Sunday, December 8, 2019

My Sister's Brown Velveteen and Plaid 1890's Ensemble

"It was of brown cashmere, lined with brown cambric. Small brown buttons buttoned it down the front and on either side of the buttons and around the bottom Ma had trimmed it with a narrow shirred strip of brown-and-blue plaid, with red threads and golden threads running through it. A high collar of plaid was sewn on, and Ma held in her hand a gathered length of white machine-made lace. The lace was to be fitted inside the collar so it would fall a little over the top."
~ Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie, page 92.

After visiting Rocky Ridge Farm, Laura Ingalls Wilder's home for most of her adult life, on the way home from vacation this summer, my sister decided to re-read the little house books. In doing so, she came across the above paragraph, describing one of Mary Ingalls' new dresses made for college, and fell in love with it. My sister wanted a brown cashmere and blue-and-brown plaid ensemble all her own - just like Mary's.

Well, I didn't have any brown cashmere handy, but I did have a beautiful length of brown cotton velveteen and a blue-and-brown cotton blend plaid recently acquired at a thrift store. So for my sister's birthday I wrapped up these two fabrics and a couple of bustle dress patterns (Mary went to college sometime around 1880, the Natural Form bustle era). When she unwrapped the package after birthday cake, I told her that she and I would work together this fall and make her a version of Mary's dress.

Well, best-laid plans and all, some things changed, but now, several months later, my sister does indeed have her very own brown and plaid ensemble.

With the fabric, I gave my sister two different Butterick bustle dress patterns. We discussed combining these two patterns to get just what my sister wanted when she found a new pattern, and completely fell in love with it.

Puffed Sleeves! It's always puffed sleeves, they are irresistible! My sister found Butterick B6537 in the pattern book and decided it was just the ensemble she wanted her brown velveteen and blue plaid to become. Yes, it's about a decade later in style than Mary's dress would have been, but that was ok with us. The goal was an ensemble inspired by the description of Mary's, not an exact reproduction.

We had 3 yards of the brown velveteen, and it was less than 30" wide, so there was definitely not enough for a full dress! Thus, we decided to do the bodice from the velveteen and the skirt from the plaid, which we had considerably more of.

With the pattern settled on and major design choices made, my sister and I set the materials aside to work on after my sister finished a different sewing project. Then plans changed slightly. My sister was cast as Clara's Aunt Harriet in a home school co-op production of The Nutcracker and she needed a new 1890's outfit for the occasion, as she outgrew her previous 1890's dresses well over a year ago. Thus, we had a deadline to finish the Mary dress by, and, with play practice and everything else, my sister would not have time to help with the dress so I would just be making it for her myself.

While I was slightly disappointed to lose the opportunity to drag my sister deeper into the world of historical sewing with me, making the dress by myself did allow me a bit more creativity with the costume, which I can't really complain about. I could change up the shape of the bodice a bit and make the trimmings as elaborate as I wished - things I probably wouldn't have done if I was just assisting my sister with the dress construction rather than making it myself.

The very straight bottom of the bodice on the pattern envelope just looked off to me, so I decided to give the bodice a pointed "basque" waist at both the front and the back, similar to some extant 1890's bodices I've seen.

As for trim, I looked through my 1890's Pinterest board and decided I wanted to replicate the trim seen on this ensemble:

I couldn't find a museum listing for this dress, but here's a screen shot with some info - I hope it's the right info!
I started by mocking up the bodice and adjusting the fit and to fit properly over a corset. (I'd given my sister the option to have the dress made to fit with or without a corset, and she decided she wanted to wear a corset with it.) The pattern was drafted to fit a modern body without a corset, so it was a challenge to get it to fit properly with period correct undergarments! The waist had to be taken in and the hips had to be let out to get the correct shape. Thankfully the pattern did, generally speaking, have the correct seam lines for the era.

I should have had my sister wear petticoats when I was fitting the mock-up so I could make sure the bottom of the bodice would lay nicely over the skirt, but I screwed up and didn't do that. As a result, the bottom of the finished bodice does not lay near as smoothly as I would wish. Darn it.

After I was satisfied with the bodice mock-up, I cut the bodice lining out of a blue cotton sheet my mom had left over from making Pride and Prejudice dresses two years ago. Then I used the lining pieces as my pattern to cut it out of the brown velveteen. At only 27" wide, 3 yards was just barely enough fabric for the entire bodice with its beautiful large puffed sleeves!

I sewed up the bodice as two halves, leaving the shoulder seams and center back seam unsewn for the time being.

I laid out half of the bodice as flat as I possibly could and made a pattern for the trim, which I then cut out of plaid.

The plaid trim got the raw edges pressed under, then it was sewn onto the bodice halves. After that I cut bias strips of blue silk shantung from a jacket in my refashion bin, pleated it, and sewed it along the edges of the plaid trim. 

Once the trim was on, I sewed up the center back and shoulder seams and finished the bodice like normal.

The sleeve head was 3 layers - velveteen, cotton organdy interlining, and cotton lining - and much too thick to be gathered by machine in the usual manor, so I used the zig-zag over thick thread method of gathering to get all that fabric gathered down to fit in the armscye. 

The resulting sleeves are beautifully puffed - just like we wanted!

Every seam and dart on the inside of the bodice is boned and there's a grosgrain ribbon waist stay to keep the bodice from shifting around uncomfortably when worn.

The front of the bodice fastens with hooks and eyes. Buttons are sewn over top just for show.

My sister picked the buttons from my button stash, and I love how they look on the finished garment!

The bodice was finished off with a bit of gathered white lace sewn around the inside of the collar - just like the description of Mary's dress.

With the bodice done it was on to the skirt - a much simpler ordeal, but I still ran into issues with the fact the pattern was drafted to be worn without a corset, and my sister would be wearing it with all the correct underpinnings.

Surprisingly, since I had to take in the waist of the bodice considerably, the waistband of the skirt fit just right. However, I would have preferred a bit more room in the hips. This skirt pattern, while generally accurate in shape and style (5 gores, pleated in the back), just wasn't drafted for the waist to hip ratio you get wearing a corset - and there definitely isn't any room for adding any extra hip padding, which was commonly done in the 1890's.

The skirt is flat-lined with a sturdy cotton sheet I thrifted and there is a 6" deep hem facing of cotton organdy. This gives the hem some beautiful structure! 

Just look at the way it holds its shape and flairs out! 

The pattern does include a pattern piece for the hem facing, but if you follow the cutting instructions it winds up much too long, so I'm not sure what's up with that.

Overall, I'm less than impressed with this pattern, wouldn't recommend it, and don't plan on ever using it again. Even if my sister had not been wearing a corset, which I expected to have to adjust for, it still would have needed adjustments. The best part of this pattern is definitely the sleeves, which are beautiful and didn't really require any alterations. As the sleeves are the whole reason my sister picked this pattern, I'm pleased they worked properly!

I would have loved to trim the skirt in brown velveteen to match the bodice, but I ran into a couple issues with that plan. First, I didn't have enough left over velveteen, as the bodice required just about everything there was. Second, I'm a chronic procrastinator. I made this entire outfit in the week leading up to the play. I sewed the hooks and eyes on the waistband the morning of the first performance. Even if I'd had the material to trim the skirt, I wouldn't have had the time.

Speaking of the play, once the dress was done, my sister still needed a couple other things to finish off her "Aunt Harriet" look. The directer wanted her to have a black shawl, so we made a black lace shawl, reminiscent of Marilla's black lace shawl mentioned in Anne of Green Gables. (My sister recently read Anne)

 The shawl is made from black cotton lace I found on clearance at Joann's. My sister carefully trimmed around all the scallops on the selvage edges, and I sewed extra scalloped edging onto the cut ends.

To complete the ensemble, I loaned my sister my 1890's straw hat and a pair of white vintage gloves.

All together my sister looked quite the domineering aunt in the play, and her acting was fabulous! 

Inspired by Mary Ingalls, made because of Aunt Harriet, my sister is now the proud owner of a new 1890's ensemble - and she seems to be quite thrilled with it!

Described as Mary's dress was in the book:

It was of brown velveteen, lined with blue cotton. Small metal buttons down the front and on either side of the buttons and around the back Alyssa had trimmed it with a wide strip of brown-and-blue plaid, edged with a pleated strip of blue silk. A high collar was sewn on, and Alyssa found a gathered length of white machine-made lace. The lace was to be fitted inside the collar so it would fall a little over the top.

The finished ensemble isn't exactly like Mary's dress, but it has the right feel, and we quite like it!

The bodice of the ensemble was my November Historical Sew Monthly submission, so here are the details for that if you're interested:

November, HSM #11 - Above The Belt

What the item is: 1890's Bodice
How it fits the challenge: It covers the body above the belt
Material: Cotton velveteen outer, cotton/synthetic blend plaid for trim, silk shantung for trim, cotton sheet for lining, cotton organdy for sleeve interlining.
Pattern: Butterick B6537, heavily altered - I do not recommend this pattern. I started with it to save time on the patterning stage, but it gave me so many issues I would have done better to pattern the bodice myself or buy a better pattern.
Year: Mid 1890's, probably about 1894.
Notions: thread, hooks and eyes, metal buttons, lace trim, zip-ties for boning, cotton ribbon for boning channels, grosgrain ribbon for waist stay.
How historically accurate is it? 75% I'd say. The material choice is plausible. Once I was done with alterations the pattern shapes mated those from the 1890's I've seen. The front fastens with hooks and eyes, the buttons are just for show, which did happen in the era. The construction is a mixture of modern and what I know of period sewing techniques. As far as blatant inaccuracies, the trim does have some synthetic content, the boning is plastic, and the seams are finished with a serger.
Hours to complete: Over 20 - pleating the silk trim took forever!
First worn: December 4th, 2019, for a dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker"
Total cost: The fabric I received for free when someone was clearing out a fabric stash, same with the buttons and lace trim. The sheet I used for the lining was left over from a project of my mom's, so also free to me. The silk used for trim was harvested from a silk jacket, which I received, again, for free. The plaid was 50 cents a yard at a thrift store. I used well under a yard for trim here. The organdy, used for interlining, was $4 a yard. I used about half a yard. The zip ties used for boning were $2 for the package, I used half a package. I think hooks and eyes were about $2. The ribbons I used for boning channels and the waist stay was about $1 per roll, and I did not use a full roll for either. So, all together, somewhere around $6.25 USD.


  1. My first thought was, your sister ressembles Laura Ingalls. Lovely dress.

  2. I really like reading about your sewing adventures with period garments. I also use thrifted fabric, but usually for quilting. Maybe your grandmother can bring you and some of the period garments you've sewn for a sew 'n' tell at our guild meeting someday.