Making an 1860s ballgown: the sleeves and skirt

So this dress is now finished! It’s been a wild, long ride. I saw the original inspiration last summer, bought the fabric last Christmas and drafted the mock-ups in February. I usually only work on one project at a time (simply because I always take a while to decide what to make), so it’s great to see this completed. All in all, I’ve learned a lot! (Again) I can see all of my mistakes very vividly, like in other projects, but every time I do feel like I am learning, and unfortunately I seem to learn best through mistakes! I think it looks okay and I’m quite happy with some aspects (I love swishing around in a crinoline and the fabric). Hopefully I’ll have some proper photos soon!

Making an 1860s ballgown: plans and foundations

Making an 1860s ballgown: the bodice


The sleeves were pretty straightforwards, as they looked pretty much the same as the ones on my 1871 Evening Dress, they are little puffed sleeves. Because the bodice is slightly off shoulder, the sleeves just had to fit my upper arm rather than other ~mystical~ sleeve magic (that I still don’t really understand). I drafted them out based on my measurements and the sleeves on the original extant piece PDF pattern. Now the pattern looked different to my evening dress sleeves in the sense that these looked more like rectangles rather than oblong shapes. In retrospective, I regret this, I think it would look better if it thinned towards the underarm like they usually do. However, since I’d followed the pattern for the bodice, I wanted to keep the same shape. I made a small mock-up to make sure my arm measurements were right (my previous sleeves have been a little tight). This worked out pretty well

So the sleeve has two components: the upper gathered puffy sleeve and the cuff. I measured the largest part of my upper arm, and multiplied by 2 and a bit. Then I figured out how long it should be. I cut this out of the fabric. I marked where the gathers would start at the top and the bottom, just a few inches from the edges (so it’s not gathered under the arm). I sewed two rows of machine stitches at the largest stitch setting and then gathered the bobbin thread into the correct measurement (the armhole measurement from the bodice).

The cuffs are my upper arm measurement plus half an inch seam allowance. The cuffs are made like a waistband: I cut a long rectangle of fabric, turned half an inch inwards at the top and bottom and ironed it. Then I folded the rectangle in half and ironed it again. I sewed it like bias tape to the bottom portion of the sleeve and then whip stitched it by hand on the inside, so that there was no visible topstitching (this sandwiches the gathered bottom edge of the sleeve in between the cuff).

The top is the cut sleeve and the bottom is after gathering.
Sewing the cuffs on.

I then played around with lace until I was happy. I trimmed off the excess width from the top of the lace and then layered it for some texture on top of the lace again (guess I could’ve just folded it… but why make things easy?). I basted this down and then gathered it lightly.

The two layers pinned together.
And gathered.

Then I handstitched it to the inside of the cuff, making sure my stitches didn’t show through to the outside.

However, at this point it was obvious that the satin wasn’t stiff enough to be really poufy so I did the same trick I used for my Jane Porter cosplay.

Limp sleeves pinned on the dressform.

I added some tulle for stiffness. However, I ran into some issues here because unlined my Jane Porter sleeves, these were not going to be lined (I decided not to line anything out of a mix of laziness and contact with some historical garments with messy inner guts). So I cut two strips of tulle and bound the edges with bias tape, except for the top edge (this was a mistake, I should’ve finished this edge too – I had planned that the armhole seam binding would be enough for it as well but it wasn’t). I then gathered down the top edge of the tulle, inserted it into the sleeve and sewed it down to the gathered top edge of the sleeve.

The little sleeve support.
And how it fit into the sleeve.

It was now time to set in the sleeves and I backstitched them to the armhole. Then I covered the seam and raw edges with some lace tape. However, I may still have to cover this with bias tape instead – the tulle is so rough that it still feels a bit uncomfortable through the lace tape.

And onto the skirts!

The skirt was super daunting just because of its sheer size. I started by looking at the PDF pattern and scaling up the dimensions to get an idea of how big the panels would be. Now this is the true reason why this dress took me so long to finish. I spent about two months after running math on the pattern dallying because I thought I wouldn’t have enough fabric. I bought the fabric before I’d even seen the pattern or really understood how much fabric these dresses take and so I only bought 6 meters (I would’ve bought plenty more as it was only 5$ p/yard I miss the NYC garment district so much).

In the end, it was true, I didn’t have enough fabric. So I cut one of the side panels of the skirt, which means it’s not as big and swooshy as it’s true potential but it was a compromise I had to make or ditch the project altogether. So instead I ended up spending way too much time calculating how to best use my fabric (and the fact that I have like two scraps left shows it worked). I ended up with a centre front panel cut on the fold, two side panels, two side back panels and a big back panel as wide as the fabric itself. I kept the dramatic train, though, so the back panel ended up being just short of two meters long (it’s crazy).

After everything was cut out, I pinned and sewed up all the seams, leaving a 7” gap on the side left panel, so I could get it on and off. This would be hidden within the box pleats. I ironed and pinked all the seams. I finished the open slit on the seam with a strip of fabric that I made exactly like I did with the bias tape for the bodice (explanation here) except it was just a scrap and not on the bias. Then I sewed it down by hand.

I then marked out all the double box pleats on the skirt (kinda like on this one pretty much). They ended up being about 4” deep. However I wasn’t sure about box pleating the back so Instead I made some mirroring knife pleats at the back. I basted these down, ironed them and then machine sewed the pleats down, and iron again.

And how it looked up on my dressform.

However at this point, I noticed a problem: the petticoats had an even hem because they are basically rectangles. The elliptical cage and skirt do not, so the back looked pretty terrible.

Bad.

So I decided to add a ruffle to one of the petticoats which should support the hem better. I cut out strips of my scraps of organdie.

Then I sewed everything together into a long strip, turned edges inwards with a rolled hem foot, and ironed it.

I then pinned it and sewed it to one of the petticoats.

Better!

Then it was waistband on! Slapped a waistband on, a hook and bar and a couple of snaps.

The scrap I used to cut the waistband, you can just see it marked to be cut on the fold.
I sewed up the corners and pinned to the skirt. The inside was whip-stitched by hand.
Ironed the edges inwards and in half.
The hook and bar, and snaps on the skirt placket.

And all that was left was hemming! I did this by trying it on and marked where it would fall just off the floor. Then I used maths (badly) and horsehair tape. I lined up the horsehair tape edge with the skirt hem edge, pinning it on the right side of the skirt. I sewed it by machine with an inch seam allowance. Then I turned the tape to the wrong side, pinned and sewed with a herringbone stitch (like on here).

I did a final fitting so here are some photos! I think the main final issues are with the petticoats, they need to support the hem and the train a lot better. I’ve already planned a train support extension and some extra ruffles around the hem, so I’ll have those done before I take proper worn photos of this dress!

It would also help if I had anywhere that I could fit the actual dress! Not even on the porch.

Bonus: twirling because.

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