The Isabella Dress

End of June I visited Edinburgh, to attend the event at the National Museum of Scotland where a team of dressmakers recreated the Isabella MacTavish Fraser dress.

This is one of those rare surviving garments which people might recognize by name alone. But for everyone else, it’s this garment:

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Isabella MacTavish’s Wedding Dress, c. 1785. Photo courtesy of the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery

 

This dress is special for several reasons. The first thing which speaks to people it that it was a wedding dress, is still owned by the same family, and was worn by several generations of brides after Isabella.

The second thing, is that it is the only known surviving example of 18th century women’s dress made of tartan. Add to that the lure of Scotland, the vibrancy of the colors, (and the current popularity of Outlander also doesn’t hurt), and you get a garment which has fans all over the world.

One of those is Rebecca Olds (of Timesmith Dressmaking), whose interest in this garment resulted in the event where this dress was re-created. The goal of this event was to discover more about the dress, it’s construction, it’s quirks, and how it would have been made at the time. To realize this, a team of dressmakers was brought on board, and end of June, they recreated the dress in front of a live audience at the National museum of Scotland. And I got to be there!

The first thing I did when arriving at the museum Saturday morning was to visit the original dress. As always: it’s prettier in person! The colors are still so very vibrant. I mainly took some pictures of the details.

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The fron of the dress. You can faintly see the line of stitching where the lacing strip is attached.

 

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The back pleats!

 

It’s important to note that the goal of this project was to make a recreation, not a reproduction. The main difference is that a reproduction is meant to be as exactly as the original as possible. However, this typically means sewing based on the exact measurements of the original. And ironically, that would mean that the process of making the dress would be different from the original. For in the 18th century, women’s dress was typically cut and fitted on the body, which means that very little exact measurements are involved. So instead, the team aimed for a recreation. They had a model with them, and the dress was cut and fit to her. Some care was taken to replicate some of the quirks of the original, but in the end, no two bodies are the same, so the recreation is a little different from the original in some ways.

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Fitting to the body

 

The first day, the first step was to cut the fabric. The fabric was specially made for this project, woven by Prickly Thistle. They studied the original fabric, counted the threads, and made a lovely reproduction. In the end, they added a couple of strategically placed threads to ensure the fabric was at least as wide as the original. This was necessary as their looms were stronger than the 18th century equivalent would have been, and therefore slightly ‘shrunk’ the fabric. The fabric is a so-called ‘hard’ tartan, woven of worsted threads in red, green and blue.

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Cutting

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The fabric had not been stretched, so had to be mangled a bit to ensure everything was lying straight and on grain.

 

During two days, the dress was sewn completely by hand. At any time, there were about 2 to 3 people sewing, while someone else was answering questions and talking to the audience. I learned so much from the interactions alone, and it was lovely as well to meet all the other interested people in the audience!

The first step was cutting the skirts, and the front of the bodice and shoulder straps. After this, the back was cut, and the sleeves and cuffs. All cutting was done based on measurements and the previously fitted linen lining.

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Marking the skirts

 

The first bits of sewing was the main skirt seams (aside from those to the back panel, as that ran into the bodice), and attaching the lining to the front of the bodice.

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Sewing the front to the lining

 

Then came the cuffs, which were pleated, and then lined, and the sleeve seams were basted. The final thing to do on the first day was to pleat the back. Here, the original was followed as closely as possible.

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Sewing & lining the cuffs

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Checking pictures of the original when pleating the back

 

Day 2 started with the first fitting. First, the front and back were put in place on the body, and then the shoulders were loosely pinned. The main focus here was to fit the side seams, where the lining of the front was pinned to the back. After this, the sleeves were fitted.

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Fitting the bodice seams

 

Then, the sleeve seams were sewn, as well as the side seams. As the side seam initially goes through the lining of the front only, the front is then folded over top, and top-stitched in place. Simultaneously, the skirt was pleated so it would fit the bodice.

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Folding over the front of the bodice to be top-stitched to the back

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Pleating the skirt

 

Then came the second fitting, in which the skirts were fitted, and the sleeves set. The skirt has a hem which is on grain, so the length difference between front/back/sides is taken up at the top. The sleeves were pinned to the bodice in this fitting, and the cuffs were set.

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Fitting the skirt to the bodice, ensuring a level hem.

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Setting sleeves

 

The final steps were to set the sleeves, sew on the skirt and cuffs, and fix the shoulder straps in place!

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Sewing in the sleeves

 

One of my favorite things about witnessing the whole process were all the little quirks of the original dress which came to light. On first glance, it looks like a fairly typical 18th century dress, but this recreation highlighted a couple of oddities. Firstly, the style of the dress, which is actually relatively old-fashioned. The wide back-pleats and winged cuffs are typical of the 1740s and 1750s. However, the green deye used was patented in 1775, which makes the family story of it being Isabellas wedding dress in 1785 very likely.

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The cuff on the original

 

Some construction choices were also unusual. Both the front and back of the dress were cut on the straight of grain, while fronts were usually cut on the bias to form around the body better. It also features tilted lacing strips sewn to the inside, which is uncommon (especially the angle). These might have been there to help keep the bodice smooth around the body.

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Showing the lacing strips on the inside

 

The sleeves of the original were also set a bit unusually, in that they were caught in the back underneath the outer pleat. This shows that the pleat was stitched in place after the sleeve was set. The final oddity in construction was the skirt attachment. Usually, skirts are pleated and then seamed to the bodice. But in this dress, the pleats are first folded over, whip-stitched to keep the fold, and then stitched to the bodice through all layers. This creates quite a bit of bulk in that seam!

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The original dress. You can see the sleeve being caught in the back pleat, and the tiny stitches at the top of the sleeve, holding the lining in place.

 

Finally, there were some simple ‘mistakes’ made on this gown, most notably in the sleeves. The sleeves are taken in at the top, indicating that they were originally too wide. There is some piecing at the bottom, so they were also a bit too short. But then they were too tight at the bottom, which was fixed by a simple ‘slit’ at the bottom, which was then covered up by the cuffs. This was recreated in the new dress. Finally, the original also show that the lining of the sleeve was a bit too short, as it does not go all the way to the shoulder. The original shows a little line of stitching at the top of the sleeve, catching the lining in place. Oops.

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Georgia showing what it was like trying to lift her arms before the slits in the sleeve were caught.

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A little slit hidden under the cuff fixes the problem!

 

At the end of two days of hard work, figuring out how to recreate the oddities, stitching seams, and answering our questions, the dress was done! Well, very nearly, as some final sewing to the shoulder strap had to be finished after the museum closed and we had to leave. But it was enough done to show us the final project, and they finished up the dress that same evening!

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I loved attending this event, learning more about this dress, and 18th century dressmaking in general. Seeing every step of the process really helps understand how these gowns were put together, and also puts into perspective how much work goes into it! If it looks quick from this overview, keep in mind that there were 7 experienced dressmakers working on this for two days! They had the major tasks of not just making a hand-sewn dress, but making a recreation of the Isabella dress, which definitely meant stepping outside of comfort zones and figuring out how to recreate some oddities. The interaction was also really lovely. Everyone was very generous in sharing their knowledge and experiences, and answering questions. Through learning about the little quirks, this dress really comes to live!

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The team:

Rebecca Olds: Timesmith Dressmaking (Project leader)

Lauren Stowell: American Duchess

Abby Cox: American Duchess

Peryn Westerhof Nyman: Isabel Northwode Costumes

Katy Stockwell: Regency Regalia

Alexandra Bruce: Alexandra Bruce Costumes

Georgia Gough (Model)

Flora Macleod Swietlicki 

 

The fabric was woven by Prickly Thistle, The Inverness Museum and Art Gallery is the current custodian of the dress (although it’s still privatly owned), the National Museum of Scotland, hosted this event and currently exhibits the dress (until November 10, 2019)

For updates on the project, (talks, and a documentary which is in the makes), keep an eye on the Timesmith Dressmaking facebook page.

4 thoughts on “The Isabella Dress

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