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 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 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

Making an 1871 Evening Dress: the Skirt and Overskirt

After the struggles with the bodice, I approached the skirts with a bit more care. I had a look at patterns for skirts of the time, and decided to go with a panelled skirt. Thankfully the striped fabric I bought was wide enough to cut the skirt panels with the stripes. I hadn’t done a panelled skirt yet, I’ve only done rectangular skirts which are very easy. I made one petticoat once using a commercial pattern that was made up of panels. Keeping that in mind, I went about measuring everything (twice) and drafted up the skirt. I simply drew it directly on the fabric and cut out the pieces, each individually, and making sure that the sloped seams would match. The back also had to dip towards a small train. There was a front panel cut on the fold, two side fronts, two side backs and one extra wide back panel to fit over the generous bustle.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take photos of pretty much everything! (eck!) I cut out all the panels and made a waistband. I decided to leave a slit between the side front and side back panels on the left side. It couldn’t be on the back as usual because it had to fit nicely over the bustle back – and the side bit would be covered by the overskirt so it would be okay. I sewed up all the seams together with french seams for neatness (to compensate for the messiness of the bodice I guess).

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They are a bit tedious, but they do work well. The only thing that annoyed me was that because the fabric is quite strange, it didn’t take well to being ironed. So after I sewed the second seam, it wouldn’t iron properly so it doesn’t look very flat. But oh well! I also only then decided to interface the top portion of the skirt, to support the pleats better. I wish I’d done it before sewing, as it was hard to interface the sloped waist line. I left a six inch gap on the left side seam, to get in and out. I turned these edges inwards by band, and then I fit into the waistband.

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The waistband was my desired width and my waist measurement plus seam allowances. I interfaced it, then ironed the long edges 1/2” inwards and then ironed it in half. Then I sewed the edges, right side to right side, and turned it the right way out.

I pleated the back to fit into the waistband, and then sewed over the waistband, the half that would be hidden by machine and the other half by hand. I added a hook and bar, and a snap and it was done. I really like the way it fits and falls.

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The overskirt worked very similarly, but is made only of two panels, the front and the back. It slopes backwards as well, so that it is longer in the back. The front panel fits snuggly on to the skirt, and is curved in the centre, while the back was very wide so it could be pleated over the bustle.

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The overskirt’s back panel

So I only had two seams to sew. I sewed the back to the front at the side seams, and left a six inch gap on the right side seam. This would be covered with self made trim. I pleated the top and fit a waistband the same way. I added a hook and eye (I’m terrible at positioning these right) and snaps so that the slit closed. I then hemmed the edges and gathered and sewed lace to it, the same way I did to the collar on the bodice.

I didn’t take any photos of the skirts at this point, as I was motoring onwards towards the self-made trim, which will be my next post!