Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Annual 2019 Sewing Slump - My Tips for Self-Care in Sewing

The Letter, Pietro Longhi, 1746

It's that time of year! It seems right about this time, on an annual basis, I go into a dreadful sewing slump. I'm not motivated to even peek into my [utter disaster of a] sewing room, let alone drape or cut or stitch on anything. Even the simplest projects are gargantuan and better left untouched for more motivated days.

Do you ever feel this way?

Usually this slump bothers me, but this year I'm trying to give myself a break. We're moving house in just a couple weeks and I don't want to start anything new only to pack it all in and then feel stressed for not working on it while everything is in upheaval.

This leads me to think about self-care when it comes to sewing....or giving yourself permission to NOT do what usually brings peace, creativity, release, or relaxation.

The Seamstress, Jean-Francois Millet, 1853
It may seem crazy to feel stress around something that normally lowers the stress level, but in creative pursuits, especially when tied to social media in some way, it can feel like you're falling behind or "not performing" when you stop to take a breather.

The catch-22 is that you need to rest to be creative, even when creativity gives you a rest. The most important thing is to avoid performance pressure when creating. I believe all artists, no matter the medium, go through this. Have you ever heard that little voice in your head that says your work isn't good enough, that you've done that technique wrong, and you're a failure? It's crippling!

Let's all collectively give ourselves permission to leave the thread spools where they've fallen and close the door on it all for a little while.

Sewing Apprentic, Anne Claude Phillipe de Tubieres, 1737

It may also help to try something new and totally different for a short time too. What is stimulating and exciting your creative brain right now? For me (and I know at least two other historical costumers like this too), I love zippy cars, racing, and going to car meets. It's totally and completely removed from historical costuming, and it's a great way to take a break and recharge. Perhaps you're into horseback riding, surfing, hiking and camping, travel, aerospace engineering, biology, you name it. Pursue those other interests and recharge your dressmaking batteries.

When the time is right, you'll be overjoyed and excited at the prospect of a new historical costume, and the stitches will flow freely from your eager fingers.

So rest, relax, and try to embrace the slump. You'll be back at sewing in no time. <3

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Sunday, February 10, 2019


A 1630s Dutch Mistress

A still from "Tulip Fever," a beautiful film with some very very historically accurate 1630s costuming.
Oh boy, am I torn on Costume College Gala plans for 2019. I really want to do something 17th century, but I have so many choices!

I secretly love almost all of the 17th century. Fashion and aesthetic changed quite drastically, so there is a lot to explore in those 100 years. I'm drawn to the 1660s (I made one gown a long time ago and loved it) and have some materials and a plan already for a gold duchesse satin gown....but I also love the 1630s, particularly Dutch fashion, and I also have some of the materials for my own rendition.

One of the clearest images I've found in my 1630s rabbit hole depicting vital details of the gown, bodice, and petticoat along with accessories and silhouette. Rijksmuseum, 1619-1623
I'm currently (that is, today at this minute) most drawn to the Dutch early 1630s for two reasons. One is that one of my besties gave me some imperial yellow silk for Christmas; the other is that Patterns of Fashion 5 has exactly the bodice (smooth covered stays) in it that I could not find resources for last year when I became interested in these gowns. Additionally, I have a ridiculous amount of near-black silk taffeta that's been marinating for several years and I took Constance Mackenzie's Elizabethan Ruffs class at Costume College. AND I saw a good number of these gowns in portraits at the Louvre this Fall, so..........ok, I guess that's actually five reasons.

Five reasons to make a gown is four reasons more than I really need. So I'll take this as an imperative from the Universe.

Frans Hals painted many portraits of noblewomen in this type of dress. Here is a detail from one such portrait.
Looking over the Patterns of Fashion 5 pages, the construction of the most showstopping piece, the smooth-covered stays, doesn't look that complex. There are only three pieces - back, front, and skirt - with boning in the front only, and pad stitching in the back shoulders and the skirt. There is a lot of handwork there, but I may take some shortcuts, like working falsie buttonholes for non-functional buttons, and possibly purchasing ready-made replica buttons from The Tudor Tailor instead of covering 30-some odd wooden molds with thread.

This bodice is in Patterns of Fashion 5 and also the Abegg-Stiftung book, the latter of which has several more examples. Early 1630s.
In addition to the lobster-tail smooth-covered stays, the ensemble needs a set of sleeves (matching the stays in brightass yellow and black), the gown itself, a petticoat, cuffs, the mother of all ruffs with a rabatto or picadil, jewelry (possibly a girdle), and the cap. I thankfully already have a shift, stockings, shoes, and a gigantic bum roll, but I may also need other or different skirt supports and a purpose-made underpetticoat.

Another of the bodices from the Abegg-Stiftung book, this one a little earlier and with matching sleeves, which weren't always present. The book notes that sleeves often matched the bodice, but were tied into the armscyes of the overgowns rather than always stitched to the under bodice. More on all that later...
In preparation for this project I went through the very complex, long, and confusing process orf hunting down a vital publication - Kölner Patrizier- und Bürgerkleidung des 17. Jahrhunderts Die Kostümsammlung Hüpsch im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt (Cologne patrician and citizen clothing of the 17th century The costume collection Hüpsch in the Hessian State Museum Darmstadt) from the Abegg-Stiftung website. This book is in German, but comes with an English translation of the first three chapters. It's full of detailed descriptions (most of which I can't read, lol - I'll find a way!) of many 17th century garments including the smooth-covered stays from Patterns of Fashion5, and partial surviving gown worn over. Despite the book being very expensive, difficult to purchase online (wire transfer?), not in my language, and slow in shipping from Switzerland (came in a bag?), it is an incredible tome of focused costume study from a period for which there are very few resources. I'm happy to have it!

This is the book is amazing.
I'm very excited for this project. I love weird and wonderful periods of dress, especially the ones that are least loved by the historical costuming world. I like the challenge of trying to get it portrait-right and learning the why's and how's along the way.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

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.

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