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American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking – Book Review

I work in book publishing so it only seems fitting that I finally combine my love of books and sewing with a book review! Unless you’re new to historical costuming, you’ve likely already heard of American Duchess, the historical reproduction shoe company and popular blog founded by Lauren Stowell that, with the addition of partner historian Abby Cox, has been expanded in recent years  to include sewing patterns through Simplicity Patterns and a sister company Royal Vintage, which features shoes from the 1920’s to the 1950’s for retro fashionistas. Now, they’ve added a book to their list of accomplishments: The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking: How to Hand Sew Georgian Gowns and Wear Them with Style.

Necessity is the mother invention, as they say, and it was certainly the case with American Duchess. They filled a void by providing period-accurate, affordable shoes to costumers and re-enactors stuck with the large investment of time and money waiting on a custom pair of shoes. Lauren and Abby’s combined expertise and background in 18th century dress, illustration, and design make them ideal authors to once again fill a gap in the costuming world, namely “I have a dress pattern and historically accurate fabric. Now what?” Or rather, how would a mantua-maker in the 1700’s have sewn this gown?

The AD Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking focuses on four iconic gowns of the Georgian era:

  1. The English Gown (1740’s)
  2. The Sacque Gown (1760’s – 1770’s)
  3. The Italian Gown (1770’s – 1790’s)
  4. The Round Gown (1790’s)

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If you go to their Facebook page they’ve done live sessions on each of these dresses leading up to the release.

Each chapter concludes with “How to Get Dressed and Wear Your ____ Gown” with step-by-step photos to show the proper order, with tips on how to pin your stomacher or adjust your back ties. Plus you’ll find tons of millinery and accessories to complete the look, including: aprons, caps, hats, mitts, and a fur muff that’s very appealing for our current weather!

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Interior sample – Showing how to drape the Sacque.

However, what this guide does not include are patterns—only gridded layouts for the linings. All of these gowns require draping (and likely mockups), just as they would have been created by a mantua-maker in that time. They address this issue at the very beginning, and I agree with their decision because Lauren and Abby have crafted a comprehensive guide that bridges the gap between existing costume bibles with layouts of extant garments and a finished, authentic gown. There are plenty of commercial paper patterns already on the market, including the American Duchess x Simplicity patterns, JP Ryan, Reconstructing History, etc. Their newest release Simplicity 8578 is actually the Sacque Gown or Robe a la Française shown in the book.

The introduction breaks down the various kinds of stitches of the 1700’s and how they were used in dressmaking. I was really looking forward to learning about the quirky mantua maker’s seam, but I have a hard time following stitch illustrations. I would have loved step-by-step photos instead, but I’m sure it will come together once I practice. Also, as the focus is “dressmaking” there are no undergarments included, and you’re expected to have the proper stays and shift for the decade you’re recreating. You’ll be fitting and draping over your stays, and admittedly some stages do seem like they’d be very tricky without a partner. One of the best resources is the illustrated fit troubleshooting guide that shows the many traps of the sleevil, among other mishaps.

From a publishing perspective, I’m very impressed with the quality of the book at this price point. The special binding lays flat, which is very helpful when directions carry over to the next page. It’s full-color with loads and loads of beautiful photography. However, the cover’s white text on the white gown is a little hard to read. It’s absolutely packed with historical notes, tricks of the trade, and fun side bars like “Ode to Wool.” If you are merely curious about 18th century fashion or looking build a Georgian wardrobe, you will want to have this at your side.

No patterns? Hand-sewing? Yes, I’ll admit it sounds rather intimidating, but you’ll be in good hands. If you start with the simple under-petticoat, which essentially a pleated, tie-waist skirt, and continue to the petticoat I think you’ll be in a good place to start on the gown. (And yes, this is what I’m telling myself as encouragement!) If you’d like more guidance then you should look into the classes coordinated with Jennifer Rosbrugh of HistoricalSewing.com that are in the works. Not everyone is lucky enough to be take a workshop with Burnley & Trowbridge or know someone with experience in historical costuming, and I know I’ll be consulting The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking again and again.

TL;DR

Who is it for? Intermediate sewist with a desire to follow historical dressmaking techniques to create four authentic Georgian outfits from head to toe.

What does it include? EVERYTHING! Seriously—this is a comprehensive handbook to sewing historically accurate ensembles enlivened with the warmth of Abby and Lauren throughout.

 

Cox, Abby and Lauren Stowell. The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking: How to Hand Sew Georgian Gowns and Wear Them with Style. Page Street Publishing Co., 2017.

*Disclaimer- I purchased my copy and am not affiliated with Page Street Publishing or American Duchess. Photos by little-red-squirrel.com, do not publish without permission.

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New Place, New Sewing Space!

Hello there!

Sorry it’s been a while! If you had asked where I’d be now after my last post I would have thought my stays AND shift and petticoat would be done by now. But… we moved to a new apartment! It was stressful and wallet-draining (what move isn’t?) and all sewing had to be pushed aside. Or rather, boxed up.

We had in mind that we might be moving, and then all at once we were looking at new apartments and trying to pack up. I’ll admit that I was having horrible visions of my sewing box getting lost and all my fabric and patterns gone forever. Our movers ended up being amazing… but I still put my sewing machine and stays in our car so I could stop obsessing over their safety lol.

Continue reading “New Place, New Sewing Space!”

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The Stays: Part I

Before we get into the making of the stays I need to be real with you. I kept this project a secret for over two months because I was really afraid I was going to end up embarrassing myself. I kept asking myself “Am I really doing this? This is all new. This is complicated.” Even as I was fabric hunting and researching I kept having a vision of this project turning into a wreck, a sad mess of fabric that would sit unfinished guilting me from a corner for the rest of my days. I usually share things I’m excited about social media, but I was worried that I would share something and then have someone ask about it “Hey, how’s that costume coming along?” …and have to admit that I’d f-ed it up beyond recognition and abandoned it in shame and frustration.

Because it’s happened before—although no one found out. I shared a work-in-progress on Instagram, right before making a huge mistake. In my eagerness to get more done during naptime I miscut the batting for an easy whole cloth “quilt” and well, once fabric is cut, there’s no undo button! My batting was too large and I was supposed to trim it down, except I forgot that I had measured and marked when it was folded in half. YUP. I had extra batting, and somehow managed to make it too small to use. The only option was to buy more batting, and I was crushed that I’d made such a stupid error before getting the part I was nervous about trying in the first place—the quilting! I decided to only share finished or almost-finished projects after that.

Guess what? Surprise, I made more mistakes! But tackling them and problem-solving gave me confidence, instead of draining it. I’m self-taught and felt I didn’t have any sort of authority to share my work with others. I am still nervous about zippers. I don’t have a dress form or a dedicated sewing studio. I don’t have a degree in theatrical costuming or art history. I’m terrible at hand-sewing and don’t even know all the stitches used in historically accurate gowns. Don’t let your current skill set be your ONLY skill set. You just have to start. I hope if that you’re interested in sewing this project will prove that if I can do it, so can you!


The Stays

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A trio of embellished German stays from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum.
A pair of stays would have been worn by every woman and girl in the 18th century, although the fabric and quality would have reflected her station. They could have be made with silk brocade and bailene (whalebone) for the wealthy upper class, or linen and worsted wool with reed boning for lower class women. Even though I do love this exchange between Claire and Mrs. Fitz in S1e2—“What kind of corset is that?!”
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“Corset” was the term used because the writers knew the audience would only know the more modern word. An older term for them was a “pair of bodies” and “pair of stays” seems to be used into the 1800’s with transitional stays. As I mentioned before these stays are made with the Simplicity 8162 pattern and work for mid-18th century garments. If you look at extant examples in museum collections you’ll see that the style and shape alters in later decades. A pair of stays gives a foundation for the dress and should take in your waist, but not be too uncomfortable. As noted in Corsets and Crinolines:
“the shoulder blades were thus permanently pulled back to give the fashionable narrow straight back… These stays do not unduly compress the waist.”

Unlike a Victorian corset with an extreme hourglass shape and little regard for a woman’s internal organs and indulgences like breathing!

I don’t have my early process photos because my phone met with a series of unfortunate events and I lost all my back up data. (The absolute worst. We will not speak of it further…)

You’ll need to measure yourself and cut out the appropriate size pattern. Then pin it and cut out your main fabric, which you’ll see on the outside, and your thicker interlining or strength layer which could be the traditional corsetry fabric coutil or linen or cotton canvas. Coutil is very expensive, and cotton canvas is similar to what would have been used so I purchased an all natural canvas duck. Natural fiber fabrics really are a must because you don’t want to be stuck sweating in polyester stays that don’t breathe! Upholstery fabric is popular for the main fabric because of the weight and designs, but so much of what I found was 100% polyester. Since you only need 1yd you could use a cotton-silk or 100% silk decor fabric that’s perhaps too pricey for a voluminous gown or skirt, but would make a very pretty pair of stays.

Carefully transfer all the markings (boning channels, cutting lines, etc.) by poking holes with a pin and then using a water-soluble fabric pen along those points. Complete the lines with a quilting ruler. Sew all 8 canvas sections to their corresponding main section.

Here are all the pieces with main fabric and strength layer sewn together and all the boning channels. You can see in the middle I was starting to sew the sections together and I found small binder clips held the bulky layers better than pins. On the right I was testing out the boning to make sure it fit.

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CF, SF, SB, CB, CB and SB clipped together, SF, CF with boning.

Next follow your markings and carefully sew the boning channels. Rococo Atelier’s 18th century stays tutorial was very detailed and especially beneficial to a first-timer like myself. Her tip about starting where the boning channels cross, instead trying to stop exactly at that point, was like a lightbulb going off! American Duchess has a couple posts with video for making this pattern that took the stress out of working with boning for the first time. I definitely watched/read them several times just have the process feel like second nature.

Now you’ll sew center front to side front (CF to SF) and center back to side back (CB to SB), then sew the sections together. So you’ll have 4 pieces, then 2, then 1. Do the same for the other side, and now you have the left and right sides of your stays! Starting to look like something now!
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This my left side- see all the markings? The seam on the far right has been pressed and whipstitched down with upholstery thread.

See how tidy the whipstitched seam looks? This will help strengthen the seam and keep it flat under the lining. Something bumpy will be very uncomfortable once you’re laced in tight. This step is not a part of the Simplicity instructions, but I learned how to do this from the American Duchess video.

I used a tapered awl to make small holes at the front lacing marks. At last getting to see what they look like on me! So I laced up the front and I tried on the stays… but they were TOO. BIG.

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What? How is this possible?! Argharghargh. Only the front was laced because I was too impatient to make all the holes in the back, but I had a good hunk of fabric in my hand to hold it closed. It looked like a loose bodice, not a pair of stays with negative ease. Huge disappointment.I kept taking them out and looking at them, trying to decide if I wanted to undo the whipstitched seams. In the end I couldn’t bring myself to undo them (so many spare moments cobbled together to handsew them!) and gave them a closed back, taking out over an inch on each side. In the end it wasn’t as big of a deal as it felt like at first—in fact, front-lacing only is still historically accurate and easier to put on. I had considered making a size down for a tighter fit, but when I held the pattern up against me it was too short. I was already intimidated by this project and redrafting to lengthen each piece and adjust boning channels and markings—that’s a big pile of NOPE. Whenever I make another pair of stays (!!) I’ll have a better idea of what works and will remember to whipstitch AFTER trying on!

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Those blue dots on the back seam? Those were supposed to be the back lacing grommets! Obviously there is no way these stays would fit with two more pieces of boning and a laced closed back, much less a small gap like I expected.

These photos are from my second fitting after making them one piece—please ignore the odd lacing with blue yarn! Stays should not be worn with a strappy slip over lumpy jeans, but you knew that right? Sorry they’re not very pretty :/ It gets dark so early now that getting photos with good light requires some planning, and I wanted see what it looked like right away!

 

Hurray for photo timer apps! Still no straps here.
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Lots of extra fabric to be trimmed from the center back seam and the point is too long.

Mistakes conquered! In case any sticklers are concerned the stays do fit properly, but photos with them worn lower are quite indecent and won’t be shared on the internet! 😉 These stays were started at the beginning of October and most of my free time has gone into getting this far so I’m very proud of them. Are you also sewing the SimplicityxAmerican Duchess stays? How have yours come out?

Getting there, but still much to be done! Part II will cover the lining, binding, and grommets.

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Getting started: the Bum Pad

My previous post touched on my love of historical costuming, but it was the release of the American Duchess Simplicity patterns got the ze little grey cells working. After reading Lauren and Abby’s blog (and so many others!) I felt like I knew enough about the process and construction to take the plunge. I received lots of sewing-related birthday presents, so with pretty new pair of Gingher shears and a fabric gift card I started getting supplies.

I want to start off by noting that although I am in awe of completely hand-sewn, historically accurate gowns, I will be sewing 21st century style by machine. I’m only hand sewing where required—mostly because as the mom of a preschooler it would take me years to do this by hand! I would like to wear this before the next Olympics. Or Adele album. Or new Pixar movie—or however you note the passage of time.

Between mommy duties and chores there is not much free time for sewing. (Well, there could be more, but letting your toddler watch 7 straight hours of TV is generally frowned upon.) For me, “getting started” meant a few nights and afternoons of taping up and cutting out the pattern pieces. Then a couple nights pining and cutting out all the undergarment pieces. So you could certainly finish this project much faster than me–please don’t be deterred by my timeline! The American Duchess patterns are very well done and make each step easy to follow, plus they have pattern hacks on their blog for making it more historically accurate. My progress has really been impacted by time spent sewing, not difficulty—not at all what I expected!

Costumers say to start working “from the skin out,” and you really have to when sewing 18th and 19th century clothing because the foundations alter your shape so much that your garment simply won’t fit or hang right. You know that test taking strategy where you do the easiest part first to build your confidence and leave more time for the harder stuff? Well, I made the bum pad first–it’s basically a butt pillow ;).

The Bum Pad

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“The Bum Shop” c. 1785. This classic cartoon from the NYPL shows that fashion trends have been simultaneously embraced and ridiculed for centuries!
The bum pad gives you that exaggerated rump all the gentlemen go crazy for! Thankfully the bum pad is more lightweight and faster to make than panniers. (Although if you want to make the court gowns from Outlander S2 you’re going to need panniers.) I struggled to find extant bum pads from the mid-1700’s, but did find some from the 1800’s:

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Abiti Antichi bustle bum pad

The three on the top are similar to what we see on Claire, and the one on the bottom with three sections and a ruffle is very similar to the Simplicity pattern. Although I haven’t seen another bum pad with that sort of tufted seat cushion look before!

This was very straightforward so even though I lost the few process photos I had you’re really not missing much. I made it from a natural muslin scrap and white quilting cotton I had in my stash. So it’s a two-tone bum pad, but no one will see it. Plus, piecing and not wasting any fabric was common practice in the 18th century because fabric was very costly and made in thinner widths so I think it makes it more historically accurate! I can picture Jenny using some leftover fabric to make a bum roll and stuffing it with bits of wool and tiny cloth scraps from sewing for Ian and wee Jamie.

The only not-so-great part was the long narrow hem on the ruffle. I don’t have an ironing board (no place to store it in our little apartment) so part of the narrow hem frustration was trying press a skinny strip evenly on my make-shift ironing station.

Ooo, so plump and ruffle-ly. 

Also I accidentally did one ruffle section wrong side out and had to get the seam ripper (womp womp). I’ll admit I looked at it for bit thinking “Well it will be under my clothes and no one will ever see it…” but I knew it would bother me. Leave it to me to make mistakes on the “self-esteem boosting” easy part! It was a little fiddly getting the gathers to go evenly around the curved edges, but overall a quick and easy project. Rump padding: check!

 

**Next Up: The Stays: Part I

Image credits:

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Bum Shop.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1906. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-fc3f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Three “bum roll” bustles; England, early 19th century. Christie’s auction, 2009. http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/textiles-costume/three-bum-roll-bustles-england-early-19th-5280839-details.aspx?from=salesummary&intObjectID=5280839&sid=2c00841e-c412-4ca4-a354-a0a8bf1112f5

19th century bum pad, Abiti Antichi. http://www.abitiantichi.it/

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Why historical costuming?

As I started working on my first historical costume I wanted to make a record of my progress—mostly for my own reference, but also to inspire me to keep going. Previously I’ve only sewn crafts and baby clothes so sewing for myself was a big 2016/ turning 30 goal. But lo and behold, my birthday came around in October and I had not sewn anything for myself!

Somehow my plan to simply make a dress that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to wear in public turned into 7-part costume… I always felt that a major costume like this was out of my reach. And you know what? It is! But I just decided to go for it because if you don’t move outside your comfort zone you’ll never grow. I’ve loved sketching and wearing historical costumes since I was kid, especially Elizabethan and 18th century gowns. My mom was a great seamstress and indulged me by making lots of great Halloween/dress up outfits over the years, including a colonial calico dress (American Girl Felicity fans out there? haha) and a navy and burgundy taffeta Elizabethan gown. I still kick myself for not trying to learn more from her, but it makes me happy that Mom’s sewing machine is still going strong in my little sewing corner.

Back to this blog—Soon I realized that my Outlander project was spread out over written notes, Pinterest boards, iPhone photos, and Evernote. I wanted to share some photos, but also felt like Facebook wasn’t the best format. Of course, numerous blogs have been very helpful as I learn and research 18th century fashion and construction, and it made sense to start one to have everything in one place. I am self-taught and not an expert, but perhaps this project will be of interest to someone else making the leap!

 

The Outlander Project

I will update the following with links and any changes as I go along.

The Look

Outlander 2014

I’m making a “Claire at Castle Leoch” outfit, and eventually will add outerwear (that fur-trimmed jacket! or a cloak! sigh.). The grand plan is to have one cosplay Claire outfit, and then alternate pieces that are historically accurate, such as a 1750’s jacket with winged cuffs. Of course it would be nice to order 5 or 6 yards of lovely 100% wool tartan from Britex but my accuracy, both to the show and the time period, is affected by my fabric budget. I plan on purchasing wool stockings and have some brown leather shoes that are serviceable, but would like to complete the outfit with proper shoes like the Fraser heels from American Duchess one day. You know, like after I finish sewing everything haha.

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Official stills from Outlander-online.com

The Garments

Claire’s teal wool bodice (style actually like late 18th pierrot jacket) – wool or wool blend, TBD

1750’s jacket with winged cuffsnavy cotton twill

Petticoat (worn as skirt)heather brown poly suiting

Petticoat – quilted cotton or maybe silk? TBD

Stomacher – cotton blend damask, cotton broadcloth

Shiftcotton voile

Stays – cotton blend damask, cotton canvas, linen

Bum Pad – cotton

Cloak or riding habit – midnight blue wool coating with a bit of mohair

 

The Patterns

Simplicity 8161 – View B: Bodice, Stomacher, Petticoat 

Simplicity 8162 – All Views: Stays, Shift/Chemise, Bum Pad

J.P. Ryan’s 18th century jackets – View C and/or View A    (I’ll explain why when we get there)



The Materials

I’ll provide more details on each garment, but these are the suppliers I used if you’re not sure where to start. I’m lucky enough to be able to make quick trips to NYC’s Garment District on my lunch break, and very much recommend ordering swatches or shopping in person when you can since colors and texture can be quite misleading online.

Fabric:

Fabric.com, Mood Fabrics, Joann’s, Paron Fabrics*

*I don’t really recommend Joann’s for fabric beyond quilting or kid’s clothing. However, I did find a good looking synthetic that was affordable for the 4yd petticoat—combined with a 60% coupon it was an awesome deal. Also, Paron is now closed after over 70 years of business 😦

I haven’t shopped from these stores yet, but they specialize in historical fabrics:

Renaissance Fabrics, Burnley & Trowbridge, Wm. Booth Draper

Notions: 

Pacific Trimming, M & J Trimming, Home Depot, CorsetMakingSupplies.com

*Pacific Trimming is my go-to for notions, like finding the perfect binding for the stays or a certain color of velcro. Sadly both Pacific and M&J have websites that are not nearly as good their stores. Or maybe part of it is losing the kid-in-a-candy-store feeling from walls and walls of ribbons and lace?

Odds and ends: 

Joann’s, Save-a-thon (pretty sure only in NYC), and my neighborhood hardware store

 

 

**Next up: Getting Started!

 

{Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of these companies, I’m only sharing to be helpful!}

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Hello! 

This is my new blog to share my sewing thoughts and progress. I plan on showing the process of my Outlander project—a complete 1750’s outfit with undergarments—and maybe some other bits I’m working on. I’m not sure if I’ll continue blogging once it’s done, but I wanted to have one place for all my photos and notes instead of scattered updates on Instagram or Facebook. I hope you enjoy following along!