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.

Autumn skirt – with a temper to match

The story of this shirt started over a year ago when I first saw the fabric in my local fabric store. I immediately loved it, it’s wool, it has a lovely drape, and the colors are gorgeous. It was also rather too expensive to justify buying it without a plan, so I left it. A short while later though, I saw it again, but this time on sale. So I immediately bought all that was left. Just 1,10 meters, but I figured it would work for a skirt.

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So the planning started! I wanted to make a skirt with a pleated top, matching the tartan. But I also wanted it to be quite long, a little below knee length, and to have a narrower line than the ‘poofy’ skirts I often make.

So I started pleating along the 1,5 (width) edge. It was a large challenge to both match up all the stripes and end up with my desired waist measurement. I’d normally take 3 times the waist measurement, but this time I had a little over 2 times, so it just wasn’t working.

After re-pleating it about 3 times, I decided I could add a little width by taking off the length. I had 1,1 in length which was too long anyway. So I cut down the bottom 30 cm and re-sewed it to the sides, matching up the pattern. Doing a french seam, it again took me about 3 times to get right, but it worked.

This is an image of the finished skirt, which still has the french seams. Almost invisible, yay!

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So I started pleating again! Again, it took a while to get right, but at least I had a little more width. When the pleats were done, I stitched them together for about 10 cm deep. I then put in the zipper, and the waistband, made from the tiny bit of scraps I had left.

I hated it. It still turned out a bit too big. The very long pleats didn’t work, it just wasn’t flattering at all. So I took out about half of the length of the pleats, and I re-attached the waistband as facing. But honestly, it was still a bit too big, and not really what I’d had in mind. Because the fabric was so pretty, I didn’t want to settle for a shape which didn’t work. I’d also put in so much work in endlessly pleating and re-pleating, so I couldn’t quite bear to take it all apart yet. So I frustratedly threw it in the ‘todo’ basket and left it there for nearly a year. This is how it came out of the basket (including wrinklyness…)

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Speed up to a couple of weeks ago! I’d been looking at autumny skirts, and thinking back to the gorgeous fabric. I decided to completely re-do the skirt. Having only pleated, I still basically had a rectangle of fabric to work with. Pleats didn’t work, so it would be an A-line  model!

So I took out the waistband facing, the pleats, the hem and the zipper and ended up with a ‘loop’ of fabric. Carefully patterning on paper, I figured I’d be able to make an almost .45 circle with minimal waste.

This is what the patterning and cutting looked like. As you can see, minimal waste! The sides are on the fold, so those didn’t need an extra seam.

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This pattern worked a lot better. I also added a lining so it’d work better with leggings, and re-attached the waistband and zipper. I left the circle hanging to stretch for a week and finally did the hem.

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It took a lot of time, and loads of frustration, but I am finally really happy with how this turned out. The fabric is still stunning, and perfect for the changing weather!

Sewing – Edwardian Hat & Jacket

My Edwardian outfit is now really done! I finished my hat last week, but didn’t manage to get the hairstyle completely right on the first try. This weekend I tried again, with a little more success. I also managed to finish my jacket last week, so I now have proper images of both! Hopefully, I’ll be able to wear the entire outfit in 2 weeks, provided it doesn’t rain that weekend.

The plan for the hat was ‘big’, and I was strongly inspired by this hat in the met:

I already had some black ostrich feathers from antique shops, and leftover black velvet.

I started with taking the dimensions from the inspiration and making a paper version. I then cut down the height quite a bit, because it looked strange, and ended up with this paper version.

 

The next step was to cut the buckram. Because I bought it in LA and had to take it home on a plane, it was folded:

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The brim of the hat was cut across some folds, and the buckram wasn’t flat anymore. So I wetted it, and placed it flat to dry in the hopes the folds would dissapear. Only problem: I needed something to keep it down which would still let it dry. So all the tea-lights I never light finally got a purpose! It looked a bit funny though…

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It turned out a little wobbly, but good enough. Next step, construction!

I folded the sides of the crown inwards and outwards by cutting slits into them, and then stitched this to the crown and the brim.

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Around the brim I put steel thread to strengthen it. This I attached by machine, which took some careful sewing, but I managed not to break my needle!

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So now I had a hat, but not a very pretty one. I covered the hat with black velvet. First the crown, which I stitched to the buckram around the sides. The side of the crown and the brim I sewed together, then putting it on by sliding it over the crown. I turned over the raw edge at the top to the inside, and turned the raw edge around the brim to the underside.

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The bottom I covered with black cotton, following a similar process as for the velvet. around the brim I turned over the cotton and sewed it to the velvet. Inside the crown, I just cut a rectangle strip and made a bag-like inside with a cord, so I can adjust the size of the crown on the inside. (clearer picture will follow).

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So now I had a fully covered hat! It’s still a bit plain though, so this is where the feathers came in. I had 2 of batches, one bigger than the other. It took some careful placing, but I managed to sew them all to the hat. I covered the end of the feathers with a velvet ribbon bow.

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So I now have a finished hat! I really love how big and dramatic it is. Even though it’s not perfect (the fabric around the crown isn’t as tight as I’d like, I’ll probably attatch it differently next time), I still think it’s a pretty good first hat!

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The inside can be made smaller with a piece of string. I don’t really need this with full Edwardian hair though! Pictures of me wearing it at the end of the post!

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I also finished my Edwardian jacket. I drafted the pattern myself, the plan was a jacket which was open in front to still show my blouse. I wanted it to reach just to the top of my skirt, have 3/4 length sleeves and velvet details. I didn’t plan on the lapels, but when drafting the piece of cotton I was using happened to have the perfect shape, so I kept them! I used a similar sleeve pattern as in my blouse, just with a little less width and a little shorter. I also pleated the sleeve caps instead of gathering. Pretty happy with how it turned out, I now have a proper walking costume!

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I hope to get pictures of the whole ensemble on me in a couple of weeks, but for now a picture of the hair/hat test!

 

 

This was the second attempt, as my hair needs to be pretty big to support the hat properly. I only had a hair rat for the front of my hair at first, and the hat kept sliding off. I also tried just back-combing, but my hair really doesn’t have enough volume for that to work. My attempt was for this hairstyle:

Wearing History Blog | French Gibson Girl Hairstyles, 1908 | Mirror Des Modes, May 1908:

I ended up buying 4 bun-filling rings for a sock bun, like these:

I cut all of them open and sewed them together into a big ring. This allowed me to put this on my head and use as ‘filler’ for the rolls. My hair is pretty thin and sleek, so I need filler. This worked quite well, and made my hair big and sturdy enough so I could put my hat on it and make it stay in place.

 

 

Inspiration – Edwardian tartan

After cutting the fabric for my Edwardian skirt, I realized I have enough left over to do something else with. I’ve been thinking on making a short jacket out of it, to go with the skirt. Not a full one, because the fabric is very busy, and I like the idea of showing off my blouse underneath. But it would make a nice ensemble. So I’ve been browsing for inspiration images, and additionally found some more images of Edwardian tartan/plaid/checkered ensembles. So it’s time for pretty pictures!

All images are from the 1905-1907 archive of the Dutch fashion magazine de Gracieuse.

 

 

Edwardian Skirt & Petticoat

It’s done! My high-waist Edwardian Skirt is done, and with it the petticoat to go underneath.

Both the petticoat and skirt were made with the 10-gore skirt pattern from Truly Victorian. I made the base of the petticoat first, to test the fit. After slightly correcting the fit at the top (it was a bit too wide, otherwise it fit very well), I cut off the top part to make the petticoat sit at the waist. I added a drawstring to close it, and moved this closure to the front.

After hemming, it was time to add some trim and ruffle. I chose to add a broad strip of bobbin lace and one row of ruffles. There’s 2 meters of fabric in the ruffle alone, cut in 4 parts and sewn together, so 8 meters to gather and hem. I used a small rolled hem at the top and bottom, and gathered and sewed the ruffle to the underside of the lace.

The finished petticoat:

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The hem of the ruffle.

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The lace:

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The cord and closure

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In the mean time, I also started working on the skirt! Cutting the fabric was quite scary. I bought the wool in Edinburgh, so no possibility of getting more, and tartan wool isn’t the cheapest of fabrics. I used black cotton for the lining.

 

From cutting the wool I now know my living room is 5 meters long, it fit exactly… I spent quite some time laying out the pattern pieces, trying to get the plaid to match at the waistline.

 

I didn’t take a lot of progress pictures, so a quick walk through. The first step was to flat-line the lining to the wool. After that, I made the placket for the closure and sew on all the hooks and eyes.

Then it was time to sew all the panels together. Always the most fun, because it’s quickest and it now actually looked like a skirt!

Next up was making boning channels and inserting the bones and sewing the whole result to the seam allowances. Less fun, and loads of hand sewing. I used plastic boning, mainly because I’ll be wearing this over a corset anyway and it’s a lot cheaper than steel.

Next up, finishing! The top was finished with bias binding. Stitched to the right side by machine and turned over and hand-stitched down.

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The last step was the hem. After trying on the length with the petticoat, I sewed hem stiffener to the bottom. Then I cut a broad bias strip from black cotton and sewed it to the hem as facing. Finally, I hand-stitched the hem-facing down. And we’re done! Technically, I finished the last hand-sewing on the 2nd of January, but as I did all the other work last year, I’ll count it as a 2015 project.

So, some more pictures!

First a comparison of with and without petticoat. I hadn’t finished the hem yet on these pictures, but you can see the difference the petticoat makes!

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The closure:

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One of the bones and the facing at the top:

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And at the hem. The hem-stiffener is underneath.

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The whole thing! I quickly put my blouse on top for the effect. (I was lazy and didn’t do any underpinnings for the blouse, sorry!)

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My only regret on the skirt is that the center-back doesn’t line up. I matched up the pattern pieces, but made the mistake on doing it on one side of folded fabric. Turned out the fabric wasn’t lying completely straight. The other panels are fine, but one of the back panels was off. Ah well, better next time.

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It’s still very pretty though…

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Inspiration – Tartan

I’m currently in Edinburgh for work, and discovered again how much I love this city. Aside from all the narrow alleys, tea shops, cute jewelry and gruesome tales, there’s also a lot of wool! I visited the (pretty touristic, but still) tartan weaving mill, where you can still see the tartans being woven on weaving mills. And aside from loads of souvenirs and tartan scarfs, they also sell fabric! As I’d been planning something involving plaid wool, I took the opportunity and bought some here. It’s still quite expensive (it’s 100% wool, and tartan), but at least there’s loads of choice and discount options when you’re in Scotland ;).

The project is quite long-term still, so I’ll be mysterious on that a little while longer, but for now some images of tartan & plaid in the 18th and 19th centuries!

 

c. 1745. “Portrait of a Jacobite Lady” by Cosmo Alexander.

Richard Wilson (1714-1782) – Flora Macdonald (Fionnghal Nighean Raghnaill ’ic Aonghais Òig) (1722-1790). Oil on Canvas. Circa 1747.

 

François-Hubert Drouais, 1757

Isabella MacTavish’s Wedding Dress c1785. Fraser clan tartan. Inverness Museum. The cloth itself is probably considerably older than the dress, and possibly dates to 1740 – 1760.

French Silk Sack Back Dress + Petticoat Date: 1770–90, Met museum

Afternoon Dress, February 1801

Plaid Chemisekjole (Empire-Style Dress) of a Young Girl. Danish, c. 1810.

Evening dress ca. 1812 From the Museum at FIT

Cape, ca. 1820, wool and silk, American. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Plaid silk dress, British, ca. 1830.

Plaid dress, 1835. Worn by Princess (later Queen) Victoria.

Evening Dress 1855, American, Made of silk and cotton

Dress Date: ca. 1857 Culture: European Medium: silk

1860s 2-piece plaid dress via Whitaker Auctions

SILK DRESS, c. 1871

Date: 1873–76, Culture: American, Medium: wool

1875 July L’Elegance Parisienne

Dress 1880 The Museum at FIT

1883-1888 afternoon dress made of grey brown taffeta, Canada via Canadian Museum of Civilization

Day dress, 1880’s

Wool Plaid Afternoon Dress, c. 1881

Walking Dress, c.1890s

Wool and silk taffeta Walking suit, circa 1890-1895, American.

Bold plaid cape, circa 1901. Via The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.