Learning Curves

One of the things I love, and admittedly hate too, about costuming is the fact that every project is different. I may have made things from the era before, but each project presents its own unique challenges, frustrations, and opportunities to learn. One of my current project is the perfect example. I’m working on a mid-1790s evening gown with a gathered front and high, narrow back. My love for 1780s and 1790s gathered front transitional gowns is pretty obvious when you look at my project history, but despite the fact that I’ve made five similar gowns, this project has been an interesting experiment.

I’m making the dress from green silk sarcenet I bought from Burnley and Trowbridge. I plan to embroider at least the sleeves and maybe the hem as well. Since I won’t have an opportunity to wear this dress until June, I’m hopeful that I can at least manage a simple motif on the hem.  As usual, I've collected some inspiration images on a Pinterest board.

To pattern the dress, I used my blue spotted spencer as a base, changing the angle of the back seams slightly, and moving the sleeves further back. Then I wasted days and ridiculous amounts of muslin trying to prefect the sleeves. I wanted the distinctive regency look where the sleeves are set far back on the shoulder and while they aren’t perfect, I’m happy with the sleeves for now. I may try to work on the pattern now that I have the dress constructed or I may leave it as is.


It’s entirely possible I’ve missed something, but I’ve yet to find a pattern diagram or good interior detail photos of this type of gown. All my construction decisions are just educated guesses, based on 18th century sewing techniques and what little information I could glean from staring far too long at museum photos, as well as construction details from other transitional gowns.  I decided to construct the dress by hand, first assembling the lining then mounting the silk on top. The lining is cotton lawn, and the front lining is fitted and pins closed. The front bodice and skirt are cut in one with a drawstring casing sewn under the bust. This time I used thin silk ribbon for the casing, to minimize bulk, but it caused a bit of frustration in combination with the slippery silk sarcenet. I think I ended up redoing the channel 4 times before I got it right, but the ribbon didn't hold up well with use. I replaced it with a strip of self-fabric. It was more work, but worth it in the end.


Originally, I planned to cartridge pleat and gather the back portion of the skirt and then whipstitch it to the back of the bodice. I had hoped this would create a nice line with the front bodice gathers. However, cutting the front in one, combined with lapping the side seam caused the side skirt join to become very awkward. Much fiddling and experimenting later, I decided to cartridge pleat the center back and use knife pleats for the rest of the skirt back. It smoothed the transition and I’m pleased with the final look, even if the interior of the join is far from neat and tidy.


In the end, I'm pleased with how my experiment is turning out. My only quibble at this point is the neckline could be lower in back and wider at the sides. Looking at portraits and fashion plates, most of their shoulder straps seem almost nonexistent, but there are a few with neckline shapes like mine. Also, I wish I had another length of fabric to add to the back portion of the skirt, as it seems a little skimpy, but there isn't any more fabric available and I'm not sure it bothers me enough to redo all the work, anyway.


Posted: 3/10/2015 8:26:56 PM by Aubry | with comments

Curse you Pinterest!

CADD strikes again! I saw this portrait on Pinterest several weeks ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

James Scouler, Miss Mary Jolly, 1783. The Johnston Collection via Wikimedia Commons

If I am lucky enough to go to Costume College this year, I want to make this for my Gala dress. Heck, even if I don’t go to Costume College, I need this dress in my life ASAP! It’s such an unusual style.  At first glance the sleeves, trimming, and chemisette almost seem like fancy dress or masquerade costume. The gown is very similar to the one in this portrait, and reminiscent of this one as well, though the size of the sleeves and trimming on my inspiration is much more modest. Also, the composition of the portrait doesn’t mesh with that idea of a masquerade dress. She is portrayed simply in a stylized classical interior, looking away from her book in a moment of abstraction. Her elbow rests on a small table stacked with books and sheet music, symbols of an intelligent, accomplished young woman. Her hair is elegant and unpowdered, accented only with braids and a double strand of pearls, but still in the fashionable shape you see in other contemporary portraits. There is no mask or other symbolic objects to hint that this may a costume (Though I obviously could be missing something. My art interpretation is spotty at best.)

Looking closer at the cut of the gown, it is looks like a Levite. The long sleeves, the collar, the sash at the waist, and the center front closure over an under bodice all point to this style. In fact, it looks markedly like this fashion plate printed in 1782, only one year before the portrait was painted. If you look closely, they both even have two rows of buttons closed with ribbons down the center front.   

After my initial grabby hands-WANT!-reaction, the dress reminded me strongly of a historical costume as viewed through a 1780s lens. Like the 18th century version of a 60s costume movie, where the actress’s hair and makeup instantly proclaim the decade. The sitter looks like the heroine of gothic novel, gazing out the window in her pseudo-16th or 17th century dress waiting to be rescued. This is a completely fanciful interpretation and is highly colored by my overzealous imagination, but I look at the portrait and see Emily St. Aubert from The Mysteries of Udolpho or Adeline from The Romance of the Forest (never mind that both novels were published nearly 10 years or more after this portrait was painted).  I think it would be so much fun to recreate the dress and play up the idea of a gothic heroine. It would tie in so nicely with the theme of Costume College, and since I think it’s plausible to call it a Levite, I can construct in a historically accurate manner and use it for other 18th century events.  Win-win!
Posted: 2/4/2015 4:57:56 PM by Aubry | with comments
Filed under: 1780s: Gothic Heroine

2015 Plans

I’ve been scheming about my travel and costume plans lately, and 2015 looks like it’s going to be a good year. I don’t have too many costume trips planned this year, but I’ve got some other fun travel to look forward to. My husband and I will be taking a Caribbean vacation this spring for our anniversary and then I (hopefully!) have a trip to England in the works for August.

2015 will include fun things like menswear and cats. Always cats. 

I did buy my ticket for the upcoming Francaise Dinner this weekend and I’m very excited to have my first costume event of the year lined up. I’ve decided not to make anything new but, instead, to wear my chocolate brocade francaise again. I know I wore it three times last year but I don’t care. It’s one of my favorite costumes and I need to get over the idea that every event needs something new. I also have tons of accessories I can pair with it. I have my aqua short cloak if it’s chilly, and if it’s really cold I can wear my cream pelisse, not to mention various muffs, mitts, and gloves I can wear.

As for actual sewing plans, I have some exciting (to me at least) things in the works. I’m hosting my first costume party this June (eep!) and I’m planning a 1795-1800 wardrobe for myself and an evening suit for my husband. Yes! I’m finally tackling menswear and it’s pretty darn exciting! It will also be a lot of work since I will be starting from scratch, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. Currently, I’m working on an embroidered evening gown and have plans to make a new day dress, as well as a morning wrapper and cap. I’d also really like to make a pair of short, transitional stays before I start anything else for myself.

With all the other trips I have planned, I’m not sure I can make it to Costume College this year. It’s disappointing since the theme so perfectly fits with my interests and I’ve already had several amazing literary costume ideas. I haven’t given up hope entirely, but I’m trying to stay realistic. Besides, I can’t really be too sad when I have the thought of a tropical beach vacation and a trip to England ahead of me!
Posted: 1/26/2015 5:03:01 PM by Aubry | with comments

2014 Year End Review

So maybe I should post something in December?

I’m not sure where this month went, but now that it’s almost over I feel I should take a minute to review what I made this year.  I love doing the year end reviews. They give me a sense of accomplishment even when I didn’t actually sew that much. This year sewing was pretty sparse, but I’m pleased with what I did manage to finish.

(My favorite outfit ever!)

2014 Events
Francaise Dinner – March
Millinery Conference at Colonial Williamsburg – March
Costume College – August
1780s Birthday Weekend - October

2014 Costumes
1760s Chocolate Brocade Francaise
Purple Taffeta Ruffled Cape
Aqua Taffeta Ruffled Cape
1790s Williamsburg Print Gown
1790s Blue Spott’d Spencer
1790s Green Bonnet

1780s Divided Rump
1780s Blue Stripe Italian Nightgown
 Assembled Embroidered Lettercase
Started but haven’t finished
GOT Tyrell Handmaiden Gown
1790s Green Sarcenet Gown (possibly embroidered)
Modern Sewing
Blue lawn summer dress from 1970s pattern
Grey dot Zinnia skirt
Woodland Critter PJ pants
My sewing plans for 2015 are pretty loose at this point, but I would like to finish the 1790s sarcenet dress I’m currently working on, as well as tweak the fit on my new 1780s gown and make some accessories to go with it.
Posted: 12/27/2014 9:30:55 AM by Aubry | with comments
Filed under: year end review

An Embroidered Letter Case

I have a weakness for historical accessories. From jewelry to reticules, they are often my favorite part of an outfit. One accessory I’ve long wanted to make is an embroidered letter case or wallet. What could be more perfect for carrying things like money or hotel keys at an event? No more loosing things at the bottom of my pocket or purse!

Beautiful and often highly decorative, yet practical, it’s easy to find extant wallets in museum collections and other places online. The plethora and variety still existing suggests these were a popular accessory but you don’t often see them reproduced. I had wanted to make my own for several years, and I even went so far as to embroider the design two years ago, but I was intimidated when it came to constructing the actual wallet. I set the embroidery aside until last month when I decided I had to finish it for Jenny-Rose’s birthday party.

To construct the wallet I cut out a base from poster board, creasing it where the wallet folded. I then glued the embroidered silk satin to the form and mounted the silk taffeta lining to the satin by hand once the glue was dry. The gussets were hemmed then sandwiched between the lining and outer fabric. It closes with two pieces of silk ribbon, wrapped around and tied in a bow.

In the end, it was much easier to construct than I feared and now I have ideas for half a dozen more!  I want to make a slightly smaller wallet next (to more easily fit in my 18th century pockets), with multiple sections and more embroidery. Also, I want to experiment with the inner stiffener. The poster board worked okay, but it’s a little flimsy. I’m thinking maybe buckram or a thin cardboard would be better.

Posted: 11/19/2014 10:01:41 PM by Aubry | with comments
Filed under: Georgian accessories
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