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.

All the pieces flatlined.

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.

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 stitched 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.

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:

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.

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!