1840s Day Dress, Part I: Pattern and Fabric Mishaps (or, Adventures in Indecision)


Given my love of historical costuming, I often bemoan the fact that despite growing up in Northern California, which appears in retrospect to have been a Mecca of costuming resources and events, the only thing I took advantage of at the time was attending the Northern California Renaissance Faire (which was admittedly awesome). Now I’m in Massachusetts, where costuming events are less abundant and fabric stores are harder to get to. But as luck would have it, I’m going home for Christmas this year and I’ll be in the area for the last day of the San Francisco Dickens Fair!

As soon as I made plans to go, I knew I’d need a dress– nothing too complicated, and hopefully something that could be shoved into a suitcase without taking up too much space or sustaining lasting damage. Unfortunately, the event’s stated period (1842-1863) is smack dab in the middle of a gap in my costuming portfolio– I have nothing between 1815 and 1890. So I have to make something new.

Let’s just say it did not start off well.

I swear, this post took forever to write because every time I thought I had finalized my pattern/fabric choices, something happened to mess it up and I had to go back and update. Anyway, read on for the saga of “the Dickens Fair dress of indecision”…

I was originally drawn to the simplicity of the 1840s– basic bodices, no hoop skirts required– and seriously considered using Laughing Moon 114, a fan-front round gown, as my pattern.


But then I saw Simplicity 4400, an out-of-print 1860s-ish pattern that had decent reviews. I particularly liked the double-puffed sleeves, which were visually interesting while still being practical for everyday wear. I kind of fell in love with it, so I ordered it right then and there, figuring that I could put up with a hoop for a day. I even ordered a cheap hoop skirt on eBay to be shipped to my parents’ house in California, not wanting to lug my regular hoop skirt on the plane.


I searched for fabric and found 10 yards of cotton in a lovely color and a reasonably period pattern for a really great price on eBay. I figured that it could work for a casual Dickens Fair costume, despite the fact that darted bodices like the one in my pattern were apparently most commonly done in silk or wool, not cotton.


And of course there had to be a “but.” My fabric arrived looking nothing like the picture. Here’s a side-by-side:

The eBay listing photo (left) shows a nice, saturated burgundy– perfect for a Christmas-time event, but not too bright of a red. Love it. The actual fabric (right), on the other hand, is a faded mauve– very little color, not Christmas-y, and just plain boring. I was really annoyed (more so because return shipping was too expensive to make it worthwhile to return). I even tried over-dyeing a scrap with red dye to see if that would fix the problem, with no luck. So I was back to square one.

My next try (after an unsuccessful trip to a discount fabric store in Rhode Island) was ordering some “ruby red” faille taffeta at FashionFabricsClub.com.

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I don’t know what it looks like on your monitor, but on my monitor it was actually ruby-colored– most natural rubies being a kind of dark red with purple undertones in real life. However, when the fabric arrived it was what I’d call “lipstick red”– a bright, cheerful red that was much too garish for the period. Plus, despite being billed as having a faintly ribbed texture (as faille does), it didn’t look ribbed at all to me– rather, it just looked synthetic, which I suppose shouldn’t have surprised me given that it was polyester. I had to return it, so I was again back to square one.

I made a not-particularly-hopeful shopping trip to a local fabric store that carried a limited selection of cottons, and found a brick-red calico with a wavy stripe pattern in it. It wasn’t perfect, but it was cheap and I bought it just in case I didn’t find anything better.


Then I decided that the new calico wouldn’t work well with the Simplicity pattern– it just looked too informal, and by this point I really had my heart set on making that pattern later out of taffeta, which would be weird if I already had a cotton version. So I switched gears– the Laughing Moon pattern had a gathered bodice that was very popular for use with printed cottons, besides looking easier to fit than the extremely smooth (and unforgiving) Simplicity bodice, so I ordered it. All set, right?


I was still iffy about the calico– I didn’t love it, and I was reluctant to go to the effort of making a whole dress out of a fabric I didn’t really like that much. I decided to hedge my bets and order a burgundy and blue plaid, again from fashionfabricsclub.com. It looked nice on my screen (even with the brightness turned way up)– which admittedly hadn’t been the best indicator of past success, but it was worth a shot. I now had two options– that should be fine, right?


Wrong again. I got an email a few days later saying that the plaid was actually *out of stock*, so no fabric for me. Still wanting options, I went to another site, fabricdirect.com, and ordered a swatch of navy blue/hunter green striped flannel that was on sale, figuring that if it was thin enough it could work despite being flannel.


Unfortunately when my swatch arrived it was a thick and plushy flannel– great for pajamas and cozy shirts, not so great for dresses to be worn over multiple layers to an indoor event. Besides, I found myself looking for reasons not to use it, which clearly meant that I didn’t want to.

So it’s back to the brick-red calico. And that’s it– I’m done vacillating over fabrics and patterns, particularly for a dress that needs to be done by mid-December and (by all accounts) includes a lot of hand-sewing.

Moving on!



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