Early & Mid 19th Century Commission For NSCDA-MA

I find great joy in the pursuit of researching and making historical clothing. Here on the blog, I post most often about the garments I make for myself, but I rarely post about commissions to make custom historical garments for private individuals, museums, historical institutions, etc. Today’s post is different from the usual in that I’m going to share a commission project with you!

This commission came about through the kindness of Myrthe, who blogs at Atelier Nostalgia. (And how fitting, that we were just communicating about how wonderful it is to connect with people who love historical clothes from around the world!) The commission was from the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA-MA).

The NSCDA-MA owns the beautiful William Hickling Prescott House in Boston, which was built in 1808 and upgraded throughout the 19th century. The NSCDA-MA website (linked above) shares many more details about the various owners of the house and its architecture. In addition to the house itself, the NSCDA-MA also holds a wonderful collection of historical clothing, some items of which have been used for display purposes throughout the house (though most of the garments are in storage and only available for research visits by appointment). Unfortunately, historical garments are often not suited to permanent display as they can be made of delicate fabrics that can be damaged by light, dust, and gravity, just to name a few possible problems. The NSCDA-MA was looking for custom made historical dresses to display instead of the extant historic garments and I was very excited to work with them to make that goal a reality!

The commission involved two dresses: one from about 1810 and one from about 1845. The two dresses haven’t been mounted yet and aren’t available to visit due to ongoing closures, but I hope to eventually go see them in one of the glorious rooms of the house. For now we’ll have to make do with flat photos that were taken for my own archival purposes.

The c. 1810 dress was inspired by a few different dresses, including this c. 1810 cotton dress held by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The goal was to merge the inspiration dresses into one dress with a repeated pattern on cotton, an adjustable drawstring neck, and long sleeves. In order to support the silhouette and provide opacity I also made a bodiced petticoat to go with the dress. Below are front and back views.

Unlike the first dress, the c. 1845 dress was inspired by this specific c. 1848 silk dress held by The Met. The goal was to keep the details of The Met inspiration dress but make the new dress proportional to the measurements of the form that would be wearing it. The dress includes extra structure to help the bodice keep its shape even without a corset underneath. Below are a full length front view and a close up of the bodice.

I had lots of fun finding trimmings for this dress that recalled the original. In the case of the tassels, I combined sections of the fringe with tassel tops and vintage passementerie buttons in order to get the right look and create tassels. Below, a closeup of tassel parts and the final result.

The designs of each dress were settled on with much collaboration to determine fabrics, trimmings, style details, and more. Both patterns were individually created to fit the requirements and specifications for each dress. Both dresses use a mixture of machine sewing/modern methods on the interiors and hand finishing on the exteriors. This speeds up construction and provides the necessary foundation for the dresses even without a full set of supportive undergarments.

I love projects like this! It’s so wonderful to collaborate with others who appreciate the minute details of historical clothing while also making garments that can be used to help interpret history to the public. These sorts of projects are often initiated through word of mouth suggestions, so please reach out if you know of museums, historic sites, historical societies, etc. who are looking for this type of collaboration!

Fabric Stash Additions: Summer 2020

I’ve accumulated a few new fabrics over the last few months and I thought it would be fun to share them in a stash addition post!

Fabric for new sweatpants

I have a favorite pair of sweatpants that I’ve had for almost 20 years. They’ve seen a lot of wear. After 20 years, the hems are pretty worn out and they’re starting to develop holes in the fabrics near the seams. I’ve been on the lookout for similar ones to replace them for years, but the fit is hard to find: wide-ish legs with a bit of a flare, diagonal pockets, and wide hems. I’ve never come across another pair with quite the same styling. (And they’re not currently in style, being 20 years old, so that’s part of the challenge.)

While wearing them quite a bit in March and April I had the thought that “I could make myself a new pair of these pants!”

This idea was spurred in part by the lovely fleece fabrics that Blackbird Fabrics has stocked over the last eight months or so. Every time they popped up in an email I considered purchasing some, but couldn’t make up my mind about color and dragged my feet. Blackbird’s fabrics sell out quickly and I kept missing the boat with my indecision, but then they restocked the bamboo/cotton stretch fleece and matching ribbing and I decided to make a decision, go for it, and order some!

Doesn’t the fleece side of this fabric look soft? I love that new fleece feeling!

I ordered 1.5 meters of the fleece and .5 meters of the ribbing. I’m sure I’ll have leftover ribbing, as it’s only used for the band at the top of the pants, but I’ll find a use for it again someday, I hope.

Of course, right around the time I purchased my new sweatpant fabrics the weather warmed and I lost my motivation to make the pants. But the fabric isn’t going anywhere and in theory the weather is getting cooler soon, so maybe these will make it onto my sewing table sometime in the next few months.

I do congratulate myself on taking the time to take a pattern from the old pants before I lost motivation so that when I decide to move forward I’m ready to go!

Two block printed fabrics

I keep a running list of sewing projects, in order to remind myself what steps projects are at, what fabrics are marked for certain projects, and what projects I have in mind. Occasionally, while looking at this list, I get swept away with ideas for new projects.

Earlier this summer, this feeling of wanting new projects was compounded by a friend updating me on the status of her current 1830s day dress project using a lovely block print cotton. It’s been a few years since I’ve seriously looked at what’s on offer for block print cottons on places like Etsy and eBay, so I decided to check things out.

Oops! Because, of course, I found pretty things! And then my brain went into overdrive, thinking of all the amazing projects I could make with the beautiful things!

I confess that I gave in to temptation and purchased two block printed fabrics.

I feel somewhat justified in that I have very clear ideas in mind for them!

I intend for the green and red print to become a gown like this one, from about c. 1785. I have 10 yards, enough to make the dress and a matching petticoat, but I thought that someday I might also be interested in having a contrast petticoat as well.

In terms of timeline, I have no clear plans for when I might make this. I am working on stays from this period, so that will be a great help, but that’s not really a solid plan. And the stays are going slowly, as I’ve been distracted from them by other projects. So, no deadline or timeline in mind.

I also bought 9 yards of the pink print in order to make a day dress from 1843/44. But then I remembered a fabric already in my stash that would also make a lovely dress from these years (I actually posted about it in this past stash addition post in 2018–it’s the cream woven plaid). So… I’m not exactly sure which fabric I would pick for this project, though I’m leaning towards the new pink block print (whichever one I don’t pick doesn’t have a clear plan).

I have a new corded petticoat that would help with the 1840s silhouette and I already have the rest of the undergarments, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that I could tackle this project in the not-too-distant future. (What does that actually mean? Next year, maybe?)

Discount duchess satin

This is the standard ‘I happened upon it’ story. This blush duchess silk satin was in the discount bin at a local store.

Of all of the fabrics I’ve acquired recently, this is the one that is the most ‘stash addition’.  I don’t need the 1.5 yards that I bought for anything in particular, but I thought that for the low price it was worth picking some up.

I think it would make a gorgeous 19th century corset (like my 1880s steam molded corset, which is also made from duchess silk satin). I also have vague plans to someday make a 1920s corset/girdle and I think it might be useful for that as well.

In conclusion…

I’ve been doing well at using stash fabrics to make things recently, which is great, but I’m not sure if I’ve offset that by buying new things… Oh well! Sometimes you have to buy things when you see them!

Making A Corded Petticoat For 1830s & 1840s Ensembles

My sewing has taken a sharp turn into the 1830s in the last two months or so. It’s an exciting detour that has been on the horizon for a long time–ever since I purchased this yellow block print cotton back in 2013, in fact.

I wanted to up my silhouette game for the 1830s and achieve a fuller looking skirt than I’ve been able to do with my 1832 velvet gown in the past. To that end, I decided to make a corded petticoat.

I followed the directions from American Duchess in this video and only changed the cording pattern to suit my materials. If you’re interested in making a corded petticoat yourself I definitely recommend the American Duchess video. I found it easy to follow along with the steps and appreciated the mentions of pitfalls and tips along the way.

I was super excited to get started and maintained my enthusiasm for the first 4 sections of cording, but by the top 2 sections I was definitely feeling ready to be done! By that point the petticoat was unruly and difficult to turn as I sewed around each channel. Despite being less fun than when I started, I pushed on, and I was quite grateful when I finished the last section of cording!

Here’s a closeup photo of the cording sections. I used a continuous piece of cord for each section, as suggested in the American Duchess video.

My opening is just a portion of one seam left open just above the top section of cording. This is what it looks like from the outside. I made the waistband extra long to allow for future adjustment (just in case!), which is why the button is set over so far from the edge of the waistband.

On the inside, that opening looks like this. The second layer of fabric is just turned back from the edge and top stitched in place. The other seam allowance edges are selvedges, so they didn’t require finishing. Easy and tidy!

The ivory cotton waistband is whip stitched on the inside finish it all off nicely. Hidden underneath is a layer of cotton canvas that helps to stiffen the waistband a bit.

This petticoat is almost entirely machine sewn and took 8.5 hours to make. I used 4 ¼ yards of ivory cotton, 13 ¼ yards of 5/16″ cording from Wawak, 39 ¼ yards of 7/32″ cording also from Wawak, the canvas scrap for the waistband, and a lone ivory button from the stash. The materials cost about $33.

When I started this petticoat, I thought that it would only be worn with the 1832 velvet gown I mentioned earlier, but since then 1830s daywear using the yellow print cotton has made it onto my sewing table… and this will definitely get worn with the new dress. I also hope to be able to wear it with 1840s dresses that will someday make it onto my sewing table. It’s a great step towards improving my silhouette!

HSM #6: Mid-19th Century Underclothes

I finally made a garment this year that qualifies for the Historical Sew Monthly! June’s Challenge is: Favourite Technique: make an item using your favourite sewing or embellishment technique. My garment for this challenge is a pair of split drawers from the mid-19th century.

My technique of choice are French seams. These are durable, tidy, and easy to sew with a sewing machine.

A quick explantation of how to sew a French seam is to sew with wrong sides together first, press the seam allowances open (they should be on the outside of the garment at this point), then sew the seam again so that the raw edges are fully encased on the inside of the garment. A French seam starts the opposite of how you would normally sew a seam (which is with right sides together). To this with your regular seam allowance the first line of stitches is narrower than your full seam allowance (for example: my seam allowance was ½”, so I first stitched with a slightly wide ⅛” seam then stitched again with a slightly wide ¼” seam). This ensures that the seam is tidy on the right side of the garment, with no loose threads showing. To keep French seams narrow on the inside of the garment it is essential that the first line of stitching is close to the edge of the fabric–sometimes that means stitching a wider seam and then trimming it to be narrow. If this is the case then it’s worth thinking ahead when cutting to decide if the seam allowances need to be wider than normal.

Below is a closeup on one of the inseams of the drawers, showing the French seam.

On to The Facts!

Fabric:  1 ¾ yards of cotton lawn from Dharma Trading.

Pattern: My own. I think these were based on a pattern in a book over ten years ago, but I can’t remember what book and I know I’ve made changes since creating the original pattern.

Year: c. 1850.

Notions: One button and thread.

How historically accurate is it?: 98%. That missing 2% is for the machine sewing of the waistband to the inside of the drawers, as I think it was more likely that this step would have been completed by hand.

Hours to complete: 2 ¼ hours.

First worn: Not yet!

Total cost: $8.75.

These drawers are entirely machine sewn, with French seams, narrow hems, and the ‘stitch in the ditch’ method of finishing the waistband. The ‘stitch in the ditch’ replaces more time consuming hand sewing of the waistband on the inside. It leaves barely visible machine stitches just under the bottom of the waistband on the outside and nicely turned under edges on the inside of the waistband, as you can see at the point on the center front in the photo above. The buttonhole is also sewn by machine. The only hand sewing is securing the button.

These drawers are part of a set that I made for a friend. In addition to the drawers, she will also be receiving two mid-19th century chemises (also sewn with French seams!).

As these are worn without other garments underneath, it was important that the fabric is opaque. Dharma Trading’s cotton lawn is tightly woven and definitely opaque enough for this use. Plus, it’s 60″ wide and a great price! I will say that due to the tight weave of the fabric I had a much easier time sewing it with a fresh sewing needle. The old, probably blunt, needle on my sewing machine was a little struggle-y at first, but I had no problems once I changed the needle.

In total, all three garments took 5 yards of fabric, 7 hours of time, and cost $25 in supplies (the button for the drawers as well as lace and ribbon for the chemises was from the stash).

HSM #1: Brown Silk Petticoat

While making my 1832 velvet gown at the end of last year, I decided that a generic 1830s/40s petticoat might add to the silhouette, besides being elegant and fun to own. Silk petticoats remind me of Mammy, in Gone With The Wind, who is very excited (and a bit scandalized) about a red silk petticoat gifted to her by Rhett.

I had purchased this silk taffeta a number of years ago on clearance, but it was languishing in the stash due to its unflattering shade of brown. I had 3 yards, which was just right for a petticoat. And since the garment is never seen nor worn near the face, the color was perfectly suited to the project.

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I made a tube of the yardage, then cut off the excess length and used that to make the ruffle. I had thought of making the ruffle twice as high, but realized that I needed to have more than a 1:1 ratio to gather… duh! I was sick while making this and clearly my head wasn’t working terribly well. Anyway, I cut my tall ruffle in half to make a 2:1 ratio and that was that.

The waistband is made of small bits of leftover cotton from some other project. There is evidence of quilted petticoats from the 1830s and 1840s having waistbands made of other fabrics, which was my inspiration (examples can be found here, here, and here). It was a perfect idea, as I was trying to make the best use of my fabric and I did not want to cut a waistband piece out of it.

Petticoats of this type also sometimes close with buttons (like this one), so I chose to close this petticoat in that way as well. It used up a single, random, khaki colored button from the stash and matches the fabric perfectly!

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I added tucks to the petticoat after trying it on with the 1832 dress and realizing it needed to be shorter. Those are hand sewn, but the rest of the construction was done on a machine except for the buttonhole and sewing down the inside of the waistband.

This garment fits the first HSM challenge of the year, Firsts and Lasts (create either the first item in a new ensemble, or one last piece to put the final fillip on an outfit), as it was the start of the 1830s ensemble.

Just the facts:

Fabric: 3 yards brown silk taffeta.

Pattern: None. Just rectangles and math, sort of.

Year: 1830s/40s.

Notions: Thread, a button, and a cotton scrap.

How historically accurate is it?: I’m going to go with 95% on this one. The materials are good and so is the method. The only thing off is the machine sewing and the plastic button.

Hours to complete: Not many, for me. Maybe 10? It didn’t help that I was sick  and not thinking straight.

First worn: December 10 for a ball.

Total cost: $18.

Vernet Project: Further Witzchoura References

Last post relating to witzchouras, we looked at basic definitions of the word, determining that the garment and its name developed from Polish and French influences, that the garment was popular c. 1808 to 1835, and that the chief qualifications are that it is an outer coat or mantle lined and trimmed in fur. But let’s not stop there: here are more references to the witzchouras from the early 19th century.

In 1817, La Belle Assembleé has multiple mentions of witzchouras. The following excerpt tells us a good amount about this style:

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Side note: A Louis d’Or is a French gold coin first struck in 1640. These were promoted by the French kings to fill the need for a large denomination coin, since the franc and livre silver coins were greatly decreasing in value. In 1726, France developed monetary stability and the Louis d’Or was established as being worth 24 livres, a value that remained static through the French Revolution. At the time of this quote in 1817, a Louis d’Or referred to a 20 franc gold piece, also called a Napoleon, so named because Napoleon coopted the idea of the French kings before him. (Sources: Merriam Webster, the OED for louis d’orNapoleon, and livre, and the Encyclopedia Britannica.)

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Louis d’Or from 1709

Throughout the 18th century, a franc was similar in value to a livre, and about 20 of either of these coins equalled one Louis d’Or. La Belle Assembleé tells us that a witzchoura in 1817 was worth 30-90 Louis d’Ors. What I’m driving at here is the relative value of one of these garments.

The OED gives us an idea of the value of a livre over time: in 1746 one captain was paid 120 livres a month (6 Louis d’Ors). Extrapolate that for a year, and that captain was making 72 Louis d’Ors, just enough for a witzchoura or two and nothing else! Another example from 1797 sounds outraged that an English sea officer was charged 300 livres for eight days of lodging (15 Louis d’Ors). That’s almost 60 Louis d’Ors per month, which would easily be a witzchoura, though I doubt that sea officer would need a witzchoura instead of lodgings! The takeaway message is that, as La Belle Assembleé says, witzchouras were costly and worn only by the wealthy.

It is worth noting that there are fur lined pelisses mentioned which do not qualify as witzchouras in the eyes of La Belle Assembleé. I’ll be examining these almost-witzchouras in a later post.

Moving along some years, The Ladies’ Pocket Magazine describes fashionable witzchouras in 1833 (the OED had quoted part of this in their definition of witzchoura that we looked at in my last post):

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As we established before, by the 1830s the shape of the witzchoura had changed to accommodate the changing fashions of dresses under them: becoming more cape-like, with collars and loose sleeves rather than being fitted like a pelisse as they were in the earlier years of their popularity. Again, we are reminded that witzchouras are made from expensive fur, and the more expensive the fur the more likely to see it displayed as much as possible.

Moving forward once again, C. Willet Cunnington mentions witzchouras in his book English Women’s Clothing in the 19th Century referencing a year as late as 1849: “The Witzchoura Mantle, for the carriage, lined and trimmed with fur.”

This quote from La Belle Assembleé in 1849 could be the source for Cunnington’s mention of the style, as the phrasing is quite close to Cunnington’s description:

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Here there is a mention of another garment similar to a witzchoura: in this case a burnous. According to the OED again, a burnous is a woman’s cloak or mantle from the 19th century resembling an Arabian upper garment of the same name. It is interesting to note that by the 1830s and 1840s a witzchoura is described as heavy, cumbrous, and very ample instead of the more fashionable and positive descriptions from the decades prior.

One final mention of the witzchoura is from The Outdoor Girl Of A Century Ago, published in 1922:

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This is the second mention in this post of a similar (or possibly the same) garment of Russian origin. In addition to the specific evidence of the Polish origins of the witzchoura in name and relating to Napoleon himself, I’ve also come across multiple mentions of the witzchoura style being brought back to France from Russia by Napoleon’s forces. Both of these influences fit in with the dating we’ve established and lead me to wonder if these are two separate and unique garments. Perhaps, though I suspect that if they were indeed separate styles in name they would have been variations on a similar theme, just like the fur-lined pelisse mentioned earlier in this post.

Historic Cotton Print Eye Candy

I was recently able to visit a wholesale quilt fabric company to purchase historic dress fabrics for an upcoming mid-19th century performance on behalf of me and other members in my vintage dance troupe. It was such a treat! The majority of the fabrics we found were Marcus Brothers fabrics, but RJR also had a smaller number of really lovely fabrics.

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Marcus Brothers Gettysburg Print 1840-1860. To make an1850s day dress.
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Windham Fabrics Colonies Archives Print c. 1850 and Marcus Brothers Charleston II Print. For other 1850s/60s day dresses.

There were so many lovely things, but the best part was the prices! All of the fabrics were between $2.50-$3.75 a yard! You had to buy a bolt, which varied between 7 1/2 and 15 yds, but at those prices it’s still outstanding! We came away with fabric for the 1850s/60s dresses and bit more besides… There were some things that were just so fantastic they couldn’t be left behind!

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Marcus Brothers Old Sturbridge Village Print. To eventually make an 1840s dress! It’s going to be so pretty! I love this fabric and the colors (it’s actually yellow and pinkish flowers with brownish vines).
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RJR Print. I have no idea what I will make with this, I just love it. I find it to be so striking!
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Another sample of the lovely prints. These were purchased by a friend. One will be used for an 1860s dress, eventually, and the other will possibly be used for an 1840s dress, eventually.

Don’t worry, there will be upcoming posts with more on the 1850s day dress I’ll be making as well as the other much farther in the future projects. And I’m sure I’ll also have great pictures from the mid-19th century performance as well.