1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part IV: Bodice


Once the skirt was done, I got out my bodice pattern– Truly Victorian 442– and started cutting out a mockup. I cut size D for the front and size E for the back, per the measurements in the instructions, and stitched the pieces together as instructed. It went together pretty fast, all things considered– I’m particularly happy with how well the curved back seams match up and how easy they were to stitch… take note, Simplicity 4055!

I tried it on first over my dress form just to see if it was anywhere near the right size. The dress form is about right for my corseted measurements, anyway, since the corset doesn’t actually reduce my waistline so much as shape it more attractively. It looked reasonably close.


Then I actually tried it on myself, over the hoop skirt and skirt, to see how much work I had to do to get it to fit. The problem, of course, was that my husband isn’t so great at pinning fabric on me, so had a difficult time lining things up to see where the trouble spots were. Also, he’s reluctant to pin things too tightly, even though I pointed out that a bodice like this is supposed to be form-fitting. In the end, I determined that there weren’t any major problems with the pattern as drafted (at least none that couldn’t be fixed by a little tweaking at the side seams), and decided to leave the pattern unaltered.

I cut out my bodice pieces twice; once in my flatlining fabric (a heavy cotton sateen in ivory– I used it for my Dickens Fair dress flatlining as well) and once in my fashion fabric (plain ivory from the upper portions of my curtain panels). The pattern actually called for flatlining in twill or denim and then lining the whole thing, but I knew I’d be wearing this dress in summer and really didn’t want to pass out from the heat from three layers of fabric (plus corset and shift), so I tried to keep things cooler by using a slightly lighter flatlining and omitting the lining entirely. Also, with the seams exposed it’ll be easier to alter the bodice if necessary in the future. I will note that I did make one change to the pattern pieces– I cut the side seam allowances to be huge (like 2″) so I’ll have plenty of extra room to let the bodice out if it ever becomes necessary.

I pinned and machine-basted together the edges of each piece inside the seam allowance, wrong sides together, except for the two center back panels– those I machine-stitched right-sides-together at the center back seam for a clean finish (got the idea from A Damsel in This Dress, otherwise known as the lady behind Prior Attire), then basted the remaining three edges as above. I also stitched a 3/8″ channel in each of the center back edges to add 1/4″ boning later.

I’d intended to put in my eyelets at this point (would’ve been much easier), but I decided to stitch everything together first to ensure that I was placing the eyelets correctly in relation to the seams and the upper and lower edges. I stitched up the bodice, zig-zagged the edges of the seam allowances, and pressed the seams open. I also sliced through the sewn darts and pressed them open.


I followed the instructions here for buttonhole stitch eyelets and put in eleven hand-bound eyelets on each side of the center back, 1″ apart. The 1″ seam allowance built in to the pattern provided plenty of support for the eyelets, which were just within that allowance and so had four layers of fabric as a base. I used a triple strand of ivory embroidery floss (three strands out of the six strands that make up the floss) to work the eyelets. Many of them weren’t quite as pretty as I’d have liked, but they were at least functional. Besides, no one is going to be looking closely at them anyway, right?


Once the eyelets were done I got out some pieces of spiral steel boning (harvested from an old corset) and a roll of storebought plastic boning in fabric casing. Honestly, buying encased plastic boning is basically the same price as buying fabric casing on its own (and then you have extra plastic boning), though I admit that the casing is probably thinner fabric than the casing you’d buy separately. Still, since this bodice isn’t taking as much strain as a corset (and since I don’t wear these gowns that frequently or for too long at a time), I think it’ll work.

I hand-whipstitched lengths of casing to the seam allowances of the darts and seams (except the side seams, which I left empty to make fitting easier in the next step). Then I found spiral steels of the appropriate length for the curved back seams, and put placeholder pieces of flat plastic boning into the rest of the seams. I figure that I’ll be able to purchase flat steel boning to replace them later, but for fitting purposes I’ll use the plastic.

I tried on the boned bodice over all of the other pieces to see how it fit, lacing it up with some 1/4″ satin ribbon. To my shock, it fit perfectly (though I’m still getting some odd wrinkles along the darts that have nothing to do with the bodice being too tight– it’s like that even when loosely laced– maybe my thread tension was too tight?), so I added the boning channels to the side seams as they were and went on to finish the bodice.

I used some standard kitchen twine to make tiny piping out of extra strips of bias-cut ivory fabric (turned to the shiny side for this because I thought it would look nice), which I then used to pipe the bottom edge of my bodice. (I considered doing the piping in blue to match the embroidery on the skirt, but decided it would look too costume-y)

It turned out all right (the front point and the center back edges were tough to maneuver around), but next time I’ll pipe the bottom edge before putting in the boning channels– that way I can stitch them on top of the piping on the inside so they don’t make for too many layers to be folded over. Also, there’s got to be an easier way to finish off the piping on the back points– I wouldn’t have had any problem if I’d finished the center back edges the way the instructions stated (by folding them over to the inside and whipstitching them down to the flatlining), but the clean edge created by my earlier technique made it harder to tuck in the piping neatly at the end. But I like the clean edge, so what to do?


I will note that I had to eyeball the point on the bodice front– just following the lower edge of the bodice would’ve made for a weirdly rounded front, so don’t do that.


I love the finished look provided by the piping at the lower edge of the bodice. I thought about using piping for the armscyes as well, but figured that they were going to be covered by the bertha so it wouldn’t matter anyway.

The sleeves themselves were really easy to make– just basic short puffs, which were gathered to fit the lining (made of extra scraps of cotton sateen). Once they were stitched in, I bound the armscye with Hug Snug seam binding.


The top edge of the neckline is still left raw, because I’ll be covering it with the bertha and then binding the two layers together to finish the edge.

Next up– the bertha!







4 thoughts on “1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part IV: Bodice

  1. Pingback: 1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part VI: Finishing the Bodice | It's All Frosting...

  2. Two Quick questions. I am making this pattern as well.
    1 – is it necessary to put a seam down the center front or can you just cut on the fold?
    2 – Did you do bias strips for piping or just add cording and sew a tight stitch with a zipper foot next to it?
    Thanks so much!!!
    Barb R


    • Hi! So you do need to put a seam down the center front, because the seam curves in just above the bust. If you don’t have that curve it won’t hug your bustline the way you need it to, and it will be too loose around your shoulders. For the piping, I cut bias strips and used a zipper foot to enclose the cording– regular kitchen twine. Using bias strips helps the cording go around curves more easily– otherwise it can get cranky when you try to follow the line of your bodice. Good luck!


  3. Pingback: 1898 Black Moire Convertible Gown, Part II: Evening Bodice Base | It's All Frosting...

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