The fancy spencer

Today 200 years ago Jane Austen passed away. I originally thought of doing a post with pretty pictures of black and mourning dresses from around that period, but then I remembered I hadn’t written the blog for this red spencer yet. It’s a jacket which is inspired by one ca. 1820, so I’d say 1817 is reasonable enough as a date. As it’s also  nicer to see finished sewing then pretty pictures (no matter how much I like those), I decided it was a good moment to finally write this post. So, in honor of Jane:

This project has been a while in the making. I originally got the fabric a little over 3 years ago. When I planned to make a white-red regency dress, I also wanted to make a red spencer jacket to go with it, in the same red fabric of the dress details. That particular dress didn’t actually get made until last year, and once I knew exactly how much fabric I had left I started on the spencer. Now, nearly 1,5 year later, it’s done!

My previous spencer was dark blue wool, and quite simple. For this one, I therefore wanted something rather more fancy, and I really loved the decoration of this one from the MET. It has a sister with the same decoration, and the close-up pictures allowed me to clearly see the patterns.

My first order of business was to decide on how to recreate the decoration. I quickly decided I wanted soutache braid, as that would save me the trouble of making all that self-fabric cord. So I went looking for a suitable matching red soutache.

This took a while… I eventually found a beading store with many types of soutache though, and although the match wasn’t absolutely perfect, it was close enough to not matter.

Before starting the braiding though, I did a bit of a practise run drawing the little cord through the soutache to create the curves. I quickly ran into a problem: by drawing the soutache over the cord with my fingers, it frayed terribly. I couldn’t really see a way around this as the pattern was super curvy and I wanted the soutache to lay flat. So I decided to not use it after all (anyone ideas on what to do with 9m of red soutache?).

So: next plan. Making the cord myself after all… This took some fiddling to find the best method. My fabric is rather sturdy and not very thin, but I did want thin cords. So I didn’t put a cord inside. (I also didn’t really know how to do that at the time, but have since seen the method shown by Walking Through History which also creates lovely results. Much quicker than my way, but with a cord inside so a little thicker). Not using a cord meant stitching fabric strips into tubes by hand. I experimented a bit with different widths, and eventually settled on the thinnest still workable; 1cm wide. I also tried cutting them on the straight of grain first (much more fabric efficient), but the tube didn’t curve as nicely as when I cut them on the bias, so bias it was.

Transfering the pattern, fraying soutache, and comparison of fabric tubes. The top right image shows the same tubes as the bottom row. First is 2cm wide straight of grain; that gave wiggly curves. Second 2cm wide on the bias. Loads better, but still a bit squiggly. The third is 1cm wide on the bias, which is what I went for

 

And then came the sewing of fabric tubes. I kept a little bag with cord and thread and took it on the train with me every once in a while, and spent a fair number of evenings on the couch sewing.

Strings of cord starting to appear

 

I estimate I do about 10cm in 20 minutes, as it’s quite fiddly work. I also measured I’d need about 3,75 meters of cord for one side of the spencer. That’s about 7,5 meters of tube. At 30cm per hour. Suffice to say, this took a while. I had half of the cord done by summer last year and started to sew that part on.

 

It got taken on a couple of holidays. Below in sunny Portugal last summer, almost half way with the first side.

 

The first side was done briefly after that holiday. Slightly blurry picture because it was dark, but with the shadows it shows the relief nicely.

 

The other side took a bit longer as it took a backseat to the bustle dresses I worked on between September and May. But, eventually, it got done!

 

Once I finished the trimming, I put together the spencer quite quickly. I’d already cut all the pieces before, which really helped. I also had an photoshoot coming up where I was going to wear my red-white dress, and figured it’d be the perfect first outing for the spencer as well. Some more hasty sewing ensued, and eventually I got it done before the event!

The sleeves were the trickiest part to finish. I’d already started on their decoration as well and all the parts were cut out, but I did that over a year ago, so it took a little figuring out. My main inspiration was this spencer, also from the MET.

 

I started experimenting by twisting strips of fabric around another strip.

Experimenting to determine strip length needed. Looks very pretty no? 😉

 

I ended up using wider strips than the example and just 4 per sleeve. The strip around the arm is narrower and plain, the other strips I piped first.

Two fabric strips, piped on both sides and then turned inside out to show the right side.

 

I then twisted the piped strips around the plain one to get the twisted effect.

Sewing the twisted strips on.

 

I’m quite happy with the result, even though its a bit simpler than in the inspiration picture, and I’m happy I didn’t just do a simple plain sleeve. With how decorated the front is, it needs the slightly more fancy sleeves.

Pinning to the sleeve before setting it in.

Done!

 

I finally added a little collar. I’d originally cut this quite a bit larger but because the neckline is not all that high and I didn’t want to hide too much of the cord I narrowed it a bit.

Photoshop is good for determining shape. I wasn’t sure I even wanted a collar, but after drawing one on my picture I decided to make one after all.

Close up. Luckily the collar doesn’t hide the trim too much.

 

The spencer closes center front with hooks and eyes. The bottom is finished with a plain fabric strip, the end of the sleeves with a double row of piping.

Double piping around the sleeves.

 

I don’t yet have all the pictures from the photoshoot, so a little teaser of me wearing the spencer, seen from the back! I really love how the red-white looks with the dress, spencer and bonnet.

Picture by Martijn van Huffelen

 

 

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