1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part V: Bertha

So it’s time to make the bertha (weird name for an article of clothing, but whatever). Berthas can be made of flat or pleated/gathered pieces of fabric, trimmed in any number of different ways. TV442 comes with two options– a flat one and a gathered one.


I decided to make the gathered bertha, which was really just a long, hemmed rectangle with angled lines of gathering to form the ruffles. I figured that I’d cover up my gathering lines with some blue and gold trim to add some visual interest. Accordingly, I cut out the fabric, ran gathering stitches along the appropriate lines, and started pinning things to see how it would look.

Unfortunately, it ended up looking like this (ribbon is tacked down as a placeholder only, but you get the idea). Ugh.


It did look reasonably like the drawing, but I just didn’t like it. It was too fluffy and costume-like– as if Gone With The Wind had been made in the 1970s…


I think it might have worked better in a lighter fabric, or perhaps if I’d pressed the gathers to make them lie flatter or hand-gathered them to make them more uniform, but I just couldn’t un-see the costume-y aspect of the ruffled bertha. I had to go in a different direction.

While I do kind of like the look of the bodice without any bertha at all, it’s pretty plain that way. I decided instead to try a pleated bertha, which looks more streamlined and elegant (and perhaps better suited to my age, which– ahem– may not be appropriate for frivolously ruffled berthas anyway).


Rather than try to pleat a single piece of fabric down to the correct shape, I mimicked pleats by using overlapping folded strips of bias-cut fabric. I think I saw this idea originally from Koshka The Cat (who is so, SO amazing and you need to look at her entire blog right now), though her pleated bertha is crescent-shaped rather than pointed. I will note that the pointed bertha here is slightly curved in shape, so you will still need bias-cut rather than straight-grain strips– more trouble to cut, but on the plus side they don’t fray! I decided to add some visual interest by overlapping the strips in the center for a zig-zag effect– I haven’t seen this in any fashion plates or extant gowns, but I think it’s neat-looking.

I will note at this point that once I decided to make the bertha detachable, it was necessary to separately finish the bodice neckline– I did this with self-fabric bias binding, using the shiny side as I did for the waistline piping. I also ran a length of extra ivory ribbon through the channel created by the binding and used it to snug up the shoulder line, tucking the loose ends into the back. It was an easy way to ensure a perfect fit at the edge of the shoulder. (I admit that with a detachable bertha I’m kind of regretting not piping the armscyes, but I’m not willing to go to the trouble of re-setting the sleeves… oh well).


Once the binding was finished, I added two final hand-bound eyelets to the top of the bodice closure, for a total of twelve on each side. If the bertha had been permanently attached I’d have used a hook and eye instead, but eyelets worked well here.

Anyway, back to the bertha:

I used the pattern pieces for the flat bertha as a base; however, since I want to keep the “pleats” consistent for both front and back I moved the opening from center back to the left shoulder. After cutting the pieces out of my cotton sateen I also trimmed down the top and bottom edges by 1/2″ to account for the fact that I would not be bag-lining the bertha (with accompanying seam allowances) but rather binding the edges. I ran a line of stitching along all cut edges to keep them from stretching along the bias.

I cut a whole bunch of 2 1/2″ wide bias-cut strips of my fashion fabric, ironing them in half to make 1 1/4″ folded strips. I folded the first two over the top of my bertha front to encase the edges, then pinned them down and machine-stitched them in place close to the raw edges of the strips, doing my best to catch the edges on both front and back. Then I added another pair of strips to the front, pinning them down and stitching through both layers. Then another, and another, pinning and stitching each pair as I went. I didn’t cut the strips to the correct length until after I’d laid each one down– I wanted to make sure I didn’t cut anything too short! To finish I bound the bottom edges with self-fabric bias binding, stitching a few millimeters inside the fold line so it looked the same as the other strips. I ended up with seven layers, total.



I really love the origami-like effect of the strips where they meet in the center, and the bertha is nicely streamlined without being boring.

I repeated the process for the back piece of the bertha, then stitched the pieces together at one shoulder with the closures at the other. One problem I had with this is that the layers of bias strips made the bertha itself extremely bulky at the short ends, where there was more overlap of the fabric. I suppose I could’ve minimized this issue by trimming the strips down after stitching them, but it’s too late now. I ended up using ivory Hug Snug seam binding to simply bind the ends neatly (where possible), rather than turning them under and stitching– that helped a bit. I think the shoulder bows will conceal the rest, so I’m not too concerned.


I used small snaps to close the bertha at the left shoulder– I know they’re not historically accurate, but they were the least obtrusive way to fasten the bertha. Besides, they’re not visible (and especially won’t be once I add the shoulder bows).

I considered using snaps to attach the bertha to the dress as well, but decided that hooks and thread bars would allow me to wear the bodice sans bertha if I wanted to later on, since thread bars blend in to the bodice better than snaps. I attached hooks at each shoulder and at center front, just to keep things in place.

And that’s it for now! I’m going to add some extra trim and embellishment before I wear it, but it’s going to have to wait until I can get to a fabric store for supplies.


5 thoughts on “1860s Embroidered Ballgown, Part V: Bertha

  1. That looks amaaaazing. I was just trying to decided if I wanted to do the ruffled Bertha, but it looks like not! Thanks for posting this, I’ll try to figure out something else!


  2. Pingback: Steel Inquisitor Vin – 1840s bodice | Avant Garbe

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