Lady Greensleeves's Velvet Undergown

The tailoring misadventures of a histerical costumer

Friday, May 30, 2008

18th Century Ensemble Diary

This spring I took a hiatus from Renaissance costuming to put together my first complete, truly historically accurate* ensemble: women's middle-class clothing of the last quarter of the 18th Century.

*As much as possible. See notes.

The pieces are:
*a hand-sewn shift of linen
*half-boned stays (purchased)
*cotton underpetticoat
*linen tie-on pocket
*wool flannel petticoat
*a jacket of wool flannel
*a white linen cap
*handkerchief and apron, linen
*clocked stockings
*mundane shoes that don't look half-bad

I used the instructions in Everyday Dress of Rural America, 1783-1800 by Meredith Wright, cross-referencing with patterns by JP Ryan and the extant shift in the collection at Williamsburg. I used 3.5 oz softened handkerchief linen from and linen tape (to bind the neckline) from Burnley & Trowbridge. It was entirely hand-sewn, using French seams throughout--a new tecchnique for me, which I have to say I really enjoyed mastering! I've washed and dried it several times, and it's holding up beautifully.
I loved making the shift. It took forever (something like ten or eleven weeks; I could have made it in an afternoon by machine), but my hand-sewing skills leaped forward exponentially; and I discovered just how soothing and Zen-like the rhythm of hand-stitching long seams is. This is my first linen shift/chemise, and it won't be my last. It's deliciously soft--seriously, you have no idea. I can't figure out why we ever stopped making our underwear from 100% linen. Ok, the whole ironing issue, I guess, but still. Yummy.

The tape-bound neckline (inside)

Other Undergarments

I have two sets of stays for this ensemble--the period-correct half-boned stays shown in the picture (purchased from Jas. Townsend), which are slightly too large for me. And a Renaissance-era corset from Castle Garden Creations, which fits a little better, and which is actually what I have on in the pictures of the finished outfit. I ended up with two because I knew the 18th C. stays were too large, but I didn't want to make or buy a second set... and I didn't really have a good Renaissance corset. Long discussions last summer on the sewing boards convinced me that the difference in silhouette was minimal. You may disagree.

I'm also wearing a cotton underpetticoat of violent bubblegum pink broadcloth (inside-out in the photograph). The fabric's not a particularly period choice, but I had it on hand and wanted to test the construction for the petticoat--and not on my expensive blue wool flannel. I'll talk about the construction below (it's identical to the petticoat).

I'm also wearing my single tie-on pocket, which I made from linen, using (more or less) the pattern from Everyday Dress, and the instructions from the JP Ryan Six-Piece Ladies' Wardrobe pattern. I made one change to the construction, and that was to make the ties one continuous length that runs all along the top of the pocket, instead of two lengths sewn to the sides. It just seems sturdier that way.

It's wonderfully practical, and I think everyone should consider adding pockets to their garb (of any era)--I had my cell phone, wallet, sunglasses, pens for signing my book, and a battery pack for a cordless mike in mine a couple of weekends ago, and there was still room to spare!

Jacket & Petticoat

Here's where I depart from historical accuracy a little--and deliberately. Because my book takes place in a woolen mill, I really wanted to work with period wools. From what I can tell, the woollens of the period (as opposed to the worsteds) were used primarily for menswear. The main use for woollens in women's wear would have been for petticoats. Women's jackets and gowns were frequently made of worsteds, like glazed wools and the like--but the flannels, baizes, broadcloths, satinettes, &c would have been much more common in military uniforms, frock coats, breeches, and other sturdy men's clothes.

I didn't care. I wanted to use flannel, and history be damned. Pffft. For the jacket, I used JP Ryan's Caraco pattern, which is based on a couple of extant caracos (you can see photographs of them in the Williamsburg book I linked to, above; and scale reproduction drawings in the Janet Arnold book for the period). (Period caracos seem to have been made mostly from cotton chintz and similar fabrics) I used a delicious butter yellow flannel from Renaissance Fabrics.

I have to say, this was one of the easiest projects I've ever done. The flannel was a joy to work with, and I saved every last tiny little scrap of it for some rug-hooking buddies. But mostly, I think everything went together so smoothly because the pattern was so smart and straightforward. Everything made perfect sense--and even the things that had me going, "Huh?" (like the pleats in the back) made perfect sense when I actually sat down and *did* them. I ran into a couple of tiny stumbling blocks--first, although I made a mockup (really!), it's still a little too big in the shoulders (like absolutely everything on me). I'd cut it a little narrower next time, and remember about seam allowances (which I never seem to do). Second, I really fought with the front closure, and I'm still not totally thrilled with how it looks. The pattern calls for hook & tape (which, by the way, is expensive), and try as I might, I could not figure out how to lay it out so that it made any sense. Even Milord, who is usually my answer to all spatial relations difficulties, couldn't make it work. I ended up using hooks and eyes (alternating them, thanks to a reminder by some sewing friends), and I found them fussy and unforgiving. I'm going to study the pictures to see where I need to make adjustments, and fix those before this ensemble's next outing.

The petticoat is made from instructions in the Basic Six Piece Women's Wardrobe pattern, and they involved math. It was particularly challenging on my non-math-inclined brain, because all the instructions for petticoats I could find expect you to use much, much narrower fabric than I had, and cut the skirt panels according to your height X the width of the fabric. My fabric was 60" wide, so it took some fiddling and thinking (and a hideous pink mockup) before I actually had two panels cut to the right size. Once that was done, however, the construction was a breeze. It's essentially two rectangles of fabric, each pleated to its own waistband casing. They're then sewn together from the hem up, about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way to the waistband (you can see the openings at the hip in the picture--they're there so you can reach through and access the pockets, of course!). Linen tape goes through both casings, and gets tied on one side. And that's it.

I used a fairly heavy blue wool flannel from Hamilton Dry Goods, which has the same name as the fabric I used for the caraco, but which is decidedly different. That flannel was soft and lightweight and drapey. This stuff was heavy, sturdy, a little bit rough--good Civil War soldier uniform stuff. Very well fulled, which is cool--I just lopped it off at the bottom and didn't even bother to hem it! Which makes a great visual aid in a costuming demonstration.


I'm still conflicted about the cap for this ensemble. I was so happy with the results of the JP Ryan caraco pattern, that I used her Ladies Caps pattern... and I kind of hate it. First of all, rolled hems. I'm not even going to go there. But let's just say that's one reason God invented sergers. I don't have a serger. But beyond that trauma, the crown of the cap is HUGE--floppy and baggy and enormously disappointing (not to mention unflattering). I ended up putting several pleats throughout, to catch up some of that fullness, which helped some. I have some ideas about how to make a version that looks better, but I can't vouch for its accuracy.

I also have a neck handkerchief (made from the same JP Ryan Six Piece instructions), which I don't like at all, and an apron (Everyday Dress), which is far too sheer to be practical. I'll be redoing that one of these days, as well as fussing with the handkerchief to see if I can find a way to wear it that I actually like. One neat thing about the Everyday Dress apron instructions: the apron isn't sewn to the ties; they're fed through a casing at the waist, which means you just whip the apron off the ties to wash it. I actually took that advice when I washed the underpetticoat.

Lastly, I have the James Townsend clocked stockings, which are cool (no, actually, they're rather warm)... plus they stay up. I'll say that for them. I don't have period shoes, because I don't know how much I'll be doing this period, but I do have a nifty pair of good mundane approximations.


Blogger Chole said...

Cute clothes! I love the sunny yellow color.

I hear you about finding a flattering cap. I made 4 different styles before settling on one that I actually like.

A tip about neckerchief, I always put the neckerchief under my outer jacket or gown (& sometimes tuck it into my stays!). That way the outer layers keep the neckerchief tidy. I simply hate when it flops around freely & gets all cattywompus.

10:37 PM  
Blogger Little Fool said...

That pattern is very pretty, and looks very true to the time.
I know you don't know me, but I am a budding costume designer with an interest in historic reproductions. I was browsing the internet and saw your pictures. The entire ensemble you have is awesome.

5:28 PM  
Blogger john said...

Very nice! I get so excited about having all the layers right and proper, it's a good feeling.

You know you kinda look like Anne Hathaway.

10:42 AM  

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