Monday, September 2, 2019

Making the 1840's Black Wool Dress With a Complicated Skirt

I thought the skirt of my 1840's black wool dress was going to be the easy part. A large tube of fabric, cartridge pleated at the top, finished with a hem facing at the bottom, whip stitched to the bottom edge of the bodice. That's how I've made my previous skirts from this era. Easy.

However, with this project, when it came time to put together the skirt I decided to reference some of my costuming books rather than just make the skirt the way I've always done it. If I'd wanted this skirt to be done in the easy familiar way, pulling out my books was a mistake. These books quickly complicated matters.

Referencing Patterns of Fashion 1 by Janet Arnold I discovered the early 1840's dress featured had a fully lined skirt. As I've not lined my 1840's skirts before this surprised me. Were all/most skirts of the era lined, or was this one unique in that way? To answer this new question I pulled out The Cut of Women's Clothes by Nora Waugh and Costume in Detail by Nancy Bradfield. After reading descriptions in each and looking at sketches in Costume in Detail, I discovered, indeed, most 1840's skirts were lined. With this new knowledge, I couldn't justify not attempting to line my skirt.

Knowledge in hand, actually constructing the skirt began. From my books, I knew the average skirt in the 1840's measured about 127" all the way around at the hem (Thankfully, I got this close to right at least on my previous dresses). My black wool was a full 60" wide from selvage to selvage. I decided to make my skirt from two widths of fabric, using the selvages as my side seams, for a finished hem measurement of about 118" once sewn together with 1/2" seam allowances. I figured 9" of width or so wasn't going to make a huge difference in how the finished skirt looked and wore. 

Once I knew what my skirt measurement was going to be and cut my black wool skirt panels, I constructed a lining to match out of the same striped polished cotton I used to line my bodice.

I pieced together the lining from just about all the striped polished cotton I had left. I sewed it together on the sewing machine, despite the fact the rest of the dress was hand sewn. I was already skeptical about this whole skirt lining thing and the amount of extra work and time it was going to require, so I was not going to hand sew it. I do not regret this decision in the slightest.

Once the lining was pieced together, I laid the black wool out on top of it to make sure the two layers matched exactly in size. They did not. Somehow, I'd made the lining about 8" too short. Dang. All I had left of the polished cotton were scraps. So, to fix the lining, I pieced together all those little scraps until the lining was the same size as the wool.

This was an evening's worth of work. And once it was done, well, I was very glad it was done! My skirt lining is very, ahhh, visually interesting.

With the skirt lining finally the same dimensions as the skirt itself, there was still one more thing I needed to do before I was ready to attach the two layers to each other. The early 1840's dress in Patterns of Fashion 1 had a rectangle of cotton wadding tacked to the lining in the back of the skirt for a little extra oomph. Since I was already lining the skirt I decided I might as well go all out and pad the back of it as well. So I picked up some thin cotton quilt batting on sale at Joann's, cut a rectangle of it the same dimensions as the one from the Janet Arnold pattern I was referencing, and tacked it to the inside of the back lining with some very large pad stitches.

Once that was done, the skirt and skirt lining were finally ready to be attached to each other. I pressed in 1/2 at the top and bottom of both the skirt and the lining then put the lining inside the wool, wrong sides together, and slip stitched the top.

The two layers were also to be slip stitched together at the hem - but there was one more detail to be added. More batting!

My reference dress had a 1" padded hem. Thus, continuing with my "let's make this skirt as complicated as possible" theme, I decided to do the same. I stitched a strip of cotton batting, a bit wider than 1" because I didn't bother to measure carefully, to both the lining and the wool at the bottom of my skirt.

Once securely whip-stitched in place, the padded section was then folded up for the hem. No hem facing in this dress.

After lining, padding, and hemming my skirt panels, I was down to the final step before cartridge pleating and stitching the skirt to the bodice - adding pockets! When I sewed up the side seams on the black wool, I left openings for the pockets. When I put the lining in the skirt, I cut slashes in the lining to match up with my pocket openings, turned the edges under, and whip stitched the lining to the wool.

Referencing my books, it appeared dresses in the 1840's generally had pocket slits in the side seams and were worn over separate pockets tied around the waist like those in the 18th century. Personally, however, I wanted permanent pockets in the dress itself. Thus, I decided to do a kind of hybrid between separate pockets and my standard inseam pockets.

I made a set of pockets, shaped somewhat, but not entirely, like those from the 18th century out of a very historically inaccurate black and tan floral batik. I completely machine sewed these so they really have no claims to historically accuracy what-so-ever, but they do the job!

I lined up the opening on the pocket itself with the pocket slits in the side seams of my skirt, then stitched the top of the pocket bag to the top of the skirt. I did not stitch together the openings at all.

On the finished dress, the pockets hang freely inside the skirt. This isn't exactly convenient as the pockets don't always lay perfectly aligned with the slits, so I may go back later and stitch together the pocket opening and the slit in the skirt. The whole pocket system was rather experimental, and I definitely think it was worth a try, even though I'm not thrilled with it as is.

Though the fact I can pull my pockets through the slits to the outside of the skirt is kind of cool!

Pockets added, it was finally time to actually set the skirt! To regulate the length of my skirt, I had my mom help me try a method I've read about in several different sources. (Can I remember what those sources are right at this moment? no.)

I put on the bodice and then we tied the skirt around my waist with a piece of string. We tugged and shifted the skirt until the center front of the skirt and the center front of the bodice matched up, the side seams matched up, and the center backs matched up.

Then we made sure the string holding the skirt around my waist was perfectly aligned with the bottom of the bodice and pulled and tugged some more until the hem was level on the ground all the way around.

Once that was done, my mom took a piece of chalk and marked on the skirt where the string was all the way around. This would show me where I needed to fold down the top of the skirt for cartridge pleating.

Once the skirt was untied from me, I pressed down the upper edge along the chalk marking and I was finally ready to cartridge pleat the skirt and attach it to the bodice! The end was in sight!

I figured it would take a couple hours to cartridge pleat the skirt and whip stitch it to the bodice, but it actually took an entire day.

It turns out it takes considerably longer to cartridge pleat a lined and padded skirt than it does to cartridge pleat a single layer skirt. 

I set myself up on the back porch with curtains tied up for shade and my lap top set up so I could binge watch The Crown on Netflix, and sewed the day away.

Sewing, sewing, sewing! I was very tankful for my thimble! The wool, polished cotton, and cotton batting were a lot to sew through!

Finally though, after two months of work - it was done!

I finished it just in time for the 52 week sewing challenge "Hand Sew Something" week! So that worked out well!

I'd meant to finish this dress for the Historical Sew Monthly June Challenge, "Favorite Technique" because I do love piping and cartridge pleating, but clearly that didn't happen.

So then I thought I'd finish it for July's "Unexpected Feature" challenge, as I'd call the striped lining, lined and padded skirt, and floral pockets, "Unexpected", but that didn't happen as it was August before I had the skirt attached to the bodice.

This dress doesn't really fit either the August, or September challenges, so now I plan to use it for the October challenge - "Details". This dress really does have a lot of little details in it!

"Wait a moment, Alyssa", you might be thinking. Wasn't this dress done a bit too early to qualify for the October challenge. Yes, that would be accurate. To qualify for a HSM challenge, the item must be finished no more than one month in advance of the challenge opening. So for the October challenge,  the item can't be finished before September 1st. As is, this dress was "finished" the first week of August. But, after wearing it for pictures, I've discovered a few things I need to fix.

Currently the sleeves are uncomfortably tight in the forearms. Before I wear this dress for an extended amount of time, I've got to let those out!

As I'd like to wear this dress for a couple different occasions in October, that alteration will need to be made in either September or October - and then it will definitely qualify for the October challenge!

For the moment, however, this dress is getting set aside. I have other projects I need to get done for things I'm doing in September - And, after all the complications I added to this skirt, I think I need a break from black wool!

That said, the more I look at this dress, the more I like it! It is beautifully, fantastically, quintessentially, 1840's gothic. A dress perfectly suited to Jane Eyre! 


  1. Hi Alyssa. All I can say is wow! This dress is absolutely amazing!! You mentioned a couple times your waiting to see what God’s plan may be for you.. well I’m certainly not God but with such talent and patience to make something like this I believe maybe your actually already doing it!! You look pretty young to me but I’m getting old so who knows. I just had to let you know how impressed I am by this dress. God bless in all your future endeavors!!

  2. What beautiful work you have done! I'm glad I'm not the only person who spends hours upon hours doing things just so.... It was worth your effort , It is stunning :D

  3. I love how subtly all the details show on the solid black. It is a gorgeous dress! Very interesting about all the padding. Do you know what the advantage to a padded hem is? That part has me the most curious.
    Don't we all love bingeing when there is tedious work to be done! I wish I had such a nice porch to sit out on though.