From Bed to Bodice: What to Look for When Using Sheets for Fabric

Goin’ Bat-Sheet Crazy!
I use second-hand sheets all the time for my costumes. They are perfect for mockups, linings, or even fashion fabric! Sheets are cheap and plentiful at second-hand shops, outlet stores, and garage sales. They are a great source of fabric for folks who live far from craft shops, need a costume to be inexpensive, or are just learning to sew. Ruining a $4 sheet is much less painful than ruining a $4-a-yard fabric!
Over the years, I have developed a few guidelines to help me wade through bins of sheets to choose the best ones for the task at hand.


General Sheet-Shopping Guidelines

  • Pick Queen or King size sheets.
  • 100% cotton is great for a more accurate costume.
  • You can never have too many white and solid colored sheets.
  • Test sheets like you would test any fabric at the store for drape, weight, and weave.
  • Buy a variety!
  • Wash all sheets before sewing with them, especially if they are purchased used.


Choosing Sheets for Mockups


Mockup sheets are very basic: nearly any sheet will do! However, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

Size: A King sized sheet has more yardage than a Twin or Full, meaning you can get more pattern pieces/larger pieces out of it. If you are testing a pattern with large pieces, a larger sheet will come in handy. Twin sheets, however, are perfect for mocking up smaller pieces, like bodices.

Fabric content: Since a mockup is usually just used to see the way a pattern fits together, the content of the sheet’s fabric isn’t usually an issue. However, keep in mind that different types of fabrics have different amounts of stretch and draping, so it is wise to consider what type of fabric you will be using in the final garment and choose a sheet with similar properties. A polyester fabric, for example, may have less give than a cotton one, for instance. This will affect how the garment fits later, so a sheet mockup may fit perfectly, but the final garment might be too tight if the final fabrics have a tighter weave. (PRO TIP: If your final garment is made of woven fabric, don’t use a jersey knit sheet for you mockup!)

Pattern: A mockup will likely be messy and won’t end up in the final garment (unless you choose to use your mockup as a lining or finish it, then see below), so the pattern and color do not matter that much. Bright purple with lime green flowers? Pink elephants? Sexy animal print? DO IT!

Choosing Sheets for Linings


Sheets can be good linings. Since the lining goes into the final garment, however, it pays to be more judicious.

Fabric Content: Consider what you want your lining to do for your garment. Poly-cotton blends are readily available in a wide variety of textures and colors and are very easy to wash, but they can pill something fierce, become ragged-looking, and scratchy. 100% cotton is breathable, easy to sew and launder, and an excellent all-purpose lining fabric, but there are a few exceptions. For example, does the lining need to be smooth to glide over another garment, like for a coat? Cotton and cotton-blend sheets will cling to other cottons, velvets, and many other soft fabrics, so look for sheets that are slinky, silky, and slippery instead. Many will be polyester, so bear in mind that they might trap heat– a boon for a coat, but a possible curse in the summer!

Weight: Weight can mean two things– the thickness of the fabric and the actual physical weight of the fabric itself– and they aren’t necessarily related! A flannel sheet might be thick, but it may be lighter in physical weight than a densely-woven cotton sheet. I have made the mistake of choosing a thin cotton sheet that turned out to be much too heavy en masse, overwhelming the the light, silky fashion fabric, dragging the whole silhouette down with it. Sheets can be very heavy, so be prepared! Test the weight and drape of a sheet like you would test any fabric at the store!

Size: Check your pattern for the recommended amount of lining yardage to get an idea of what size sheet and how many you will need for your project. This is a handy chart of yardage equivalencies for all sizes of sheets to help you calculate:

Chart by Sew Much Ado

Color/Pattern: Linings and fashion fabrics work together. If there is a chance the lining may show, trying to match or compliment your fashion fabric is a must! If the fashion fabric is sheer or loosely woven, the lining may show trough it, especially in certain lighting. Choose a sheet of a similar shade for the lining or one near your flesh tone so the color of the fashion fabric is not affected, though you can get some interesting color effects if you choose alternate linings. For example, a white fashion fabric may look slightly warmer with an orange cotton lining or a loosely woven black fabric can be laid over a bright magenta lining to produce a changeable silk effect. You aren’t limited to plain colored sheets, either! Printed sheets can make excellent period-correct linings. Some Victorian bodices and skirts were lined with patterned cottons. If the lining won’t be seen at all, color or pattern may not even matter! Made a mock-up in that crazy animal print and want to use it as a lining for your Victorian bodice? DO IT!

It’ll be our little secret…

Choosing Sheets for Fashion Fabric


This 1710s outfit is made from a sateen sheet, curtains, and a hacked-off pair of men’s slacks.

While cheap sheets aren’t as luxurious as duchess silk satin, they can make excellent fashion fabrics, especially for 19th and 20th century day dresses. They are also fabulous for undergarments, like petticoats and drawers. Many of the guidelines for choosing a good lining sheet also apply to choosing on for fashion purposes, but with a few more specifics:

Size: Size matters! If you are wanting one fabric for your whole dress, you may have to get creative with your pattern piece placement to maximize your fabric. King or even California King are ideal. For most dresses, a Queen sheet is the absolute minimum size I will buy. I was able to squeeze a Size 12 Regency dress out of a Twin sheet and an XL 18th century men’s coat out out of a Queen sheet, but both cases required some pretty creative pattern piece placement! Using a sheet set (flat sheet, fitted sheet, and pillowcases) are ideal for dresses that need more than 5-6 yards of fabric.

Color/Pattern: Sheets had a bad reputation in the costuming world because the print can make or break a costume, but now that many of us have access to the internet, it’s easier than ever to study original garments and fabrics. The best way to tell if a particular sheet will work? RESEARCH! Solid colored sheets are the simplest choice, since solid colors have always been in style. Stripes and plaids (woven or printed) are also great options if you find them! Just keep in mind that stripes and plaids are directional and will take extra fabric to pattern match (if that’s your thing). Sheets with printed patterns can make amazing dresses if you are discerning.  It can be a fine line between Laura Ingalls and Laura Ashley (though sometimes it’s the other way around…)! Browse museum collections, like the V&A, to see examples of original fabrics.

Texture/Shine: Basic cotton sheets are plainly woven and matte. They are great for day dresses! My striped Regency dress is made of a plainly woven polyester sheet with printed stripes:
dressSateen sheets are also fairly easy to find and, thanks to their weave, they have a warm luster to them that can be dressed up a little more than a plain woven sheet. They are also very soft and somewhat heavy. I admit I hoard sateen sheets! I’ve made costumes from sateen sheets in 3 different centuries: Chris’s 1710s coat, another 1810s day dress, Amelia’s 1910s dress!
Regency Dress made of a Cotton Sateen Sheet

Edge Finish: This a small thing, but it really does make a huge difference! Sheets have one edge that is deeply hemmed, creating the top of the sheet, and a narrower hem at the bottom (where the tag is usually attached).  The sides of sheets can be finished in two ways: hemmed or plain selvedge. I frequently cheat and use the wide finished edge of the sheet for the bottom hem or sleeve openings of a dress (like on the blue regency dress above) to save time, but in order to use every inch of fabric, you must unpick or cut the hems which takes a lot of time! If you choose a sheet that has plain selvedge edges instead of hemmed, you save a lot of time. Plus, the selvedge edges don’t fray, so if you use it as your seam allowance, it will be hidden inside your garment and won’t need any finishing to keep it from fraying: WIN-WIN!

sheet types

Left: Sheet with plain selvedge sides
Right: Sheet with hemmed sides


Dang! “Seams” like buying sheets is a real chore, huh? Well, when I write it all out like this, it certainly makes it sound tedious, but like anything, the more you practice, the faster it goes. Soon you’ll be judging all your sheets by how good they’d look as a 1770s petticoat or 1930s skirt. Heck, just the other day I found myself eyeballing my actual-factual bed sheets, noting that I should probably get some new ones because I wouldn’t even save them to sew something with! That’s how you know it’s time for new sheets….and that you’ve got too many sheets at the same time!


Pinterest Alert: Have You Pinned These? Double Check Your Sources!

There’s a Tear in the Fabric of Time!

This is an FYI for all my fellow Renaissance researchers, costumers, and most importantly, Pinterest pinners!


“EUROPE’S BRIDE Margaretha von Valois” from The Lost Gallery on Flickr

There is a series of portraits making the Pinterest rounds labelled “Marguerite de Valois” or “Margaretha von Valois, 1572” that, though they may bear a resemblance to other portraits of Margaret of Valois, are actually modern Photoshop artworks by The Lost Gallery and others. They are NOT genuine 16th century portraits, but you may recognize bits and pieces of them taken from other real, period portraits that make them very convincing at first glance. For example, in many of the modern images, the pose and dress are from the iconic “Portrait of a Young Lady Aged 21, Possibly Helena von Snakenborg:”

The portrait above is a genuine portrait from the 16th century.


This is another clever Photoshop piece entitled “DEGAGEZ! Marguerite de Valois” from the Lost Gallery. You can see that the bodice was taken directly from the previous portrait.

A seasoned Photoshop artist or research veteran who’s stared at hundred if not thousands of period portraits will notice telltale flaws after a moment of looking. Yet, for the general layperson or even an avid history lover, some of these “paintings” are well done enough to sneak their way onto historical portrait Pinterest boards and Facebook posts. These are just two variations of the portrait; there are many others!
They are actually quite creative, but they are not good for use as historical sources. Indeed, they are quite fun as an exercise in historical plausibility. They are clearly convincing enough even with some obvious incongruities, and prove that, if you are not looking for a strict reenactment outfit and directly copying a particular portrait isn’t your cup of tea, you could take the sleeves off of one dress, the hat off another, and put it all together with still another bodice and produce a very rich, pleasing outfit (kind of like Steampunk taking bits of different Victorian styles and mashing it up with modern or all the Elizabethan-fantasy mash-ups worn to renaissance faires. Tudorgoth/Ruffpunk, anyone?).
Still, always double-check your sources for things you find on the internet, especially Facebook and Pinterest where false information can spread more quickly than the truth!

These modern Photoshop portraits aren’t the only pin masquerading as authentic.

Another mis-pin is this stunning art piece by Rozanne Hawksley, which is often mislabeled and subsequently re-pinned as one of Queen Elizabeth I’s gloves:

Et ne non inducas (And lead us not) by Rozanne Hawksley, created 1987 – 1989

In reality, it’s a beautiful piece of modern art made to imitate gloves of the Elizabethan era with a touch of dark imagery in the form of memento mori symbolism. The artist certainly succeeded in creating the look and feel of a true antique masterpiece!
Artwork seems to be a common source of misidentification, usually because people re-pin pictures without checking the source or giving an artist credit. Another art piece that often appears on Renaissance-era boards is this modern chopine by Susan Taber Avila:

“Pink Chopine” by Susan Taber Avila, circa 2006

To a researcher’s eye, it’s obviously a modern re-imagining of a 16th century Venetian chopine, but since most of the pins of this image do not link back to the artist’s website or even the original image url, the source is completely missing from most pins. Somewhere along the way, this art piece was tagged 1600s 1700s chopine (likely noting the style influence of the piece). After that, people searched for 1600s chopine, this image popped up, and it was repinned without a second thought. Pinterest’s page is a screen full of many small photos surrounded by many other similar photos, making it very easy to simply re-pin something and move on without expanding the file or double-checking the source. In addition, the Pinterest search function only scans keywords in the description and tags, not the source material for the image, so even if you are interested in this artwork as a fiber arts piece, you will have a tough time finding the artist! Clicking on an image never guarantees that you will be taken to the primary source of the image. Pictures can be pinned from anywhere on the web and often have been filtered through two or three websites prior to being added to Pinterest’s archives. It can be a wild goose chase to track the original information down!

Movie costumes are another source of confusion, including this spectacular Rengecy dress that has been making the rounds as the real deal, but is actually a costume from the film “Immortal Beloved,” a period drama with many beautiful costumes:

“Immortal Beloved” costume design by Maurizio Millenotti, circa 1994

Immortal-Beloved-25466_3The dress being worn by Valeria Golino as Giulietta Guicciardi during the film.

Fashion works in cycles: what’s old eventually becomes new again! In the case of this dress by George Halley, the opposite happened. I don’t know who first found this pinned as a Regency dress, but it took off. Though it has a high waist and square neck like a classic Regency gown, is actually from 1967!

George Halley Evening dress (nylon, silk, glass, metallic thread, plastic), circa 1967

There are lots of 1960s dresses that are great a mimicking a Regency silhouette (there are also 1960s gowns that look like they are from 1906 and even some gowns from 1906 that look like they came from 1806, so always check the source and your garments carefully). Once again, spreading misinformation is bad, but there is some good to be had out of it. If you happen to have a 1960s dress that happens to look like a Regency dress, voila! Instant costume!



Something Other Than White: Colorful Regency Fashions 1800-1820

Don’t be Drab. Be Fab!

While coloring on a museum gown would be a shame, coloring your costumes isn’t.

I love a pretty white Regency gown, but when everyone else is wearing a white gown, how can you stand out in the crowd? A brightly-colored Spencer jacket? A brilliant paisley shawl? A pair of painted shoes? A sunflower glued to your knee?

There is an easier, bolder way: make your regency gown itself out of a colored fabric! Compared with your average regency gown, a colored gown is a wild, risky choice, but it’s a historically accurate risk well worth exploring.
Appliques and embroidery are a good starting point on the journey into colored regency gowns. They add subtler touches of color to an otherwise white gown. Ball gowns of the era came in many different shades, especially paired with gorgeous metallic embroidery. Day dresses came in a variety of natural colors like browns, tawny yellows, and greens. Towards 1810, prints began to re-gain ground and by the end of the 1820s, they were in full swing!

Colorful Regency Gowns

American Cotton Dress, circa 1804-14
This gown is like one of those “Magic Eye” pictures. It makes me a little dizzy! But I love it.

Italian Silk Dress (back), circa 1805-10

French Silk Evening Dress, circa 1805-10

Italian Polychrome Embroidered Dress, circa 1807-10
(Colorful floral embroidery like this has been a hallmark of Italian fashion since the 18th century.)

French Cotton Dress, circa 1807-12

European Silk Dress, circa 1815

American Silk Dress, circa 1815-1820

British Silk Dress, circa 1818

American Silk Dress, circa 1818

Ball Gown, circa 1820

American Silk Ball Gown, circa 1820
(I fondly call this the “My Fair Gentlewoman” gown because it’s so frothy and fussy! The lavender is gorgeous)

If you love Regency and color, you have so many options. Simple, light cottons in muted colors make fabulous day dresses and are a staple in most fabric stores, so they are easy to find. For ball gowns, nothing beats a gorgeous Indian silk sari with a wide border of gold or polychrome designs! If you want to get really fancy, take a cue from the brightly-dyed military uniforms of the day: bold navies, reds, and golds make excellent colors for a warm wool pelisse. With the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, (and the following years until 1815) wearing a colorful regency gown will certainly add a festive touch to reenactments and memorial events! I’m thinking of a yellow or even a striped gown, myself…

As with all of my articles, the pictures and lighter brown text are all links to pages with more info about that item, technique, person, or event, so please click on them to learn more!

You can also visit these excellent websites for more info on Regency costuming:

Fabrics for Danceable Regency Ball Gowns by Jennifer Rosbrugh at Historical Sewing

Colorful Regency Gowns at Maggie’s Costume Wardrobe

Fashions for America’s Forgotten War

The War of 1812

I was wafting around the house in my newly thrifted Edwardian outfit when my father (who normally takes no interest whatsoever in my costuming endeavors) looked up from his book and asked, “Are you doing something special for the War of 1812?”

I had been so excited for all the Civil War and Titanic events that the Bicentennial for the War of 1812 had completely slipped my mind! It seems that much of the country has forgotten about it as well, jumping straight from Revolution into Civil War, but what about the 50 years in between? That’s a huge gap of time to be glossing over, especially considering that the War of 1812 was a continuation of the war for an independent American nation.

Three important facts about the War of 1812:

1. Americans were still fighting the British for rights and territory. It was hailed as the “Second war for Independence.”

2. It took place from the very north in Canada all the way south to New Orleans and lasted until 1815. This is the war in which the British burned Washington, destroying the newly built White House and Capitol.

3. Every time you sing the National Anthem of the United States, The Star Spangled Banner, you are singing about the Battle of Fort McHenry which happened in September of 1814.

All of these things transformed the United States from a bunch of rebellious former territories glommed together to a Nation. Why have we forgotten all of this? Maybe it’s because the War of 1812 isn’t as clear-cut as the Revolution or the Civil War. Both the US and Canada claimed victory and Britain was too preoccupied with the looming shadow of Napoleon.

The Canadians, in fact, are quite excited about the whole affair and have been having reenactments and events all year (insert enormous amounts of jealousy here)! During the War of 1812, the US fought against British bullying, but we also invaded Canada in an attempt to take valuable land. Canada fought the land grab attempt and pushed the invading American forces back.
In addition to multiple battle-lines and boundary disputes, the war was plagued also by poor communication, muddling the reputation of soldiers and politicians. The Battle of New Orleans, for example, happened after the US and Britain had made a peace agreement. The War of 1812 was generally a very riotous ride!

Maybe the war wasn’t as crazy and alligator-filled as Jimmy Driftwood and Johnny Horton make it sound, but 1812 and the years that followed are really interesting. Since I am top-heavy, finding a Regency dress that flatters me is somewhat of a challenge. I’ve never really costumed this era except for the occasional “Jane Austen-esque” tea party dress. However, I want something a little more hardy than a ballgown. Here are a few 1810-1815 outfits that I’ve pulled up for possible inspirations:

I love the military inspirations on this pelisse/redingote. It’s perfect for remembering the war. The large fur muff and hat are beyond fabulous, but it’d be a little hot in the fall.

I really love the white gown with the little pink ruffles around the bottom. Towards the end of the Regency era, gowns when from being relatively simple to having more decoration around the hems. These are English dresses, too, so would they be considered traitorous? : )

Something other than white! This is a beautiful silk dress from about 1810 (according to the Met), but it has a lot of characteristics of later 1814-15 fashions. The slate-blue is gorgeous as is the ribboned trim around the sheer puffs. Plus, it’s American made, meaning it actually existed on US soil as the battles raged, which is amazing.

A fashionable seaside walking dress with the most adorable ruffled pantaloons I have ever seen! She looks quite comfy in it as well. Even if I don’t live by the sea, I could certainly wear this to the lakeshore. Also: no defining empire waistband.

An English fashion on the left and a French fashion to the right. It’s nice to see that even though the two countries were fighting, they could still peaceably share fashions. I am nowhere near good enough with a needle and thread to dream of sewing anything this nice just yet, but I love the scalloped hem and slashed puff sleeves. These are later in the era, toward the tail end of the war, but I really adore the colors and fit! Also, look at their tiny shoes peeking out from under their skirts.

It’s a little late for the actual bicentennial event (June 1st); however, there is still plenty of time to pull together an outfit, if not to wear to an event, at least to accompany my father out shooting with one of his treasured flintlock rifles in remembrance of the forgotten War of 1812!

Antique Measurements: That waist is how big?!

What are your numbers?

Just in case you’re curious: these are my measurements. This set of measurements is 100% natural, sans support garments. Any corsets, bras, or girdles I don will alter these measurements and since I’m not covering any particular time period at the moment, a sans-support example seems the most….fitting!

As a woman, I am infinitely concerned with my size, no matter how much pro-self-image or “love yourself as you are” talk I hear (and often spout). My sister gets quite annoyed at times because I am apt to poke her taut, shapely waist and try to guess its circumference. It’s not that I am unhappy with my measurements, I’m just always curious about what size things actually are. It’s hard to tell from a movie or picture how large or small something really is. This problem is painfully obvious when it comes to movie stars. Unlike a stage play, an onscreen movie with its many angles and shots makes judging the size of actors impossible. I visited an exhibition of famous movie costumes a few years ago and was utterly dumbfounded at how miniscule Drew Barrymore’s Ever After fairy gown was! She’s 5′ 4″, and when she made that film her waist was barely 24 inches around!

Measurements and numbers are vital to fitting costumes. One of the biggest challenges is trying to find measurements on original pieces, especially if they are in a museum and I am unable to see, touch, or wind my tape measure around them as I would like. Most museum collections– especially those I access online– rarely provide such juicy info as the waist circumference of a dress or the width of those ridiculously fab panniers. Still, it seems that the waist measurement of a gown is what everyone is most interested in, for good reason.

The “feminine” quality of a shape is largely determined by the how much the divot in the middle curves inward and where. Every body shape has had its heyday at some point in history. Fashions fluctuate and devices and “enhancers” are employed to achieve many of these shapes. The most famous shaper, the corset, has been in use for almost 500 years! But just how much the size of a fashionable waistline has changed through the years is often difficult to discern.  What exactly are “historical sizes?”

They didn’t use a number system like we do–and even if they did, it would be very different from today’s– because everything was tailor-made until the late 19th century. Patterns and tailors all used an individual’s measurements as the basis for their designs. When you look at that impossibly proportioned Edwardian gown, don’t you wonder how tiny that waistband actually is? I know I do! Happily, I discovered that the Philadelphia Museum of Art graciously measures almost all the historical gowns in their collections.

Here are a few gowns through the ages from the PMA archives, listed with their measurements:

Robe à la Française, circa 1755-1760

Waist: 23 1/2 inches
Center Back Length: 63 inches


Robe à l’Anglaise, circa 1785-1793

Waist: 22 inches
Center back length: 61 inches


Dress, circa 1785-1795

Waist: 27.5 inches
Center Back Length: 60 inches


Belted Dress, circa 1823

Waist: 26.5 inches
Center Back Length: 48.5 inches


Day Dress, circa 1855

Waist: 22 inches
Center Back Length: 54 inches


Day Dress, circa 1885

Waist: 24 inches


Dressing or Tea Gown, circa 1906

Waist: 24 inches


French Gown, circa 1905

Waist: 21 inches
Center Front Length: 55  inches


M. A. Connelly Dress, circa 1905

Waist: 20.5 inches
Skirt Center Front Length: 39 3/8 inches


Dinner Dress, circa 1910

Waist: 26 inches
Center Front Length: 56 inches
Center Back Length: 57.5 inches


Overblouse and Dress, circa 1922

Dropped Waist (hips): 36 inches
Center Front Length: 38 inches

These gowns don’t necessarily portray the “average” size for their eras, but they are great existing examples of sizing from days gone by.

Now before you start worrying about how un-Victorian your shape is, remember those corsets! Everyone wore them. EVERYONE. Even children. Ladies since the 18th century have trained their bodies from an early age to match these measurements, reshaping their rib cages and re-arranging their internal organs to achieve the perfect body. If you are a casual costumer, no one expects you to start wearing a 22 inch corset to bed every night! Another factor in size is genetics and nutrition. The human body has changed over the ages as genetic traits become more varied and some genes, like those for height, are allowed to reach their full potential.
Another great thing about knowing measurements? It reveals just how crucial pattern, fit, and style are to creating shape. Two gowns can have identical measurements, yet the decoration and color choices radically alter the silhouette! An extra inch on a bustle or a slightly lower neckline may make the difference between looking stellar and looking frumpy! For instance, I know to avoid lots of frills and ruffles on my bodices because I’m a tad top heavy (Edwardian pouter pigeon bodices are either a curse or blessing, I haven’t quite decided yet). However, costuming for the 1830s is all about those crazy ruffles and poofs and generally being enormously wide on top, so my natural fullness would just blend right in!

Oh no, dear! My sleeves are 100% natural, I assure you!