Some time ago, I was asked to help at Rock Creek Station for the Oregon Trail Day that is put on for 4th graders studying Nebraska History. Rock Creek Station is a place where there was a bridge over a river for travelers on the Oregon trail, was a Pony Express Station for a time, a stage coach station for a while, and of course, where Wild Bill Hickok killed his first man.
I did not have a dress both appropriate to the era of the Oregon Trail and suitable for working outside demonstrating spinning and weaving, so I decided to make one. (Both of the dresses I have appropriate for the range of years the Oregon Trail was in use are fancy.) My friend Marna very kindly drafted a pattern for me off an original dress she had, and I proceeded to scale it up to my size (the original wearer was very short– maybe 4’8″), and adjust it to fit. I also ordered in a dark calico with a bright paisley pattern appropriate to the 1860’s. I decided to go with a more 1860’s aesthetic over all, rather than 1870’s, so I would be able to wear it at Stuhr Museum in the 1860’s cabin as well.
Basically, I sewed it with Victorian speed sewing techniques– which you’ll have to take my word for, because I didn’t really take pictures as I went. The neck, sleeves, and cuffs are piped, and the cuffs are sewn in such a way that the facing flips to the outside, finishing the edge and making a decorative band all at once. The flounce on the skirt is sewn with a bias band on the outside, machine stitched down, finishing the seam and creating reinforcement all at once. The hem is machine done– pretty much everything but the neckline facing and hooks and eyes are done by machine. This is how the original was done– as soon as our ancestors had sewing machines, they used them as much as they could!
Oh yeah– I made a bonnet too. It’s appropriately historically awful, but a real wonderful thing to have on your head in the sun. Verdict: these may look rather horrible, but they need to come back. This one is corded in bands, and then starched within an inch of its life. Starch is an absolute must.
I didn’t get many pictures when I was at Rock Creek Station back in September, but I did go out with my husband later and get some really good photos at the park.
I wore my sontag too, for pictures, and a plain pleated apron. The apron has a good deal of grime already worn into the bottom of the hem.
I picked Tennyson’s Poems to carry as a prop because I read a book in high school about a pioneer girl in Nebraska, and she memorized a poem by Tennyson– “The Eagle”. It seemed appropriate.
This is where I pause to enumerate my historical undies, because almost none of them are correct for this time, but I made it work. 1860’s Chemise and Drawers, 1890’s Corded Corset, 1840’s Bustle Pad, 1840’s starched petticoats. I really long for a small hoop, after my day at Rock Creek.
My dear husband had me running and running all over to get a good shot of me running. I usually look ridiculous when I run. I am just not a runner. But I like this shot. It shows how much mobility you do have in a corset and long skirt.
It just so happened that this fit into the Heirlooms and Heritage Challenge for The Historical Sew Monthly, so here are the details!
What the item is: Late 1860’s Work Dress
The Challenge: Heirlooms and Heritage
Pattern: Drafted off an original in the collection of Marna Davis, greatly enlarged because the original was for a tiny lady.
Fabric: 7 yards of cotton calico.
Notions: Thread, hooks and eyes.
How historically accurate is it? I did everything the way the original was made. This is probably 95%, accounting for fabric made in a modern way.
Hours to complete: 20
First worn: For an Oregon Trail day at Rock Creek Station, doing spinning and weaving demos for fourth graders.
Total cost: $36 for fabric, $5 for hooks and eyes. $41 total.
This is a heritage piece because Rock Creek Station and the Oregon Trail are a big part of my state’s (Nebraska) history. Also, my dad’s ancestors came to Nebraska in the 1850’s, so it is possible one of them might have worn such a dress.
And for the bonnet, which fit under the Brown Challenge:
What the item is: Corded Bonnet
The Challenge: Brown
Fabric: 100% cotton fabric, 1 yard
Pattern: The Godey’s 1850’s corded bonnet pattern, plus tips from the Sewing Academy and my own alterations from pictures of originals of the 1860’s.
Notions: Thread, twill tape, starch.
How historically accurate is it? 85% I don’t know. It’s the right shape, but the fabric is a little iffy. But it was $3 a yard at Walmart so. . .
Hours to complete: Five. There is lots of cording. Then it took 7 hours to dry after starching.
First worn: For an Oregon Trail day at Rock Creek Station, at which I taught fourth graders about spinning and weaving.
Total cost: $6, if I bought it all for project. Some was stash.
Thanks for reading, and as always, let me know if you have any questions!