habit bodice dress, 2020-2021
This time it really began with the materials. I had a lot of
very dark navy blue velvet in stash, and then there were a lot
of gorgeous museum pieces with velvet, often combined with
silks. The dress idea was at the back of my mind for some time,
and while I did not have any immediate use planned for it at the
time I began it was one of those projects that I just had to
make some time or other.
The cotton velvet had been on a crazy
sale many, many years ago. I had originally bought it for my 18th
century masquerade dress but there was a lot left, and it
would actually belong more to the Victorian era. Cotton velvet
(or velveteen as it was called in the period) was at the time
the much cheaper alternative for the traditional, luxurious silk
velvet, but it's quite a luxury material enough for my wardrobe
- and not inhumanely difficult to sew.
I kept my eye on options for suitable silk for some time, and
tried a few samples but none really matched. Then I ran across
this silk on a trip to London. They had a few colors on sale and
this shade of thundercloud blue was just so my color. The silk
is again a poor man’s choice of machine woven dupioni, but it’s
rather regular with only a few thicker threads now and there.
Even using silk for a large portion of a dress is a bit scary
for me, to be honest.
I knew at once that I would use that silk for something, then
back home I remembered my old idea of silk and velvet dress, and
when I excavated the velvet from the stash I was overjoyed to
see that they fit together quite well. I had originally thought
of a darker navy silk so that the dress would have a bit more
subtle effect of two different textures in a similar shade, but
then again different and even contrasting colors were used
together a lot in the period.
Choosing the style
My first inspiration for this type of dress came from this
fashion plate in “Tygonid Mód”, 1877. I read it as a combination
of silk and velvet and the dark grayish navy color was
beautiful. I also liked the bodice with tails, and knew it
reminded me of something.
That something was a drawing with a pattern that had been on my
hard drive forever, long before I even began actually sewing
Natural Form. It’s from “Peterson’s Magazine”, 1877 again, and
called “Directoire Habit Bodice” (“New style house dress”),
which possibly refers to the almost ground length tails at the
back. While it perfectly checks most boxes for late 1870s
elegance - long, slim fitted bodice, ruffles, bows and a
sweeping train, those tails give it the extra something. Very
helpfully the illustration also provided both front- and back
look of the dress.
I chose this model as my goal, but as usual, I ended up making a
few changes. First of all I had hard time interpreting the
picture as to what was going on in the skirt trimming, other
than that there was clearly tons of it. I was already in great
doubt whether my silk would be enough for half of it. I also
basically liked the squared skirt that cleverly mirrored the
tail ends in shape, but was afraid that it would be difficult to
draft and get to sweep beautifully. My blue dinner dress had a
square train but the construction there was totally different.
And besides, I thought it wiser to settle for a slightly shorter
A fashion plate in “Le Moniteur de la Mode” from the same year
had a dress with a very similar tailed jacket style down to the
row of decorative buttons, but with a skirt that had a rounded
train with more simple trimming. The trimming was also easier to
decipher, at least to me it looked like big box pleats, possibly
a bias tape covering the stitchline and a narrower strip in
finer kilting (knife pleating) peeking from under the header. I
thought that stylistically this skirt shape and trimming plan
would fit with the Directoire jacket just as well.
My final source of inspiration was this plate from “La Mode
Artistique” from 1878. The dress itself is slightly different in
style, but still combines two materials in a similar style, and
it had the minor detail of sleeve cuffs I liked the best. Both
the Directoire style and the Le Moniteur de la Mode dress had
some kilted ruff and a band, but the Tygonid Mód dress had
bigger cuffs with buttonholes. I’m a big fan of the huge richly
trimmed cuffs of the earlier 1870s (maybe because I like 18th
century menswear), and the ones in La Mode Artistique were a
nice nod to earlier style.
So, I decided that it would not be a huge stylistic leap to
combine these elements from other designs within a very short
timeframe to my main inspiration style.
Combining different materials on the
same dress in this period seems to follow certain patterns: In
many pictures that I looked at, both fashion plates and museum
pieces, a bodice in one material usually has sleeves in the
contrasting one, while cuffs may be of the bodice material
again. If there is a plastron front it’s of course in
contrasting material from the rest of the bodice and in this
case the sleeves may match the bodice. When velvet is used for
bodice and overskirt the skirt seems to be often made in a
lighter material that allows for all the ruffles. My research on
this was of course very superficial, but it seemed to be a safe
choice and also make a nice, well balanced combination.
I had once upon a time drafted a basic
bodice pattern for my Tissot
inspired polonaise dress, but there were a lot of problems
with it. The cream & navy walking dress jacket pattern was
already much better, so I set to work to draft a longer bodice
pattern based on it. It was short at the front, but longer at
the back which I thought would be a good starting point for
adding the tails.
The cream jacket had a collar so I
had to fit the tight neckline, something that I thread. For the
life of me I can’t understand how I, with my very moderate bust
size (maximized by correct underwear though) seem to have so
much problems with fitting the front of a close-necked bodice. I
always end up with a too curved front which then folds at the
bust point. The trick of making a horizontal bust dart on the
lining and smoothing the top fabric over it works in certain
materials but not all. I had managed it even surprisingly neatly
in the cream wool-poly mix, and the trimming disguised the
inevitable wrinkles a bit, but I would never be able to squeeze
a lot of ease into thick velvet.
“Few are perfect in form. Better to improve an
imperfect form by padding, than to try and fit it by cutting”.
(Fashions of the Gilded Age, Frances Grimble)
With the cream jacket I had learned the period trick of padding
the hollow between bust and armhole - it may sound crazy to add
even more bulk, but it actually is hugely helpful for getting a
smooth line from shoulder to waist and also helps the front of
the sleeve fit better. This time I went crazy with the padding,
as the velvet surface smoothed any padding edge lines that might
show through from a lighter material.
There had also been some extra length at the back of the jacket
(very visible in the pictures), which I tried to get rid of now.
Then I could proceed on adapting the more or less fixed basic
pattern for the Directoire Habit Bodice style. So, technically
the original fashion illustration provided a pattern. On a
closer look it turned out to be very sketchy and not even
matching the drawing of the dress. The front piece shows shorter
waist darts while in the drawing they reach the bodice hem, for
example. The center back pieces look way too straight to match
the curving seam on the drawing too. And the side-back seam
where the bodice hem makes the sharp curve between back and
front pieces is way too back for the curve to settle where it is
in the picture.
I decided to ignore the pattern and just read the design from
the picture, as the seam lines are quite clearly drawn there
anyway. It seemed much more logical to just make a long underarm
seam dividing the hem to front and back.
I measured roughly the right length for the side seam, center
front and back tails, and drafted a sketchy hem shape that would
get fine tuned in the mock up fitting. It turned out that the
side seam was still too far back, partly caused by the fact that
over my ass the single side-back piece I now had needed much
more width at the hip level. And when I added width there was
too much curve and the waist didn’t fit well anymore. I decided
that the drawing was not infallible either, and no one would
care if I added another seam at the side-back to take some of
the shaping. I drafted the seam to end at the side of the back
tails, and I think it looks much better both in terms of fit and
design. The Le Moniteur de la Mode plate had a similar seam
arrangement at the back too.
I still had to fuzz a bit with the waist fit and add the
horizontal waist dart on the front pieces. On the cream jacket I
had made a dart in the lining and almost managed to fit the wool
blend over it, but velvet would just look bulky. Other than
that, I lengthened the tails a bit more than I had thought
I also drafted the neckline, but chickened out with the collar.
It was to be a simple standing collar, but I reasoned that I
should maybe finish the bodice first, then check the neckline
again and only then make the pattern for collar and cut it in
case there would be alterations and because the velvet would be
more bulky than my mock up material anyway.
And finally there was the sleeve. The cream jacket had had very
tight sleeves, but in 1870s they tended to be still a bit looser
and set lower. I widened them a bit, especially towards wrist.
For the cuffs I pinned on a piece of fabric on the mock up
sleeve and turned it in at the top edge until I was happy with
drafting: Skirt and overskirt
Before attacking the
pattern drafting in earnest I had to decipher another mystery
from the drawing: As the bodice tails cover the back of the
skirt almost all the way down minus the train, I couldn’t
really tell what was going on at the backside of the skirt. I
assumed the skirt itself to be a basic model, but what about
the overskirt? With a short bodice, overskirts are usually
draped at the back somehow, but it seemed improbable that
there would be much bulky draping under the bodice tails. I
wondered if I could just sew the visible front part of the
overskirt to the underskirt back piece seams. I consulted some
more experienced people and even found one
dress with a remotely similar arrangement, so I thought
it would be the most likely solution.
I had problems with my first trained skirt for the
Tissot-polonaise, and I had to shorten the train in the end to
stop it from turning upwards at the hem. A bit shorter train did
not ruin the dress in any way, but this dress needed a real
train if not a huge one. The front and sides pieces of the
Tissot skirt would be the right width for this, but I had to do
something to the back piece.
Luckily I had come across this skirt pattern from Tygonid Mód,
conveniently from the same year as my dress. It had an extra
wider piece gathered to the bottom edge of the back piece which
would create the fan-tail effect without widening the front and
side hem. I made a mock up, and found out that the train piece
could actually be a bit narrower than in the pattern, so I
narrowed and re-shaped it a bit. I also suspected that the wider
the train piece would be the harder it would be to gather it
into the upper back piece.
Another thing to decide had been at how high or low to set the
train piece and the gathering line on the upper back piece. I
have used roughly the same measurement (ca 60cm) from
waist down in all my Natural Form skirts, trained of not (a bit
below the knee), because it looks balanced to my eye, but this
time the skirt silhouette in the drawing seemed very narrow very
low down. True, there were fashion plates from the period that
showed trains that began to fan out at very low, but I couldn’t
help that they looked a bit unbalanced to my eye. In the end I
followed the Tygonid Mód pattern with roughly similar
proportions, the train part beginning at 90cm measured from the
waistband downwards. The final total hem circumference is almost
exactly 3 meters. It doesn’t sound that vast, but as it’s mostly
at the back it gives a nice back flare.
It’s in my experience (or rather with the lack of it) hard to
estimate from a limp mock up how a train will fall when it's
properly interlined, trimmed and supported with a balayese.
However I had to be content with this and just try what it would
turn out like and learn from the result for the benefit of my
The overskirt was very easy: I simply took the pattern from my
overskirt front piece for the cream and navy walking dress (I
even had the mock up piece left, I only had to sew the front
slit closed again) and readjusted the pleats a bit in the
fitting. There would be four 3,5cm deep pleats spaced 7cm apart
beginning 35cm down from the waistband. I also left some more
ease at the hips to allow for the heavier material. Of course it
was again hard to estimate how the much thicker velvet would
drape, but I could leave some seam allowance and in emergency
cut out a new piece - I had a lot of velvet and a large intact
piece with only a few darts at the top part would no doubt be
useful for something else.
The original Directoire dress also had the delicious little
detail of a decorative pocket, fashion fad of the period, or
more exactly two of them one overlapping another. The
combination looked lovely, but in the picture it looked like
they were in two different shades and might look too massive in
just one material over a contrasting one. I simply decided to
ditch the smaller top one and go with the more usual one,
further accentuated by the big bow.
I drafted a tentative shape for the pocket, but decided that it
would be best to try the size and placing only on the finished
skirt to see how it would fit the whole look and work with the
calculating the material consumption
Before cutting anything I had to thoroughly calculate how far my
silk would go. Obviously I still haven’t learned how much
material can go to a ruffle trimmed trained dress, because I’m
always surprised at the amount.
I first calculated the width and needed length of all the kilted
strips, which always take three times the finished length. The
wide box pleating in the hem could be done with double length
in a pinch but of course treble length would be desirable to get
the voluminous effect.
The skirt back piece had to have a silk top fabric quite high at
the back in case the bodice tails moved in wear to show the
skirt underneath. In the front so much of it would be covered by
the overskirt that I could cover only the lower part with silk.
The two-piece sleeves don’t take up that much material,
especially now as the large cuffs covered the lower part. Lining
for the tails required a large piece. Then I would also need to
cut the bias bows, piping and some sort of bias tape for the
skirt trimming. There were also dozens of buttons to cover, but
they come out of any small cutting waste scraps. And of course
the overskirt pocket, but that could be left out in an
So, I made a rough calculation of everything, checked that the
silk should be just enough, and then decided to cut the large
essential parts first and then figure out how to best use the
I began the sewing with the skirt, as it would be better to fit
the bodice over it, especially as the velvet overskirt would add
bulk on the hip area and the back volume of the skirt would
affect how the tails fell. Additionally most of the silk would
go to the skirt, so it was best to cut it first.
Besides the silk and velvet some other materials went into the
skirt as well. For the base I used the same trusted cotton and
poly blend I had used in several of my previous skirts - it’s
durable, lightweight and inexpensive and gives enough support
for the trimmed hem without adding too much weight. Especially a
thin dupioni needs a solid backing. For extra support I also
added a layer of cotton organdy between the base fabric and silk
as high as the trimming would reach. I sewed these pieces on the
base material by machine. Another extra material I used was a
thin bedsheet cotton satin, which I luckily found in a color
that almost matched the silk. More on that later.
Like I mentioned above, I did my best to do as little silk as I
could. The train piece got a silk top layer all around of
course, but the top 20cm of the upper back piece is just in the
base fabric. On the front and side pieces the silk top follows
the upwards curving line of the overskirt, though there is a
safe overlap of course in case the overskirt rises considerably
when sitting etc. Especially the front piece hem which is mostly
hidden under ruffles has some heavy piecing from the leftovers
of the other pieces. I could of course technically also left the
bottom of the hem under the wide trimming without the silk
coved, as my base material wasn’t even hugely different in
color, but since it would probably peek a bit under the box
pleats I decided that I didn’t need to go to such lengths of
Putting the basic skirt together was fairly straightforward.
After having joined all the layers in the pieces I finished the
edges with overlock (it’s inside the skirt with a petticoat
covering the wrong side so I don’t care if it's inaccurate). The
main challenge was gathering the train piece neatly on the top
part of the back piece. Happily it was still rather thin in
spite of having several layers (the cotton-poly blend, silk on
top and turned down over the edge of the base at the header). Or
actually that itself was not the main challenge, but rather then
get both gathered into the final shape.
Imitating the Tygonid Mód illustration I left a 3cm header, then
sewed four gathering lines 5mm apart, gathered the train piece
on the right width and sewed it on the back piece over all the
gathering lines. Then I (painstakingly) pulled narrow curtain
strings through all the three casings thus formed, forced a
small hole open at the center of the piece and pulled them out.
This construction gave a similar look to the pattern
illustration and allows the gathering to be partly opened for
The top of the back piece got the usual gathering 60cm down from
the waistband and three elastic bands and corresponding buttons
to keep the fullness at the back, the lowest one at the level of
the gathering and the other two spaced at 13cm distance.
After having joined the back pieces and the front- and side
pieces I made up the overskirt.
I had already made the first piece of 5mm kilting with my
trusted pleating board, which would go to the overskirt hem with
a finished width of 6cm. I sewed it on and finished with a bias
facing of cotton satin. Then I sewed the waist darts, basted the
side pleats and then basted the whole on the skirt front to test
how it would drape.
I sewed the skirt back on the front and overskirt with a long
stitch and tried it on. The velvet was heavier than the mock up
muslin, so the overskirt fell more straight, but it did have
some folds at the hem after all.
I could now close the side seams for real, finish the opening
placket with hooks and put on the waistband. Then I checked the
length. As usual I had been over-careful in cutting it and added
that final allowance in the end just to be sure, and now had to
trim off several centimeters of my precious silk. That done I
finished the hem with a bias facing in the base material, 14cm
wide at the front and sides and tapering to 10cm at the train.
I decided that I might as well make the removable balayeuse at
this point. It would be very similar to the one I had made for
ballgown, protecting the train in the back and continuing
as a simple ruffle for the front part of the skirt.
I had intended to use this dress mainly indoors, as the silk
skirt is delicate and hard to clean, so the balayeuse wouldn’t
have to be so heavy either. I used cotton organdy that I had in
the stash, which might be a bit too lightweight but at least it
does not make the skirt any heavier and looks fancy.
The back is cut with the same pattern as the train piece and
gathered into a band that matches the gathered length of the
join, and buttoned on at the band and sides. The hem is
reinforced with a 3cm deep bias strip. The 10cm deep ruffle is
edged with lace and pleated into 1cm deep knife pleats, then
sewn on the top of the train piece. The edge is covered with
self fabric bias tape, and the top of the rest of the peating is
finished likewise with bias tape.
The ties for securing the balayeuse on the edge of the train are
sewn under the ruffle heading. I worked corresponding loops on
the train, and added the buttons at the gathering line and side
The skirt seemed to work well and look good with the balayeuse
on, which was a relief since with my Tissot-dress the balayeuse
I had intended had totally ruined the skirt until I fixed it to
become a petticoat extension instead. This meant that I could
happily move on to add the skirt trimming.
I made the 7,5cm deep kilting first, and sewed it on. The edge
would get covered later with the larger box pleated ruffle.
After careful calculation I had assured myself that I would have
enough silk for the side-to-side placed box pleats that required
three times the finished length of material. The 18cm deep
ruffle would have a 3cm header. To save material I again used my
old trick of lining the ruffle with cotton satin. The header has
doubled silk but at the bottom edge the satin is joined to the
silk about 1cm from the edge. This has worked very well for
wider pleated pieces in the past and I really liked the result
again this time: a thin cotton satin is about the same weight as
the silk, but gives a bit of backing and keeps the silk from
creasing so easily. Also the seam at the bottom edge with the
seam allowance filling the fold stiffens the edge a bit and
keeps it in shape.
I left the lining unfinished at the ends and then pinned the
ruffle into 3cm box pleats. I stitched over them and then pinned
the pleating in the skirt hem. I had prepared to do more or less
adjusting at the join, but incredibly the pleats ended up
perfectly even. All I had to do was to finish the join, pin the
last pleats and sew them down.
I’m going to jump a little forward at this point (okay, a lot).
As is my bad habit, I often procrastinate doing something I
think is going to be difficult. In this case the only thing left
to do in the skirt was to make some sort of bias tape,
preferably folded to cover the stitching line of the ruffles. I
even made a short test piece on another silk, but then put off
making the real thing. My excuse, not entirely unfounded, was
that I would calculate exactly the length and width of all the
bias pieces I would need, piping and bows and all, and then cut
them at the same time. And of course it would be safer to do it
But, anyway, when I finally had to make that bias thing, it
turned out to be actually much easier and faster than I had
I had planned the bias tape to be 3cm wide, and had thought that
I could use a single flat in an emergency, but of course it
would look a little bleh. This museum
piece had a nice wide double fold at the hem, and I
thought I might try something similar but much narrower.
As the silk is so thin I decided to build the folding over an
organdy strip in the finished width, cut in bias for
flexibility. I made a few test versions using another silk and
this is what I ended up with.
I cut an about 9,5cm wide bias piece of the silk. Then I sewed
the organdy strip at 2,5cm distance from one edge of the silk,
the stitch line at 9mm distance from the other edge of the
Then I folded and pressed the 2,5cm allowance to turn over the
organdy strip edge. This now became the bottom edge.
On the right side I then folded and pressed the other edge to
turn from the stitchline in the same direction (downwards), then
back upwards again, then downwards to form a pleat 1,5cm from
the edge. Then I folded and pressed the silk to turn over the
lower edge on the wrong side. As the width of a bias strip never
seems to be even no matter how carefully you cut it, I trimmed
the turned under edges to 2cm at this point. I folded the edges
so that the one facing towards the bottom edge became the top
one, and less likely to peek out.
At this point I resorted to a modern hack: I slipped a 2 cm wide
fusible tape under the edges and ironed over the wrong side to
fix them to the organdy base. The allowances would technically
be secured when sewing the folded bias tape in place, but this
made life easier in the meanwhile. It was also a safe precaution
as the overlap was not wide.
I pinned the finished tape in place and sewed it on, the
stitchline very conveniently hidden under the pleat. The organdy
base keeps it in shape and prevents the edges from folding over
quite well, so I didn’t even have to whip stitch the edges down
like I had been prepared to do. Sure, it’s not totally perfect
and the silk pulls in some places, but it still looks pretty
good. In the end making this piece of trimming was very easy and
fast and I might definitely try the same technique again.
The bodice would, fully intentionally, be a lot more work.
First I cut the cotton twill lining and marked pretty much
everything I needed in it with pencil. At this point I also
added the heavy padding to fill the hollow at the side of the
bust and below the shoulder. I basted a generous amount of
padding in several layers and then covered it with cotton
batiste. It gave a nice, smooth line on the bodice, and also an
impression of a bust I could only dream of in real life. I also
sewed the horizontal bust darts.
As the velvet tends to fray and cast a lot of mess around it I
run all the edges in overlock immediately after cutting, even
though I would trim and finish them differently later. Then I
spend a lot of time basting the velvet on the twill lining. I
also basted several marking lines and balance marks on a lighter
thread so I wouldn’t get confused which was which. As the velvet
is quite thick I made special care to bend the pieces as close
to the finished shape as possible to make sure the lining would
not end up too long or too short at the waist curve or shoulder.
The fronts were the tricky part here: As I had mentioned earlier
about the pattern drafting, the front edges were a challenge. I
had daringly decided to make the horizontal bust dart in the
lining (or two darts, actually, so as not to have a too sharp
curve) and bravely try to ease the velvet over it. I basted many
rows of gathering threads on short stitch, and somehow by gently
pulling them little by little and carefully pressing the velvet
over a velvet board I managed to get the velvet mounted down.
There was of course some inevitable wrinkles but I had feared
worse. I basted the bust are a lot to keep layers in shape while
putting the bodice together.
As velvet can also be tricky to sew I basted all the bodice
seams before sewing them. This made it go quite smoothly. Then I
trimmed and scalloped the seam allowances. As mentioned before,
velvet frays, so I whip stitched them before adding the bias
binding. As usual, I finished only the back seams and front
darts, and only basted the side- and shoulder seams for fitting.
Ah, that fitting… as you can see, the covid weight gain had
finally got me, not to mention the Christmas time. In my
defense, I had probably also underestimated the bulk the velvet
overskirt would add. Happily at this point I still had a lot of
extra allowance on the side seams, so it was easily fixed. I
basted new seamlines and went forward.
I had originally planned the bodice with boning, but at this
fitting I noticed that the fit was so smooth already that I
might not need them after all. Velvet had a little stretch as
well as the twill lining I used, so I could fit it rather tight
without wrinkles at the waistline. At this point I still left
the option open to be decided on the next proper fitting.
Then there were the buttonholes, a lot of them. Easiest to make
at this point, so after fitting I usually take the basted side-
and shoulder seams apart so I can work on just the separate
right front. First I finished the front edge turned under with
running overlock on the velvet edge and then turned it narrowly
over the edge of the lining and secured with a machine stitch.
I marked the buttonhole places on the wrong side, then sewed a
machine stitch along the lines to mark the places on the front
side. Then I turned the front edge on the underside and stitched
around the buttonholes with a short stitch to secure them before
working them by hand. At this point I left the last few
buttonholes at the bottom and top to be made only after
finishing the hem and neckline, but it was useful to have the
most in between done now for the later fittings.
Buttonholes on velvet - maddening at times, ditto dark top
fabric and dark thread combined with light lining that tends to
come out at places. By the way, I chose to use black thread
because the dark blue I had in stash did not match and none of
my local suppliers have buttonhole silk anymore, so it can be
hard to find a matching one. Black is at least neutral with the
I also needed a ton of buttons (well, 65 to be exact). I used
19mm metal cover button parts and small silk scraps left from
the cutting. I sewed a facing on the other front edge, leaving
the top and bottom edges open again, and then sewed on the
buttons for the finished buttonholes.
The next fitting with the best part of the buttoning finished
looked promising. At this point a lot of time had passed with
other projects in between, and I had managed to get rid of the
few extra kilos, so I could alter the basted side seam lines
just a bit smaller again (in optimistic expectation that my
weight would stay the same). With tweaking the side seams to and
fro I had also ended up with hemline not matching at the sides,
and had to reshape it a bit otherways too and baste the new
I also decided to ditch the boning. I
had already made the hook closure piece to support the
buttoning, but there was not really need for it either - as I
had already mentioned, the bodice materials had enough stretch
to allow for a snug fit without putting too much strain on the
buttons. After sewing the side seams for real and finishing the
allowances I only needed to add a waistband. Then I could
proceed on finishing the hem.
At this point I had to carefully calculate what to do with the
rest of my silk. I had already cut the sleeves and reserved a
piece for lining the bodice tails, but then there were the
numerous bias pieces, some of which could have a lot of joins if
needed and some that could not, namely the bows. I had cut the
last of the other pieces from one edge so that I had a full
width bias to utilize now, and with some planning managed to cut
everything I needed and still have some left.
I had dabbled with piping in my dinner dress bodice, and it had
went surprisingly smoothly, so I was unprepared for all the
problems I encountered on this one. To begin with, it might be
that no matter how precise I had tried to be, maybe my silk bias
was not completely in true bias after all. Then the yarn I had
used for piping before failed me: It was too thin to be used
alone, but two layers didn’t settle neatly though they had
inside the heavier top material of the dinner dress. I went
panic shopping and found a thicker, soft cotton thread that I
thought would work, but in the end I had problems with it too.
And then there were the usual difficulties of the lovely
combination of something with a nap and something thin and
The front and sides backed with the
cotton twill were not that bad with careful basting, but those
tails were another matter. I had not interlined them, as I had
thought the velvet backed with silk lining would have enough
body to not look limp but not too stiff either. But now I found
out that sewing a piping on velvet alone was a hopeless endeavor
at least with my skill level. I pinned and basted the piping a
billion times and still it was always either pulling the velvet
shorter or curving out. At last I decided that it would have to
do, sewed the piping on, added the kilted ruffle on the bottom
edges, and then I was faced with the next difficulty: The velvet
also simply refused to be lined with the silk.
I basted the lining on time and
again, and it was always either too tight or too loose and
together with the piping turned the tails wonky. At last I
settled with just getting it done, basted a lot and then turned
the edge under and slip stitched the silk on the piping edge. In
fact, unpicked, pinned and basted again, and sewed again at
Yes, the finished thing looks bad. Happily at least the sides
and front of the hem were much easier to finish with cotton
satin facing. I also finished the bottom corners of front edges.
The bodice was now only missing a collar, which I had not even
drafted, reasoning that it would be better to do when I had
fitted the final shape of the neckline for real. And of course I
had been lazy and left it for the last possible moment. Now I
tried to be very careful in not fitting the neckline too tight,
as the velvet collar with the ruffle added on the inside would
be quite thick.
Many narrow standing collars in the period seem to be cut simply
as a straight piece of material, but I persisted in wanting a
bit of curve in the ends for a more snug fit. I cut the pattern
shape in cotton organdy and basted it on a piece of velvet. Then
I basted the piping on the edge, carefully cutting slits in the
seam allowance to get a symmetrical curve at both ends. I sewed
the piping on (with a few retakes), and then basted and sewed
the collar on the neckline.
I finished the inside of the collar by first trimming and
clipping the seam allowances and then whip stitching them down
on the interlining. Then I added a lining of cotton satin and
sewed it on with slip stitch. With the top- and bottom edge of
the front edge now finished I could finally add the last
One more thing about that collar: I realized too late that I had
been over-careful in not making it too tight, as it ended up
being a bit loose instead. It definitely affects the look, which
should be more snug, but on the other hand it’s at least
comfortable to wear so I think I can live with it.
And of course there were the sleeves, which I had also been
working on in the meanwhile. To save the precious silk I had cut
the top fabric shorter at the sleeve ends because they would be
lined with bedsheet cotton satin and covered with the heavy
cuffs anyway. I joined the sleeve pieces, evened the top edge of
the layers and basted the sleeve cap line and balance marks.
I had decided to interline the cuffs with cotton organdy
(something that in retrospect I might have done with the bodice
tails too). Besides giving some backing the interlining also
neatly defined the edges. I basted it on the pieces and worked
buttonholes on the top piece. Then I joined the seam and whip
stitched the seam allowances on the interlining.
Getting the piping neat and
symmetrical in the corners was a pain in the derriere, of
course. Happily the cuffs would be edged with ruffles, so some
unevenness in the width was not as glaringly obvious as it would
have been against the velvet alone. Next I sewed the ruffles on,
turned the seam allowances under and whip stitched them to the
interlining. I had decided that the cuffs would not need a
separate lining as the ruffles would disguise the underside
possibly peeking out at top edge and the lower edge would be
finished with the sleeve end edge turned under and slip stitched
on the cuff.
Next I would sew the sleeves on the almost finished bodice. They
had worked well in the mock up so I was optimistic, but once
again my optimism crashed down with the realities of combining
silk and velvet. To begin with, managing any extra fullness on
densely woven material is tricky. I managed to get the sleeve
head itself shaped pretty good on a dummy, but when I pinned it
on the velvet bodice it looked fine for a second, then when I
tried to even baste it in place it mysteriously always moved
along with the nap. I battled with it (too) for what seemed like
an eternity, then finally settled for good enough. Yes, to be
honest I was pretty fed up at this point.
Normally I would have finished the sleeves as far as possible
before sewing them on the bodice, but this time the cuffs were
so heavy that I thought it would be easier to fit the sleeves
without the cuffs weighing them down. Before attaching the cuffs
I pinned them on and checked that the sleeve length was right. I
also noticed that despite having drafted the cuff circumference
longer than the sleeve they had ended up so thick that they were
slightly short. Happily I had planned a wide overlap just in
case, which came in useful now.
First I pinned the top of the cuff along the top seam of the
sleeve, then followed around the sleeve. I also pinned the
folded sleeve lining on the underside of the cuff. Then I sewed
down the lower end, checked the placement for the buttons and
sewed them on. Then I buttoned the cuffs and slip stitched the
sleeve lining on. For further security I basted the top edge
down with small stitches along the bias seam. Thus the buttoning
is in theory real, but does not really work or have any
I had again left the fancy skirt pocket almost to the last. The
good news was that I still had some silk left for it. I had
planned roughly the shape and size I wanted, and now folded a
mock up piece and pinned it on the overskirt. With the finished
skirt and bodice I could see how it would fit over the overskirt
pleats and get it exactly in the right place to be partly hidden
by the bodice tails as in the fashion plate.
As for the construction I decided to make a doubled base of the
cotton I had used for the skirt and then gather the silk
over it. I cut the top edge folded and sewed the side seams and
then stitched around it, leaving the bottom edge open. Then I
cut a silk piece two times the width of the base, pressed 1cm
seam allowances on the sides and 4,5cm wide heading (of which
1cm went to the seam allowance) on the top edge, and sewed sets
of two gathering lines spaced 3,5cm apart.
Beginning from the top I pulled one
gathering line at the time to the right length and sewed it on
the base. On the bottom edge I left a 1cm allowance under the
last gathering thread, sewed the layers together with overlock
and turned them under.
I tried the dress on again, fiddled with the pocket placement
until I was happy and pinned it on. I had to leave the topmost
overskirt pleat under one size, but miraculously it sort of
worked without pulling the overskirt out of shape. Then I sewed
the side edges of the base on the overskirt by hand, and
followed by tacking the silk to cover them, and lastly sewed the
bottom edge. The pocket is then functional for small items like
There were still a lot of buttons to sew on at the bodice tails.
Already in the pattern drafting stage I had concluded that with
the 19mm buttons I was using they would, to my eye, look best
with 4,5cm spacing. Each side would then have a row of 20
buttons. It’s less than in the fashion plate, but as mentioned,
my buttons are a bit larger and fashion plates of the era tend
to favor a tall silhouette with body proportions that don’t
always match those of the average person. Anyway, the good thing
about the buttons was that they helped to secure the fiddly
lining on the velvet.
In the fittings I had also checked the placement for bows in the
bodice tails. It had turned out that the skirt pulled the tails
apart farther up than I had supposed, so I had to move the last
join up and space the bows closer.
I sewed small thread bars to join the edges. I had made 6cm wide
bow strips of doubled bias silk, and planned to make double
looped bows as in the fashion plate, but when I had shaped the
first few I realized that they looked way too oversized and
heavy in this width. The quick fix was to make normal bows
instead, which actually looked nice, but it meant that I had to
shorten the bow strips. Hemming one edge again was not that bad
but it was infuriating to think how much precious silk I might
have saved by simply trying out one before cutting them all.
The reason I was so obsessed about saving silk, by the way, was
that it might be a good idea to make another bodice for the
really nice skirt. The only catch was that it would have to have
tails too to cover the plain back of the skirt, unless of course
I would manage to come up with some sort of detachable velvet
piece to imitate the missing back overskirt. I still felt that
velvet might be a be heavy for a ballgown, but might make a nice
dinner dress - I even found some pictures of possible designs.
But then the bodice would really have to include some details in
silk to make a complete look. The bows in the back are just
tacked it and can be easily borrowed, and some piping goes a
long way, but we will see. My previous “I’ll make another bodice
for this”-project, a ballgown bodice for the
blue dinner dress is very much pushed to the bottom of the
Neckline also got a bow (which I had planned to have a simple
one from the start), and I finished the ruffled pocket with
another bow with longer ends. And then the whole thing was
I had been in a mad rush to finish it for the last few weeks,
because we had already planned the photoshoot day and there was
also the possibility of bad weather so we couldn’t leave it too
late in the autumn. That maybe explains some of the angst,
impatience and bad decisions I made towards the end. I actually
sewed the last bows in place about 1:30 am on the photoshoot
The original fashion plate was presented as a “House Dress”, but
I reasoned that it could as well work as something of a visiting
dress or a fancier day dress, in any case something to be worn
outside a stately home where most costume events tend to take
place. That meant that I also needed a pretty bonnet or hat for
it, and making of it has its own post. It might have been
smarter just to make a black one that would go with other
outfits as well, but I couldn’t resist making a specific one for
this dress. I also had a lot of navy blue trimming things in
stash already, so I didn’t even have to purchase anything (save
dye for the feathers).
I’m not very good with millinery, but I have to say that this
one turned out very nice even to my own critical eye.
Then there were the necessary lace bits for the neck and
sleeves. As this was a rather ambitious project I was mentally
prepared to sacrifice some of my small and precious stash of
antique lace. I did not have enough for a matching set, so I
used a wider one for sleeves and a narrower one for neckline.
I used fine sheer cotton for both ruffles. I hemmed the material
narrowly and then whip stitched the lace on it. The sleeve
ruffles were then pleated and sewn into a band which was basted
inside the sleeve.
I did not have a long enough piece of the lace I had planned for
the neckline so the ruffle is only double the finished length
(sleeve ruffles got three lengths). As the lace is narrow and
doesn’t show that much it looks reasonably adequate.
I thought it would be most practical to make a removable ruffle
collar set in a short of tiny chemisette you can see in period
illustrations. In those it looks like it has a single button on
the front and that’s it, but I was a bit skeptical whether it
would really stay securely in place like that. Well, it turned
out that it didn’t, maybe my chosen material of doubled cotton
batiste was too flimsy or whatever. I ended up sewing a lot of
unseemly and not period accurate snap fasteners (because I
didn’t trust hooks and eyes and did not have tiny flat buttons
that might have worked at hand). I even used clear plastic ones
instead of metal, because snap fasteners were incorrect in any
case but at least those were less conspicuous.
I had of course planned the collar piece could be an addition to
my wardrobe that could be used with other high necked dresses
too, but as it had to be made to match the bit too large collar
on this one it remains to be seen whether it will work with
other garments. The sleeve ruffles also need roughly the same
sleeve width and style that needs a wide and full ruffle. The
thing with building a wardrobe (at least for a perfectionist
like me) is that you need to be constantly making new
accessories and even underwear to go with different styles of
day and evening wear.
This dress was another big project for me, one that I had been
planning for some time. The outcome is not 100% perfect, as
things never are. Those unfortunate bodice tails (the *thing* of
the design) have already been mentioned. Another thing that I
realized from the pictures is that the irritating extra back
length is there again, even though I tried to avoid it. I have
to see further into this matter. Then again, now I can at least
move my arms.
I also noticed that it looks like the bodice hem side curve has
somehow ended up shorter on one side - I know I had to alter it
at some point, but I have no idea anymore if I messed it up
again either too short or too long, because I made it in such a hurry that I can’t even
remember which side I fixed. Oh, well.
These reflections aside, I have to say that when I put the whole
outfit on for the first time for the photoshoot I fell totally
in love with it again despite the difficulties I had had towards
the end. I feel really at home in it in almost an uncanny way, I
love the colors, I even like the hat, and most of all I think it
really has a period feeling to it. I’m really glad I used
quality materials for once, though of course they are still far
from the high end of what is available. For the 18th century the
highlight of my wardrobe is naturally the light blue
robe a lá francaise (even though the material there is
totally inaccurate), and at the moment I feel this my best
effort in Natural Form style so far.