Yes, we’re headed to Wisconsin for a fantastic sewing retreat weekend hosted by the Living History Society of Minnesota! Spots are Quite Limited, and full details here available under the Workshops tab above, or click through here. September 17-19… we’re going to have a grand time learning together, working on individual projects, and generally making merry. The weekend is instruction-meals-and-lodging inclusive, at a gorgeous historic lakeside nature reserve… with flushing conveniences and electricity, so: best of all worlds. (And there are some cool extras, like a guided canoe tour by moonlight, that you’ll learn more about after registration!) Have questions before you register? Most can be answered here.
We’ll be back to the stays posts in the Sew-Along shortly, but today, I wanted to share with you a lovely review of our Great Auntie Maude’s Favorite Cloth Doll pattern, from a delightful history enthusiast and blogger, Elizabeth K (I do have a fondness for fellow Elizabeths…)
Click through to read her thoughts on the pattern, see her lovely doll, and then read her other great posts!
Don’t forget to subscribe to site updates; once the girls are all dressed, I’d say it’s time for some doll projects, wouldn’t you?
In the midst of kitting up with chemises, drawers, petticoats, dresses, and all the other pretty things of a functional living history wardrobe, one element often overlooked or skipped “in the interests of time” is a stay or corset for a dress-wearing child.
That category of person-to-be-clothed includes tiny toddlers, through middle childhood, through the tween years, and into the teens, so it’s a significant population, and there are some good reasons to add stays or corsets to a child’s wardrobe.
First, though: definitions and functions.
A child’s corset (or stays; the two terms are used quite interchangeably in primary sources, and there doesn’t seem to be any differentiation as to one being stabilized with cording, the other with steel, etc) is designed for support, light control, and a platform. By that, I mean this: children are quite often “Eggs on Legs” (to borrow from Karen Crocker), and a child’s stay or corset provides some firming up to the squidgy torso, a way to move support of garments to the shoulder (through the use of straps) rather than trying to find a waist point, and also gives a spot upon which to button skirt supports and fullness.
Beyond those aspects, a stay also provides bust support for developing figures, and functions in the same way as an adult corset, distributing the wearing stress and weight of increasingly-full skirts around the entire body, rather than hanging from pinchy points on the back hip.
For my own two girls, stays do this:
1: For the younger one, age 8, who is build like a very thin noodle, and has some very mild sensory challenges: we’ll get a place to tack clothing onto her body, and prevent her skirts always sliding down to her knees in front, without having a narrow band of pressure from waistbands that will drive her to tears. She does very well with all-over pressure, so the stays not only function well from a historic-dressing standpoint, they ameliorate some modern challenges in a period-appropriate way! She also likes complex dress-up, so it’s satisfying all the way around.
2: For the older one, who is getting her early-teen curves at 11, the stays will simply firm up her torso for a tidy look in period clothing that matches what she’s seeing in original images. It doesn’t take much to notice that those 40s and 50s images of girls are showing some well-stabilized torsos, and she has a deep desire to present an identical look. Her stays will also accommodate her bust development, while giving her another layer between her own self and the world (which helps the very body-modest girl a great deal.)
What About Growth?
I’m not actually too worried about growth measures in either stay, and here’s why:
1: Noodly-girl has, at 8, a waist that is more slender than her own waist at age 2. Her waist has been a constant 21″ since she was about 4 years old. She’s healthy, but very reedy, and tends to do quick jumps up in height, without getting much wider at all. I need her to get the summer out of these stays—I anticipate two interpretive seasons at the very most before she’s 3″ taller and needs a new shape—, and then I can pass them along to other families. So, I’m fitting them to her needs now, with a slight bit of overlap for her buttons in the back, and about 1″ extra length in the straps for some growth room. She won’t be happy if they’re not comfortably snug.
2: My older girl is on the petite end of things, but is hitting her growth, and for her, that tends to be very little upward, and we’ve been seeing a refinement of curves in the last year. Her waist is lengthening a bit, and narrowing a lot; her hips are getting a little width, and her bust is developing. I can accommodate all of her needs by adding a lacing placket at the back, and keeping buttons in the front to aid self-dressing. Having dressed girls through their teens before, I’m comfortable with the idea that new stays are going to be an item every single year from now to about 18 or 19, when her figure starts to stabilize. Because she already has a good hip-to-waist ratio, I can make her stays without straps; she has enough hip to move to adult-style support without a problem.
As for adult supportive undergarments, I need 100% natural fabrics that are firmly woven, with good body and stability, but without being heavy or bulky. I’ll be using a combination of cotton twill and cotton sateen (a satin-weave cotton) for the corded stays my youngest will use. It’s a light-weight, low-bulk combination that does very well stabilized with close cording, and because she will not have a lacing adjustment, there’s no problem with the corded areas trying to squash to the waist.
My older daughter gets a more stabilized garment, suited to her support needs. I’ll be using a layer of coutil with some steel stays and German artificial whalebone (a high-grade product harvested from artificial whales of the inland lakes in Germany) in casings, to keep the garment as light and breathable as possible for a child who turns pink in the heat like her Mother. She’ll still have a buttoning front, but we’ll have a lacing placket in back, with metal grommets (not eyelets–size 00 two-piece metal grommets for durability).
I’m using the stays pattern from our Girl’s Linens pattern for each; it’s a simple one to cut for different lengths and circumferences, and I’ll be customizing the fit at the side seams for the younger one, and by creating some curving seamlines at the bust as well, for the older one. As she gets a bit older, I’ll switch to doing custom-draped corsets for her, following the methods in The Dressmaker’s Guide. Since the pattern accommodates her largest body measurement (bust), I can simply adjust things for now.
Remember, we’re doing the sewing sessions in 20-minute increments, to show how progress can be made even when time is tight for a modern family.
My first work session is actually just pre-washing my fabrics; there’s about 20 minutes of labor involved, with tossing it into the wash and hanging on the line later. We don’t have to stare at the cloth while it dries.
The majority of chemises with fullness at mid-century seem to be handled with gathering to fit a yoke or band. Since that seems to be the most common, that’s how I’ll be handling the fullness at the neckline.
In reproducing chemises, you could opt to machine sew gathering stitches. Keep your machine’s settings at a regular straight stitch, rather than a longer basting stitch. Run one row of stitches about 1/8″ away from the edge of the fabric, and another about 1/4″ away from that, stopping and starting to avoid the run-and-fell seams. They will be a bit bulky to try and pull gathers through, otherwise.
When dealing with the relative minimal fullness involved for a chemise neckline that I’ve already scaled down to suit my girls, machined gathers will work well enough, and they will be a bit faster than the option I’m choosing: hand gathering.
Sessions Nine thru Fourteen
Gathering by hand, using two rows of fairly small running stitch, is one of the most low-bulk ways to control fullness. I actually like the rhythm of the stitching, and I really like the fine results, so it’s satisfying and worthwhile to me to gather all four neckline edges by hand.
I do “hop the seam” with a longer stitch on the outside of the chemise at each of the run-and-fell seams. I’ll be positioning them flat when I sew the bands, and don’t want to have to drag thread through them when I gather. My smirched purple thumbnail is hovering over a “hop.”
The gathering takes me about 30 minute per chemise, which means I do need to be willing to sit down for six 20-minute sessions of work. In reality, this translated to snuggling into the corner of the couch, grabbing my needle and thread and watching three episodes of one of my favorite shows on Netflix (Supernatural, in case you wondered. It’s what I consider the modern equivalent of reading Bronte, or Shelley–Gothic horror/romance ideals in a modern setting. The nature of Man, redemption, brotherhood, all that lot.) I don’t consider that a hardship.
I’ll wait until I get everything pinned to the neck bands to decide if I’ll be sewing a regular seam, or finishing the necklines with stroked gathering; if the gathering density is sufficient, I may well choose stroked gathers, because I do like the way they look. (Spoiler Alert: I decided to do regular seams to attach the bands, and I did them by machine, too!)
Session Fifteen & Sixteen: Straight Bands
There are several ways to handle a straight, non-placketed band. I could choose to make each band a two-piece band, seamed at the bottom to the chemise, and to the band facing at the top. This is very stable, and allows me to sandwich in some nice whitework edging if I’m so inclined.
However, the particular miss I’m making these two chemises for has some mild sensory-processing quirks, and she is very likely to declare all of that “too stiff” to be worn.
Instead, I’m making the band double the width I want, seaming it to the chemise, and making a simple folded-and-stitch finish. A bit of topstitching along the upper fold gives it stability, without “stiffness” that might antagonize my particular young lady.
The basic construction process:
Seam the band at the short ends. Match quarter marks to the chemise and draw up the gathers to fit. Stitch a 1/4″ seam to join them. (This is my personal preference; you can make a deeper seam allowance if you prefer, and then trim the extra to reduce a bit of bulk inside the band.)
Press all the seam allowances toward the band, then fold the band into place on the inside, covering all the raw edges. Topstitch very close to the seam “ditch”, and again about 1/16″ to 1/8″ away from the fold at the top of the band. Done!
Session Seventeen & Eighteen: Placketed Bands
For the placketed bands, I chose to round off the upper edge of the bands. This is a lot easier to sew if each band is in two sections: the outer band, and the band facing/lining. I follow the same process for matching quarter points, drawing up the gathers, and sewing with a 1/4″ seam allowance to attach the band. However, I make sure the band extends about 1/4″ beyond the edge of the plackets, so I can attach the facing/lining easily, and have everything mate up smoothly.
Once the band is on, I can press all the allowances toward the band, then pin the band facing/lining right sides together with the outer band, and stitch from one curve, across the top edge, to the other curve.
A bit of trimming and notching to make sure the curve turns nicely, and I can press the whole facing/lining into place on the inside of the band. Again, topstitch to finish all the way around the band.
With the last bit of my final sewing session, I worked a buttonhole in the overlap end of each placketed chemise, and sewed on a neat little 4-hole white porcelain button (these are very common on undergarments at mid-century.)
Chemises: The Final Tally
Including the three side-bar sessions I spent on tucks and hemmed plackets, I’ve used twenty-one 20-minute sewing sessions to take purchased yardage to four finished chemises for my girls, using a mix of period-appropriate hand and machined construction techniques. That’s averaging out at 105 minutes per chemise… a bit more than an hour and a half each. Not too bad!
If I were only able to sew 20 minute a day, I would be done with all four chemises in 21 days. If I can carve out an hour a day, my time to complete four quite nice chemises drops to about one week of 1-hour sewing sessions. Or, I could choose to fall down a Black Hole of Making, and blitz out four chemises in one day, if I plan some meals ahead. From yardage on the laundry, to four chemises finished!
With the tucks in place, it’s time to create a center front placket in the chemise. This is an option outside of the Girls Linens pattern, so we’ll walk through step-by-step here. You can also use this technique on adult chemises, as it’s a common feature!
Side-Bar Session Three
There are several historical ways I could handle a center front placket on these chemises.
This chemise, from the MET collection, has an embellished, shaped yoke, and the placket below the yoke is a simple narrow-hemmed slit.
This one, with an interesting faggoted double band, appears to have the placket with one faced edge, and one narrow-hemmed edge.
Here is another with a faced-and-overlapped placket, where the placket forms a bit of a pleat at the base. This is the style of placket I’m leaning toward, as it will take a bit more abuse than a simple hemmed slit, and gives a functional spot for additional buttons and buttonholes if desired, if you plan the center gap wider than I did!
One thing I’ve noticed when looking at chemises with a faced placket is that the placket is often installed, and then the neck band attached and finished. This two-step process is fairly easy to replicate.
I’ll zip through the steps, and let you view the images as a slide-show again.
I measured down about 6″ (this is fairly arbitrary, but it will expand the neckline edge a whole foot for donning/doffing, and my 11yo is not a very large person), and cut a slit in the center front. Then, perpendicular cuts at the base, half-way across the gap in the middle (about 5/8″, in this case.)
Press each flap back, tuck the raw edge under, and press well.
Remove to the machine, or hand-stitch a hem on each pressed edge. Then it’s a quick “stack-em-up”; I folded the extra fabric in the base into two layered pleats, and pinned everything neatly. One pass of stitching just at the base of the folded placket, and another about 1/4″ below that, across the folded extras, and we have a tidy little placket all done!
(Well, actually TWO little plackets, all finished in one 20-minute sewing session!)
Gathered chemises are perfectly lovely, but sometimes it’s fun to do something that’s both period-correct, and a little fun! Fine tucking across the front of a chemise is one option. It takes no more fabric than a gathered chemise, and only a bit of time.
Generally, tucks at mid-century are not the ultra-fine “pin tucks” of the later 19th century or early 20th century. When used decoratively, they’re still fine, ranging from about 1/8″ to a scant 1/4″ or so, and typically have a gap that’s about equal to the width of the finished tuck between each folded-and-sewn tuck.
I’ve yet to handle an extant tucked chemise that has visible machine back-tacking (that “reverse stitch” we have on modern machines.) Because I like to mimic originals as much as possible, I chose to skip machined back-tacking. At the end of each tuck, I simply left a bit of a thread tail, drew both threads to what would be the underside of the pressed tuck, and tied a little doubled square knot to secure the threads before trimming off the tail. The upper end of the tucks will be secured inside the neck band, so I don’t have to back-tack there, either.
The other interesting thing I’ve noted on originals is how very often the tucks are pressed to face center front! This is opposite of our modern notions of arranging vertical tucks. Pressing to the center is one of those fine details that really takes a modern repro garment back in time, and it’s no trouble at all.
Side-Bar Sessions One & Two: Tucks!
It’s easiest to make tucks if you have the aid of a hem-gauge. If you don’t have a metal one, you can mark your desired intervals or measurements on a bit of cardstock, or just use a ruler or tape measure.
Because I’m making a placket at the center front, I want to leave some room to install and overlap that area. I placed the first folding line for the tucks 1-1/2″ away from the center front line.
After that, it’s a simple repeated process of stitching, pressing to center front, measuring and pressing the next line (3/4″ distances from one stitching line to the next fold line will give me 1/4″ tucks with 1/4″ between them) and repeated that until I have the whole front of the chemise tucked down to a measurement about 4″ wider than my daughter’s finished front chest width, measured from armpit crease to armpit crease.
Two 20-minute sessions have all the tucks in, and I’m quite pleased!
We spend an awfully lot of time trying to suss out the fine details and nuances of a clothing system that vanished 150 years ago or more. We try to replicate the shapes, the techniques, the textiles.
Sometimes, we finish up a project that used all our best, most recent research… and then turn around two years later and see how much more we know, and how that old piece doesn’t quite match up.
We’re also trying to coax our bodies to use skills that take loads of repetition to really “get”–and expecting perfection from ourselves with only a few brief experiences with a needle. I know my first 100 handmade buttonholes sure looked differently from my most recent 100. In workshops, I often tell people to focus on the mechanics of a stitch or technique; the beauty and refinement both depend on frequent repetition, and it will get better!
Sometimes, though, we just want a bit of a scapegoat.
That’s why we need Helen.
Helen is the maid-of-all-sewing you fictionally hired in the past to help make your wardrobe. Helen was a nice girl. She was willing, and she meant well.
But, compared to your current level of skill and knowledge, Helen just wasn’t very good.
Is one of your skirt breadths put in upside down? Oh, Helen.
Do you have buttonholes that look a bit like a worn picket fence, with gaps and sags and pulls, and made in three different sizes from top to bottom on your old bodice? Oh, Helen.
Does the piping on your bodice start out terribly fat, then disappear entirely where she missed the cord for 2″? Oh, Helen.
Do you have a whole stack of photos showing you with your collar basted in precisely 1/2″ off center? Do your darts have puckers at the top, every single time? Oh, Helen. That’s why you fired her, clearly.
Some of “her” work is probably salvageable. You could take it out and re-do it, using your Best Current Skills & Knowledge. There’s no reason to resist. It’s a period practice, remaking and remodeling, and certainly fits into a thrifty homemaker’s habits.
Some of “her” work will possibly go by the wayside, as no longer applicable to your living history needs. (Don’t perpetrate whammies… sell them off as dress-up or theatricals, not living history-appropriate!)
But don’t be discouraged when you realize you have progressed beyond Helen. Poor girl.
Just place the blame where it rightly belongs (Oh, Helen), gird up your loins, don your thimble, and allow yourself the grace to progress without regret or recrimination.
Unless you’re recriminating Helen.
Helen understands. You can tell. She holds no grudge.
Every girl needs chemises. They should be made of fine but firmly-woven white cotton for the 1840s, 50s, and 60s, and tend to sit either on the very edge of the shoulder joint, or entirely off the shoulder. Hemmed to about the knee, this base garment absorbs perspiration and is very easily laundered.
Generally, a girl will need a fresh chemise for each day of your interpretive interval (or of the week, if you were dressing in the period), plus a spare or two. And, if you have similarly-sized girls in your home, a simple initial for a laundry marking makes sisterly spats far less likely, and laundry headaches far fewer!
Our girl’s linens pattern has templates and instructions for chemises; you can take additional inspiration from original extant chemises, and diagrams and engravings from period magazines.
Remember: we’re breaking this up into 20 minute work sessions, so even families with tight schedules can see their potential progress! And, these work sessions encompass working on four to eight of the same type of garment in one go (two chemises, two drawers per girl, etc). If you’re new to historic sewing, it may take you a bit longer to do each step, but you’ll get faster with repetition. If you have someone to help with pressing, it may take you a bit less time in each session. You can and should adjust your work to suit your own schedule!
20 minutes labor saw the white cloth yardage (bought with a 50% off coupon from a chain fabric store, for a total of 10 yards, $35) into a hot water wash, and onto the line.
Another 20 minutes put a quick press on the yardage, using a hot iron and steam. It’s far easier to work with pressed fabric! The simple expedient of line drying helped remove most of the laundry wrinkling to begin with.
Session Three: Measure & Cut
Each girl gets a her own measurement card, which I keep in my sewing box during construction. These get dated, too, because most children have a disconcerting habit of growing overnight.
Since I’m starting with chemises (always work from the skin out!), the primary measurements I need for each girl are:
Circumference around the shoulders (for the fitted chemise band)
Depth of armscye (too short, and it’ll be pinchy! I can compare this to the templates in the chemise pattern, and customize the sleeve and chemise body to suit my child.)
Length of sleeve (again, I can customize! I want these chemise sleeves to be only as long as the upper bicep.)
Bicep circumference (a comfortable one, with a bit of ease; I’ll adjust the chemise sleeve template to suit our needs.)
Overall finished length (to about the knee. When stays are added, the chemise will still be about mid-thigh length.)
One of the alterations to the basic girls linen pattern that I know one of my girls wants is a chemise band that has a placket. This lets me get a nice snug fit around the shoulders, while still being easy to get off and on. So, I’ll be adding a center placket to the front of the chemise, and adding a placket there, plus buttons to close it.
The same daughter has also expressed interest in tucks to handle the fullness over the bust of the chemise. I don’t need to make any special changes to the shapes or fullness of the body of the chemise, but I will want to mark, press, and sew some fine tucks to suit her. The style differences, plus laundry marking, will help a lot when it comes to washing and storage!
Cut Versus Rip
Since the chemise requires very little actual shaping, I’ll be ripping sections to length, and using my adjusted templates from the pattern to do the bit of shaping needed in the neckline and sleeves. Ripping panels for length allows me to work quickly, and things are still on-grain, for easy pressing and sewing later.
A “thrift” measure I’m taking is to make the chemises more narrow than the full width of my fabric. I only need 30″ widths for the front and back of my slender 8yo’s chemises; I’m seaming two sections of “leftover” width into one back piece (shown in the photo), and using a third “leftover” for cutting two sleeves. The other two sleeves are cut from the “leftover” strip on the larger chemises (which are cut to 36″ widths). This bit of thrift lets me cut four chemises out of seven “drops” of yardage, rather than eight. It’s a small thrift, but significant!
Session Four, Five, Six & Seven: Run & Fell Seams
Once I’m past cutting, I’m usually very eager to get sewing! The seams attaching the sleeves, and side seams of the chemises are sewn with a run-and-fell seam, for sturdiness during laundering and low-bulk during wear.
If the underarms required extreme curves or shaping, the felling on the seams would be easiest to do by hand; with some careful pressing and a bit of care, I can finish these by machine. Great news: a lock-stitch on a modern machine is formed in the same way, and looks the same, as one formed on a mid-century lock-stitch machine!
Now, using up four sewing sessions just for the main construction seams on chemises may sound like a lot, but remember–I’m making four chemises at once, and my sessions are only 20 minute bursts. You can get quite a lot of progress if you have carved out more time.
Session Eight: Hems
You could finish the hems at the end if you like, but once the side seams are in, I personally like to get the hems in; it just feels like the projects finish up faster at the end when I do it that way. So I took another 20 minutes to press and machine-hem all four chemises. That involves an eye-balled 1/4″ fold and press along the edge, then a measured-with-hem-gauge 1-1/2″ fold, press, and stitch. Easy peasy!
If you are hemming by hand, a simple running stitch is all you need.
In the next Sew-Along post, I’m going to take a short detour and show you how to do a tucked front for two of the chemises, and then take a few sessions to finish up the chemises! For now, remember to take some breaks as needed. Around here, that usually involves one or more of the henfolk…
Good planning makes for far less craziness in life, and I’m very fond of a quiet, pleasant time, personally. Here’s a quick look at some of the planning that’s going into my own process of re-dressing two little girls for our living history interpretive season.
Plan For Real Life To Continue
If the head sewist falls into a Black Hole of Making, everyone gets crabby, filthy, starving, and naked. This is not conducive to positive family relations. So we make some plans that allow real life to continue! This includes some grocery shopping for foods that many members of the family can prepare, pre-cooking or batch-cooking some dishes, crock-pot meals, etc. I also plan to take work breaks and do things like push laundry. And, before sitting down to sew, I do make sure I’m dressed, and the house is reasonably tidy. It sounds odd, but I’m a lot more productive and no one hates me. So, it works!
Plan for Realistic Work Segments
If a 48- or 72-hour Black Hole of Making is not realistic for your household, then plan something else. This sew-along is broken down into 20-minute working segments. If you can do three of those in a day, wonderful! If you can only do one of those, great! You’ll still make progress, and can get quite a lot done over time!
Plan for Efficient Time Use
I know that it takes only about five minutes more to cut an extra chemise or pair of drawers, as to cut one. So, planning my work to allow enough time to cut multiples, or do just one step on multiple garments at once, allows me to use my time efficiently.
In my case, I know we’ll be volunteering 1-3 days a week. I would prefer to do only one or two big loads of washing and pressing, so planning for each girl to have two chemises, two drawers, and a full complement of 1850s petticoats, plus one or two dresses, a sunbonnet, and two or three pinafores and aprons, will let me accomplish my interpretive and laundry goals, without overrunning my realistic and efficient sewing time allotment.
It makes sense, then, to cut all four chemises in one go, and “railroad” the work, completing each step on all four garments in one session, as often as possible. My hands will work more efficiently, and the work speeds right along!
Planning for efficient time use also includes making sure I write up a measurement card for each girl, and keep them in my sewing box for easy reference. This saves me a lot of hollering, since this time of year, they’re more likely to be found out with the chickens in the coop, or up a tree, than inside our little cottage.
I am making sure to have a plentiful stock of the supplies I’ll need: a fresh packet of machine needles (the cheapest and best investment you can make in a sewing project!), a few spools of nice white 100% cotton thread, a fresh beeswax, sharp scissors, several thimbles, and the white china buttons I’ll use, all handy to my sewing space. I work at our kitchen table, so everything gets tucked into a cloth tote bag between work sessions. It’s compact, portable, and keeps everything together for easy start-up at each sewing session.
Plan for Thrift
Though my local chain stores don’t tend to have a lot of usable historic fabric, there is one grade of “premium muslin” that works very nicely as period “long cloth” for undergarments, so I planned ahead and purchased ten yards of it with a 50% off coupon, for a total expenditure of $35.
I’m also hauling out the miscellaneous pile of current petticoats, giving them all a good soak in oxygenated bleach (Oxi-clean is my drug of choice), and a nice long line-dry in the sunshine to brighten the fabric. Then we’ll evaluate them: most will need waists reset, tucks and hems adjusted, etc, but I can re-make and re-use my previous labor, saving my new fabric as much as possible. This is only realistic because the previous items were made with good period fabrics and techniques. Those initial investments pay off!
Another thrift measure is tailoring undergarments to the needs of the individual child. My current 8yo is very slender; chemises made on a full-width of 45″ would drown her tiny frame! Instead, I’ll be cutting her chemise fronts and backs on only 30″ of fabric, and using the remaining 15″ of width to cut bands, sleeves, and frills. Scraps will be used as pieced linings in bodices, too. My goal is to have only the merest scraps of white cotton left!
Plan for Style
My base pattern for the girls’ things is our SA-200 Girls Linens pattern. However, my girls have different stylistic preferences, and we’re also targeting an early-middle 1850s look for our interpretive work this year. So I’ll be modifying the base pieces from the patterns, using different trim options, and otherwise customizing the look to suit both our living history needs, and each girl’s personal style. It’s grand to be able to have a unique look that’s still 100% under the umbrella of Period, Everyday, and Common for the era!
It looks like the fabric is ready to pull off the line and give a quick press… and then it’s on to dressing my girls!
We’re about to start dressing our own little girls for a new interpretive season, and we thought it might be fun and useful and instructional to do a quick series on Dressing Girls… you’re welcome to sew along if you like, or come back to these posts as needed. Subscribe to the blog updates (see the side-bar) and you’ll get each “episode” delivered to your inbox.
First, though, a few tips on general attitude and how to make the good stuff happen. It is entirely possible to dress our girls so well, you could transport them back in time and expect them to excite no notice whatsoever.
Of course, these are the sort of hooligans I’m working with…
(Twirl-ability is an obligatory function of all mid-century girls clothing. Always. Even if you’re just going to the neighborhood park.)
Help your girls pinpoint the mid-19th century look by correcting these commonly-seen problems:
Make it Easy
One-fabric dresses, with the skirts attached directly to the bodice, seem to be the most common garment for girls in the mid-19th century. They are also the most convenient for dressing, and easiest to wear during active play or work. Do your girls a favor, and dress them in one-piece dresses with a gently fitted waist. Cut the skirts in widths similar to their petticoats (70″ for bitty girls, 90″ for girls in childhood, 120″ for tween and young teens, 140″ to 180″ for teenage girls). They’ll look wonderful, and have the freedom and ease they need for a great event or interpretive day.
Start With Good Shapes
If you don’t start with good historic shapes, it’s very hard to get a good historic result! You’ll be happiest with a dress pattern that also focuses on historic techniques. When you combine historic shapes, historic techniques, and historically-consistent fabrics, your girls are always going to look their best. Visit our Shop to view our line of historically-accurate patterns for girls.
Use 100% natural fibers for your girls! All-cotton prints in period designs and colors, or good grades of tropical and summer weight wool in solid colors, will keep your girls accurate and comfortable year round. Do not dress girls in man-made fiber blends! It’s both a history faux pas, and a modern health and safety danger.
In the mid-century, girls did tend to grow up. Oddly enough, ours do, too! Historically, dresses were designed to grow with girls, and we can use the same tricks today! Growth tucks are a great way to extend the skirt length potential of a dress, and period techniques for faced waistbands allow you to hide extra bodice length in the waistband against future body growth as well. Use both to get the most out of your girl’s dresses. Our Sewing Academy/Historic Moments patterns do teach the historic techniques you’ll need.
During the Dressing Girls Sew-Along here on the Sewing Academy, we’ll also take a look at recycling things you may have already made, or purchased used from another family. Our youngest is a spritely, slender thing, more-so than either of her elder sisters, so re-cutting this handed-down dress is on the list:
Add Skirt Support
Girl’s clothing works over a system of skirt supports similar to an adult woman’s clothing. Your little girl needs petticoats! Cut full (70″ for bitty girls, 90″ for middle-size girls, and 120″ or more for older, teen girls), then hand-gathered to a fitted waistband, petticoats will do more to improve the look of her clothing than just about anything else! Petticoats are inexpensive, too (under $5 complete in an inexpensive white cloth). One or two petticoats, well starched and worn alone or over a small cage (or corded petticoat for the pre-hoop years) give her the right skirt shapes.
Watch Your Hems
Photographs from our era show a wide range of girls’ dress lengths, but they tend to fall between the upper calf and middle/lower calf for girls under 13 to 15 years. Petticoats and drawers should all be hemmed in the same general range (not designed to peek below mid-calf). Keep in mind that ankle-length drawers are not a mid-century style! It is perfectly acceptable for a girl’s stockings to show to mid-calf. Too-long hems hamper a girl’s ability to play and do active work, and are not consistent with the aesthetic of the period.
Get a Good Ratio
As with adult clothing, undergarments and pinafores (see our free patterns here!) should be the main focus of your young lady’s wardrobe. If funds are limited, you’ll get more good use from one dress, paired with three sets of undergarments and three inexpensive pinafores, than from three dresses and one set of undies! Be sure she has enough underwear for a fresh set each day of your longest event, plus one for spare. (Petticoats can be worn several days running, so she’ll need only one set of those.)
When it’s all put together, you end up with “history kids” who walk around with this sort of happy:
And of course, always study as many original images and extant garments as you possibly can! It’s exciting to see snapshots of living history children, and realize: we look just like the Original Cast!
Well-made historic patterns can be a big help in getting dressed for the mid-century. They can offer excellent historic geometry, useful and illustrated construction techniques, notes on extant garments with the same features, and textile suggestions to help make your wardrobe project the closest neighbor to what the Original Cast might have worn.
But, even a great historic pattern has limitations (and the lesser-quality ones can be a really stinker to work with; more on those later.) What can you expect to need to change when using a good historic pattern?
Those who have been in workshops with me can attest to this mantra: Always Make a Muslin Test. Always. Never Not Make a Muslin Test. Just Make One. You Need To. Yes, Even You. Make a Muslin. Always. Always Make a Muslin Test.
Because here’s the honest truth: you’re going to need to change things.
The human form has endless and marvelous variations. Not all women are slender in the same way; not all women are fat in the same way. Bodies are not symmetrical. People with the same circumferences will need radically different sizes. People with the same bra size will need radically different darts. No pattern-maker, no matter how amazing, can anticipate what your unique body is going to need.
So, you’re going to need to start with a good base, and then alter it to be YOUR best base, the one that meets all of your figure’s actual needs.
And the best way to do that without cussing or crying or panic attacks is to work out the changes in cheap ugly sheets from the thrift store, not your carefully-researched, saved-for, wonderful cotton, wool, or silk!
Make a muslin of your excellent historic pattern base (chosen for size by your bust or high bust measure for most patterns, or using the unique sizing instructions for Truly Victorian patterns), and expect to need to refine or alter things like:
Overall Length: a too-long bodice causes wrinkles and ripples and all manner of oddness. Sometimes taking off 1/2″ will be the perfect solution to every other fitting issue. Sometimes it’s just one piece of your unique figure puzzle. Sometimes, you need to add length to the pattern, and that’s fine, too!
Length In Specific Places: you may be shorter-than-charts or longer-than-charts from the shoulder to the bust point, or from bust to waist. You can alter your test muslin to suit. It’s allowed.
Circumferences & Widths: you will have different width needs than other people. You’re allowed, and can expect, to change a few things by altering the depth or position of seams, taking extra width out of the shoulder or front bodice, and other such changes. If you’re a very slender person, who falls below the minimum measurements for the pattern, expect that you’ll be folding out some overall width right down through the shoulder and bust of each piece, and taking deeper seams, too. It’s all fixable at the muslin stage!
Darts & Seams: anticipate changing the precise length, shape, depth, and position of darts, to mold the bodice to your actual body. And anticipate that you probably have a very distinct right and left fitting need, too; most people do, though some are symmetrical enough that they can cut a bodice “double”–that is, in a double-layer of fabric to get both fronts in the same shape, and one back on a fold. You may not be able to do that, and that’s okay, and normal.
Armscyes: you may need a different depth, width, shape, or position of armscye than the pattern lays out. This is normal, too. If you need to make significant changes, you may also have to mess with some test sleeves to correct the shape of the sleeve cape.
Necklines: depth, width, shape, and position–sensing a trend? We all wear our bones in different places. If your bodice is built to suit your bones and flesh, you’ll be comfortable and look comfortable, too.
Okay, so what if you got a stinker of a pattern?
I mentioned above that it’s easiest to start with well-drafted patterns from makers who are good at period geometry, and good at historic technique instruction. Not every pattern meets that threshold.
Even if you got a stinker of a pattern (and I’m sorry that happened… I’ll do an article soon on which meet my own threshold for use), you’re going to be making a muslin, so most of the weirdness can be fixed. It’s just going to take more work. It’s work done once, though–when you have your fitted base fine-tuned to look well on your historically-corseted body, you will use that as your permanent pattern. You can transfer it to sturdy paper, with notes and markings and dates, and make pretty much everything from it!
What if your pattern’s instructions are also stinkers?
That happens. It’s one of the reason quite a few people end up buying The Dressmaker’s Guide, actually–because they can use the techniques in conjunction with any published pattern, no matter the quality of the pattern’s notes. You can find some helps and hints in the articles in the Compendium as well.
Now, repeat after me:
Always, Always, Always Make a Muslin Test! You have official permission to make a good pattern better by fitting it to your actual, in-real-life body, and you should!
Pardon a brief anthropology-nerd post, but feel free to share it far and wide!
Lo, these many years ago, I was a student in anthropology with a minor in historic archaeology. I… ummm… kinda really like the study of Olden Days and Olden Days People. A lot.
A few of the concepts we used in anthropology are very useful in living history and living history research, and one in particular can help us improve our recreated, interpreted past tremendously.
That is this: avoiding the pit of “presentism.”
What’s “Presentism,” you so cleverly ask?
It is the interpretation of history with a bias toward present attitudes.
It is the mistaken assumption that everything we currently understand, believe, and hold as aesthetically lovely is the pinnacle of the entire human experience, and anything other than our current understanding is clearly inferior.
Can you see how that would cause problems in living history? In clothing those who “do” living history? Let’s take a quick look:
We display presentism when we describe a member of the Original Cast in a historic photograph as “ugly.” Perhaps that person’s personal beauty is not our favorite style. Perhaps that person has some physical structures that don’t please our modern or personal aesthetics. Perhaps they are subject to the vicissitudes of period photography technology. Perhaps they’re not particularly photogenic.
None of that is actually important when we’re looking at photos to gain an appreciation or understanding of normative expressions of fashion in the period.
We display presentism when we ascribe highly-biased and subjective words like “tacky” or “hideous” or “weird” to images of original garments, fashion engravings, and other primary sources. Not only do those kinds of words exhibit a self-centric and narrow understanding of the era, they are spectacularly unhelpful in exploring it.
Take a look at the lady here: I, sadly, found her by doing a search for “Ugly Civil War Woman.”
The only thing ugly is the presentism used to judge and diminish this useful period image.
Let’s see what this lady can tell us, without the veil of presentism obscuring our view.
She seems to be quite tall and slender, so she gives us a good look at how tall and slender people accomplished the period aesthetic balance in everyday clothing. (Indeed, if we measure her by her own skull length, she actually fits the ratios of modern fashion illustrating; she is just over 8 “heads” tall, versus the average 7 “heads” tall–and similarly contracted proportions–of modern women!)
Her garments are well-fitted to her figure, and sewn by someone with an eye that appreciates symmetry, based on the placement of the garment pieces with regards to the textile pattern.
She wears a pretty conservative mix of current styles: a pleated skirt, darted-to-fit double-point bodice, minimal trim on the dress, and a little frilled collar. Her sleeves are a neat open “coat” sleeve worn with an undersleeve. Her dress is long–it does not hover off the floor–yet another example of the lengths we should be wearing ourselves.
Her hair is smooth, tidy, and worn in a conservatively current fashion, arranged in way that adds a bit of visual width to her slender oval face, which helps her fit the dominant fashionable aesthetic of the era just a bit more.
It’s far more useful to examine her image based on what she can tell us about the clothing choices of a very average young woman in the early 1860s, than to dismiss her worth by terming her “ugly.” If we dismiss her simply for not conforming to our preferred modern style of beauty, we miss all the wonderful information she has to share with us!
To be clear: the blogger at In The Swan’s Shadow entirely avoided presentism when sharing the image. They shared only the facts known about the image, and its source (it’s in the VMI archives). They did it right. Someone further down the line ascribed the presentist opinion that judged her “beauty.”
And what if her dress had features some trim or ornament that we found personally odd? It is far more useful to be able to say, “I’ve looked at 400 examples of this style of garment, and they seem to share these common features…” than to say, “Oh, that’s just ugly. Why did they think that was nice-looking? I don’t like that at all.”
(The question “Why did they think that was nice-looking?” is actually a *good* question, and can be our ladder right out of the depths of the pit of presentism! Being willing to try to find context and meaning, or barring that, just accept that this was something they found attractive, is a great way to remove some presentism from our attitudes.)
We’re not obligated to like every single fashion option in our era. If there’s one we don’t like, we can–and should–choose another for our own personal wardrobes.
Extending this concept briefly, presentism is problematic in understanding the social context of the period as well. We are not obligated to pronounce judgement on the attitudes of the past! We can simply present those attitudes as closely as possible to the documented record of those who actually held the attitudes, and allow space for ourselves and for our visitors to make up their own minds about complex topics.
Being aware of presentism, we can work to root it out in our own observations of historical items and ideas. Communicating our observation process with as little presentism as possible also helps train others to look at the past with eyes as free from modern-is-the-best-ever-pinnacle-of-everything bias. And that better attitude helps shape and inform upgraded interpretive learning for everyone, participants and visitors alike!
Ever since Fanciful Utility debuted three years ago, I’ve been making up items from its pages to give away at Sewing Academy workshops, where they’ve been received with delight. But, as with cobbler’s children going barefoot, my own sewing supplies were kept in a series of battered plastic ziploc baggies!
My Little Case… Click to embiggen!
I decided to make my case to finish out at about 2″ wide and deep, and 4″ long. I knew I wanted a tool box and pin-cushion, a scissor sheath and a bit of wool for a needle-keep. And inside Fanciful Utility, I found all the bits and pieces to make my project both consistent with historical examples, and My Very Own.
My challenge to myself: use more than one fabric. I have a… thing… about visual coherence. I really, really need for colors to have compatible tones and shade. It’s hard for me to mix patterns, particularly across fabric print collections. Scrap quilting is Not My Thing. I’m in awe of people who can put together items that have loads of different prints!
I also have a history of challenging myself to do odd things. Like the time at university when I made myself do the city newspaper crossword every day for a week, to see if I avoided crosswords because I was bad at them (in which case, it was a character flaw, and I just needed to learn to do them well), or whether I was good at them, but just didn’t like them (in which case I gave myself permission to never do another one in my life.) (I’ve never done another one in my life.)
So, this case has not one, not two… but SIX different cotton prints! There are two on the exterior: the main blue print, with a narrow piping of a red coral-branch-type print where I flipped the blue print around so it would be “right side up” when the case was closed.
Another branching print forms the base of the interior. A tiny red floral is the inside of the toolbox, with a striped print used on the box dividing wall and removable pincushion (which is filled with wool roving).
I used a brown-based print for the scissor sheath, and a bit of white wool felt for the needle-keep.
The asymetrical featherstitch on the needle-keep was put on first, then the blue buttonhole stitch to finish the edge; a blue thread hinge anchors it to the interior. The scissor sheath has a full lining, and was felled securely to the interior, then I worked a backstitch in little mounds around the edge to tie it visually to the blue used elsewhere in the case.
The toolbox is large enough to hold my thimble, wax, a seam ripper (modern), and about six slender spools of Gutterman’s cotton, or truly loads of thread winders when I get those lacquered and in there.
The case closes with three little hooks and three little blue thread eyes on the outside. It stays shut very well!
I made the case entirely by hand (as is historically appropriate), in short and random moments of down-time during a multi-day sewing retreat, in which I was everyone’s minion. It was a great retreat, and my own sense of accomplishment as I loaded my tools and supplies into this compact little case at the end of the weekend was such a great feeling! The whole process of making the case and each component was a relaxing, enjoyable thing. I love these kinds of projects, don’t you?
Don’t forget to pop over to author Anna Worden Bauersmith’s blog today–look at the great resources she’s making available!
So, three years ago, author Anna Worden Bauersmith and I “birthed” a project that we affectionately nicknamed FanU… or, Fanciful Utility, a fantastic technique and project book that teaches you how to make a huge variety of Victorian sewing cases, sewing rolls, and needlebooks.
This lovely book is packed with illustrations and pictures to help you “de-code” originals and engravings from historic magazines, and replicate them for use today.
So far, we’ve sent out copies of FanU to nearly every state in the US, as well as to places like England, Belgium, France, Austria, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. FanU’s fans live everywhere!
To celebrate, Anna has a whole week of great posts and neat ready-to-use items (made by her own hands, and listed for sale in her Etsy shop!)… you’re going to want to click through, and sign up for updates, so you don’t miss a thing.
For instance, later this week Anna will be discussing the most popular period sewing tools, and she has some amazing free printables coming out! Eliza Leslie’s sewing introduction notes in a booklet form, and two mini-booklets that fold down to a miniscule size and are ideal for your own reference or to tuck into a gift case.
She’ll even have some printable needle packet designs–print, load with needles, and pass them out to convert all your friends to the benefits of period sewing!
… How To Tell If Your Resources Pretty Much Suck Eggs.
So, this post comes from a kind of crabby place. Normally, I am not a crabby person. I do, however, get frustrated when people, in good faith, get hold of resources that are not only less-than-helpful, but put them in a really cruddy spot with wasted fabric and effort and time.
Here’s a short list of things that set of my Red Flags with regards to a woman’s mid-19th century dress pattern:
Scanty Yardage: With 45″ fabric, and bishop sleeves, a fabric yardage note of 4.5 yards for an adult dress is Not Much. That’s a skimpy skirt (not gauge-able), and while some very petite ladies may be able to get a lower working class “skimpy” dress from it, the average-build woman cannot, if she wants to look like someone from the mid-19th century, and not like an extra from The Beverly Hillbillies.
Over-Yardage: The pattern includes bishop sleeves, which don’t require a lining. But three yards of lining is quite a lot for lining a basic bodice. More Red Flags that this dress pattern may have some oddness.
Yardage Why? The note calling for a half-yard of 45″ wide white cloth and interfacing leaves a lot of questions: no notes on whether that’s a half-yard of white cloth that will be used as interfacing, or if you need a half-yard of each, and if so, what kind of interfacing, and if interfacing, why? Mid-century dresses didn’t use modern interfacing. I’m about to the point that I can start a fancy drill team with all these Red Flags.
No Yardage At All? Apparently, if you use 60″ wide cloth, you magically need zero fabric for lining?
Sizing It Up: Another Red Flag shows up bright and clear on this sizing chart, in the neckline circumference. Women do not get larger on a photocopy scale. As sizing goes up, necks do not get progressively larger by another inch and a half each size. This tells me the drafter/grader doesn’t really get human anatomy or growth or fatness, and that signals the potential for vast sizing re-do work.
Bad Notions: Things like buttons need to be customized to suit the purposes of the dress. While a high-fashion gown might use larger buttons (often silk-covered or the really sexy complicated ones woven over a mold), a “work dress” for an average-height woman tends to need more than 8 huge buttons down the front. Eight buttons can work for my 10yo, who is 4.5 feet tall, if I’m using period spacing and sizing, so right off the bat, I know that the pattern recommendations are not going to look well on me: I’m over a foot taller! The pattern doesn’t upgrade the button total for the taller/longer bodices. That means, the larger the size, the more I’m going to look like a Borrower, not a denizen of the 19th century.
And no period dress needs huge hooks and eyes to fasten the skirt and bodice together. That’s not how the Original Cast did it, and recommending it in a pattern belies a basic lack of research into actual garments of the era. There are going to be Problems with the way the bodice and skirt are finished at the waist, and how the fullness is handled, guaranteed; lack of research in one area transmits to many areas.
And piping: Your dress pattern should recommend it, but if they have “two packages piping” on the list, run away post-haste and buy a different pattern, because again: basic lack of research into actual garments of the era. Mid-century piping is self-fabric, and about 1/4 the size of purchased poly-cotton bias piping. If the list tells you to plan an extra yard to make self-piping, run away post-haste; this displays a lack of understanding regarding layout, fabric usage, and scrap piecing so very basic to mid-century dressmaking.
And fat thread: No, you don’t need heavy quilting or button or upholstery thread to sew a 19th century dress. The originals used regular sewing cotton. We can, too. No need for overkill. And designers that recommend overkill either haven’t looked at enough originals, or have had their designs monkeyed with by modern publishers (as is the case of the work of two designers I know… they turned in good stuff, and then it got messed with. Growl. Not the designers’ fault in that case.)
This bit of crabbiness is all based on just the back of a pattern envelope. I’m expecting further travesty on the inside–on-line reviews note that the pattern doesn’t include any illustrations. The person trying to use this pattern is reasonably frustrated, and rightly so.
In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing some independent resource reviews of items for mid-century, and I’ll have more to say on the matter, I’m sure. For the meantime, keep this in mind: sometimes, when you’re struggling to make a project work, it isn’t your fault.
I’m going to slap in some Sousa, and march around waving this pile of Red Flags for a bit…