Happy New Year! I hope your 2018 has been going well so far. Taylor of Dames a la Mode is kicking off the year with her #GeorgianJanuary Instagram challenge, although “challenge” isn’t really the right word as the only difficulty is trying to decide which photo to post each day. If you’re following @lilredsquirrel you’ve already seen my picks, but I love being introduced to new paintings or dresses through posts by other historical costume lovers. You can join in at anytime so take a look at the next batch of themes if it sounds like fun!
I’ve been reading a lot of “Me Made” 2017 roundups and 2018 sewing plans posts, and perhaps you’re in the same boat, but they make me feel incredibly inadequate. Which isn’t to say I’m not very happy with the progress I’ve made, but hot damn! I aspire to be one those prolific sewists with a closet full of awesome things that they’ve made (including the majority who aren’t blogging or gramming all their garments).
I am very good at making detailed lists of elaborate plans and then being hit by reality later like “In what world would you have 3 hours to sew every day to reach this goal?!” So instead of my usual “shoot for the moon!” — which ends up being “shoot for the new planet and wake up 90 years too early by yourself and proceed to ruin everything” — I am doing “rent a car and drive to a BnB.”
I decided last fall that I would like to make an 18th century gown by the end of the year and a TBD DC cosplay for NYCC in October. Both are big, multipart costumes, BUT doable over the course of several months. Also, that gives me time to look for deals and budget for my fabric and supplies. Fun, challenging, but not absurd– huzzah for 2018 me!
And then I did something totally crazy.
I got a ticket to an 18th century dinner in March!
I had seen photos of the annual Française Dinner (hosted in recent years by Jessica Jackson), but it never occurred to me that I could go. So when I spotted the announcement for ticket sales the “make all the things!” me took over and talked about it frequently for a few days, waiting for spousal eyebrow-raising and rejection. But it never came and here we are! I grew up in Virginia, and I’m very familiar with Old Town Alexandria so it’s not that big of a deal to travel there for the weekend.
And then last week Lauren and Abby of American Duchess announced they’ll be at The National Arts Club here in NYC at the end of February! Last year I bemoaned the fact that exciting things like Costume College were out of my reach and now two (Count ’em TWO!) cool events right out of the gate! However, there is the small matter of not having anything to wear.
Commence flailing and freaking out!
Once that was out of the way, I made a lot of lists and a rough timeline. (Okay, who am I kidding, there will be plenty of flailing during this project.) My first step was to put a pair of AD shoes on layaway. I was torn because I still want the Fraser heels for Outlander outfits, but I need something formal and in a later style for the Française Dinner. I choose the black Dunmore heels and I can’t wait to see them in person!
Next, I need to decide on a style of dress. Not as easy! The attire guidelines specify the last half of the 18th century, 1750-1800. Since there’s a firm deadline to meet and I don’t have a backup (a J. Crew cocktail dress isn’t going to fly here!), I don’t think I’ll be able to blog about the gown until it’s all said and done. BUT I’ll be sharing little bits on Instagram along the way! Sadly, my shoes and gown will not be ready for the American Duchess book event, but I think I’ll go in my Claire cosplay. It does feel kind of wrong to attend an AD event with modern shoes peeking out, but oh well!
Will you be going to these events? Let’s be friends IRL 🙂
What are you looking forward to in 2018? There are a few cosplays that I’m sure will be very popular this year, including Admiral Holdo and Rose from The Last Jedi, but also from the slew of upcoming superhero movies starting off with next month’s Black Panther, followed by Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, The Dark Phoenix, Aquaman, and even the animated Teen Titans Go! to the Movies and Incredibles 2. Plus, there’s A Wrinkle in Time (that trailer is bursting with Bjork-worthy costumes!), Solo (the Han Solo standalone movie), The Crimes of Grindelwald (aka Fantastic Beasts 2), Disney’s Nutcracker movie, and the Tomb Raider reboot. So many cosplays, so little time.
On the historical costuming side there will be Mary, Queen of Scots, to be played by Saoirse Ronan opposite Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I, and Robin Hood with Taron Egerton as the Prince of Thieves. Granted, the world really doesn’t need another Robin Hood movie but I really like Egerton, and Jamie Foxx as Little John and Jamie Dornan as Will Scarlet has me intrigued.
Do you have grand costuming plans or just a couple everyday garments in the works — or perhaps a mix of both? I’d love to hear what you’re planning for 2018!
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 of 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 American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking focuses on four iconic gowns of the Georgian era:
The English Gown (1740’s)
The Sacque Gown (1760’s – 1770’s)
The Italian Gown (1770’s – 1790’s)
The Round Gown (1790’s)
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!
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 used in this era, 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.
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.
I am just over the moon to share the completed stays! These stays represent many hours of sewing and I’m really happy that they are done and they fit. Lurking in the back of my mind was the possibility of them being abandoned in a frustrated rage, but I’m happy to say that the whole process was easier than I anticipated. However, it took me a loooooong time!
I tried out my camera remote for the first time, so prepare for the stays spam 😉
As you can see in the photos my shift isn’t finished because I got ruffle fatigue. I remembered this cute dress that I haven’t worn in ages because it’s so low cut and the lining always pops up in front… but it’s great as a shift in a pinch, even if it’s sleeveless! I like the visual detail of the tiny stripes, perhaps something to copy for a future shift.
Overall I was so pleased with the SimplicityxAmerican Duchess pattern and instructions! Seriously I did it, so anyone with basic sewing skills can definitely make this pattern. If you need that little push to jump in, this is me telling you Go for it!You just have to start. However, if you want your stays be more historically accurate you have to decide BEFORE you cut your fabric and follow a different order of construction. I will make note of these edits as I go along.
This corset form was such a sweet Craigslist find, and although our measurements are almost exactly the same, uh… some shapes are rather different. Yeah, that is some serious overboob. Part of the problem is people are rather squishy, but dress forms are not. However, this means I can drape a gown one day!
After I shared The Stays: Part I way back in January *cough* I was almost ready to move on to binding. Shortly after that we decided we would be moving, and apartment hunting and packing took over my life. I had a hard time jumping back in because it felt like I had been running and suddenly had to stop right in front of the hurdle, then somehow jump it from a standstill. Plus the unpacking and reorganizing of our new place became my priority.
I spent a lot of time looking at them and thinking about what to do, and then not choosing anything at all. Then putting them away and doing the same thing in a couple weeks. I can’t be the only one who does this during sewing projects, right? It’s like being stuck in this loop and you’re just not sure the best way to go so you just keep going around.
My conundrum was that I didn’t have enough fabric to fold over the CF edge since that’s not how the Simplicity pattern is constructed. But I wanted to be historically accurate, plus I was worried about the grommets tearing up my lovely fine linen lining. I even briefly considered pulling out the boning channel stitches and moving everything over so I’d have more allowance to fold over. Um, that’s crazy talk! My sane solution was to add some chamois leather to protect the linen and support the lacing at the front and straps.
Almost all of the things I’d do differently next time happen at the cutting stage, so there really wasn’t a way for me to incorporate them unless I started over. I was laughably naive when I first started! When I bought the patterns—a year ago this week—I was intending to have this Claire Fraser costume ready for Halloween. I thought if I buckled down I could make these in a week or two and have the rest of October to do the rest of the outfit! It’s like I forgot I have a job and a toddler And zero experience with garment sewing…
My advice to first-time staymakers:
First off, be honest with your measurements. It sounds easy, but we all know it can be harder in practice. Even if the numbers aren’t what you thought they’d be or wished they were, fudging them will only lead to unhappiness later when your garment doesn’t fit. I knew I was in-between sizes, but instead of making a size that matched my bust measurement and lengthening it, I took the easier route and regretted it later. (Using the size that matched my bust when I wear a generously-padded bra was not my brightest move…)
I also would suggest you make a mockup. This is such a vital part of getting any garment adjusted to your body before you start cutting into your fashion fabric. I skipped this step trying to stay on schedule, but it would have saved me the realization that my stays were too big after the boning was in and seams were already whipstitched down. 😦 Also, on that note, if you do skip the mockup remember to try them on properly before you get too far along.
Read as much as possible. This is part is fun for me, but even if research isn’t your jam be sure to look at photos of extant stays and learn about their construction. There are so many great bloggers who have shared their process (see blogroll) and American Duchess has helpful videos to go with this pattern.
Stitch the left lining pieces together, then do the same for the right side. You’ll recall I had to take in the back and remove the lacing there, so I also had to join the lining at the CB. When I took a closer look at the stays I realized that I had a) missed one bone on the side, b) whipstitched the seam allowance into that boning channel, and c) still had dozens of channel threads to knot. Blergh! So I undid the whipstitching, added in the missing bone, and stitched it back down again. I knotted off the channels and hid the threads in the interlining.
**HA edit: Before adding the lining and binding, sew ribbon or thin leather strips to the seams. Draw underarm guards and cut out from chamois, stitching to outside and over the armscye.
Then I cut two strips of leather (about one inch wide) the length of the lacing channel, as well as two circles. I sewed them on by hand, and then stitched the lining to the rest of the stays. Linen feels so nice, but quickly gets hairy so you might want to fray check the edges and let it dry while you gird your loins for the binding. (Loin girding instructions here)
Um well everyone says this is the worst, and I can’t say I disagree—but only because it takes so dang long by hand! Unfortunately, it’s fairly obvious which edge I started on as the bottom finished edges are kind of wonky, but the top binding corners are much neater. My center back tab has a pretty point from joining the back seam, but it’s a little too long. I’d shorten by 1/2 – 1 inch next time. Some tabs came out better than others, but I actually started to enjoy it after I had the first few under my belt. Hand-sewing hater no more!
Definitely read and reread this Foundations Revealed binding guide by the amazing Cathy Hay before you start. (I found this afterwards, but I know I’ll be coming back to it a lot.)
When I was shopping for bias binding I was looking for blue or eggplant, but both clashed with the yellow undertones in the damask. I spotted this bright olive rayon petersham ribbon on one trim store visit and kept thinking about it, so I eventually went back and bought some, thinking that if it didn’t work out I could use it as a pretty lacing ribbon.
I’m very happy with the finished result, and since it’s rayon it has a bit of shine that adds a little extra pizazz. If you want to use ribbon instead of cotton bias binding make sure it’s petersham. A lot of stores display their grosgrain and petersham ribbon mixed together since they are both ribbed, but the petersham has looped sides. The grosgrain has straight sides and is not flexible so it will make curves miserable. I used backstitch to make sure the front side was secure and the tiny ribs helped me keep my stitches neat! The color is similar to a quilted petticoat from the V&A, so it makes me feel like it’s somewhat authentic 😉
**HA edit: Extant stays have leather binding, which holds up to daily wear and stretches nicely along the curved edges. The same chamois leather I used for support is ideal for binding and can be found at auto stores. (I would have used it, but all cream stays felt too boring.)
**HA edit: Leave extra seam allowance along all tabs and the top edge to be able to fold over raw edges of interlining. This binds the edges before using bias tape or leather, and reduces the bulk of the edge for a thinner, yet durable binding. See The Fashionable Past for a tutorial on this method.
Since the lining is already attached you’ll want to fold it under and/or pin it out of the way as you go along. I used a mix of pins and clips for the binding, and often just used my left hand to hold things in place while sewing. After you’ve finished sewing the front side down, flip to the inside and whipstitch the binding down all the way around. This goes much faster, but just be careful you don’t go through to the front! These stitches don’t have to be pretty since you’ll cover them with the lining.
Do the same for the top edge, paying close attention to the corners where the straps meet the body. Once all your binding is done feel free to cheer, cry, eat a box of cookies, wheel of fancy cheese or your very own cheese pizza. Make sure to wash your hands to remove chocolate smudges, pizza grease, etc. before moving on to the next part.
The Lining, reprise
What again? Almost done with this bit- fold under the raw edges to just cover the binding edge on the inside and whipstitch all the tabs. I chose to slipstitch on the top edge to give a neater finish. Knot and hide the threads in between the main body and lining.
And then I smash it with a hammer!
This part is pretty straightforward—just start making holes at the marks you made from the pattern (front and/or back). You can do this with an awl and then widen the holes with a chopstick or similar object. The kit also includes a hole cutter which gives the exact size, but if your stays are very thick it can take a lot of whacking with the mallet to go through. Snipping a small X in the leather helped and then I just trimmed any extra away after I pushed the grommet through so the washer could go on smoothly. I chose to use grommets to save time, and I think that’s perfectly fine because they’re not visible to anyone but me and they’ll never wear out or tear.
The key here is to have the right tools. A snap/eyelet punch will not get the job done. You’ll need a grommet setting kit, which includes the setter, hole punch, wood block, and brass grommets, and a rubber or leather mallet. Do not use a metal hammer! You’ll get a smushed ugly grommet and eventually wreak your setter. I purchased this kit at a specialty hardware store, but you can order these kits online as well (just search for “C.S. Osborne grommet kit”). I actually left a blog comment for Lauren of American Duchess because the pattern notions don’t specify a size, and each size requires a different kit so I wanted to avoid buying the wrong one. She responded with alacrity and said to use size 00 or 3/16″ inside diameter – Thanks Lauren! I didn’t use the brass grommets that came with the kit because they’ll tarnish and possibly discolor the dress and chemise, although I do think the gold details would match better. My nickel-plated hardware came from here.
**HA edit: Use buttonhole twist to sew eyelets around the widened lacing hole. Periodically stretch out with the awl as you stitch if the opening gets too small.
Make sure that you do a few tests using all the same layers on your stays. If the stays are too thin, the shank on the grommet won’t fold over enough and can snag you or your shift. If the washer swivels around then the shank is too tall for the amount of fabric. You can always sew on a strip of chamois or a fabric scrap to thicken up that channel. Set up a cutting board on a sturdy table or the floor, and hammer away.
Ta-daaa! You have a pair of 1740’s half-boned stays! Get your lace(s) and admire your handiwork.
Thanks for reading this crazy long post—I hope you found this helpful! I’ve learned so much in this process and I’m already thinking about my next pair of stays- maybe a strapless pair or corset for a historical DC comics cosplay. I’d like to have a larger gap at the front so I can get more reduction on my waist—right now it takes off less than an inch total since the thickness of the stays adds to the measurement. Next time I’ll be sure to make a mock-up, and I think I can reduce the pattern to 3 sections on each side since I’m not curvy.
Hit me up with any questions in the comments or on Instagram @lilredsquirrel! 🙂