The costuming adventures of a lace-a-holic

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Living History Days

We spent the weekend before last at Hohentübingen Castle, taking part in a fantastic living history display reaching from the stone age to the 18th century. After talking to some of the other reenactors, we felt honored to be invited along all those very professionally researched displays.

I premiered the Pet en Polonaise while showing the craft of a milliner and it nicely stood up to the damp heat, although the weather inspired me to sew up a Chemise a la Reine for truly hot weather. Admittedly, I won‘t be able to start with it after Costume College, still I‘m looking fortward to it.

Sommer pictures showing the Pet en Polonaise in combination with the black silk taffeta apron symbolizing „l am working“, which I did during most of the weekend. I started on Saturday with a completely undecorated Bergère and managed to sew the petersham ribbon to the brim as well as adding a ribbon for shaping the crown and binding it under my braided bun. The ribbon flowers will have to wait for now as I went into Speed Seewing again.

Seems to bekomme sort of a habit. „I have two weeks until I need a finished 1860ies outfit“. Luckily I already have a suitable corset.

To complicate things further, though, the weather was not particularly willing to play along. After the weekend I was absolutely sure Summer had come to stay, but nay, it didn’t. So, after having half-sewn my sheer dress, I had to switch to my wool-silk-combination planned for cooler temperatures and Charles Dickens Christmas fair.

The Bubblegum Bathing Costume #1

Theory and construction

You already had a glimpse into my Victorian bathing costume made of mint-green worsted suiting. The idea was born the moment I knew we‘d be going to California, to Costume College. Sunshine, beach, a pool, costumes? Victorian Bathing Costume for sure. Easy for day-wear and probably sun-proof enough for my all too white skin.

Originally I had thought about using fine wool muslin in blue from one of my fabric suppliers, Tuch und Stoff, specializing in reenactment fabrics. When I accidentally found the discounted suiting, I switched plans and classical navy blue with white would change to peppermint-green with strawberry sorbet.

I browsed around to find an extant sample or a fashion plate that suited my liking and found a rather unusual one. This fashion plate appeared in the August 1870 issue of Peterson‘s Magazine.

„Fig. X. – Bathing-Costume of White Flannel. – Trousers fastened at the knee by a cross strip braided with a Grecian pattern in black wool. Peplum blouse, with short sleeves, with a braided Grecian pattern, buttoned on each side and on the shoulders.“

When I had decided on the looks, I was happy to see that there was a published pattern which would permit me to simply sew the bathing costume up. Unfortunately I quickly realized that the pattern didn‘t really fit the description as they talked of an „detachable overskirt“.

For me that meant back to square one, deciding I‘d make up the pattern by myself. As for the knee-length trousers it wasn‘t all that difficult, I took the pattern of my drawers, sewed them up as loose, knee-length trousers and gathered the wide legs at the knee.

As for the top, I delved somewhat deeper into history, Grecian-style they called it and indeed I could see a number of motives from the peplos, worn by ladies in antique Greece.

One point is „closed with buttons at the shoulders“ – the original peplos would have been closed with fibulae, special brooches used for pinning clothes together.

The blousing at the waist would originally have been achieved with a belt, in my rendering I probably will opt for a drawstring, though I haven‘t fully decided on it yet.

During classical times the upper part of the peplos often would be worn turned over. The belt could have been worn under this so called apoptygma as in the marble from Olympia you see to the right, or above it as in the marble above, which would lead to pretty much the look of the peplum in the fashion plate.

The main features of the blouse decided upon, I started sewing it up from fabric rectangles, two almost squarish-ones for the upper body part, two slender rectangles for the sleeves, two wide-ish ones for the peplum to achieve the look of the wide peplos gathered at the waist and then falling open.

I will provide details on looks and further construction as well as more pictures in a second blog post as soon as I‘m done.

The printed linen Pet en Polonaise

Weather here in southern Germany can be interesting in April/May, so the blue woolen dress might be just a tad too warm for the living history day. Ever since I encountered this little jacket

I wanted to make one like it, a sacque back with a Polonaise style front. I had a piece of floral printed linen in subdued colors, with a block small enough to fit a wood block and a light background. Maybe a bit busy, but not completely out of range. The subdued colors, although not really period, could be attributed to the fabric being linen and linen being problematic to dye light fast before aniline dyes were invented. I found the perfect silk charmeuse to go with it, a wonderful shade of nougat, and went to work.

Here is the finished ensemble:

A wonderfully light, easy ensemble to wear when it‘s hot and not too formal.

The brown band is a grosgrain I bought at my favorite haberdashery in Stuttgart, a small shop that mainly caters to professional tailors and has all the wonderful stuff you need to do true couture or old fashioned mantua making.

Technique Tuesday – Polonaise style front

The Robe a la Polonaise is probably one of the most debated styles in 18th century dress making. What makes a Polonaise, how do you define it? And how, then, would you sew it.

If you follow Kendra van Cleave and Brooke Wellborn in their article, partially published on Démodé Couture the Polonaise is not only defined by the looped up and poufed skirt, but by the front as well. I found a wealth of pictures, but no real tutorial how to make one, all they ever said was „draped based on“. I‘d like to fill in that gap, with one caveat though: I am reproducing this jacket with a sacque back and Polonaise front and: sometimes the photos are of the „do as I say, not as I did“-sort, no need for you to repeat my mistakes.

I started with the well-fitting bodice of my blue worsted gown cut with a compere front instead of the stomacher. For a „real“ Polonaise you should start with a Robe a‘l Anglaise where skirt and bodice are cut in one piece. I won‘t discuss the construction of the dress back here, as I draped my back a la Française, same as my museum example.

First thing you do is to cut the lining and outer fabric for the compere front bodice. Then you add a second layer of outer fabric, the same length as the back, whose shape follows the neckline, shoulder line armscye and side seam of the first layer:

In this example I marked the „proper line“ in green. This was my mistake number one: not to realize that the front indeed ends at the side seam of the bodice. The additional width doesn‘t have to be as much as you see here, 20 to 25 cm will do. In a classical polonaise that width is pleated into the side seam. In my case there is a lot of additional width pleated in the Anglaise-style skirt part of the historical jacket so I decided to take some of the width of the front panel.

In the next step you decide on the angle on which you want your Polonaise front to fall back. Fashion plates and extant gowns show a variety between „almost straight“ to „angled to the side seam“. I chose a moderate angle that works better with my rather busty shape. Too straight down looked boring, a steeper angle made me look uhmmm… let‘s say less than my best. I pressed and seamed that angle.

As I had finished my lining bodice complete with false front, I had to stab-stitch the polonaise front on. If I were doing it again, and I‘d recommend that for you, I‘d sew the side seam as well as the neckline with the underbodice fashion fabric flatlining the polonaise front fabric. Considering the silk charmeuse I had chosen for the false front this would have ended in a nightmare though.

When you are making a Polonaise dress, you pleat the remaining fabric into the side seam. For my little pet I used it to enhance the pleating at the back.

Here the finished pet without any decorations yet. It will get a lace tucker as well as a ton of frill made from grosgrain ribbon in the exact shade of the silk Charmeuse.

A short in-between project

I have been diligently working on my Pet en Polonaise, but somehow today I felt inspired to tackle a short project. A few months ago I bought a parasol off eBay, it is covered in wonderful Swiss embroidery lace and has the perfect fin-de-siècle kind of handle.

When I bought it, I thought that the fabric would be so weak that I‘d have to sew up a new cover anyway, so I didn‘t mind the two very badly repaired tears

As the fabric actually is intact and not brittle in the slightest, I decided to restore the parasol to its former glory simply by carefully repairing the tears as invisibly as I could manage. First I removed the iron-on-fabric used to strengthen the long and ugly stitches. Then I unpicked the old stitches.

I carefully blanket-stitched all the open edges with my favorite sewing silk, Soie Surfine, and connected the blanket stitches where no fabric was missing.

Instead of glueing additional fabric behind the now obvious hole I decided to sew some fine batiste in to strengthen.

And finally my new old parasol in all its glory, I’m looking forward to carry it with my Victorian costumes.

Summer vibes

Every now and then it happens to me, that case of CADD (costume attention deficit disorder), especially when I have so many gorgeous plans and all the fabric for it.

Discipline requires me to finish a linen 1760ies ensemble to have something to wear for Tübingen if the temperature rises above 15 degrees Celsius. I made great progress with the nougat-colored silk charmeuse petticoat that only needs hemming and started on a casaquin from a length of printed linen.

Stitching the sacque back together

The CADD actually started when I went shopping for some simple brown ribbons to finish the charmeuse petticoat. Our local sewing-machine and fabric store had a table with coupons. Of course we‘d browse them, after all one never knows what one might find and… find we did. In my case a wonderfully super thin mint-colored worsted fabric that screamed Victorian Bathing Costume so loudly that I couldn‘t resist, above all as the price was incredibly low due to a slight discoloring along the fold. Can you imagine my happiness when I found the bolt and realized that the discoloring went all the way through? I finally returned home with some 7,5 meters of mint-colored worsted fabric for 12 euros per meter.

A glimpse of the bathing costume. More of it to come in a separate blog.

The ubiquitous black apron

When you think about mid-18th century ladies‘ clothing, what immediately comes to mind is silks in pastels and bright colors. There‘s one piece of clothing that appears in a variety of portraits and advertisements and is dark. We‘re talking about a black apron.

Some samples can be found here:

Thomas and Elizabeth Sandby, c.1760

Mrs. Bentley, c.1775

and the probably most famous:

Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria, c.1765

Such a black apron was considered workwear, in the case of black silk taffeta we‘re talking about the workwear of noble women whose „work“ consisted of needlework for pleasure, painting or gardening.

Still, a black silk apron is very helpful for the professional needleworker as well. The dark background is kind on the eyes when working with light colored or sheer fabrics. The taffeta makes it easy to brush away all those snippets of thread and keeps the dress itself clean. We‘re definitely talking a must-have for a milliner as Madame Juliette. I modeled mine on the archduchess as I didn‘t manage to find any portraits closer to home.

A quick and dirty snapshot. There will be better pictures, promise.

Madame Juliettes blue dress

I promised it long enough. Here it finally comes, the big reveal. Madame Juliettes blue woolen Italian Gown, dressed up with an apron, a fichu and a cap, all made from super-thin silk voile with antique lace.

The gown fabric is a thin blue worsted fabric, made interesting in the fact that warp as well as weft are alternating between midnight blue and Prussian blue threads. (It might be a dobby fabric, and those weren’t around in 1770, but shhhhh, we don’t tell anyone). Here you see the gown before hemming, just before we would chalk in the hemming line. There‘s enough blue fabric left to turn it into a petticoat.

The petticoat – not so easy to see – is a fantastic worsted damask with little sprigs of flowers strewn all over. Lucky me, I have enough left to make a nice casaquin and a cream stomacher for the dress as well.

I had planned for the dress to be worn retroussée. Here we are experimenting with ribbon lengths and positioning and I must admit I like what I see. Now for the finishing touches and the dress can be worn.

Depending on the weather it might premiere at the „Tag der lebendigen Geschichte“ in Tübingen, the day of living history where a number of different groups present history from the early Bronze Age to the late 18th century.

Undies first

As always in historical costuming, first things first: the underwear. There‘s nothing more gruesome as dresses that are supposed to be worn with stays or a corset bunching over a non-corseted belly… so, before the joy there‘s always the duty. A chemise, Diderot-ish stays, several under-petticoats, side-hoops or false rumps, all that needs to be fashioned.

Me in chemise and the stays, covered in some historically incredibly inaccurate but beautiful brocade 🙂

Sidehoops, a hip-roll and a bumpad, for different styles of gowns and different timespans in the 18th century.

The stays, by the way, are already the second attempt. The first one was: Hey, we‘ve got this wonderful pattern and it fits my measurements. I‘ll do a pair of stays sewed entirely by hand! Yay.

The joy ended rather abruptly when I put them on and discovered that the couldn‘t possibly fit anyone. I do have a supershort rump, in most patterns I have to shorten. But this? Aahhh, forget it. It was too short by at least four inches. I have an idea how to salvage the handsewn one, as it is made of much lighter fabric, still, right now it will have to go to the UFO-pile, as something‘s looming on the horizon: Costume College. And that means that whatever I want to be wearing then has absolute top priority. A second pair of 18th century stays doesn‘t.

Technique Tuesday

Or how to fake elaborate buttonholes with soutache.

The next installment of my series about dressing Madame Juliette will have to wait another day. I‘ve been asked how I did the fake buttonholes on my finished 18th century suit.

I have a little step-by-step guide for you.

First, quite obviously, you mark out the buttonholes themselves. The best are drawn perpendicular to the front seams, the size should be at least 1,5 times the width of the button.

For attaching the soutache use a fine thread that closely matches the color of your soutache, I recommend machine embroidery thread. In this case I‘ll use a red thread on white soutache, so you can see what happens.

If using polyester soutache you can simply cut it with a hot knife to avoid unravelling. In this case we’re working with rayon soutache which quickly unravels unless treated right.
Start with simply tying a knot into your thread and stitch through the middle of the soutache.
Wrap the thread tightly around the soutache several times, then finish off. Start measuring from the outer edge of the wrap – the one close to the cut end. Measure out the length of soutache you will need for the buttonhole, mark it, and wrap a second time just inside the marking. The third wrap is a little distance off and marks the beginning of the second buttonhole
Cut the soutache close to the wrappings being careful that you don‘t accidentally clip the wrapping threads.
Attach the fastening thread to the base fabric at the end of the buttonhole farther away from the front seam. When faking such buttonholes around an already attached button, make sure the loop sits tightly around the attachment threads.
Place the two wrapped ends of the soutache on either side of the thread making sure the soutache isn‘t twisted but lays flat. First stitch around the right leg, then around the left leg in kind of a figure-eight-stitch.
Follow the first attachment up with several stitches spanning both legs of soutache.
The back view.
Attach the soutache with small stitches, keeping the two legs as parallel and tight as possible, fasten the loop end with one or two stitches going over both inside halves, finish off and your first buttonhole is done.

I hope that helped you a little bit.

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