The Isabella Mactavish Fraser Project – Day 2

Georgia Gough wearing the finished Isabella Mactavish Fraser wedding gown and arisaid – Edinburgh, Scotland

I’m back with the second day reporting from the Isabella Mactavish Fraser wedding-gown-in-a-weekend project, a wonderful demonstration we did with Timesmith Dressmaking at National Museum of Scotland June 29 – 30, 2019.

Bright and early on the second day, Abby starts to fit the gown back and bodice fronts on Georgia.

When we left off, the team had come up a bit short with our day 1 time-target, so first thing in the morning on day 2, we set to fitting the gown on Georgia.

The fitting was done over all of Georgia’s underpinnings – shift, stays, bum pad, and petticoat. The pleated back was pinned to Georgia’s stays, then the bodice fronts were pinned at the center front closure. Next, the shoulder straps were pinned to the back temporarily and the side back seams of the lining taken up and pinned for a good fit.

The gown front pieces pinned down the center front, ready for fitting through the side back seams to the back panel.

Fiddling with the shoulder straps and back – tricky!

Also during the first fitting, we took the opportunity to fit the sleeves. The Isabella dress has very interesting sleeve construction, with extensions, overfitting, and on-the-fly corrections that we tried to recreate in our dress too. To do this, we purposefully made Georgia’s sleeves very tight when her arms were straight, so much so that she could not comfortably bend her arms. The sleeves came off, were stitched, and the cuffs and correction done later on…

A quick fitting of the sleeves on Georgia and our opportunity to purposefully overfit them at them elbows, just like the original gown (although it wasn’t on purpose back then!)

Taking in the sleeve seam. This seam was lapped from the outside, so it was quite easy to adjust it.

With the bodice side back seams in the lining stitched, Abby made “the scary cut” of the back skirts where the excess fabric is pleated towards the center back. Also at this point, the lacing strips of the bodice were stitched in, the skirt panels sewn on, and the tartan of the bodice fronts turned and stitched down from the outside along the side back seams.

Abby makes the Scary Cut on the back panel, where the skirts will be pleated into the back. This is a “make or break” moment for all pleated back gowns!

This cut is so scary because if it’s too short or too long, the waist won’t sit in the right place. It also creates a weak point in the fabric that can tear easily if not handled delicately before being stitched and finished.

Coming together – with the bodice fronts and back fit on Georgia, the gown comes off the body and the pieces are sewn together.

Now is when we kicked it into higher gear, pleating up the skirt panels by eye, basting them, and preparing for the second fitting. The second fitting with Georgia determined how much to fold over at the top of the skirts to level the hem, the placement of the shoulder straps (and subsequently the waist), and the sleeve.

With skirt panels all joined, the skirt is pleated towards the back on both sides.

…but before the pleated skirt is sewn onto the bodice, we needed another fitting! The gown went back on Georgia and we leveled the hem of the skirt by marking and turning down the top of the pleated skirt panels.

Now the gown nears completion. The sleeves are set on the body, the shoulder straps pinned in place for stitching later, and the skirt is turned over at the top.

At this point we ran into *challenges,* not unexpected. As all human bodies are different, Georgia’s shoulders were quite a bit wider than Isabella’s, so we could not accurately replicate the back of the original gown. The sleeves were set on in a more familiar though no less accurate-to-the-original way, but it is one of the major compromises we had to make with our version of this dress. Lastly, before the gown came off for the final stitching, we fit the cuffs and made the clip at the crook of the elbow to allow Georgia to bend her arms.

After the winged cuffs are placed, Abby makes the correction to the overfitted sleeves – a small snip at the crook of the elbow to allow Georgia to bend her arms. This is on the original and is in my opinion one of the most interesting parts of the story of this gown.

Final stitching was fast and furious. The bodice was back-stitched to the skirts right-sides-together through layers and layers of the thick tartan, causing bleeding and savaged fingers for Abby, Katie, and Peryn. The interior of the sleeves were roughly overcast, turned and hemmed down like the original, and the shoulder straps and outer back pleats were backstitched into submission.

All hands on deck – Katie and Abby backstitch the bodice to the skirts while Peryn, Alex, and myself discuss next steps. This is a difficult part of the project when under time constraint because there are only so many hands that can work on finishing the gown.

We all agree that the way this bodice and skirt was stitched together was…..not the most efficient or cleanest way…..but we recreated the operation as best we could. The skirt was pleated, turned down, whipped across the top, then the bodice was placed right sides together and backstitched through ALL layers.

In the end, we ran overtime by about an hour and the gown was truly barely finished. There are things about it that reflect a rushed construction (like the original!), but seeing the final gown come alive on Georgia was a treat.

Exhausted, hot, hungry, a little frustrated, but the gown got finished!

Georgia Gough modeling the *barely finished* Isabella Mactavish Fraser wedding gown late on Sunday evening at Greyfriar’s in Edinburgh.

About 14 hours start to finish – the final gown worn by Georgia Gough at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland.

 The recreation is now in the care of Rebecca of Timesmith Dressmaking and will be used as an educational tool in the future.

Rebecca Olds with the final gown.

We were honored to work on this project and so very pleased that so many people came and stayed to see us bust this gown out. It was a hard slog, I’m not going to lie – the room was extremely hot, and we had atypical challenges with this gown that sucked the time away with alarming speed. While I don’t recommend making a gown in a weekend, I hope that what can be learned from this exercise and the resulting piece will help other historic costumers learn more about this interesting, rare surviving tartan gown, and the role of mantua-makers in Scotland in the late 18th century.

Tired team! From left to right – Flora, Peryn, Katie, Rebecca, Lauren, Abby, Georgia, and Alex.


  • Anna von Angelach

    September 11, 2019 at 3:28 PM

    Wow, what a feat! It looks gorgeous.
    Can you tell me the dimensions of the arisaid? I finished my own tartan gown last week but couldn't find this information.

    • Rebecca Olds

      September 12, 2019 at 3:14 PM

      The original "arisaid" is loom width (approx 26 inches) by approximately 82 inches long including 3 inch fringe. Our reproduction fabric used for the arisaid came up a little bit narrower (approx. 23 inches) as it's fresh off a powered loom. Please note this is not a "true" arisaid but nobody seems to have come up with a better word to describe it. 😉 It's smaller than traditional arisaids were, but much larger than a shawl (which weren't a thing in 18th c. Scotland).

    • Anna von Angelach

      September 12, 2019 at 7:54 PM

      Thank you so much! I knew that it had to be smaller than the traditional arisaid. A wrap, maybe? After all, your model is doing exactly that in the first picture. 😉

    • Rebecca Olds

      September 13, 2019 at 10:57 AM

      Sadly, there is no way of knowing how Isabella wore hers. She married in January so it's possible that it served as some kind of covering when she was out of doors. Her descendent Isobel (the current owner) certainly wore it the way we styled Georgia, for her own wedding in 1978. 🙂

  • Black Tulip

    September 11, 2019 at 9:10 PM

    It was a privilege to be able to watch the process from start to finish – thank you. Plus, I've been able to put a little of what I learned about mantua-makers into my dissertation, so win all round!

  • Sarah Walsh

    September 15, 2019 at 4:24 AM

    This is really a treat to be able to see the process, if not in person, at least close to it!

    It brings up a question about that "scary cut" (and Abby's face is hilarious, btw). Given all of the points you made about it, that if done wrong it can throw off the fit, and that it creates perhaps one of the only weak points in a construction process that largely used full widths and selvedges whenever possible – it's interesting that the "scary cut" has to be taken *before* all of the skirt lengths are sewn on, since that's just adding weight to a vulnerable spot. If the skirt lengths all get sewn on and then you take the Scary Cut, it all gets pleated and stitched right away, and then the weight of the skirt is evenly distributed and that raw edge is protected. I guess I'm wondering if it's a choice to do it at that point, or if the dressmaking manuals all say that it's taken before adding the skirt lengths.

  • Pam

    July 21, 2020 at 7:22 PM

    Althought made in a hurry, the gown looks gorgeous! Wow!
    I have a bit odd question to the topic… Does anyone here know about scottish reenactment group for 18th century period, but not a regiment and more like civil?


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