If You Don’t Try, You Can’t Fail

Taking Advantage of Yourself

I am currently unemployed (hopefully to be employed soon, so light those votive candles, cross your fingers, and wish upon a star for me!), so I have an “abundance of time” on my hands. Theoretically, I should be pumping out projects right and left, filling my copious free time doing all the creating that I couldn’t do with a full-time job to juggle. But I’m not. I’m sitting here, idly scrolling through page after Pinterest page, doodling dresses, and dreaming of being done with all of them already. Partially to blame is my inherent laziness. Without a firm deadline, I sometimes find myself taking the sloth’s approach to creativity: Naps!

Plus, I’m cute, so projects should be practically finishing themselves for me, right?

However, I also get bored easily, hence all the “research” going on to fill the time. I’ve got no less than 8 projects roiling in my mad grey matter and at least 3 projects already out on the cutting table, stalled. What am I waiting for? Money, perhaps? Well, yes, as always money is a huge limiting factor, but I have projects that are pretty much fully stashed, meaning I have everything from the fabric to the trim to the hooks and eyes. I’ve definitely got the time, so all that’s missing is the manpower. Why is nothing getting done?

It sounds exceptionally silly, but many things–not just costumes–never get done because of that pesky fear of failing. Have you ever found that perfect fabric for the perfect project, yet the yardage sits in your stash, wallowing in the darkness? It’s a situation I encounter frequently. So long as it sits on the shelf, that fabric retains its glorious aura of possibility that I’m afraid to spoil.

Perhaps it was the cost. Nice fabric doesn’t come cheap (unless you are incredibly lucky). In addition, pre-20th century dresses often require 5 or more yards of fabric to complete, so the cost can add up rapidly. After investing so much money in a fine fabric, I sometimes don’t even touch it again for months afterwards.  One slip of the scissors, one misplaced pattern piece, one careless dribble from the iron…oh, you bought the last of the bolt and you turned up a quarter-yard short? Perhaps you could piece it….or keep it safe and sound in the closet, taking it out to admire its stunning beauty and pet it occasionally.

Don’t worry, my Precious, you are safe here, with me, forever….
(This pic links to a cool sensory board project for toddlers, FYI).

 If you’re not a crafter or you have good resources, it seems a little weird to worry so much over something as simple as unfolding that pristine stretch of [insert fabulous fabric of your choice], but when you’ve invested so much time and creative planning into this one fabric, the fear of losing it becomes very real. The fabric doesn’t even have to be expensive. Perhaps it was the tail end of a bolt, but it had the perfect pattern, or it was just the right shade of green out of a thousand or it belonged to your great-great-grandmother and is over 100 years old.

It’s like Schrodinger’s Cat is wallowing around in my stash, shedding maybe-or-nots all over my fabrics!

Gosh darn it, theoretical-Fluffy!

Many of my projects stall out before I even get the fabric home from the store because even a simple $3/yard cotton has so many possibilities, but only 4.5 yards. As long as I don’t cut it, it retains that wonderful fuzzy feeling of hope, but the instant I cut into it, it’s fate is sealed and there is little room for mistakes–of which I am prone to make many. But, cutting into the fabric is the first step towards completing a project. Once I’ve mustered the courage to take that leap, I chug right along…at least until I get to the actual sewing.

Another fear factor is skill level. You have fabric and you’re not afraid to use it. Wonderful! However, maybe you’ve never sewn an 1870s ball gown before. That’s a lot of pieces, and holy bananas, am I interfacing my interfacing?! For a beginner (and even an experienced sewer), getting the hang of the way a pattern or draping works takes a ton of trial and error. Even with a steady hand, a basic knowledge of technique, and 4-5 mock-ups behind you, sewing the final garment can be nerve wracking. Besides the sewing itself, there’s the temptation to compare yourself to others.

“Didn’t [insert idol of envy here] make one of these last event? Hers was sooooo good! How did she avoid getting hot glue all over her roses? Why didn’t her bodice binding wibble and wobble like a top after happy hour?”

“Maybe no one will notice…”

Historical costuming can sometimes feel like a championship ball game with hypercritical referees blowing the whistle on everything from color choice to the number of stitches used.

I’m sorry, ma’am, but those balls do not appear to meet FIFA regulations.

 Since I costume for pleasure, not perfection, I’m not one to bother too much with such things, but comments about it do still strike a nerve. There are certain eras I’ve been very hesitant to wander into because there are so many scholars and reenactors in the period that anything short of perfection will bring a vicious hailstorm of unwanted commentary down on your head.  I do my research and I do my best, which is all I need, but whether that meets other people’s needs is out of my control. I’ve struggled with it for years (indeed, it’s what inspired me to start this blog in the first place). Worrying about whether my costume is “acceptable” interrupts many a project halfway through. I question my trim choices, my pattern choices, my life choices…

But at the root of all this isn’t a lack of funding, skill, or approval. It’s myself. I am a chronic worrywart, people-pleaser, and penny pincher. And it’s strange, but while all of those things seem to limit me, they are also what drives me forward. Sometimes you’ve gotta turn that frustration, anger, and fear into butt-whooping motivation!


Some people find sewing relaxing, therapeutic, and simple. However, maybe you like wearing costumes, but don’t really care for the sewing. That’s okay. Sewing isn’t sunshine and roses all the time. It can be boring and maddening. I’ve been a reluctant seamstress on many projects just because I’ve gotten flat-out tired of ripping out seams or having to re-cut a pattern piece after the cat/beast decided it tasted delicious.

If you sit around waiting for perfection to fall in your lap, 99% of the time, you will be sorely disappointed. You’ve got to rumple that perfect fabric, slice it, dice it, and stitch it back up again the best way you know how, historically/technically sound or not. If rage-sewing is what gets you through, do it! Safety pin what doesn’t work later.

K-Stew’s got you covered!

To activate my Super Stubborn Sewing Powers, I motivate myself by identifying my catch points throughout a project–the places where all motivation sputters and disappears and sewing ceases to be fun– and use them to break my project up into stages.

Catch point number one is cutting into that precious fabric. I make sure that I do all my pattern cutting at once. No going back!
Next, I sew the skirt to get it out of the way (unless I’m making a one-piece dress. Then I’m kinda stuck doing it last).
I actually really enjoy sewing bodices, but I hate sleeves. After putting together the bodice, I might take a week or two to get the sleeves the way I want. In my opinion, sleeves can make or break an outfit, so I feel justified taking my time.

I’m sure you’ll find similar catch points in your sewing. If you can identify them and work around them, you’ll find the process goes much quicker. Everybody has sticking points, including Mrs./Mr. Perfect. Even if you’re not a naturally competitive person, self-depreciation can be a huge hurdle to pushing a project forward. If you start hearing the nagging voice of insecurity or ridicule invading your head, channel it! Oh, so I think I can’t sew stretch jersey? SUCK IT STRETCH JERSEY! YOU JUST BEEN SEWN!
Critics and critiques are great motivation, even if they were rude and unwanted. I don’t have the will power to simply brush off such jabs. They sting! Don’t be afraid to be capricious in response. If you encounter an obstacle that can’t be plowed through, find another way around, but boop it on the head first to establish dominance:

If none of that works, well, you can always write a blog post about it later…



Find of the Month: The Story of a Turn of the Century Woman’s Life in Bodices

July 2014

I actually found this month’s “FOTM” way back in May, but I just now got around to photographing them. I found this set of three Victorian and Edwardian bodices for sale on eBay, and at $16 for the lot, how could anyone (even on a tight budget like mine) resist?


The woman I bought them from didn’t know much about them except that she got them as a lot together from an estate in northwestern Pennsylvania. The trio span the decades from the 1880s to about 1910.

The oldest bodice of the lot is the small brown one on the left. When I say small, I do mean small: 32 bust, 22 inch waist, and teeny 14 inch shoulders! It’s a young misses’ bodice, however, so the numbers are quite average for a teenage girl in the era. It was likely made for/by the young lady around 1886 or so:


Young Misses’ Bodice, circa 1886

I can’t be certain of its exact age, but in 1886, “fluffy” pleated fronts like this came into fashion. You can see a similar bodice treatments in this fashion plate from the same year:

Fashion Plate, circa 1886


The bodice is fairly simple in design. The main body is made of fine wool with a central panel of dotted silk. There is braided trim and little trailing branches of embroidery up the sides (commonly seen on crazy quilts of the era, so perhaps the wearer enjoyed quilting as well). It is missing its collar and two buttons and has many little moth holes, but is otherwise in lovely condition.

The other two bodices/blouses are post-1900. The brightest of the bunch is the eye-catching purple silk stripe blouse (It’s boned inside, so it’s technically a bodice, but the look is that of a blouse):


Bodice, circa 1901

The colors, styling, and especially the sleeve decoration all point to a date right around 1901. The pouter pigeon front (sort of hidden by my mannequin’s lack of bust) and the bottom-heavy “bishop” sleeves can also be seen in these period fashion plates:

Fashion plate, September 1900

Fashion plate, circa 1901
Yay! Matching purple stripes!

Once again we have lovely dotted silk, this time in lavender and violet with cream stripes. In this case, the seamstress let the fabric do all the talking, cutting it diagonally for the front pieces and leaving it mostly untrimmed. It is missing its collar and most of one cuff, but the other cuff is still intact:


The final bodice in this lot is a somber black shirtwaist made of very thin, fragile silk:


Shirtwaist, circa 1908-10

It dates to about 1909, though blouses of this type had been in production for about 20 years between 1895 and 1915. The clues to dating this one are the collar, wide shoulders, and relatively plain, straight sleeves, much like these:

Wool Shirtwaists Ad, circa 1908

This particular blouse was made at home, not at a factory. In fact, it looks very similar to this shirtwaist pattern from Past Patterns:

The pattern is based off of a Butterick pattern from 1909. It has similar sleeves, pleating, and stitching. However, the front pleats on my shirtwaist are separate instead of overlapping, so I’s probably not made from the same pattern, but there were many other patterns available in magazines and mail-order catalogs that a home seamstress could buy, so the pattern this shirtwaist was made from may be out there somewhere still, waiting in a shoebox to be discovered!

Though it may seem rather dull in comparison to its companions, the black shirtwaist does have one standout accent– a fabulous beaded collar:


This thing weighs more than the rest of the blouse!

The collar is older than the blouse by at least 20 years and is slightly too large to fit properly, indicating that it was probably recycled from an older dress. It brings to mind mourning clothes from the previous century. Though mourning clothes were still around in the Edwardian era, it wasn’t nearly as common as it had been during Victoria’s reign. As you can see in the wool shirtwaist advertisement above, black was a common, fashionable color in its own right. Not every black dress, shirtwaist, or skirt was for mourning purposes! Black has frequently fluctuated in and out of style of its own accord. Still, the measurements of this shirtwaist (38 bust, 30 inch waist) indicate that it was probably worn by a mature woman. She may have carried the customs of her youth in the 19th century with her into the 20th century.

Discovering a trio of bodices together from a single estate with such a clear timeline makes me wonder if they all belonged to a single woman over the course of a lifetime. The way all three are styled reveal a love of simple, unfussy design and, who could forget, the love of polka dot silk! If she were 15 in 1886, she would have been wearing the bright purple blouse right around age 30 and the darker blouse around age 38-40. If only I had an 1890s bodice to complete the decade by decade look at turn of the century clothing! It might just be coincidence that all three were found together, but I treasure the possibility that they belonged to a single woman, mapping her life in fabric and thread as she sewed her way through the changing fashions of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Previous Finds of the Month:


January 2014

December 2013

Mad Hatting from the Museum of London

Historical Dresses on their way to the Derby

I was browsing the Museum of London collections looking for some interesting new references. I usually don’t use their website because the search functions are a little wonky and unrefined, but they have lots of unique items, especially from the 18th century and earlier, including the amazing Cheapside Horde. As I was browsing for dresses, I noticed something interesting about their displays. Many of their historical dresses are displayed with modern, avant garde hats!

Dress, circa 1743-50

Ensemble, circa 1841-45

Pelisse, circa 1823

It was quite a surprise to discover page after page of historical frocks with wild hats! Undoubtedly it was done as an artistic statement, perhaps to highlight how fashion-forward these garments were back in their era. Some of the hats and hairdos are actually quite impressive and compliment the outfit well despite their obvious modernity:

This is a close up of the hat and hair from the blue pelisse above. It’s actually quite pretty, even though it makes the outfit look much more Edwardian than Regency, especially from this angle.

Gown Ensemble, circa 1762-67
The classic giant ship wig updated for the modern siren!

Some of the hat pairings are better than others. Some can be a bit, well….overbearing:

Dress, circa 1801-10

Dress, 1820-24
“This is the last straw! I am never drinking at the Gaslamp Pub again!”

They must have been part of a specifically tailored exhibit, but I do not know which*. The juxtaposition brings up conflicting emotions: on the one hand, some of them look pretty nice and definitely draw your attention, stylistically setting them apart from other historical costume exhibits. I’d leap at the chance to wear a few of them with a nice 1950s frock to a day at the races! That said, they aren’t representative of the eras at all and can be terribly distracting–almost to the point of being maddening– giving little impression about how our ancestors really looked.

Gown, circa 1752-75

While I love mixing modern trends with historical elements (like in steampunk, gothic, and neo-rococo), when I go to a museum page, I’m looking for true historical depictions, not  imaginative artistic renderings. You can easily find creative re-imaginings of history in movies, art, cosplay, and magazines.
The hats are visually interesting and as part of a modern costume for a Halloween ball, they would be really fun! However, as representative images of a historical garment, they fall short, ultimately drawing attention away from the garment. In some instances, half the photos included with each file are actually just pictures of the mannequin styling rather than of the garment itself! Yes, the mannequins look really neat, but in this case, they tell us nothing more about the garment or era, which should be the main focus of a museum archive page. I’d much rather have extra pictures of stitch-work, decorative details, maybe even a rare glimpse of the interior construction.
All that being said, the Museum of London’s online collections are well worth a look. Most of these dresses, even with the many hat-centric pictures, have lots of clear photos from a variety of angles available on their pages. If you love  the bits and pieces from everyday English life throughout the ages, the online archives is an expansive buffet of delicious extant artifacts!

* (edit: the exhibit centers on the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The hats were designed for the exhibit by couture British milliner Philip Treacy)