There are very few historical projects I’ve made over the years that have gone totally smoothly. In fact, I can think of one. Every other gown I’ve made, and a heck of a lot of everyday-vintagey-clothes too, have had their individual struggles.
The truth is…sewing is hard. It’s not a skill we’re born with, and many of us are self-taught. Even the mantua-makers of the past had trouble sometimes! In my case, I perpetually make the same bad choices (isn’t this the definition of insanity?). It goes something like this:
Lauren: I only have 3 yards of fabric.
Lauren’s Evil Sewing Demon: I bet you can get a whole 1790s gown out of that, with long sleeves and a train and everything!
Lauren: No way is that enough fabric. I should choose something else to make or use a different fabric for this design.
Lauren’s Evil Sewing Demon: But you know you want to make that dress in that fabric. C’mon. Do it. Dooooo iiiittttt…….
Lauren: OK I’ll do it!
And then what happens? Exactly what you would expect. I don’t have enough fabric and I have to piece the snot out of it to make it even close to wearable. Having pieced the snot out of many gowns at this point, I’ve noticed a consistent series of emotions that come when something goes way off the rails.
|Piecing the back of The Creature 1770s poloniase petticoat. Half of the back of this petticoat is pink cotton, and the rest is made up in about 15 chunks of silk.|
Perhaps you too have passed through these stages…
1. Confusion and/or Denial – “Wait, what….why is this hem so damn short? WTF happened here!? Aw CRAP!” This is the first stage of realizing there’s a major issue in your gown and you have to fix it. This first stage may also come with denial (mine usually does) and trying to “make it work” without actually fixing it properly.
2. Rage – “How could I be so stupid! Omg I’m so mad at myself. I *knew* I didn’t have enough fabric. Why did I think this would work?” This stage comes quickly on the heels of confusion and denial and can come out as anger at yourself. This is the pillow-punching, cursing, and Starbucks-binging part of the experience.
3. Panic – “Fix it fix it fix it! What are my options? Omg I have nothing but 2 inch scraps left.” This is the dangerous stage of piecing, where we often make rash decisions. It’s important to take a step back, breath, maybe take a break overnight and come back to it in the morning. It also helps to make a list of possible fixes and ruminate on the options for awhile.
4. Defeat – “I suck. Everyone will see this disaster. I am a sorry excuse for a seamstress and I should never sew again.” We all feel like this at some point. This is the stage where you’re ready to either start over on a new costume completely or fix the one that’s gone south. For many of us, there isn’t enough time or available fabric to start over, so we’ve got to Tim Gunn up and make it work.
|The Met, 1775-1785. 2009.300.1340 – next time you’re feeling crappy about having to piece stuff in a place that will be obvious, just remember this gown.|
———– At this point you implement the fix on your costume, possibly hating and cursing every minute of doing it, but you get it done and back together. You stand back from the dress form or mirror and squint, trying to deduce just how visible your piecing is. —————
5. Acceptance – “It’ll never be noticed on a galloping horse.” I can’t tell you how many times this platitude from my mom has gotten me through a project. At this point in the stages, the gown is fixed, it’s wearable, and with all the millinery and accessories on, it…might…actually…not…be that bad…maybe. You made it work and you’re going to wear it, gosh darnit.
6. Pride – “Yeah, I had to piece the heck out of this but I’m really glad I did. I made it work in the end.” You wear the costume to the event. Nobody notices or mentions the madness that is your 7 piece hem or your T-seamed sleeve head. You realize “piecing is period, period,” and remember the many janky-ass gowns you saw in costume books. Abby Cox tells you 18th century dressmakers and patrons didn’t give a hoot and pieced stuff all the time, and you start to feel pretty darn good about all of it.
7. Love – “I feel so beautiful and I love this dress, even though it was such a struggle. I’m glad I soldiered on and wore it to the event.” A weird phenomenon sometimes happens with pieced garments – we end up loving them more than the perfect gowns. A pieced garment is individual as well as historical. It tells the story of the journey of making and connects us with the mantua-makers of the past, who gleefully dipped into their cabbage patches to make it work, sometimes even using scraps of different fabric, and then sold it to the customer who also gave no F’s.
|The Met, 1760. C162.28ab. Look at this jank-a-rific hem. I see at least two weird-ass extensions and no effort to match the pattern.|
So next time you biff up your project, it’s OK. You’ll go through these phases, but don’t quit – stick with it and come out at “Pride” or “Love” at the end. It’ll all be worth it. <3
Emma ZommarinMay 16, 2021 at 8:37 PM
Oh god. This post has saved me! I’m writing an informative speech about historical vs modern clothing methods/traditions and how they affect the environment and this was exactly what i needed for information about piecing (I’m a bit of a beginner on historical dress). Thank you!
Lauren @ American DuchessMay 17, 2021 at 12:23 AM
Glad to be of help! Indeed, fabric waste in the 18th c was a big no-no, as it was so expensive. Cutting, piecing, using every possible last scrap was the way to go. 🙂