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.
So this is my third year organizing a Historical Costumers’ Picnic, and in honor of the event I’m going to make something new to wear (as I do every year). Since I’ve got a bunch of other projects going on for Costume College I decided that this one should be relatively simple– no complicated fitting issues, no elaborate handmade trims or fastenings, no insane underpinnings. So the Victorian era was out, of course, as was the very early Edwardian period. I already had a 1920s summer dress from last year, so this time I opted to go a few years earlier, when the dresses were starting to get lighter, airier, and shorter (just hitting the ankle) but still had natural waistlines and relatively slim skirts. 1915 seemed about right from the fashion plates and extant gowns:
So here’s my sketch:
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…
When I originally started the dressmaking process I purchased a 4.5-yard length of pale blue striped chambray on eBay– the photo was a little dark, but I figured it looked all right and the price was good at just over $16 for the whole thing. Sadly, unlike the silver embroidered fabric I lucked out on for my Grey Lady gown, this was not one of my lucky eBay moments. When the fabric arrived it was definitely much too light in color– barely blue at all– and I knew I had to do something.
Well, first I tried searching online for new, cheap fabric, but once that failed I knew I had to do something. So I decided to dye it.
I’ve used iDye Poly in the past to dye a nylon petticoat pink– it worked perfectly in my washing machine and I was very pleased with it. As this fabric was supposedly a “cotton blend” I knew I could at least try to use the regular iDye (for natural fibers only), rather than the Poly version. Since I only wanted to add a little bit of color to the fabric, the washing machine method would work fine– ordinarily to get the most vibrant color you should boil the fabric on the stovetop, but that would have required me to sacrifice one of my big pots (not supposed to use pots for cooking once they’ve had dye in them), which I was not prepared to do anyway.
I decided to use Turquoise as my dye color, since I was worried that using Brilliant Blue would result in a too-purple overall shade. Because I only wanted a slightly more vibrant color, I didn’t use all of the dye either. Instead, I snipped off about 1/8 of the dye pack and tossed it in my washing machine, following the instructions on the packet and dumping in a bunch of salt as instructed. I saved the remaining powdered dye, just in case the color wasn’t vibrant enough and I needed to re-dye the fabric (didn’t end up needing to).
I had a few moments of panic during the dyeing process– first the color looked way too dark, and then the fabric got really twisted during the spin cycle and the color looked blotchy (almost tie-dyed)– but once it was dry it evened out and looked lighter overall. I was a little concerned that the color was more of a blue-green than the sky blue I’d hoped for, but what did I expect from a color labelled Turquoise? Plus, the stripes in the fabric (I’d originally titled this series “Striped Regency Day Dress” but obviously this ended up being a misnomer) were barely visible anymore. Anyway, after much vacillating I decided to just go with it– I didn’t want to deal with re-dyeing and risking what was a perfectly nice color.
Sorry I don’t have any process pictures, but it was too stressful while it was going on and I forgot. Also sorry for no before and after shots– the original color never showed up properly on my camera and just looked white.
- The first thing to remember if you’re going to cut open the dye pack is to do it over a large paper towel (like a double-sheet… really large) or something else you can throw away. I thought I was being careful enough by holding it inside of a paper cup while I snipped it with scissors, but tiny grains of the dye powder must have gotten onto the counter because the next time it got a few drops of water on it– presto! Blue-dyed counter! Be careful, is all I’m saying. And don’t forget to wash your scissors thoroughly as well.
- While the dye instructions say to let the fabric sit in the dye bath for an hour, that’s only if you want really vibrant color. To get this shade (and remember, the original fabric was barely colored at all) I only ran the fabric through my machine’s 12-minute (standard length) washing cycle, and despite there being only 4.5 yards of fabric I set the machine on “medium load” so there’d be a lot of water in it to dilute the color. I wanted to make sure the fabric wouldn’t get too dark, because it’s easier to add more dye than to selectively remove just enough.
- The fabric will look significantly darker when wet than when dry, so keep that in mind when you’re judging whether it’s finished soaking and ready for drying.
- After the initial dyeing, I ran the fabric through two more wash cycles (one warm and one cold) with plain water before drying, just to make sure the color wouldn’t bleed later on. Also it worked to rinse the machine out so future loads wouldn’t come out turquoise. I’ll still run a load of towels through it before anything else, since our towels are dark blue already.
- Finally, if you’re unsure that the dye is going to be the shade you want, try mixing it with a little water before chucking it into your machine– you’ll at least get an idea of what color the dye is, so if it’s too green or whatever you’ll know upfront. I think if I’d done this I would’ve gone with Royal Blue instead, as it’s slightly bluer than Turquoise but not as purple as Brilliant Blue.