My latest – very frantic – make, is an 1876/77 Natural Form day or reception dress in striped silk taffeta and plum cotton sateen.
It was made to wear at a Victorian Christmas tea I hosted at our house last Saturday. A big part of the reason for the tea’s Victorian theme is that I’d started missing Victorian sewing over the past few months, nearly all the historical events and activities around here have been either 18th century or regency. I know, I know, life is so rough, huh? I swear I’m not complaining but I have wanted a little change of pace. I’m also still deeply into a Natural Form phase and had started planning out this dress at least two years ago so I was delighted to have a reason and opportunity to finally make it a reality!
I’m starting this post with a couple of shots of the finished dress so that you’ll have some frame of reference for the process and detail photos.
The style and pattern are mash-ups of about 5 different sources. The starting point was this fashion plate in my book of Harper’s Bazar plates:
I’ve coveted this (or something like it) for a few years now and thought my striped silk would be just perfect for it.
More recently I noticed this pattern in Frances Grimble’s Fashions of the Gilded Age Vol 1:
Upon closer inspection of the fashion plate and pattern in tandem I thought they actually had quite a lot in common and realized I could probably use the pattern to achieve something close to the fashion plate. I especially liked how the pattern cleverly makes a one-piece dress look like a two-piece overdress + underskirt ensemble thus simplifying construction and saving on fabric – Victorian sewing tricks FTW!
However, I did prefer the fullness in the skirt of the fashion plate over the slimness of the pattern. That’s when I took notice of the 1877 dress + pattern in (everyone’s go-to) Patterns of Fashion:
The skirt on this extant dress was significantly fuller than the Grimble pattern without being constructed from totally different shapes, meaning I could merge the two.
Here’s how I did it:
I photocopied the Grimble pattern:
Cut all the pieces out:
traced them onto a printable 1/8″ grid (the pattern is a 1/8 scale), merging the centre front and front pieces in the process a la the Janet Arnold draft, and added volume to the skirts of the other pieces:
The inner lines on the skirts of the side and side and side back pieces are the original, Grimble pattern, lines. I left them in situ in case I ever want to make this dress again with those lines. I then drew the full-sized pieces onto 1″ grid paper. It was SO much easier to make my modifications on the small grid rather than on full-sized pieces. I’m totally doing this from now on when I use scaled patterns!!
The trickiest bit, mentally, was figuring out how I wanted to do the centre back panel. Because the lining and fashion fabric layers each have their own separate trains I couldn’t flatline the cb panel as one normally would (and as the rest of the dress panels are). The train attached to the lining piece needed to be integrated into the rest of the dress so I sewed this layer on its own to the side back panels. I had intended the cb seam allowances (all bound with “hug snug” rayon seam binding) to face the interior of the dress like the rest of the seam allowances but got myself turned around with what should face inwards vs outwards and accidentally ended up with them facing out. Oh well. I wasn’t about the rip everything out for this piece of minutiae, I was under a crazy-tight deadline!
Here you can also get an idea of the “trickery” used in the dress to create the illusion of two layers in one: the striped silk is only on the upper part of the dress panels and the plum sateen is on the bottom portions. The joining lines are covered by the swag/drape that’s applied later on.
A couple of close-ups of the cb lining panel:
The upper edge of the gathered train piece gets hidden under the fashion fabric layer so I didn’t bother finishing it off – nor would Victorian seamstresses have bothered to do so.
The fashion fabric layer of the cb panel was constructed separately and then mounted onto the dress. To help make it clean-looking I flat-piped the edges of the panel with strips of the plum cotton sateen and then top-stitched-in-the-ditch the silk layer to the lining layer.
A close-up of what the inverted box pleats in the train look like on the underside:
Because I was under such a tight deadline for this dress (after patterning, cutting, laying the parts of each panel together) I had only 5 days to construct the entire dress. Nearly all of my waking hours for those 5 days was spent frantically sewing, leaving little time to even think about taking more process photos, let alone actually doing so.
Instead, I’ve taken a few detail photos of the finished dress to show various elements of the construction.
The bodice interior:
A close-up of the buttons I used – these are actual antique, carved shell buttons that happily fit the overall colour-scheme really nicely!
The neckline inset and collar. The neckline of the inset is slightly v-shaped as I though that would be more comfortable to wear than the more usual very close-fitting style.
I spent quite a bit of time finding an historical example of this to justify the decision and luckily found this image:
full image here
Which reminds me, one of the details still missing from my dress is lace at the collar and sleeve ends, I simply ran out of time for those but will add them for whenever I wear the dress next.
The inset interior:
A shot of the hem ruffles:
The lower ruffle is just knife pleated and machine stitched to the dress:
The upper ruffle was more complicated. I knife pleated it, pinned the pleats down, pinned the ruffle to the dress between the pleats, then removed the pins holding the pleats and hand stitched gathers along two lines I had drawn around the ruffle, I tacked the ruffle to the dress at the point of each pin holding the ruffle piece to the dress. Ok, that’s a mess of a sentence, did that make sense?
The striped ruffle was made and added to each larger ruffle before they were mounted to the dress. They were made using the ruffler foot on my Singer Featherweight and then fingerstroked for pressing into a semblance of decent little pleats:
This was, BY FAR, the most tedious, least pleasant part of the whole process. And making the ruffles and setting them onto the dress took me nearly two whole days (of the five I had to construct the whole thing)!!
The upper and lower edges of both solid mauve ruffle pieces were flat-piped with strips of the cotton sateen and then the striped ruffles were machine stitched-in-the-ditch to the underside.
I cannot describe how happy I was when this part of the process was finally over!
On the upside, I really enjoyed making the sleeve cuffs! They were based on this extant example – the great detail shot of them also really helped:
image link here
Here are mine (I didn’t have enough self-cover buttons to add matching fabric buttons and had no time to pick any up, that will be another detail to add later):
Unfortunately, the underside of the flat piping keeps flipping up, and since it’s cut on the garment bias rather than the true bias (a bit of cheat due to time constraint) it looks pretty ugly under there. So add that to the list of detail bits to be addressed in future.
Here’s a detail of the trimming on the swag/drape piece. It’s a combination of vintage silk/rayon velvet ribbon (this stuff is unbelievable soft, it’s just gorgeous! I found it on ebay here – and there’s more left!), some looped fringe I’d had in the stash for I don’t know how long, and some long knotted fringe I got from Patchwork Panda trims especially for this project back when I first conceived it about two or more years ago:
To help finish off the look of the back train draping I added some wide vintage grosgrain ribbon. The upper edge gets concealed by the fringe on the swag/drape piece:
The dress was made for/debuted at a Victorian Christmas tea I hosted at our house last Saturday and a couple of the guests were kind enough to take some good photos for me, so here is the dress on me and “in action”
I have to admit, after I’d finished setting on the ruffle and before the swag and sleeves were on I wasn’t sure how much I liked the look, but it all came together in the end and now I love this dress! It turned out just as well as I’d hoped and I do hope I’ll have other opportunities for wearing it in the not-distant future.
I’m sure I’m not alone in the experience of being unsure about a project mid-way through only for it all to come together in the end – what have yours been? (And rest assured, I have also had experiences where I was unsure of a project part way through and things only got worse from there to near or total failure!)