Interview with Merja of “Before the Automobile”

Today’s seamstress needs no introduction.

She is renowned world-wide for her gorgeous costuming, amazing fit, brilliant styling, and – oh!- that silhouette!

Merja Palkivaara of “Before the Automobile” and “The Aristocat” is not only a fantastic historical seamstress, but is also a wonderfully nice, genuine, and modest person.

I had the honor of meeting Merja at Costume College last year, and was floored by her grace as well as her skill.

So without further ado…

How did you get started in historical costuming? What drew you to it?

I’ve been interested in history all my life. As a child my imagination ran wild when I read about ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and as a teenager I poured through books about WW I and II. Somewhere in the middle I had a medieval phase. I also love fantasy, books and movies, and always coveted the costumes. So I guess in some way it was always there. But I was a tomboy and took long sword lessons and couldn’t believe sewing would be something I’d be interested in. Almost exactly ten years ago I got in to my head that I’d like to get myself a dress like that famous striped dress from Sleepy Hollow and begun to search the internet for someone who could make it for me. I didn’t find what I was looking for but I found something much, much better. Many talented, wonderful, amazing people who were making historical clothing as a hobby. I had no idea that people were doing this. Something clicked and I got completely carried away by history of fashion. The desire for authenticity took over my love for that Sleepy Hollow dress and I begun to search for information about historical dress making. It took me several years of on-and-off sewing until around 2010 I was finally able to commit to the hobby and found the joy of sewing.

How do you see yourself as a costumer? Are you a re-enactor, a theatrical costumer, or a just-for-fun type?

This is a hard question. When I was starting out, I found a group from Southern Finland that had a re-enactment kind of approach and I took part in some of their events. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed making fire with flint and steel, camping outside, shooting muskets and hiking in the forest. However fields and forests are no place for silk frocks or high heels and I felt like I was missing out the thing I loved the most. I had originally set out to learn how to recreate fashion from the past but I had no time to do that. Every crazy fashion phenomena has its roots in the previous trend and I wanted to learn all there is to know about that. I wanted to learn the correct construction techniques and stitches. Learn how to achieve the correct silhouette, to be able to choose the right materials and so on. And that’s what I’m currently devoting my time to. So I’m not a re-enactor but I feel congeniality to the re-enactor way of trying to produce items that are as close in materials and sewing techniques to the originals as possible. This is a hobby for me so I guess I fall in to the just-for-fun category, but I live and breath historical fashion and it’s become a passion for me.

What is your favorite garment to sew? What is the most challenging?

My favorites are corsets and stays. Victorian corsets are so quick and easy so they are fun in an instant gratification type of way. 18th century stays require a lot more effort, but most of it is very straight forward and easy. I’m a big fan of hand sewing and back stitching the boning channels is very relaxing to me. The most challenging so far has been shoes. The principle is simple enough, but my tools are far from ideal. And there are a lot of tedious stages. Working out the right angles for a high and backwards tilting heel to have it remain sturdy and not slip back from under your foot when the shoe is worn, was agonizing. I have still so much to learn!

Do you draft your own patterns? What is you process for developing an ensemble, start-to-finish?

I like to draft my own patterns. And I’m more of a drafter than a draper. The math aspect of drafting comes more naturally for me and fitting everything on myself makes draping from scratch more of a challenge. I try to get everything to work on paper first but of course the pattern has to be finalized by pinning it to fit me.

As to the process, I love to get variation to my garments and I don’t have a true and tried bodice block to begin the process with. I like to experiment with different seam lines and, if possible, number of pieces. After an inspiration has developed in to a solid plan, I usually start by either studying the seam lines of an extant gown or a gown in a portrait or a fashion plate and draft my pattern trying to mimic those or by enlarging a pattern taken from an extant garment or a period source and adjust it to fit me. After the mock-up stage I make decisions about constructing methods and if it’s something I haven’t done before, I try to do careful research before I start sewing so I’d get it right. After that ideally it would be just straight forward sewing aiming to realize the vision. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that. I fall out of love of the plan or something doesn’t look at all like it should on the first try. And then there’s nothing else to do than to take things apart and try again. But I try to avoid situations where I have a half constructed gown and, for example, no plan to trim it because that creates a high risk for me to get stuck and it might take me forever to get myself to work on it again.

What is your preferred time period? What draws you to this particular period, and are there other periods you are interested in as well?

It would be impossible to choose between my two favorites. One is from mid 1770’s to mid 1790’s and the other is from early 1870’s to late 1880’s. I love the playfulness of the late 18th century. The fashions are quirky and I adore everything from the short skirted cupcakeyness of 1770’s to the crazy big hats and hair of late 1780’s and the tailored lines of early 1790’s. I also like 18th century sewing methods the best. What I love about the 1870’s and 1880’s is that it’s the classically beautiful era with an ultra feminine shape. This era is also better suited for my body type and I find it easier to fit. I think there’s also a lot in common with these two eras. Like the “cul de paris” silhouette. And both eras have a frilly beginning with a more tailored ending. So I guess that’s something I’m drawn to. My other big favorites are from 17th century. The peculiar fashions of 1660’s for example. And I’ve been eyeing fashions from 1610’s with great interest too.

You have an amazing silhouette – do you corset-train? Do you have any tips for achieving that perfect shape?

Thank you very much! I don’t think I’d have it in me to do waist training. I like to spend as little time in corsets as possible and I don’t want to make gowns in a size that would require over 2” waist reduction, even with Victorian corsets.

I think the most important part in trying to get the shape is to make sure you have enough room around bust and hips. If you make an overall small corset, it’s impossible to get a tiny waist in it or you’ll be miserable. I also always try to make enough bust room to avoid any push-up effect in my 19th century corsets. If you look at Victorian era photographs and fashion plates, the bust line is surprisingly low and I think that letting the bust sit at its natural height helps to achieve a curvy silhouette where as pushed up, the result is more tubular.

What are your favorite materials to sew with?

Any natural fiber has it’s own great qualities and I like working with them all but if I had to choose, I’d say gauzy cotton. It’s such a gorgeous flowy material and it sews wonderfully. I also love working with silk, most often taffeta and duchess satin, but if the satin is even a tiny bit too limp and loose weave or too stiff, it can also be a nightmare.

What advice would you give to beginning seamstresses, or those just starting out in historical costuming?

I’m not sure how much of an authority I am in these matters, but there’s one thing I have learned over the years that helped me to get better results and maybe someone else might find it helpful as well. When I started out, I used too stiff boning, too much of it with too heavy lining materials. It resulted in garments that looked like body armor, not clothing. After reading dress making instructions from a Victorian source which stated that you should use as few bones as possible because boning gives an undesirable stiff look, I’ve tried to do just that. And with the use of lighter materials and fewer boning, I think my dresses do conform to my body better and the look is more natural which makes it more attractive, even if there might be a small wrinkle or two more than there would have been with heavy boning.


Thank you, Merja!

You can follow Merja on her blogs “Before the Automobile” and “The Aristocat


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