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.

Making an 1860s ballgown: the bodice

Things have been going slow! MCM London came and went and it was awesome, and I’ve got photos of both my Jane Porter and Art Nouveau Meg coming soon. Meanwhile, I can’t not sew so I slowly kept working on the ballgown. Bodice construction is still very fiddly so I kept hesitating and putting off working since I was unsure of what the next step might be.

Anyway, back to the beginning! Amazingly, the extant piece I mentioned in my previous post had a PDF pattern based on it! I want to give a huge shoutout to lillea84 on Instagram. She offered her help to translate it, since I can’t speak Danish. It was much easier to understand it translated. You can download the PDF here. I measured and scaled it up.

I made a mock up and made SO MANY ADJUSTMENTS. It was tiny and didn’t quite fit properly by the time that was done, but the final pattern still remained with the same rough shapes. In the end, I think I made three mock ups. I wanted to make sure it fit well.

After I was happy with the pattern, I cut it out of cotton twill for interlining and the mint satin for the outer fabric. I cut the interlining with a 1/4” seam allowance, and the satin with 1/2” seam allowance – I wanted to try this method to see if I would have less bulky seams. I matched up all the pieces and tried machine basting it together, but the satin kept slipping and the end result was baggy so I ended up hand basting it together with large stitches.

Once that was done, I sewed all the seams together.

I have two strips of ribbon with eyelets in that I use for mock-ups and fittings. I basted those onto the edge of the bodice and tried it on. It fit fine! The only small issue was some bagginess by the arms, but that issue is for later on.

Since the bodice fit fine, I went ahead and sewed down all the seam allowances, making boning channels.

At this point I decided to add a couple extra bones. It’s easier to sew down extra boning channels before flatlining bodices but oh well. Very carefully, I laid out some bias tape right down the middle of the front and sewed it down, making sure the stitches only picked up the interlining. I added one bone an inch and a half from the center back, so I could sandwich the eyelets inbetween bones.

After all the seams were sewed down, I turned the center back inwards twice, creating another channel.

Before boning all the channels, I went around and machine basted 1/2” from the bottom and top edge, and the armholes. This would act as a guide later on, when I had to turn these edges inwards. This does, however, close the boning channels, so I had to unpick the stitches at the top that went over boning channels.

Then I boned all of the channels. I used a different mix of flat steel boning, zip ties and plastic boning. I quite like zip ties, but they didn’t fit the very curved back seams well so I replaced them with plastic boning, which was more forgiving on the curves. I used flat steel at the centre front and the two centre backs.

I pinned the bottom edge inwards, using the 1/2” sewing line as a guide. Then I sewed it down by hand with small whip stitches.

Bottom edge turned inwards along sewing guide.
Finished edge! I’m in love with this satin, though it’s a pain in the butt.

Usually I would turn this edge inwards twice, so as to hide the raw edge, but I planned on adding piping to these edges, so it would cover it. And then it was time to try making piping!

This was my first time making piping. I used the instructions on a couple of books I had, and also this blog post has super useful information. I had made bias tape before so that wasn’t so scary. I used my ruler, which thankfully has a 45º marking on it, to fold my fabric on the bias. Then I used the same handy ruler (seriously guys, quilting rulers are the best) to draw lines that were roughly 1 1/4” apart. This was tricky because SATIN DOESN’T SIT STILL. Somehow I managed. I measured the top and bottom edges of the bodice (I wasn’t sure if I wanted to finish the top with piping too but better have extra than not) so I knew how much bias tape I needed, then I measured the drawn lines to make sure I had enough.

The drawn lines (sorry it’s blurry, late night sewing)

Then I cut out the strips of satin. I set the edges at a right angle with each other, right sides facing each other, and sewed them together with a small seam allowance. I’ve always struggled at this point because my strips never really matched all the pictures, but thinking of it just as making sure there is a point at which they meet at a right angle really helped.

Like this! Even if it doesn’t look like instruction photos, you just need a right angle between them.

After all the little strips were sewn together into one long strip, I ironed all the seams and cut off the extra seam allowance.

A nice pile of bias tape!

Because this isn’t normal bias tape, I simply folded in half lengthwise and ironed it (as opposed to having to turn the edges inwards). I didn’t have proper cording for this (eck) so I just used some random cord I had lying around. It seemed to be roughly the needed size and after a few tests on scraps of fabric, I was happy with the result. So I put the cord in between the bias tape.

Most people recommend pinning but I couldn’t be bothered (eck), so instead I just sewed really slowly. I didn’t have a piping/cording foot so instead I used my zipper foot and it worked really well.

Like this! Please excuse my ugly nails, I’m trying to kick nail biting.

And I ended up with a nice little pile of piping:

I then pinned this over the finished bottom edge. I wasn’t sure how to attach this by hand (I didn’t want to machine stitch this because of all the steel boning in it, I’ve broken a few needles before, but I think next time I’ll just risk it). I ended up backstitching it by hand, making sure my stitches didn’t show through the outer satin.

Sewing the piping down with backstitches.
Pretty though! (it looks better ironed, I swear)

The top edge was slightly different because I wanted to add gathered lace and I thought the piping would look better over the edge.

So instead, I took a little break from piping and sewed on the eyelets. I really wanted to try it on to see how it fit again. So I marked the eyelets about an inch away from each other with pencil. I used my seam ripper (I usually use an awl but I couldn’t find mine) and then my small scissors to make a little hole, then used a whip stitch with embroidery thread to fill around the hole.

So the next step was to gather the lace! I bought this on Etsy ages ago in preparation for this project and I was delighted when it arrived and it looked lovely.

I trimmed away the extra plain net and lightly gathered down the top edge. So I sewed this down with really small stitches, keeping it flush with the top edge (which had previously been turned inwards). Then I turned towards the inside, and sewed the lace down again with whip stitches.

At the back, I made sure that the lace was longer on one side so it would go over the eyelets and overlap the other edge of the lace. Later on, I sewed a snap so they would attach.

Then I pinned (or clipped, I’ve realised I’ve been using my clips more than my pins) the piping to the top edge.

Then I sewed the piping down with a backstitch.

Now something I’d noticed in the previous fittings of this (that didn’t happen in the mock ups) was some weird bunching between the bust and the underarm. This had also happened in my 1871’s evening dress, but I couldn’t fix it.

You can sort of see it on my dressform

 

The only thing I could think of was a dart to remove the excess fabric, but I thought that would look UGLY so no. Thankfully this page was pointed out to me:

From this book.

So instead of taking it out, they proposed filling it in. I used the strips I had cut off my lace (since it was too wide) and gathered them into little ruffles. This is supper soft netting and it didn’t fray so it seemed perfect for some soft padding. I sewed the ruffles down by the armhole and it worked!

The only things left to do are insert sleeves, add a modesty panel and reinforce the front dip.

 

Making an 1860s ballgown: plans and foundations

This project has been in my head for a while now. I first ran into a photo of the extant gown that inspired it last summer, so nearly a year ago. I found this photo of this 1860s ballgown held at the National Museum of Denmark:

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Although the photos are blurry, there was something about it that grabbed me. I love the colour but also the simplicity of the design. There is no trim but the gathered tulle on the neckline. Though I absolutely love detail, I thought it might be interesting as well to make something where I can’t hide mistakes under trim. I really want to work on my fit and construction so I decided to tackle this.

I found the fabric for this dress back in December, when I visited New York and had the best time in the garment district. I don’t think any fabric shopping will ever compare to that. I found this lovely mint/light green satin for $5 a yard. FIVE DOLLARS. I could never find anything so affordable in London. Anyway, I got a bit confused. I was frazzled because there was so much fabric around and I was so excited and a bit overwhelmed by the shopping and the shop owners, so I didn’t buy enough. I originally asked for five yards, and then six when I remembered yards are different from meters but still… as I drafted the plans for this, it was just cutting it close and I still had to reduce the gloriously long skirt.

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It really didn’t photograph well.

The museum has a whole page on the original dress here. It had some useful information about materials and dimensions. I had found this page before buying the fabric, but when I actually sat down to plan this dress properly, I made the best discovery: on the bottom right corner of the page, tucked away, is a pdf of a pattern drafted from the original dress! SCORE.

My next hurdle was that I don’t speak Danish. Thankfully Instagram is amazing, so a huge shout out to lillea84 on IG, she kindly volunteered to translate it for me. These notes on the pattern were very helpful in understanding its construction.

I sketched out the project and set about making the foundation garments.

Some of them were already made. I used my Victorian corset, which I made quite a while back, using a pattern by Redthreaded. I already have a Victorian chemise, though I think it’s too big for this so I might make a new one with a lower neckline and no sleeves. But the big missing item was the crinoline. Although the dress is dated 1860s, I thought the crinoline definitely looked elliptical so I went for the Truly Victorian 1865 Elliptical cage pattern. I bought a kit from Vena Cava Design which included the pattern and everything I would need for it.

Though it ran a bit pricey, I calculated what the items would’ve cost if I bought them individually and this was a very good deal in the end. The pattern was fairly easy to follow, and the kit was wonderful. My only comments would be that I would’ve used a lighter weight cotton drill or something cheaper, because the twill provided was very good quality but also very heavy and for a cage that was already going to have 30 meters of steel on it, weight was a concern. Secondly, their buckle and waistband didn’t work for me. The cage was too heavy to be secured properly with the buckle they provided. I would’ve needed an extra hand. I ended up stabbing my finger on one of the teeth of the buckle and bleeding all over the cage. I switched out the buckle and used two sets of hooks and bars instead.

Because I followed the pattern, I didn’t actually take any construction photos, I didn’t think they would be very helpful? Feel free to tell me if you think otherwise.

Cage in construction.

Here are some photos of the foundation garments:

Here I was wearing with the tied drawstrings, but I think I’ll loosen them for a fuller shape. I’m also making an extra petticoat in case I want extra pouff (I probably will). And that is it for foundations and plans!

Update! I did make an extra petticoat. It is three tiered, the top layer is plain cotton and the bottom two are organdy. I measured around the crinoline so that I made sure each tier was bigger than the corresponding hoop, gathered the long edges down and sewed it together. Then I did up the back seam, leaving a seven inch gap so I could get into it. I turned the gap edges inwards, attached a waistband and ta-da, extra poufiness!

Making an 1871 Evening Dress: the photos

This dress was made based on an extant 1871 evening dress at the Fashion Museum Bath. There’s a picture of it in my first post. You can find the Making of posts herehere and here.

I really enjoyed the process of making this. It involved making a bustle cage, which was a first. I wore it over my Victorian corset, the bustle cage and two early bustle petticoats. The dress is made up of a bodice, a skirt and an overskirt. Like at the time, the bodice remains separate from the skirt. Since I have some leftover fabric, it might be nice to try an make a day bodice for this project at some point in the future! In the end, I had a lot of fun and I’m happy with a lot of the elements.

Thanks for reading!

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Making a Cream Dress: the Photos

This dress was a project on a whim. I was on holiday in Spain and I’d seen an awesome fabric shop but had no immediate projects. So I set out to the internet and found a photo of a costume in Reign that I used as inspiration. I wanted it to have that romanticised medieval look, so though it is historically inspired, it is in no way accurate. I am quite happy with it! It was very good practice on building bodices, drafting sleeves and general dressmaking skills. I also got to embellish it with beads and pearls, which I loved! You can find the posts about making it below. These photos are, like all of the others, taken by amazing friend and photographer, Raquel Gaspar. Also, this dress does have a sash to go with it, which I mentioned in the blog posts, and it annoys me so much that I forgot to take it to the shoot! It really completes the look (and hides some mathematical imperfections in seam making). But alas!

Making a Cream Dress: The Bodice

Making the Cream dress: sleeves, skirts and details

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Twirling to try and show off the skirt! Instead, it got covered in mud.

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Bloopers: very unladylike boots.

Making a Robe à l’Anglaise: the Photos

This was my first historical project and I learned a lot from it. I finally got the opportunity to take some proper photos of this dress a few weeks back and I’ve got the photos back from my amazing friend Raquel Gaspar. I’m so happy to share them! The dress has some flaws still and things I would like to fix, but since the fabric basically disintegrated every time I rip out a stitch, I think it’ll have to keep its flaws. I do wish I could have attempted a more complete look, but hair frightens me and 18th century hair is terrifying. Maybe one day! It also annoys me that the freshly ironed petticoat got very crumpled in the walk between my house and the park, but oh well!

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Making an 1871 Evening Dress: the sleeves and details

Once the skirts were done, I moved on to the sleeves. The sleeves were rather simple. As the bodice fell just off the shoulder, they didn’t need to fit in the same manner as normal sleeves. So to draft these, I simply drew an almost oval shape, longer than the armhole size so I could gather it down to make nice puffy sleeves.

I cut out two of them and then two long rectangles to make little cuffs. I made the cuffs in the same manner as usual, by interfacing it and then ironing the edges inwards like with a waistband. But this time, I added a piece of plastic boning to make them nice and round. I gathered the lower and bottom edges of the upper sleeve and then attached the bottom edge to the cuff, by slotting it into the middle of the cuff.
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I sewed this by hand, so that there was no visible top stitching. They looked pretty adorable at this stage.

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Then I attached them to the bodice with a double threaded back stitch, for sturdiness. Then I covered this seam with bias tape (as I’d ran out of lace tape by this point, oops!).

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Sleeves were attached and I moved on to decorating the collar, as I wanted some hand-stitching. I wish I’d decided to do this before attaching it, as it would have been much easier, but alas. I ordered some sequins online and decided to attach them around the collar, to cover the awkward bias that was bothering me.

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The last element for the bodice were the two little bows that are perched just over the shoulder on the original dress. I’d never made fabric bows before and two tiny ones took me a shameful amount of time. Like, I am literally ashamed. I turned all the edges inwards by hand, because I didn’t want top stitching, so this was what set me back. I cut some rectangles, two different sets, one set larger than the other. One rectangle for the main body, one for the tails. All the edges were turned inwards by hand and then the middles were gathered down.

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The gathering stitches

After they were gathered, I tacked the two together and cut one long strip from the same fabric, about one inch wide, which I used to tie over the middle. Then I added sequins over the edges of this strip. Yes, they took forever, but they looked adorable so I forgave them.

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I attached them to the bodice with some strong stitches. And with this done, the bodice was complete! The insides were a bit rough still, but I’m waiting for more lace tape to arrive so I can clean them up properly.

The last step was the trim made of the same fabric for the skirt. It would decorate the overskirt and also hide the side closure. For this, I cut some long strips of the fabric, and pleated them.

This was quite easy to do, because the stripes were good guidelines. Then I tacked them down very carefully on both edges, trying to keep my stitches as discreet as possible.

After that, I pinned them to the overskirt and sewed them down in the same way with the tacking stitches.

I was pretty happy with everything at this point, but too lazy to lace up the bodice on the dressform so instead here’s a 19th century crop top:

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Last thing to do was to hem the skirt. I decided to use crinoline tape (also called horsehair tape) for this. It was quite hard to find in the shops at a reasonable price and wide enough, so I bought it online. It ended up being 13 cms wide. I lined it up with the edge of the right side of the skirt and sewed it down with a half an inch seam allowance, on the right side.

Then I turned it over to the wrong side and smoothed it over, making sure it was pulled tight, and pinned it in place. Then I used a herringbone stitch to secure it.

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I also made a little placket from the fabric to cover the cut edges of the tape where they met, as they were quite rough.

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And it was done! I learned a lot from this project. I liked all the decorating, but I also learned I have to take more time to sort out the fit, instead of getting excited and moving ahead. I still have some fabric left over so I think maybe a day bodice to pair with this might be fun to make sometime in the future. I don’t have edited pictures of this dress yet, so here’s a little sneak peek:

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Flawless photography by Raquel Gaspar