The Isabella Mactavish Fraser Project – Prep Work!

Working on our mockup dress in wool flannel, carefully studying photos of the original 1785 Isabella gown.

Today Abby and I are in Scotland! We’ve come halfway across the world to work on the Isabella Mactavish Fraser wedding gown project, and though our recreation will be done in two days time, we’ve been preparing for these two days for nearly all of June.

Our preparation has included some very careful study and cataloging of techniques from what we could see in photos of the original dress taken by a few of the other team members earlier this year. This is always a challenge because dark lighting and short timeframe don’t always result in photos of everything that’s needed. Additional questions often come up too, and with this particular dress the construction is so atypical that we’ve both been begging the universe for one more photo of this or that.
Of course, the best way to figure something out is to try to recreate it, so off to Mill End Fabric we went to pick up a dress length of wool flannel for a test dress. Now, the test dress is made on a bodice draped on me, and I’m quite a bit bigger than Isabella was, but for the sake of figuring out the hows and whys of the back pleats, bodice fronts, lacing strips, sleeves and cuffs, and fascinating skirt construction, it works a treat…plus it’ll be a wearable garment in the future.

The bodice fronts of our Isabella mockup dress. This bodice was draped to fit me, so is inevitably different than the original gown, but we also discovered some particular points we need to keep in mind when cutting the bodice on Georgia for the final project.

We spent a long time trying to work out the back pleats and ran into challenges with not having the actual reproduction tartan here to work with (which ironically arrived in the mail literally the next day). To get a rough understanding of how the back pleats were done, I mocked up the tartan in Photoshop based on observation of the original in photos and Peter MacDonald’s 2014 paper on the textile, which gave me vital information about the fabric width and set repeat. In the end I didn’t get it exactly right, but it was close enough for paper-folding experiments.

Before the test chunk of fabric arrived we tried to work out the pleats on paper and got a little bit befuddled.

We spent a lot of time folding and stapling and taping the plaid-printed paper together. I won’t call it a waste of time, but let’s just say…when the sample piece of reproduction tartan did arrive the next day, it was all a heck of a lot easier than we thought. Thank goodness for that, at least!

Once the test piece of reproduction tartan arrived, we were able to work out the back pleats quickly (thank goodness!). The large tartan was a huge help.

As for the rest of the test dress, it went together fairly well despite thinking we’d have some issues with how the original was constructed. The blue wool is now currently here in Scotland with us and is in a half-finished state so the rest of the team can check out the insides to see how it was put together.

Working on the solid blue wool for the test dress was in many ways more challenging that recreating our tartan dress will be. We didn’t have the large tartan pattern to guide us. For working out the how’s and why’s of the skirt seaming, the sleeve construction, and other oddities in the original gown, though, it has been invaluable. #mockupsbeforefockups !

Truth be told, I’m quite terrible at making mockups, but in a case like this it’s been pretty vital. We’re confident that the final 1785 tartan gown recreation will come together smoothly and with very close construction to the original. I want to reveal all its secrets to you now, but can’t! So stay tuned for behind-the-scenes videos, photos, and our official documentary about the dress and project coming later this year. <3

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