The Sewing Academy

Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

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!

Book Review: I Like That Good Old Song

Imagine yourself strolling down a quiet village lane on a fine early summer day.

A gentle breeze blows; dappled shade from the trees plays over your face as you walk. You can smell firewood in the sun, and the sweet fragrance of newly-cropped grasses in the pasture.

A farmhouse sits just off the lane, curtains riffling a bit; on the porch, there sits a young person, looking for all the world like a picture from the past. They are sitting with one leg tucked under them, and a large stoneware bowl in their lap, snapping beans.

Absorbed in their chore, they do not notice you, but on the breeze, you catch the satisfied hum of a tune they warble as they work… it is a perfect picture, a perfect “time travel” moment.

Until you realize the song they hum is vintage Metallica.

Music is a major component of modern life; with the proliferation of miniaturized music devices, it’s rare for an individual to lack a personal soundtrack! People relate to music; it sparks emotional responses, recalled memories, and shared connections with others.

As such, music has the potential to be an important interpretive tool for any living history setting. Music gives us an opportunity to connect with our senses, to amuse ourselves (a true “I”-pod!) and others, to communicate, to transmit culture and information, and to add dimension to the everyday life settings we portray.

Music was a major component of historic life! Sung and played at home, in the public square, in churches, in taverns, in theaters, in traveling shows; published in letters, diaries, magazines, and collections of music—the past was not silent. When the majority of our experience with the past has been through books and silent relics, we sometimes forget that the past was a noisy place, just as full of sound as our era.

The biggest difference: the past relied on live performance, rather than recorded and remastered music. Getting back into the live music sound touches something visceral for performers and listeners; we hear the full human experience, without tempering, correction, or re-dubbing. We get in touch with raw emotion in ways our MP3-tuned ears may never have heard before.

Many have desired to integrate music with living history. For quite some time, a main quandary has been “What do I sing? What do I play? What music did They internalize and perform?” 1880s music in 1860s settings is just as jarring as Metallica on the farmhouse porch, after all. It’s one thing to recognize the need for higher-quality musical resources in living history; it’s another to put accurate resources to complete use, and increase the opportunities for connection and interpretation.

Finding lyrics has often been easier than finding the “right” tunes. The mid-19th century practice of mixing and matching lyrics with different tune settings was helpful in allowing people to more readily perform new pieces (particularly singers without instrumentation), but it can be confusing and challenging for modern musicians accustomed to one lyric, one tune, and written notations!

I Like That Good Old Song,” the new anthology from John and Elaine Masciale, is an excellent tool in resolving our musical challenges, and using music in a more full, 19th century way for deeper interpretive connections (and just plain personal satisfaction, too!)

It is, as the Masciale’s describe it, essentially a “fake” book: basic chords and clef notations for the earliest or most common tune settings to each lyric, plus extended verses and variations where they can be documented. Any musician or vocalist will be able to get up to speed very quickly, and then layer in their own individual styling and flourishes for performance.

While we might often see lyric snippets in letters and other written sources, the Masciale’s have done the extra research needed to provide complete lyrics and documented tunes, set in keys that are easy to sing for most voices, or to play on most instruments. Modern musical formatting makes antique sounds accessible to the 21st century musician.

They’ve reproduced a variety of song styles; the 125 songs include “pop” tunes of the era, patriotic and sentimental favorites, ballads, nonsense songs, spirituals, minstrel songs, and common hymns, making the book an easily adapted resource to suit a wide variety of personal preferences, customizing music to the individual impression needs.

The song anthology is presented piece upon piece without interruption; further expansion books will include the research background and commentary on the songs, which will be a fantastic tool for public education and personal context.

It’s easy to see the Masciales are musicians and performers, themselves; where songs require a two-page spread to include all the notes and lyrics, the layout opens flat, with no page-turning. These small touches make the book easy to use in practice and performance. Ever mindful of the need to be unobtrusive in living history settings, they even give suggestions for hiding the modern lay-flat spine, just in case you didn’t have time to memorize your chosen music before the event.

Should you have a personal copy? Yes!

“I Like That Good Old Song” is ideal for vocalists, for guitar and other stringed instruments, for piano, and any instrument that fits the era. If you’re a member of a vocal or other performing group, plan to grab a copy for each person. Using just this one volume, I can envision living history enthusiasts all across the country assembling performances that add to the magic moments we all crave:

  • A group of dressed-out youths raising their voices in patriotic tunes;
  • People of all ages delighting to rollicking minstrel show numbers;
  • Church services with added dimension through beloved and fervent hymns;
  • Quiet sentimental ballads carried on the evening breeze;
  • Rousing political songs spicing up a good candidate debate or rally;
  • Children practicing their stick drill while marching to popular soldiering tunes….


Just imagine the depth we can add to living history, for ourselves and for our visitors, just by adding that vital component: music!

You’ll want to add “I Like That Good Old Song” to your wish list today, so you can be singing or playing along next week.

Purchase “I Like that Good Old Song” direct from the publisher at

Fanciful Utility: The Newest Book from Anna Worden Bauersmith!

Are you ready?

Are you a fan of historic sewing and particularly, historic sewing accessories?

Would you like to be able to make gorgeous, functional, accurate pieces for yourself? For gifts? As educational tools? As something just generally nifty to own?

Then you’ll want to order your own copy of Anna Worden Bauersmith’s

Fanciful Utility: Victorian Sewing Cases and Needle Books

Containing full-size templates and illustrated instructions for over 68 projects and variations! The options are truly unlimited, as you’ll learn the concepts and historic techniques that allow you to design your own sewing accessories for gifts or personal use. No sewing machine required! Make them with full historic styling for use in living history, or bring a unique flair to your modern sewing tools by adding creative new touches that express your personality in very modern ways.

Buy Your Copy Now in Patterns & Books or click through to access the shopping cart, see the book trailer and enjoy pics of some of the projects you’ll have at your fingertips! Continue reading

Looking West, Jumping Off

1907 Map by Ezra Meeker, early “opener” of the Oregon territory. The map shows turn-of-the-century geographic names.

Would you like to print this article for your research notebook, or share it with others? Click Here for a PDF version Play fair: don’t re-host the file or sell the article! You’re welcome to link back here, or make copies of the article as-is to share free-of-charge with others. Please leave our copyright line in place, so readers can contact us with any questions.

If your education was like most, your history book handled the Civil War, western migration, and the Gold Rush in three separate sections. For many people, this causes a distinct disconnect, and it may take years to realize that all of these major events in American history happened during the same era! While battles raged back east, individuals and households continued to emigrate, prospect, and settle the west. For modern living history enthusiasts, understand the vast pull of the West is a great addition to mid-century context, and can even enter into specific interpretive presentations.

Beginning with white missionary settlement in the 1830s, the western territories that would become the states of Oregon, Washington, California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho captured the imagination and hopefulness of a young nation eager to spread out and find new horizons. Land grant programs beginning in 1843 allowed any adult citizen to claim western acreage, provided he lived on and improved the property (called “proving” a claim) for several years; married men were able to claim double acreage. Starting in 1854, acreage could be either “proved” or purchased outright. The Homestead Act of 1862 again granted free claims of up to 320 acres with five years “proving”, or paid claims with six months residency, and $1.25 per acre. With farmland growing more expensive in the northern states, and increasingly tapped out or battle-wearing in the south, “free” land in the west grew more and more attractive. Continue reading

Synchronized Stitching

When it comes to mid-century sewing, there are so many new terms to learn! It gets even more challenging when multiple techniques all use one basic stitch foundation. Here’s a quick look at some of the easily muddled processes for handling fullness. (You’ll find the techniques explained and used in The Dressmaker’s Guide.)

Synchronized Stitching
Each of these techniques uses one or more rows of running stitch as a foundation. These stitches may be completely even, or uneven (usually with a larger stitch taken on the wrong side of the work). The stitches may be long (1/4″, to even so long as 1/2″) or short (1/16″ to 1/8″). There may be one or two rows, or many rows. But generally, the stitches are worked by hand, and taken at the same intervals in each row, stacking up in synchronized sets that, when drawn up, create very controlled, regular “pleats” of fabric. (These are distinct from flat, folded pleats.) There are fine distinctions among the fullness-handling methods as to the exact combinations of these features, so it can be a prime “muddling” point.

Raw Edge Versus Folded Edge
We find our first distinguishing features here: are the running stitches worked along a raw edge, or a folded edge? Gathering, stroked gathering, and shirring are each worked near the raw edge of a garment section. Gauging is worked along a folded edge of fabric, and is typically reserved for the waist treatment of skirts at mid-century.

How Much?
Any of these methods use hand stitching, which has the potential to allow a high proportion of fabric to be controlled to a relatively small area. The precise density of gathering, stroked gathering, shirring, and gauging is primarily influenced by the prevailing styles of the particular window on the era, so there’s no concrete measurement that applies to the entire mid-century. Rather, it’s important to look at the overall proportion and fashion for your segment of the century, and control enough fullness to get that look in your reproduced styles. (The best way to do that is to examine as many originals and images from the era as possible, and do a bit of math to work out ratios.)


One or two rows of synchronized stitches are worked near the raw edge, and drawn up into gathered pleats. The garment section is sewn right-sides-together with another garment section, binding, or waistband. The raw edge is either visible on the inside of the garment, covered with a facing, or enclosed in the waistband, cuff, or binding. The gathering stitches may be removed.

Stroked Gathering
Stroked gathering begins identically to plain gathering. It is typically used on a garment edge that will have a flat band as a finish (sleeve cuffs, skirt waists), but can be used elsewhere, such as the armscye of men’s shirt sleeves.

Instead of sewing the gathered portion right-sides-together with the flat portion of the garment, the flat band edge is pressed to the wrong side. Then the band and gathered section are arranged, both right-sides-up, exactly as the finished garment should appear. To finish, a tiny whip-stitch secures every gathering pleat to the folded edge of the band. The piece is turned to be wrong-side-up, the band is folded into finished position, and the whipping is repeated on the wrong side of the garment, too.

The raw edge is still enclosed in the band, but the tiny whip stitches produce a very compact, tidy set of “pleats” at the band edge. The gathering stitches themselves may be removed.

Shirring is most often used to control fashionable, or design-element fullness, in bodices and sleeves. Shirred fashions are very popular in the 1840s, and into the 1850s; shirred styles persist into the 1860s, but the precise designs change through the entire era, so it’s important to use shirring as it was used in your particular window of the era.

Many horizontal rows (often at least five, but twelve or more is not uncommon) of synchronized running stitch control fashion-fabric fullness starting at the waist, and reaching into the rib area, and even all the way to the shoulder in some mid-century bodice designs.

While the rows have synchronized “stacks” of stitching, the individual row length may vary, the spacing between rows may vary, and the density to which the shirring is drawn up may vary from waist toward the bust (typically, the shirring controls fullness most densely at the waistline, and “fans” out above.)

Shirring may also be worked vertically on bodices or sleeves, and is sometimes employed in creating trims, as well. Shirred garments sometimes have a row of trim laid along selected shirring lines, covering the shirring stitches and stabilizing the fullness, while adding a decorative element. Whether the shirring lines are embellished or not, shirring is often stabilized by tacking along the shirring line, through to the fitted lining of the garment, and the running stitches foundational to the shirring are generally left in place.

Shirring is different from smocking. With smocking, the rows generally confine the same amount of fullness at the same density, and additional decorative stitches are worked over the rows to stabilize the stitches and fullness. Smocking is not tacked through to a fitted lining. While there is some documentation for a style of smocking used on British and European field-worker’s coverall smocks, this technique does not seem to have been in popular use for American and non-field-work clothing at mid-century.

Gauging is typically reserved for handling skirt fullness, and develops as a common technique in the early to middle 1840s, when increasing skirt circumferences and fashion preference outstrip stroked gathering’s ability to control fullness without increased bulk.

Gauging uses 2-3 rows of synchronized running stitch (even or uneven), but the stitches are worked close to the folded waist edge of a freshly-balanced skirt. The drawn-up gauged pleats are laid right-sides-together with a finished waistband or bodice, and each rounded “valley” that touches the band or bodice is hand-whipped to the finished edge. This creates a “hinge” that pushes the skirt out and away from the body when worn. Because no fullness is enclosed in the waistband, or resting on the inside of the bodice, gauged skirts add zero to very, very minimal bulk at the waist.

(By the mid-1840s, pleated skirts are also pleated along a folded edge, and whipped to the bodice or a skirt band, preserving the no- to minimal-bulk positives of the desired silhouette.)

And What About Cartridge Pleating?

Functionally, “cartridge pleating” is the same as gauging. It’s simply a more modern term for the technique (so don’t look for it in mid-century descriptions, notes, or manuals), and may have its origin in the similarity of the regular, rounded pleats to the rounded loops of cartridge belts that coincided with the development of metal-cased ammunition.  Ammunition loops of this nature held paper-wrapped ammunition charges during the 1879 Boer War (South Africa), but metal-cased small arms ammunition wasn’t developed until the Swiss took on the engineering challenge in the early 1880s.

You may also hear the term “organ pleating”, as gauged fullness can bear a resemblance to the vertical pipes of a pipe organ. However, “organ pleating” does not seem to be a mid-century term, either.

So, for mid-century, call it gauging.

Regardless of the technique used, handworked running stitches allow a great deal of flexibility and control in your mid-century clothing. You’ll get the best results if you keep in mind a few basic tips:

1: Use a thimble. The added protection and traction allows you to work more quickly, and with less tissue damage (and unladylike language.)

2: Treat your threads. A bit of beeswax strengthens your sewing thread and helps reduce tangling.

3: Load up. Rock the needle through the fabric to “load” four to ten running stitches on the needle before pulling it through. You’ll get straighter stitching lines, and increase your speed tremendously!

And if you’re working at home:

4: Pop in a BBC costume drama. It sets a mood, and well-dressed historical gents are always good inspiration for quality stitching.

Great Expectations

If you’ve been having a hard time reconciling a burgeoning pregnant figure with historic clothing, there are some snazzy tricks the Original Cast used, and you can use them, too! Yes, wearing a wrapper for half a year is one option, but if you’re wanting a dress that looks like a normal dress, and can stretch through a pregnancy, and then be used post-partum, consider making an adjustable dress to start. (This is also a technique that can work if you need to have multi-fit dresses in a costume trunk!)

Mid-century styles actually make it easier to “dress the baby” than other eras; the rounder, slightly-higher waistlines of the 60s, for instance, are very forgiving through early pregnancy, and easy to use later, too.

Most women tend to gain inches through the torso and bust, but relatively few experience dramatic changes through the shoulders, so work up a copy of your base pattern that fits easily (but is not baggy) in the shoulders, and quite generously over the bust, with some decent expansion in the waist (say, 10″ across the front).

One way to do this is to slice up your waist-to-bust dart, and then over to the armscye. Swing the outer/side section of the bodice out to create a 5″ gap along the waistline (the section will “hinge” at the armscye), and trace the new, exaggerated shape. Leave your back bodice as-is. It’s nice to have something that really fits, and a smooth back bodice helps with the end-of-gestation large-as-a barn feeling.

If you’d like to preserve a bit of “this is a real dress” feeling for the very end of pregnancy, do run a very little bit of gathering to mimic a gathered-to-fit bodice style.

Cut a strip of fabric (straight grain is great, bias if you need to) about 2-3″ wide, and of a length sufficient to span your newly-enlarged front bodice waists. This will be used to create an interior waistband or facing, through which three narrow tapes will be threaded in stitched channels, to adjust your dress bodice.

Press the short edges of the strip to the wrong side 1/4″, and position one short end just behind your desired bodice closure line, the other just in front of your side seams. Hem the upper edge of the facing strip flat to the inside of the dress, using a running stitch by hand. (Hand stitches show less on the outside, and are more flexible during use.)

Continue to stitch three 1/4″ channels along the facing, being sure to leave the exits on the short ends quite open.

(showing the finished interior casing when skirts are attached; click to embiggen.)

Narrow twill tape can be threaded through to use in your bodice adjustments. You can either choose to sew the tapes firmly into the side seams, or have them adjust individually by adding short, permanently stitched tapes to the side seams, with which each tape will be paired and secured. The tapes exit at center front, and are adjusted and tied inside the bodice before the bodice is fastened.

(from the outside, only a few running stitches show.)

Set your skirts to the expanded waistline, using gauging or whipped pleats.

In early pregnancy, or post-partum, the tapes can be snugged up comfortably, and the bodice will appear to be gathered-to-fit. There will be a slight bit of extra skirt bulk just in front, but it’s generally not noticed, and in any case, is normal for this particular mid-century dress technique. In later pregnancy, the tapes are loosened to accommodate The Bump; in late pregnancy, they may be left untied altogether. Bust measurement increases will pull the front of the bodice up just a bit, with a handy side-benefit of raising the waistline for the baby, as well!

Add gestational and nursing corsets, and you can comfortably wear this style through pregnancy and for months beyond. If you’ll be pregnant during the summer, utilize slightly V’d necklines, open sleeve styles, summer-weight fabrics, and half-high linings, to reduce the heat retention of your dress, as well.

And, just for something fun: if you’re in the Pacific Northwest this summer, stop by Oregon City and the End of the Oregon Trail Visitor’s Center, to see a great exhibit, “And Baby Makes Three: Motherhood and Maternity on the Oregon Trail” The exhibit is free to the public, and is open Thursdays through Mondays, 11-4.

The Wonders of a Winter Hood

With cooler weather reigning in most areas, you may be looking for those particular wardrobe additions that are both accurate, and designed to keep you warmer, safer, and happier at winter activities. Look no further than the glorious Winter Hood! Created separate from other winter wraps, your hood moves freely with your head, blocks drafts, and acts as a perfect platform for personal expression through the use of colorful fabrics, or even a touch of luxury in an otherwise working class wardrobe.

Here are some top-notch resources for accurately-made hoods, suited for all cool-weather living history endeavors:


From the Forum: New Year, New Us!

The process of moving forward in living history is a big deal for the progressively-minded. Want a peek into the minds of those “oddball hardcores?” Take a gander at this recent thread from the forum:

New Year, New Us living history resolutions

The Sewing Academy @ Home forum is not just for clothing tech support; you’ll also find a vibrant and civil community of living history enthusiasts. It’s a great place to help you make your 2012 historic (and not in a Mayan sort of way.)


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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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