The Isabella Mactavish Fraser Project – Prep and Day 1

Braining hard on the Isabella Mactavish Fraser wedding gown – Edinburgh, Scotland, June 2019

Abby and I are back from our whirlwind trip to Scotland, and I’ve had a nice little run through the photos. At risk of repetition (Black Tulip and Atelier Nostalgia have both posted wonderful write-ups), I’d like to share some photos along the timeline of the two days over which we made our version of the 1785 tartan dress.

The original 1785 gown was on display in the National Museum of Scotland’s wonderful “Wild and Majestic” exhibition, right next door to where we were making the recreation.

The original dress, belonging to the wonderful Isobel Beaton, was on display in the National Museum of Scotland exhibition “Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland.” It was a treat to see it in person before we embarked on our project.

We had the honor of meeting Isobel Beaton, the owner of the original gown, who also wore it for her wedding.

Before the big weekend, the sewing team got together to run through the construction points. Abby, Nicole, and I worked on a test dress before we left, working out how the original gown was made, some of it very funky, so we would reduce the likelihood of surprises during the time-crunch project itself. We went over the finer points of sleeves and cuffs, bodice weirdness, lacing strips, and skirt panels.

Also in preparation, Abby cut the bodice and sleeve shapes on Georgia, our model, ahead of the project itself. This would have been a very interesting thing to show attendees, but with so little time (about 12-14 hours total), we decided to do the draping ahead of time.

Saturday morning arrived and we were all dressed in our 18th century clothes and ready to rock. The hard tartan, custom woven by Prickly Thistle, was rolled out and the skirt panels cut then yanked about to sortof re-tenter them, as the fabric coming off the loom skewed a bit off-grain, very noticeably with the geometric tartan pattern.

Rolling out the first yardage for the skirt panels.

The hard tartan came off the loom un-tentered, which meant a fair amount of tugging on the cross to straighten out the plaid.

With the team stitching the skirt panels, Abby set to work cutting out the bodice lining from linen, then the tartan pieces. This took an immense amount of brainwork and triple-checking photos of the original dress to make sure both front pieces, sleeves, and cuffs were cut as closely to the original as possible. We aligned “landmarks,” such as the intersection of the triple stripe and the large blue and green squares, to the pattern pieces. Though this took a long time, it revealed the clever cutting the original mantua-makers did with the 26 inch wide tartan, using selvage and flipping pieces for maximum efficiency in their cutting.

Abby lays out the sleeve linings, carefully matching the plaid to the original as closely as possible. This took a lot of back-and-forth peering at photos of the original gown on the iPad, and some experimentation with flipping and rotating the pieces.

With the bodice fronts, sleeves, and cuffs cut out, they went to their respective seamstresses for stitching to the linings and other prep work while Abby painstakingly pleated the back of the gown. The Isabella gown is made with one 26 inch wide panel and Abby was able to work out the center back seam and the pleat width, depth, and positioning to match the original gown as closely as possible, right down to the center back offset in the plaid.

Peryn and Katie stitch the lining and tartan fabrics of the bodice fronts.

Abby works on the center back seam of the gown. The original has a slight offset of the plaid along this seamline, which Abby painstakingly recreated.

By the end of day 1 we had hoped to be at the first fitting, but we ran out of time. Despite missing our mark by about 30 minutes, we did have all pieces prepped and ready to fit and assemble first thing the next morning. Bodice fronts were sewn to their linings along the neckline and front edges; sleeves were lapped and pinned and cuffs were seamed, pleated, and lined.

With the bodice fronts stitched, the lacing strips were pinned into place.
Rebecca responding to an audience question asking about the underpinnings and layers of an 18th century woman’s attire.

Stay tuned for the Day 2 post wherein we fit the gown, squeeze Georgia’s arms uncomfortably, and speed-stitch to the end.

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