The Sewing Academy

Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

How Much?

How much does good historic clothing cost, really?

“My Dear, it was HOW much?” (Southworth and Hawes. Editorial liberties taken with all captioning.)

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.

Summing Up

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!

The Authentic Civilian Manifesto

Or, How To Be Awesome, In 17 Simple Steps.

Many, many moons ago, a wonderful historic researcher and living history enthusiast named Mrs Susan Lyons Hughes wrote this simple point-by-point description of a very useful attitude for any living  history enthusiast. It is shared here, word for word, with her permission. Upon reading it through again, I am struck by the applicability of it now–no need for updates, even a decade-and-a-half later! The attitude described in this list works beautifully for any living history enthusiast. Substitute your favorite region or era for “Civil War,” as needed.

As November is a month for thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for:

© Susan Lyons Hughes

1. I am committed to developing and practicing the most historically accurate portrayal of a civilian during the American Civil War now possible, independent of my husband/spouse/significant other.

2. The only limitations I place upon the accuracy of my impression are due to a prudent concern for maintaining modern standards of health and safety, and those limitations naturally enforced by lack of information resulting from the passage of time since the Civil War.

3. I obtain the most historically accurate clothing, equipment, and other relevant items available to me. I insist upon the use of proper materials and construction techniques in all reproduction items. I handle my finances in a manner that will prevent financial considerations from limiting the accuracy of my impression.

4. I recognize that many vital aspects of Civil War civilian life – terror and wounds on a battlefield near my home, the sights of death on the battlefield or in the hospital, diseases, and much else – cannot be re-created effectively in a living history context. I do not see this failing as an excuse to be lax about other aspects of my impression, but as a challenge to insure that all I can portray is presented as accurately as possible.

5. My impression is based upon serious research into and careful analysis of reliable sources of information about the experiences of civilians during the mid-19th Century. I recognize the need to employ the historian’s skills, including the ability to evaluate possible sources of information. I place considerable reliance upon documented research conducted by others, but I do not base my impression upon the claims of those who manufacture goods for the reenacting market, reenacting traditions and customs, superficial or outdated publications, entertainment media, or other suspect sources.

6. I am prepared to change my impression to incorporate improvements dictated by new historical information as it becomes available to me. I recognize that our understanding of the details of history changes over time. I welcome constructive discussion of such matters, and I share information freely.

7. I portray the Civil War civilian as my knowledge of history leads me to believe is accurate for a particular scenario. This may include altering my impression, depending upon the event scenario, and I am willing to do the research to create an impression that is accurate for the time and place being portrayed. My impression may reflect regional variations in clothing and equipment and changes over time during the war. I can vary my personal impression to suit differing locations and dates of depicted events.

8. I recognize that for the vast majority of civilians during the Civil War, the impact of the war was felt “at home,” and that to re-create civilian life accurately, opportunities for civilian activities at traditional battle reenactments will often be limited. I am committed to developing living history opportunities at venues besides traditional battle reenactments in order to more accurately portray the lives of civilians. This does not mean that I cannot or will not attend battle reenactments, but that I will not try to impose an inaccurate civilian presence at a military scenario when it is not appropriate.

9. I recognize that a successful impression cannot be superficial. My objective is not to conceal modern items but to re-create a historic time and place in detail. Therefore, my impression is as accurate and complete as I can make it on every level – including all of my clothing and the contents of my pockets, carpetbags, &c. Further, I am familiar with the material culture of the mid-19th United States in general, and not just with objects related directly to the military, or to objects related to civilians who may have been associated with the military.

10. While portraying a Civil War civilian I eat food that simulates as closely as possible the food available to the people in the situation being depicted, which includes food which might have been in season as well as available in the region. However, I do not endanger my health by consuming food known to be dangerous. I dispose of human waste in a safe manner.

11. In pursuit of the complete Civil War civilian experience, I am willing to take part in accurately staged scenarios that accurately reflect activities of the period. I learn as much as I can about the details of these activities so that I can portray them realistically. If called upon to do so, I am willing to continue the living history experience around the clock during events.

12. I am committed to learning about antebellum and wartime civilian life to better understand the historical context of the mid-19th century, and to engage in realistic interaction with serious military reenactors that are appropriate to the time and place. I will not live in the military camps, and I will enter the military camps only with an escort, and only with a period-appropriate reason for doing so. I will base my interaction with military reenactors upon historic research appropriate to the scenario time and place being depicted.

13. I employ first-person living history techniques whenever appropriate. I take great care to avoid behavior, language, and comments that might disrupt accurate living history activities. I strive to attain a mental attitude appropriate to the person I portray when in character.

14. I do not “hide my candle under a bushel.” I take advantage of situations that allow me to share my knowledge of the realities of Civil War civilian life with fellow living history enthusiasts and with the public. I participate in living history activities, especially at smaller events, and in educational programs.

15. I see “mainstream” reenactors as potential converts to living history at higher levels of historical accuracy, and I avoid conflict with them. I conduct my relations with them in a manner consistent with the behavior expected from mid-19th century gentlemen and ladies. However, I do maintain my own high standards of excellence for portraying Civil War civilian life.

16. I limit my discussion of and participation in politics at events to that appropriate to the event historical scenario. I leave my views on current events and modern-day reenacting politics at home.

17. The greatest pleasure I derive from Civil War living history comes from the knowledge that I am re-creating the experiences of the civilians who lived during the Civil War with the greatest fidelity to history I can manage.

Thank you, Mrs Hughes! This document has been an inspiration and a guide for many years, and I hope it will continue to guide others for decades to come!

Quick and Warm

Here in the foothills of the Rockies, the weather is changing; most of the leaves are down from the trees (and our hens are enjoying the addition to their cozy bedding!), and mornings are often glittered with frost.

For those anticipating some cool-weather history opportunities, consider adding one of the most basic mid-century outerwear pieces to your own collection. A simple self-fringed shawl is appropriate to men, women, children, and infants of all stations in life, and can be made either single (a width of fabric, squared) or double (twice as long as it is wide, folded to a square and then a triangle for use.)

Look for lightweight (4-8 ounce per square yard, or “tropical/summer” weight) to mid-weight (8-12 ounce) wools in gorgeous solids, plaids, or stripes (that don’t holler business suit) for shawls. The fabric need not be overly thick or stiff; you want it to mold and drape around the body easily, and thick, stiff wools won’t do that. The multiple layers created when a square or rectangular shawl is folded for use insulate very nicely, even when the weather is damp.

Worsted wools will have the smoothest feel, as they are made from longer-staple wool fibers, carded in one direction and then spun and woven. The better qualities of worsted wool have a silky finish that many who’ve only known wool as a scratchy, bulky torture device won’t even recognize as wool!

Sheer wools are an option for those of us who run warm, but want a little something (the two layers of sheer wool when my favorite shawl is folded are delightfully and deceptively cozy!)

For size, 54″ or 60″ widths are the most flexible in use, but if you’re making one for a little girl, go with 45″ x 45″; 36″ x 36″ for tiny toddler folks who won’t be snuggled up “in arms” (for those infants, the adult-sized shawls are easiest.)

Shawl-miniClick through to the project titled Make a Fringed Shawl in the Compendium (you’ll need a PDF reader installed on your device in order to access any of our free projects).

One tip on the fringing: carefully snip from the edge toward the center of the shawl, every 3-4 inches or so, and you’ll have very short segments that fringe quickly and easily. Also, use a chopstick, skewer, stiletto, or seam ripper to get between the threads and pull them toward the edge.

These make an excellent gifts or items for a loaner trunk. The monetary investment is very small compared to the usefulness of the shawl, in the short and long-term. The best “make-do” pieces are those that are fully historically accurate, and inexpensive, and easy to accomplish!

Roomy, Bloomy, and Historically Awesome

Yes, you do use geometry in real life. The usefulness of calculus was still a lie, though.

Yes, you do use geometry in real life. The usefulness of calculus was still a lie, though.

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!

Rumptious Doings

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:

Only without the interesting clouds.

Only without the interesting clouds.

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:

Fauxrump With Irises

I call this “Fauxrump with Irises”.

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!

A Quick Tufted Hood Project

Rather than a formal tutorial with process pictures and illustrations, I’m sending this quick set of notes up for those who’ve wanted to know more about using the free basic sunbonnet pattern from the Compendium to make a quick and warm winter hood.

Here’s a link to a picture of an original tufted winter hood that has very similar geometry to the shape produced by the slat bonnet instructions. To use the slat bonnet for a similar hood, here’s the process:

Draft up your shape, and test it in muslin. In the case of a hood, the portion that would normally be slatted for sun protection will instead be partly folded back to form the pretty decorative brim. You definitely want your winter hood to touch your shoulders, as this blocks breezes much more comfortably.

  • Cut one complete bonnet shape in a light to mid-weight wool fabric.
  • Cut one complete bonnet shape in thin wool batting, then trim about 1/4″ from the entire edge, all the way around.
  • Cut one complete bonnet shape in a smooth cotton, such as cotton sateen, for the lining/brim facing.
  • Cut a rectangle a few inches wider than you’d like the decorative turned-back brim to be from a pretty contrasting fabric, if desired (you could just choose a pretty color for the sateen lining and have that be your revealed prettiness.)
  • If you want to closely match the hood in the photo, curve the front lower edge of the brim smoothly, and cut long strips of your outer wool to use as the pleated trim.
  • Cut three lengths of wide plaid silk ribbon, or narrow-hem strips of your wool to serve as the outer ties that go to the back of the hood, and narrow-hem strips of the your lining fabric for the under-chin ties.

You will also need a small amount of wool yarn in a contrasting color, to do the tufting or knotting that keeps all the layers neatly together.

You’re now ready to assemble and tuft the hood.

  • Press all the edges of the lining fabric and outer fabric to the wrong side 1/4″. Take time around the curves; they will indeed curve!
  • Create a “sandwich” with your lining fabric wrong side up, your trimmed-down batting in the middle, and your outer fabric right side up. The folded and pressed edges of your outer and lining fabrics should neatly hide the batting. Pin carefully all the way around to keep things stable, or hand-baste the folded edges together.
  • Thread a large-eye needle with your wool yarn, and “tie” or tuft the three-layer sandwich every 2″ (to match the interval in the original example hood), using a square knot for each, and trimming the yarn to about 3/8″ after knotting.

Time to finish up!

  • Use fine handstitches to permanently sew the folded edges of the lining and outer fabric together along the outer edge. This could also be machined, but the edge will be more stiff and less flexible with machined stitching. When handstitching, you could use a small running stitch, or fell the lining edge just inside the folded edge of the outer fabric.
  • Work a narrow running stitch hem on your wool trimming strips. Box pleat the strips and tack them by hand to the inside edge of the brim (so it will show when the brim is turned back) and the outside fabric of the curtain/bavolet. You’ll have to choose a “switch-over” point somewhere near the lower front edge of the brim.
  • Hem your ties, and attach them at or just lower than your earlobes on the inside and outside of the hood.

To wear the hood, tie a bow in the hemmed fabric tapes to the back of the neck. Tie the interior hemmed fabric tapes under your chin. Turn back the brim to an attractive depth, and keep cozy!

A Fun Paper Doll Link

The 1863 wedding of “General” Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton, off-stage) and Miss Lavinia Warren, both headliners with Barnum’s “American Museum”, attracted tremendous amounts of media attention. Newspaper articles detailed elements of Miss Warren’s trousseau, the fashionable clothing made to fit her 32″, 29 pound figure was displayed and photographed, and thousands thronged the reception to greet the happy couple after the ceremony.

Harpers Fairy Wedding

Harper’s Weekly engraving of the “Fairy Wedding”

We share here a link to one set of delightful paper dolls in the likeness of Mrs Tom Thumb.

For a bit more about the “Thumbs”, click here.

A tidy sampling of the media furor surrounding their wedding can be found here.

Errata: Yoked Bodice Clarification!

When cutting the yoked bodice style in dresses, the fullness in the lower bodice is created by setting the back edges and center front edge away from an edge of fabric (for the backs) and fold of fabric (for the front). This lets you customize the fullness of the bodice to suit your preference and the fabric.

However, this information isn’t as clear as it needs to be in the pattern pack! My apologies; that information will be updated for future print runs of the girl’s dress pattern.

As always, please do contact me with construction questions; your questions help me refine our resources and make them increasingly useful!

A Nifty Project

We received a fun letter this past week, from a participant in the Sewing Academy workshops held recently in Montana. Debrah was taking a non-history art workshop at the same time, and used techniques from the Sewing Academy workshops in the creation of a piece of “mail art”–an embellished envelope with a themed insert holding artwork.

Fashion doll, outfit, and the embellished envelope.

Fashion doll, outfit, and the embellished envelope.

The doll and outfit tucked into their pocket.

The doll and outfit tucked into their pocket.

Even the back of the envelope becomes art!

Even the back of the envelope becomes art!

Who knew a welt pocket would be so nifty in paper? And the paper doll and outfit, styled for the late 1800s, is a delightful touch.

Thanks so much for sharing this with us! It’s always a treat to see what our friends are up to.

Quick Trivia: I or E?

Emigrant or Immigrant? Emigrate, or Immigrate? When we’re talking about western expansion in the mid-19th century, and the waves of new people coming to America from all directions at that time, do we use an I, or an E?

Here’s a simple trick:

Use E when Exiting… we emigrated from Scotland.

Use I when Incoming… we are immigrants to the Oregon Territory.

So, there’s one bit of trivia to use in campfire conversations this weekend! We’re making a temporary emigration to the Montana Big Sky country for the Sewing Academy series at the Museum of the Rockies… see you soon!


Pluperfect Pockets

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.

Curious About Color?

The mid-19th century is a time of tremendous color… in everything except most photographic information. By the 1860s, photography had developed to the point that it was no longer just for artists and people with the cash to splash on a newfangled fancy thing; the ability to fix images on paper, glass, or metal led to an explosion in commercially-available photography for the everyday household.

So, we’re blessed with quite a lot of photographic documentation of the era we love!

But, we’re also working with images that are more often grey-toned than colored, and that can lead to a lot of speculation about what colors the Original Cast were actually wearing. One big flaw is to examine period images taken with wet-plate technology (find a discussion of the processes here, and you’ll see why modern historic photographers are not charging enough for ferros, dags, and ambros!) and “read” them according to a modern black-and-white-film gray-scale of tones. Because modern black-and-white film is not nearly so blue-sensitive as period photography technology, the “read” is wrong; we are not used to the grayscale a historic person would expect to see in photographs.

Years and years ago, I met a really neat woman named Kathleen Lowe, who took a short series of images with both modern and  historic processes. I do have her permission, granted all those years ago, to share these images for educational use, so I’m happy to do it, with this caveat: if you want to share them, link back to this article rather than re-hosting or re-publishing her images, so the her permissions and her copyrights are maintained. Court good cosmic karma, and click through for the images. Continue reading

Making It Work

Too often, we run into living history challenges and think we have to make-do or justify our solutions. Let me take a moment of your day and share a quick process to simplify decision-making, and get a great historically-accurate result every time.

(And if you want another run at this same topic, please visit the Compendium or click here for our free article about the The Progressive Questions!)

Here’s the pattern:

  1. What did the Original Cast, the people who lived our favorite time period, actually do and use?
  2. Can I replicate or do that exactly?
  3. If not, what other things did the Original Cast actually do and use?
  4. Which of these historic options fits best with my modern impression, budget, time, and preferences?

Let’s put them into use for a few questions (and I’m going to pick different questions than in the Compendium article.)

 I will be sleeping at a history event. Can I use my air mattress?

1: What did the Original Cast do? Well, mostly they slept in beds, with a variety of mattress options.

2: Can I do that? Yes, it’s possible to build or buy a repro bed frame, add slats or rope tension, make a period mattress, and period bedding. I’ll be quite comfortable and cozy, too.

But what if that set-up is beyond my budget, or doesn’t work for my time-frame before the event, or I lack a way to haul all that gear to and from, or the physical wherewithal to do the set-up and take-down on my own? What if I’m going to be in a tent?

That’s when we head for Question 3: What other options did the Original Cast use?

Well, in westward migration settings, most people either slept on pallets and mattresses inside the wagon, or in bedrolls on the ground under the wagon or in a tent put up for the night. There are also plans for portable cots in period publications like The Prairie Traveler (discussion of furniture starts on page 114. You’re welcome.), so I could make a more budget-scaled and transport-friendly bed that is still well within period norms.

I could skip a bed frame, and lay a pallet on a floorcloth inside or outside a tent, or in a historic building, and sleep there. I could use a simple bed-roll of period-styled quilts (with wool under me to cushion and insulate.) I could also do what many displaced and away from home people did, and rent a room for the night at a nearby boarding house or hotel, and skip hauling bedding entirely.

And if I want to use an air mattress? Well, they had ’em. And I can, too, if I’m willing to construct one of real rubber in a period style and inflate it by means of a small bellows or my own lungs. Of all the options open to replicate the era, using an accurate air mattress is more challenging than all the others.

With any of these options, I still need to stick to period materials, techniques, and styles for bedding, wood, fasteners, etc; but I could also safely leave every speck of my sleeping arrangements open to public view, and be confident the spectators are seeing something historic, not make-do.

All that remains is to carefully examine the period-appropriate options I have (with this one question, I’m counting a minimum of nine valid period options I could choose to replicate).

Let’s do another. I think I need a purse for my bits of junk. What should I use?

1: What did They use? A quick survey of extant dresses shows something handy: pockets. Pockets quite deep and capacious, stitched right into the seam of the skirt (usually on the dominant hand side), with a “pocket stay” to support the outer reaches of the pocket bag. Properly made (with rounded corners to prevent things going lost in the points), a pocket in a dress can hold everything the modern woman thinks she needs (and more than most modern purses of moderate scale.)

2: Can I do that? Oh, yes! It’s a free or nearly-free retro-fit to existing dresses, and costs only pennies to add to new dresses, too. It’s such a great solution, in fact, that I’m going to recommend stopping there for any normal day-to-day detritus like keys, medications, handkerchiefs, lozenges, small candies to soothe or bribe little children, a tiny notebook and pencil for random jottings… not to mention modern but sometimes-felt-vital things like phones. A pocket sewn into a dress is more convenient than hauling a purse, and it’s a perfectly period solution. We can actually stop right here, and meet a need for 99% of our sistren.

I certainly could continue on through the four-step process. There are some great articles to do with cases and arrangements for travel, for instance, from Anna Worden Bauersmith. I could look at classes from Genteel Arts Academy in making my own travel bag. I could read up on other options from Virginia Mescher, regarding baskets or a host of other topics that inform what I might keep in pockets, bags, or boxes. All of that learning, and more, will only add context to my choices and expand my options.

Or, since I’ve found a great period solution that works easily and widely, I can stop right here, feeling secure that by starting with What They Did, my final choice of What I’ll Do fits well within the period norms for my own modern living history situation. It’s a great place to rest for a moment.

So I shall.

The Little Black Dress, Mid-Century Style!

Here’s a fun historical snippet, found and transcribed by the Sewing Academy’s Heidi Hollister:

from The Philosophy of Housekeeping

Joseph Bardwell Lyman, 1869

If a lady can have but one silk dress in a series of years, she will find a black silk will be of more use to her than any other color. Black is becoming to every complexion, and a black silk may be worn at a wedding, a party, a funeral, or to church. It is nowhere out of taste except in the kitchen. It may be made gay with bright trimmings, or severe with those of the same color. It can be worn with hat and wrappings of every hue and is never out of fashion.

If the silk is figured, let the figure be small, the same on both sides, with no up or down to it; so that when worn at the bottom it can be turned upside-down, and when soiled outside, it can be turned inside out. Be careful, too, that the figure is well woven in, and no long threads left on the surface. These will catch in everything, and be soon worn off or frayed out so that no care or skill can restore a new appearance to the dress. If the silk be plain, let it be of excellent quality, not stiff and inflexible, but soft and pliable,  and, when pulled in bias folds, easily returned to its former shape.

And, some notes from Liz:

Remember, notes from mid-century often use “hat” and “bonnet” interchangeably; in this case, given the 1859 reference, do imagine any number of fashionable bonnets as “hats”.

The accessories mentioned might include a fine silk waist (shaped, stabilized with buckram and boning; you might see these called Swiss Waist, or Medici belts), a plain silk belt in a gorgeous color (construction notes and diagrams are in The Dressmaker’s Guide!), silk neck bows, pretty silk ribbon wristlets, or gorgeously-trimmed silk accessory jackets. As the note mentions, any accessory might also be done in good black silk for fashion or solemnity, as desired.

You might be wondering about black being suited for all complexions, as we all know at least one person who ends up looking four days “expired” when wearing black. However, black dresses at mid-century will be worn with a white collar, which buffers the complexion. The addition of colored accessories and favorable bonnet trims lends even more buffering. Black can be appropriately worn by anyone at mid-century.

The process of “turning” a dress works for silks and wools, but not for printed cottons. To “turn” the skirt, it is taken off the waist of the bodice, and de-constructed to flat panels of fabric. The former hem edge is turned to be the top of the skirts; the former waist edge is finished with a faced hem. (This explains why gauged and pleated skirts have all the excess from the balancing process left intact inside!) The skirts are then re-balanced, and re-set to the waist.

A second turning process is possible when the skirts are not only turned top to bottom, but right to wrong: the skirts (or entire dress) are deconstructed, sponged clean, pressed and freshened, and re-constructed, placing the identical-but-formerly-“wrong” side out. Of course, it only works with plain cloth (non-printed) or that with a woven-in motif that’s attractive and identical on both sides.

Such silks (and fine wools) are not often going to be found in a local chain shop, but on-line purchasing and patience can bring a lovely yardage for a reasonable price, to construct a dress you’ll use over and over through the years.

Granted, a mid-century Little Black Dress may have six to ten yards of fabric involved, but the concept of a “best” dress that can be accessorized to suit many social needs is not new. Could there by a LBD in your historical future?

Fanciful Utility: a New, Free Template!

We’re excited to hear the feedback from those of you who already have your copy of Fanciful Utility, and to say thanks, we’re happy to share a new, free template you can use with the techniques in your book to create something special for holiday gift-giving!

Whether you choose to embellish the project with tiny beads, as suggested in the original 1859 text, or employ your own favorite decorative techniques, as Liz did with the version shown here, you’ll have an elegant little something to enjoy or share. For the free project sheet, please click through or right-click and save:

Beaded Needlebook Project Sheet

Here’s a needlebook Liz made from the project sheet templates. It’s scarlet shot silk with a cream chintz lining and cream wool felt shaped needlepages edged with wheat-colored blanket stitch. The exterior embroidery features wheat-colored feather-stitching, satin-stitched vining, and cream beading-stitch petals. It is suitable for both modern and historic use, and Liz thinks it’s kind of snazzy.

We’d love to see one done with tiny glass beads, as in the original! If you use this template (remember, they’re for personal use, not making things to sell!), pop us an email with a few shots so we can share them!


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About The Sewing Academy

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

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

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

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