One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60

SO…

After much procrastination, consternation, and perspiration (the sewing room upstairs gets rather toasty), I finished assembling my modified-for-the-1850s Simplicity 3723 day dress!

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Hmmm….not so impressive.

While it looks pretty close to the envelope, if you think it looks a little “off” in that photo, you’d be right! This is a perfect example of how much undergarments matter. Simplicity 3723 is designed to be worn without a corset, but I fitted it over one for a more period look. However, since my corseted measurements and my uncorseted measurements happen to be exactly the same, I decided to take the opportunity to show how important proper undergarments can be. This is what the gown looks like without any petticoats, hoops, or a corset. It looks rather frumpy, doesn’t it?

You’ll also notice that even the pagoda sleeves, while lovely, look a little flat compared to what you’d expect. If you look at period photographs, you’ll notice that some ladies are wearing their wide sleeves alone, but most have fluffy while undersleeves filling out the cuff:

 

Daguerreotype portrait of a Woman, 1849-52
Worn sans undersleeves. Another later example here.

Handtinted Ambrotype of a Woman, circa 1855
Example of undersleeves from right around the time of my dress! Her undersleeves and collar are “Broderie Anglaise” (a type of homemade eyelet that was very fashionable in the 1850s). I like this photo a lot because she looks a bit like me. I even did my hair similarly. We’re history sisters!

Undersleeves, circa 1850-69
These are also decorated with broderie anglaise.

Undersleeves could vary from very fancy to extremely plain. For simplicity (Ha, ha! Jokes.), I chose to go with the latter. Making your own undersleeves is very simple! They are just two tubes of fabric gathered with drawstrings at the top and bottom. I used elastic cord for the drawstring because trying to tie drawstrings on yourself is impossible otherwise. Many undersleeves of the period had drawstring tops, but button cuffs for this very reason. However, I wanted something very quick and easy that anyone could make. By using elastic cord, I can dress myself.

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I just measured the length from above my elbow to my wrist and cut that much off a bolt of 45 inch fabric, which I then cut along the fold, giving me two rectangles of fabric 18″ x 22.5.” This is about as “skinny” of a sleeve you can make. The fuller your dress’ sleeves, the fuller your undersleeves should be.

By 1858, hoop skirts were in full swing. I really want hoops, but right now, I don’t have the cash. Instead, I fit my dress over a cheap bridal petticoat I found in Goodwill for $7, a modest bumroll, and my “post-haste” petticoat.

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Also: sock boobs!
I fitted the dress over a corset, but I didn’t put my corset on my mannequin because she is actually much longer waisted than I am and is nipped in and hard as steel in already!

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My “post-haste” petticoat is just 3 or 4 yards of fabric with a drawstring waistband. it’s post-haste because I made it 20 minutes before an event in a panic! Now it’s been worn with everything from an 18th century dress to 1880s bustles!

So now:

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Thanks in part to the heavy weight of the fabric, the final shape isn’t as defined and full as hoopskirts, but it’s still full enough to be period appropriate, especially for a common country woman. This fullness is actually perfect for 1840s, though! Now I know what to do for that decade when I get around to it.

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The collar is just some soft net lace I had originally bought to make 18th century engageantes. I really wanted to use an antique collar, but I couldn’t find one the right size. This works well enough, though. I am really proud of how the tassels turned out. So much fun!

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I notice a lot of pictures of museum workers standing by Victorian dresses, especially Queen Victoria herself, commenting about how tiny everything is. Well, it’s kind of an optical illusion. My dress looks pretty small compared to me, but that’s mostly thanks to modern clothes which aren’t fitted and cut across the body at the widest point. Also, you can really see just how much wide skirts make your waist look smaller by hiding your legs, which in my case are the skinniest part of my body. By hiding them, the eye re-focuses on the new skinniest place: your waist!

Before I could call my outfit complete, I needed a bonnet! No self-respecting 1850s lady, especially an ol’ married lady such as m’self, would be caught dead outdoors without proper headgear. Simplicity 3723 comes with a fabric sun bonnet pattern that’s pretty cute, but I didn’t want to be cute. I wanted to be petty, tailored, and stately in a modest-sized spoon bonnet that fit fairly close to my head. I also didn’t want to be too matchy-matchy. I had some dark blue ribbon that complimented the jewel tones of my dress and reminded me of this gorgeous bonnet in the National Trust Collections:

Bonnet, circa 1840-50
It’s dated a bit early, but simple enough that it could pass for almost any style between 1840 and 1860.

I used one of the many flower pot baskets out of my TV-intervention-worthy hoard as a base. As a few online tutorials suggested, I took off the top binding and soaked it in hot water for a few hours to try to remove some of the waviness in the brim. The basket straw is much thicker and brittle than hat straw, so I couldn’t get it as flat as I wanted, but slight waviness doesn’t seem to be a issue for these historical ladies:

Ladies of Davenport, Iowa,1863
My bonnet ended up being almost exactly the same shape as the one on the far left. Also: love that lady’s purse!

I rebound the edge with bias tape and in the process discovered that you never, EVER use “Amazing QuickHold” glue. Ever. It smells like skunk, makes the cat flee from the room in disgust, and causes the husband to ask many unflattering questions. It’s formulated to be thin, so it also soaks into fabric, leaving little frosted white patches when it dries. Do not recommend! I learned my lesson and went back to trusty old “craft” glue.

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I would have sewn everything on, but once again the thick straw got in the way– and perhaps no small amount of pure sloth. I really do love my hat baskets, though. They’re really cheap, easy to obtain, and highly entertaining. If I mess one up, I don’t feel as bad as if I had invested in an expensive reproduction bonnet form or even a straw hat. When I found the flower choices at the local craft stores to be rather uninspiring, I made some cockades using this tutorial and added a tassel cut from the dress trim scraps to tie it together without being overly matching:

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Bonnet cost breakdown:

2 yards navy ribbon – $4.75, eBay
2 yards mustard ribbon – $4.75, eBay
Hat basket – $1.59, Goodwill
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
2 yards pleated brown ribbon – $4.50, Walmart
Bias tape – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $19.57

Add some second-hand square-toed boots and I was ready to trundle everything out to my graciously obliging mother-in-law’s house for a photoshoot! Here’s everything being worn altogether:

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Dress cost breakdown

6 yards printed cotton – $17.82, Walmart
2 yards burgundy cotton – $5.94, Walmart
4 yards tassel trim – $15.96, Hobby Lobby
1/2 yard net lace – $2, Hobby Lobby
Cotton sheet for flat lining – $1, Thrift Town
Hooks and bars – $1.69, Hobby Lobby
Brown poly-cotton thread – $1.98, Walmart

Total: $46.39

Accessories

Bonnet – $19.57
Bridal Petticoat – $7, Goodwill
Flat, brown leather ankle boots – $29, eBay (Talbots brand)
Collar brooch – Personal collection

Total: $102.50
(a bit spendier than I would have liked, but still cheaper than purchasing one pre-made!)

Aside from the still-too-small petticoat circumference, I’d say my foray into the 1850s was a success!

I think the biggest reason the outfit came together so well stems from the way I approached the project. Sure, I wanted to be a bit ornery and prove you could make something passable out of the barest of materials, but I mostly made this dress for myself, approaching the project as though I was making clothes, not a “costume.” I chose fabric, colors, and trims that I thought looked best on me, not just because they were historically appropriate or pretty on their own and I made sure that I could generally exist in it comfortably without feeling suffocated or weird. A lot of costumes I’ve worn in the past have always felt costumey, so they projected as costumey, too. While taking on a different persona can be fun, if you are historically costuming in general, you are still you, even if you are an accountant in Alabama portraying a fisherman’s wife in 17th century Spain. Naturally, you would wear what “they” would have worn, but you are also the one wearing it, so wear what you would wear, too!

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Many thanks to Becky for allowing me to roam all over the back 40 and helping me take photos!

For construction details and the story behind this dress, check out Part 1.

 HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!

One Pattern to rule them all; One Pattern to make them; One Girl to sew them, and with some changes, fake them!

Autumn Day Dress, circa 1855-60

I am not afraid to admit it: I have a not-so-secret love affair with 3723. Buying patterns for each and every specific era can be really expensive considering that patterns run about $15-$25 each. Simplicity patterns are no exception, but stores often run pattern sales for the Big 3 pattern makers. I got my copy of Simplicity 3723 for 99¢ during the Lobby of Hobby’s pattern sale. It’s the catch-all pattern designed to make basic “Pilgrim, “Colonial,” and “Prairie” style dresses using as few pattern pieces as possible, so instead of having to buy a different pattern for each era, you get a whole bunch of options in one. None of them are meticulously historically accurate by any means, but the shapes and styles are very easy to manipulate even for someone as ham-handed as myself.

Simplicity patterns get very little love in the historical costuming community, which is a shame. They may not be historically accurate, but they are readily available and in the case of Simplicity 3723, supremely modifiable– great for fitting practice and flexing your creative muscles! You can literally make a dress from almost any era with just this one pattern and plenty of chutzpah. One of my previous costuming projects involved transforming Simplicity 3723 into something a little more historically accurate for the 18th century:

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My 18th century Lady’s Maid Dress from 2013

And more recently, an 1880s Bustle Dress:

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My 1886 Day Dress from June 2014

Fit First!

 After making the 1886 day dress, I have pretty much refined the pattern to fit my torso properly. Most patterns are drafted for someone between 5′ 4″ and 5′ 8″ with an “average-length” torso and a B-cup bust. Some people are lucky enough to match standard patterns pretty well, but I’m broad shouldered, large-busted, and short-waisted, so no matter what, I always end up altering patterns to fit.
If you’ve ever been disappointed by how your costume looks after you’ve sewn it up exactly like the pattern said to do, it might be because the pattern doesn’t fit you quite like it should. The pattern shapes that come fresh out of the envelope are not absolutes! They are printed on paper not just for economy, but because they are designed to be cut, folded, and reshaped to fit you best. If you’re worried about ruining the original, trace the pattern pieces onto some cheap gift tissue or butcher paper so you can slice, dice, fold, and fiddle without fear. I encourage you to check out the many fitting guides you can find in books and online. For example, I have a simple pattern alteration guide from New Mexico State University saved on my desktop for quick access.

Hint: Pattern guides often leave this little tip out, but most modern patterns have armholes (armscyes) that are too low. Simplicity 3723’s are especially deep. If the armscye is too deep, it will make raising your arms difficult, creating a “bat wing” effect. Instead, the armscye should fit fairly close to your armpit. THIS SIMPLE PATTERN ALTERATION IS LIFE CHANGING! I will admit that I didn’t raise the armscye quite enough on my pattern. I only raised it one inch. On my body, Simplicity’s armscyes needed to be raised at least 2 inches. This handy guide explains how to get the right fit around your arm for an amazing fit every time. If you can get the armscye to fit right, you’ll be surprised how much better the entire bodice will look.

Since I plan to make many dresses out of Simplicity 3723 in the future, once I got the bodice portion to fit me correctly, I transferred the pattern onto some sturdy interfacing so I could use it over and over again without having to worry about ripping/overpinning/finding the cat chewing on the original tissue pattern. Now I have the basic building blocks for a whole wardrobe of fairly easy to make historical outfits!

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Label the new pattern with the original pattern and piece number, any sewing marks, and what alterations you made. Adding a date created and/or the measurements is also helpful. Bodies tend to change over time!

One Pattern to Rule Them All Challenge

The glory of Simplicity 3723 is once you’ve got the bodice to fit, you can make tons of dresses from different eras by just manipulating a few key bits!  So, I decided to challenge myself by making a dress for every major costuming era as a way to stretch my costume budget, encourage more focused research, practice fundamental sewing/patterning skills, and encourage creative thinking (something that can be surprisingly hard in the midst of the unemployment doldrums).  I’ve decide to limit myself to no more than 5 pattern alterations for every project (aside from the ones for basic fit), so if anyone wants to fiddle around with the pattern, they can get similar results.

(These tweaks should also work for Simplicty 3725, which is the children’s version of Simplicity 3723)

The Inspiration

Simplicity 3723 includes a “prairie dress” pattern, View A. It’s based off of American pioneer garb from the mid-19th century mixed with 20th century fitting techniques, producing costumes very similar to those used in the beloved Little House on the Prairie TV series, hence the term “prairie dress.”

“A Christmas They Never Forgot” always made me cry when I was little. Still my favorite!

I’ve steered clear of “Civil War” and other mid-19th century costuming for a long time because, sadly, as one of the most popular reenacting periods, it can get pretty catty and cut-throat when it comes to historical accuracy. There are entire webpages and Facebook groups dedicated to “farb” shaming. In fact, the pejorative term “farb” originated in this particular era of historical reenacting.

Hoops showing? What a Farb!

This particularly strict and sometimes vicious attitude is one of the many ill experiences that caused my teenage self to abandon historical costuming for years. However, that experience (among others) led me to create this blog. Thanks to time, practice, and lots of new, more supportive costuming friends, I decided to give the 1850s a try; after all, my figure is pretty well suited for it! There are plenty of historically accurate patterns for this era out there, but when I confront a challenge, I like to challenge it back.

Simplicity 3723 is most definitely a “farb” dress by reenactor standards, but it was never designed to be perfectly accurate anyway.  The pattern designer, Andrea Schewe, created this pattern specifically with small-scale theater productions in mind that need to clothe lots of actors with few resources. View A  is actually pretty good straight out of the envelope (personal fit issues aside). If you need a mid-19th century dress for a school play, just make it up as directed and add fluffy petticoats for a convincing 1840s-60s character. The one-piece construction is historically appropriate as well as convenient, plus  there’s enough fabric in the skirt to cover a 90-110″ hoop skirt. However, I wanted something a little more distinctive. The 1850s and early 1860s are famous for wide skirts and equally wide sleeves. And, as you probably know by now, I love big sleeves!

There are tons of inspirational photographs and extant garments to choose from, but in my case, the fabric actually came before the dress was even an idea. I found this wild, but utterly perfect quilting cotton at Walmart for just under $3 a yard. It’s part of 2014’s “Circles on Stripes” pattern, which came in blue, green, and brown backgrounds. All the ladies at the fabric counter thought it was pretty ugly, but I chose the brown. At the time, I had no intention of making a Victorian dress, but it gave me the fabric fuzzies inside, so I knew I had to have it! I bought 6 yards.

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I discovered a really nifty thing! If you go onto Walmart’s website, it’s horribly hard to look through their fabric listing, but if you really need extra yardage (as I did), but you’ve exhausted the supply at your local store, the website will actually tell you which stores still have your desired fabric in stock! That way, you don’t have to waste as much time driving store to store looking the hard way.

My particular pattern looks very similar to the ones found in this book of 1860s cotton swatches:

Swatch Book, circa 1863-68

It’s thick, as most quilting cottons are, much thicker than much of the cotton fabric available in the 1850s. In fact, the texture of my cotton fabric is quite close to Victorian dress-weight wool, which, as it turns out, was often printed with wild, bright patterns very similar to Walmart’s quilting fabrics! You can find quite a few photographs of ladies wearing eclectic prints:

Print Dress 1 print dress 2 print dress 3

Women in Print Dresses, circa 1855-65
This set of photographs is from an eBay auction.

Another must for the 1850s besides big bell sleeves is fringe and tassels!

Afternoon Dress, circa 1857
Okay, perhaps not quite so much fringe…

After looking at lots of designs and photos, this was the design I came up with:

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One of the most important aspects of historical costuming is the shape of the waistline. The 1850s was transitional when it came to waistlines. The 1840s had really long, pointed waists and the 1860s were short waisted and rounded. Simplicity 3723 is long waisted with a slight point at the front, making it perfect for late 1840s and early 1850s. I’m naturally short waisted, so when I altered the pattern to fit my body, the waistline became more rounded with a slight dip in the front, pushing it closer to the late 1850s to early 60s.

To get the look I desired, I had to make the following alterations to Simplicity 3723:

(+1 skill point indicates something I’d never done before!)

1. Front Opening – The original dress pattern is made to zip up the back. To make the dress more historically accurate (and so I wouldn’t have mess with sewing in a zipper), I opted to make the bodice close in front with hooks and eyes. To be able to get the dress on, I added an 8″ deep lapped placket to the front of the skirt (+1 skill point!).

2. Dropped Shoulders – 1850s dresses had dropped shoulders, meaning the armscye didn’t sit at the top of the shoulder joint, but further down the arm (+1 skill point!).

3. Period Skirt Finishes – To get the most out of the fullness, I cut the skirt panels out of the full width of the fabric (in my case, 45″). Instead of gathering the waistband of the skirt, I used overlapping knife pleats. Originally, I was going to cartridge pleat it (another period method of fabric control), but after fiddling with it a few days (and ripping out yards of stitching), I decided knife pleating suited my tastes more. If you use 60″ fabric, your skirt can be made even fuller and you’ll probably want to use cartridge pleats to draw in the waistline. To help support the hemline, many Victorian dresses had hem facings between 4-10 inches wide (some even wider). I decided to go with a 5-6 inch wide facing.

4. No Collar – This is a small change. Instead of completing View A with a collar, I just left it off.

5. Pagoda/Bell Sleeves – I redrafted the sleeve pattern because nothing screams 1850s like sleeve swag! (+1 skill point!)

The Pattern

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You only need 5 pattern pieces to make an 1850s dress!
If you haven’t worked with this pattern before, measure yourself wearing your undergarments of choice (especially if you plan to wear a corset) and choose the closest pattern size to your measurements. I recommend choosing a pattern size according to your bust measure, but generally speaking, this pattern is pretty true to size with a good amount of ease (2.5 inches in the bust) built in for the average, active wearer. As I mentioned previously, I performed basic pattern alterations to make sure the bodice pieces, mainly bodices pieces 1 and 2, fit my body. Buy some cheap fabric, second hand sheets work perfectly, and make a mock-up of the pattern to gauge where you’ll need to make changes to the pattern, if any.

Many 1850s dress have very low dropped shoulders. I have wide enough shoulders as it is, so I find dropping the sleeves to be a bit unflattering. I decided to drop the sleeve only two inches, which I achieved by adding to the shoulder of my pattern:

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This is only an inches worth of drop which I tried for my first mock-up. I later extended it to two inches. Sadly, I didn’t get many action shots of this dress’s progress, for which I apologize!

The only other major change to the pattern pieces was turning the straight sleeve into a pagoda sleeve. I wanted a nice, fairly fitted upper with a generous lower bell that ended above my wrist, so I took the long sleeve pattern from View A and marked where the elbow was (this is where the flare would begin) and where I wanted the sleeve to end. Then I drew a gentle curve out about 3 inches between the two points. This hastily-drawn image explains it much better than I can:

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It doesn’t take very much extra flare to make a really full sleeve. For extremely wide sleeves, you can begin the curve above the elbow almost at the shoulder line. I had to make a few mockups before I got a curve I liked.

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Too much curve! This is what happens when the angle of your curve is too sharp and too wide.

Cutting

For a front closure, I needed two separate halves instead of a single piece. So instead of placing the bodice front piece on the fold, I placed it on the selvedge. Make sure your skirt panels are the right length (remember that you may need to add some extra length if you are using hoops larger than about 100 inches) and to cut them the full width of the fabric if you are using 45″ fabric to get maximum volume. Otherwise, follow the cutting directions provided by the pattern. I also had to account for extra yardage for my sexy new, voluminous sleeves (about 2/3 yard extra). I flat lined my bodice using a thrifted cotton sheet. Sage advice: Flat line all your Victorian bodices. It’s not only period correct, it also makes  taking things in and letting them out so much easier!

???????????????????????????????I cut 6 inch wide strips of fabric across the width (45 inches) of my fabric and sewed them together to create the hem facing. For the front placket, I cut a bias-cut rectangle twice as long as the opening and about 2 inches wide.

Assembly

Assemble according to envelope, but instead of inserting a zipper in the back, sew the two back pieces together and leave the bodice front open for hooks and eyes. I added a modesty placket so if there is any gapping, it will be much less noticeable. Since that created an overlapping closure, I used bars instead of eyes:

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Modesty placket

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Front opening

To make the placket for the front opening, I followed this surprisingly simple tutorial from Sense and Sensibility patterns for a slash/lapped placket:

I bag-lined the sleeves with some cranberry cotton, using the scraps to make some pinked-edged ruffle trim for the sleeves. After everything was assembled, I sewed on some showgirl-worthy tassels. You’ll notice that my original drawing had a square design on the bodice. On paper and my dress form, a square looks great! On me….not so much. So I took inspiration from this dress (really, its the pelerine, but it counts!) and went for a much more flattering  sweetheart design.

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Obligatory “Kitty Helper” picture!

 So after, two months and three sewing machine needles later (don’t ask), was my 1850s dress successful?

I’ll post the final results tomorrow in part two!

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