One Pattern to Rule them All: Making a “Jane Eyre” 1840s Dress from Simplicity 3723

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

One of the first project goals I ever set for myself way back when I started this blog was to see just how many different eras of dress I could squeeze out of Simplicity 3723.

I made three different ones between 2013 and 2014:

1: Mid-18th Century “Lady’s Maid” Dress
2: Bustle Dress (aka the future Lizzie Borden Costume)
3: Late 1850s-early 1860s “Civil War” Dress

I am a big fan of using something you are familiar/comfortable with as a starting point for creativity. Not everyone likes to dive into a new hobby or project head-first! If you start with something you are familiar with, you can make small tweaks over time, continually refining and changing it, learning along the way. That’s what Simplicity 3723 was for me. You can see the evolution of my sewing skills and styles in just those three dresses. Playing around with this pattern built up my confidence enough for me to branch out into other patterns, testing fit methods, and eventually doing my own (unabashedly reckless) drafting.

Simplicity 3723 is one of the simplest costume patterns that touches on four basic skills: gathering/pleating fabric to fit, attaching a sleeve to an armhole, inserting a zipper, and using darts to make a close fit– plus it’s often insanely cheap! On sale, you can buy a copy for $1-$5 and you can find second hand copies readily. From a historical costuming perspective, it also helps you learn how to wrangle large amounts of fabric in skirts, recognize a few key features of different eras (like collars, stomachers, sleeves), and begin making basic accessories like caps and shawls/fichus.
Though there are four “looks,” there are really only two base dresses: one with a darted bodice (Pilgrim and Prairie) and one with a stomacher/insert bodice (Colonial and Rococo). The more specific “looks” come from little add-ons, like the tall collar for the Prairie vs. the wide white collar for the Pilgrim.

Views A and B both share the same base dress, made from just 5 simple pieces.

Recognizing that, we can take the 2 basic dress types and change up the pieces and accessories to make even more options! Simplicity 3723 makes a great sloper– the sewing term for a basic, fitted pattern that has been personalized to fit your body so you can use it as the base for a variety of styles. These dresses aren’t Historically Accurate. Instead, it is designed to be Historically Inspired and quickly sewn, whether by machine or by hand. However, you can easily tweak the pattern to suit your accuracy, style, or fit preferences.

For example, my pink 18th Century Lady’s Maid dress was only my second costume sewing project– ever. It is far from perfect. I was using whatever vaguely accurate fabrics I could scrounge up. I was still learning the ropes of fitting and historical shapes. But you can see, even with my limited skill and knowledge at the time, I was able to make a presentable 18th century dress. I even sewed the whole thing by hand since I was terrified of sewing by machine. By the time I made my bustle dress version, I knew the construction wasn’t going to be Historically Accurate™, but I had begun to feel confident enough to start exploring with modifications and shapes, like using the polonaise swag pattern from the 18th century dress– View C– as a bustle “overskirt” instead. And for the Civil War dress, I had begun applying some historical techniques, like flatlining, plackets, and adding a hem facing, and I branched into drafting sleeves.

So Simplicity 3723 is a growth-chart of sorts for me. However, I’ve gained weight and moved on to other pattern methods. For 5 years, my (many) copies of Simplicity 3723 had sat mostly unused in my drawer, aside from its perfect one-piece sleeve pattern, which I used for many other dresses.

Before Covid 19 hit, the DFW Costumers Guild had planned on having a Romantic Picnic themed around the 1830s. I have long loved the 1830s! In fact, the fourth dress I had planned to make from Simplicity 3723 back in 2015 was an 1830s version. I just got distracted and never go around to it. However, with Romantic Picnic on the agenda, I decided to revive the idea.

Then the Pandemic hit. I suddenly had tons of free time, but no event or motivation…

However, my mom had also planned on going to the Picnic. It was her first historical dress project. When she asked my opinion on where she should start, I recommended Simplicity 3723, of course! She had sewing experience sewing darts, zippers, and gathering, so I knew that the pattern, while not Historically Accurate would make the process of creating her first Historically Inspired outfit much less stressful. She is much more principled and disciplined at sewing than I am, so she started and finished her dress for the event well in advance, rather than at the midnight-or-later-hour as I am apt to do. And guess what, she knocked it out of the park!

She made View A without the standing collar, which most closely resembles  early-to-mid-19th century styles, specifically the 1840s:

Left: Wool Dress, 1840s, Tasha Tudor Collection via Augusta Auctions
Center: Fashion Plate, April 1846, via The Met Museum
Right: Silk Dress, circa 1844, via Museum at FIT

Sophia Finlay by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, 1843-1848

Together with my sister’s green Butterick 5832 dress and my dad’s dapper top hat and vest (plus the fancy crystal-topped walking stick he made), my family was looking darn spiffy in their 1840s outfits!

A few weeks ago, I dug out some tobacco-colored fabric I’d bought on super sale years ago. I have a penchant for ugly brown fabrics, apparently. Anyhoo, it immediately screamed “Jane Eyre” at me.

The 1840s weren’t just calling, they were pounding on the door and standing in the yard with a boombox over their head…

Having gained weight, I had to start my Simplicity 3723 sloper over from scratch. To do this, I used the “half-n-half” method: I measured my front half from side-seam-to-side-seam at the fullest part of my bust. Then I measured the bodice front pattern piece on the tissue and cut the size that most closely matched, in my case, a size 22. Then I measured my back from side-seam-to-side-seam and measured the back bodice pattern piece to match: I used a size 14 because it was the smallest in the envelope I had (12 would have been ideal), but tapered the shoulder line so it matched the bodice front shoulders.

I fit my dress over corset. This is optional, but it vastly improves the historical look, as you can see in both my 18th century and 1850s version of this pattern.

I used thifted sheets to make two mockups until I was comfortable with the fit. It’s still not perfect, but I was itching to get to work on the dress proper.

One of the hallmarks of 1840s dress is either a very long, straight, plain bodice or a floofy, pleated, fan-front bodice like this:

Left and Center: Wool dress, circa 1843 via the Met Museum
Right: Portrait of an Unidentified Woman, circa 1845-50 via LACMA

Because Simplicty 3723 already resembles an 1840s dress, that means we don’t have to do many major changes unless you just like to make your life more difficult for the sake of fanciness…

Me? Attempting to overachieve? Never!

By the time I widened the pattern piece enough to get the fullness over the bust, my front bodice pieces were going to take up a whole yard!

I reeeeeeeally wanted that floofy fan front! But, alas, I tried a few different ways, but in the end, my fabric proved to thick and too scarce to pull it off.

So I resigned myself to just doing a smooth fitted bodice, which was much quicker, easier, and while not super fancy, looked nice. Like I did for my 1850s version of this dress, I turned the back zipper into a front closure. Eventually I’ll get around to installing hooks and eyes properly, but for now, my Jane Eyre dress is closed with tiny straight pins.

But lo and behold, I put on my bodice after merrily sewing it together and discovered it was slightly too large because I accidentally cut double the amount of seam allowance. My solution? Remove the extra width in the front with the world’s tiniest fan-front–just two pleats! Serendipity at its finest!

Inside-out view of my bodice, showing the pleats. You can also see the placket I added and the extra skirt fabric folded over at the waist. This is a period method for attaching a skirt to a pointed bodice. I could trim it off, but if I ever want to let the dress out to be larger, keeping the extra fabric will make it easier. Oddly, I found the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking to be most helpful figuring out how to do this, despite my dress being a full 100 years later in date. Here is an example of a one-piece early Victorian dress with the extra skirt material folded down around the point. Simplicity 3723 accounts for a small point in its skirt pattern already, if you decide to use the skirt pattern they provide rather than a rectangle panel like I did.

To make the pleats, I literally just stood in front of my filthy bathroom mirror armed with a teacup full of pins and got to folding. Then I top-stitched the pleats down to make them stay.

The shallow V neckline and two simple rows of ruffles on the sleeves compensate for my rather plain bodice. Both things were stylish in the 1840s and both are simple additions to the basic 3723 pattern. Just trim the rounded neckline of the pattern into a V shape and for the ruffles, I cut four strips of fabric (two for each sleeve), hemmed one edge, and gathered them before sewing them to the sleeve while it was flat.

PRO-TIP: Trim your sleeves while they are flat! It’s sooooo much easier than trying to trim one once it’s sewn into a tube. Trust me!

For skirts, I always prefer to use one long panel rather than the multiple cuts Simplicity recommends. It happens that most 42-44″ cottons are just about right for a skirt length on me, plus using the selvedges at the waist and hem really cuts down on fraying!

NOT-A-PRO-BY-ANY-STRETCH TIP: In a time crunch or just lazy like me? Use the selvedge edge as your hem! If you selvedge is white/printed with color testing rather than being edge-to-edge printed with the fabric pattern, you can turn it up and do a little 5/8″ hem or add a facing. Another trick I’ve used before is utilizing the hemmed edge of a sheet at the bottom edge of the skirt!

I pleated rather than gathered the skirt into the waist. I used a piece of fabric 112 inches long and gathering that much is too tedious. Pleating is fiddly, but faster for moi. Plus, I like pleats in general.

I intended to do a slash placket like I did for my 1850s version, but I was a dum-dum and got so excited about my pleats that I didn’t realize I’d put the skirt seam up the front instead of the back…

PROFESSIONAL-AMATEUR TIP: A small, busy print helps hide seams and little mistakes. If you’re new to historical sewing, take a few minutes to look at Pinterest (I made a small board with examples) or a museum collection website like the Met Museum to familiarize yourself with the fabric colors and patterns popular in the era you want to wear. Some costuming folks look down on the quilting calicos, but let me tell ya, those fabrics have been an absolute joy for me to sew with: easy to find, easy to clean, easy to assemble, easy to hide mistakes with. Seriously, a nice, small repeating floral on a colored background is impeccable for this pattern.

Thanks to the busy print and the pleating, it’s hardly an issue. Crisis avoided!

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Seriously. Victorian costumes in particular are surprisingly forgiving. Wonky seam? Just add some fancy trim. Weird neckline fit? Cover it with some lace or a big ribbon bow. Fabric has a smudge because the Entenmann’s chocolate-dipped donuts were on sale? A brooch lives there now! Mistakes are opportunities for creativity, whether design choices or choice words.

Besides dog-ear hairdos, tunnel-vision bonnets, and fancy pleating, a classic bit of 1840s fashion is the pelerine. An 1840s pelerine is like a little cape/shawl/collar made out of the same fabric as the dress. They were used both for warmth and to protect the shoulders from the sun during the early part of the decade when off-the-shoulder and wide boat necklines were popular.

Right to Left: Via Augusta Auctions, via Pinterest, via the John Bright Collection, via Pinterest

Looking at the 3723 “Pilgrim,” I couldn’t help but notice how her oversized collar resembled a little pelerine….so I pieced together the last few little scraps of my fabric to make one!

I didn’t have enough of the antique grey ribbon to use on the pelerine, so to jazz it up, I used antique tape lace collar had been languishing in a drawer since 2014 when I bought it to put on my 1850s version of 3723. It was the wrong length to fit that dress, but fit the neckline of the pelerine/collar perfectly.

So here is my final 1840s Jane Eyre/Mrs. Bates look!

I decided I needed some last-minute lappets, so I just slapped some chunky lace on my head like a Victorian Unfortunate Biggins. Ain’t I gorgeous?

Yes, I am.

(And I’m not the only one!)
(Though, honestly, this crochet cap with chenille dangles is pretty baller)

I also owe a huge thanks to both American Duchess and Mistress of Disguise aka ClusterFrock. In addition to my corset, I am also wearing two petticoats — an Ugly Puffer based on Lauren’s blog post here and a wonderfully ruffled cotton petticoat made by Megan— that absolutely help transform this dress from sad flat frump to sassy plump frump!

Ugly Puffers also make fantastic scarves.

If you’ve been a fan of the Simplicity 3723 series, thanks for your continuing support. One of the highlights of my life is when I get a comment or message from someone who saw a project on my blog and felt inspired to give it a try! Now that I have updated my measurements and have a new 3723 sloper, I hope to pick the series back up, finally completing the projects I had planned 6 years ago.

Better late than never! Stay tuned!

Note: This pattern is available under a couple of different names, including Simplicity 3723 (standard misses’ sizes), Simplicity 3725 (girls’ sizes), Simplicity 2354 (extended misses’ sizes, OOP), Print On Demand EA235401 (extended misses’ sizes), and It’s So Easy H0113 / S0321 / S0705 (Pilgrim and Prairie only, in girls and standard misses, OOP). The pattern pieces are similar across all these patterns, so and tweaks I make should be possible regardless of the pattern number you are working with.

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.

sheets

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

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

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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

20151121_144130resize

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!