Wednesday, March 25, 2020

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American Duchess on Youtube!


Hi all! Well, in light of recent and ongoing events, we're all at home making lots and lots of Youtube videos. It's a good way to help keep the costuming and sewing inspiration alive, to feel productive, and to feel connected to the community.

If you're lining up watchlists for binge-sewing, please check out the American Duchess channel! We're adding loads of new content starting now and we plan to drop new videos every week.


Here are a few of our most popular videos - 




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Monday, March 23, 2020

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Podcast Episode 28: Merging Royal Vintage & American Duchess


Yay! Welcome back to a whole new season of podcastery! It's been awhile since we've done podcasts, but we get a lot of requests for them, so we thought we'd kick off this new season with some *business chat* - Royal Vintage merging with American Duchess and the whosits, whatsits, and whysits of that.

Also new this season, we're putting our podcasts on Youtube! If you like to queue up a playlist on Youtube for sewing, add us in there so you can listen while you stitch. This is also a groovy way for us to show you images of things we're talking about, particularly when the subject is quite visual (like bustles, coming up soon).

So we hope you enjoy this new season! Have a listen AND a watch here:


Or just have a listen here:

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

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Review: Vecona Vintage Three-Piece Ladies' Suits

Sporting the Vecona Vintage "Viktoria" three-piece suit in grey wool blend, in Portugal.
Anyone who follows my personal Instagram page (@lauren_stowell) will know I'm a *big fan* of menswear, particularly three-piece suits. The combo of trousers+waistcoat+blazer looks good on everybody of every gender, every shape (in my humble opinion), and I just can't get enough.

But while there is a glut of available vintage repro menswear for men, the ladies are mostly left out. I have plenty of high-waisted trousers, and quite a few blazers too. I even have a few vests, some I've made myself, but pinning down a *matching* set, a true three pieces of the same material...now that is the holy grail.

I'm quite particular about the cut of the pieces making up a ladies' menswear-inspired suit. I've tried and failed many, many times at wearing pieces cut and made for men's bodies. Maybe I could get away with that when I was a teenager, but an abundance of cake and stress has provided 36-year-old me with too much hip, bum, and boobage to make men's pieces work. I also don't wish to invest a lot of money in clothing that doesn't fit quite right, and three-piece suits aren't cheap.

Thus far I have only found one vintage repro company making all three pieces cut specifically for ladycurves, and that is Vecona Vintage. I splurged a couple years ago on the Viktoria trousers and waistcoat, then begged Janet, the designer, to make a matching blazer to complete the look, which they did last December. At last!

This is the grey set - the trousers and the waistcoat.

And here's the matching jacket for the grey set. 
The suit now comes in two colorways - Viktoria is the grey and Mrs. Goodwood is the brown. While there is no difference between the cut, the materials do differ. The grey Viktoria suit is a wool blend and while it is pretty nice, it has the softness and drape of a blended fiber. Mrs. Goodwood, on the other hand, is 100% merino wool and has the lightness and crispness of that superior fiber.

The brown all-wool "Mrs. Goodwood" set - trousers and waistcoat.

The blazer for the "Mrs. Goodwood" set in brown merino wool.
The trousers, waistcoat, and jacket are all lined (trousers half-lined) with a viscose/acetate custom woven lining with the Vecona Vintage logo, and the buttons have tiny "Vecona Vintage" on them. These are nice touches. There are also plenty of pockets, and in the trousers I mean *real* pockets, deep pockets. There are also exterior pockets on the blazer, though they're not very deep.

I've found that the cut is very flattering, particularly the waistcoat. It comes down past the waist and flares over the hips. There's an adjustable buckle on the back. The trousers fit absolutely perfectly as well, with the waist and dept of the crotch exactly as they should be for vintage style. Additionally, the blazer has a lovely peaked lapel and shaping through the waist too. It's not boxy or half-arsed, and it even has some nice tailoring and padding in the shoulders, which are particularly hard to fit for me.

I ordered:
Size 14 trousers
Size 16 waistcoat
Size M blazer

My measurements are:
Bust 36" ish
Waist 30-31" ish
Hip - 40" ish

All of these pieces fit like they were made for me and I found them to run true to size.

The Vecona Vintage "Mrs. Goodwood" suits - two of the three pieces - in brown 100% merino wool, paired with a vintage repro House of Foxy rayon blouse. I'm still waiting for the Mrs. Goodwood waistcoat to restock.
As a small German company, you can expect very good, personal service from Kai and Janet. Unfortunately the mail system sometimes fails them - Vecona ships very quickly by DHL international, but DHL isn't particularly bothered about getting you your package on time. This may have just been my experience, but it took about a month and half to receive one of my orders placed in December. The second came quicker but still took about 3 weeks. For anyone outside the EU, I wouldn't be in a rush to get these items. But when you DO receive them, you won't be sorry.

So if you're looking a very, very high quality women's vintage repro three-piece suit, I highly recommend Vecona Vintage. These pieces are an investment (the total set will run you about $670 for the grey and $725 for the brown), but I felt comfortable purchasing because I've been searching so long for a vintage-cut three-piece ladies' suit and I know these pieces will last me for a very long time (if I just lay off the cake a bit...). I also feel good about supporting a fellow small business, and know that if I wait I may miss the opportunity to own these (as it stands I waited a week too long on the Mrs. Goodwood waistcoat and I'm waiting/praying for it to come back into stock soon!)

You can shop with Vecona at https://www.vecona-vintage.com/. They also have a fantastic men's line, as well as tons of other items for women.

*This post is NOT a paid promotion. I just really friggin' love these suits. 
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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

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The 1630 Thang - Finishing the Bodies

Dayum she looks good! 1630 Dutch formal basque bodice with ribbon points.
It's been a few weeks since I started the yellow and black bumblebee-lobster bodice/bodies/smooth-covered stays for my 1630 ensemble, and I'm pleased to report that they are now done!

The foundation layer for this bodice is two layers of heavy linen. The front pieces are heavily boned while the back has no boning at all. Initially sewing the boning channels was no big deal. I opted to use the machine, and fully intended to use the machine wherever I could, but I quickly found out that that was *only* the boning channels...everything else had to be done by hand. As usual (lol).

A look at the inner structure before lining. I did the boning channels by machine and I initially tried to do the padding on the back piece with zig-zag machine stitches but ended up going back and pad-stitching by hand to get the curve.

After the boning channels and the bones were in, I applied the wool padding to the shoulder strap and upper chest. I used dark blue heavy wool melton and roughly pad-stitched it on. I then added another layer of white muslin because the blue wool was showing through the yellow taffeta of the cover.

Padding the bodice front with wool

I added a layer of white muslin over the wool to mask the dark color. I ended up adding more muslin padding over the whole thing, but next time I'll use flannel.
Applying the cover was the biggest hand-aching, awkward, pain in the tuchus! I debated backing the taffeta with something because it is so lightweight and now I wish I had. After handling the front pieces even just a little, the boning started to show through in that annoying ridgy way and I had to nip in between the layers from the side and smoosh in a couple layers of muslin to try to pad the area a little. So for the future, and for anybody doing smooth-covered anything, pad the silk layer. There was a great tip from a reader to pad with thin cotton flannel, and if I'd had any on hand I definitely would've used that. As it stands now, the cover isn't perfect. Oh well - live/sew/learn.

Bah! Wrinkles! This happened because I didn't pad the thin silk taffeta layer enough and the boning started showing through.
Applying the covers to the front pieces was straightforward in some places, but not in others. I went at it as you would for stays - turning the seam allowance over the edges and roughly stitching it down to the inside, all sins to be covered later by a lining layer. This got tricky on the top neckline, particularly where there's a rather severe angle at the shoulder strap/neckline junction. Some of the original bodices are turned and cleanly stitched there somehow, but others are bound on the top edge, which is what I'll be doing since I have annoying fraying silk sticking out at those two points.

The two sides of the bodice assembled but not yet joined. There are a bazillion stitched in there that you can't see because the thread is white. This is also the last time the bodice could lay relatively flat.

With the covers mostly finished, I also finished applying MOAR TRIM to the basque, and stitching the eyelets in the back edges. Time for a fitting! This required helping hands - Christina and Nicole, whom I cannot thank enough.

More trim on the basque, plus I did the eyelets for the points and added on the buttons, which were a lucky find from Tinsel Trading.
Chrissy and Nicole fitting this thing on me, lacing up the back and pinning the shoulder straps and side seams.
I put all of the skirt supports and petticoats on - it's the first time I've had everything on my own body, woo! - and pinned the center front overlap securely which created the S curve of the bodice front. Then Chrissy and Nicole pinned the side back seams while I held the bodice front tightly against my body, to get a snug fit.

And after the holding and pinning, the verdict was in about the back lacing. We left a 1 inch gap for adjustability, and there is no pulling on the back edges/lacing. The bodice fit smoothly and tightly in front without yanking on the back and pulling the eyelets out of shape. All of the complex fitting is achieved with curved seams, both the center front and the side back seams, which is a fascinating and very clever feat of engineering. So I am confident in saying that no, another pair of stays was *not* worn beneath this bodice.


The shoulder straps and side seams are pinned for this fitting, and the front curve looks really good. No other foundation is worn beneath this.
That being said this bodice does not feel like wearing stays at all. There is no waist reduction. It presses on the bust but it doesn't lift, shape, or otherwise noticeably alter that area. The shoulders are a bit restrictive, as in I won't be reaching over my head lest I pull the entire dress up (but just in case I do, it's all tied together with points so at least it will go back to where it ought to be). Generally, though, the entire thing is more of a manufactured shape that the body sits in rather than a garment for manipulating the body into a certain shape, if that makes sense.
Like the examples in Patterns of Fashion 5 and the Cologne book, the fronts of these bodies are fully lined with silk, including the basque. This was a massive pain to do with the shoulder straps sewn and I recommend doing the lining with the pieces still flat as possible for anybody working on something like this.
Blood, sweat, and tears later the bodice is done! I bound the neckline and armholes with black twill tape, stitched the side seams with English Stitch, and roughly stitched on the basque as best I could. This is the only project I've done where it actually got harder and harder the closer to finishing I got. Eegads!
So now it's onward to the next piece. I have choices. Do I make...
The vlieger (surcoat)?
-or-
The shirt/shift?

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Thursday, January 30, 2020

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The 1630s Dutch Thang - Badonk-a-donk, Petticoat, and Starting the Bodies

Just playing around with pinning things on my dress form
Now into the making up! I've been stitching on my big 1630 project and quite enjoying the process. There's enough weirdness here to keep my interest (and hopefully yours too as I document the project here).

I started with the petticoat, since it affects the waist length of the bodice, especially with this gnarly silhouette. Though there isn't much information available on 1630s garments specifically, not a whole lot changed between the end of the 16th century and this far into the 17th. I'm using a very large bum pad made from The Tudor Tailor for the back ba-donk paired with one of my smaller, general purpose 18th century bum pillows for the front belly.

Booty-and-belly padding to achieve the early 17th century silhouette. (Please ignore that pad under the arm - it is irrelevant, just hangin' out there so I don't lose it).
It's quite a weird silhouette and not one costumers gravitate towards today. French farthingales scare us. We don't find the preggo look flattering these days, though there are at least three periods in history where belly pads were all the rage. This is one of them - I am unafraid! (I'm a little afraid).

The petticoat is made of two panels of 60" wide silk taffeta, totally about 118" at the hem, right in the range the Tudor Tailors recommend. Just like measuring for 18th century panniers, I measured the center back, center front, and side to the floor, then shaped the top edge of the petticoat and left the hem on the straight, which helped me later on in applying the three bands of velvet trim on the straight. The top of the petticoat is pleated in pretty large knife pleats, and I've left the sides open like an 18th century petticoat. The waistband is shaped a bit at the front and interfaced, again recommended by the Tudor Tailors.

Three bands of velvet ribbon applied to the petticoat panels. This was tedious to sew on - I used the machine for the sake of sanity, though I knew I would be sacrificing perfect tension.
The petticoat is leveled from the top and the hem is on the straight, making applying these bands much easier.

I did a fairly wide, interfaced, shaped waistband for the petticoat, recommended by the Tudor Tailor for late 16th century.
With the petticoat done, I couldn't help but jump into the bodice. I draped a pattern awhile back using just any-ole-petticoat on the dress form, and a pair of very old generic Renaissance bodies to assist in shaping the bust to where I wanted it to be once the lobster bod was complete. The fronts of these bodices are heavily boned with an "S" curved center front seam/edge/overlap, while the backs have no boning at all but do have eyelets for a center back closure. The basic bodice pattern was quite simple - just two pieces, no darts.

My pattern. I originally tried to scale up the gridded pattern in Patterns of Fashion 5 but I had a lot of trouble with the grid scale, and the original bodice itself is super-duper-tiny. Having failed in that, I draped the pattern instead and referenced the patterns in both books for the shapes and grain lines.
Interestingly, the German book hypothesizes that these types of bodices were worn with another set of bodies/stays beneath. The reasoning for this is that there is no boning in the back of the originals, not even on the center back edges that lace closed, and there is no evidence of pulling or stress in the eyelets. Patterns of Fashion 5 doesn't make any mention of another pair of stays being worn underneath, but does make a point of calling these bodices "smooth covered stays."

The primary foundation layer is two layers of stiff linen with rather robust baleen strips in the front only. I'm using heavy duty zip ties. The distinct "S" curve is achieved by the "S" shaped front overlap and a fair amount of steaming.
It doesn't make sense to me to wear a heavily-boned pair of bodies beneath another heavily-boned garment, so here's where the experiential archaeology comes in (MY FAVORITE PART!). The question is...how is the bodice laced tight enough at the back to keep the boning close-fitting to the body without stressing and pulling the eyelets out of shape at the back?

And the answer lies in the S-shaped center front seam and the properties of baleen. I am not using baleen in this project, just plain ole plastic zip ties, but both materials shape to the body by heat/steam. In just playing around with some boning in the channels, blasting some steam on the area, and lining up the center front S-shaped edges, the bodice front keeps an incredible complex S shape on its own. It doesn't lay flat, just like the originals in the photos, which means that tight lacing at the bodice back isn't necessary.

I'm jumping ahead here (don't worry, I'll write about what's inbetween the last photo and this one), but just to show the steaming and how the curves are holding with one side boned, covered, and just pinned onto the dress form.
Another theory (my own crackpot theory) is that these bodices were not worn often. The German book notes several times that this very stiff, ornate, formal, and somewhat fossilized style of dress was a wedding garment. I am not sure yet if I 100% agree with that (more research, woo!), but the evidence suggests at the very least they were for formal wear. If bodies like these were worn infrequently, maybe only a couple times, and were not tightly laced in back, would there be significant stress/pulling/wearing of the eyelets?

There is more to be discovered!

My progress so far. I did that "dangerous" thing where you go zooming ahead on one side of the bodice without catching up the other side. Now I have the entire other side to do and I know how time consuming it is, lol. But it's looking *COOL* so far!


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Thursday, January 23, 2020

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The 1630 Dutch *Thang* - Beginnings

A still from "Tulip Fever" (2017) - outstanding costuming by Michael O'Connor.
As so often happens, after a no-sew period of downtime and feeling phlegmatic about costuming, I was struck by a small bolt of inspiration and have jumped into a new project.

It's often nice to stick with the familiar...or I should say it's "easy," rather. Sewing another 18th century Italian gown is easy. Sewing another vintage dress is easy. But sometimes you just want to get stuck in to the nitty gritty of a totally alien time and place. My alien planet this time is the Netherlands in the early 1630s.

Though this image is a little earlier than my 1630 date, it shows details of the "vlieger" costume in detail. This costume did not change much (the sleeves are a little different), from the earlier 17th century onwards. Dirck Hals, Jacob Matham, 1619 - 1623 Rijksmuseum
I'm saying the Netherlands because that is where, generally, this style of dress comes from...but the surviving garments I'm referencing are all from Cologne, Germany. Cologne is quite close to the Netherlands and was heavily influenced by Dutch fashion in this period through trade and immigration. There is a very clear link between the styles in a variety of primary sources - portraiture, inventories, and other records - and several of my secondary references connect these two, so while I'm calling this my Dutch Thang, I reserve the right to call it my Cologne Thang in the future if I find there is actually too much differentiation.

One of several of these bodices in the Darmstadt collection, featured in "Kölner Patrizier".
Mooooving on.
I first came into contact with these eye-popping basque bodices in "Tulip Fever," a film I've written about here before. The costumes in this film are outstanding, and as with anything weird and brightly colored, I was drawn to the "lobster bod" like a magpie. It wasn't until Patterns of Fashion 5 came out, though, that making one of these ensembles was a "must do," for in that incredible book there are two such bodices from the Darmstadt collection. Supplied with the drug of gridded patterns and detailed notes on all the layers and padding, the Thang started to make much more sense.

I draped my pattern over a pair of hemp-boned bodies, comparing it to the pattern shapes in Patterns of Fashion 5.
Plus my bestie gave me a length of searingly-bright imperial yellow silk for Christmas.

Down the research rabbithole I went, and took the pains* (yes, pains) to import "Kölner Patrizier- und Bürgerkleidung des 17. Jahrhunderts Die Kostümsammlung Hüpsch im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt" (Cologne patrician and civic clothing of the 17th century: The Hüpsch costume collection in the Hessian State Museum in Darmstadt) on the recommendation of Angela Mombers.


This book, though written in German, comes with an English translation of the first three chapters, which discusses each of the garments in the catalog in detail, including construction notes, as well as the tailor's trade and sumptuary laws in Cologne in the early 17th century. There are excellent photos of men's and women's 17th century garments, including several basque bodices and women's upper garments, complete with pattern diagrams and photos of details and interiors.


The German book works brilliantly with Patterns of Fashion 5, which features the same photographs (licensed from the Darmstadt collection, I assume) but with significantly more information on the pattern and construction from a maker's perspective.

So to get down to brass tacks, here are the pieces of this ensemble:
  • Shift/Shirt - linen, high necked, simple.
  • Skirt Supports - I'm using a ginormous Elizabethan style bum pad for the back and a smaller bum pad for the belly
  • Petticoat - referencing Tudor Tailor
  • Lobster Bodice - the coup de grace!
  • Vlieger/Surcoat Robe - referencing Janet Arnold, Norah Waugh, and portraiture
  • Sleeves - made separately and tied onto the vlieger
  • Millstone Ruff - dear lord save me
  • Rabato/Ruff Support - referencing Janet Arnold
  • Cap
  • Cuffs

My goal/deadline is Costume College in late July 2020. Wish me luck!

The German book and Patterns of Fashion 5 cross-referencing each other, and the smooth cover of my basque with the trim lines drawn out.

*This book is only available in Germany and at the time of my ordering it could only be paid for by wire transfer. While this method of payment is common in Germany, it is abnormal, inconvenient, and expensive in the US. The book is large and comes with an invaluable English translation of the first three chapters, but be prepared to pay close to or upwards of $100 USD for it.
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Monday, December 23, 2019

18th Century Printed Cotton Do’s & Don’t’s

A beautiful printed cotton gown, 1785-95. The Met.
A very condensed version of this essay, without pictures, appears in The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking. Because there is *so much more* to be said about 18th century printed cottons, we're publishing the original version of this essay by Abby here. Enjoy!
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A beautiful cotton printed with flowers is one of the most beloved and recognizable aesthetics of the 18th century. It’s during this century when the imported Indian fabric blows up the Georgian fashion industry. These fabrics are so popular that they come in and out of fashion even today. While this popularity of printed floral cottons can be a blessing, when pursuing an accurate 18th century look, it can be a murky swamp of confusion.

Cotton with a woven stripe and overprint - 1796 - The Met.
Not all modern floral cottons are created equal. The vast majority of printed cottons available in big box fabric stores are totally wrong for this period. It takes a careful, trained eye to spot a printed cotton appropriate for an 18th century gown. To make it even trickier, new original prints and designs are being discovered every day! To start training your eye for printed cottons the best thing to do is carefully study original gowns and fabrics in museums and pay very close attention to how they have dated the textile and the function of the textile.

Trying to create guidelines and rules for period correct printed cottons is tricky. The study of printed cottons, their design, manufacture and appearance, is complex, and as with most things historical, there are always oddities and exceptions to “the rules.” While we strongly recommend that you go down the textile rabbit hole yourself, here is a rough guide to get you started.

Expense

Today, we are so used to cotton being a cheap utilitarian fabric that it’s difficult to understand just how expensive an 18th century printed cotton could be. The more colors in a printed cotton, the more expensive it would have been. Each dye/color required a different mordant and a special application that ended with the customer shelling out serious cash for enough yardage for a gown. Keep in mind that it was not uncommon for a multicolored printed cotton to cost more than a medium-grade silk taffeta. In today’s costuming world, just because it’s cotton doesn’t mean it’s “cheap” by 18th century standards!

Examples of expensive vs. cheap printed cotton.
However, there were also cheap cottons. Fashion was big business and the lower classes also wanted to look fashionable. If you want a ‘cheap’ printed cotton for your lower class gown, look for a single or two color design with inconsistent or offset printing.

Technology

The available technology, or lack thereof, had a strong effect on printed cotton designs in the 18th century. Floral printed cottons originated in India in the 17th century and quickly became some of the most popular clothing fabrics. To create the designs, artisans would use carved wooden blocks brushed with mordant to make the dye adhere to the fabric, stamp the design on the fabric, dye the whole piece of fabric, rinsing it to reveal the stamped design, and repeat this process as needed to create their beautiful fabrics. Dyes were natural in the 18th century, primarily coming from vegetables and plants. Different dyestuffs need different mordants to fix the color onto the fabric, and so this printing method could be repeated a number of times to achieve the desired outcome.

A carved wooden block for fabric printing.
If the design contained a lot of delicate flowers, artisans would hand paint in each flower to achieve the color desired. This is why multicolored printed cottons were so incredibly expensive in the 18th century, and why the amount of color in a printed cotton correlates with its expense.

Copper plate printing, which is the method used to create the “toile” prints we are familiar with today, was developed in Ireland in the early 1750s. Though you could get incredibly detailed designs, you were restricted on single color printing with the plates, which could be hand painted in later with different colors. Roller printing was invented even later in England, in the 1790s. As an improvement on the copperplate method, roller printing helps bring the cost of printed cottons way down at the end of the 18th and early 19th century.

A copper roller printing press in Le Musee de l'Impression sur Etoffes, Mulhouse, France. 
The restrictions the artisans faced when creating their printed cottons is why it is important to view historic cotton designs and colors independently from silks and wool. Silk and wool take dye differently than cotton, resulting in a wide assortment of hues and saturation that are not achievable with cotton. Designs that could be painted or woven in silk, cannot always be recreated in cotton, and it is important to keep this in mind when you’re buying your next floral cotton fabric. Was this design achievable with 18th century technology? Am I using a painted or brocaded silk as my inspiration? Does it look like natural dye colors? Etc.

When looking at dress inspiration, be mindful of what the fabric actually is. Is the design brocaded silk, hand-painted silk, embroidery, printed cotton? Look closely and read the descriptions on museum listings. All of these are from The Met.
Scale & Density

Printed cottons were manufactured with their use in mind. The scale and density of the print played a role, with larger, sometimes denser prints often used in furnishings or surviving from earlier in the 18th century.

First, let’s talk about bed curtains or furnishing prints used for gown fabrics. Yes, gowns made out of old bed curtains do exist in museums today, but ask yourself, “is that actually commonplace and something I should do?” If your goal is to be fashionably dressed for the 1780s, the answer is probably no. Bed curtains were a luxury item unto themselves, the scale and density of the print quite larger to balance the print in correlation to the size of the bed. For most gowns the scale and density of a bed hanging is just too visually overwhelming for a body to carry off.

Notice the difference in scale between the print on the bed curtains and coverlet and the Colonial Williamsburg reproduction dress print on Lauren's jacket.
This also applies to what we call “toile” today. While there are a very small selection of original toile printed gown that survive in collections, it does not mean that you should be making a gown out of it, tempting though it may be.

This incredibly rare and unique gown is held in the Snowshill collection. It is copper-printed toile, and appears to be the only toile-printed gown of its kind known today. We don't know the context of this gown - why it was made and who wore it - but toile is most definitely NOT a common textile for clothing in the 18th century.
Another issue of scale is a matter of dating. Printed floral designs changed constantly and were subject to trends just like everything else. Typically, the bigger the print the older it is. Since older style gowns were just, well, wider all over -wide sleeves, wide hoops, robings that can make a broad-shouldered lady look like a linebacker - it makes sense that the cotton prints of that time were bigger. However, smaller scale prints with open grounds coincide with the narrower silhouette of the later 1770s, 80s, and 90s.

Thie poor sacque gown has obviously been remade and Victorian-ized, but the scale of the print would indicate that the textile is likely from the first half of the 18th century. Whitacker Auction, c. 1750-1775.
A much smaller and denser print on this 1796 gown. The Met, C.I.55.50.4
Color

The color of the ground and flowers are other factors in selecting a printed cotton. Pay particular attention to what colors appear where on original textiles. While white grounds were arguably the most common for printed cottons, you do see that  dark brown, Turkey red, and blue were used for colorful grounds.

A dark brown ground on this c. 1774 printed cotton English gown. The Met, 26.38a

Pastel grounds, however, don't seem to exist at this time. Avoid that yellow and blue floral cotton in your local fabric store, along with pink, powder blue, or mint green. Nope. No Ma’am. Almost every printed floral cotton in your big box fabric store is going to be wrong for the 18th century.

Look closely - this is not a solid pink ground, but very dense dots (vermicelli). Manchester Art Gallery c. 1774 
Consider instead this documented reproduction from Colonial Williamsburg - a white ground with polychrome printing.
A white ground with colored flowers is the ‘safest’ choice for an 18th century gown. Shades of red, pink, blue, purple and yellow were used for flowers, while green, black, and brown were used for the vines and stems. When looking at original fabric samples in museum collections, consider as well that historic dyes were often unstable  - that brown flower was probably purple when the fabric was new.
Another good print from Colonial Williamsburg, but notice the brown flowers - the original this design was taken from probably had purple flowers.
Final thoughts

A few more thoughts on printed cottons to keep in mind when you’re going fabric shopping.

First, if it looks Victorian walk away. Saccharin cabbage roses have no place in the 18th century. Second, if the print looks like it is inspired by silk or wool damask or jacquard, leave it behind. What works for weaving, does not work for printed cottons.

It doesn't have to be complex - a simple floral or geometric design may also be very accurate. Bodice front panel of printed cotton, c. 1770-80 Platt Hall, Manchester Gallery.
Third, always exercise caution with a certain amount of forgiveness. That carefully reproduced printed cotton from a museum is a safe bet, but that does not mean they’re perfect. It is common for scale and color to be messed up in the reproduction process. Does that mean you shouldn’t use it? No, but it does mean that you should be prepared for inaccuracies that will happen. That perfect printed cotton is hard to find, and just like in the 18th century, sometimes you’re going to have to pay a lot more for it than you would for 100% silk taffeta. If you are overwhelmed by the idea of a printed cotton, but you want your gown to be made out of a cotton, remember that small stripes, polka dots, and some basic geometric shapes are totally accurate for the 18th century and are easily found in your local fabric stores!







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