18th c. Tall Hat

I love really enormous hats, but have never actually owned one.  Well, I did try to make one years ago, but it wasn’t exactly a success and it got crushed in the process of a couple moves, so it seemed like a good time to try again.

Last year after Costume College I picked up some delicate silk and cotton sheer fabric in an aqua and white stripe, some aqua silk taffeta to match, and some vintage grosgrain and velvet ribbons to trim a potential hat.  At the time I wasn’t sure if I would go late 18th c. or 1910’s, but either way I envisioned something with a sash and a big hat. I don’t really do 1910’s, and I love 18th c., so I finally decided to use the stripe for an 1780-90’s open robe and make a giant hat to go with it.

I really love the curved shapes of these hats, as well as slightly sloped tall hats like these, so decided to combine the two.  As a starting point, I used the pattern for my Renaissance tall hat, which is slightly sloped top to bottom as well as front to back. Just as a guess, I widened the brim 6″ all around. After making up a paper mock up in tag, I ended up scaling it back just slightly, taking 1″ off the sides and 1/2″ off the front. The existing measurements on the sideband of the crown and the head opening on the brim didn’t quite match up, so I enlarged the brim opening, making the oval slightly wider at the back than at the front. It wasn’t my intention, but I liked the way it looked and thought it enhanced the fact that the crown is also taller in front.

Any hat needs some wire for structure, but one this large was going to need a LOT of structure. In one of my books two methods are listed. 1) a continuous piece of wire bent back and forth around the brim, or 2) smaller loops of wire attached at the edge of the brim and at the head opening. Method 2 is what I used on my first big hat, since it seemed easier and maybe used a little less wire.  I was always unhappy with how it turned out, however, since there were lots of poky ends of wire and I felt like every join acted like a hinge, allowing the hat to flex in ways I didn’t want it to. So on this hat, I tried the method with one continuous piece of wire.

I felt like I should lay out all the wire and get it bent into shape before zigzagging it onto the brim. However, millinery wire is springy, this is a lot of hat, and I couldn’t predict exactly where my bends should be until I was right on top of them, so I ended up just winging it while stitching it down. I did take care to keep the wire as flat as I could, although getting the brim through my sewing machine sometimes meant I had to bend things more than I liked. Still, it turned out more or less flat, and I was happy enough with the somewhat irregular wire placement. Next time I think I’d pencil in some guidelines instead of completely winging it, but I think (hope) this will work just as well. I’m not 100% sure I like the shape of the brim in the front – at some angles I love it, and others it looks clunky, but since it’s already wired, I’m not changing it!

With the brim wired, I decided to start to bend it into shape before I covered it with anything. While you can shape a hat somewhat after construction, I wanted to make sure I had enough ease in the outer fabric that it wouldn’t strain after I shaped it.  This shaping also led me to a patterning decision I hadn’t yet considered – do I shape the sideband of the crown or leave it flat?  It’s really hard to see the join between the crown and brim in most illustrations, because there is so much decoration on the hats. This one shows the crown deeper in the front and sloped up along with the brim at the sides, but plenty of others look like the crown could also be a straight line all around. The difference is somewhat subtle – the outer edge of the brim can be shaped into a curve either way, but it will either continue the curve all the way to the crown if the crown is shaped, or flatten out as it reaches the crown if the crown is straight.  I decided that curving the crown would help support the structure of the curve I was building into the brim, rather than possibly fighting against it and/or weakening the join between the crown and brim.

Luckily, the sideband is the piece not already wired, and it was easy enough to change the shape before I got any further. I ended up raising it almost 1″ at the sides, blended in at the front and back. I had the forethought to measure it again and found that this change shortened the circumference of the bottom edge by 3/4″.  This meant that the previous sideband I had cut out could no longer be used, but cutting a new piece was simple enough at this stage.

From there it was easy enough to join the new sideband to the tip, and get the frame ready to be covered. Since the extra wire would be on the underside of the brim, I decided to mull this side with a layer of cotton batting to help hide the lines of the wire. The top side of the brim and the crown will be covered in velvet, and could do without mulling, but I think a layer of cotton flannel makes the velvet look a little more plush without blurring the edges of the hat as much as the batting would. I also used cotton flannel for the bias around the wired edge of the brim and top of the hat.

Now I just need to get it covered in the outer fabrics and decide on trim. Here’s the construction so far:


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The calm before the storm



I took some time last week for a thorough spring cleaning of the studio. It’s amazing what odds and ends linger in strange places long after a project has ended, and it felt good to get everything back into it’s proper place and all the surfaces cleared off. We also moved in a new piece of furniture – an antique cedar chest that belonged to my wife’s grandmother – so we had to do some trial and error to figure out where it fit best. In the photo you can see it in the back left corner.

So now that everything is cleaned up, it’s time to make a mess again! This is going to be a very busy spring in the studio, with many projects lined up. Here is the current to-do list:

Embroidery – I’ve been working on a line of machine embroidery designs that are currently in the testing phase, and which I hope to release for sale this spring. That means lots of stitching out, making samples, and taking pictures. As well, I have an 18th c. man’s waistcoat of white linen that I am embroidering with a floral design in shades of grey and white.

Client projects – I am working on several big projects for a client. On the list are a WWI ambulance driver’s uniform and nurse’s uniform, a 1912 silk suit and all the underpinnings, and some early 1920’s lingerie.

Costume College projects – I’m also thinking ahead to this year’s CoCo, especially since last year’s weight loss means my closet is empty! On my list are 1830’s underpinnings, a day gown to match a lovely red bonnet I have, and crazy hair to wear with the underpinnings for Sunday undies. I also plan to make a new 18th c. chemise gown and open robe, new stays, and a fabulous new hat. I have a partially-completed pink silk striped gown and raspberry pink petticoat that would be nice to finish for the gala.  If time allows, I’d like to finish a 1950’s day dress and a Gatsby-inspired day dress to wear to classes (and summer picnics!) We’ll see how far I get on this project list, since they have to work themselves in around everything else.

I’m really excited about this list, and as luck would have it, some projects tie in nicely with this year’s Your Wardrobe Unlock’d competition. I hope to have better luck blogging this year’s projects, since they aren’t secrets, rush jobs, or boring renovations of costumes I didn’t originally make.

Old-Time Embroidery

I’ve been on a bit of an embroidery kick lately, and along the way I’ve been dipping into my stash of old magazines for inspiration. I was intrigued by one of the articles in the August 1902 edition of The Modern Priscilla, about “Old-Time Embroidery.” It was accompanied by photographs of some pieces that seemed historically significant enough that surely I could easily find color photos and better views somewhere out on the internet, and I quickly tumbled down a rabbit hole of research.

The first picture is of a charming nosegay of forget-me-nots tied with ribbon embroidered on a piece of moiré, with “Martha Washington” neatly stitched underneath. The 1902 article claims it is a bit of embroidery from the gown Martha wore to the inaugural ball.

Forget-me-not embroidered signed Martha Washington
Forget-me-not embroidery signed Martha Washington

However, even the tiniest bit of modern-day research turns up enough questions to make me doubt this story. There are at least two different gowns on the internet listed as “Martha Washington’s Inaugural Gown,” with little or no support for the claim. One is in the Smithsonian, but that institution does not specify it as her inaugural gown, just simply a gown she owned. Neither gown is white moiré or embroidered. I found quotes claiming Martha couldn’t have been at the inaugural ball because she didn’t follow George to the capital until a month after his inauguration, and that she opposed his election and refused to attend the inauguration at all.  Another quote says there were no inaugural balls at that time, but there was a ball in New York a week later to honor the new president. At this point, I didn’t see a reason to keep digging.  Whatever the real story, it seems likely that this scrap is nothing more than a bit of lovely embroidery used by an associate to prove how cool he was because he was chummy with the first president.

The second item is a lavishly embroidered pocketbook with the caption “Embroidered satin sachet, left by the Princess Elizabeth at Ashbridge at the time of her arrest.” This is, unfortunately, an engraving and not a photograph of the pocketbook. However, you can see a photograph of what is purported to be the same pocketbook in the book Chats on Old Lace and Needlework, by Mrs. Lowes, first published in 1908.  In this case, it is said to be part of Countess Brownlow’s collection, but how it got there and where it went afterward is not clear. My internet and museum searches turned up many similar pocketbooks, but not a hint of the one pictured. My gut tells me that like the Martha Washington embroidery, someone added a story to the antique they were selling in order to raise the value.


The other items pictured are almost pointless to try to identify. One is captioned “English Sampler Worked in 1799.”  If, as the author claims, just about everyone had a sampler handed down from some old relative, I can’t help but wonder if this was taken out of the author’s own attic and used for a convenient photo. At least it was photographed before being lost to time.


The final photo is more obscure yet, captioned “A Piece of Amy Robsart’s Quilt,” without any accompanying text to tell readers more about it.  Was someone claiming this Jacobean-style bit of embroidery was stitched or owned by the wife of Lord Robert Dudley, or merely by a woman who shared the same name? Was it only a piece because you couldn’t photograph all of it, or had it been cut up for some other purpose, and this scrap had been saved?  I’m sure it has a lovely history, whether real or made up, but we don’t get to read anything about it!


I find it an odd journalistic quirk that the text of the article and the accompanying photos have almost nothing to do with each other.  And the items in the text are so vague.. which pope? which painter? At least she could have dropped some more names, considering she’d already based the article on some wild speculation. You can hardly learn anything at all from an article like this, even though it looks so tempting on the surface.

The only thing I could confirm was that Sir John Chandos is reputed to have been tangled up in his clothing, which led to his death. Froissart  described him as being “dressed in a large robe which fell to the ground, blazoned with his arms on white sarcenet, argent, a pile gules; one on his breast, and the other on his back,” so that part of the story seems as accurate as can be for something that happened in the 14th century.

I do find it a shame that the author seems unaware of what was possible in her own time.  She couldn’t have known about the glorious peacock gown that would makes its debut a year later, but surely she didn’t believe her own statement that “we have nothing in the present to compare with the embroidery of years ago, with its magnificence of material, its lavish use of gold and silver, its richness of coloring and countless stitches?”  While the 18th century did produce many exquisite works of embroidery, so did the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Here is the article in full:

Old-Time Embroidery

By Suzanne H. Ackerman

If we stop to think long enough in this all-absorbing age, we will find that delving into reminiscences of the past is like reading some charming old romance. About the old-time needlework there lingers much of this atmosphere of charm. It needs but little imagination to fancy some living hand, then as strong and deft as our own, plying the needle and enriching the cloth stitch by stitch — the hand of some one whose fame still exists, or of some one far back in our line of ancestry, who lives yet in these voiceless reminders of their time.

Famous, indeed, if only through reflected glory, is the “Mother of her Country,” – Martha Washington. In a collection of Revolutionary relics, owned by Jonathan Trumbull, aide de camp to General Washington, is a piece of white moiré antique, richly embroidered, as may be seen in the illustration, being a part of the dress worn by the wife of the first President at his inauguration ball, and her own work, as well. Doubtless worked with these stitches was the hope that this beautiful gown might aid her in doing justice to such a high and exalted position, and many a wish for the dignified success of this grand and imposing ball. This takes us back to the days of celebrated belles and beauties, to the days of powder and patches and the stately minuet. Poor are we indeed in heirlooms if we cannot show at least a sampler handed down through successive descendants from some time-honored ancestor. The alphabet in small letters and capitals, stilted figures and flowers, and a verse always pointing out some standard of conduct, make up the sum total of their designs. But the odd little figures, the verse, and the letters speak of the laborious persistency that never relaxed until that invariable possession of every well-brought-up child was finished, a sort of certificate of education which it attested was being carried on along proper lines.

In our enthusiasm for, and loyalty to, our own time, we are apt to overestimate its work.  But however beautiful we may consider the embroidery of to-day, it takes very little research into the old-time history of needlework to destroy our self-importance and leave us wondering and amazed at its disclosures. We have nothing in the present to compare with the embroidery of years ago, with its magnificence of material, its lavish use of gold and silver, its richness of coloring and countless stitches. It is almost incredible the amount of time and money which long ago was spent upon embroidery. In the life of an old Italian painter a vestment is spoken of that took twenty-six years to finish. This would seem to our practical twentieth century mind a sheer waste of time, as it admittedly would be in our own day, but it must be viewed in the light of the then existing conditions.  Women then had no share in the world’s work, and were driven to dispel ennui with the needle. The lady of high degree in her solitary grandeur and the nun in her cloister, impelled by the desperate necessity of doing something to while away the endless hours, gave to the world work of unrivaled magnificence. Pieces of old embroidery still extant show a leaning toward that which could be appropriated for church use — altar frontals, copes, chasubles, and vestments of all kinds. The most beautiful work done by titled ladies and nuns, especially previous to the eighteenth century, was presented by them to the church. Such gorgeous robes and trappings as we have never seen in our day, and could scarcely imagine, were its property. A vestment belonging to a Pope of the ninth century represented the wise virgins with their lighted torches, while another was embroidered on a ground of amber-colored satin, with peacocks decked in all their brilliant plumage.

The days of romance and chivalry would have been shorn of half their interest were the knights not decked in such gorgeous array. Their garb was rich with the embroidery of fair hands, especially the surcoat and scarf. It is related of Sir John Chandos, one of the most gallant knights of Edward III, that he became entangled in his exquisitely embroidered but ridiculously long surcoat, and fell, receiving while down his death blow. Across his surcoat was a scarf which some “faire ladye” had worked with her “nedil,” and bestowed upon the knight to show her preference. The quaint costumes of colonial times were vastly enhanced by their decorations of embroidery.

Embroidered petticoats and girdles, capes, and mantles were every woman’s property, and the men were richly costumed in embroidered garments. There were richly worked cuffs and wide collars; then there were the bead purses, the handbags, and countless other accessories. The fashion of wearing aprons was then in high favor, and lessons were given and patterns sold for embroidering in Dresden and darned work and in cross stitch. Samples of these aprons were sent from England, and were seized upon and eagerly copied by colonial dames.

An old mansion on the outskirts of New York, built in Revolutionary days by a Van Courtlandt, contains some genuine specimens of work done in colonial times and when our country was still in the days of its youth. One is a splasher, worked in 1764 by Rhoda Marsh, wife of Colonel Ebenezer Marsh, of Litchfield. It is a white linen one, with shaped edges that are hemmed. A graceful border on the order of French embroidery resolves itself at each corner into an urn with flowers, from which four pieces branch toward a similar one in the center. The curious and interesting part of this piece is a picture worked above the central figure. It represents a house set upon a terrace, surrounded by trees, with birds perched upon its branches. To one side is a barn and to the other a pond, upon which ducks are placidly resting. All this picturing is done in fine, white embroidery cotton, like the rest of the splasher. Letting our imagination run riot a little, we can readily guess that this was the home of Rhoda Marsh, which she so loved that she must even perpetuate it with her needle.

Intense love of country life must have been a characteristic of the age, evidenced by the tenor of their designs, especially in the most curious piece in the collection — a bedspread made by hand a hundred and twenty five years ago. It is done upon coarse, soft cotton, the centre having large curving stems and leaves in shades of blue green and light brown. Upon the two sides of this spread is the most remarkable border. Sixteen rows of varying shades of this same blue green, divided by one or two rows of the brown, form a background. Each row is half an inch wide, in a simple up and down stitch. On this background is depicted the typical every-day life of the farm. There is the old house and windmill; there are the barns, and the cattle grazing peacefully in the field. The dairy maids are carrying their pails back and forth, and here and there one has met a farm hand and is making merry with him. Nothing is left out — birds and trees, dogs and fowl, all are there — and one can see the busy life of the well-ordered farm, where every one is happy and the business of the day goes on with the regularity of clockwork.

Without a trace of beauty in line or in coloring, this piece has about it a very potent fascination, as indeed have all pieces, beautiful or not, that have survived the ravages of time, for association and sentiment have given them an added meaning. We can only hope for our own work that at least it will mean as much to those who come after as does the work of old times to us.

Costumes for Sale

I am such a sporadic blogger that I don’t know if anyone is even still reading along.  However, I am selling off some of the sample pieces I’ve featured here, and I wanted to spread the word to anyone still following.  Time to clean out the closets and make room for new projects!

NOTE: Most of these are prototype garments and may be slightly flawed. All garments have been worn 2-5 times. I’m happy to discuss details if you have any questions/concerns. All sales final.

Regency Gentleman

Men’s Regency grey wool coat lined in black silk, blue silk waistcoat, and black wool breeches. Made to fit measurements Chest 38, Waist 34, Seat 40, Sleeve 32 1/2. $400

Small issues with lining on coat, lapels on waistcoat, knee bands on breeches.

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18h century Court Suit

18th c. court suit of blue silk taffeta with pink silk lining, embellished with machine embroidery and silver spangles. Coat and breeches ONLY. Waistcoat not for sale. Made to fit measurements Chest 38, Waist 34, Seat 40, Sleeve 32 1/2. $600

Issues with sleeves (mostly hidden), small issues with lining, breeches need closure added at the knee, small flaws in embroidery.

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Regency Stays

Regency corded stays with wooden busk and embroidery. Cotton sateen over coutil. Mix of cording, flat steel and spiral steel for support. Measurements when worn with 3″ gap at back: 51-45-54. $350.

Prototype garment, some changes were made during the process and show needlemarks/wear where stitches were changed, most noticeably right below the busk.

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Renaissance Woman

Renaissance upper middle class brown wool doublet with velvet ribbon and handmade trim, slashing, and handmade buttons, lined in burgundy silk. Matching open skirt of burgundy silk with cartridge pleated waistband. Doublet and skirt ONLY. Approx measurements Bust 48, Waist 40. Skirt hemmed for someone 5’4″, but hem could be let down. $500

Slight repairs needed on button placket. Nothing wrong with this one except the size!

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Lady’s Victorian Ensemble

Victorian blouse of sheer sprigged muslin lined in cotton, and pink linen walking skirt lined with cotton and interlined with crinoline. Made to fit measurements 52-40-56, and hemmed for someone 5’4″. Hem cannot be lengthened easily. Lace jabot not included. $350

A few loose stitches in the lining of the blouse. Nothing wrong with this one except size. Made with Truly Victorian 1893 Blouse Waist pattern and Laughing Moon Walking Skirt pattern.

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The black silk petticoat is finally completely sewn, and is now just awaiting the remaining ribbon embellishment. Such a relief! It has been put aside temporarily so that I can work on other things.

Up next: late Victorian wear for 3, due in 3 weeks.  Yes, that is panic you hear. I’m not entirely sure how I let the time slip away. Oh, yeah, in ruffles and other projects!  Anyway, it’s personal sewing and keeps taking the back burner to other things, but now it’s crunch time.  I have a walking skirt cut out and waiting to be assembled, and a knickerbocker pattern drafted and waiting for a mock-up. I’m hoping to have those, and more, finished by the end of the week.

I am also beginning a class on 18th century stays this Saturday.  Only 4 students this time, so no back-to-back teaching for me!  I really loved teaching the corset class, and apparently my students loved it, too, since 3 of them returned for this class.

My first article for Your Wardrobe Unlock’d was published this week, on menswear during the period from 1730-60.  I was honored to be asked to write it, and am looking forward to writing another article this fall.

And – perhaps most exciting of all – I have proofs for my new website design and am so in love! I can’t wait unti it is up and running and I can share it with everyone. I’m hoping to have it up and new business cards printed before Costume College.

I did take time for an outing to the park last Sunday for a lovely game of croquet with friends.  It was a fun break, but now it’s down to business.  Here’s one of my favorite photos from the day, of Chris and I being silly in front of the conservatory.

Denise and Chris at Volunteer Park Conservatory

Two steps forward, and one back

I locked myself out of the sewing studio for a few days, which meant no sewing at all aside from some hand-sewing I had in the house.  I finally had more keys made and a long weekend home alone, so I designated it an all-sewing weekend, and invited over a couple of friends.

My plan was to finish the black silk petticoat and get started on the Victorian outfit I plan to wear for croquet next month. I had new patterns and thread and other goodies just waiting to be used.

The petticoat was supposed to be a quick and easy project.  A simple pattern, a few ruffles, some lace, and done. The ruffles set me back for a while, but I was finally past that. All that it needed was the last of the lace sewn on, and for the finished yoke to be sewn to the finished ruffle. One seam. Easy, right?

Not so much. The seam did go together and was neatly finished, and I had a finished petticoat.  I went to try it on and was horribly disappointed. It was short. Inches too short. Also, it was all out of proportion and just looked awkward and unflattering. Uh-oh. How did such a simple project turn out so wrong?

First, the length issues are all me. I was matching the length to an existing petticoat, the one I wore for my wedding.  The two petticoats were exactly the same length, so it wasn’t an error in patterning.  After trying on both of them, I realized the wedding petticoat is just as short, and I had never noticed. The drawstring waistline and weight of the ruffles mean it rides lower than my actual waistline, no matter how firmly I tie it, and the train means that length is only an issue at the very front.  The fabric is a soft, thin taffeta, whereas the black silk is very crisp, so each petticoat also hangs very differently.  So while I perfectly matched the length I was aiming for, I really needed to add about 4″ to the black silk.

After discussing it with my sewing buddy, I considered taking out 2 of the 5 tucks, gaining a quick 2″ of length with minimal effort. However, that meant talking about the real problem with this petticoat: the proportions.

The pattern illustration shows a deep ruffle with a narrow band of small tucks along the bottom edge, with a narrower ruffle below that. The tucks take up maybe 1/5, or less, of the space on the deep ruffle, and the narrow ruffle appears to be about 1/2 the depth of the deep one.  It’s adorable.

The actual pattern creates a deep ruffle with 5 widely-spaced 1/2″ wide tucks at the bottom edge, which take up a significantly larger portion of the ruffle.  I was also expecting pintucks or 1/4″ wide tucks from the illustration, so they are much wider and much more widely spaced than I was expecting.  The narrow ruffle is also only 1/4-1/3 the depth of the deep ruffle, so those proportions look very different, as well.  I went with it because I didn’t want to recalculate the length and re-mark the lines and cut new fabric, and maybe it would look fine when it was done.

It’s “just” a petticoat, it was going to be lacy and ruffled like I wanted, so I tried not to be bothered by the difference between the illustration (and my vision) and reality.  Once it was together and on me, it was too obvious to ignore – it was frumpy and unflattering, and that wide ruffle was out of proportion to everything else.  It really needed to be shorter, and taking out tucks would only make it deeper. So much for an easy fix.

So what was left to do but take scissors to all of it?  OK, not all of it, but at least to the ruffle.  Since it needed to be shorter and the yoke needed to be longer, cutting it off the existing yoke seemed the fastest way to making progress again. But taking scissors to a pile of silk that is perfectly finished and 98% complete is sheer torture.

So now the deep ruffle is shorter by a couple inches, and the yoke is longer by quite a few inches, and everything is ready to sew together again. Is it still progress if you end up back where you started?

I hope to finish the petticoat today, barring any other major issues.  In the meantime, I did make some other progress this week:

  • The early 1900’s princess slip has been washed to remove all the stabilizer, and is ready for a final pressing and some ribbon. I’m really pleased with how it turned out.
  • Ditto for the silk corset cover that coordinates with the wedding petticoat.
  • The Armistice blouse was almost finished, but the sleeves I cut out (how many years ago?) were not anywhere close to the right size for me. I think the style is meant to be a little long, but these are just too long, and too full, and very unflattering. Luckily, I have more of the cotton lawn I used, so I just need to cut out new sleeves and then finish the hem and buttonholes. I don’t love this blouse on me, but it is very sweet and dainty and has so much work and lace in it that I really feel I should finish it and try wearing it.
  • The blue silk men’s court suit had sleeve issues, so we tackled that problem this weekend.  Lots of patterning later, we have a sleeve with an actual sleeve cap! Imagine that.  Some careful cutting and piecing of the old sleeves should make it just barely possible to cut the new sleeves from the same fabric, since there is absolutely nothing left of that silk. I still don’t know where we went wrong originally, but I’ll be so glad when I can finally call that project complete.
  • I spent a fair amount of time washing and measuring the cotton print I hoped to use for my new Victorian outfit, and was totally in love with the pink-and-green dress I had in mind.  Unfortunately, it turns out I can’t use the fabric after all, so I had to dig through my stash and see what else might work.  For now, it looks like some dusty rose linen for a skirt, and leftover Regency gown printed cotton for the blouse. It’s very different than what I wanted, but it will be pretty and slowly I am coming around to the change. I still need/want a pink and green dress, so I guess I’m on the lookout for new fabric.

Try, Try Again

We all have that project that is going so well, and then – bam! Not so much.   This silk petticoat has been that project for me.  The pattern was going fine, even finishing with bound seams instead of the serger was going fine, and then I got to the ruffle.  I’ve made plenty of ruffles, but something about this one completely had me beat.


At first I used the ruffle foot to gather it, but it looked terrible, despite several perfect practice swatches.  I took out hours of pinning and gathering, and went back to the traditional method of two rows of gathering stitches.  That looked terrible, as well.  I experimented with the differential feed on the serger (didn’t work at all), gathering over thread, folding an edge and gathering over a cord… every different way I could think of, and everything still looked awful – all bunchy and uneven.


In the process, I realized that the fabric itself was part of the problem.  It’s a nice, crisp shantung, and it’s just a bit slippery, yet stiff, and it was also fraying like crazy. I’ve been avoiding serging it, even though it would have helped the fraying issue.  I hate serged seams, and wanted this to be a little nicer, since it’s for me.   The other problem was the pattern. I really don’t like 2:1 ruffles, because I feel like I have a hard time adjusting the fullness evenly.  This is part of why the ruffle foot would have been so helpful.  Between the two, it made for much more of a struggle than I was expecting.


Finally, I figured out that 3 rows of gathering stitches look pretty good, and now have the ruffle sewn to the flounce and the frayed seam neatly bound with seam tape. I’m waiting on some black lace beading to add to the flounce before I attach it to the yoke, and then I’ll be done.  Hopefully I’ll have a photo in a couple days!


While I am waiting for lace, I am finishing up an heirloom lace petticoat I started many, many years ago and dug out of a box last year.  The sewing isn’t great, since it was my first ever heirloom sewing project and I was way too ambitious, but it has yards and yards of beautiful French lace and cotton lawn in it, and couldn’t go to waste. It really just needed a waistband, but was too long for me. Rather than cut it off, I added more lace and a yoke, put in a couple darts for shape, and turned it into an early 1900’s princess line petticoat.  I should finish it up today, if all goes well.

Gearing up for Costume College

I’m so excited to be going to Costume College again this year.  Last year was my first year, and I had so much fun and learned so much.  It’s starting to feel very real, especially now that I know what limited classes I’m in.

It is also starting to feel very close and I am starting to hit panic mode for sewing all the outfits I wanted to make for myself this year.  Last year I only took one gown for the gala, and spent most of the weekend being jealous of all the people who had outfits for every part of the day.  I’ve had a list pinned to my inspiration board since last fall, but clients and classes and vacation (all good things) mean I’m still barely started on the items on that list.

Here is where I am at:

– new corset for Sunday Undies. This was my first new Victorian corset in a while, and it was my sample for the class I taught earlier this year.  Finished!

– new  petticoat and combinations to wear under the corset for Sunday Undies.  This is an extra project that wasn’t on my board, and one I don’t really need, but really want.  In Progress.

– Victorian day dress.  This will be for the charity croquet game in July, just a couple weeks before Costume College.  Think 1896-7, big sleeves, pink and green.  I have fabric in mind, but I’m not sure I have enough, so I’m trying not to get too attached to it yet.   Not Started.

– 18th c. chemise a la reine.  This was finished last year, but needed some mending and washing, which I finally got around to.  Finished!

– 18th c stays.  These have been in a box since last summer, when they were ready to be bound and I discovered they were many inches too small.  I tried them on this weekend, and they fit again!  They just need eyelets, binding, and binding.  In Progress.

– 1917 Armistice blouse and walking skirt.  The blouse is an unfinished project I dug out of a pile.  There are bits of the sewing I wish was better, but it’s light and lacy and just needs a collar and sleeves and some finishing.  The skirt is an attempt to salvage the silk from an 1890’s walking skirt I made many years ago, but was sewn so poorly I was horrified when I found it.  Glad to know I’ve made such progress!!  I took the old skirt apart and figure the gores will have plenty of room to cut a slimmer, shorter late teens skirt from it.  In Progress.

Aside from that, I’m not sure what else I might bring.  My Renaissance doublet and tall hat are some of my favorite pieces, but the skirts that go with them are not, and the whole thing is bulky.  I might just wear them anyway, since I would probably only be wearing the outfit  for a few hours.  My Regency is fine and finished.  A 1950’s dress is half-finished.  I also have a quilted silk petticoat in the works, so that might need to have a new jacket or gown to wear with it.  I’d love a Victorian bathing suit, but not sure that will happen in time.  We’ll have to see how much I can get done in the next couple months.

Other finished items:  I just finished an embroidered silk corset cover trimmed with French lace, that matches my silk taffeta wedding petticoat.  I’m just waiting on some blue silk ribbon to thread through the beading, and then I will take some pictures.

Mr. Darcy Comes to Visit

This is my 2011 Double Period Project for Your Wardrobe Unlock’d.  I don’t have pictures of the process, as I was generally working in a hurry and kept forgetting to take pictures along the way.  I do have some notes, and will try to give as much background as I can.

Menswear is still pretty unexplored territory for me.  I’ve done plenty of women’s clothing, but I’ve never really been asked to do menswear.  Luckily, I have a male best friend who is willing to be my guinea pig, so over the last couple years I have been working on menswear, improving my skills, and teaching him patterning and sewing in the process. It’s working out well for everyone.


Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail features a number of lovely coats from the V&A. These detail shots were my primary inspiration. In particular, I was drawn to the pleats, buttons, pockets, collars and stitching on these coats. Details like hidden buttons and flaps that hold a pocket closed, gathered sleeve heads, and M-shaped collar notches really stood out as different and unique to this time period.

1810-20 Hunting coat with gathered sleeve heads.

1815-20 coat with unusual M-shaped collar notch.


1810 greatcoat of superfine wool with hip buttons and back pleats.


1815-20 Coat. Detail of pockets and back pleats.


The red and blue coats both have gathered sleeves, which the V&A says was a typical detail from 1815-20.  This seemed a rather unusual detail for menswear, since styles both before and after were fairly smooth at the sleeve head.  They are also both double breasted and have M-shaped collar notches, although the one on the blue coat is a rather unusual variation of that style.  The line drawings on several coats also show a seam at the waist, with a very short piece of the skirt wrapping around to the front.

Another detail that I was drawn to was the pattern of braiding on a pair of trousers at the V&A.  Braiding and military details were common on fashionable dress, although the information for these trousers speculates that were actually intended for military wear.  I liked the detail enough that I wanted to work it in to the breeches I was making, figuring it was possible in that time period, even if not common.

1810-20 trousers or pantaloons of machine-knitted cotton with silk braid.


There are very few patterns for menswear from this period.  The only one that came close didn’t have the right sleeves, collars, skirt, or pleats for what I had in mind.  That left one option: drafting my own pattern.

Feeling confident that I could tackle this, I grabbed a stack of tailoring books that had line drawings and instructions in them.  I found an illustration of a coat that had similar lines to what I was working towards, grabbed some pattern paper and pencil, and set to work.

Book number 1 seemed to be going well.  I was drawing all the lines in the diagram, calculating measurements and angles, and connecting the dots when… it stopped.  There was no more.  I wasn’t missing any pages. What was wrong? Well, the book in question was an overview of tailoring systems over a long period of time, and the pattern I was studying was only being used to demonstrate a particular tailor’s work.  Apparently, the author who compiled these systems into a book felt no need to print all the pages that went together; one page of directions and an illustration apparently sufficed to demonstrate his point.

I crumpled up my work thus far, grabbed book number 2, and started over with a fresh sheet of paper.  I didn’t like this diagram as much, and the directions seemed more complicated.  I was still laying out lines and connecting dots, but then I had to start taping in extra paper and measuring strange lines that I didn’t even have a ruler long enough to draw.  By the time I got to the armhole, it seemed hopelessly muddled.  There was no way an armhole could even fit there, and the lines for where the collar should go also looked strange.  I smoothed out my first draft and compared them, and the difference was striking.  My second draft seemed all out of proportion to what I expected to see in a pattern.

I figured I must have done something wrong somewhere, so I started all over again, only to come up with the same result. I finished the pattern the best I could, and mocked it up.  It was horrible.  It was way too big, the pleats were hanging funny, and it was wrong in so many ways. This certainly knocked the wind out of my sails and made me question my sanity in taking on this project. I called it quits, and figured the only thing to do at this point was do more research.

I ended up on Amazon, ordering several more tailoring books.  One of these books was Men’s Garments 1830-1900: A Guide to Pattern Cutting and Tailoring, by R. I. Davis.   1830 was a bit too late, but the coat on the cover looked enough like what I was after that I figured if it worked, I could adjust the details I needed.

Chris was almost exactly the measurements of the sample used throughout the book, which meant I didn’t have to recalculate anything.  It was right there in the directions, making it much simpler. The directions were easy enough to follow, and soon I had a pattern I could feel good about mocking up.   The fit was really close, and only needed a few modifications, especially from the waist up.  I also needed to change some design details, such as the shape of collar, cuffs, and sleeve heads.

One modification I struggled with was the amount of “spring” at the hip.  There seemed to be a magic measurement that would let the back pleats hang nicely without pulling the skirt out of place or looking funny in the front.  This part of the process set me back quite a while. I went back through all the books and looked for directions about how to adjust this measurement.  I drafted and re-drafted the skirt a number of times, and finally felt it was decent, but never did feel like I really nailed this part of the pattern.

It also took quite a bit of spatial reasoning to draft out a collar with that distinctive M-shaped notch.  Drafting out the collar in the book was fairly easy.  Trying to figure out which pieces would sew together and how to adjust the angles on paper to get the desired result was a lot harder. I thought the pattern I finally ended up with looked pretty good in the mock up, but later realized it still needs a little tweak to lay the way I want it to.  That’s something I will certainly address if I make the coat again.

Overall, I found the pattern in this book to be reasonably simple to draft, and would recommend the book for anyone looking for Victorian menswear patterns.  That doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near beginner level, and it might not work so well if someone doesn’t match the sample size used in the book.  But the drafting itself was a matter of drawing out lines, placing points on those lines, and then drawing lines and curves to match up the points.  If you feel like you have a decent grasp of patterning and have wondered what it would be like to tackle a pattern in a book like this, I’d encourage you to try it and see where you end up.

The breeches and waistcoat were also drawn from books. Since they were a bit simpler in shape, they were easier to create from the scaled drawings in books rather than from the drafting instructions in a tailor’s manual.   Shirts hadn’t changed much since the 18th century, and these directions for Making a Men’s Shirt were similar enough to get the basic pattern.  The most significant change was to draft a much deeper collar, so it could nearly brush his cheekbones.  Chris also requested a ridiculously long cravat that would wrap around his neck several times.


I have a little experience with modern and traditional tailoring techniques, and had a drawerful of tailoring supplies that I’d picked up during a trip to LA. What I didn’t have was much info about period tailoring techniques and materials, or a lot of time.  I knew I’d be sewing most of the coat by machine, and using as many traditional tailoring techniques as I had time for.

The result was a bit of a hodgepodge, I’m afraid.  I cross-referenced modern tailoring books, notes from school, and anything I could glean about period tailoring. A few books on period costume showed where interfacings, padding, and other hidden materials would traditionally be placed.  The materials I used were more suited to modern tailoring, but did the job reasonably well.  The wool was just a standard wool, not a superfine or broadcloth, which are slightly felted and can be handled differently.

In a couple of places I had to guess about what materials to use.  There might be a dotted line on the pattern, but no information about what weight of linen, canvas, or other interfacing would have been typical. Or when a description was given, I didn’t know enough to translate that into the modern materials I had on hand. Some of these guesses worked out fine, and others were too bulky or too limp, and I had to take it apart and try again.

I wasn’t confident in my hand sewing ability, and so I sewed most of the coat by machine. If I had it to do over, there are some areas I wish I had taken the time to sew by hand, because I simply couldn’t achieve the same results on a machine.

The M-shaped collar notch was particularly problematic. There is no way to sew those tight points and turn them right side out without blunting the tips. The period examples were so delightfully pointy, that this was a bit of a disappointment.  The V&A coats were made from superfine, which is felted enough to keep the cut edges from raveling.  The collars could be cut out in precise points, and the layers were stitches around the edges with topstitching or some kind of overcast stitch. Between fabric choice and hand sewing, they had no need of turning those same tight corners.

I also struggled a bit with setting the collar and getting all the points to match up.  Many of the problems I experienced could have been avoided with better basting and more hand sewing.

All of the edges of the coat are hand finished with a running stitch, similar to the stitching on the period examples I was looking at.  The greatcoat shows some good detail about how the back vent and pleats were stitched.  I found references to swing tacks being used to hold the pleats together, which helped the back lay much nicer.  My aim was to give the coat as much of a period look as possible, while saving as much time as I could by using modern techniques in places they wouldn’t show.

I learned so much during this project.  It had a huge learning curve, and I wish I had known more about tailoring when I started it. I can see so much room for improvement, but that really only serves to whet my appetite and get me thinking about the next coat I’ll make.

Detail of M-shaped collar notch and gathered sleeve head.


Detail of back pleats and pockets.

The finished outfit in all its glory.


Regency Stays

This is my 2011 Double Period Project for Foundations Revealed.  I worked on this project in my free time around clients, and kept forgetting to take pictures of the process.  I took some notes for the dress diary, and will try to fill in as much as I can.


When trying to research stays suitable for 1800-1815, I kept getting distracted by stays from 1820-30.  I loved the cording and the embroidery and the details.  In particular, I loved the 1819 stays  and 1820 quilted corset in the Kyoto Costume Institute’s collection, as well as a pair on Karen Augusta’s site and a pair in the V&A.

1820 quilted corset. Kyoto Costume Institute.

1825-30 stays of cotton sateen with gold floss and brass eyelets. Karen Augusta #0081.

1825-35 stays with trapunto work. V&A T.57-1948.


The same design details caught my eye over and over.   I love the quilting and curved lines at the waist.  I also liked the boning fanning out from the busk, and the extra quilting along the back. Unfortunately, these stays are all much later than my target date of 1812, and the shapes are too curvy to go under the columnar Regency styles.

Thanks to the Transitional Stays article on Foundations Revealed, I had many more examples to look at.  A couple in particular caught my eye: the 1811 stays at the Missouri Historical Society and the 1815-25 stays at the Met.

c. 1811 stays. Missouri Historical Society.


1815-25 cotton stays. The Met 2009.300.3229.


These examples are a little earlier, enough that I could feel comfortable looking to them for inspiration for a pair of 1812 stays.  They still show the details of quilting, curved lines, and embroidery  that I like, while keeping the overall design much simpler.

Another interesting note is that these examples all have sewn-in straps instead of straps that are adjustable and tied in place with ribbons.  I like the clean look of the sewn-in straps, but realize I probably need the adjustability of straps that tie on. I decided to skip complete authenticity in order to have more flexibility later.


I decided to use the Mantua Maker 1800-20 Stays pattern as my base, and refer to pictures and scaled patterns in books for additional design details. For the most part, the stays are still pretty close to the Mantua Maker pattern, with the main adjustments being in the size and placement of the gussets.

Once the pattern was complete and the mock-up was fitted, I added design lines to the pattern for the layout of quilting and embroidery stitches.  I marked the area for the busk, and lines for additional boning across the stomach. I added curving lines of cording at the bust and waist with room for embroidery in between, and filled in the space with diamond-paned quilting. I also added some simple cording to the back, and ran cording along the sides of the bust and under the arms.


I chose a cotton sateen for the outer layer of the stays, but opted to use coutil for the inner layers.  Most of the examples I looked at seem to be linen or cotton, and some appear to be only one layer.  I’m a plus-sized girl, and I didn’t really trust plain-weave cotton or linen alone to provide the support I need.  I know coutil is sturdy and would do the job, even if it wasn’t totally period-correct. I chose to use two layers of coutil, one flatlined to the sateen and one as the inner layer, so I could stitch boning channels between the two layers. This would also allow me to encase all my seams between the layers, and not have the stitching show on the inside of the stays.

I stitched several samples of the cording, playing around with width between rows of stitches and multiple strands of cord. I was using Sugar ‘n Cream cotton for the cording, and decided 2 strands had enough substance when sewn into a channel.

I also experimented with crossed rows of stitching, to see if I would need to change how I stitched the diamond-paned section. I discovered that I could ease my needle and cording in between the machine stitches where they crossed without breaking them.  This made sewing the actual channels much simpler and cleaner.

I found that the size of the cording channels made a huge difference: too wide and the cording lay flat and without texture, and too small and the cord was almost impossible to insert.  I used my stitch-in-the-ditch foot and adjusted my needle position to allow me to stitch precisely at the measurement that looked best with my cording and fabric.

I started with the front panel of the stays, and marked out the stitch pattern for the cording and embroidery. I left extra fabric at my seam allowances, since I anticipated that the cording would take up a bit of fabric.  I basted the coutil and sateen together, then started stitching.  I stitched each row of cording one line at a time,  first the widely spaced rows that made up the grid, and then a second pass to make the narrow channels for cording.

The embroidery is stitched by machine.  I tried to use patterns that looked simple and similar to the ones on existing stays.  I wanted a soft color that would not show through a white dress. Gold seems to be a common choice, but not really my favorite, so I finally settled on a soft lavender.

Detail of cording and embroidery.

Since the busk was tapered, I needed the opening to be at the top of the corset.  I noticed that several period stays had extra rows of cording below and above the busk.  Since my busk was a little shorter than the length of the stays, this seemed like a good detail to add in.

The cording was inserted with a yarn needle from the back side of the coutil, under the sateen, and back through the coutil. The hardest part was keeping a grip on the needle while moving it through the channels.  Since the needle is in between layers of fabric, and the channels were fairly snug, it was hard to hold it and pull. By the end of even this small amount of cording, my hands were very sore. Slightly wider channels would probably  make the process easier.

I stitched all the cording channels and inserted cording before the sections of the stays were sewn together. This meant I needed careful placement, since some lines of cording matched up across seams, and others ran very close to my seam allowance.


Cording along side and back of stays.

I put flat steel boning at each side of the busk and at center back. I also added boning channels on the sides because I didn’t think cording alone would be enough, and the corset was wrinkling up without some sort of boning.  Flat steels poked out too much, and reed wasn’t strong enough on its own, so I settled on spiral steel for the 3 channels on each side.  Not period, but it keeps the fabric smooth and is flexible enough to be comfortable.

I ended up needing to wear the stays before I had a chance to bind them. I’m glad, because not only did I need to adjust the boning as mentioned above, I also found that it came up too high under my arms and needed to be adjusted.  The busk was another issue – I had measured the busk before I ran the lines of cording below it, but hadn’t accounted for the space I would need to add eyelets at the top to tie it in place.  I needed to deepen the busk pocket and shorten the corded area, which unfortunately left some marks on the sateen when I took out the stitching.  I also narrowed the straps slightly and cleaned up some curves.

In order to wear the stays before they were finished, I put in grommets and tacked the straps in place with stitching. Later, I removed the grommets so I could hand-stitch eyelets instead.  I added eyelets for the straps and at the top of the busk, and used twill tape to hold them in place.

The binding is cotton sateen, finished at 1/4″ wide.  I stitched it by machine to the front side of the stays, then wrapped it around and finished it on the inside by hand.  The only exception was the curve at the bottom of the straps, which needed both sides sewn by hand.  I ran a ribbon inside the binding at the top of the bust gussets so I could gather them in as needed.

Finished stays.