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.

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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.

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Choosing Sheets for Mockups

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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

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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

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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!
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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

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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!

An Appetite for Fashion Decadence: A Brief History of Stomachers

Just Let me Pin on My Flat, Frilly, Fancy Abs…

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Stomacher and matching Gown, mid 18th century

Stomachers were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe beginning with a rise of pairs of bodies and stays (the ancestors of the corset). There is evidence that stomachers have been in use since the 16th century, but stomachers became a fashion staple between 1590 during the brief reign of the French wheel farthingale and the trend continued well into the 18th century. Bodices were made with open fronts and the stomacher was used to cover the stays and chemise behind the opening. The stomacher would be pinned to the lady’s stays or to the inside of the bodice to hold it in place. Some stomachers also have ties and silk tabs to help keep the stomacher in place. While many stomachers were made to blend seamlessly with a dress, other stomachers were made to compliment the dress with a contrasting patterns or color. Early stomachers were decorated with blackwork, polychrome silk embroidery, redwork, metal lace, and scads of jewels if you were rich enough to afford them.

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“Portrait of a Woman” by Giovanni Cariani, early 16th century

“Anne of Denmark” by Isaac Oliver, circa 1595
The complex fashions of the nobility in the late 16th century involved a lot of work on the part of a lady and her maids. Here, Anne shows of her status with a delicate linen collar (made of linen so fine it could be passed through the eye of a large darning needle), an embroidered velvet bodice, and peeking out from behind her gigantic diamond pendant, a bejeweled blackwork stomacher. Wealthy ladies would contract out such embroidery work to a skilled embroiderer or tailor, though some still took pleasure in creating their own decorations.

“Portrait of a Lady, probably Elizabeth Southwell née Howard,” circa 1600

“Portrait of Lucy Hutchinson” by John Souch of Chester, circa 1643

Bodice, circa 1630-40
This punched-silk bodice was made to be worn with a long stomacher. 17th century stomachers were longer than 18th century stomachers and were often done in contrasting rather than matching designs.

Polychrome Stomacher, circa 1600-1615
You can’t tell from this black and white photo, but this wide stomacher is actually embroidered with bright, colorful silks. It would have covered the entire front of a lady’s stays and is basically half of a bodice. The curved corners at the top are for armhole allowance. It would have allowed plenty of flexibility for different bodice styles and sizes.

Having an open-front bodice was quite practical. It gave the lady multiple options for outfits by mixing the open bodice with different stomachers and petticoats. It also allowed for changing body shapes, like weight gain or loss and pregnancy. All a lady had to do was change the width of her stomacher to accommodate her changing body. Purchasing or making a fresh stomacher was much easier and less expensive than replacing a whole gown.

Because 17th and 18th century stays were cone-shaped with smoothed fronts, stomachers are usually triangular in shape as well. In the early 18th century, heavily embroidered stomachers blooming with polychrome flowers came into fashion, as did faux lacing and frilly bows.

Stomacher with Applied Faux Lacing, circa 1720

Stomacher, early to mid 18th century

Sacque Gown with Embroidered Stomacher, circa 1735-40

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Caraco Jacket with Stomacher and Embroidered Petticoat, circa 1750/altered 1780

Since they were worn as a piece of outer clothing, stomachers were often highly decorated with embroidery, spangles/sequins, metallic braid, bows, ribbons, and more! A popular decoration for upper class courtesans was a large, long brooch or jewel that covered the whole front of her stomacher or over a closed-front gown to mimic the look of an ornate stomacher.  These bodice jewels were also called “stomachers,” so it can get a little confusing.

Stomacher Jewel, circa 1750

 These huge, long brooches stayed popular throughout the centuries, and Queen Mary, consort of King George V (1910-1936), had quite a collection of stomacher jewels she wore over her Edwardian dresses.

Anyway, back to cloth stomachers!

The open-robe gowns of the 18th century, just like their 17th century forebears, required a stomacher to close them. Dresses from 1700 to the 1730s often had stomachers that did not directly match the fabric of the dress, but rather complimentary stomachers made to match a variety of colors were popular. By the mid-18th century, stomachers began to match the dresses and jackets more directly, using the same fabrics and trims as decoration. Many court dresses had stomachers that were heavily boned and layered with decorations.

“Portrait of a Noblewoman” by Donat Nonotte, circa 1760

“Portrait of a Lady” by a student of Alexander Roslin, circa 1760

 “Maria Josefa de Lorena, Archduchess of Austria” by Anton Raphael Mengs
Anton Raphael Mengs is one of the premier painters of the 18th century. His soft, pale ladies swathed in rich, sculptural dresses. He perfectly captures texture and light. His images have inspired many modern artists in the Neo-Rococo movement.
In this particular portrait, a resplendent Maria Josefa de Lorena is dressed in a gown of royal blue velvet decorated with gilded ribbon and lace. You can catch a glimpse of the pannier’s form under her gown. Her stomacher is heavily boned to achieve a perfectly smooth conical shape.

 “Maria Carolina of Austria, Queen of Naples” by Anton Rafael Mengs, circa 1768
On court gowns, a richly decorated stomacher contrasted beautifully with the wide, smooth walls of fabric draped over a noblewoman’s panniers.

Stomachers could be boned for more support or left unboned for a more rounded silhouette. Adding a lace ruffle to the top or a row of faux buttons down the front of the stomacher became popular mid-century. Stomachers could have rounded, pointed, or squared bottoms, depending on what shape was most flattering to the style of the gown and the body shape of the woman wearing it.

“Infanta Maria Luisa de Borbon, gran duquesa de Toscana” by Anton Rafael Mengs, circa 1770
This is portrait the epitome of an 18th century lady. She’s got it all: the huge lace cuffs, the pearl choker, the powdered beehive, the fan, the mitts, the ruffles, the bows! Her luscious gown in ice blue even has a perfectly matched stomacher edged with lace.

Gown with matching Stomacher and Petticoat, circa 1770-79

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Jacket with Matching Stomacher, mid-to-late 18th century

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Closed front gowns and open-front gowns had co-existed together for over a century, but the reign of the stomacher was waning. By the 1790s, the fashionable elite had moved on to chemises a la reine and slim, neo-classical gowns (the Regency silhouette), but some ladies, mostly older generations and peasants,  held on to cone-shaped stays and stomachers even into the earliest years of the 19th century.

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“The Rabbit Seller” by William Henry Pyne, circa 1805
This British peasant woman is selling wild game. While her wealthy clients have adopted the fashionable new Empire silhouette, she is still dressed in the manner of the previous decades. Though her bodice may not necessarily be a stomacher bodice, the style was still present in the peasant class. Her outfit is made of cast-off clothes from the upper classes. There was a huge market for cast-off clothes that had been going on since the 17th century. After wearing a dress a few times, court women would sell their now-passe gowns to lesser nobles who would in turn sell the clothes after more wear, and so on down the line until the clothes passed to the poorest of the poor. It was not uncommon to see a flower merchant or candy seller wearing a velvet skirt, though it would be in quite rough condition after being worn and re-worn for many years.

Check out these resources to learn more about stomachers:

18th Century Stomachers” – A thorough database on larsdatter.com, the best research site for early history!
“Making a Stomacher, Start to Finish”
on Fushia’s 18th Century Dress Project
The Costume Historian
– Information on early 17th and 18th century stomachers
Multiple Pinterest boards here (gowns and examples), here (stomacher jewels), and here (many eras/styles)
The Stomacher Wikipedia Page
Daily Life in Elizabethan England” – Not really a stomacher resource per se, but a really interesting excerpt nonetheless!

UPDATE: This amazing picture from “Before the Automobile” (aka The Artistocat) answer a few questions about how pinning a stomacher together works:

How a stomacher is pinned to a (beautiful!) dress.