The Great 1840s Digression

Today I went to the fabric store for one thing and one thing only: muslin, primarily for the purpose of mocking up James’ 18th c. men’s suit (more on this later).

What I came away with: 10 yards of muslin, yes, but also… 7.5 yards of “homespun” cream-green-brown plaid, 7 yards of brown velvet ribbon, two packets of self-cover buttons, two packets of brown piping, and a spool of brown thread.

I had reconciled myself to not making a new dress for The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, this year, and to wearing the same old one I’ve been donning for 5-or-so seasons. Sometimes, however, fabric yells at your from the bolt, screaming, “Lauren, BUY ME, I want to be a dress! I don’t care if you have only two weeks and a whole mess of other sewing to do by then, you WILL buy me, and you WILL make me into a new dress!” When this voice beckons, there is no arguing.

So…what I’ve started with is this out-of-print pattern from Simplicity (4551), which looks lovely on the outside but is a Hot Damn Mess once you cut into it. I knew I didn’t want to use it as-is, so I used the existing pieces as a base and began slicing and dicing from there. After two muslins and a serious extension to my actual waist, I’ve got a nicely working pattern that is more like these dresses:

I like the gathered front bodices of the 1840s and early 50s. I’m not entirely sure how they close, but I imagine either edge-to-edge in the front, or with a hidden placket of some kind. I toyed with the idea of buttons, but none of my reference dresses show buttons as a center front closure.

So the final dress will be something like the incredibly rough doodle at the top.

I plan to use the brown piping as contrast on the bodice edge, as well as the little winglets at the shoulders. The velvet trim may go on the winglets as well, if I have any left after trimming the skirt.

I had wanted to do a tiered skirt, but there was not nearly enough fabric on the bolt, nor dollars in my budget. Instead, it will have to be a single-layered skirt, probably 5 yards worth, knife-pleated into a waistband. And speaking of budget, having to come in under $75, so far my tally is at $41.71

And finally, do I have time to whip together an evening bodice? I’m not sure it’s appropriate fabric for evening, but I’d like to transition from the day at Dickens to the evening at Gaskells easily, without having to take an entire other gown. We shall see…perhaps I have enough to do with pulling a brown tafetta bonnet out of thin air and somehow conjuring a shawl…


  • Jenny

    December 9, 2009 at 7:08 AM

    What are you doing, you crazy fool?!? You're mad, utterly mad.

    Having said that………

    I have faith that you can do this, even if it's held together with duct tape. The fabric is great, by the way, as is the ribbon. Rock on. 😛

  • Robin's Egg Bleu

    December 9, 2009 at 3:21 PM

    That's funny…the voice that pops into your head at the fabric store is the exact same voice that pops into my head while shopping for fabric! It's not hard to be talked into justifying a purchase!

    I do have a tip for you on the covered buttons; todays pre-made sets are too 'rounded', the original covered buttons from the time had a very flat surface. A way to duplicate these with very little cost is to head to the hardware store and buy stainless steel washers. They come in various sizes and give the period profile. The 1/2 inch size are perfect for men's waistcoats/vests.

    You just cut out the same circles you would for modern buttons, but run a gathering stitch around the edge and pull through to cover the washer. You tie it off at the edge and sew through that directly onto the fabric. It seems like it wouldn't be sturdy, but I have done this on little girls dresses and those buttons are there until I decide they come off. For utilitarian (not decorative) buttons, it's a good idea to use two layers of fabric against the washer to give a little cushion and protect against wear and tear.

    If you decide against this for this project (as if you had scads of time!) you might consider the washers for a future project!

  • AmDuchess

    December 9, 2009 at 5:23 PM

    Freckles, I know, what the heck's wrong with me, right?

    Robin's Bleu, thanks so much for the tips! I didn't know about the self-covered buttons being flatter, so this is definitely something I'm going to have to try. I don't know if it'll be for this project, but maybe for the next one – I'm a self-covered button addict 🙂

    Other Lauren, thanks, let's hope we're both still saying that when it's done, hahaha!

  • Robin Gallowglas

    December 9, 2009 at 5:31 PM

    Hahaha I knew you couldn't resist! I can't wait to see the finished gown. Always nice to have somthing new for an event. A friend of mine had a cute homespun dress with day bodice and made a cute overskirt and ball gown bodice out of a coordinating solid to transition. It turned out really nice. See you at Dicken's

  • Duch

    December 9, 2009 at 8:07 PM

    What is it about homespun or rough weave that is so appealing? Just feels like…like…hometown natural christmastime with lil' birdies and pine boughs…or something 🙂 See you at Dickens too, can't wait to see YOUR new dress on!

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