1880s Wool Ensemble – Apportioning Ruler Adventures

I’ve been slow but steady on the progress of this grey wool and black velvet mid-1880s outfit. It’s been about a month of weekends working on it, but I’m proud to say that I’m just a few bits away from completion.

In the last post on this project, I had made the underskirt and begun patterning the bodice. Since then I’ve gone on quite the journey of apportioning rulers, sprung bones, mad fitting, and sleeve boss-fights.

Before I cut the bodice, I made the apron, or overskirt. I turned to Bustle Fashions 1885-1887 by Frances Grimble for ideas and pattern layouts. This book is a reprint of The National Garment Cutter and Voice of Fashion publications, 1885-1887. It’s a *fantastic* book full of primary source material for ideas, pattern layouts, and most importantly, the apportioning rulers.

For those of you not familiar with apportioning rulers, they are proprietary measurement scales that came with different pattern books. That is, The National Garment Cutter had its own set of rulers for use with its own patterns. To easily explain apportioning rulers, imagine a ruler where the “inch” isn’t a true inch, but slightly smaller or slightly larger based on your measurement.

The patterns in these drafting and cutting books call for the use of one of the special rulers according to your bust or your waist measurement. In drafting the apron from page 93, I used the special ruler included in the back of the book for my 27.5″ corseted waist. The units of measurement are ever so slightly smaller than a true inch.

The pattern for the front pieces of the apron/overskirt. This is what a pattern using apportioning rulers looks like. Seems confusing until you know the very simple method to draft this out.

It’s magic. No really, there is *no math involved here*. Looking at the pattern, it seems like a huge mess of confusing numbers, but if you know the system, it’s so freaking easy. First, you measure down vertically what the number says – so on this pattern you start by measuring down 1/2″, then 1.75″, then 2.25″ and so on – then at those marks you measured perpendicularly across – at that first 1/2″ mark, you measure across 4.5″; at the 1.75″ mark, you measure across both 2.25″ and 9″ and make the marks. Then you “connect the dots” in the general shape of the pattern piece. Remember, since the ruler you’re using is not a true inch, the pattern, in theory, will come out to fit your waist precisely.

And you know what?  It did.


The handy illustration showing what the finished skirt should look like. By studying this, I could determine where the pleats should be. Mine isn’t exactly the same, but it’s close
The second illustration shows a variation from a different publication. This also came with a description of how to make it, sorta-kinda. I used both illustrations and descriptions when fussing with mine.

After the pieces were cut out, the fiddling came with doing up the pleats. I had two illustrations to show how the apron was meant to look when complete. I’d say it came out decently close, which is very satisfying indeed! Some of the patterns in these books are very straightforward as far as assembly, and some are not. I chose one I could conceptualize from flat to three-dimensional. Next time I may try a more challenging design.

My finished apron. Again, it’s not exactly the same, particularly at the back, but it’s pretty darn close and I’m very happy with how it turned out.

So as not to overwhelm you, I’ll leave the bodice construction for the next post. The dress is almost done and I’m to wear it next weekend, so I’ll have on-body photos for you soon as well!


  • Unknown

    January 25, 2016 at 4:51 PM

    That is so amazing! I have this same book. I had been looking for descriptions of period construction techniques and was thrilled when I found the book. I was a little daunted when I saw the apportioning rulers though. I haven't had the courage to try anything with them yet. Seeing you explain it so simply, I may just have to take another look and give it a try.

    Your skirt is beautiful. I can't wait to see the bodice with it.

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 25, 2016 at 10:30 PM

      I encourage you to check it out. There's a section in the front of the book that explains how to use them. You'll pick it up quickly, and then you'll want to draft everything in the book!

  • Anonymous

    January 26, 2016 at 2:15 PM

    I LOVE these books! they are the best! I love the fit, the look, its a bit fiddley to make the pattern but completely do-ale and it is such great fun!!!! 🙂 chantel

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 27, 2016 at 8:16 PM

      I haven't drafted up a bodice yet, but I'm really looking forward to it! I drafted a sleeve, though, and it came it really really really small, so I must've made a mistake (a child's pattern, maybe?). Try try again 🙂

    • Anonymous

      January 29, 2016 at 1:22 PM

      hmm…is too short or is too tight? or both? which page? (i'd love to test it because now I am curious) I've made mostly ball gown bodices — not much of a sleeve issue there, eh? So… when I've used these patterns I understand the directions: for the cross lines use the scale for the bust measure. The height (vertical line) is (imho) not as clear — depending on the book/system — I think one system calls for using a doubled scale of the back waist (height) usually about 16" (doubled then would be the 32 scale). In some books — I can't see a clear instruction. yep, even though I adore these patterns, bodices need a test muslin. Love your work! Always a pleasure to see what you make 🙂 Chantel

  • Leiflynn Jeffery

    January 27, 2016 at 6:33 PM

    And finally the mud cleared. Thank you so much for making the understanding of these old patterns so clear. The method of drafting patterns from my resource books are the grid and grading methods still foreign to me but I am plodding along. Dress making patterns sure have come a long way since 1870's. I really love how your outfit is coming along. Can you show how you finished the underside please. I am so interested in your creations. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 27, 2016 at 8:18 PM

      I'm glad I could help! I find the grid and grading methods actually a bit harder than the apportioning method, at least initially. I haven't apportioned enough patterns yet to really know if what comes out at the end actually fits like they say it will, haha.

      Which part are you asking about when you say "underside"? – you mean how I hemmed the points/corners with the black velvet?

    • Leiflynn Jeffery

      January 28, 2016 at 7:15 PM

      I don't think I will be using the grading or grid any time soon. I just wish there was an apportioning ruler in the book. I checked and nope nothing.
      I would like to see the underside of your skirt to see how the under ruffle goes on. Some of these terms and old time ways of doing things are foreign. Just to see what the underskirt is floating on so it doesn't get filthy from dragging on the ground. Thanks so much Lauren.

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 28, 2016 at 8:28 PM

      Oh, do you have the re-printed books by Frances Grimble? The apportioning rulers are in the appendix in the back. You make a copy and cut it out. If you have an original National Garment Cutter's book, then it won't include the rulers. They were sold as a set or separately by the company, so seamstresses were expected to already have a set, or be able to go buy a set easily.

      On the underskirt, the ruffle is applied to the underskirt, which is about ankle length. Some of the ruffle drags around a bit. In longer trains, there's be a balayeuse, a detachable, washable, very fluffy ruffly piece that the top skirt would float on. My skirt is too short for one of those, so it's really just the ruffle sewn onto the outside of the skirt, and it drags a bit in the back.

    • Leiflynn Jeffery

      January 29, 2016 at 6:20 PM

      I have reprinted books by Kristina Harris but I just got Janet Arnold's patterns of Fashions 2 that I hope will help me out. Thanks so much for your patience in explaining the underside of the skirt. I am still making my under clothes so I am not ready to tackle the outer garments yet.

  • Kara

    January 28, 2016 at 9:47 AM

    I never knew about the apportioning rulers. I've been making these patterns with real inches, and then trying to figure out how to get from there to my real measurements. Thank you so much for clearing that up!
    I'll be making my first bustle skirt this year, so I think I might order that book.

    • Lauren Stowell

      January 28, 2016 at 8:29 PM

      Hopefully when you try it with the apportioned ruler the pattern will come out just right! You will probably still need to make some changes, but you'll be starting closer to your own measurements. 🙂

  • Bianca Esposito

    January 29, 2016 at 6:03 PM

    This is looking so gorgeous! You are really making me want to get going on a bustle dress finally (I made all the underthings last year). The style of apron/over skirt you chose is beautiful, chic in its relative simplicity. I can't wait to see the finished ensemble!

  • Unknown

    May 8, 2016 at 7:05 AM

    Is the over skirt separate/removable? Or is it attached to the skirt as one piece? Im assuming yours is removable, but have you found any period sources about over skirts?That's something I've always wondered, because some sources say the bustle draping that went over the base skirt was attached to the base skirt, and others that were removable two-pieces.

    • Lauren Stowell

      May 9, 2016 at 8:04 PM

      Hi Adam – Yes, the apron, or overskirt, is a separate piece from the underskirt. I would have to check all of my sources, but in the primary source patterns I have, the overskirt is usually made separate. For instance, the book the above pattern is from is a primary source material – this was a garment cutter's book originally published in the 1880s that has been reprinted for us today. All of the overskirts in this book are drafted and made as separate pieces. This doesn't meant that overskirts were not also made together with the underskirt – the Victorians did both.

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