Good planning makes for far less craziness in life, and I’m very fond of a quiet, pleasant time, personally. Here’s a quick look at some of the planning that’s going into my own process of re-dressing two little girls for our living history interpretive season.
Plan For Real Life To Continue
If the head sewist falls into a Black Hole of Making, everyone gets crabby, filthy, starving, and naked. This is not conducive to positive family relations. So we make some plans that allow real life to continue! This includes some grocery shopping for foods that many members of the family can prepare, pre-cooking or batch-cooking some dishes, crock-pot meals, etc. I also plan to take work breaks and do things like push laundry. And, before sitting down to sew, I do make sure I’m dressed, and the house is reasonably tidy. It sounds odd, but I’m a lot more productive and no one hates me. So, it works!
Plan for Realistic Work Segments
If a 48- or 72-hour Black Hole of Making is not realistic for your household, then plan something else. This sew-along is broken down into 20-minute working segments. If you can do three of those in a day, wonderful! If you can only do one of those, great! You’ll still make progress, and can get quite a lot done over time!
Plan for Efficient Time Use
I know that it takes only about five minutes more to cut an extra chemise or pair of drawers, as to cut one. So, planning my work to allow enough time to cut multiples, or do just one step on multiple garments at once, allows me to use my time efficiently.
In my case, I know we’ll be volunteering 1-3 days a week. I would prefer to do only one or two big loads of washing and pressing, so planning for each girl to have two chemises, two drawers, and a full complement of 1850s petticoats, plus one or two dresses, a sunbonnet, and two or three pinafores and aprons, will let me accomplish my interpretive and laundry goals, without overrunning my realistic and efficient sewing time allotment.
It makes sense, then, to cut all four chemises in one go, and “railroad” the work, completing each step on all four garments in one session, as often as possible. My hands will work more efficiently, and the work speeds right along!
Planning for efficient time use also includes making sure I write up a measurement card for each girl, and keep them in my sewing box for easy reference. This saves me a lot of hollering, since this time of year, they’re more likely to be found out with the chickens in the coop, or up a tree, than inside our little cottage.
I am making sure to have a plentiful stock of the supplies I’ll need: a fresh packet of machine needles (the cheapest and best investment you can make in a sewing project!), a few spools of nice white 100% cotton thread, a fresh beeswax, sharp scissors, several thimbles, and the white china buttons I’ll use, all handy to my sewing space. I work at our kitchen table, so everything gets tucked into a cloth tote bag between work sessions. It’s compact, portable, and keeps everything together for easy start-up at each sewing session.
Plan for Thrift
Though my local chain stores don’t tend to have a lot of usable historic fabric, there is one grade of “premium muslin” that works very nicely as period “long cloth” for undergarments, so I planned ahead and purchased ten yards of it with a 50% off coupon, for a total expenditure of $35.
I’m also hauling out the miscellaneous pile of current petticoats, giving them all a good soak in oxygenated bleach (Oxi-clean is my drug of choice), and a nice long line-dry in the sunshine to brighten the fabric. Then we’ll evaluate them: most will need waists reset, tucks and hems adjusted, etc, but I can re-make and re-use my previous labor, saving my new fabric as much as possible. This is only realistic because the previous items were made with good period fabrics and techniques. Those initial investments pay off!
Another thrift measure is tailoring undergarments to the needs of the individual child. My current 8yo is very slender; chemises made on a full-width of 45″ would drown her tiny frame! Instead, I’ll be cutting her chemise fronts and backs on only 30″ of fabric, and using the remaining 15″ of width to cut bands, sleeves, and frills. Scraps will be used as pieced linings in bodices, too. My goal is to have only the merest scraps of white cotton left!
Plan for Style
My base pattern for the girls’ things is our SA-200 Girls Linens pattern. However, my girls have different stylistic preferences, and we’re also targeting an early-middle 1850s look for our interpretive work this year. So I’ll be modifying the base pieces from the patterns, using different trim options, and otherwise customizing the look to suit both our living history needs, and each girl’s personal style. It’s grand to be able to have a unique look that’s still 100% under the umbrella of Period, Everyday, and Common for the era!
It looks like the fabric is ready to pull off the line and give a quick press… and then it’s on to dressing my girls!
We’re about to start dressing our own little girls for a new interpretive season, and we thought it might be fun and useful and instructional to do a quick series on Dressing Girls… you’re welcome to sew along if you like, or come back to these posts as needed. Subscribe to the blog updates (see the side-bar) and you’ll get each “episode” delivered to your inbox.
First, though, a few tips on general attitude and how to make the good stuff happen. It is entirely possible to dress our girls so well, you could transport them back in time and expect them to excite no notice whatsoever.
Of course, these are the sort of hooligans I’m working with…
(Twirl-ability is an obligatory function of all mid-century girls clothing. Always. Even if you’re just going to the neighborhood park.)
Help your girls pinpoint the mid-19th century look by correcting these commonly-seen problems:
Make it Easy
One-fabric dresses, with the skirts attached directly to the bodice, seem to be the most common garment for girls in the mid-19th century. They are also the most convenient for dressing, and easiest to wear during active play or work. Do your girls a favor, and dress them in one-piece dresses with a gently fitted waist. Cut the skirts in widths similar to their petticoats (70″ for bitty girls, 90″ for girls in childhood, 120″ for tween and young teens, 140″ to 180″ for teenage girls). They’ll look wonderful, and have the freedom and ease they need for a great event or interpretive day.
Start With Good Shapes
If you don’t start with good historic shapes, it’s very hard to get a good historic result! You’ll be happiest with a dress pattern that also focuses on historic techniques. When you combine historic shapes, historic techniques, and historically-consistent fabrics, your girls are always going to look their best. Visit our Shop to view our line of historically-accurate patterns for girls.
Use 100% natural fibers for your girls! All-cotton prints in period designs and colors, or good grades of tropical and summer weight wool in solid colors, will keep your girls accurate and comfortable year round. Do not dress girls in man-made fiber blends! It’s both a history faux pas, and a modern health and safety danger.
In the mid-century, girls did tend to grow up. Oddly enough, ours do, too! Historically, dresses were designed to grow with girls, and we can use the same tricks today! Growth tucks are a great way to extend the skirt length potential of a dress, and period techniques for faced waistbands allow you to hide extra bodice length in the waistband against future body growth as well. Use both to get the most out of your girl’s dresses. Our Sewing Academy/Historic Moments patterns do teach the historic techniques you’ll need.
During the Dressing Girls Sew-Along here on the Sewing Academy, we’ll also take a look at recycling things you may have already made, or purchased used from another family. Our youngest is a spritely, slender thing, more-so than either of her elder sisters, so re-cutting this handed-down dress is on the list:
Add Skirt Support
Girl’s clothing works over a system of skirt supports similar to an adult woman’s clothing. Your little girl needs petticoats! Cut full (70″ for bitty girls, 90″ for middle-size girls, and 120″ or more for older, teen girls), then hand-gathered to a fitted waistband, petticoats will do more to improve the look of her clothing than just about anything else! Petticoats are inexpensive, too (under $5 complete in an inexpensive white cloth). One or two petticoats, well starched and worn alone or over a small cage (or corded petticoat for the pre-hoop years) give her the right skirt shapes.
Watch Your Hems
Photographs from our era show a wide range of girls’ dress lengths, but they tend to fall between the upper calf and middle/lower calf for girls under 13 to 15 years. Petticoats and drawers should all be hemmed in the same general range (not designed to peek below mid-calf). Keep in mind that ankle-length drawers are not a mid-century style! It is perfectly acceptable for a girl’s stockings to show to mid-calf. Too-long hems hamper a girl’s ability to play and do active work, and are not consistent with the aesthetic of the period.
Get a Good Ratio
As with adult clothing, undergarments and pinafores (see our free patterns here!) should be the main focus of your young lady’s wardrobe. If funds are limited, you’ll get more good use from one dress, paired with three sets of undergarments and three inexpensive pinafores, than from three dresses and one set of undies! Be sure she has enough underwear for a fresh set each day of your longest event, plus one for spare. (Petticoats can be worn several days running, so she’ll need only one set of those.)
When it’s all put together, you end up with “history kids” who walk around with this sort of happy:
And of course, always study as many original images and extant garments as you possibly can! It’s exciting to see snapshots of living history children, and realize: we look just like the Original Cast!
Well-made historic patterns can be a big help in getting dressed for the mid-century. They can offer excellent historic geometry, useful and illustrated construction techniques, notes on extant garments with the same features, and textile suggestions to help make your wardrobe project the closest neighbor to what the Original Cast might have worn.
But, even a great historic pattern has limitations (and the lesser-quality ones can be a really stinker to work with; more on those later.) What can you expect to need to change when using a good historic pattern?
Those who have been in workshops with me can attest to this mantra: Always Make a Muslin Test. Always. Never Not Make a Muslin Test. Just Make One. You Need To. Yes, Even You. Make a Muslin. Always. Always Make a Muslin Test.
Because here’s the honest truth: you’re going to need to change things.
The human form has endless and marvelous variations. Not all women are slender in the same way; not all women are fat in the same way. Bodies are not symmetrical. People with the same circumferences will need radically different sizes. People with the same bra size will need radically different darts. No pattern-maker, no matter how amazing, can anticipate what your unique body is going to need.
So, you’re going to need to start with a good base, and then alter it to be YOUR best base, the one that meets all of your figure’s actual needs.
And the best way to do that without cussing or crying or panic attacks is to work out the changes in cheap ugly sheets from the thrift store, not your carefully-researched, saved-for, wonderful cotton, wool, or silk!
Make a muslin of your excellent historic pattern base (chosen for size by your bust or high bust measure for most patterns, or using the unique sizing instructions for Truly Victorian patterns), and expect to need to refine or alter things like:
Overall Length: a too-long bodice causes wrinkles and ripples and all manner of oddness. Sometimes taking off 1/2″ will be the perfect solution to every other fitting issue. Sometimes it’s just one piece of your unique figure puzzle. Sometimes, you need to add length to the pattern, and that’s fine, too!
Length In Specific Places: you may be shorter-than-charts or longer-than-charts from the shoulder to the bust point, or from bust to waist. You can alter your test muslin to suit. It’s allowed.
Circumferences & Widths: you will have different width needs than other people. You’re allowed, and can expect, to change a few things by altering the depth or position of seams, taking extra width out of the shoulder or front bodice, and other such changes. If you’re a very slender person, who falls below the minimum measurements for the pattern, expect that you’ll be folding out some overall width right down through the shoulder and bust of each piece, and taking deeper seams, too. It’s all fixable at the muslin stage!
Darts & Seams: anticipate changing the precise length, shape, depth, and position of darts, to mold the bodice to your actual body. And anticipate that you probably have a very distinct right and left fitting need, too; most people do, though some are symmetrical enough that they can cut a bodice “double”–that is, in a double-layer of fabric to get both fronts in the same shape, and one back on a fold. You may not be able to do that, and that’s okay, and normal.
Armscyes: you may need a different depth, width, shape, or position of armscye than the pattern lays out. This is normal, too. If you need to make significant changes, you may also have to mess with some test sleeves to correct the shape of the sleeve cape.
Necklines: depth, width, shape, and position–sensing a trend? We all wear our bones in different places. If your bodice is built to suit your bones and flesh, you’ll be comfortable and look comfortable, too.
Okay, so what if you got a stinker of a pattern?
I mentioned above that it’s easiest to start with well-drafted patterns from makers who are good at period geometry, and good at historic technique instruction. Not every pattern meets that threshold.
Even if you got a stinker of a pattern (and I’m sorry that happened… I’ll do an article soon on which meet my own threshold for use), you’re going to be making a muslin, so most of the weirdness can be fixed. It’s just going to take more work. It’s work done once, though–when you have your fitted base fine-tuned to look well on your historically-corseted body, you will use that as your permanent pattern. You can transfer it to sturdy paper, with notes and markings and dates, and make pretty much everything from it!
What if your pattern’s instructions are also stinkers?
That happens. It’s one of the reason quite a few people end up buying The Dressmaker’s Guide, actually–because they can use the techniques in conjunction with any published pattern, no matter the quality of the pattern’s notes. You can find some helps and hints in the articles in the Compendium as well.
Now, repeat after me:
Always, Always, Always Make a Muslin Test! You have official permission to make a good pattern better by fitting it to your actual, in-real-life body, and you should!
Pardon a brief anthropology-nerd post, but feel free to share it far and wide!
Lo, these many years ago, I was a student in anthropology with a minor in historic archaeology. I… ummm… kinda really like the study of Olden Days and Olden Days People. A lot.
A few of the concepts we used in anthropology are very useful in living history and living history research, and one in particular can help us improve our recreated, interpreted past tremendously.
That is this: avoiding the pit of “presentism.”
What’s “Presentism,” you so cleverly ask?
It is the interpretation of history with a bias toward present attitudes.
It is the mistaken assumption that everything we currently understand, believe, and hold as aesthetically lovely is the pinnacle of the entire human experience, and anything other than our current understanding is clearly inferior.
Can you see how that would cause problems in living history? In clothing those who “do” living history? Let’s take a quick look:
We display presentism when we describe a member of the Original Cast in a historic photograph as “ugly.” Perhaps that person’s personal beauty is not our favorite style. Perhaps that person has some physical structures that don’t please our modern or personal aesthetics. Perhaps they are subject to the vicissitudes of period photography technology. Perhaps they’re not particularly photogenic.
None of that is actually important when we’re looking at photos to gain an appreciation or understanding of normative expressions of fashion in the period.
We display presentism when we ascribe highly-biased and subjective words like “tacky” or “hideous” or “weird” to images of original garments, fashion engravings, and other primary sources. Not only do those kinds of words exhibit a self-centric and narrow understanding of the era, they are spectacularly unhelpful in exploring it.
Take a look at the lady here: I, sadly, found her by doing a search for “Ugly Civil War Woman.”
The only thing ugly is the presentism used to judge and diminish this useful period image.
Let’s see what this lady can tell us, without the veil of presentism obscuring our view.
She seems to be quite tall and slender, so she gives us a good look at how tall and slender people accomplished the period aesthetic balance in everyday clothing. (Indeed, if we measure her by her own skull length, she actually fits the ratios of modern fashion illustrating; she is just over 8 “heads” tall, versus the average 7 “heads” tall–and similarly contracted proportions–of modern women!)
Her garments are well-fitted to her figure, and sewn by someone with an eye that appreciates symmetry, based on the placement of the garment pieces with regards to the textile pattern.
She wears a pretty conservative mix of current styles: a pleated skirt, darted-to-fit double-point bodice, minimal trim on the dress, and a little frilled collar. Her sleeves are a neat open “coat” sleeve worn with an undersleeve. Her dress is long–it does not hover off the floor–yet another example of the lengths we should be wearing ourselves.
Her hair is smooth, tidy, and worn in a conservatively current fashion, arranged in way that adds a bit of visual width to her slender oval face, which helps her fit the dominant fashionable aesthetic of the era just a bit more.
It’s far more useful to examine her image based on what she can tell us about the clothing choices of a very average young woman in the early 1860s, than to dismiss her worth by terming her “ugly.” If we dismiss her simply for not conforming to our preferred modern style of beauty, we miss all the wonderful information she has to share with us!
To be clear: the blogger at In The Swan’s Shadow entirely avoided presentism when sharing the image. They shared only the facts known about the image, and its source (it’s in the VMI archives). They did it right. Someone further down the line ascribed the presentist opinion that judged her “beauty.”
And what if her dress had features some trim or ornament that we found personally odd? It is far more useful to be able to say, “I’ve looked at 400 examples of this style of garment, and they seem to share these common features…” than to say, “Oh, that’s just ugly. Why did they think that was nice-looking? I don’t like that at all.”
(The question “Why did they think that was nice-looking?” is actually a *good* question, and can be our ladder right out of the depths of the pit of presentism! Being willing to try to find context and meaning, or barring that, just accept that this was something they found attractive, is a great way to remove some presentism from our attitudes.)
We’re not obligated to like every single fashion option in our era. If there’s one we don’t like, we can–and should–choose another for our own personal wardrobes.
Extending this concept briefly, presentism is problematic in understanding the social context of the period as well. We are not obligated to pronounce judgement on the attitudes of the past! We can simply present those attitudes as closely as possible to the documented record of those who actually held the attitudes, and allow space for ourselves and for our visitors to make up their own minds about complex topics.
Being aware of presentism, we can work to root it out in our own observations of historical items and ideas. Communicating our observation process with as little presentism as possible also helps train others to look at the past with eyes as free from modern-is-the-best-ever-pinnacle-of-everything bias. And that better attitude helps shape and inform upgraded interpretive learning for everyone, participants and visitors alike!
Ever since Fanciful Utility debuted three years ago, I’ve been making up items from its pages to give away at Sewing Academy workshops, where they’ve been received with delight. But, as with cobbler’s children going barefoot, my own sewing supplies were kept in a series of battered plastic ziploc baggies!
My Little Case… Click to embiggen!
I decided to make my case to finish out at about 2″ wide and deep, and 4″ long. I knew I wanted a tool box and pin-cushion, a scissor sheath and a bit of wool for a needle-keep. And inside Fanciful Utility, I found all the bits and pieces to make my project both consistent with historical examples, and My Very Own.
My challenge to myself: use more than one fabric. I have a… thing… about visual coherence. I really, really need for colors to have compatible tones and shade. It’s hard for me to mix patterns, particularly across fabric print collections. Scrap quilting is Not My Thing. I’m in awe of people who can put together items that have loads of different prints!
I also have a history of challenging myself to do odd things. Like the time at university when I made myself do the city newspaper crossword every day for a week, to see if I avoided crosswords because I was bad at them (in which case, it was a character flaw, and I just needed to learn to do them well), or whether I was good at them, but just didn’t like them (in which case I gave myself permission to never do another one in my life.) (I’ve never done another one in my life.)
So, this case has not one, not two… but SIX different cotton prints! There are two on the exterior: the main blue print, with a narrow piping of a red coral-branch-type print where I flipped the blue print around so it would be “right side up” when the case was closed.
Another branching print forms the base of the interior. A tiny red floral is the inside of the toolbox, with a striped print used on the box dividing wall and removable pincushion (which is filled with wool roving).
I used a brown-based print for the scissor sheath, and a bit of white wool felt for the needle-keep.
The asymetrical featherstitch on the needle-keep was put on first, then the blue buttonhole stitch to finish the edge; a blue thread hinge anchors it to the interior. The scissor sheath has a full lining, and was felled securely to the interior, then I worked a backstitch in little mounds around the edge to tie it visually to the blue used elsewhere in the case.
The toolbox is large enough to hold my thimble, wax, a seam ripper (modern), and about six slender spools of Gutterman’s cotton, or truly loads of thread winders when I get those lacquered and in there.
The case closes with three little hooks and three little blue thread eyes on the outside. It stays shut very well!
I made the case entirely by hand (as is historically appropriate), in short and random moments of down-time during a multi-day sewing retreat, in which I was everyone’s minion. It was a great retreat, and my own sense of accomplishment as I loaded my tools and supplies into this compact little case at the end of the weekend was such a great feeling! The whole process of making the case and each component was a relaxing, enjoyable thing. I love these kinds of projects, don’t you?
Don’t forget to pop over to author Anna Worden Bauersmith’s blog today–look at the great resources she’s making available!
So, three years ago, author Anna Worden Bauersmith and I “birthed” a project that we affectionately nicknamed FanU… or, Fanciful Utility, a fantastic technique and project book that teaches you how to make a huge variety of Victorian sewing cases, sewing rolls, and needlebooks.
This lovely book is packed with illustrations and pictures to help you “de-code” originals and engravings from historic magazines, and replicate them for use today.
So far, we’ve sent out copies of FanU to nearly every state in the US, as well as to places like England, Belgium, France, Austria, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. FanU’s fans live everywhere!
To celebrate, Anna has a whole week of great posts and neat ready-to-use items (made by her own hands, and listed for sale in her Etsy shop!)… you’re going to want to click through, and sign up for updates, so you don’t miss a thing.
For instance, later this week Anna will be discussing the most popular period sewing tools, and she has some amazing free printables coming out! Eliza Leslie’s sewing introduction notes in a booklet form, and two mini-booklets that fold down to a miniscule size and are ideal for your own reference or to tuck into a gift case.
She’ll even have some printable needle packet designs–print, load with needles, and pass them out to convert all your friends to the benefits of period sewing!
… How To Tell If Your Resources Pretty Much Suck Eggs.
So, this post comes from a kind of crabby place. Normally, I am not a crabby person. I do, however, get frustrated when people, in good faith, get hold of resources that are not only less-than-helpful, but put them in a really cruddy spot with wasted fabric and effort and time.
Here’s a short list of things that set of my Red Flags with regards to a woman’s mid-19th century dress pattern:
Scanty Yardage: With 45″ fabric, and bishop sleeves, a fabric yardage note of 4.5 yards for an adult dress is Not Much. That’s a skimpy skirt (not gauge-able), and while some very petite ladies may be able to get a lower working class “skimpy” dress from it, the average-build woman cannot, if she wants to look like someone from the mid-19th century, and not like an extra from The Beverly Hillbillies.
Over-Yardage: The pattern includes bishop sleeves, which don’t require a lining. But three yards of lining is quite a lot for lining a basic bodice. More Red Flags that this dress pattern may have some oddness.
Yardage Why? The note calling for a half-yard of 45″ wide white cloth and interfacing leaves a lot of questions: no notes on whether that’s a half-yard of white cloth that will be used as interfacing, or if you need a half-yard of each, and if so, what kind of interfacing, and if interfacing, why? Mid-century dresses didn’t use modern interfacing. I’m about to the point that I can start a fancy drill team with all these Red Flags.
No Yardage At All? Apparently, if you use 60″ wide cloth, you magically need zero fabric for lining?
Sizing It Up: Another Red Flag shows up bright and clear on this sizing chart, in the neckline circumference. Women do not get larger on a photocopy scale. As sizing goes up, necks do not get progressively larger by another inch and a half each size. This tells me the drafter/grader doesn’t really get human anatomy or growth or fatness, and that signals the potential for vast sizing re-do work.
Bad Notions: Things like buttons need to be customized to suit the purposes of the dress. While a high-fashion gown might use larger buttons (often silk-covered or the really sexy complicated ones woven over a mold), a “work dress” for an average-height woman tends to need more than 8 huge buttons down the front. Eight buttons can work for my 10yo, who is 4.5 feet tall, if I’m using period spacing and sizing, so right off the bat, I know that the pattern recommendations are not going to look well on me: I’m over a foot taller! The pattern doesn’t upgrade the button total for the taller/longer bodices. That means, the larger the size, the more I’m going to look like a Borrower, not a denizen of the 19th century.
And no period dress needs huge hooks and eyes to fasten the skirt and bodice together. That’s not how the Original Cast did it, and recommending it in a pattern belies a basic lack of research into actual garments of the era. There are going to be Problems with the way the bodice and skirt are finished at the waist, and how the fullness is handled, guaranteed; lack of research in one area transmits to many areas.
And piping: Your dress pattern should recommend it, but if they have “two packages piping” on the list, run away post-haste and buy a different pattern, because again: basic lack of research into actual garments of the era. Mid-century piping is self-fabric, and about 1/4 the size of purchased poly-cotton bias piping. If the list tells you to plan an extra yard to make self-piping, run away post-haste; this displays a lack of understanding regarding layout, fabric usage, and scrap piecing so very basic to mid-century dressmaking.
And fat thread: No, you don’t need heavy quilting or button or upholstery thread to sew a 19th century dress. The originals used regular sewing cotton. We can, too. No need for overkill. And designers that recommend overkill either haven’t looked at enough originals, or have had their designs monkeyed with by modern publishers (as is the case of the work of two designers I know… they turned in good stuff, and then it got messed with. Growl. Not the designers’ fault in that case.)
This bit of crabbiness is all based on just the back of a pattern envelope. I’m expecting further travesty on the inside–on-line reviews note that the pattern doesn’t include any illustrations. The person trying to use this pattern is reasonably frustrated, and rightly so.
In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing some independent resource reviews of items for mid-century, and I’ll have more to say on the matter, I’m sure. For the meantime, keep this in mind: sometimes, when you’re struggling to make a project work, it isn’t your fault.
I’m going to slap in some Sousa, and march around waving this pile of Red Flags for a bit…
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!
There you are. Ready to start a neat new project from a period source. You’re all set to sew.
And then: someone tossed carpentry into the mix?
What does it mean when you see a number on a mid-century diagram, with a little letter N after it? Or read directions indicating “nails” as a unit of measure? What the heck, Original Cast?!?
Calm your steam engines… a “nail” is simply an antique unit of measure, equivalent to 1/16th of a yard. Here’s how it goes:
36″ = 1 yard
18″ = 1/2 yard
9″ = 1/4 yard
4.5″ = 1/8 yard
2.25″ = 1/16 yard, OR 1 nail.
(Oh, and there’s also the fabric measurement of an “ell”. For our purposes, that’s often an English ell, or 45″… or 20 nails!)
Rather than do a bunch of increasingly-tiny division when your project calls for measurements like 1.5 nails (which is 3 and 3/8″, by the way), you can make a nail measure with a bit of card or firmly-woven tape, a piece of paper cut 2.25″, and a fine permanent marking pen. Fold the paper in half, and in halves again, and transfer the quarter marks to the tape or permanent card; repeat to make multiple nail sections.
(Don’t, though, hit a “normal” or “mundane” fabric shop and ask the cutter for “2.5 nails of this cotton, please.” She will stare at you, and then she will probably hate you.)
Just a quick cool thing today!
Here’s a fantastic look at African-American clothing in the 2014 Daguerrian Annual, by Dr Karen Bohleke:
Just a quick note today, regarding the classification of every merchant or vendor catering to the living history trade as a “sutler.”
Here’s the thing: words mean things. And the word “sutler” is not a catch-all for “people who sell things.” It’s a very specific word for a very specific type of selling to a specific clientele.
Specifically: a sutler sells goods and provisions to military troops, under contract with said military. They sell, to soldiers, items that soldiers might like to have, that the military does not provide them. Here’s a great short article on types of things a sutler actually did do and sell at mid-century.
At mid-century, a sutler doesn’t sell items to the general populace. They don’t sell goods for dressmaking, or women’s bonnets, or children’s things.
A modern merchant or vendor who provides lines of historically-accurate merchandise, or supplies and aids to create the same, is a merchant or vendor or shopkeeper, or store.
Let’s make the 2015 living history season the year we stop using “sutler” for everything… or for anything outside of the historic impression of “licensed contract merchant of items for soldiers and sailors.”
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.
Many of us sew in living history situations, and thus have need of an accurately fitted-out set of tools and supplies; others of us simply find the historic tools and styles charming, and wish to have something like them for our own modern use. Certainly, the ingenuity of past kits surpasses the modern plastic-and-sadness models available in most chain stores!
As a starting place for fitting out a sewing set, please visit Mrs Mescher’s excellent article, The Case of the Lost Thimble. In particular, note the illustrations of common styles of scissors… not a single pair of Chinese gardening snips to be found! It’s telling that the classic shape of scissors and shears and their mechanisms has scarcely been improved in a century and a half. For instance, all-metal Gingher 8″ dressmaker’s shears, and basic all-metal 4″ embroidery scissors are both virtually identical to diagrams in Mrs Mescher’s article. Modern nickel-plated brass straight pins (these are a size 20, and 1.25″ long) and period pins are visually very similar, ditto needles. It’s possible to outfit oneself with items that are fully functional for modern and historic sewing, historically accurate, and not hideously expensive.
Two new articles from author Anna Worden Bauersmith give some additional ideas on fitting out your own tools and supplies. What Is In Your Sewing Box links the reader to images of mid-century sewing, and well-reproduced sewing sets from modern living history enthusiasts. Sewing On The Go shows very portable sets that tuck efficiently into both historic luggage and modern messenger bags, for the mobile sewist.
Of course, one of the first questions to ask is: why am I a mobile sewist? In what circumstances did people at mid-century go mobile with their sewing tools, and what did they use to make that happen?
Sometimes, we may be trying to make settled sewing more portable for our own modern ease, such as portraying a mid-century sewing professional who would normally operate in a workroom or shop, but out of a tent or coming into a village for short-term portrayals. We need to be careful to not impose our own desire for portability over the actual historic practices of our sort of sewist. Investigating the actual practices of the past lets us find a good historic option, or a careful blend of several options, that give us the best solutions.
Going back to the Progressive Questions (What did the Original Cast actually do and use? Can I replicate that? If not, what other things did they actually do and use? Which historic option fits my needs and impression best?) is always the best way to start in the past, and explore a wide range of options for the modern living history impression, including the mobile sewist!
The full price is a great deal, but the Early Bird has extra dollars to spend in the Merchant Hall, and that’s a lot better than worms, don’t you think?
Registration information is at the Genteel Arts website. Click through to visit, or click on the image to be delivered by that route!