuts :)

    1. That's a good point! I'll leave it as-is, since I'm happy with the bodice overall. Thanks for the perspective!