The Dressmaker’s Guide
In Making It Work, I mentioned pockets, properly constructed, as a fantastic period option for carrying all the small bits we often need through the day. Rather than leave you entirely hanging as to how a properly constructed dress pocket might work, let’s add that, shall we?
Quite a few dresses across all levels of the fashionable continuum employ a pocket, set into the side seam of the skirts (most find this comfortable on the dominant hand’s side of the body), and supported by a pocket stay.
A pocket stay is simply a band, tape, or other such arrangement, firmly stitched to the edge of the pocket bag furthest from the hand opening, and then tacked to the inside of the dress waist (in this image, it’s the vertical strap bridging pocket and band.)
The stay is the exact length needed to hold the pocket level and flat. It really does make things stay: you can load the pocket without fear of the side seam dragging, or putting undue strain on the seams that join pocket to skirt seam, because the stay takes up strain and keeps the pocket bag from falling down.
A pocket stay, combined with a rounded pocket shape, makes it easier to find things inside your dress pocket, too, as small things (or even larger things) cannot get lost in the pointy parts of a squared pocket bag.
You don’t need a published pattern to add a pocket to your dress. Check back soon for a new Compendium article (free to download and share!) with step-by-step instructions to help you draw and sew a pocket (plus stay!) into any dress in your wardrobe.
In the meantime: if you already have a dress pocket, but it’s been sagging or threatening to let go under the strain of the things you stash inside, add a stay! Support your pocket, and it will serve you well.
When it comes to mid-century sewing, there are so many new terms to learn! It gets even more challenging when multiple techniques all use one basic stitch foundation. Here’s a quick look at some of the easily muddled processes for handling fullness. (You’ll find the techniques explained and used in The Dressmaker’s Guide.)
Synchronized Stitching Each of these techniques uses one or more rows of running stitch as a foundation. These stitches may be completely even, or uneven (usually with a larger stitch taken on the wrong side of the work). The stitches may be long (1/4″, to even so long as 1/2″) or short (1/16″ to 1/8″). There may be one or two rows, or many rows. But generally, the stitches are worked by hand, and taken at the same intervals in each row, stacking up in synchronized sets that, when drawn up, create very controlled, regular “pleats” of fabric. (These are distinct from flat, folded pleats.) There are fine distinctions among the fullness-handling methods as to the exact combinations of these features, so it can be a prime “muddling” point.
Raw Edge Versus Folded Edge We find our first distinguishing features here: are the running stitches worked along a raw edge, or a folded edge? Gathering, stroked gathering, and shirring are each worked near the raw edge of a garment section. Gauging is worked along a folded edge of fabric, and is typically reserved for the waist treatment of skirts at mid-century.
How Much? Any of these methods use hand stitching, which has the potential to allow a high proportion of fabric to be controlled to a relatively small area. The precise density of gathering, stroked gathering, shirring, and gauging is primarily influenced by the prevailing styles of the particular window on the era, so there’s no concrete measurement that applies to the entire mid-century. Rather, it’s important to look at the overall proportion and fashion for your segment of the century, and control enough fullness to get that look in your reproduced styles. (The best way to do that is to examine as many originals and images from the era as possible, and do a bit of math to work out ratios.)
Gathering One or two rows of synchronized stitches are worked near the raw edge, and drawn up into gathered pleats. The garment section is sewn right-sides-together with another garment section, binding, or waistband. The raw edge is either visible on the inside of the garment, covered with a facing, or enclosed in the waistband, cuff, or binding. The gathering stitches may be removed.
Stroked Gathering Stroked gathering begins identically to plain gathering. It is typically used on a garment edge that will have a flat band as a finish (sleeve cuffs, skirt waists), but can be used elsewhere, such as the armscye of men’s shirt sleeves.
Instead of sewing the gathered portion right-sides-together with the flat portion of the garment, the flat band edge is pressed to the wrong side. Then the band and gathered section are arranged, both right-sides-up, exactly as the finished garment should appear. To finish, a tiny whip-stitch secures every gathering pleat to the folded edge of the band. The piece is turned to be wrong-side-up, the band is folded into finished position, and the whipping is repeated on the wrong side of the garment, too.
The raw edge is still enclosed in the band, but the tiny whip stitches produce a very compact, tidy set of “pleats” at the band edge. The gathering stitches themselves may be removed.
Shirring Shirring is most often used to control fashionable, or design-element fullness, in bodices and sleeves. Shirred fashions are very popular in the 1840s, and into the 1850s; shirred styles persist into the 1860s, but the precise designs change through the entire era, so it’s important to use shirring as it was used in your particular window of the era.
Many horizontal rows (often at least five, but twelve or more is not uncommon) of synchronized running stitch control fashion-fabric fullness starting at the waist, and reaching into the rib area, and even all the way to the shoulder in some mid-century bodice designs.
While the rows have synchronized “stacks” of stitching, the individual row length may vary, the spacing between rows may vary, and the density to which the shirring is drawn up may vary from waist toward the bust (typically, the shirring controls fullness most densely at the waistline, and “fans” out above.)
Shirring may also be worked vertically on bodices or sleeves, and is sometimes employed in creating trims, as well. Shirred garments sometimes have a row of trim laid along selected shirring lines, covering the shirring stitches and stabilizing the fullness, while adding a decorative element. Whether the shirring lines are embellished or not, shirring is often stabilized by tacking along the shirring line, through to the fitted lining of the garment, and the running stitches foundational to the shirring are generally left in place.
Shirring is different from smocking. With smocking, the rows generally confine the same amount of fullness at the same density, and additional decorative stitches are worked over the rows to stabilize the stitches and fullness. Smocking is not tacked through to a fitted lining. While there is some documentation for a style of smocking used on British and European field-worker’s coverall smocks, this technique does not seem to have been in popular use for American and non-field-work clothing at mid-century.
Gauging Gauging is typically reserved for handling skirt fullness, and develops as a common technique in the early to middle 1840s, when increasing skirt circumferences and fashion preference outstrip stroked gathering’s ability to control fullness without increased bulk.
Gauging uses 2-3 rows of synchronized running stitch (even or uneven), but the stitches are worked close to the folded waist edge of a freshly-balanced skirt. The drawn-up gauged pleats are laid right-sides-together with a finished waistband or bodice, and each rounded “valley” that touches the band or bodice is hand-whipped to the finished edge. This creates a “hinge” that pushes the skirt out and away from the body when worn. Because no fullness is enclosed in the waistband, or resting on the inside of the bodice, gauged skirts add zero to very, very minimal bulk at the waist.
(By the mid-1840s, pleated skirts are also pleated along a folded edge, and whipped to the bodice or a skirt band, preserving the no- to minimal-bulk positives of the desired silhouette.)
And What About Cartridge Pleating?
Functionally, “cartridge pleating” is the same as gauging. It’s simply a more modern term for the technique (so don’t look for it in mid-century descriptions, notes, or manuals), and may have its origin in the similarity of the regular, rounded pleats to the rounded loops of cartridge belts that coincided with the development of metal-cased ammunition. Ammunition loops of this nature held paper-wrapped ammunition charges during the 1879 Boer War (South Africa), but metal-cased small arms ammunition wasn’t developed until the Swiss took on the engineering challenge in the early 1880s.
You may also hear the term “organ pleating”, as gauged fullness can bear a resemblance to the vertical pipes of a pipe organ. However, “organ pleating” does not seem to be a mid-century term, either.
So, for mid-century, call it gauging.
Regardless of the technique used, handworked running stitches allow a great deal of flexibility and control in your mid-century clothing. You’ll get the best results if you keep in mind a few basic tips:
1: Use a thimble. The added protection and traction allows you to work more quickly, and with less tissue damage (and unladylike language.)
2: Treat your threads. A bit of beeswax strengthens your sewing thread and helps reduce tangling.
3: Load up. Rock the needle through the fabric to “load” four to ten running stitches on the needle before pulling it through. You’ll get straighter stitching lines, and increase your speed tremendously!
And if you’re working at home:
4: Pop in a BBC costume drama. It sets a mood, and well-dressed historical gents are always good inspiration for quality stitching.
Transcribed from the 5 January 1861 Rural New Yorker
There is a certain class of persons who seem to be inveterate foes of decency, as far as the returning of borrowed articles is concerned. Have you ever, gentle reader, been blessed with one of these “borrowers” for a neighbor? If you have, you doubtless know what it is to measure out homeopathic doses of tea, starch, sugar, and all the et ceteras of housekeeping. If “trials bring strength,” your patience charity, and other Christian graces are undoubtedly largely developed. Exercise has probably not been neglected, as you have daily to “just step across the way” after your washtub, smoothing iron, or most vexatious of all, your newspaper. Sometimes one is tempted to exclaim “blessed be nothing,” for then at least one is free from all importunities to lend.
It seems to be an established rule with these borrowers, that book and papers are purchased by their friends “pro bono publico,” instead of their individual, gratification. Perhaps from this misapprehension arises all those inconveniences wherewith they so annoy the reading part of the community. And it certainly is an annoyance, just as you have settled yourself for a quiet evening’s looking over the paper, to have your neighbor step in with his stereotyped “Good evening, Mrs White–thought I’d just run over and look at your last paper a few moments.”
Well, there is no use in crying, so you hand him the paper, inwardly hoping that his few minutes may be few indeed. But no, he sits immovable, until hastily glancing at the clock, he perceives it is rather an unseasonable hour. Then comes the crowning trial for you as he coolly says: –”I beg your pardon for staying so late, but really this story was so interesting I didn’t mind how fast the evening was slipping away; guess I’d better take it home and finish it.”
Away he goes, paper in hand, and after it has been read and re-read by the whole Smith family, after the news is old, the jokes stale, and the recipes cut out, your paper comes home, if you choose to bring it.
This is about a fair specimen of newspaper lending; and if my experience is any criterion to judge by, lending books is not much better. Now and then one is returned uninjured, but the majority come home with broken back and leaves that suggest at once the use of Spalding’s glue. Others, like the Dutchman’s hens, “come home missing.” But it will not answer to be too severe upon this army of borrowers. We must give, “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little,” and wait patiently for that “good time coming,” when every man shall be the possessor of his own Bible, his own tooth-brush, and his own newspaper.
If you, like the Cousin S from Vermont, are plagued by Borrowers, consider giving either them or yourself the gift of a new copy of The Dressmaker’s Guide, Second Edition, for Christmas!
From the Sewing Academy @ Home Forum, here’s an excellent topic:
Help! My oldest, almost 12, needs new everything. We haven’t made her stays of any kind yet but I am sure it is time. She is starting to develop, has a small bust-to-waist difference, but is still very short-waisted.
a) Use the Girls pattern (#200) and make it stop at her waist, resulting in something very similar to a sports bra in look. b) Use the Girls pattern (#200) and ignore her anatomical waist and make her waist about 15″ where her pants end. c) Use a corset pattern and ignore the busk (button the front closed) and using cording instead of stays with lacing in the back. d) Make her a real corset (Please say no, I’m not sure I’m up to the expense or have enough time to order stuff before I need it.) e) Some other option I am completely overlooking
This is a very common position for families with girls in the 9 to 13 age group!
Most girls, at the very beginning of their development, go through a stage where their bodies store some reserves to use during the major growth of puberty. Since she’s likely to hit a lot of development in the next two years (visible and invisible), I’d go with making her comfortable corded stays now, rather than a fully boned women’s corset. Go for something for support and *minimal* torso control, just enough to help her feel modest and secure.
You could absolutely go with a child-shaped stay, or if she would prefer, and a more generous figure shape warrants it, try the curvier lines of an adult’s shape (control down over the top of the hip), and consider adding straps for now. Does she have a preference at this point? If so, I’d try to follow her preference as to shape, and make this as inexpensive as possible: buttoning closure in the back, or possibly front, cording rather than boning, very minimally compressive… something to give a stable platform for her clothing.
Anticipate that even if she doesn’t get a lot taller in the next few years, she will most likely change shape a good deal, so use inexpensive cotton sateen for the stays (or another inexpensive, lightweight, fairly firm fabric), and cording, etc, to keep the stay updates both very affordable and very period-correct.
Many girls in living history are making their way into their teens lacking appropriate support. As they get taller, and move toward ever-lengthening skirts and petticoats, the weight of their clothing can become oppressive. Adding supportive stays and light corsets to their historic wardrobe is the best way to get a finished look consistent with images of The Original Cast, and it will also help support the increasing weight of their clothing, allowing them greater freedom of movement and far more comfortable historic living.
Between the ages of 12 and 20, a girl may go through two, three, four, or even more corseting changes, as her figure develops: all the more reason to undertake these supportive endeavors at home!
In the Marketplace, you’ll find some resources to help you keep your teens and pre-teens correctly supported. Our Girl’s Linens pattern has simple corded stays that are very easy to fit for support. Practical Prinkery and The Dressmaker’s Guide both include chapters on corsetry, and how to make both a customized pattern, and finished corded or boned corsets.
Beyond comfortable corded stays, here’s one last tip on keeping this age group well-turned-out: Growth Tucks! They’re vital for drawers, skirts, and petticoats!
What’s the best way to stay comfortable and confident in period clothing?
Have an adequate supply of chemises (or shifts) and switch to a fresh one as needed during your living history activities!
Chemises are most often made in tight-woven cotton or linen for the 1840-1865 era. The generous fit makes them easy to wear, and plain white textiles keep them very easy to launder. When you get a pattern that fits you comfortably, you can use like-sewing or “railroading” techniques to sew a whole batch of chemises quickly. With like-sewing, you complete the same construction step on each garment, one right after the other. Making a batch of chemises from our free Make a Simple Chemise pattern (just scroll down!), you’d:
- Draft and test the upper portion of the pattern (waist length, just to make sure you don’t want to fiddle with things),
- Cut all the chemises,
- Sew all the shoulder/sleeve seams,
- Sew all the side seams,
- Put in all the hems (sleeve and lower edge),
- Put on all the neck bands,
- Have a cup of tea, and enjoy your accomplishment!
Like-sewing also lends itself well to sewing with tight schedules. If you will commit to sewing for 15 minutes a day (by machine) or 1 hour a day (by hand), you’ll make steady progress on your wardrobe! Work to complete each construction step on every garment of that type before moving on to the next step. You gain efficiency by repeating the same process multiple times.
It’s just one strategy to get you well-dressed for the 2011 event season!
Petticoats are indisputably important to mid-century fashion! Here are the top reasons you may want to consider adding one or more to your list this year:
10: If you like to walk easily, petticoats help. The layers of fullness baffle one another at the waist and hip, which helps them hang away from your body a little bit further down your legs. Two or three layers of skirt are less prone to wrapping entirely around your legs during movement or with wind, too.
9: They’re an ideal “practice” garment. You’ll practice seams, simple hemming, gathering, waistbands, and closures, and if your stitches are uneven, or you have some wonky seamlines, who cares? And imperfect petticoat is still historically accurate (not everyone sewed perfectly then!), and eminently functional.
8. They cross economic boundaries. Working class women need petticoats; so do leisure class women, and the basics of construction are the same for each. Petticoats are one wardrobe item that can easily span a wide range of economic levels for your impressions, so they’re very multi-use.
7. Climate Control. Petticoats shield you from heat, as well as from cold. In fact, if you do cool or cold-weather events, you might want a quilted petticoat or a wool petticoat, as well as your regular cotton petticoats. (Learn more about cold-weather petticoats at The Academy @ Home Forum, or do one of the projects in The Dressmaker’s Guide.)
6. Creating the silhouette. The mid-century look is essentially an inverted triangle (bodice) on top of a bell of skirts. You can’t get the bell without the petticoats for support! This is an era where even robust figures add a bit more upholstery to the hips through petticoats. Just remember: everything below your waist is skirts, and no one can prove otherwise! Relish the boof! Just about any impression could use another petticoat.
5. Creating a tidy waist. Notice, that said tidy, not tiny. Mid-century torsos are controlled and tidy, and look small by comparison with the skirts. If you don’t have petticoats, you can’t get the skirt boof, and without skirt boof (see #6), your waist won’t look as tidy as it could.
4. Protect your dresses with petticoat layers. Though petticoats are hemmed just a tad bit shorter than your dress skirts, they’re going to take a lot of abuse from shoes and ground when you move around. Petticoats, combined with starching, pressing, and nice facings on your dresses, all work together to protect your hems.
3. Individual expression. I know, it doesn’t seem that stacks of white petticoats are anything terribly interesting at first glance, but just consider the wide variety! Petticoats with plain hems, or whitework hems, or quilted hems. Horizontal tucks, vertical or diagonal tuck insertions, sets of tucks large and small. Whitework insertions, puffings, and braidwork on the “for show” petticoats. There’s a white petticoat to delight any personal inclination, and then you get to wear it, too.
2. They’re dirt cheap. Even splurging on great fabric (try Kona or Egyptian cotton for petticoats that will last decades), you’ll spend between $5 and $25 for a plain, gathered petticoat, and only slightly more to embellish it with some gorgeous tucks that add body around the hem. (The low cost makes petticoats a great addition to loaner gear, too. Even a merchant-row make-do dress will look more historically correct if it has nice petticoats for support.)
And the number one reason to make petticoats?
They Did. In trying to replicate the look of the Original Cast, we’ll do best when we use the systems and shapes they used. Petticoats are an integral part of the wardrobe for babies, toddlers, girls, and grown women. Without them, we just don’t look like They did!
If you need just one more reason to make yourself some great petticoats?
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!
If you’re working on a corded corset, or a corded petticoat for pre-hoop-era use, you might be wondering if there’s a quick way to get those cords snuggled into their casings, without losing your mind or your religion.
In the interests of removing “colorful” language from the vocabulary of mid-century sewists everywhere, consider a few tips:
1: Feel free to use a machine. You can certainly hand-sew a corded garment, and for some items (such as a corded sunbonnet), the benefits of being able to precisely manipulate the fabric are great. However, it’s okay to use a sewing machine for much of the mid-19th century. Just use a plain straight stitch, and leave long enough thread tails that you can thread them through a needle, make true knots on the inside of the garment, and bury the ends within the garment layers.
2: Use an appropriate cord. I am particularly fond of the Peaches-n-Cream crochet cotton, as it’s a similar size and texture to the cording I’ve been able to handle in several original corded petticoats. Originals have cording both smaller, and slightly (slightly!) larger than the cotton yarn used modernly for crocheted washcloths, so you could of course vary your widths, but this inexpensive cotton yarn is widely available, and very inexpensive. Other alternatives might include kitchen string, and well-made hemp cord, but don’t use rope or clothesline, please!)
3: Consider a zipper foot. If you can use a zipper foot to get snug up against the cord, and then adjust your needle position over to skim at the very edge of the foot, you’ll find your cording goes in nice and smoothly, but very snug. It’s the repeated cords, snug in their channels, that start building body for your corded garment.
4: Rely on Colin Firth. If possible, sew in an area with a TV or computer, so you can pop in a Colin Firth movie (my favorite sewing companion is the CF/BBC Pride & Prejudice) and listen to something interesting while you sew. Corded petticoats are extremely tedious, and the occasional glimpse of handsome men in period clothing makes the process far more tolerable.
For complete instructions on how to make your own corded corset or corded petticoat, see The Dressmaker’s Guide in our Marketplace.