A couple of years ago, I ordered in seven yards of silk taffeta for a dress for a customer. It was a glorious blue and yellow plaid. I whacked off a yard to send to them for a hat, only to be informed that they had wanted a different fabric. Cue lots of furious rush-ordering to get the proper fabric in, and the taffeta languished on my shelf, bereft of meaning. I offered it to several customers, with nary a taker. None of them wanted such a loud fabric.
Then, I found this dress, made in 1830 and housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Suddenly, that silk had a purpose! It would be six months between discovering that dress and making my own, but at least I had a plan.
Fast forward to the first week of August, 2014. I just finished moving from Minnesota back to lovely Nebraska, and was in fact still unpacking the house and starting to get burnt out by boxes. “Hey self,” I said to myself, “how about you make that dress you’ve been wanting to make?” So I dug out my other 1830’s pattern, that I know fits me, and a bunch of paper and mock-up muslin, and got to work!
I took flat patterning in college. Figuring out the pleats in the bodice was not difficult, but getting the neckline sorted was another story. I checked, and counted, and there are nine pleats in the front, with only seven going into the shoulder, and there are five pleats in the back. So far as I can tell, in the original the pleats are an overlay blindstitched down. Easy enough, right? Well, for starters, I had about an hour of counting and recounting pleats on zoomed-in images before I was finally satisfied that there are different numbers of pleats on the front and back at the shoulder. At least I don’t have to line them up, right?
Secondly, I put my brown dress on the dress form and used string to mark out a tentative neckline. Thinking it looked good, I made markings on a copy of my pattern and started cutting. I then made a mock-up. WRONG.
Mock-up number one!
Well, my pleat technique was obviously right. (I flat patterned that. No draping for me! Yes, I started taking draping in college too, but I dropped that class because my schedule was too full. I should learn how some day…) But the neckline was too narrow, and the pleats looked too narrow because of the angle.
So I started chopping and rotating on my pattern, til I came up with a mock-up that suited me. I never did put it completely together, because really, what’s the point?
Random View of my Sewing and Weaving Room with the Final Mock-up In It
(For the pleated overlay, I made pieces the shape of my finished piece, then slashed them where I wanted the pleat edges to be and spread them and taped them to a new piece of paper. It was easy.)
(I also used my final mock-up for the lining. Waste not, want not.)
So then it was on to cutting the fabric. Yikes. Cutting silk is always a little nervewracking. Cutting plaid is plenty nervewracking, even though I can do it with the best of them. Cutting a silk plaid that you can never get more of was worse. But I made it through!
If you look closely at the original, the two front pieces of the bodice proper are cut, well, not on the bias, but not on grain either. Just at a pretty angle. Well, I can do that too!
Cutting out the Bodice
I cut two of these. Yay!
The rest of the bodice pieces went easily enough, then it was time for the sleeves!
Most of the fine ladies on The Historical Sew Fortnightly had agreed with me that the sleeves on the original dress were two pieces, but then, I found a pattern in “The Workwoman’s Guide” that looked pretty darn close. Like almost identical close.
The instructions in “The Workwoman’s Guide” are as follows:
THE CIRCULAR LONG SLEEVE
This takes rather more of the material than the other shapes, but it is so easily cut out, and looks so well when made up, that it is allowed a place here.
For the full size it is a perfect circle, in a square of about 15 nails. (A nail is about 2.25 inches.)
After the circle is formed, double it in half (see Fig. 8); measure at A B a sufficient width to admit of the wrist, and slit up, in a slightly curving line, from B to C for about 4 nails, to form the arm of the sleeve. A little of the circle, from E towards B, is then sloped off to form the hollowing.
When made up, this part E is all taken up and gathered into the shoulder strap. It is considered to hang particularly well, falling over the tight part of the sleeve (see Fig. 7).
This seems quite a bit easier than a two-piece sleeve to me.
So, I made a tiny sleeve to test it. It worked! So I cut my silk. I was pretty trusting of this pattern.
Close-up of the Curved Cut
After cutting out the waistband and the skirt (one panel, full width of fabric, 90-some inches long) and TONS of bias tape in differing sizes, I was ready to sew!
First step: lots of piping. I made piping in two sizes and it took a while.
For the back, I just basted the curved panel on, since there would be a bias strip covering the raw edge.
Back Piece Step One
Then I hand-tacked the bias tape down on the back pieces, covering the seam.
Bias Tape on the Back
Most dresses of this time frame seem to have piping on the back, but this one had a bias strip. It makes sense, actually.
Then I pleated and tacked down the back pleats.
Then I sewed together the front pieces and made the pleated overlay for the front. I sprayed my silk with a mixture of water and white vinegar to set the pleats and it worked like a charm!
Here you can see how well the front seam matches. The front seam that will never be seen.
Matching Front Seam
From this point on, I have only two construction photos, but I will still explain my process.
I sewed all bodice pieces together and did a preliminary fitting to check the neckline. So far, so good.
I think I bound the top edge with piping and bias tape at this point, before I did the sleeves. Of course, I also put piping around the armscyes.
Then I pleated and repleated and repleated the sleeves until they fit the armscyes. Literally, I pleated them about six times. And even though the sleeves were equal size and the armholes were equal sized and I was measuring pleats, one sleeve had to be tweaked a bit to make it fit right. Not that you can tell from the outside.
Bodice with Sleeves
See? The bodice is all finished except for the ends of the sleeves and the hooks and eyes up the back.
After this, I hand-finished the cuffs with a narrow rolled hem and added hooks and thread eyes to close them.
Then, I made a wide waistband with large piping on each side. I attached it to the bodice, then pleated the skirt to fit the waistband. (I handfinished the placket and hand felled the skirt seam first.)
Then I gave the skirt a great deep hem. I think it was 8″ . No facing, just a deep hem. That’s what the original seemed to have.
The last thing was the hooks and thread eyes all down the back.
Then I was done!
Of course, then I had to get all dressed up, and my husband and I went down to the park for some photos. I brought my 1830’s shoes with me intending to wear them for the pictures, but it was pretty damp so I never did put them on, I just held them while wearing my modern business heels. Tee-hee.
I really should have made the back closure a little tighter. If I ever wear it again, I’ll add new thread eyes further in. It kept slipping off my shoulders and slipping down. Ooops.
I’m holding my shoes!
Actually, holding my shoes gives a pretty good effect.
Look, I have shoes that I’m not wearing!
Fun fact: I actually spent a great deal of time on my hair. I had perfect ringlets, but as it was August in Nebraska, they fell out right away. That was before I knew about curl papers. Phooey.
Back Detail. There is much piping!
Happy That It’s Done! Sad That My Hair Drooped!
The next day, after these photos were taken, I brought this dress to the Nebraska State Fair. There I won Best in Division, Best in Show, and Best Sewn Garment! (Lots of prizes!) My 1830’s work dress which I have yet to show you won best garment of quilting cotton too!
Thanks for reading about my 1830’s dress, and please ask if you have any questions!