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:

Søgrøn selskabskjole, 1860'erne

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 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!

Making the Red Velvet dress: the bodice and the sleeves

After finishing the Cream Dress, I knew my next project should be holiday inspired. This is going to end up being a post littered with fangirling so I’ll open with it. Angela Clayton’s work has been a huge inspiration and I loved the idea of creating a holiday inspired dress. I wanted to make something I could actually wear rather than something very heavily historic. This included a zipper, lining and a short skirt! Thinking of Christmas, red velvet instantly came to mind.


I bought four meters of red velvet, matching satin lining and one meter of cream chiffon. Originally I was to use the chiffon for the sleeves as well, but I ended up using the velvet for the sleeves too. The first step was to draft the bodice so I draped something and then transferred it to paper.

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In between cutting it from the actual fabric, I made two mock ups. I was having a hard time making it fit properly and man, that was only the beginning! The bodice is made of one piece cut on the fold at the centre front. I cut it out of a layer of stiff cotton drill to create support for the boning and the velvet. Then I marked out the boning channels and sewed on 1/4 inch bias tape to make the channels.

After that, I cut the bodice out of the velvet and pinned it to the cotton layer, right sides facing each other. I then sewed them together. The problems began here. The velvet is very soft and it WOULD NOT SIT STILL. This seam ended up looking absolutely horrible.

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Many boning channels
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SO WRINKLY

So I ripped it out and started again. I had the brilliant idea to be interface the velvet because there’s nothing that fusible interfacing can’t fix, right? Well… it worked well in e sense that when I redid the seam, it looked much better! It started behaving like a good little child now (do not interface your children). But it didn’t stay very fused and the interfacing started peeling away. However, because the seam was sewn it stayed attached and so I left it be. I clipped the seams, turned it the right way around and used a pencil to mark all the corners.

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At this point, I basted a zipper to the back and tried it on and the velvet had shrunk like three inches from my last mock up! So I made two extra panels at I attached to the back.

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Then I made the chiffon ruffle for the neckline. The best way to cut chiffon, as far as I’ve figured out, is to mark one end, make a small cut and then pull one thread so you can cut fairly straight.
The ruffle is one large rectangle, which I then folded in half. I basted across the folded edge so that it wouldn’t shift while sewing the gathering threads and ironed the bottom edges inwards to hide the raw edges. Then I sewed two rows of gathering stitches at the bottom and two other rows about an inch away from the top folded edge. This was gathered down and attached to the bodice. Then I used a very poorly cut rectangle of plain cotton as I was worried the chiffon would be too see-through. I also sewed a strip of bias tape to the top gathering threads to try and keep em up.

I moved on to drafting the sleeves. I used my standard straight sleeve block pattern and the same method I used for the Cream Dress sleeves, which was slashing the pattern to add extra volume. Because the velvet is thicker than the light fabric I used for that dress, I made this pattern smaller. 

I cut them out of the velvet and the lining, and then flat-lined them together. Then I sewed two rows of gathering stitches at the cuff and armhole. I did up the side seams with french seams to hide the raw edges and moved on to making the cuffs. They are made by cutting two rectangles of the velvet, interfacing them and then folding them in half. I ironed the fold and ironed half an inch of the raw edges inwards. Then I turned it so that they had the right sides facing each other and sewed across the short edges. Then I turned them the right way around and they looked adorable.

I gathered down the bottom portion of the sleeves, leaving a 5″ gap that I turned inwards and sewed down by hand. Then I sewed on the cuffs by hand too.

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The next step was to gather down the armhole and attach the sleeves to the bodice. I sewed it on by hand to the bodice with a double thread and a back-stitch. I added hooks and eyes to the cuffs, so that they would close.

I thought the neckline looked a little plain so I bought some small, cupped, matte gold sequins and sewed them on while watching Downton Abbey.

I used invisible thread for this. It was a little fiddly to work with but works pretty well in the end.

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Meanwhile, I’d been working on this bodice for a month. I was packing and moving house, so it was all very complicated and unproductive for a while. My room still required some work and the construction people came into my room without telling me so I didn’t have time to put anything away. I had a huge breakdown when I got home after work and they’d gotten paint on my poor velvet.

Just LOOK AT IT

Thankfully my mother is a goddess and she got it off. Phew! And that was it for the bodice. I also cut the lining at around this time, but I was waiting to attach it. If I waited until after adding the skirt, it would also cover the skirt-bodice seam. I rushed to finish this dress this weekend, as I wanted to take some worn photos of it before going to New York on Monday! Very exciting, can’t wait to go prowl on that garment district. Thanks for reading!

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Making a Cream Dress: The Bodice

I didn’t really know what to call this so for now I’m going with the Cream Dress. To be fair, it does look very cream. This is a dress I’d thought up doing a few months ago, after seeing a photo of a dress from Reign that I quite liked. It seemed fairly simple and I wanted something to keep me busy and with which I could practice more. The dress I originally saw on Instagram looks like this:

The inspiration dress is from season 3 episode 5

While I don’t really watch the series any more, I have always appreciated the prettiness of the wardrobe (even if it isn’t historically accurate). And so I was all for it! I bought the fabrics for this over the summer while I was away in Alicante. I bought a meter for the white and gold brocade bodice, a meter for the sleeves and four meters of the light cream with discreet dots for the skirt.

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In much need of ironing

You can’t really see it in these photos but the bodice fabric and the sleeve fabric have wonderful sheen to them. I am especially in love with the white fabric, I can’t really say what it is – it is light like chiffon, but feels more like cotton and muslin. It has a sort of shiny sheen of it, though it is very discreet. As I said, I am in love and sad that I did not buy more.

For the bodice, I got to try out something new. The last bodice I drafted was for my robe à l’Anglaise and I flat drafted that following the instructions from a book. I didn’t really like that method, it took forever and a lot of maths. But in the meantime, my dressform arrived and I could finally dip into draping! So I did. I read up on what I could, but it’s pretty self-explanatory. You put a piece of fabric on it and you draw on it.

I did one mock-up for this, where I realised the back was too big so I took it in by about an inch. Then I turned it into a pattern and cut out the pieces.

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The bodice is made up of one layer of the fashion fabric and one layer of stiff cotton twill. On the cotton twill, I sewed on a couple of boning channels, as I planned on using the seams as bone channels.

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I wish I hadn’t, because I didn’t leave enough seam allowance to make them nice and neat, so the edges are fraying a bit. Oh well! After attaching bias tape as the extra boning channels, I then proceeded to flatline the bodice. I decided to use this method because when I assembled the lining and the outer bodice separately and then joined them on the edges before, it always ended up being baggy and not… great. I was hoping this would look better. To flatline it, I simply pieced all the equivalent pieces together and machine basted around the edges, at a quarter inch in the seam allowance. Then, I assembled the body pieces in one go.

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I sewed down the seams and used spiral and steel boning to fill the boning channels. Then I turned in the top and bottom edges and sewed that down by hand, so that there were no visual stitches. The only bit that gave me grief were the shoulder seams, as I couldn’t get them quite to line up and they were very chunky. I ended up having to try to hide some imperfections further on. Then I worked on the final bit of the bodice which was the closures. Instead of going with eyelets like usual, I decided to go with loops for closures. For this, I cut a long thin strip of the brocade. I ironed half an inch on each side inwards and then folded it in half. It’s the same process for making bias tape, though I’d never bothered with that before. Then I stitched the folded edges together. I cut twenty eight two inch long bits. Then I pinned them onto ribbon, which I folded over to hide the raw edges.

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The process of stitching over these was so painful. I found some of the loops were too short, so if I sewed too far from the edge of the ribbon, the tips of the loops would stick out. After the first few straight stitch rounds, I found that sewing over with a zig zag stitch worked really well in keeping them attached. I’m not sure how sturdy, or practical, they really are – but they are damn cute!

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And that is for this bodice! Up next are the sleeves, frills and skirts.

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