ALL the froof! (A chemisette story)

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All right, used to be, I thought I wasn’t a chemisette girl. I made one several years ago on a whim, from polyester organza, draped on my dress form. It had a simple turned-back collar trimmed with pretty lace and tied around the waist. I tried wearing it with my first-completed Regency gown, and for one reason or another, I thought it looked horrible. Probably a combination of my short neck, broad shoulders, and the first gown’s very square neckline conspired against the chemisette, and I never wore it again. I’ve kept it, though, so maybe I’ll try it again someday now that I am–deep breath–a chemisette convert!

I mean, I probably won’t wear them with EVERY day gown. Especially not here in Virginia in our steamy summers. But now and then, and particularly in the winter, a chemisette, I now profess, is a really nice addition to an outfit. I’ve always liked how they look on other people, although I thought sometimes they were too frilly and froofy.

About 2 months ago, I was getting ready to attend a tea in a historic house in Regency dress, and I got a wild hair up you-know-where and just started cutting some of my stashed cotton voile into the general shape of a few chemisettes. The first one didn’t get much further than hemming the edges, but the second one, in a more historically accurate design, went all the way.

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I started playing around with collar band and pleated ruff ideas and ended up creating a dramatic, frilly, somewhat renaissance-inspired ruffed chemisette.

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I added lace trim to the pleated ruff (my favorite, much-prized lace from a local variety store that several years ago abandoned selling any fabric and trim–they had the BEST lace!) and trimmed the chemisette’s outer edges with insertion lace to help it stay tucked into my gown neckline.

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Getting dressed on the day of the tea. The ruff stands up so well, the result of a LOT of starch and of sewing the collar band edge-to-edge with the chemisette neckline with a strong whipstitch. It just makes a firmer seam.

The chemisette is completely hand sewn. I wanted to wear it with my old faithful blue dress (I’ll blog about it soon), but the poor thing has faded in streaks and I think I have to overdye it before I wear it again. So I ended up wearing my lavender mull Munchmuseum gown, which I made as a ballgown, but it just isn’t fancy enough. It makes a wonderful day gown, though! Especially with a frilly chemisette!

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More getting dressed on the day. This gown works so much better for daytime, especially with a frilly chemisette. I’m in love with this outfit! And to make room for that high ruff, I had to put my hair up high. I opted for a French twist with the curled ends left loose.

It went great with my stand-collar spencer, too! The ruff stood up very well under several hours of wear, although it did eventually droop.

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Ugh I ADORE this lace trim! I wish I had bought more of it when it was available.

Just a bit droopy after a few hours, but it still looks pretty good.

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I’m storing the chemisette on a skirt hanger, so the ruff doesn’t get crushed. Not sure how I’m going to wash and re-press this thing eventually, but probably it will be by hand, very gently, and laid flat to dry.

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Here are some more photos of the chemisette and gown together.

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You can just see my American Duchess Hartfield boots. They are incredibly comfortable!

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I wore my chocolate-brown velvet spencer with the gown and chemisette, along with my Lady Russell model Shocking Bad Hat! 

 

One more gratuitous shot, because I love this outfit!

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I’ve never been so well and completely accessorized! Chemisettes for the win!

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The Bernhardt (Regency) Short Stays

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Oof, this project was long and drawn out. Not because the stays were particularly difficult to draft or assemble–they were the easiest stays I’ve ever made in that respect (aside from the math required to scale up the pattern). But it took a while to figure out the fit adjustments, make them, “finish” them, try them on and decide they didn’t work (for me), and then decide how best to augment the minimal bust support for my substantial rack so that they would work.

These are my try at the J. S. Bernhardt stays, thanks to the research into early 1800s “short stays” and the generous sharing of said research by Sabine of the blog Kleidung um 1800. If you’ve been looking for Regency/Empire-era stays designs and you follow a lot of costumer blogs or belong to the Facebook group Historical Sew Fortnightly you have probably seen a Bernhardt stay here and there or heard/read mention of the research Sabine conducted. All I can say is: THANK YOU! Thank you for doing the research, reproducing the designs by Bernhardt, and then sharing that invaluable information with all us crazy costumers.

The idea that the adjective “short” applied not to the length of the stays body but to the length/depth of the waistline created by the stays, as described by Bernhardt, was mind blowing. Of course! Naturally! It all makes sense.

The designs Sabine shared, created by Bernhardt circa 1810, are all fascinating in that they still look rather transitional in form. Their basic shape closely resembles the more conical designs of the previous few decades, but in a softer rendition with much less stiffening through the body and with the addition of bust and hip gussets.

These are quite a change from the later design I’ve come to accept as the standard form for the Regency stay–the form that eventually developed a lower, more natural waistline placement and evolved into what we think of as a Victorian corset.

I’m also fascinated by how much the stays in this Costume Parisien fashion plate resemble Bernhardt’s designs:

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Costume Parisien, 1813, digitized by Scene in the Past.

First, of course, after reading Sabine’s blog post and evaluating all the versions Bernhardt designed, I had to decide which one to use. Based on Sabine’s recreations, I decided Schnürleib Fig. C was the way to go. So I printed out the scaled, gridded pattern she provided and grudgingly set about calculating how much it needed to be scaled up. If you haven’t done much scaling up of patterns by hand, I highly recommend this tutorial by Threads Magazine (and not just because I edited it when I worked for the magazine ;-] ).

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Here’s my scaling work on the pattern provided by Sabine. It would have been easier in many ways to have enlarged it on a photocopier, but I don’t have access to one large enough at home, so hand scaling it was! Pattern: Kleidung um 1800.

So here was my first pattern version based on the scaling I did (and shortened for my short torso):

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It looks so crisp and perfect. But it wasn’t. It was, however, a great starting point. I made a quick muslin and pinned it on my dress form to see how much more it needed to be adjusted.

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Did it need deeper and wider hip gussets? Was the bust gusset slit in the right place? How could I get rid of all that excess fullness under the bust, where I’m really narrow, while still accommodating my rounder belly? I tucked and used my trusty red Sharpie to mark the changes needed based on my almost-body-duplicate dress form. Then I transferred the changes to the pattern and made another muslin, this one to try on.

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A few more changes needed to remove excess around the underbust and a few potential cording lines, which I didn’t use in version #1, but might in a future version.

It seemed pretty good. Just a few nips and tucks here and there. So I went ahead with the real thing! I made the inner layer from cotton duck/canvas and the outer from a lightweight silk faille.

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The whole thing only had four bones: 2 at center front and 2 at center back. I used heavy duty cable ties. I decided to try a solid front busk, too, so I sewed a busk pocket inside. I bound the edges with a bias strip of silk dupioni in a pretty maize color with a damask print.

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Aaaaaand…..

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Not terrible. But not great either. Granted, I didn’t have it laced as tight in the photo above as it should have been to really snug it around my ribcage. But also, the front busk met a lot of … hmmm … resistance. From my rounded belly. It just wasn’t working. I mean … look: left, with busk; right, without busk.

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And there was just not enough bust support. My bosom isn’t huge, but it is substantial, and there was not enough stiffness in the original design of these stays to support and lift and shape in the way that will create a nice line under my gowns. Plus, the back was way too high and the straps too wide and set too narrow–they showed above the back neckline and shoulders of my gowns. Also, the binding looked like crap. Too wide, bunched in places. Bleh. Sigh.

But this is a great design, and it COULD work, I was convinced. So I set it aside for several months. Closer to a year, really. I started this project in January 2017, and now here it is December 2017 and I just completed a revamp on them. During those months, I occasionally thought about ways to improve the fit of the stays. I looked around at other versions, but most of them were made straight from the pattern with no (apparent) changes and to fit less voluptuous bodies. But there were a few ideas out there that I thought could work. Cording would be one way to stiffen the area around the bust for a better lift and shape. Or simply installing an extra bone diagonally on the torso, from about the shoulder to center front, sort of like more typical stays. The 1790s transitional stays created by Cynthia of Red Threaded and the short stays created by Nora of the blog The Shadow of My Hand were particularly inspiring.

I let these ideas marinate for a bit. About a month ago, I picked off the binding and cut down the back neckline and the straps. And then last week I reattached the straps and stitched the channels for two additional bones, placed diagonally. (Perhaps I’ll try cording one day, but not today!) Then I rebound the edges in some nice rayon petersham ribbon, much narrower than the first binding. It’s so much more refined and prettier!

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I also added drawstrings (ribbons) in the top binding at the front neckline to help with the shaping there, if it turned out to be necessary. And if it wasn’t, well, it’s a pretty addition.

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The back lacing, alas, is not period spiral lacing. Stays that lace only in the back are very difficult and uncomfortable for me to lace (very tight shoulders; my arms fatigue quickly when twisted behind me trying to manipulate a corset lacing). So I cheated with criss-cross lacing and “bunny ears,” as would be more common in a later corset. And you know what? It works great. I feel no shame for this inaccuracy.

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I really like the new result! It’s comfortable, the bosom is where it should be and a better shape, the stays won’t peak out from my gown necklines. Here’s a bunch of badly lit photos in my hallway (because that’s the only place I have in my current apartment). Tank top clearly non-period 😉

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The curve through the belly is fine and won’t show under Regency gowns, since I cut mine a bit fuller through the skirts (I don’t like a flat front and it doesn’t like me, either!).

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There’s plenty of lacing gap in back, because I’m certain these stays will stretch with wear, since they’re cut on the bias at center-front.

So to sum up: I love these Bernhardt stays! I’m going to make more! (Eventually) Meanwhile, these are done just in time for the local Regency Society’s Twelfth Night celebration. Woo hoo!

Next project: an evening mantle for Twelfth Night!

Saris make great Regency gowns!

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Wow, I can’t believe it’s been so long since I’ve updated this blog! [I feel like I always say that–but it’s always true.] I mean–I can really believe it; I haven’t been near the blog in months (and months and months). But that’s due to my busy schedule of full-time work, freelancing (I’m still writing occasional articles and blog posts for Threads magazine, where I used to work), and sewing–plus lots of travel and family-filled weekends, and the necessary downtime for recuperation. I truly envy people who can go 100 mph at all cylinders 24/7/365–but that ain’t me. Never has been. I get tired, and I need to recover. And getting on the computer after a full day of staring at my work computer and editing, enhancing my eye strain, just isn’t in the cards most days. And then there are the days when I’m actually sewing instead of writing about sewing. But I’m not abandoning this blog. Just neglecting it.

So now that I’m done with my semi-annual “I suck at blogging” non-apology, let’s get down to business. I have been sewing! A lot, actually. Both historical and real-life stuff. And I happen to have both the brain space and the time to type up something. So here goes!

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My first post in a long while is on my newest project. I’m dubbing it the Sunset Sari Dancing Dress. It’s a Regency ballgown made from a sari pulled from my collection. I’ve been wanting to use one of my saris for a long time, since I’ve been collecting them for a few years now. They make such wonderful Regency-era gowns and I’ve seen many fabulous renditions around the blogosphere and in real life.

Now, there is no evidence–none–that women during the extended Regency actually used imported saris as material for gowns. Kashmiri shawls were imported and were the height of fashion for many years, and there is ample evidence that they sometimes were used as material for European gowns, and even that some textiles were woven to imitate the motifs used on the shawls. We can see this in fashion plates, in portraits, and even in a few extant gowns in museum collections. But despite the appearance in fashion plates of gowns made from fabrics and trims/embroidery resembling those used in modern-day saris, there is no indication, to my knowledge, that they were. Gowns were commonly trimmed and embroidered, and fabrics often had woven designs, and these embellishments were often linear in design, as were many of the embroideries used on gowns early in the Regency.

However, saris lend themselves so well to use as gown material and trimmings for the Regency era! Each sari provides 5 to 6 yards of usable fabric and trim in a decent width. It’s easy to imagine that a sari could have been used for a gown. I would love to seen an exhibition of Indian saris from the 1790s through 1820. For those of us casual* historical costumers who don’t have the time, funds, skill, or the interest–all valid reasons–to do extensive embroidery, a sari is an acceptable shortcut!

The first step was to pick one sari from the dozen or so in my collection. Since it was to be a ballgown, it needed to be formal in design of a finer material. That left the few cotton ones out; the rest are silk–some very thin and drapey, but a few of a stiffer weave, similar to organza in drape and hand but more opaque (what might be called “tissue”). I settled on this pink, purple, and gold sari–gorgeous sunset colors. The borders and pallu are woven in a variety of medallion motifs and a floral motif I haven’t seen before: they look a little like lotus blossoms or perhaps fresias. The next step was to figure out how I wanted to use the pallu as part of the gown’s design. This is where my Regency croquis is really helpful! Here’s what I settled on after a few variations:

Here’s the design from the front.

And the design from the back. Ultimately I used more of the pallu for the side back and shoulder pieces, as well.

I decided to use the full width of the sari without cutting off one of the borders. I could have cut it off the edge used for the waist and reattached it below the other border to create a deeper border on the hem, but I actually like the detail around the waist. I think it works because the border design isn’t only hard lines, like some saris have; it’s got the one ribbon-like strip along the edge of the border but also the more free-form floral motifs.

The pattern is one I developed for a ballgown made about three years ago (my gold-spotted ivory, which I still have not blogged about). To create a gathered sweetheart effect on the bodice, I approached my base pattern (my block) as I would any modern pattern. This is NOT how this effect was created in the period. And I’m okay with that! Essentially, I gave my block a cowl-neck treatment! To do this, you slash and spread the pattern at center front, tilting the pattern’s neckline up a few inches (which sort of squishes the armscyes, but since the armscye length doesn’t change, just the shape a bit, they still work just fine with the sleeves). Here’s what the pattern looks like:

With a drapier fabric, the cowl would droop in soft folds over the bust, which would be pretty and I may use it that way at some point. But for the sweetheart effect, either gathers or pleats down the center-front are needed to pinch the neckline down, plus gathers or pleats across the collarbone area, beneath the shoulders. On the original gown I made this patter for, I simply hand-gathered these areas and tacked some gold ribbon and pretty buttons on top. But for this gown, I knew I wanted to use bits of the sari’s border as a sort of tab at center front and at the shoulders and sleeves, on top of the gathers/pleats.

The sleeves, shoulder pieces, and bodice center backs and side backs are cut from the pallu, while the bodice front is cut with the neckline edge placed along the sari’s border to take advantage of the floral motifs as decoration. I played around a bit with the border’s placement for cutting the pattern to decide how much of the border should be incorporated–just the floral motifs or some of the linear border as well.

Less border?

Or more border?

The sleeve pattern is another one I developed three or four years ago, inspired by Circassian sleeves of the period. These were generally short or mid-bicep-length sleeves that were caught up at the hems with a tab, ties, buttons or brooches so that the hem appeared scalloped and the sleeve had soft gathers. I adapted my short sleeve block for fewer gathers and a scalloped hem. I haven’t taken a photo of this pattern, unfortunately, but here’s a photo of the cut sleeve. (This could have worked just as well with a sleeve that has a straight hem, but I wanted to exaggerate the effect.)

You can see from the croquis design that I wanted deep inverted pleats in the skirt waist at center front, which I’ve seen in a few portraits and fashion plates from the period. It is surprisingly flattering and adds some beautiful movement and detail to the skirt front.

So to get started, here’s a bit of the gown construction …

All the cut pieces …

Lined in linen for support and to protect the outer fabric from sweat (I sweat a lot in the ballroom!).

The side-back curved seam allowance is turned under and lapped atop the center-back piece’s seamline and topstitched in place; I used a backstitch (a rather uneven one).

The gown closes at center back with two drawstrings, one in the back neckline. The drawstring (a narrow petersham ribbon) is secured in the back shoulder seam. The other drawstring encircles the entire waist.

Back edge turned under and whipped to the lining.

Tucks in the bodice center front to shape the neckline.

A section of the sari border is backed with a petersham ribbon to stabilize it.

Right side of the border section used to decorate the bodice center front, stitched to a petersham for strength.

Testing the effect.

Pinning, steam-pressing, and basting the bodice tucks on my tailor’s ham.

The border applied as a tab to right side, then wrapped around to the wrong side and stitched in place, catching the tucks underneath so they don’t wiggle around.

Preparing to sew a narrow piece of border to cover the gathers at the collarbones.

Testing the narrow trim placement.

Making tucks in the sleeves and covering with a handy remnant of the perfect ribbon–because I couldn’t salvage enough of the narrow bits of sari border to use here. I think this works really well, though. Little cluster of gold-tone buttons adds just enough embellishment–the sleeves are pretty decorative as-is.

Sleeves attached and the bodice all ready for the skirt!

Skirt with front inverted pleats attached to the bodice!

Looooove how luscious these pleats look with the sari border as part of the design!

Well, that’s it for the construction! Now here are the finished photos:

My light amethyst collet necklace (Duchessa) and matching earrings (Dames a La Mode) are a perfect complement to this gown.

Love how those front pleats fall!

Worn over my ballet-pink silk undergown (semi-obligatory awkward boob selfie).

*I use “casual” here to mean “anyone whose first priority/goal in costuming is not 100% historical accuracy. Those of us who make historical garments because we enjoy it; who are more concerned with appearing historically accurate rather than being so. This is perfectly valid. I am not a reenactor or a historical interpreter; that’s not why I do this.

Do you croquis?

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Do you use a croquis in your historical costuming design thought process? I often do. I’m a very visual person, and when an idea for a Regency gown (most usually) starts boiling around in my head, I need to get it onto paper. If I don’t, it just keeps swirling around distracting me. Sometimes that ends up looking a little something like this:

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Or this:

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I made the gown based on this sketch several years ago, and it’s still one of my go-tos and favorites.

 

(Why are they bending over? Hell if I know. I can’t sketch upright figures, I guess. Maybe they’re about to pet a dog or accept a tea cup?)

Most frequently, though, I prefer to use a real croquis–but not an idealized figure. One that more closely resembles my figure. Like this one:

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(If you’re unaware of what the heck a croquis is: it’s that idealized fashion figure that fashion designers use to sketch their garment concepts on.) The croquis above started out with a more typical, natural modern bustline, not this uplifted one. But it was always a rather voluptuous fashion figure. I got lucky when I found it, because it really resembles me quite a bit in terms of roundness and vertical proportions. The trouble with most fashion croquis, as you may imagine, is that they are idealized figures. To start with, most are extremely thin and elongated–they tend to stand about 9 heads tall. The torsos and legs are unnaturally attenuated.

The benefit of using that kind of croquis is that it enables a designer to better display the particulars of a garment design’s features. But most human beings are more like 7 heads tall. (When I say “head,” what I mean is that if you were to look at a photograph of yourself and measure from the top of your head to your chin–one head’s length–and then use that increment to measure down the body, you would discover how many “heads” tall you are.) So if you don’t stand 9 heads tall, but you want to sketch a design for yourself, using a 9-head-tall figure won’t give you a very accurate idea of how that design will translate to your own human proportions.

The figure above is actually about 6 heads tall. That’s about right for my real-life vertical proportions. But I needed to alter the original croquis to give it an uplifted bust. I hand-copied it in pencil, complete with the body reference lines–all but the bust area. To ‘raise’ the bust, I simply set the top curves higher on the chest (like mine are anyway) and slightly flattened them, which is how mine appear in my 1810s stays. A quick change to the hairstyle into one appropriate for a Regency lady, and voila: a personalized, Regency croquis!

All that was necessary then was to make some photocopies, lightening the lines to some extent so they don’t interfere with the garment sketches that go overtop. I’ve scanned them, too, so if I run out of the hard-copy croquis I can just print new ones.

And this is how I use it:

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A gold-spotted ball ensemble I made (but haven’t blogged). This is where the design started, after I managed to snag some GORGEOUS fabric at a sewing expo a few years back.

 

 

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This is a sketch for a ballgown after one that the character Henrietta wears in 1995’s Persuasion film. I spent a lot of time staring at the screen and making notes to try and figure out what was going on and how to copy it. It’s on my list.

 

Not only does using a croquis help bring costume ideas to life, and show me how it will look on a figure that closely matches my own, it also helps me think through how the garment might be made and its details reproduced. It’s also a really handy way to keep most of my notes about it in one place. As you can see, these aren’t pretty, clean design sketches that one would put into a portfolio to show off. They’re working notes.

So, do you croquis?

*BTW, I don’t mind at all if you snag my naked croquis to use for yourself if she fits your figure, too. (Not that I could stop you ;-} )

18th-c. stays are Totally Done!

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20160701_081753Well, it’s been a long while since I last posted an update on anything, particularly about the last project I was working on. My 18th century project kind of ran into a wall. It’s been nearly 1 year since I set it aside and I still have to redo the side panels of the chemise a la reine! I just haven’t had the incentive to finish it. I thought I might get to it this winter and finish it in time to attend the Francaise Dinner, since I now live close enough to make attending feasible–but nope. Other projects grabbed my attention, as so often happens.

But I completed the last stitch on my 1780s-90s stays a few weeks after the event I was to have worn them at last March. All bindings are applied and steamed to shape (love that wool twill tape), and the strap eyelets are sewn so I can tie the straps front to back.

(And then I promptly forgot all about this post saved in my drafts folder. I suppose moving had something to do with that.)

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They’re rather plain, but I love these stays! They really do fit well, and despite not being 100% accurate in the front lacing, they’ll work underneath so much late 18th century that I may choose to make in the future. Not only the chemise a la reine, but a late Anglaise or Polonaise.

So, here are some shots of me in my Totally Finished stays and some details….

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Chemise a la –wah wah….

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My chemise a la Reine/Oberkampf was not finished in time for my group’s visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC to see the Vigee le Brun exhibit. So I fell back on my current wardrobe of Regency wear and chose a nice long-sleeved walking gown that suited the chilly, drizzly day. Looking back, I’m actually glad I didn’t end up wearing a fancy new gown in that kind of weather. There will be other opportunities.

Hey, sometimes projects go a little off the rails. The gown was progressing very nicely up until the day I was able to try on my nearly finished stays (just one edge left to bind) and the nearly finished gown. It was all assembled, just sleeve and skirt hems and the waist drawstring left to do. I put on all the undergarments, including bum pad, and pulled the gown on over top. Drew up the neck and underbust cords, looked in the mirror, and then…. well, that’s when I heard that wah-wah sad-horn sound in my head.

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For the fitting, I had not threaded the waist drawstring, so you see the seam of the casing, but it’s not gathered up. Kind of looks like a maternity gown. Anyway, you can see here clearly that the waistline dips from the side to the front, and it should be straight. I had to remove about 2 inches of length from the bodice side panel and angle its front seam about 2 inches more towards center front.

 

Turns out the side bodice panel was too long where it joined the front bodice panel so it bunched over the hip, and it needed to extend toward the center front by another 2 inches, so it pulled the front panel back. I wondered about this in the muslin stage on my dress form, but since I couldn’t put the unfinished stays on my form and squish it down for the muslin test, I couldn’t be sure.

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Where my finger is–that’s where the waist channel should be: about 3 inches above where it currently sits at center front.

 

The bodice drawstrings were also set too low, with the waist channel a good 2 inches, maybe even 3 lower than it should ideally be for my stayed waistline. And since the stays flatten my bust instead of lifting and cupping, the under-bust channel was also 2 inches too low.

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The underbust channel sits between my waist and underbust in the 18th century stays, so it has to be shifted up by about 2 inches.

 

These aren’t insurmountable problems, but I only had 1 day left to make it all happen, and I just didn’t feel like making myself crazy and tired before a very long day getting to, traipsing around, and getting back from the city (I live 2 hours away).

I have to remake the bodice side panel. I’ve already reshaped that pattern piece and remarked the front panel’s new channel locations. There’s just enough of the embroidered gauze to make the new side panels, too, so that’s lucky. But for now, the gown and pattern are put away to make time for more urgent (read: real life!) garments that I want to have. The last bit of binding on the stays will get done very soon.

On a brighter note, I LOVE the 1780s/90s stays. The top edge could come up 1/2 inch, and I’ll change that on the pattern, but really, these are quite serviceable. I love the shape they create. The plastic whalebone is wonderfully light, but firm.

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The left tab binding is still in progress here, and the strap eyelets haven’t been stitched yet. It’s not perfect, but I love the fit.

 

The wool twill tape bindings were a little rumply when I first stitched them on, but I steamed the heck out of them and they shrank to shape really nicely. Wool twill tape bindings FTW! Want some for yourself? I bought two widths in natural color from Mood Designer Fabrics (yes, that Mood). They weren’t crazy expensive, either. Unfortunately the wool variety aren’t listed on Mood’s website, but in my experience, if you know they have a product not on the site, just call the NY shop (or L.A. if you’re out there) and do a phone order.

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The front neckline could stand to come up about 1/2 inch. My bust is set very high on my chest, and I always have to raise low necklines. I just didn’t raise this one enough.

 

On a side note, the Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun exhibition was stunning! I had seen many of her paintings before on Pinterest and museum websites, but seeing them up close–there’s just no comparison. Plus, the Met had many paintings that I didn’t know were hers and many I had never seen before. The exhibit also conveyed information about le Brun’s life, which was fascinating. It was truly a wonderful experience. And then we spent time touring the rest of the museum and taking amusing photos. Like this one:

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The statue of Perseus and the head of the Medusa. He is quite well formed!

 

The other patrons that day were very curious and enthusiastic about this group of 12 Regency-clad women gazing at all the portraits. And most of the museum staff were also pleased to see us all dressed up. Yes, we might have been a bit of a nuisance when we begged another patron to take our group photo. And yes, on our way to a tea house later that day we might have weirded-out off-duty weatherman Al Roker (yes, that Al Roker #shamelessnamedrop), but “for what do we live but to make sport for our neighbors… ?”

AlRoker Vignette

That’s Today Show weatherman Al Roker right there. I blurred other faces to protect the teachers.

 

18th Century Stays Update – Changes are inevitable

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The one major thing I’ve learned throughout my years of historical costuming (or any sewing, really) is that no project goes precisely as expected. Some stick close to the original plans, and others end up diverging widely (or wildly, as the case may be). My 18th century stays project has been no different.

In my last update, I was intent on getting them completely finished with just 3 weeks to go before the event. It’s now about 1 week away, and the stays still aren’t done, but they’re much closer. And they’ve gone through a few design changes since I was first able to try them on, although I’m happy to say that the fit is pretty much spot-on–now. A little refinement wouldn’t hurt in my next version (whenever that happens), but all in all, they fit correctly.

But for a few days I was really worried that I’d gone to all the work of patterning, cutting, sewing channels, installing boning, and sewing eyelets for a poorly fitting pair of stays. Once I sewed the front bottom edges together, got the back panels attached, pinned some temporary twill tape straps in place, and laced that puppy up on myself (whining the whole time because my arms hurt trying to finesse the lacing from behind), and looked in the mirror, I was completely crushed. It was so bad. Oh, so bad. They just didn’t look right. They didn’t sit right, they didn’t give the right silhouette, and I thought something had gone terribly wrong in between the muslin mock-up and the final version, or that I had completely misread the fit on the mock-up. I thought I’d have to scrap my whole 18th century project, for now anyway.

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Oh no… no, no, no, no. Just, no.

 

When a project goes wrong, or seems to go wrong, it’s always best to step away for a bit, get some distance, think things through, and analyze the shit out of the problem (and yes, pray to the sewing muses for their help).

So I had a good long think about it, analyzed the photos I took in the mirror, looked at similar pairs other costumers have made and some extants from museums again, offered up a few pleas to the Universe, and came to some conclusions.

Here’s what went wrong and why:

  • Back lacing woes—The original 1780s-90s design had the stays partially opened and laced and partially sewn closed in front, meaning it had to be laced fully down the back. I don’t have a lady’s maid, as I’ve said before, and while my arms will bend to the back and sort-of work properly, they don’t work well enough to lace myself up properly from the back, even when the stays are pre-laced. This is why all my past stays have had both front and back lacings, for ease of dressing and full adjustability. But I thought this time, hey, let’s try to make it as accurate as possible, within certain parameters. And it was a complete FAIL. Ask Instagram; my followers there know. With the lacing happening at the back, I just couldn’t keep the stays situated properly, so once I had them (badly, wonkily) laced up, they sat far too low in the front to give the proper silhouette. They mushed my bust while also squishing it upwards in a really unattractive bulgy way instead of pushing up and giving a gently bowed shape. And the back sections weren’t parallel, they overlapped at the top edge and splayed out over my hips too much.
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Ugh. Horrible. Uncomfortable. Total crap fit.

 

  • Unstable strap arrangement—My original intention was to use a plan of twill-tape straps that criss-crossed in back and wrapped around to the front waist that I’ve seen on some extant stays of similar design. Maybe this worked fine for the original owners, maybe it was just that my straps weren’t actually sewn on and were only pinned temporarily, or the fact that I hadn’t put on the strap guides yet, but: they just weren’t stable enough to keep the stays in place, high enough under my armpits and on my bustline to assist with the fit.
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Stupid straps are stupid. Boob spillage is so bad.

 

Once I figured out what was wrong, the solutions became clear.

  • Do a full front lacing—It’s not accurate to the extant stays of the same design, but the bottom line is that I have to be able to fully lace myself in from the front. So I ripped out my stitching along the bottom half of the stays front and added 5 more lacing eyelets to each half. Didn’t take long. Couple of 30-minute sewing sessions during lunch at work.
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The back lacing was a bit too snug here, so it wasn’t closing all the way in front, but totally fixable, and the fit is 100% better.

 

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Eh, ignore the belly pudge, but the bustline is much much better–especially when my arm isn’t raised over my head. And the fit is very comfortable.

 

  • Use cut-on straps—This one doesn’t hurt my ego as bad, because most of the extants have straps that are integral with the body, made from the same fabric as the stays. To keep a little adjustability, they will lace to the front strap extension; wiggle room is nice to have.

I made these changes, tried on the stays again, and presto! They fit correctly. They push up my bust and give a gently bowed shape. The back gap is pretty even all the way down. Big sigh of relief!

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Woot!

 

And now all I have left to do in the week-plus remaining before the event is to finish binding the stays, sew up a petticoat, make the gown (!), and dye my American Duchess Dunmore shoes. EEEK! I can do it. It’s a lot, but I can do it. Since the chemise a la Reine/Oberkampf is based on my Regency gown pattern, I can whip it up and do the finishing in a week. I can get the petticoat and bindings done this weekend. And probably the shoe dyeing, too. I will. I will. I will!

And if there’s a little time left over (unlikely) I’ll make the second petticoat I was planning; but right now I think that’s a stretch. One petticoat will be enough for the event, especially since I decided to go with the mid-weight linen one first.

Breathe; just breathe!

The never-ending 18th century stays

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They’re further along than shown here…

Yeesh, these things just keep going. My 1780s-90s stays are I’d say about 75-80 percent done. All the boning is in, all the eyelets are sewn, and I’m in the process of attaching the back panels to the side panels. Then the front edges below the eyelets have to be sewn together. Then all the edges have to be bound. Then the stays have to be lined, including individually lining the tabs. THEN I have to attach the twill tape straps and strap guides, and the hooks at the waist and sew the eyelets on the straps. And THEN they’ll be done.

But at least they’re getting to the stage where I’ll be able to try them on and make sure they’re going to fit correctly. I’m still a tad worried about the top edges overlapping in back, but hopefully it won’t be a problem. Fingers crossed.

I’m loving the German plastic boning. It’s so easy to cut and the ends file down nicely with an emery board. The only problem I had was that some of my channels, stitched through 3 layers, were a bit snug. There was cursing. And possibly some stomping. But steam from my iron and some tugging and pushing and shoving got all the bones into their channels. I used mostly the 3 mm boning and a few strips of 5 mm boning. For the center back I used 1/4-inch-wide flat steel bones, and for the center front I decided to use a standard 1/4-inch-wide flat steel plus a heavy-duty/double-thick 1/4-inch-wide flat steel. This makes the front edges very rigid. The standard steel went into the stitched channel and the double-thick steel slid between the layers of the folded-back center-front edge. Hope it’s not overkill.

Once I try the stays on (this weekend pleasepleaseplease sewing muses), I’ll have a good idea of my waist measurement in them and can start the 2 petticoats. The gown pattern is all prepped and my construction sequence all figured out.

I can do this. 3 weeks is enough time. I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

The Chemise a la Reine: a slight change of plans

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With my 1780s-90s stays advanced to the point where they’re ready for eyelets and bones, I decided to cut out the Laughing Moon pattern I was planning to use for the chemise a la Reine. On looking at the pattern pieces and the gown construction, I started thinking it was all so complicated. Before deciding on using this pattern, I’d been toying with the idea of adapting my early Regency gown pattern pieces for this project, especially since the long 2-piece sleeve for the Regency gown is exactly what I want for the chemise a la Reine.

Well, I’m going back to that idea. I’m sure I’ll use the Laughing Moon pattern at some point. It’s just that I’d have to do too many things to adapt it for the overall look and functionality that I want for the chemise a la Reine. It’s a very nice pattern, and a lovely design taken from an extant in the Laughing Moon designer’s collection; it’s just not close enough to the Oberkampf gown.

The more I examined the pattern, the more differences became apparent. 1) There’s a waistband; there’s no telling whether the Oberkampf gown has a waistband or is all in one piece or some other construction. 2) The sleeves end at the wrists and are a bit baggy, and while slightly shaped, they don’t have the very curved, close-fitting appearance of most late 18th-century long sleeves, including those shown in portraits of fitted-back chemise a la Reines; the Oberkampf gown sleeves are very fitted, extend over the hand with a flare, and they have a button placket opening. 3) It has a gathered back opening; the Oberkampf gown appears to open at center front, as the back panel is tucked and there’s no apparent opening. 4) And the low neckline is less scooped or squared than the Oberkampf gown.

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MadameOberkampf

My inspiration gown.

My basic Regency gown pattern is quite adaptable, which is what I designed it for, and will give a much closer result with far less effort. And I think using this pattern, adapted, will cut down on the fabric requirements. My Regency gowns all depend on drawstrings for their closures, and being early Regency (or very late Georgian, if you prefer—1798-1810) they’re designed for lots of soft, flowing volume. It’s really just a bodice pattern with several sleeve options; my skirts are just tubes of fabric gathered and pleated to fit the bodices.

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Here’s what I need to do to my Regency bodice pattern to make it fit the Oberkampf gown’s design and functionality:

  • Lengthen the bodice pieces by probably 6 inches (including seam allowance). I’ll have to do a quick muslin to make sure the side and back pieces are shaped correctly once lengthened.
  • Split the front bodice in two to give a center-front and a side-front piece. This will ensure the side front remains flat, while the center-front is gathered on drawstrings that terminate at the joining seam. I may actually join the side-front piece to the side-back piece to eliminate a seam.
  • Position the slit opening for the closure at center front instead of center back.
  • Adapt my undergown bodice pattern in the same ways to make a lining pattern, extending the center-front edges and cutting them off the fold so that they can overlap and pin or tie closed.
  • I’ll need a solid 4 yards for the skirt; I usually make do with 3 for a Regency gown, but the chemise a la Reine will need more volume in the skirt front.

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I think this will actually be a lot easier and faster than trying to fit the Laughing Moon pattern and then adapt it for the right look and construction. And as time is now running quickly away (April 30 drop-deadline), there’s not a moment to spare. So I quickly pulled out my Regency gown bodice pattern last night and made the changes. Now all I have to do is make a quick muslin to make sure the back and side-back are correct.

PatternAdaption

Quickly adapted pattern (the longer pieces) shown next to the original bodice pattern pieces (shorter).

Sleeves

My 2-piece sleeve pattern is nicely shaped, slim-fitting, and has a bit of a flare that extends over the hand like the Oberkampf gown’s sleeves.

I can start muslining the chemise bodice while I’m finishing my stays. Luckily, most of the finishing work on the stays will be done by hand, so it’s more portable. I take projects like this to work with me and work on them in the last 30 minutes of my lunch break; a little every day for a week should be enough to complete the stay eyelets front and back and get a good start on the binding, after installing the bones at home.

 

1780s-1790s Stays: progress report

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For my Chemise a la Reine/a la Oberkampf, I’m making a pair of late 18th century stays from Corsets and Crinolines by Norah Waugh. It’s the 1790s stay pattern on page 44. I would be very curious to know just what museum or historic house collection the sketch and diagram for this pair of stays was taken from.

stays diagram

1790s stays, Corsets and Crinolines, Norah Waugh.

In some ways it looks very much like other 1780s to ‘90s-dated stays in museum collections, mostly English or Italian, that I’ve seen online; the basic shape of the panels, the half front lacing and full back lacing, the curved bustline are all the same. But, aside from appearing to be a bit shorter in the body, the C&C stays differ in one other essential way from these other extant stays: the boning density and pattern. In C&C, the 1790s stays are said to be half-boned, and the sketched-in boning pattern follows suit, although even half-boned extant stays don’t have (what I’m interpreting as) the wide boning indicated in the diagram; they all have the typical narrow bones. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the markings on the drawing, but I don’t think so. Again, aside from the boning pattern, the C&C 1790s stays have all the same features of the similarly-designed 1780s and ‘90s stays in museums.

The C&C description says that the pair the sketch and diagram were taken from “follow on from the previous ones in cut,” which I assume means the previous decade’s stays of the same cut that were fully boned (as mentioned above).

Why, oh why, didn’t Norah Waugh cite her source on that pair of stays? Or any of the garments in the book, really. I’d really like to see the source garment for comparison purposes. But all this talk of the stay’s design and boning pattern is beside the point right now; more on that later.

So that’s the stay pattern I’m using for my ensemble. I enlarged the book pattern on a printer to the correct scale, then I graded it up to roughly what I thought would fit me.

I made an unboned mockup of this rough pattern a few weeks ago, and tried it on to see if it was close or totally off in terms of size and fit. Surprisingly, it was very close! It needed some nipping in at the side-bust area in the front panel, so I sewed a dart there. And it needed some nipping in at the top of the side panel, too; so I slashed the mockup, overlapped the edges the needed amount, and zigzagged them down. Trying it on again showed that it was just about right.

Closeup of changes

After transferring those changes to the pattern and tracing a fresh one, I made the second mock-up, this time with boning. Not full boning; more like the pattern in the book just to get the general idea. I tried it on first by just holding the front edges as close together as possible with the back laced up. The back lacing overlapped at the top, but I think—I’m pretty sure—that’s because the front lacing wasn’t completely closed.

When I sewed the bottom front together and laced up the top front and tried it on again, the fit was even better. There was still a little overlap at top center back; possibly because I’m very flat in that area, with no upper-back curve. But it’s not something I’m going to monkey with in this first attempt at stays. If it’s not corrected when the front lacing is completely closed in the final garment, then I’ll work on it in the next go-around. But I only have 1 month and 1 week now to finish my whole ensemble and most of my sewing happens on the weekends. So close is good enough for me on the first pair of 18th century stays I’ve ever made.

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2nd stays mockup. The CF gaps a bit, but with stronger cord (not embroidery floss–improvising FTW) it’ll close.

The one thing I wanted to change from the second mockup was the length of the side panel where it joins the front panel. I had lengthened the front panel to help hold in my tummy pudge, but didn’t lengthen the side panel to match, so there’s less control there than I’d like. I ended up lengthening the side panel by 1 inch at that seam, leaving the rest its original length, and adding a small tab. This, coincidentally, makes it a little more like 1780s stays, being slightly longer in front.

Now I’ve got the two linen outer layers and the inner duck layer cut, and I’ve started marking the boning placement on the duck layer. I’m using what I’m going to call a “heavy half-boned” layout. It’s not the same as the boning layout used in any one pair of stays I’ve seen, but a combination of different boning layouts that seem to be common to stays of this cut, just not full-coverage.

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Detail of a side panel, channels stitched.

In referencing the extant stays’ boning layouts and deciding which elements to use in mine, I’m just going with what feels right, in terms of density and placement. Any experienced staymakers out there reading this are probably shaking their heads, thinking “newbies.” I can only respond, “Yeah; I hear you. But we all start somewhere. I’ll learn better ways eventually.”

The boning channels are machine-sewn, because time is of the essence. Maybe one day I’ll hand sew all my boning channels. Props to all who do it—seriously, I have nothing but respect for you and only hope that one day I will approach my own costuming with the same level of detail.

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All stitched and joined, except for the back panels. It’s easier to sew eyelets without boning installed, as I’ve learned from past stays projects. After the eyelets are sewn and boning installed, I can tack the seam allowances down and stitch the side panel horizontal bone casings in place.

 

I can’t wait to start working with the German plastic boning (GPB) I ordered! Ordinarily I would use cable ties, but I’ve wanted to try the GPB for a while and this seems like the perfect project for it. I think mostly I’ll be using the 3/16-inch-wide, but in a few places I’ll use the 5/16 and the 7/16. At center front and center back I’ll be using 1/4-inch-wide, double-thickness flat steel bones for extra support and stability at the lacing edges.