Wednesday, February 28, 2024

There's Nothing More Natural Than a Horse Hair Bustle, Right?

 I was getting carried away with my plans for the pink and burgundy 1882 gown. I was ready to mock-up the bodice and make some real progress on this thing! Then I had to halt and do a pivot.

I needed the correct under things to go under this new gown and give it the right shape. And it would really be best to make those things before going through the hassle of mocking up the bodice to ensure a good fit on the finished product. 

Thus, the bodice patterns I was contemplating got set aside for another day, and I fell down the rabbit hole of horse hair bustles.

1882, the year of my fashion plate, was at the tail end of what we call the "Natural Form Era." "Natural" as in the fashionable shape resembled natural women's shape slightly more than the fashionable shape of the years preceding and following this era - but it certainly wasn't entirely natural. Corsets, of course, were still worn, as were petticoats, and bustles. Yes, bustles. But not the large lobster tail bustles of the mid 1870's and 1880's. No, the bustles of this 1878-1882 era were much smaller and more natural looking - just a bit of extra "oomph" added to the back of the silhouette, rather than an extensive wire contraption. 

The book Victorian Fashions & Costumes From Harper's Bazar, 1867-1898, edited by Stella Blum, features a drawing of an 1881 "hair cloth bustle" on page 135 - this became my primary inspiration for my own horse hair bustle. Then I took to the internet to see if there were any of these bustles in museums that I could find pictures of - and that yielded rich results!

LACMA, Woman's Bustle

Turns out there's a wide variety of extant horsehair bustles which have found their way online. The above bustle from LACMA was particularly intriguing to me and looked relatively easy to make.
In my internet search I also came across the Modern Mantua Maker's blog post about her natural form underthings - and the pictures she shared of her horse hair bustle (especially the inside of it) gave me a good idea of how to construct one.

Armed with my inspiration pictures, I ventured down to the basement to locate suitable materials in my fabric stash - hair canvas (bought in 2020 for a men's tailoring project I never did get around to) and a blue striped cotton (obtained from a church basement that was being empties out probably around 2018ish) for the base. Originally I was just going to use plain unbleached muslin for the base fabric, but the stripes called to me and I couldn't resist them!

I used the back and side back upper skirt pattern pieces from McCall's 8191 (The pattern I used for my sister's natural form gown) as the starting point for the bustle base - they looked like they would give me a similar shape to the bustle in the book I was using as inspiration. I cut 2 side back pieces, with the front edge straightened out, to use as the "wings" on my bustle. For the center back, I folded some width out of the middle of the pattern piece since I wouldn't be needing to gather the top edge the way you do for a skirt. Then I cut out two sets of center back pieces - one set slightly wider than the other.

I would use the wider back panel to mount my horse hair ruffles on, then I would pleat the upper edge of that panel to match the width of the narrower panel, essentially using the narrower panel as a stay to help the wider panel on top maintain a bit of extra "oomph" once all the ruffles were sewn on and the bustle was assembled.
Speaking of assembly,

I began by binding the the front and bottom edges of the side panels with linen tape to finish them. Then I sewed up the center back seams of both the top/wider "ruffle" panel and the bottom/narrower "stay" panel, and bound the bottom edges of each of those with linen tape as well.

After that I measured and marked ruffle placement on the top panel, and proceeded to hem all the horsehair ruffles.

The very top ruffle then had gathering stitches run along the top and through the middle. It would be gathered up and sewn on as a "poof" to match my inspiration images. 

I pinned on the ruffle according to the marks on my striped panel, then gathered it to fit.

Gathering horse hair canvas is no joke.

I regretted this decision almost as soon as I started.

Pleating this ruffle would have been wayyyyyyy easier than gathering.

Eventually it was done - but never again!

Once that first ruffle was all gathered and pinned on, I pleated the next ruffle.

Wayyyyyyy quicker and easier.

I did the same thing with the third ruffle.

Then I took the ruffly-puffly thing down to the sewing machine.

I sewed on the ruffles.

Then covered the upper raw edge of the two pleated ruffles with linen tape.

With that, the ruffe panel was done and the bustle was ready for final assembly.

I pinned the non-ruffled stay panel to the side/wing pieces, right sides together.

Then, right sides together again so the wing panels were sandwiched between the two back panels, I pinned the stay panel to the ruffle panel along the side seams.

 I sewed up those side seams, pinked them to keep them from unraveling, then turned the bustle right side out.

I slightly pleated the top edge of the ruffle panel to fit the top edge of the stay panel, then sewed the bustle onto the waistband I'd already made.

And with that - my Natural Form bustle was done!

It only took about 3 hours to make (One morning when I was home due to an ice storm), and the results are incredibly satisfactory!

And, it first the HSM theme "Colors of Nature", which feels fitting for something from the "Natural Form" era.

What the item is: Hair Cloth Bustle

The Challenge: Colours of Nature: Make something using undyed material, or material coloured with natural dyes. The horse hair cloth and linen tape are both undyed. The striped cotton base fabric does obviously have some dyed sections, but the shades of blue are all shades than can be achieved with indigo - a natural dye (Though as I received this fabric either second or third hand I have no idea what it was actually dyed with.)

Material: Horse hair canvas, and plain weave striped cotton

Pattern: I used some pieces from McCall's 8191 to get the base, then altered those and added ruffles.

Year: This is based on an image from 1881, but would be appropriate for about 1878 -1882 looks.

Notions: Linen tape and thread

How historically accurate is it? My hair canvas is modern, with some synthetic in it, so that's not accurate, but the striped cotton is good. My construction method is just what made sense to me without a lot of research, so I can't 100% vouch for it. The finished garment looks correct though when compared to similar pieces from the era, and it serves it's purpose well, so atleast 60% I'd say.

Hours to complete: 3

First worn: February 2024, but only for pictures and mock-up fittings so far.

Total cost: The hair cloth was about $8 a yard, and I think I used a yard and a half, so $12 there, everything else was stash, most of it obtained for free.


  1. Wow! That’s awesome. I really don’t think this is really “natural shape” 😀. At least I hope not.

  2. Is there any real difference in shape or fluffyness between the pleated and gathered ruffles?