Monday, September 3, 2018

The Laura Ingalls Dress Re-Created

I've always been intrigued by the dresses Laura and Mary Ingalls were wearing in this picture of Laura, Mary, and Carrie from the late 1870's.

Growing up, I loved the "Little House" books, and read them all more than once. The dresses the girls wore in this photograph fascinated me, as they weren't what I pictured in my head when I thought "pioneer dresses".

As a teenager, sewing doll clothes, I got really into combining different patterns and altering them to match the vision I had in my head, rather than the picture on the pattern envelope. I decided the Laura Ingalls dress would be a fun challenge to recreate, so I found some black polyester gingham in my stash, mashed together several patterns, and made it. For an 18" doll. I was very proud of that doll dress as it was the most complicated pattern I'd ever semi-drafted myself, and it turned out exactly as I'd hoped it would.

Fast forward several years and I decided it would be fun to make the dress again, this time for my little sister. Fast forward a few more years and I bought 4 yards of green plaid cotton homespun for the project. It was November at the time, and I was determined to make the dress as a Christmas present for my sister. I prewashed the fabric, found the perfect pattern in my stash, and then ran out of time to make the dress before Christmas. The fabric got abandoned in one corner of my sewing room, and I moved on to other projects.

Thus, the fabric has sat, waiting in my sewing room to be turned into this dress, for over three years. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided I would make my sister the dress for her birthday this year. It was absolutely going to happen. Finally. Really.

So, a week before my sister's birthday I pulled out the fabric and ironed it. Then I set about finding a pattern. (My sister has long since outgrown the pattern I originally planned to use.) But first I had to figure out how this dress was actually constructed. The skirt of the dress in the picture is clearly two layers. Now was the under layer a seperate under skirt or somehow attached to the main dress itself?

To answer this question, I found a very similar extant dress on the Augusta Auctions website, and read the description of it. "Two piece dress" the description read. Ok, that answered my question. The underskirt was separate. I studied the pictures of the extant dress to get answers to a few more of my questions (What might the back of the dress look like? What shape were the pockets?), then proceeded to compile a pattern for my reproduction.

After a look through my pattern stash I pulled out Burda 7880 and Past Patterns 904 and combined the two, to make something resembling neither of them. I traced the relevant pieces from each pattern onto clear plastic, mashed them together and added my own spin on things. When I was done, here's what the dress front pattern pieces looked like, all taped together so I could even out the hemline.

With my pattern done, I was ready to cut into the long-hoarded fabric and actually make the dress! At this point I cursed myself for choosing to make this dress out of a plaid fabric. As much as I love the look of plaid, I really hate plaid matching across seamlines. However, I wanted the finished dress to actually look nice, so I gave this plaid matching thing a go.

I started by cutting out the center back panels, one at a time from a single layer of fabric so I could be sure to cut both pieces with a perfectly matching plaid pattern  From there I worked my way around to the front of the dress, cutting all my pieces from a single layer of fabric, rather than folding my material in half like normal.. After I'd cut out one identical matching set of panels (right and left side back, right and left side front, etc) I'd lay the pattern piece for the next set of panels over the newly cut panel, match up my seam lines, and mark the plaid pattern directly on the edge of my next pattern piece. 

I would then take my plastic pattern piece with the plaid pattern marked on it, and lay it out on my fabric, matching my markings with the plaid before pinning the piece in place and cutting it out of the fabric.

The finished plaid matching isn't perfect, but it's decent. And I'm satisfied with it. Plaid matching on curved seams is hard!

Once I finished cutting out the main dress panels and sleeves, I ran into a problem. I was out of fabric, and I still had the ruffles and underskirt to cut out!  Three years ago, when I bought the fabric for this dress, 4 yards would easily make a full historical dress for my sister! However, she's grown since then, and 4 yards is no longer sufficient. I needed more fabric. Thankfully, Joann's still stocks the same homespun as they did 3 years ago. So, I ran into town and bought another 4 yards of the fabric. Unfortunately, yet unsurprisingly, it was from a different dye lot than the 3 year old fabric.  So yes, the ruffle and the underskirt are slightly different colors than the main dress is. Oh well - at least it's the same plaid pattern!

To somewhat disguise the color difference, I sewed a row of lace around the bottom of the dress, where the ruffle was attached. I used a net lace I picked up at Hobby Lobby a while back. It's not perfectly historically accurate, but it gives a good effect.

I used the same lace on the sleeve cuffs and around the neckline to tie the whole look together. The pockets got a little bit of lace as well.

Once I had the dress all cut out, it wasn't particularly hard to make - just time consuming! My sister's birthday was on a Tuesday, and it took me most of a weekend preceding that to make the main dress.

On Monday, while the kid I nanny napped, I sewed on all the buttons and hemmed the main dress.

And on Tuesday, I made the underskirt - thankfully that was a really quick project! I sewed the ruffle in place and hemed it during nap time again. Then I pleated the skirt onto the waistband, and added a placket and hooks and eyes, as soon as I got home from work that evening. I finished the dress just in time to wrap it up and have it ready to give my sister at her birthday dinner!

As she's recently read all the "Little House" books herself, she was very excited when she unwrapped the dress and I explained it was a copy of one of Laura Ingalls' dresses!

She immediately ran to put it on, and I breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing that it did indeed fit her! This girl is growing so fast now that I'm always concerned she'll outgrow things between the time I measure her for a project and actually finish the project - even if that's only a week long timespan like this dress was!

Once my sister had the dress on, the first thing she did was check to see if our new kitten would fit in the large patch pockets - it did! You know a dress is a good one if it has large, kitten-sized pockets!

Pockets aside, I think my favorite thing about this dress is the back - it has such an elegant shape!

The back pleats at the bottom of the button placket are such a pretty detail, taken from the extant Augusta Auctions dress.

The side silhouette is just as it should be for a late 1870's/early 1880's natural form era bustle dress. This is thanks to both the cut of the dress and the petticoats my sister is wearing underneath.

My sister is thrilled to have a new historical dress that fits her well, and I'm very excited to have finally made this dress! It's really been 10 years in the making, and the finished garment turned out just as I'd hoped - and better than it would have had I made it 3 years ago as I'd planned.

And as a bonus, this dress fits the Historical Sew Monthly challenge for August -  Re-create an extant garment!

August 2018 - Extant Originals
What the item is: 1870's girl's dress
Which extant original did you copy: My goal was to copy the dress that Laura Ingalls Wilder wore in a photo of Laura, Mary, and Carrie Ingalls. To do this I found a very similar extant dress on the Augusta Auctions website and referenced it for construction details.
Material: "Homespun" cotton plaid
Pattern: A mashup of Past Patterns 904, Burda 7880, and a fair bit of my own drafting.
Year: Late 1870's
Notions: All purpose thread, coconut shell buttons, net lace 
How historically accurate is it? About 60%. As I made this for my fast growing little sister, I wasn't overly worried about historical accuracy - she'll have it out grown in a couple months! The pattern is good. The construction is a mixture of accurate and modern. The materials are a mix of accurate and modern. The overall look is good.
Hours to complete: Around 20
First worn: August 21st, when I gave it to her for her birthday and she immediately tried it on!
Total cost: Under $30 - Thank you Joann's 60% off coupons and Hobby Lobby discount trims! 

If you'd like to see some more similar extant dresses, check out the Pinterest Board I made for the project. This was actually a relatively common dress style in the late 1870's!


  1. Very interesting. You are so good at “mashing” to get the end result you have “in your head”😀👍. The dress definitely has an eloquent look.

  2. That turned out really well!! Great job!

  3. The kitten in the pocket picture really made me smile there in the middle! :)

    1. Isn't she absolutely adorable?! Her name is Licorice :)

  4. I have a granddaughter who would LOVE this, but I am not an experienced sewist...I would love to try to make this for her (probably find some help somewhere). Is there any possibility that you have a pattern for this that you kept, when you made looks like it would be the perfect size. I would definitely pay you, if you have one that you could send me. My granddaughter milks the family goats:). Please let me know either way, thanks and blessings to you.

  5. This dress turned out lovely.
    I grew up in the 80's and watched Little House In The Prairie. My mom made some of my clothes and she made a dress for me similar to what Laura Ingles wore. Wish I had the photo. It turned out nice but not as good as yours.
    You can tool into Little House In The Prairie 24 hours a day if you have a Roku special TV and use the Roku Live App. It's channel 327.

  6. We need to get back to dressing this way, with pants still an option. Love this. Great job.