Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Dress, Part VII: More Beetlewings…

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Not a real progress post, just a brief update to let you know that I’m still plugging away at attaching the beetlewings to the Lady Macbeth dress. The skirt is taking forever– there’s just so much fabric to cover in the half-circle back panel alone, that even though the wings are spaced about 2″ apart it’s a serious undertaking.

So far I’ve been giving each individual piece of the dress a margin of 4″ or more without any wings at all to make it easier to stitch things together during construction, and I’ve done most of the lower sleeves, the entire front skirt panel, and about 80% of the back skirt panel.

I still need to do the bodice and the upper sleeves, which I intend to stitch with wings that have been clipped down to size rather than the full wings– the original dress had this feature as well, which allowed for closer spacing of the wing bits and a more dramatic look on the bodice.

This photo shows how they used partial wings on the bodice– they’ve been clipped to a much blunter shape than the original pointed wing shape:

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And this one (unlike some others where the lighting’s softer) gives a really good look at the spacing of the wings on the bodice vs. the skirt:

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Judging from this photo I’ve actually spaced the wings on my skirt and sleeves a bit more closely than the original, but I really wanted to up the “wow” factor for this costume. I think I’ll probably go through most if not all of my original 1,000 wings in finishing the back skirt panel, so once that’s done I’ll open up the second 1,000 and start clipping them to the smaller size so I can get to work on the bodice. So much to do!

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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part VI: Beetlewings!

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Taking a break from construction, it was time to get started on the most distinctive feature of the costume– the beetlewings! (a.k.a. elytra)

Most sources online agreed that beetlewings are too brittle to trim without steaming them first to soften them, so I was all set to start the steaming process…  But I decided on a whim to skip the steaming and see if a pair of regular nail clippers would do the trick. And hey, they worked!

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I found that as long as I didn’t try to clip across the entire curve of the wing at once– instead putting the clipper only halfway across the curve at a time– the wings would clip cleanly the same way fingernails do. Since I was going for a really basic trim, just to remove the pointy end and the gnarly stuff at the wide end of the wing, this process worked perfectly. I think if I’d wanted to shape the wings more I might have needed steaming so I could use scissors, but as it was, I was just happy to avoid one more step.

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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part V: Bodice Construction

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I decided that rather than trying to stitch the beetlewings onto the individual bodice sections before assembly, I’d put the bodice together first to ensure proper fit and placement of the beetlewings. I was actually really excited for this step, because my pieces were finally starting to look like an actual dress after months of collecting supplies, dyeing, patterning, etc.

As noted before, the bodice was cut with princess seams to add stability. I basted the pieces together by hand to make sure that everything went together smoothly (had a moment of panic when my first iteration seemed to be HUGE, then realized I hadn’t used wide enough seam allowances), then machine-stitched the seams. They were kind of bulky with all the layers in there, so I trimmed down the seam allowances before folding one of the gauze layers over and flat-felling each seam. It wasn’t the neatest process, but it helped clean up the inside and kept the somewhat scratchy tulle layer from irritating my skin.

I was originally going to add a waist stay to support the weight of the skirt, but decided instead that I would mount the skirt on an entirely separate waistband, which would then be tacked to the bodice like a waist stay, so I let that step go for now.

I installed a 22″ long invisible zipper down the center back (would’ve been better to have a 24″ zipper but I couldn’t find one), leaving a 2″ seam allowance on each side to allow for sizing adjustments later on if necessary. I was happy to see that it appeared to fit perfectly, likely helped along by the slight stretch in all of my fabrics. Now I just have to hope that the skirt won’t mess up the line of the bodice after I’ve attached it…

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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part IV: Cutting

Once I had my mockup, it was time to cut into my actual fabrics. Unfortunately, this was easier said than done. Due to the differing stretch of the fabrics along the vertical and horizontal axes I had to be careful to cut my pattern pieces in specific directions, which (given the size of some of my pieces) was tough and didn’t always allow me to maximize my use of the fabric’s area. Since my bodice pieces were the smallest of all, I resigned myself to fitting them in around the larger, more oddly-shaped pieces, which I cut out first.

I had 6 yards of my kelly green gauze (42″ wide after shrinking), and 7 yards of my dark green crochet lace (54″ wide). Sadly, while I ended up having just* enough crochet lace to cut out my dress (with judicious piecing of the two center back bodice panels), I did not have enough gauze to make my underskirt. After cutting the gigantic sleeves out there just wasn’t enough fabric to make the skirt flare properly, and since I’d decided in the interim to change my plans for the sleeve trim I needed extra for that as well. I’ve ordered more fabric to re-cut the underskirt and do the sleeve trim (4 yards to be extra safe) and I’ll have to try to dye it to match, which will be incredibly annoying, but not as annoying as if I’d had to match the crochet lace color. At least any slight color difference will be less obvious since it’ll be somewhat hidden by the extra folds of the overskirt.

That being said, I did manage to cut out everything from my crochet lace, and since I’d never worked with a full lace overlay before, much less fabric as weird as this one, I was a bit concerned that things could get ugly. I decided to take some precautions, underlining every single piece with tulle to minimize the lace pulling out of shape, and basting everything together as I went.

I cut my lining pieces first from the cotton gauze, and then laid out my crochet lace face down on the carpeted floor (the carpet really helped keep the fabric from slipping out of alignment), smoothing a layer of pale green tulle over it. Then I set my lining pieces on top of both layers of fabric and pinned them in place through all layers before cutting around them. Once they were cut I hand-basted around each piece to keep things from shifting.

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For the bodice, I basted through all three layers since I’ll be assembling the panels into a bodice before adding the beetlewings– I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll try to stitch the wings just to the top two layers, or go through all three, but either way the pieces are small enough that I can work with the bodice as a single piece without too much trouble. For the sleeves and skirt, however, I’ll be adding the wings before assembly, so I need to keep the lining pieces separate.

* FYI, here’s a photo of all of my scraps from the crochet lace. This is out of a full seven yards of 54″ wide fabric– when I say I had “just enough,” I mean it!

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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part III: Patterning and Mockup

In determining how this gown would go together I reviewed a lot of the photos of the restoration of the original gown. Since it was crocheted it’s not surprising that there are few (if any) shaping seams– it looks as though the top of the gown is shaped only through side seams, and there’s a dropped, pointed waistline (front and back) where the gathered skirt is attached.

I decided to cut the top section in panels for shaping, which would also minimize the stretchiness of the fabric– I figured that the bodice would be more stable if it were interspersed with non-stretchy seams connecting the panels. I started with a basic princess-seamed dress pattern (Butterick Sew Easy B5872) and cut it out according to the size chart for my first mockup. That was a big mistake, since there was a ton of ease in the dress and I ended up pinching out a whopping 8 inches of width to get a fitted bodice.

Eventually I cut the bodice mockup to a deep, rounded point both front and back, and moved on to the sleeves. And let me say right now, they were a serious pain. The problem was that my bodice pattern was for a sleeveless dress, and it’s not as easy as it looks to just graft a sleeve pattern onto a sleeveless bodice. I went through way too many iterations, altering both the sleeve and the armscye, before I finally got my basic sleeve right.

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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part II: Supplies

So the most important part of this gown is clearly the beetlewings (technically elytra, or wing casings, but “beetlewings” is easier to understand). Luckily for me, elytra from sternocera aequisignata (the species of jewel beetle most commonly used for decoration) are readily available for sale on eBay at very reasonable prices. The original gown is said to have had 1,000 wings on it, but just to be safe I ordered 2,000– it wouldn’t do to run out and have to order more from Thailand, after all! I thought about purchasing them pre-drilled with holes at the top, but decided that if I was going to have to clip them to size and put additional holes in for sewing anyway, I might as well save a little money and get them undrilled.

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Lady Macbeth Beetlewing Gown, Part I: Inspiration

When I was in elementary school, there was a memorable occasion when the school hosted an exhibit of rare and exotic insects; they were displayed in glass cases in our cafeteria and each class of students got to go in and look at all of the interesting species. Personally, I was fascinated by the shiny/iridescent ones– the blue morpho butterflies and the gorgeously green beetles. I thought it would be so neat to have jewelry or something made out of them, but didn’t think it would actually be possible. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the beetle carapaces, at least, were historically used to decorate clothing!

evening dresses ornamented with beetle wings White cotton gauze dress embroidered with beetle wings, embroidered in India for export, ca 1865, KSUM 1983.1.98.

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of a gown decorated with beetle wings (not really the wings, but the wing casings) is the Lady Macbeth costume designed by Alice Comyns Carr and worn by actress Ellen Terry in 1888. It made such a splash that it was immortalized by John Singer Sargent the following year:

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The original costume was recently restored by the Zenzie Tinker Conservation with funds donated to the National Trust, which means there are tons of closeup photos of the costume itself. It doesn’t look quite as fabulous as it does in the painting, or even as it looked over a hundred years ago, but then what does?

Back in 2009 I blogged about the “Beetlewing dress” worn by Victorian actress Ellen Terry to play Lady Macbeth- and the National Trust’s project to restore it. Well, the restored dress is now on di… Beetle-wing dress revisited | Glass of Fashion

Anyway, the reason for all this background is that I’m going to make my own version of the Lady Macbeth dress for Costume College this year. (a friend of mine has dubbed it “the Scottish Bug Dress” and now I can’t stop thinking of it that way) The event theme is “What’s That Fabric?” and as the original dress was actually crocheted out of sparkling blue and green yarn, then decorated with beetlewings (both rather unconventional choices), I thought it would work perfectly. Add to that the fact that a group of us is getting together to wear dresses inspired by famous paintings, and it was obvious that this dress had to be made!

Edited to add: There’s a great article written by the lead conservator on the restoration process that has some wonderful details, here!