Wednesday, January 16, 2019


The Curious Polonaise-Sacque Jacket

1780-81 jacket - Glasgow Museums Collection - 1932.51.o

January is Costume A-D-D time. A whole new year lies ahead and we are all brimming with project ideas. Some I've even started and have abandoned for the time being as the new shiny ideas and events crop up.

Latest on my *grabby-hands* list is this amazing 1780-1781 Scottish jacket. What I love about this piece is that it is a bit weird: it is made like a polonaise in the front with loose open edges and a false waistcoat...but it has a sacque back.

The jacket is made from hand-corded linen, lined in linen. It was worn by Mary McDowall, the wife of George Houston of Johnstone Castle in Renfrewshire, Scotland, and is currently held in the Glasgow Museums Collection.

The fronts of this jacket is made like a polonaise, with the front edges flying open and canted to the back by both a pleat in the front edges and a tuck taken close to the side back seam. 1780-81 Glasgow Museum Collection 1932.51.o
Luckily for me, Abby and Brooke Welborn studied this gown and took excellent photos. I can't share these photos, unfortunately, but they've already helped immensely in understanding the quirks of this jacket.

My drawings and notes trying to work out how this jacket was made. I saw Brooke's photos after these sketches so now know there is a tuck in the front piece near the side back seam that helps shape the front of the bodice, typical of polonaise construction.
For instance, the skirts are cut and pleated peculiarly from the side seam to back underneath the sacque pleats, rather more like an English gown than a sacque. The cuffs are put on very interestingly, and the bodice fronts are shaped entirely by tucks. Some things I expect and understand and others make me scratch my head a little. It's the "wait, but why" that always intrigues me most, and the part I most enjoy, though.

The back of the jacket features narrow loose pleats. Curiously the side skirting is knife pleated back and under quite far and the whole waist edge is secured by a lining inside with no laces or ties at the center back, similar to an English gown. 1780-81 Glasgow Museums Collection 1932.51.o

I plan to make a version of this polo-sacque jacket in printed cotton lined in linen and will likely wear it with the green quilted satin petticoat. We do have an event to which I plan to wear this Scottish jacket, but I can't announce it quite yet. ;-)
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Wednesday, January 2, 2019

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All About 1830s Corsets and Fan Lacing

One of the biggest questions we get about our 1830s ensembles is about the corsets, so we've made a video telling you all about them:

Both of our corsets were purchased from RedThreaded, who offers several different options. Mine is the "Sylvie" style with cording in the bust and torso, and the curved busk while Abby's is the standard 1830s corset. Both are great and very historically accurate.

Sylvie Stays by Redthreaded - these are lovely
I made some changes to my 1830s Sylvie corset. Since I have such narrow sloping shoulders, I added a single line of boning into each strap to help them stay in place. Corset straps from this period are a bit confusing when combined with the off-the-shoulder gowns. The straps are meant to sit out on the shoulders, but honestly it's easy to see why corset straps disappear later on. Slippy straps were an issue then as now, with various innovations like springs and early rubber elastic used. I went with an earlier technology (1) of a piece of light boning and it worked just fine.

I also changed my back lacing to fan lacing. My obsession with getting dressed myself becomes a challenge with some periods, but luckily fan lacing is very easy and can be done on any corset with cross-lacing eyelets or grommets. Fan lacing allows you to put your corset on over your head, pull up the ties all in one motion, and tie everything off in front for the perfect fit every time. It looks complex, but it's actually very easy. Here's how to do it...

Every set of lacing holes gets one corset lace, so if you have 12 sets of holes you'll have 12 separate laces.

Follow the above diagram for how to lace through the holes. Basically, when you pull both ends of the lace, it draws the edges of the corset together.

Once all the laces are threaded through the holes, pin them to a piece of fabric or cotton tape, etc., all together, on each side. The laces need to be shortened in the middle section, so do this part on the body or a dress form.

LACMA (link) - you can see each lace as it goes through its set of holes
The next part is the trickiest. You need to give yourself enough room to get the corset on and off over your head. I got my laces too short the first time and got stuck in the corset. A good rule of thumb is that you want about a 2 - 6 inch gap in the front where your tabs wrap around and tie. Any less and you'll get stuck; any more and you won't have enough adjustability to cinch in as much as you may like.

LACMA (link) - here you can see how each lace is "corralled" into that tab, which in turn has its own tie across the front of the corset.
Once the laces are adjusted, sandwich them into your little tab bit and securely stitch it all together.

You'll *love* this technique! You can also do it on Regency stays (which I definitely plan to do). Give a try! There is no alteration to the corset itself and you can always go back to regular back lacing if you don't like it. ;-)


(1) You can see boning in the straps in 18th century stays in Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines.  
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Thursday, December 27, 2018


American Duchess on Patreon

Hi Lovelies! I have some big news - we are now on Patreon!

Patreon is a way to support creators with small monthly contributions that help us make more and better content. In our case, we are heading more into video production and podcastery in addition to working on more books, patterns, tutorials, and interactive ways to up your historical costuming game.

As we've been podcasting the past year and more recently trying to create helpful videos, we've found that these mediums, while much richer in experience, are also much more skilled and technology-dependent than ye merry olde blog poste.

We've noticed, and it's been fed back by viewers and listeners alike, that we really need to work on our video quality, sound quality, editing, and accessibility features (transcriptions and closed captions). This all costs a fair bit, so we're asking for help in leveling up...

... and in exchange, you'll get to see it all, read it all, and listen to it all first. Some of what we have planned will even be exclusively for Patreon subscribers. Here is a little glimpse of what we have in the works for 2019...
  • An in-depth dressmaking video series creating a 1790s gown and all the accessories
  • A new season of our popular "Fashion History with American Duchess" podcast
  • Behind-the-Scenes videos and posts from photo shoots, our headquarters, and events
  • Previews from our new book "The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty"
  • Swag! Exclusive patterns, tutorials, and gifts for Patreon members only
  • Private Q&A video sessions (group and also one-on-one available)
We have lots of perks and different tiers, from just $1. We hope to make some really awesome stuff for you guys this year, and as always help everyone make their best historical costumes.

Visit Us On
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Thursday, December 20, 2018

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My 1830s Bonnet

In the quest to be ever huger in our 1830s attire, the Gigot Girl Gang™ chose a variety of headgear to top off each of our ensembles. Maggie used bonnet shapes from Workwoman's Guide, Chrissy used an 1830s-specific Lynn McMasters pattern, while Nicole made a stellar hat and Abby a monolithic beret.

I went with a bonnet as well, but I started with a more generic buckram form I purchased years ago from Timely Tresses. It's been in naked buckram-and-wire form since 2014, waiting patiently for decoration which, to be honest, I really had no idea how to do.

I studied my Lydia Fast bonnet and determined a kinda-sorta-construction technique. If I had not purchased this buckram form, I would've just ordered the bonnet of my dreams from Lydia (support small business and avoid all that blood and anguish at the same time!), but I hate waste, so covering it was.

Mull me like one of your French bonnets....
The first step was to mull the entire thing, which means covering all surfaces with thin batting. I didn't have enough for the underside of the brim, which proved to be a mistake, so take a tip from me and don't skimp. It will seem bulky to put the thin batting all over, but it's the key to getting both a smooth cover and creating a quality-feeling hat.

I've never worked with an already-constructed bonnet before, so this was a challenge. I went in this order for covering with the silk taffeta:

1. Top of the crown
2. Outer brim
3. Crown lining
4. Inner brim
4. Crown stand with special buckram bias magic trick

Applying the silk taffeta to the top of the crown. This is probably the easiest step in the whole project. It's important to get a good tight fit here. The wrinkly raw edge are trimmed away and later smoothed out with bias buckram.

A smooth cover on the brim - tension is very important here and as you can see, I didn't get it perfect. I used Wonder Clips, which are amazing for working on millinery, to fold the silk over the brim edge and hold it taught, adjusting as I sewed.
Not going to lie - this is all tedious and all tricky. Lots of stabbery, but with diligence and some ingenuity it comes out looking pretty swell. I picked up a tip from Chrissy (who learned this from Lynn McMasters) to use strips of bias-cut lightweight buckram to smooth bulky parts and create crisp edges, particularly on the join between the top of the crown and the crown stand. I also used the bias buckram between the crown stand and the brim, and while I didn't do it perfectly, this did make a big difference in the quality of finish.

The underbrim is a straight strip of pink taffeta gathered on both long edges. I should have run more gathering stitches to get a better, less pleated-looking effect, though pleating is perfectly accurate too. So is a smooth lining but that is quite a lot more challenging!
 One of the trickiest parts was lining the crown. Normally I would use a drawstring bag lining, like in 18th century hats, but because of the architectural hair, I wanted "space" up in there and nothing touching the hair. There was a lot of "stitch in the ditch" to sew the lining in, and I installed it before I did the crown stand covering on the outside.

Once the underbrim lining was on, I went ahead and lined the inside of the crown. I stitched in the ditch along the top and passed the needle out to the mulling on the outside, to be covered in the next step. The raw edge at the base was turned under and applique stitched to the brim lining. Looks a lot easier here than it was!

Covering the crown stand - you can see my use of the buckram bias strip on the bottom. I also put one around the top, covering and smoothing that area right where the crown top and stand meet. The trick here is to pull the bias tight enough that it blends with the mulling, which I didn't accomplish so well...take practice!

Last bit for the silk taffeta - turning under the raw edge on the crown stand silk and stitching it through all layers. This, thank goodness, doesn't have to be too pretty because it'll be covered by the hat band and a mountain of other trims.
The last step was to bind the brim edge. I used 1 inch wide silk satin ribbon and applique stitched it to the silk on the top and underside both. At least on this step I had experience from previous projects. It gave a nice finish and covered all my raw-edge sins.

And finally, binding the brim edge. This is a nice touch but not the only way to do this - a clean turned edge is also accurate. I wanted the black to tie everything together, though, so I bound with silk satin 1 inch wide ribbon.

Huzzah! The finished covering! You can see how my underbrim would have benefited from the mulling, and how the buckram bias strip shows on the crown stand, but for a first time I'm pretty happy with this result. And yes, that is a wayward sleeve plumper acting as my hat stand cushion.
Hooray! The hard part was done, right? LOL. I actually *suck* at decorating bonnets. The general rule for 1830s headgear is to keep adding stuff, but I kindof feel my bonnet is just chaos. I used tons of ribbons, a couple antique feathers I love, and just sortof splattered it all on there until it looked alright. I'm happy with the result, even if it's not quintessentially 1830s.

Decorate with ALL THE THINGS

These weird feather bits you always see at craft stores...

Sh*t-tons of ribbons and bows. There are bits of antique ribbons, some taffeta self-made ribbon, and some satin ribbon I overpaid for in Paris.
In this project I learned some interesting things about '30s bonnets. The biggest "ah ha" moment was in how the bonnets worked with the hair. My bonnet has a rather low and broad crown and the angle at which is sits on the head is not particularly conducive to wearing with hair. This is because the bonnet form is generic, covering c. 1800 -1839 (I have the "Sophia" form). The Workwoman's Guide bonnets, however, have a particular angle and height in the crowns that are specific for wearing with towering coiffure. The crown circumference is also smaller than the general head measurement so that the bonnet stays back on the head and doesn't rest uncomfortable on the the curls at the temples. So as much as I love this bonnet (and I'm happy I can wear it with a good 40 years of costumes), I'm already feeling the draw to experiment and learn from the original bonnet shapes specific to my new favorite time period.

I know this post is a long one, but I hope it was informative. Constructing and covering bonnets is quite a skill, one that takes lots of practice and many hours. I probably put as many hours into this bonnet project as into the entire gown, but I do love the result. Now to figure out how to get this on the plane!
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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Monday, December 17, 2018

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My Ghosts of Dickens Fairs Past

This year will be my first visit to Dickens Fair in San Francisco in many years, and I'm *excited.*

I've been to Dickens many times, and even worked it as a member of Tavistock House, back in college, so I thought it would be fun to do a little timelines of my costumes, from my mortifying first attempt to this year's 1830s silk plaid gown.

My First Dickens - 2004

Ah, the heady days of being an art student, just getting interested in historical costuming, making so many n00b decisions....memories. 2004 was the first year I went to Dickens, just as patron with my school friend Grayson. I threw together a "dress" from whatever I had laying around - some gag-worthy yellow and green faux taffeta with a chenille strip (lol), a pattern for a c. 2003 mini-blazer, no corset (of course!), an old bed sheet with a crochet edge...

The Horror! The Horror!
We went, we had fun, I wore the mother of all gold satin bonnets. I knocked things over in the shops; a couple of ladies made fun of my bonnet 'Mean Girls" style (I didn't realize it until quite some time later). All in all it was a great first experience, though, and I knew I wanted to be more involved.

Tavistock House - 2005-2006

For my second year at Dickens, and with a whole year of historical costuming experience under my belt, I made a new and much more "proper" outfit. This dress was made of upholstery jacquard (which was totes the thing to do back then) in a pretty, Christmassy plaid. I used what is now Simplicity EA440001 Print-On-Demand, which is a great pattern. I also made my first corset, though my hoop skirt was still made from grosgrain craft ribbon and sprinkler tubing.

I was also working the fair this year as a member of Dickens' household at Tavistock House. It was really quite lovely - we sat around and talked, read, performed the eating of food, interacted with Dickens, talked with guests. I felt very pretty in my dress and truly I wore it for several years to many events, along with a velvet and fur capelet I struggled through (I still struggle with velvet and fur, lol).

---- I moved away from the Bay Area in late 2009. Facebook Memories told me that I went to Dickens in 2009 but I have zero recollection of this except that I bought a car and drove back to Reno in a snowstorm -----

 London With Friends - 2012

A few years later I went to Dickens with my bestie Maggie. We both no longer lived in the Bay Area, but we decided to visit our buds Chrissy and Curtis and see old acquaintances at the fair. I had a plaid skirt made from that lovely "Homespuns" fabric you can get at Joanns (I still love that stuff), but I'd never made the intended bodice.

I didn't have enough fabric for the bodice, so I pieced in velvet to make up the collar and cuffs. I needed to fill the neckline but instead of making a simple chemisette I wore an entire dress shirt underneath, which was quite bulky! I also didn't have time to make a bonnet, so I wore one my mom made years before.

I didn't really like this costume. I felt quite plain and boring, especially next to Maggie, who was frocked out in a gorgeous 1840s ensemble. This was one of those moments that defined my preferences for historic dress.

The Gigot Girl Gang - 2018

It's been 6 years since I've been to Dickens Fair. Time flies! This year a large group of us are attending in slightly-anachronistic early 1830s. Eye-popping plaids, stripes, and searing colors are at the ready. Bonnets and hats bedecked with plumes and ribbons are standing by. I am very proud of my ensemble this year and I feel the gravitational pull of the early 1830s sucking me in to making and exploring more of this brief period.

From our dress rehearsal - Abby and I have never been quite so wide, oh my! Our "getting dressed" video is coming soon!
I'm excited to spend the day at this fair with friends old and new, friends who have been going for years and friends who have never been. Don't worry, we'll take pictures!
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