Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company


This lovely tutorial comes to us from Joanna Jones, one of the Sewing Academy @ Home forumites. We’re tickled to share her project! Joanna used the instructions on making a cage found in The Dressmaker’s Guide.

Joanna started by deconstructing an older, cloth-covered hoop that had rusted. This was the common type, with 1/2″ buckram-covered pairs of steels. She split the steels out (slitting down the middle to free the individual, narrow steels), and sanded the rust off, giving them a light coating of shellac to help prevent rust in the future, then encased them in twill tape. Harvesting the steel from her old hoop yielded 12 lengths of narrow steel… a very frugal option!

Twill tape casings

The casings are made of about 30 yards of 1/2″ wide cotton twill tape, purchased at JoAnn’s in the ribbon and trim section, and folded in half. Most of the casings are secured along the edge with a very narrow zig-zag (note, this is a non-period technique that Joanna used after much thought and consideration), but the last ten yards or so were secured in half with a straight stitch very close to the edge (which would be a period technique). The casings could be sewn by hand or by machine.

(One thing Joanna found as she inserted the sanded and shellacked steels was that they seemed to go into the zig-zagged casings more easily than into the straight-stitch casings. This may be due to the rather more flexible formation of a zig-zag stitch. To get the flexibility without using a zig-zag, the casings could be hand-whipped (with fairly large, sloppy stitches!) around the steels.)

An additional 16 yards of twill tape was reserved for the vertical suspension tapes, supporting the rungs from the waist. Joanna cut the tape into eight lengths, and folded up about 36″ from the bottom to create a doubled section for the channels that hold the steel rungs in place. The first three channels were arranged fairly close together for better support of the lower hem area of the dress. Each channel is about 1/2″ wide, which allows for both the steel, and the bulk of the steel’s twill-tape casing.

Showing the channels in the vertical tapes

The next step was to make a waistband from scrap fabric. Joanna has previously made a dress dummy of her own corseted shape, so she was able to fit and balance the cage on a replica of her own body. (Customized dress forms are another technique detailed in The Dressmaker’s Guide!)

She pinned the vertical tapes at the waist, spacing them evenly around with the exception of the back two tapes, which were closer together at the waist. Threading the twill-covered steels through the channels to meet at the back, she used blue painter’s tape to hold them in place temporarily, and began balancing and adjusting the shape of the hoop.

The top three rungs were arranged to open at the front, for greater ease getting in and out of the hoop.

Beginning to shape and balance!

Then, she began playing with the overlaps at the back until she had a nice, belled shape. Joanna used the pictures from Katherine’s  “Koshka” cage crinoline for some additional guidance (and I can ditto that–Katherine does lovely work!) This process took about a day on and off, as she took breaks and made small adjustments with fresh eyes.

Then, she had a short epiphany:

I finally decided that it did not have to be perfect since I would have at least three layers of fabric over it. I never did get a great back thrust. I figure I will put a little pad back there.

And that, Dear Readers, is a grand realization! Even with “perfect” cages in the mid-century, women often used small pads at the back hip to give the ideal “boof” at the back of the skirts.

From the Sewing Academy @ Home Forum, other members offered this advice on getting a nice back-thrust to the 60’s cage:

The two tapes in front (either side of the front opening) will parallel to each other down to the floor, the next set over the hips will flare out a bit more but still run closely to the front tapes and so on. By the time you get to the back the tapes will be set fairly wide with a center back tape anchoring everything in place.  This positioning causes the steels to push to the back.

~ Liz W.

If you decide to play with getting the back thrust, try this:  the tops of the tapes on either side of the center back tape should be moved in towards the center back tape, and then the next set of side tapes should also be moved towards the back. The bottoms of all the tapes are evenly spaced around the bottom rung, and the side back and side tapes are moved closer to center back… so the tapes are diagonal from the bottom to the waistband, rather than straight.

~ Denise B.

Once Joanna had the bottom nine rungs adjusted to suit her, she took strong thread and tacked the steel casings to the vertical channels so they wouldn’t shift. Then, she trimmed the steels to let them overlap by, at most, 6″. She tucked the raw twill tape ends to the inside a bit, then laid one steel in front of the other, and sewed the casings together firmly by hand. Sewing the folded ends over keeps the steels securely inside.

The top three rungs get trimmed to end on the front vertical tapes. The raw ends of the twill tape casing are tucked in and sewn closed, and the rungs sewn firmly inside the vertical tape channel.

From the forum, Liz W. added a very important note:

The hoop may need to be “balanced” before attaching the waistband permanently by adjusting the lengths of the tapes so the bottom hoop is parallel to the floor.

We all like to think we stand up straight all the time but we don’t.  If for example you tend to lean forward, it will cause your hoop to thrust out and up in the back.  So shorten the front tapes and lengthen the back a bit to account for it.   A similar adjustment may be needed if one hip is higher than the other.

~ Liz W.

This balancing is the last step before firmly sewing the vertical tapes to the waistband, and adding a closure! A good finished hoop or cage (this style is an open cage, rather than a covered hoop) will end about mid-calf, for good skirt support and greater safety. If you look at original images, you’ll notice that many dresses hang roughly straight down from about the mid-calf; that often indicates the lowest circumference of the hoop.

If you’ve been wanting to upgrade from an older, steel-hooped “bridal” cage, using the instructions in The Dressmaker’s Guide can be a great option; you can also start with fresh steels, and build one from scratch with the same instructions!

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About The Sewing Academy
With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)
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