Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Merchant-Row Make-Do

One challenge that shows up every year is that of working with lovely new living history enthusiasts who’ve been conned by merchants selling loose “blouse” bodices and matching cotton print skirts… they’re made cheaply with modern techniques, are multi-size, usually based on bad modern patterns, and I say “conned” rather boldly, because if the merchant is interested in history, they *know* they’re selling bad stuff to good people. I have an ethical issue with that.

But that aside, how can we salvage the hard-earned budget that went into it for the nice newb?

Sometimes, it’s just a flat “We can’t.” The fabric is too far removed from a period print style, or the skirts are only 90″. those items just can’t be remodeled, and any efforts to do so will not result in a period garment at the end.

Sometimes, it’s a reserved “Well, possibly, IF” with a whole list of Nopes that could disqualify the garment from use in historic settings:

Is it a natural fiber?
If the answer is anything other than cotton, wool, or silk, that’s a Nope that stops the process in its tracks.

Is the fabric reasonably historically accurate?
If it’s a solid cotton: Nope. If it’s a modern busy floral: Nope.  If it’s a moderately passable print style but kind of “period boring” or monotone? Well, *maybe*.

Is the skirt at least 150″ around the hem?
If it’s skimpy, we’re back to Nope. If it’s greater than 180″, go ahead and take out a panel once you have the waist and hem deconstructed.

How is the hem handled?
We’re usually looking at modern machined waist treatments, and to fix it for period use, we’ll need extra fabric. If there’s a 3″ or greater turned-up-fabric hem, that’s good! Pick out the stitching and press it all flat for now.

How is the waist handled?
In merchant-row make-do, it’s usually machine-gathered, or pleated, and shoved raw-edge-up into a bulky fabric band. Take off the band entirely, pick out any stitching in the placket (which is hopefully on a seam!), and press the top edge smooth.

What’s going on in the bodice?
Most merchant-row-make-dos are a big shapeless “blouse” with big bishop sleeves and for some reason, a standing collar bit. (Okay, I know the reason. These unethical, non-history merchants all copy a “garibaldi” bodice pattern that doesn’t have the right shaping to begin with. Copies of copies of copies are awful.) Most just tuck in. While that stinks for the person who has been trying to wear it, it actually works in favor of a remodel, so we’ll just take our small win and run with it.

The Process

If you’ve not Noped Out the garment yet, here’s the general process of recovering the investment.

1: Make sure everything from here on out is done over a well-fitted corset, skirt supports, and petticoats made full-gathered (150-180″, hand-gathered), of decent white cloth that has some inherent body to it (Pimatex-brand white broadcloth or chain-store “Premium” white muslin bought with a good coupon).

2: Click through to the Compendium and read the articles on Petticoats and Gauging Skirts. Refer back as needed.

3: Face The Hem. Sew together full-width strips of plain white cotton, about 6-8″ deep, until you have something that matches your skirt’s circumference. Sew the strip right sides together with your hem edge, then press the allowances toward the skirt. Fold the white cotton facing up into place on the inside of the skirt and press the lower edge nicely. Hem the raw edge of the facing with a single-thread running stitch to finish your skirt hem.

4: Seek Balance. Have a helper measure you from corseted waist, over your skirt support and petticoats, to the desired finished hem. Follow the directions for balancing a skirt/petticoat found in The Dressmaker’s Guide, or in the excerpted article in the Compendium. Fold any extra fabric at the top edge of the skirt over to the inside and press.

5: Find the Bodice Waist. Put on the bodice over corset, skirt supports, and petticoats. Use a piece of narrow elastic tied around the body at the narrowest point of the waist to find your waist. Gently tug the fabric downward under the elastic, so it lays smoothly and you have fullness arranged from the center of each breast, toward the center front, and then right in the middle of the back–nothing blousing over the elastic. Have a helper chalk along that line.

6: Reuse the Extra. Take off the bodice. 1/2″ below the chalked line, cut off the rest of the fabric. Press the excess smooth. Cut the extra into 45-degree bias strips, about 1.25″ wide, and piece them together until you have a long bias strip that equals your waist measurement plus about 3″ for “wiggle room.” Fold the strip in half lengthwise, and baste in a fine cotton cord (#3 or #5 crochet cotton works pretty well) snugged into that fold to create bias piping.

7: Gather Yourself. Run some gathering stitches from the hemming line of the center front facings, toward the side seams, and across the center back. Put on the bodice, and draw up the gathering to handle the extra fullness in the bodice. It should keep smooth sides, but have gathered fullness from the central portion of each breast toward the center front, and concentrated fullness in the 1.5″ or so centered at center back. Wrap the gathering threads around a pin to keep your fullness control in place. If there’s a lot of fabric and you’re getting weird pulls from the armpit trying to get the sides smooth, take extra out of the side seams until you have a moderate amount of gathered fullness under the breasts, and a bit of ease at the center back.

8: Pipe the Waist. Lay the piping and bodice right sides together, matching up the raw edges of the piping with the raw edge of the bodice waist. Leave about 1″ of the piping projecting past the center front edges of the bodice for now. Baste the piping in place. Turn the seam allowances up toward to the bodice, and test the fit. The piping should ride right where the waistband of your petticoats ends. If it needs to move up a bit, reposition it until you’re happy with the length, then securely stitch the piping on, very close to the cord. Press the allowances up toward the bodice and secure with a bit of a whip stitch, taking only very tiny “bites” through the outer fabric fullness.

You can use some of the piping to pipe and finish the neckline if you’ve removed a band collar.

9: Set the Skirts. Follow the instructions for Gauging or Pleating in the Dressmaker’s Guide, or for Gauging in the free Compendium article noted above. The basic instructions create a “straight shot” placket, rather than an off-set opening, so be sure to use the “wrapped front” edge to make sure you don’t have a gap at the placket.

10. Get Closure. Replace wooden buttons with covered cloth buttons made from tiny bits leftover from your dress remodel. Use hooks and eyes for a new, functional closure right at the waist, and anywhere else between buttons where you need the closure security.

11: Add Basic Accessories. A tidy white cotton collar, little white cuffs… you’ll be tidy and presentable in a remade make-do dress!

All of this is admittedly a LOT of work. It is very do-able, IF the fabric and basic features will even allow for a remodel. The work, on top of the expense of a poorly-represented style in the first place, is one reason my nose gets severely out of joint on behalf of excited newbies who are taken advantage of by merchants who ought to know, and DO, much, much better!

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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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