Let me just say, this step took FOREVER because of all the embroidery, but I’m finally done! And now the dress is technically wearable and actually looks like THE DRESS (though still not finished)! I love it when that happens…
As I discussed in my patterning post, the sleeves are cut with the long edge at the shoulder and hang almost to the floor. That being said, I’m pretty sure that Sargent took some artistic license with his painting (he totally did; Ellen Terry was *not* as tall as he made her in the painting), because even with my sleeves cut down to a mere inch above the ground, they still weren’t as long as they look in the painting when I raised my arms. More like mid-thigh length, rather than below the knee.
One thing about the sleeves always bugged me (no pun intended): is the trim on the outside or the inside? The Sargent painting pretty clearly shows it on the outside, since you can see both the outer sleeve and its (plain) lining.
But there are definitely images of the dress showing the trim with both options.
Since the trim is curved, it can’t just be folded over and still lie smoothly, so it has to be one or the other.
After consulting with fellow costumers online I came to the conclusion that the dress in its original form had the trim on the outside, but that at some point during its history the trim must have been folded to the inside, with tiny darts taken to keep it smooth. Then, when the dress was restored they put it back in its original condition with the trim on the outside where it belonged. Mystery solved!
Anyway, as you recall I’d originally planned to use pre-embroidered trim cut from a vintage sari. However, the more I looked at it the more I was dissatisfied with this plan– the trim was too elaborate, it wasn’t curved so would need some work to fit the sleeve, and the background color was a different green than my lining fabric, which didn’t look right. I decided instead to switch gears and embroider the trim myself on extra green cotton gauze. Why do I always do this? I have no idea.
To make the curved sleeve bands I basically cut out two more sleeves, then drew the edges of the bands onto them and cut away the center section (leaving a generous amount of extra space in case of issues). Then I machine-stitched some single-fold bias tape to the inside curves and turned the tape to the inside for a nice finished edge.
Note: I stitched the tape directly to the gauze without pinning or basting first. Don’t do this– it allowed the gauze to stretch out a bit, making for a wavy edge that I had to ease back into shape later on. So make sure to pin and baste the bias tape in place before stitching!
Then I pinned, basted, and finally hand-whipped the finished edge of the band to the crochet lace sleeve so that the outer edges of the sleeve and the band (mostly) lined up. This way, the embroidery would be done through all three layers at once– cotton, crochet lace, and tulle lining– to provide stability.
The photos make the embroidery look like metallic gold yarn– I couldn’t find regular yarn shiny enough, but I did find some metallic gold cord. It was a little lighter gold than I wanted, so I dipped it in a bath of slightly diluted brown Jacquard Dye-na-Flow, then blotted off most of it before baking it in the oven at 325 for 5 minutes to heat-set it– not sure if it set properly, but it won’t matter for this purpose since it won’t really be rubbing against anything.
I referred to close-up images of the trim to figure out the main design, below:
To me it looks like gryphon-like creatures (bird heads, lion bodies, but where are the wings?), interspersed with stylized leaf/berry patterns, between lines forming the border. Here’s my sketch (not perfect but close enough):
I started off with the long border lines, couching the cord to the sleeve bands using light brown thread, which was basically invisible against the gold. You can see in the original pictures that the borders are made of two strands of yarn, but I wasn’t sure I’d have enough cord so I only used one strand (spoiler: I was right). Next, I copied the rest of the pattern onto the sleeve bands using pink Frixon highlighter pens— the color is relatively light (you can barely see it below), and supposedly disappears with heat, so I figured I could embroider over it and then heat it to erase any marks that weren’t covered by embellishment. That being said, I will note that when I heated the ink with a hair dryer, instead of disappearing completely it turned white! So keep that in mind if you’re going to use it on saturated colors…
Full disclosure: In retrospect I didn’t do the best job with accurately reproducing the sleeve design. I think part of that is due to the fact that I inadvertently made my sleeve bands wider than the originals (tough to estimate width from the available photos), which made the motifs correspondingly longer. Plus my sleeve shape wasn’t quite right– it should’ve been more rounded at the bottom, which would’ve made for more trim overall– so there were fewer motifs than in the original. Honestly, though, I don’t think anyone will notice.
I couched the gold cord onto the sleeve bands along the ink marks, using a double row to outline things this time because a single row ended up looking too flimsy. I’d estimate that it took me about an hour and 15 minutes to do each motif (a motif being two creatures and one set of curlicues, which could be done all in one piece), so it was tedious work.
Because I wanted to make the motifs as seamless as possible, I sewed up the underarm seam on the main sleeves before doing the last sections of embroidery so the cord would be couched over the seam. I didn’t get my spacing quite right, so for one of the sleeves I had to improvise a pair of birds instead of the four-legged creatures, with a shorter set of curlicues. I think it looks reasonably good, though.
Note: I ended up using almost all of the 60 yards of cording I purchased– if I’d wanted to do double-lines on the borders it would’ve taken an extra 13 yards, and if I’d properly spaced everything (calling for more, slightly smaller motifs) it likely would have taken at least 10 additional yards. Just in case you’re looking to reproduce this yourself someday…
After the cording was done I stitched on more beetlewings, 6mm red crystals in prong settings, 4mm silver sequins (left over from the My Fair Lady dress), and iridescent purple beads to complete the design. I needed about 40 grams of size 6/0 round seed beads to fill in the beaded areas, though I will note that I used fewer beads because I filled in the central curlicues with silver sequins instead of placing them as in the original– it just looked neater that way.
I’m actually not a huge fan of how the beetlewings look as part of the trim– given the increased size of the motifs they seem kind of garish compared to the images of the original dress– but I keep reminding myself that this was a stage costume (embellishment had to be visible from afar), so I’m going with it.
At this point I went back and sewed more beetlewings onto the main portion of the sleeve, since I’d held off to allow for stitching on the trim, etc. I used progressively smaller wing pieces as I worked upwards towards the shoulder, since I wanted to mimic the bodice that way.
Next I sewed up the sleeve linings, then stitched the outer and inner sleeve layers right-sides together at the large opening and turned them right-side out so the sleeve edge was nicely finished. Since there was a lot of fabric being turned (shoved) through the small armscye this was difficult, and I had to re-stitch a few beetlewings after that step. After that, I used my zipper foot to topstitch through both layers right alongside the gold cording line nearest to the edge, to keep the edge flat. I also hand-stitched along the inner gold cording line, because the sleeve lining was still bagging out unattractively and I needed to tack things down further into the sleeve. I used hand stitches because they were much less obtrusive than a straight line of machine stitching.
To attach the sleeves to the bodice I first basted the crochet lace mancheron (lined with one layer of tulle for body) to the top of the sleeve, then set in the sleeves by hand. Why hand-stitching? Well, if you’re counting, there are 9 layers of fabric, some of which were pretty thick:
Inner cotton gauze sleeve
Tulle sleeve lining
Outer crochet lace sleeve
Double-layered crochet lace mancheron
Tulle mancheron interlining
Outer crochet lace bodice
Tulle bodice lining
Inner cotton gauze bodice
Not to mention the extra layers when going over the princess seams of the bodice, which had seam allowances that also needed to be stitched through! I just didn’t feel like putting my poor machine through that when I could have better control over the stitching by hand anyway. I used a small backstitch to keep things secure.
I’m still not quite done with the last beetlewing pieces on the upper portions of the sleeves, but that’s strictly handwork and can be done any time. Like in the car on the way to the event… 😉