Wednesday, March 29, 2017

HSM #2: 1863 Ballgown Reproduction

Photo credit: My sister Camille! We're just discovering that she has an incredible eye for creative shots.

Whew, this project was supposed to be a quick bodice, and it turned into a 30-hour ordeal, complete with handsewn eyelets and a total of 4 different tries of the pleating down the front.

Short backstory: I bought this green plaid silk at a screaming deal in the fall of 2015. I only bought 6 yards (54'' wide) because I was short on money, but I really wanted the fabric. Fast forward to summer of 2016; I couldn't believe that I had managed to get an entire dress from 6 yards, with some leftover! Everyone who makes 1860's dresses recommends purchasing 7-8 yards. I was even able to match the plaid.

Fast forward again: It's 2017, and I want a new ballgown. As much as I love the red one, it's soooo heavy, and it was never fit me very well (my absolute first try at darts). I've lost 20 pounds accidentally in the last year, and I knew that I just didn't want to wear it again. So I pulled out the leftover fabric and checked to see if the pattern pieces would fit. Just barely...

I managed to cut out all the pieces exactly the way I wanted them....except the sleeves. There was no portion on my fabric that was big enough even to fit the sleeves on, much less to make sure they matched! So the sleeves are pieced, but I positioned each pieced part to fit about where my true armpit is (as opposed to the rotated underarm seam). 

On my last darted bodice dress (the day bodice to this ensemble), I fitted the darts with the bodice inside out. Now, it's come to my attention that I am a little lopsided (just a smidge). Can you see how this doesn't work out? 1/2'' smaller on one side, and with the dart pinned correctly on that side and then flip it right-side out, that smaller darts are now on the larger side. Duh. No wonder I've always been so confused as to why the center front isn't exactly in the front! These darts turned out so well, thanks Mrs. Clark!
Camille: "These lines right here are cool!"
Me: "What lines?"
"I mean seams."
"You mean the darts?"
"Yeah, those things!"

So this dress I tried pinning it with the right side out, then marking the seamline on the inside and flipping it around. With this technique, I also discovered that I always thought the seam of the dart had to be straight. But when you stop and think about it, it makes no sense to always make the darts straight. 

My normal way of boning is to just turn the dart into a casing and shoving the bone up the darts, but with a dart that curves at the top, the entire excess wasn't laying flat at all. After poking around, I found Jennifer Rosbrugh's article on historical boning, using 1860's original ball bodice's as examples. Bingo! So I sliced up the center of the dart, cut all the dart excess off (gulp!) and pressed them open. Then I whipped casings on by hand, centering them over the seam instead of off to one side.

Confession time: I have always had this mindset that I should make each and every seam as available as possible for future modifications, including darts. So up until now, I've always left the dart excess alone, even though it's a pain because all of my darts are HUGE. When I was at Costume College, I attended a class on 19th century bodice construction, and in the class the teacher taught that they never ever pushed boning into the dart. Well, I raised my hand and, a little bit timidly asked, "What if I want to keep the dart excess, instead of cutting it off?"

"Huh?" The teacher wasn't following me.

"You know, in case I want to adjust it in the future?"

"WELL WHY WOULD YOU WANT TO DO THAT???" She was looking at me like I had just sprouted cabbages from my ears. I kind of wanted to curl up and die. I don't know why the question was so preposterous to her, it was perfectly valid, but I was embarrassed enough that I didn't explain my reasoning. Reading between the lines: the real reason I have never cut off the darts is because I know I can't possibly have a 23'' waist forever, and it seemed reasonable to me that anyone who lived in the 1860's might have had the same concern.

I've since learned that certain fabrics like silk don't easily forget thread holes that have stress, so moving a dart may not work because the lines from the old darts will still probably show. That being said, it is still  possible; I went to my local museum to look at a few original 1860's dresses, and one of them you could clearly see the old dart line, and they had moved it over about two inches to the front. You couldn't even tell from the outside! But if your darts aren't perfectly straight, they may not lay well if you don't at least clip into them. Either most likely will be making the excess unusable.

I wasn't originally intending to do a reproduction, but it felt like a waste to not do something that is at least similar to this dress that is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. As much as I like this dress....I don't like bows. Not even a little bit. So I dropped the idea of a reproduction, and posted a picture of the blank dress on a Facebook page I'm a part of, the Civilian Civil War Closet, for ideas. It was a little overwhelming, but I also got some good ideas. But 99% of the suggestions were....bows. "Bows on the shoulders!" "Put a bow on the rump!" "Don't skimp - use ALL the bows!" Other suggestions included fringe, beading, contrasting flowers, lace, a bertha and ruching/pleating. So basically any type of bodice decoration ever seen, ever. But I was surprised that so many people encouraged the bows. So whether this counts as a reproduction I'm not sure.

The trim fabric is a matte polyester satin; I was planning on using cream-colored dupioni from Joanns, but they don't sell it anymore! This makes me mad; dupioni is always a nice backup for things like nicer linings and trim. The matte polyester is actually pretty nice, it doesn't have a crazy poly-sheen. It does add a surprising amount of weight to the dress, though. Originally I had a 4th bow sewn right onto this connecting tab in the back, but it was so heavy it drooped, so I ripped it off.

I used the Truly Victorian 1860's Ball Bodice pattern. This was my 3rd time using it, and I definitely recommend it, but a mockup is important. The main bodice turned on nice on the first try, but the sleeves and sleeve lining were a little out of proportion. The pattern also comes with instructions for 3 loop bows. Basically, you sew two semi-large rectangles into tubes which become the loops held together by a small strip for the middle. Because at this point I was still making up my mind, I went ahead and made two bows and hesitantly pinned them on.
TV 442

They were so cute! Normally - I hate cute. It's a word I've despised being described as, even when I was little. But they are just so perfect for the dress. So the bows on the shoulders are detachable, and underneath are small smooth strips covering the join of the pleated part on the shoulder similar to the back detail.

Oh yeah...and the reason this qualifies for this challenge:
(The first bodice made to go with this skirt)

Item: 1863 Ball Bodice

The Challenge: Re-Make, Re-Use, Re-Fashion - this is a little of all three things. The skirt is re-used from a day dress and this is the second bodice to go with this skirt for a different look.

The Material: 100% silk taffeta, lined with cotton muslin, and eyelets stabilized on the back with cotton sateen. Also batting for pads. The bows and pleated trim are a matte polyester satin (nobody shoot me!).

Pattern: Truly Victorian 1860's ballgown pattern

Year: 1863

Notions: Artificial whalebone, plastic zip ties, cord, thread, hooks and bars, gros grain ribbon in the drawstring at the neck, 1/8'' ribbon for lacing.

How Historically Accurate Is It? This might have gotten close to 100% had I not used a synthetic for the trim. And obviously plastic isn't historically accurate, but steel boning just does not work with my figure.

Hours To Complete: 30

First Worn: For pictures, and then to the Victorian Ball on 3/25

Total Cost: Taffeta was a lucky leftover, so the total cost of $16 was for the satin trim.


  1. So beautiful!! You're amazingly talented.

  2. Very beautiful!!!! I adore bows and cute, however I would like to make a dress like this plain as well. Little to no decoration as for a first dress that would be easier and make more sense to do. Then after that I can go crazy. Also I don't think I could make a pretty bow if money were on the line. *hugs from Finland*