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.
You didn’t expect me to go to a Regency dance event without a friend, did you? And of course, she wanted to go in costume as well! (or rather, I strongly encouraged her to do so and volunteered to help make it so she had no excuse to refuse) While I was putting together my blue Regency dress I was also helping her put together her burgundy dress, which was only slightly different structurally from mine.
She used a twin-sized burgundy sheet set for her outer fabric, which provided plenty of yardage for the dress with some to spare. The lining was made of a white cotton sheet that I found at Goodwill. To make the design a little more interesting we gathered the front of the bodice, by the simple expedient of making the center bodice section wider and then gathering it to fit the original-sized lining. I think it turned out well.
Once it was put together we decided it needed a little trim, so I found a length of cream-colored sheer pleated trim (leftover from the Great Hat Project) and whip-stitched it to the inside of the neckline. You can’t really see it in this photo, since she’s got a scarf tucked into her neckline to serve as a fichu.
I also got some 1 1/2″ black velvet ribbon and stitched it to the waist seam. The placement was a little tricky, because placing it under the bust really diminished the effect of the Empire waist, making it look lower than it was. But trying to sew it above the waist seam just looked funny. In the end I centered it on the seam in front, but brought it all the way up to sit on top of the seam in back. Of course, it’ll be impossible to machine-wash the dress now that it’s got delicate velvet ribbon on it, but that’s the price you pay for beauty…
A few mistakes, of course: the “blind hem” was a little more obvious than I’d have liked due to my thread being just a shade too light to fade into the background. The neckline wasn’t perfectly fitted, so I had to hand-tack it in a few places to get it to lie properly across the chest. In retrospect I should’ve lined the bodice in burgundy rather than in white, because the lining peeked over the top of the neckline despite my efforts at topstitching. I will note that unlike my blue dress (which I actually sewed after finishing this one), the back of the skirt didn’t puff out weirdly because we’d added extra fullness to the back when cutting out the panel. The curve was still technically there, but the added fabric made it disappear into the pleats so it wasn’t noticeable at all.
We also hemmed up a black velvet jacket to make her a spencer (it fit perfectly and didn’t need any other alteration), and did a really basic modification on a straw hat to make a bonnet! Overall I really like the effect, and my friend looked fabulous!
Once I had my clothes set for the Regency event, I wanted a reticule (small purse) to carry things in, so as not to spoil the effect with a modern bag. I decided to make mine out of an ivory velveteen remnant from my Velvet Pumpkin project, and lined it with a scrap of sage green faux dupioni I picked up for a dollar at the fabric store. I figured that the ivory-and-sage color combination was sufficiently neutral that it would work with either one of my outfits without being too matchy-matchy.
After some internet browsing, which indicated that many reticules were covered in elaborate floral embroidery, I decided to decorate it with the ribbon flowers left over from my daughter’s flower-embellished holiday dress— they looked vaguely period and it was a good excuse to use them up. I placed them on the fabric, but they looked kind of bare.
I needed some form of leaf or vine to connect them, so I decided to use some sheer sage-green ribbon (purchased as an option for the Birthday Princess Dress but never used), which I sewed on using a couching technique.
When designing this dress in my head I knew I wouldn’t be content to just let it be plain and unadorned– there would have to be some detailing somewhere. Review of fashion plates and images of antique gowns indicated that elaborate detailing around the hem was more prevalent during the 1815-1820 period, which was a little later than I was going for (waistlines were also starting to get lower, which did not fit my main dress pattern), but I figured it was close enough. I looked around for some ideas for trimming, and came across this fantastic page explaining how to hand-sew various types of pleated and gathered trim.
The trims on the page probably aren’t quite period-accurate, but since I knew that similar trim was used pre-Regency in the 1700s, and since fancy trims of all kinds were popular during the later Regency period, I felt safe using it on my dress.
So I had my pattern pieces, I had my dyed fabric– I was ready to start gown construction! It started off easy, but then (as it always seems to do) got complicated. Remember, this is Simplicity 4055, based on Sensibility.com’s Regency Gown pattern.**
I won’t go into too much detail about the ins and outs of dress construction, but I will note a few issues I had with this pattern:
- Like I said earlier, I added an extra curve to the bottom of the front bodice piece to adjust it from an A-cup measurement to a C-cup. I also moved the shoulder seam back and angled it for a more period look, and moved the shoulder straps in towards the center by about 1/2″.
- I really hated easing the curved back bodice seams together– things just wouldn’t match up properly– and since the finished piece was flat (as opposed to being shaped by the curves), I can only conclude that the curved seams are decorative only. That being said, I see plenty of Regency gowns with straight back seams, which I may do from now on to avoid the irritation.
Skipping ahead a bit (I haven’t gotten around to uploading the photos of the dress by itself), here’s my attempt at period outerwear!
When I realized that due to my Regency event being in April it was likely to be pretty chilly outside, I decided to make a spencer (short jacket) to wear over my day dress. Of course, if there’s one thing I detest in sewing it’s making collars, and I didn’t have the energy to get a pattern and sew a whole jacket from scratch– so instead I went searching for a modern jacket I could convert into a spencer. I was looking for puffed sleeves, a small collar (regular jacket lapels are too big), and some shaping seams to keep it from looking too bulky.
I did a lot of searching online for “military” and “Victorian” jackets (they were the best keywords for the style I was looking for) and ended up finding a khaki-colored canvas jacket that appeared to meet most of my requirements on eBay. It was a size XL in juniors’ sizes, which meant that it ought to fit all right, and it had some nice pleating and piping details that I thought would look good on the finished spencer.
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.