So at last my 1860s ballgown is finished! I got to wear it, hoop skirt and all, to a Victorian ball this summer, and it was a hit! It took a little getting used to, dancing with such a gigantic skirt, but it was just so much fun!
Besides my floral hair wreath, I accessorized with some simple pearl earrings (leverback, so not technically historically accurate, but close enough) and a blue cameo strung on a black velvet ribbon. I also had short white gloves, but had abandoned them by the time these pictures were taken– just as well, they kind of made my hands blend into my skirts, which looked weird.
All in all I’m very happy with the dress– it’s got just the right silhouette and the embroidery makes it extra-special. Looking forward to wearing it again sometime!
After stitching together the body of the tea gown, it was time for the center panel. I cut my center panel lining out of my favorite ivory cotton sateen (I bought 12 yards of it a while back and it’s perfect for this kind of thing). It was actually cut in two pieces with an extremely large seam allowance in the center, just in case I need to let the gown out in the future. I hemmed the top and bottom edges with a narrow hem.
I cut the bodice and skirt sections of lace separately, figuring that I’d want a lot more fullness in the skirt. Then I ran a line of hand-stitched gathering stitches along the top and bottom of the bodice section, then at the top of the skirt section. I laid the panels wrong side up over the cotton lining, set my hems so the border matched up at the bottom and top, then drew the gathering threads up until they matched the dimensions of the lining at the neck and waist. I hand-basted the top and bottom lace pieces together through the gathers at the waistline, then trimmed the excess.
(I know I took a break on this one for a bit, but I needed to finish my picnic dress for an early June event, so it took priority…)
Anyway, once I had my altered pattern established for the tea gown, it was time to get to the sewing!
Looking at my fabric, I was relieved that the embroidery was basically omnidirectional, which meant that I didn’t have to be too careful about placing my pattern pieces when determining how to cut them out, as long as they were on-grain. But first I cut each piece out of plain white cotton sateen for lining (I used a queen-sized sheet set). I cut the lining first because it was 1) more expendable, being plain cotton, and 2) easier to draw on, which was important because I didn’t actually cut out the paper pattern pieces (instead poking holes in the paper with a pencil and making dots to connect on the fabric). Then I used the cotton pieces as pattern pieces when cutting out my fashion fabric. Sorry, no photos, I detest the cutting-out process so I try to get it over with as quickly as possible…
After basting all of the lining and outer pieces together for the body (which took forever, also a pain) I stitched my main seams, binding the edges of the seam allowances with Hug Snug seam binding to keep them neat on the inside (well, *neater*– my binding technique still needs work), and sewed in my darts.
I will note that I added pockets to the side seams of the gown– I’m not sure if keeping things in them might ruin the nice smooth line over the hips, but I’d like to keep my options open. I made them out of white cotton, with 2″ wide strips of fashion fabric at the tops so they wouldn’t show much if the slits pulled open a bit. Here’s the inside and outside:
Every now and then I feel the need to rope my family into my historical costuming hobby… but it’s easier said than done. Men’s outfits are relatively straightforward, but getting a 6-year-old to dress up in something she doesn’t want to wear can be tough– and even if you can manage it, watching her go through her day blithely unaware of the various grass stains and other horrors she’s inflicting on your carefully-chosen outfit is just painful. For that reason, I’ve refrained from ever trying to put my daughter in any genuine antiques, or even things that I’ve made with complicated techniques or particularly nice fabrics. I just know she’ll spoil them and I don’t want to spend my day worrying about it instead of enjoying the event.
But what to do when you’re just dying to attend something as a family, in full get-up? You improvise.
Since I spent some time making a light and airy Edwardian picnic dress for myself, I figured that something similar was in order for the kid. While I’d love to make her a dress laden with hand-embroidery and antique insertion lace, as I mentioned before it’s just not in the cards right now– luckily, many extant dresses rely heavily on pre-embroidered fabric for decoration, which is still widely available, so I decided to go that route.
To attach the skirts to the bodice (the last major construction step) I worked with each skirt separately– the underskirt was narrower than the overskirt, and I wanted to pleat them separately so they’d flow more gracefully when I moved. I only achieved limited success with that due to the stiffness of the hem trims (as noted earlier), but I did the best I could.
I pinned and basted each skirt to the bodice before machine-stitching the final waist seam (praying I wouldn’t screw anything up), and whipstitched the bodice lining over the seam allowance so the inside would be neat.
For the bodice front, I’d originally intended to cut the front pieces with the sari borders along the top edges so the trim would be integrated into the bodice from the beginning, the way I did with my dupatta open robe. However, the angles of the neckline for the dress made it impossible to cut the sides as single pieces, so I decided to just add trim to a normal bodice front instead.
Anyway, I lined the bodice with more blue cotton, and (sneaky shortcut) lined the back bodice pieces with single-cut pieces of cotton rather than dealing with back seams on the inside. No one would ever see them anyway, right?
Once the basic bodice was put together, I attached trim around the neckline, hand-stitching it with invisible thread. I did this before putting in the sleeves because the trim was wider than the shoulder straps of the bodice, and I wanted to catch the edges in the sleeve seams to keep things looking neat.
So like I said earlier, I wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful embroidered sections of the sari when constructing my gown. As you’ll read below, this had its ups and downs…
First I removed the pallu of the sari (I admit I cringed at the first cut of the shears– what if I screwed it up?) and cut it lengthwise to make two even panels. I immediately ran a zig-zag stitch along the cut edges to prevent fraying. (I actually did this every time I cut an edge that wouldn’t be encased in fabric) The panels aren’t exactly the same– the design is upside-down on one piece because the pallu wasn’t vertically symmetrical, so when I flipped the top half over to act as the hem it didn’t quite match. I figure no one will notice, since that part will be down near my ankles anyway.
I made an underskirt out of dark blue cotton voile, making it only as wide as the pallu pieces at the bottom. I tapered the front panel slightly, but cut the back panel as a rectangle so I could do some– but not too much– pleating in the back. The goal was to reduce bulk at the waistline, but I needed at least *some* pleating in back so both layers of the skirt would fall into nice folds.
For the front panel of the overskirt I cut two 34″ skirt pieces from the part of the sari directly above the pallu– like I did with the cotton Regency sari gown, I wanted to use the side borders to form a double-width embellishment down the center front of the skirt. (Well, almost double-width– I decided it looked better if I omitted the border edges down the center) Additionally, the borders on this portion of the sari weren’t just brocade, they were also embellished with beads, so I wanted them front and center.* Once they were cut out I stitched them together to form a trapezoidal front skirt panel, and attached another long piece of border to the straight bottom edge. This would prove to be a mistake.
When I was first designing this gown I thought that I’d basically construct it the same way I did my drawstring Regency sari dress— widening the front and back of the bodice and adding a drawstring around the neckline to create soft gathers across the bust and allow for sizing in the back. However, the more I looked at the photos of the drawstring dress, the more I felt that I wanted tinier, denser gathers and a more squared-off neckline. In order to get those I’d need to do two things– gather the sheer layer separately from the lining to keep the gathered fabric as thin (and therefore compressible) as possible, and have the gathered section itself be separate from the rest of the bodice to avoid affecting the shape of the neckline.
Complicating matters was the fact that the sheer layer was– well, sheer. That meant many of my interior seams would be visible from the outside, which is always something I try to avoid. After several attempts to figure out the order in which I would stitch together the various pieces of each layer to minimize visible seams, I came up with the following system:
Once I finished the neckline, I moved on to the important part– the wisteria embroidery. Of course, I’d never really done ribbon embroidery before, so I was a little nervous about how it would go. As always, I researched tutorials online and learned a few basic stitches. I also learned that I couldn’t use just any needle– the 1/2″ seam binding was far too thick to pull through the fabric with even a large-eyed standard embroidery needle– but that I should get a “chenille needle,” designed for use in chenille embroidery. It was recommended that I use size 13 (apparently the largest available), which was a whopping 2.9 mm in diameter.
To map out the design, I used masking tape to section off where the blossom motifs would go on the bodice and skirt, adjusting until it looked good from a distance. Then I basted a line of stitching along each piece of tape, so I could remove the tape and do the ribbon embroidery directly over the (easily removable) thread.