The Creature Reborn – Retrimming the Pink Polonaise

Once upon a time I made a pink taffeta polonaise and trimmed it in organza, a very 1770s thing to do. At the time, I tried hand roll hemming and found it tedious, incredibly time consuming, and even painful, so I sinfully machine hemmed all the edges of the *miles* of organza that went onto a gown I started calling “The Creature.”

I wore The Creature to a day at l’Hermione and Costume College and really quite loved all the floof. This was several years ago now and I was unashamed of my very poor machine hemmed gauze. It was more important to me then to have a finished dress I felt pretty wearing rather than a dress made with historical techniques.

The first time I wore the polonaise in Virginia, visiting the Hermione. It doesn’t look bad from a few feet away but the edges of that organza trim were *JANK*

Fast forward to 2018 and my how things change! Over the past couple years, and especially since writing The American Duchess Guide, I’ve learned so much about construction and technique; my personal goals for each gown I make have changed. Other things have changed too, most notably my measurements, so the selection of wearable 18th century gowns in my closet has, well, shrunk. 🙁

With a book-signing event this month at Lacis in Berkeley, I wanted something to wear besides the same yellow Italian gown I’ve been sporting since August. I’m a big fan of re-wearing gowns, so in the spirit of the Georgian milliner, I pulled out The Creature.

What I like about the polonaise is that it’s very adjustable. It was easy to pick out the false waistcoat and re-position it for my current size. The bigger challenge was pulling off all the organza and re-working it.

Now one of the nice things was that I used *way* more organza the first time around that I would need to hem in the re-trimming. I used a modern 1:3 gather/pleat ratio, but for most 18th century trim a 1:1.5 ratio or a 1:2 works just fine. (I deviate from this on the deep petticoat ruffle where I used a 1:2.6 gathering ratio because I wanted a very full look to cover the pink cotton extension). It took me several days to hem the organza but I used a roll hemming technique that made it loads easier and quicker than what I tried before. I’ve very happy with the result.

The hand rolling technique I used handled angled edges just fine and the resulting hem is quite fine. It was fast and easy, which made the project considerably less daunting.

The resulting hand-hemmed organza, gathered instead of pleated, has a much lighter, airy feel and gives a very different look to the gown.

I’ve also made some design changes. The biggest is changing the knife pleats to gathers on the front edges of the gown. I also switched the stacked cuffs to one big sabot cuff, which – not gonna lie – took *forever* to get on the sleeves. What a pain! I love this cuff style by my goodness they are fussy!

Sabot cuffs – they’re fun once finished, but it took an age to get them on the sleeves. I’d like to try sabot cuffs again with a different shirring design for other effects.

Lastly, I tacked the front edges of the gown to the stomacher so there’s less of an open cutaway look and more of a structured zone front. That and a waist tie from the center back help hold the back of the gown in position.

Getting dressed for our Q&A at Lacis this past weekend
Signing books at Lacis this past weekend – we were so honored to be invited to speak here!

Although this re-trim project took a long time, I’m most pleased that the result is a gown I loved before and can wear again with pride instead of apologies. Re-trimming an old gown was such an 18th century thing to do…consider it Georgian upcycling. I encourage you all to think like a milliner and see if you can update an older gown with new trims – it’s a very satisfying feeling!

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