Monday, May 13, 2019

Constructing the 1760's Sacque Back Bird Gown

I had grand plans of completely hand sewing my first 18th century gown. I've hand sewn an 1840's dress and a regency dress, so I knew I could do it. I own both the Larkin and Smith English Gown pattern, which is apparently like an entire dress making workshop in a package, and the American Duchess book, which also includes step-by-step instructions for hand sewing four different styles of 18th century gown. So I knew I had the information I would need to successfully hand sew the gown. What I didn't have however? Time. Once my stays were in wearable condition, I only had two weeks to make my gown. Two weeks might be long enough for a crazy fast stitcher to hand sew a gown, but it certainly wasn't going to be enough time for me to hand sew a gown. Thus, my gown was going to be completely machine sewn. Not just mostly machine constructed with hand finishing work (and no machine stitching visible on the outside of the garment), but machine sewn all the way, even down to the hem. My first 18th century gown would be machine sewn with pride. A garment which I would become familiar with the cut and assembly from this era, while not holding myself to a high historical accuracy standard.

In my fabric stash I had 7 yards of a floral home decor cotton I bought off the clearance rack at Hobby Lobby last summer. I bought this fabric with an 18th century gown in mind because the style and scale of the floral pattern reminded me of the material used for this 1780's gown featured in the Kyoto Costume Institute "Fashion" book.

1780's, Kyoto Costume Institute, AC6978 91-11-1

Large scale florals such as this were popular in the 1730's and 40's, and supposedly out of fashion later on in the century. However, gowns made from these fabrics in the first half of the century were often re-made to suit current styles in the second half of the century. The 1780's gown pictured above for instance is apparently made from fabric produced in the 1740's. So, with this in mind, I decided I could more or less "get away" with using my large scale floral cotton for a gown from any decade between the 1730's to the 1790's.

After I bought the fabric, took it home, and unfolded it, I discovered there were birds, perched on vines, interspersed throughout the floral design. For some reason, as soon as I saw those birds, I just knew this fabric would become a sacque-back gown, or Robe a la Francaise, as I felt those long, flowing, back pleats would showcase this fabric perfectly. 

All that to say, when it came time to decide what I would make to wear to the picnic, I decided to turn this floral home-dec cotton into the sacque back gown it needed to become. This plan was well suited to this event for a number of reasons. 
First, a cotton gown would be easily washable if it were to get grass stained or muddy at the outdoor picnic. 
Second, being a home-dec cotton, this fabric is much heavier than an 18th century cotton would have been, so I wouldn't be making this fabric any less historically accurate than it already was by machine sewing a gown from it rather than hand-sewing a gown from it. And, to go along with that, while the print on this fabric is clearly 18th-century inspired, it is not a historically accurate reproduction print. (Yes, I realize this reason might sound crazy to some, but it did definitely influence my decision.) 
Third, I already had a Robe a la Francaise pattern on hand, which included machine sewing instructions for said gown - Simplicity 8578, designed by American Duchess.  Having a pattern ready to go would greatly speed up the gown making process.

And so, with all this in mind, I cut out the pattern and began my first 18th century gown making adventure.

To reduce the amount of long seams I would have to sew (and thus the amount of time the dress would take to make), I squished together pattern pieces and cut out the back of my dress as two long panels, rather than four. Fabric was about 20" wide in the 18th century, so the pattern pieces for each back panel reflected that. My fabric, however, was either 55" or 60" wide, and I decided to take full advantage of that modern width, historical accuracy be darned.

The bodices of 18th century gowns are nearly always lined in linen, so I pulled some linen garments out of my "to be refashioned" bin, and cut the lining from those. Yes, I do have linen yardage in my stash as well, I but I decided to save that fresh, new material for some future project as old garments would do very well for a lining that would not be seen. The lining for the bodice itself was cut from this cotton/linen blend drawstring waist skirt.

Not only was the skirt a suitable material itself for the lining, it also included a drawstring, made from cotton tape, and weird ties on the sides of the skirt, made from the same material, which worked perfectly for making the ties in the back of the bodice lining. These ties allow the bodice to be adjustable, in case one gains or loses weight, or decides to loan her gown out. A truly ingenious fitting system - I wish my 19th century dresses were this adjustable!

There wasn't quite enough fabric in the skirt to also cut the sleeve lining from, so the sleeve linings were cut out of a linen/rayon blend dress, which was also residing in my "to be refashioned" bin. (As you can see in the picture, parts of this dress had already been harvested for previous sewing projects, such as the lining of my regency gown)

Once I had everything cut out, I set to actually sewing the gown. I glanced at the Simplicity instructions, and at once decided they were much too modern for my tastes. Yes, I would be machine sewing the gown, but I wanted to construct it like an 18th garment, not a modern garment. Thus, I tossed the Simplicity instructions to the side and pulled out my American Duchess book. I proceeded to follow the construction order outlined in the book to assemble my gown, adapting the hand sewing instructions to work with a sewing machine.

First, I made the lining. Next, I sewed up the center back seam, then pleated the back. Once that was done, I mounted the pleated back on the linen lining and top stitched the pleats in place, by machine of course.

At this point, I put the lining, with the back panel attached, on my dress form and admired the beauty of those pleats.

Aren't they pretty! Next I attached the bodice front, top stitching the side seams in place as the AD book instructed. Once again, the top stitching was done by machine.

The front skirt panels were sewn to the back skirt panels with french seams, then pleated into the bodice, and top stitched in place.  My machine handled the several layers of home dec cotton, all piled together, like a champ!

Once the bodice and skirt were all together, it was on to the sleeves!

I pressed up the bottom hem of both the sleeves and the sleeve linings, then folded each piece right sides together lining up the seam to be sewn. Before sewing that seam, I layered the corresponding sleeve lining piece on top of each sleeve, and pinned together, then sewed, all four layers of fabric along the sleeve seam.

Once sewn, the sleeve was then turned right side out and the seam was sandwiched between the sleeve and the lining, so there was no exposed seam allowance on the inside, or outside, of the sleeve. This method was not mentioned in the AD book, rather, I found it on a blog several years ago. I have no idea what blog it was, but this was mentioned as an 18th century technique, and I liked it. Thus, this is how I chose to construct my sleeves. I hemmed the sleeves by slip stitching the lining and the outer layer together - by hand. Yep, this was pretty much the only hand sewing I did on the entire gown. Really, I could have top stitched this hem together, but handsewing it was much more satisfying.

The sleeves were then trimmed with a flounce (I'll discuss the trim in another blog post), then they were attached to the gown. First, I sewed the sleeve to the bodice, only along the under arm, leaving the sleeve cap unattached. Then I tried on the gown and smoothed, pleated, and pinned the sleeve cap in place over my shoulder. This is a little difficult to do on one's self, but with the help of a full length mirror, I somehow managed.

I top stitched the sleeve cap to the bodice shoulder strap, then tried the gown on again to check the range of motion.

The range of motion in these sleeves is excellent!! Finally, it was time to finish the gown. I hemmed it by machine, then bound the back neckline.

And with that, the gown itself was done! It only took about two full days of work, then all that was left to do was trim it up, and make a matching petticoat and stomacher.

And as this blog post has already gotten quite long, I'll talk about the pretty pleated trim, beribboned stomacher, and half red petticoat, in a future blog post (or two)!

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