The Dressmaker’s Guide
Growth tucks in children’s clothing are a great way to add versatility and foil the wee beasties who insist on growing nearly every single day, despite bread-and-water rations and heavy books on their heads.
And, if you’re inheriting hand-me-downs that are a bit long, a quick tuck will lift them without removing the length forever–letting out tucks is as simple as a few minute with fine scissors to get out the thread, and then a quick press.
You’ll find this tuck technique illustrated in the dolls, infants and girls patterns, as well as in The Dressmaker’s Guide, and if you’d like to learn in person, do register for any of our upcoming workshops!
Tucks for functional length control are put into a skirt after the side seams and hem are finished. Even if the skirt is already set, you can add tucks to shorten the length, though it will be a bit fiddly and you’ll need to do measuring and pressing in short sections to keep everything flat. Press everything well at each step.
To get started, determine how much length you need to take out, and give the skirt hem a good press.
Decide On Your Tucks
Each tuck will take up twice its depth. So, if I want to remove 1.5″ from the length of a skirt, I need a tuck that is .75″ deep when finished.
The photos here use a .75″ tuck depth, and if I were to keep the tuck in the dress, it would be 1.5″ too short for my gangle-of-a-10yo when I was finished.
Measure For the Tuck
Turn the garment wrong side out, and arrange the hem flat on the ironing board (you’ll be working around in sections.)
We’ll take our cue from original garments and the Original Cast: tucks look best if they are not jammed over the hemline or overlapping one another.
Many original garments have a tuck spacing equal to the tuck depth, meaning there’s a gap of plain fabric between the hem stitching line and the tuck edge, and between the tuck stitching line and the next tuck edge.
I like things very evenly spaced, so I’ll mark the tuck fold line 2.25″ from the hem stitching line.
This will give me .75″ gap, .75″ hidden by the tuck when finished, and .75″ for the backside of the tuck itself.
Turning the hem edge up toward the waist, I measure 2.25″ from the stitching line of the tuck to the fold I’m arranging.
Press this fold neatly in sections all the way around the garment. This pressing is your key to success!
Stitch the Tuck
Measure from the pressed fold, one tuck depth. This will be the stitching line for the tuck.
Don’t get too dainty with your tuck stitching.
As with a period hem, you want a single thread that will readily give way if the fabric is under too much strain. It’s far easier to tack up 6″ of tuck stitching or hem if the thread breaks, versus trying to mend a shredded fabric weave if the thread holds and the fabric doesn’t!
A simple running stitch is ideal.
I’ve used a single cotton thread in a fairly deep brown, so you can see the stitches more easily, and I’ve zoomed in a lot; the individual stitches are about 1/16″ each, just little nibbles out of the weave.
At “wearing range”, these entirely disappear on the dress!
You could also sew by machine, using a plain straight stitch at about 2.5 stitch length.
These are designed to be removed at some point, so don’t make yourself crazy with super-tiny machine stitching!
I’m stitching .75″ from the fold.
Press And Done!
When you’ve gone all the way around the pressed edge, tie off and press the work flat, then turn the garment right sides out and press the tuck toward the hem edge. DONE!
Tips from the Original Cast
Taking note of common elements from original garments and original images of the era:
Tucks are usually decently large. The 1/32″ pin tuck era is still several decades in the future. 1/8″ in decorative tucked panels do happen, but 1/2″ to 1″ depths in functional growth tucks (and many decorative skirt elements!) are really common.
Tucks usually happen in odd numbers. If you need to lift out 6″, do it as three 1″ tucks. The human eyeball likes to find a mid-point.
You can also lift out fabric in one larger sewn fold (one 3″ tuck, for instance, will lift out 6″ of length), but you won’t have the gradual flexible extension of releasing one tuck.
Don’t worry overly much about fading lines or perma-creases along let-out tuck lines. Sure, they’re the bane of every littler sister everywhere, but the Original Cast didn’t seem to worry too much. Don’t fuss with adding trim to a utility cotton to hide a removed tuck. Just press it out as best you can, and use it as an example of the recycling/upcycling mindset so common in the 19th century. It’s not a flaw, it’s an Interpretive Feature.
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!
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!
Hooks and eyes (or eyelets) can be a great way to fasten a lot of mid-century clothing, but for some applications, you just can’t beat a button and buttonhole. Chemises, drawers, petticoats, nightgowns, dresses for all ages, men’s shirts–these articles have buttonholes, and they look nothing at all like a modern machined hole.
Learning to make a serviceable buttonhole takes determination and some patience. Learning to make a really gorgeous buttonhole takes practice. Loads of it. About your fiftieth or hundredth hole, you’ll look at it and say, “Gosh, this is really looking nice!”
But even if your finished hole is not a work of art, you can get a nice mid-century result by going for Stable, Serviceable, and Smooth. And this tutorial will help you get there!
This process can also be found in The Dressmaker’s Guide, just in case you were wondering. And yes, please do share this tutorial! Just link back to it here, and don’t go courting karmic retribution by re-hosting images or anything inconsiderate like that.
You’re going to want to make some practice holes, so grab some fabric scraps at least 6×6″, and we can get started.
Thread that is color-matched fairly well to the ground color of your fabric. Buttonhole thread is the ideal; it has a gentle ply that spreads out nicely for excellent coverage with fewer stitches. However, most of us are making do with our normal 50wt sewing thread, and you can get a nice result with this, too! Use good-quality 100% cotton thread. A close blend for color is fine.
Beeswax to strengthen and smooth your thread. It will help reduce tangles and cussing, too.
A Needle. I like a #9 or #10 Crewel needle, as it is slender but durable, and the longer crewel eye is easier to thread.
Small, sharp Scissors are useful for cutting your threads (don’t use your teeth!) and opening your buttonholes.
Now, you may ask, “What about a chisel?” A buttonhole chisel is a fine thing–with one tap, the hole is sliced open very precisely. It’s a tool I see come up frequently in tailoring manuals (where button sizes used are often delightfully regular)–but not in dressmaking manuals. And this tutorial covers dressmaking buttonholes, and dressmaking notes from the period more often indicate the use of fine sharp scissors, and thus: scissors. (You can use a chisel if you want. It’s your buttonhole, and I’m not going to yell. If you need to open a hole smaller than your chisel, arrange the hold half-over your block, so the chisel is not over your block for its full length, and open half the hole at a time.)
You will also probably want a bit of chalk or a fine pencil to mark your hole positions at first. Over time, you may find you don’t need so many marking tools. Please don’t use air-soluble marking tools. These have a bad habit of zombification with later pressing, and you really don’t need zombie markings besmirching your garments.
For this tutorial, I’ve used plain cotton and contrasting thread, to make it a bit easier to see what’s going on.
Mark the position and length of your buttonhole-to-be (you’ll see that as a dotted line above.) Use a doubled thread, lightly waxed, and no knots; simply secure your threads at the far end (away from the wearing stress of the hole) with two small back stitches, then continue with a short running stitch through all the layers of your garment, around the hole position. A doubled length of thread about 24″ to 30″ long is generally plenty to outline and work a buttonhole that admits buttons up to 5/8″ wide.
Grab those fine scissors! It’s time to open the hole. (You can speed up your work by marking all the holes at once, but work them start-to-finish one at a time for the best results.)
In this very magnified view of the opened hole, you can see how the outline stitching serves to hold the layers all together, and help stabilize the raw edges. This, plus a bit of attention to how you place the stitches, means you’ll get a straight hole, rather than an open egg-shaped one.
Hand position counts. Most people find it easiest to lay the work across the index or middle finger of their left hand. Try not to wad the work up, or crumple in your palm. You may need to reposition your work a few times as you go around the hole. Above, you can see the outline stitching done, and the hole opened and ready to work.
Your thread should be coming up to the right side of your work a bit away from the raw edge of the hole. Put the needle point down into the hole, and bring it back to the right side of your work just to the outside of your outline stitching.
It is here we see the big difference between a blanket stitch, and a buttonhole stitch: we need to make sure the length of the thread is laying under both the needle’s eye, and the needle’s point, like this:
You can use your left index finger and thumb to manipulate the thread and make this “wrap” a little easier.
Continue stitching: drop the point through the open hole, emerging just outside the foundation stitching and just a few threads to the left of the last stitch. Be sure the working thread is under both the eye and point of the needle. Draw the stitch firmly and smoothly, pulling the thread away from you and toward the open hole. This helps place the purl of the buttonhole stitch right on the edge of the hole, and keeps that edge straight and firm, rather than scooping back into the fabric in that weird egg-shaped mess that makes everyone cry.
We don’t want that. Crying leaves splotches on the clothing.
Keep stitching down the first “leg” of the buttonhole. As you reach the end, fan out your stitches just a bit to create a rounded end. Remember to keep drawing your thread away from you, toward the open hole, to place those purls right along the edge of the hole.
Do the same thing as you reach the far end of the hole: fan and work around the end, then spike your needle through the purl of the first stitch you made. You’re almost done!
Flip your work over to the wrong side, and run the needle under several stitches to secure it. No slobbery, lumpy knots for your buttonholes!
Notice, this test hole is not perfect on the back! Those little wibbly bits won’t compromise the function or utility of the hole, and on a coarse weave cotton like this Kona, the wibbles do tend to show up on the back.
Let’s take a look at the finished hole from the front:
This is not a perfect buttonhole. There are bits that are very pleasing, however! Had I taken time to do at least three practice holes before this example hole, I’d notice distinct improvements in my stitch placement, coverage, and uniformity–and that’s after years and years of hand-sewing buttonholes. It takes one or two warm-ups to get the muscle memory working smoothly, and it’s worth the few minutes of “wasted” stitching on scrap to get very nice buttonholes on the finished garment.
Keep in mind, too, that when you move to blending thread on a printed ground, or white-on-white, a lot of the small imperfections vanish.
See? Functional, quite smooth and lovely, well-supported edges… a good hand-sewn dressmaker’s buttonhole is a useful skill for all mid-19th century home sewing!
Or: What a Man Needs to Know about Dressing a Woman
It is a typical scenario: a man comfortable in military impressions meets a nice woman. They fall in love, or at least deep like. He wishes to interest her in his fascinating hobby, and suggests she attend an event or two. She agrees, and he sets about finding some clothes for her to wear.
That should be pretty easy, right? After all, she just needs a dress.
That’s rather like saying a military impression just needs some sort of gun.
Any gun, really.
Squirt gun, Mauser, Jiminy Cricket rifle—a gun is a gun, isn’t it?
The reality is, creating a functional, accurate woman’s wardrobe for the mid-century is a multi-step process, and should command just as much research and attention as creating an accurate military impression. This brief article serves as an overview only, but includes the basics of what to look for, and why.
From the Skin Out
A woman’s wardrobe is a system that works from the skin out. Fully dressed for a day or work or pleasure, the average working class woman (to be paired with an average private soldier, socially) will don:
Chemise: a white cotton undergarment with a wide neckline, short sleeves, and mid-thigh to knee length hem, cut full in the body.
Stockings: knee or above-knee length, natural fibers.
Garters: knit or elastic garters to support stockings; garters may be worn below or above the knee as a matter of personal preference.
Shoes: shoe or boot style appropriate for women.
Corset: the supportive undergarment, firming the torso and supporting the breasts. This needs to be custom-fit to her figure, and should not be purchased “off the rack”.
Drawers: white cotton, mid-calf hem, split crutch seam, full in the body–and also, optional, though if she’s wearing a hoop, it’s more required than if the impression is for pre-1857.
Petticoat The First: mid-calf hem, moderately full-gathered (90” to 120” or so) on a fitted band.
Skirt support: small to moderate cage or hoop (85” to 115”), ending at mid-calf and set on a fitted waistband.
Underskirts (Or, Petticoats the Second and Third): one to two full-gathered (150” to 180”) underskirts give loft to the dress and soften any hoop lines. (These are often well-starched.)
Dress: for the working class, typically a wool or printed cotton with a fitted bodice, bishop or shaped coat sleeves, high neckline, full skirts set onto the bodice. Dresses do need customized fitting, and are difficult to purchase off the rack.
White Accessories & Protective Accessories: white collar and cuff or undersleeve basted into the dress to protect it from body oil and grime. Neckerchiefs may be used for an active working impression (such as farming, cleaning, factory-work, etc). Half-aprons ending in a band at the waist, or pinner aprons with a pinned-up bib, are vital if there is work to be done. Remember, dresses are not so easily laundered as undergarments and accessory pieces. A functional mid-century wardrobe might have a total of three dresses, but seven or more sets of undergarments and accessory items.
Headwear: a sunbonnet, fashion bonnet, or warm winter hood, depending on environmental requirements.
Wrap: a large wool shawl with fringed hems all around is a very basic outer wrap for any wardrobe.
Additional outer and undergarments may be required for cold weather.
Every garment should be made in 100% natural fibers (silk, wool, cotton, or linen.) White cotton is very common for everyday undergarments, with the addition of wool flannel for cold weather undergarments.
The wardrobe items should be acquired or made in the order listed above. Dresses come after all undergarments, as the dressmaker (whether at home or hired) needs to take measurements over all the underlayers for the most accurate fit. Indeed, reputable historic dressmakers will not usually make a bodice over an uncorseted figure.
What To Look For
Only a few highly-accurate women’s clothing makers attend events. The individualized nature of female clothing mid-century makes stocking accurate clothing fairly complex. Do Not Send Your Beloved To Merchant Row In Person or On-Line Without An Experienced Female Mentor. Doing so is a sure plan for spending a great deal of money on a great deal of useless farb, as the majority of merchants at non-juried-vendor events do not carry accurate items.
Becoming an educated customer is vital, and the best way to do that is to follow the same process you used as a military person: view as many original garments and images as possible, and look for merchants who replicate those items as closely as possible. If a merchant advertises that they replicate garments, and has pictures of originals and their goods, evaluate the two very closely for consistency; some wishing to sell to history-heavy markets tout their “based on originals” status, but fail utterly in the execution, while others do a truly superb job.
Beware any merchant using the following key words and characteristics:
- Machine gauged skirts (this is not possible, mechanically)
- Poly-cotton for easy care
- Wool blend
- Artificial silk
- “Zouave” dress or “Garibaldi” dress, particularly if done in cotton prints
- Dresses with less than 150” in the skirt circumference
- Belts in cotton
- Blouses for women
- Tuck-in white bodices that are not see-through/sheer.
- Low-cost items with lace—it is sure to be polyester/nylon
- Colored lace
- Skirts sold un-hemmed
- Only bust and waist measurements are requested
- Cotton print bodices separate from cotton print skirts
- Solid-color cotton garments
- Zippers, Velcro, or snaps at any point
- Tent-grommets at back lacing closures
- Images of the makers that look like “reenactors” rather than The Original Cast.
What To Budget
Women’s clothing requires a good amount of time. If you are buying ready-made or custom-sewn clothing, you can expect to pay for skilled labor rates on every item. If budget is a large concern, you or your beloved need to consider learning a few basic sewing skills, and making at least a portion of the wardrobe at home—undergarments such as chemise, drawers, and petticoats are an ideal way to learn historic sewing.
The average prices listed here are taken from the current listings of merchants whom I consider to have a high degree of accuracy and quality, with good-value pricing. Home sewing prices include a national-average cost for fabric allowances and patterns. See the Resource list at the end of the article for pattern companies.
Chemises: $50-$80 each. Need not be custom cut in most cases and generally safe to purchase ready-made. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first chemise, and $5 ($15 for Pimatex broadcloth) each after that.
Drawers: $50-$70 each. Some degree of customization is necessary to accommodate individual body depth and inseam length. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first pair of drawers, and $5 ($15 for Pimatex broadcloth) each after that.
Corset: $100-$200 labor. This is a highly individual garment, and needs to be custom cut and fit. It is very possible to learn to fit and construct a corset at home if you and your beloved are so inclined; see the Resource section for educational helps.
Petticoats and Underskirts: $50-$100 each. These may need some slight customization, mostly in a fitted waistband measurements and length adjustment to suit her figure, but they can generally be safely purchase ready-made. Keep in mind that a full outfit needs one petticoat and one or more underskirts. Petticoats and underskirts do not require a purchased pattern (see the Resource section for free pattern options), and can be made at home for under $10 each ($40 if using Pimatex broadcloth).
Skirt Support: cage crinolines and hoops, ready-made, run between $85 and $300. Along with the corset, this is another investment piece. Kits are available in the $70-$200 range, and patterns plus supplies will generally run around $60-$80.
Dress: $150-$300 in labor, depending on the complexity of fitting and style demands, plus additional fabric costs. A really good historic cotton print can average $11-$15 per yard; a dress takes 7.5 to 8 yards generally.
Accessories: $20-$30 for collars, cuffs, and undersleeves (each piece; most dressmakers give a small discount on matched sets); aprons in the $30-$50 range. Made at home, allow $20 for the first set of white accessories, $6 thereafter; $15 for the first apron, $5 thereafter.
Headwear: $40-$60 sunbonnets; $110-$200 completed fashion bonnets; $60-$120fashion bonnet blanks and semi-finished bonnets; $100-$200 winter hoods. Sunbonnets and winter hoods can be made very inexpensively ($5-$30) at home with purchased patterns or free on-line instructional materials.
Home sewing costs vary, of course. Here’s a quick breakdown of supplies for a winter hood, for instance, compiled by Anna Worden-Bauersmith: 1/2 yard silk ($7.50 – $10.00 est); 1/2 yard period cotton print or polished cotton ($5-$7.50); wool wadding – $2-$4); thread ($1 on a good sale, $3-$4 regularly); silk ties 1 yard ($4+).
Wraps: a simple shawl can be made by those without sewing experience for the cost of two yards of wool fabric.
Shoes: accurate repro shoes run between $80 and $150.
Stockings: $6-$10 per pair
Garters: $8-$20 per pair
All told, if you are purchasing every garment from a highly-accurate merchant or seamstress, you’ll spend between $1070 and $1750 on a wardrobe for a weekend-long event (three sets chemise/drawers, one set petticoats, skirt support, corset, accessories, dress, outerwear).
Blending specific purchases and homemade items, you’ll spend between $400 and $650.
The more home-sewn items you’re willing to undertake, the lower the total can go—as low as $180 with careful planning.
What If She Hates It?
Yes, there is that possibility. Not every woman finds living history fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with having a separate hobby from your significant other—just be prepared for her to take up something with equal time and budget factors to your chosen obsession/hobby. If you have children, and wish this to be a family hobby, plan to adopt a citizen’s impression for at least a portion of your event weekends; otherwise, many women find their portion of the hobby to be Regular Life, Less Convenient, and you may encounter vast resistance.
If there is any doubt in your mind that she will love the hobby, it is best to wait on acquiring a wardrobe. Instead, find a citizen-oriented group to take her under wing, and fit her out for an event or two from the loaner wardrobe box. (Be sure the citizen’s group is as focused on accuracy as your own group! After the work and expense of putting together an accurate military impression, don’t spoil it by stepping out with someone dressed in borrowed farbery.) Loaner clothing will not fit so well as her own wardrobe, but it’s a great way to get started, allowing her the fun of dressing out and getting to know people, with a much smaller budget outlay right at the first.
Most citizen’s groups are happy to provide mentoring, and many have between-event sewing days and other activities designed to help your beloved create many of her own wardrobe items, even if she has no background in sewing.
Women’s Wardrobe Resources
Pattern Lines for Home or Hired Sewing
Discussion Forums & Educational Opportunities
- The Sewing Academy Discussion Forum
- Sewing Academy Workshops
- Genteel Arts Academy
- Atlantic Guard Soldier’s Aid Society
Additionally, some dressmakers will teach sewing classes.
And yes, this is the short, glossy overview. Women’s clothing encompasses a huge range and variety (we have no “uniform” to speak of!). There is something accurate for every personality and personal budget, but the undertaking is not a small one. Your beloved deserves as much consideration in her own things as you do in yours.
Don’t fail her with farb.
That was a bit of a groaner for a title.
This little article is excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide–if you don’t have your copy, you can find it here.
Darts are a way to mold fabric to fit a 3-D body (and most of us have one of those, don’t we?) The cool thing about darts in a bodice is that, so long as two darts both point to the same body bump, we can magically “move” the fabric controlled by one dart, into the other dart forever, and banish the first bit of excess to another dimension (it’s the one where all your socks go from the dryer. Also, hairpins.)
This means that, if we have some extra fabric hanging out in the hollow of the bust, or some loose wobbles after we cut down a neckline for a new fashion style, we can “swing” that dart control into the waist-to-bust darts, and handle everything from there.
Caveat: this is a process that can ONLY be done at the muslin test stage!
To swing a dart, pin your muslin test, basted at the shoulder and sides, smooth to your figure. Don’t pull overly tight, but make everything smooth and sleek, with all the pointy ends of the darts you’re pinning headed toward the same body prominence (usually the bust point.)
The dart you’re wanting to eliminate will be pinned out forever. It is banished. Never shall the pins be removed. The fabric taken up in it no longer exists on this plane of reality (remember? Socks. Hairpins.)
Remove the test bodice, and remove the basting at shoulder and side seam so you have the front bodice pieces back to themselves alone. You’ll notice right away that even when you take out the pins from the dart you’re keeping, the bodice won’t lay flat.
That’s because we have just a few more steps before our swinging is complete!
Carefully cut from the waist edge, right up the middle of the darts you’re keeping, to the point of the bust.
See how the bodice darts just opened wide up? If you trace the new, altered shape, and use the original dart-sewing lines with the new, expanded dart areas, you’ll get the same fit through the torso and waist, with zero excess fabric above the bust, and you’ve not changed anything at all with the armscye (even though it has a new, pretty funky curve, it still works, I promise!), neckline, or bust circumference. That former annoying excess is banished forever and ever, and you have a great shape to play with from here on out.
When you open your copy of The Dressmaker’s Guide, you may notice something missing:
Somehow, that one vital creature was left out! But, due to the miracles of digital sharing, we are now very happy to offer you a free, downloadable PDF with an actual index for your Dressmaker’s Guide!
Click through for your Free Dressmaker’s Guide Index
Print this PDF double-sided (it will come out all landscaped and lovely), and fold it in half; the lined note page will be at the back of your index insert. You can tuck it into your book, tip it in with glue, or tape it to the inside back cover, as you prefer.
We now return to our regularly scheduled Giving of Thanks…
It’s a topic that comes up quite frequently in living history circles: how much does a good repro dress cost? Or bonnet? Or corset?
And then there’s usually a pretty good ruckus of people saying it’s highway robbery, or skin-flint cheap, or loads of variations on that theme. And since I wear a few different bonnets in the mid-century world, I have Opinions. Several. And since I own this site, I’m able to share them in permanent form. So, read on, MacDuff!
What Makes it “Good”?
There’s a certain amount of work that goes into any project, regardless of its accuracy. Since I’m not really keen on wasting time, money, or materials, my definition of “Good” is “looks as much like originals as possible, with the same geometry, materials, techniques, and finishing.” If the item is at a lesser standard than that, it’s just not worth my time, effort, or money.
Particularly where budgets are slim, it’s too expensive to waste time buying or making Make Do. Better to go for a simple, accurate item that will last.
But It’s a Hobby!
Yes, it is. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Most folks, though, claim to be doing living history to preserve it, to educate the public, to introduce the community or kids or whomever to our foundational roots as a society. And once we lay the “educational” moniker on things, we also take up a burden of academic honesty and ethics that mean we need to kick it up a notch or five, with solid research and application, so what the public sees is actually history, not pleasant fantasy or flat-out fiction.
If you’re only making historically-inspired styles for your own use in your home, then go for whatever you want. If you’re in public, or attempting to educate others, that’s a different goal, and the effort and baseline go commensurately up. It’s a hobby AND it’s a thing worth doing Just Like They Did It. Our baseline is that Original Cast, not “other reenactors.” Anything less is just not worth it.
(There are other opinions on this matter. You’ll find those opinions elsewhere.)
Why Do Makers Charge So High?
Not to be unkind, but: they willingly devoted hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of hours to acquire and master skills you’re not willing to learn for yourself. So, they deserve to make more than they would flipping burgers and asking if you want fries with that. A good historic maker is using antique skills that you do have to work to acquire. The workman is indeed worthy of his hire. There’s nothing unethical in charging $15, $30, or even $50 an hour for skilled work, particularly if it’s rare skills. If you don’t want to pay that, then you’ll need to work independently and acquire those skills for yourself.
Private professionals also have to cover all their business costs in order to take commission work from their clients. They have to be able to keep the lights and heat on, feed a family, pay both the employee and employer portion of all city, county, state, and federal taxes (and hooooo boy are some of those amounts high, such as private medical insurance costs!), maintain and repair and upgrade all their equipment, spend time on marketing and bookkeeping and communications. Whatever they charge per hour, consider that they *might* net half that amount, after their business costs. Sometimes. Not always.
Individual makers have to set their own rates. If you feel they’re too high, there are options (see below). If you feel they’re too low, give them a healthy cash bonus at the end of the project to let them know you appreciate their work, even if they say they’re doing it out of love, or just to pay for their own hobby fun. I guarantee you, I’ve never met a maker who was rolling in the lucre from supplying the historic community. Ever.
Is It Really Worth It?
Yes, sometimes. A quality item from a skilled professional can be very much worth a higher-than-average cost. Of course, a high price does not guarantee a good finished project! It really does pay to do your own research, so you know what you’re looking for in your repro items, and know what a red flag looks like if you see one. A maker who charges $800 for a cotton print “ball gown”, and touts how wonderful the machined gauging is? Oh, Red Flag.
It’s Just Too Much. What Can I Do?
Here’s the happy thing: you have so many, many options!
If you are willing and determined to learn to do a running stitch by hand and a whip stitch by hand, you can make your undergarments, a dress, and quite a few bits of outerwear. If you’re willing to learn to do a straight stitch on a machine, you can get many parts done very quickly. Anyone with determination and willingness can learn to sew well enough to make good, serviceable, accurate historic clothing for themselves and their household.
And I do mean it: anyone. I’ve had people who were legally blind in my workshops. If they can do it, you can. I promise.
With running stitch by hand, you can do seams, install piping, create waistbands, and prep gathering and gauging. You can put up a hem, add hem tape, and baste on collars. Add a whip stitch and you can set skirts of all kinds, add a seam “finish” to your cut edges, attach hooks and eyes, and finish off piping seam allowances for a very tidy inside look.
Yes, there are a lot of pieces to a woman’s wardrobe. You’ll find most of them covered in The Dressmaker’s Guide. And quite a few elements are available as free patterns in the Compendium, excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide. We’re excited to get to add to that stack over the winter, too, with some great new sunbonnet styles from private collections and museums (it’s so cool when we ask to share something, and the owners say Yes, do!)
Aside from the undergarments, aprons, shawls, and headwear found here on the Sewing Academy, there are some great bits of documented usefulness around the internet. Need garters, for instance?
If you’re not feeling confident now, take some workshops from The Sewing Academy (click the tab up yonder), or the Genteel Arts Academy; both instructors are portable. Check your local area for workshops through historic sites, or ask them to sponsor a series. Get involved with a group that does sewing days, and has members willing to mentor you in highly-accurate practices.
I’m Not Keen on Full DIY. I Need Help!
That’s fine, too, and totally historically accurate! Most skilled historic dressmakers, for instance, will let you hire them to do just a bodice fitting, or do the bodice construction for you while you to the skirts, or just do the sleeves for you because you hate drafting and setting them.
Many excellent historic milliners will provide you with a totally finished and trimmed bonnet, a ready-to-trim bonnet, a partially finished bonnet, or just a bonnet kit and supplies. You have options.
Using a professional for just part of the work is very normal for most skilled makers, and it can be a very budget-friendly way to go for you, too.
But I Want Spendy Gorgeousness. Can’t They Just Charge Me Less?
Well, no. That’s a great way for the professional to burn out or go bankrupt. If you’d like their spendy gorgeousness, save up. It’s okay to wait on a splurge. Longing and anticipation are two very valid mid-century activities. Once you have a basic wardrobe with undergarments, skirt support, a corset, and a dress, you really don’t need 40 more dresses. Take your time, and research and save to add perhaps one piece a year, or every other year, as things wear out. Just like they did in the period. Odd, how that works out so nicely!
But Shouldn’t They Be Charging Less, Really? I Mean, It’s For Education (And Stuff)!
Well, no. They probably ought to be charging more, given the hundreds of hours of effort behind every project they take on. Charging adequate prices on skilled labor means they get to do things like putting money in savings so they can retire someday, or take a family vacation, or even take the odd sick-day. Those are not high-falutin’, snobby goals. Promise.
You’ve hear the old adage: Fast, Good, or Cheap: Pick Two.
It applies to historic wardrobes as well.
You can have Fast and Cheap, but it’s not going to be Good, and then you’ve wasted everything that went into it.
You can have Fast(ish) and Good, but it’s not going to be Cheap, because you’ll be paying fair skilled-labor rates to a professional, and if they’re sensible, they’re going to charge you extra for the Fast part. This stuff takes time, whether it’s a $3/yard cotton print dress or a silk ballgown.
You can definitely have Good and Cheap, but you’ll need to invest time in your own basic sewing skills, and work at it in tiny increments, making time for it in your schedule. It is 100% do-able, though it may take awhile! Clothing does not have to be perfectly stitched in order to be perfectly historically-accurate and very serviceable. (You can also buy used good items from others, and remodel them… that’s another mid-century norm we can use to our advantage, and it’s a whole ‘nother set of postings.)
Nearly 1700 words is straining the limits of tasteful blogging, so I’ll wrap up with this:
Doing it well is worth the effort (yours) and money (yours and that paid to select makers). Don’t denigrate it. Or, if you feel like denigrating it, just hush for awhile. Other people are working hard to do a good job, and it’s rude to bother them.
If anyone would like to add comments, please do link up your very favorite, very accurate resources for either a skilled historic maker, or a great DIY option!
I got an email from a living history enthusiast struggling with one of the most common historic clothing woes: what to do about the spectacular wedgies that can happen with historic split drawers?
Because every figure is different, every individual’s underdrawers need to be suited to their own figure, not some generic ideal. The Split Drawers project in the Compendium here at the Sewing Academy is excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide as a free resource precisely because we want everyone to experience roomy, bloomy, and awesome!
Women who have more “junk in the trunk” (or, a fully-realized backside with plenty of flesh) need more length (and sometimes a lot more length) to reach from the centerpoint of the crutch to the back waistband. If there’s not enough length, Wedgies Happen. They happen when walking. They happen when sitting. They definitely happen when bending over to pick something up, or crouching. They are Not Fun.
On the big diagram in the free split drawers project, line F is the back crutch edge. You’ll notice that period drawers shapes are very, very different from what we expect in modern pants shapes. Rather than handle the need for extra fabric by use of a curved edge, period drawers have a tall, straight line that provides loads of extra fabric to comfortably cover a curvy backside.
It’s important to test out the length you need. Grab a long piece of narrow elastic and tie it around your waist. Now thread a sewing tape measure fore and aft, and move around. Squat, bend, sit… let the tape expand as needed so you can actually see your needed crutch depths. Do not lie about these lengths and depths. Seriously. Don’t lie. You need that extra fabric for wearing ease, and without it, you are asking for Big Historic Wedgie Issues.
If you have a pair of drawers that are, as my littlest puts it, “Just all FULL of wedgies!” you can retrofit them by taking off the waistband, piecing in extra length along the waist edge using a run-and-fell seam (either as a strip of rectangular fabric, or as a slightly wedge-shaped piece, should you need extra length only in the front or back), and re-setting the waistband.
For comfortable drawers, you need Roomy (horizontal width in significant excess of your actual body circumferences) and Bloomy (extra vertical length to allow some bagginess in the buns, so you can bend at the hip!), and that gets you to Awesome.
Oh, the things we talk about when working on a well-considered historic wardrobe!
The variety of the human form is one of its chief delights and wonders, but occasionally, that form does not meet with the historic aesthetic. Such is the sad, sad case for many in my family: we lack buttock projection. Oh, we’re blessed with breadth of hip! But there is no projection. Indeed, a side shot of the Back 40 resembles this:
Now, for the mid-century era, wherein a nicely rounded Back 40 is really required to produce the nice effects of fashion, this sort of formation is not terribly useful.
Using the Four Progressive Questions, we can turn to period solutions for this problem! Dressmaking manuals and notes mention “skirt improvers” and “bustles” and “light padding” to “give a good set to the skirts”. In practice, what we need is a fake bum, a faux rump, an artificial Back 40.
Here’s a close-up of the Faux Rump in position, but on the outside of the clothing:
In reality, this waistband-with-attached-and-stuffed-faux-bump arrangement is worn over the corset and (in this case, as she’s dressing in 40s fig) corded petticoat, with two petticoats and the dress skirt over the top. When worn with a hoop, it sits best if worn over corset and under hoop, with the hoop and all petticoats balanced over the extra projection.
Let’s compare the two side-views, With and Without:
Go ahead. Embiggen those by clicking. It’s pretty dramatic, with With after the Without! Even the horizon view gets a nice boost:
Since it’s the Clark Cottage, this also happens:
(Mouse over the images for clever captions.)
You’ll find notes on creating a bustle pad in The Dressmaker’s Guide; if you or someone you love is afflicted with a distinct Lack of Back 40, please consider adding a bustle, fauxrump, or other useful bits of padding to assist their basic mid-century fashion aesthetic!
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.)
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.
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.)
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 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 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 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!