I never intended to make an 1860s ballgown– despite my Dickens Fair adventure into the 1840s for a casual daytime dress, the ruffled berthas that appeared on virtually all of the 1860s ballgowns just didn’t appeal to my sense of aesthetics. So imagine my surprise when I came across a fabric lot on eBay and immediately thought “this would look fabulous as an 1860s ballgown.” And then it was just a short step from “AN 1860s ballgown” to “MY 1860s ballgown.”
The fabric is ivory embroidered with blue flowers* and wheat-colored leaves (label says it’s a rayon-acetate blend). It actually came in a set of four panels, each 48″ wide and 3.5 yards long, and cost me $50 including shipping– meaning that I got 14 yards of fabric for under $3/yard! Score! Especially since the still-affixed tag had each panel priced at $80 on sale!
Interestingly, the fabric is shiny on one side and matte– almost dupioni-ish– on the other, and the embroidery is on the matte side. I didn’t realize this at first, but I think I like it this way– too much shine (however much it would’ve been loved historically) just reads as “cheap” in modern times.
The panels were originally intended to be curtains, so the embroidered design is set up to hang at the base of each curtain, making for a total of about 172″ of embroidery across the four panels (accounting for the blank borders on the edges). As soon as I saw it I could envision that embroidery around the hem of a full skirt, and I knew that the remaining length of each panel would be plenty for constructing a ballgown bodice with all the trimmings.
So remember last year when I was sewing my blue Regency dress, and I said that I already had a Regency ballgown that I’d intended to use for that dance event? Here’s the story: Back when I was in college, I was shopping at JC Penney’s when I came across these beautiful shower curtains that I immediately knew would make a perfect Regency gown. That’s right. Shower curtains = Regency gown. Sounds weird, but hear me out– they were made of ivory netting, embroidered all over with variegated pink roses and green vines, and they were so pretty and antique-y that I knew they’d work.
Of course, back then I didn’t have much experience sewing dresses from scratch, much less dealing with fiddly materials like embroidered net, so I found a seamstress online (Etsy was not a thing back then) and commissioned her to make me a gown based on a sketch I sent along with my fabrics. It turned out nicely, and I spent the next several weeks snipping out embroidered roses from the remaining fabric scraps and applique-ing them onto the gown with hand-embroidered vines to make it more embellished. The finished product was really beautiful. It always reminded me of Anne Shirley’s dress from Anne of the Island:
She had a particularly pretty gown on. Originally it had been only a simple little slip of cream silk with a chiffon overdress. But Phil had insisted on taking it home with her in the Christmas holidays and embroidering tiny rosebuds all over the chiffon. Phil’s fingers were deft, and the result was a dress which was the envy of every Redmond girl. Even Allie Boone, whose frocks came from Paris, was wont to look with longing eyes on that rosebud concoction as Anne trailed up the main staircase at Redmond in it.
I’m taking a quick break from the Embassy ballgown to post about another project I recently started– a Regency ballgown that I’m going to wear to a dance weekend at the beginning of April. While I do plan on wearing my burgundy dupatta open robe for the first night, I’m ready to make something new for the Grand Ball the next evening!
I do love beautiful textiles. Even when I was a kid I’d go to fabric/craft stores and buy beautiful ribbon by the quarter-yard just to have it, not necessarily to make anything with it (yeah, the people at the cutting counter just *loved* me, I’m sure). And some of the most beautiful fabrics in the world are Indian saris, at least in my humble opinion. I was on a sari-buying kick a while back, figuring that I’d use them to make Edwardian or Regency gowns, and while I’ve managed to use a cotton sari and a silk dupatta, the rest have languished in my closet for far too long.
But no more! For this project I’m going to use a gorgeous navy blue and gold sari– it has a fabulous pallu that’s not only brocaded, but also embroidered with bullion thread and sewn with tiny pearl beads. It’s just begging to be shown off at a fancy event!
After I attached the beaded fringe on the neckline and sleeves of the dress, I did some hand-stitching of sequins. I had not originally realized that this would be involved, but closer examination of the sleeve decoration showed that the straight lines (and by extension, the straight line segments at the neckline and hem of the dress) were not baguette sequins or beads, but were actually alternating lines of sequins and what looked like stylized vines with sequin leaves. See?
So I bought a bunch of clear 4mm sequins to go with my silver 4mm sequins, and got to work. Again, to assist in accurate placement I ran basting stitches of white thread to mark the lines. Then I used ivory embroidery thread to stitch down lines of silver sequins and to make the central vines for the clear sequins. I used a basic running stitch– since the net is see-through, the stitching looks like a solid line. I then used regular white sewing thread (finer but still visible to match the original) to stitch clear sequins along the edges of the vines.
With a Dickens-themed holiday ball coming up in December, I decided to make a new dress for the occasion– a Regency dress, partly because the event specified that Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (from A Christmas Carol) would be in attendance and the Regency period would be correct for the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party portrayed in the book, and partly because Regency gowns are just so much easier to sew than any other period.
For fabric, I decided to go with a vintage embroidered silk sari– it was originally a medium coral color, but I planned to use Crimson iDye to deepen the shade to a nice deep red. I really liked the subtle tone-on-tone effect of the embroidery. It reminded me of the dresses made of Kashmiri shawls back in the Regency period, and I hoped the dye would leave the different shades intact.
Unfortunately, I made a rookie mistake in dyeing my sari– I followed the instructions on the package rather than using my own common sense. So when the instructions said to allow the fabric to agitate in the washing machine with the dye for an extra-long cycle to allow the color to set properly, what I should have done was stop and think to myself, “this is vintage silk with delicate embroidery. I should probably just let the fabric soak in a perfectly still washing machine instead of messing it up and whirling it around and generally risking disaster.”
So which option did I choose? Yup. Disaster.
Not only did the dye not darken the color of the sari much at all, but the agitation completely ruined the embroidery– all of the thread basically unravelled and formed a giant tangle, which had to be cut away to even let me unwind the fabric from its tight, wadded-up ball. Totally unsalvageable.
The only reason I’m not devastated by all this is that the dye clearly didn’t work and wouldn’t have worked even if I’d soaked the fabric carefully– I didn’t like the original color of the sari and wouldn’t have wanted to wear it as-is, so I didn’t really lose anything in my attempt to improve it. I suppose in a perfect world I could’ve overdyed it again with the perfect blend of brown and red, but it probably would’ve taken forever to get it right in any case. So I’m going to cut my losses and try something different for the Dickens Ball.
If only I had any idea of what that would be…
So that antique Edwardian dress I mentioned earlier? Before I could wear it (shown above before I did anything to it), it needed to be altered. It just needs a few inches of extra room to make it perfect, and since I can’t make up the difference with a corset (there’s only so far you can cinch down your waist… or your ribcage), I’ll have to do it the hard way.
I know, I know… there will be people out there gasping in horror at how I could dare to alter an antique— but come on, people have been repurposing older garments forever, including making over old dresses to suit new modes of fashion, so I hardly think that merely tweaking a dress to enlarge it and make it wearable for the modern figure is that much of a problem.
Besides, it’s not like I’m repeating the mistakes I made in college when I actually went so far as to add an elastic waistband to an antique embroidered skirt (still cringe about that one). Anyway, here’s how I did it:
It’s done! Done and– dare I say–gorgeous. I really love the way it turned out– it’s pretty close to exactly what I pictured from the beginning, and I had such a wonderful time wearing it to an 1890s-themed ball. The skirt has such a great swirl to it from all of the fullness in the back, and the dimensionality of the embroidery really makes it stand out in a crowd!
To recap the process:
Part I: Design
Part II: Dyeing Hug Snug
Part III: Modifying Bridesmaids Dresses
Part IV: Tea/Coffee Dyed Lace
Part V: Petticoats
Part VI: Neckline Embellishment
Part VII: Embroidery
Part VIII: 3D Wisteria Blossoms