Making a work dress

Making patterns

Making patterns

One of the things I find most helpful in historic sewing is having a pattern specific to me. The generic patterns are a great starting point, and can provide a lot of information, but most women do not fit directly into any one pattern. They may need an allowance here, a tuck there, a slightly different drape to the fabric in another place to make it look right on their body. So, I recommend making a specific pattern, either in muslins (pattern pieces made out of muslin material so it can be sewed and checked or tweaked before you cut your outside fabric) or a custom made pattern. Years ago I took a pattern making class and never in my dreams did I realize what a benefit this skills would be to me! I personally make my custom patterns either from pattern making paper (available online) or from ironed packing paper! Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, right? I had a friend help me adjust the pattern to my body and how everything fits with my corset, and once we had all those tweaks completed, I drafted everything on pattern paper and now have my own personal pattern. As I have made the bodice several times, I have found I have tweaked it even more, and have adjusted the pattern accordingly. Now I have a bodice that fits me exactly and looks good!

The second benefit of having these custom patterns is you always know it is going to fit! I use the same bodice pattern for my day/tea dresses, and my work dress, just changing the sleeves or small details that make it unique to each type of dress. This last month I have been making a new work dress. I have made it through two years of reenacting with only one work dress (don’t ask me how), and it was far beyond time to have a few more. So, I have now made two so far this year. I’m going to share a few tips and tricks I have figured out along the way.

One of the biggest tricks I have found is to think about the skirt and the bodice separately. They each have specific things that need to be done on them. I personally like to work on the skirt first because it is quite time consuming. The skirt on a work dress is only 2-3 panels of fabric, verses the 4-5 in a tea dress or ball gown. I prefer three panels in mine, as there is more room to work. I finish my dresses just a couple inches off the ground, and have measurements noted for both my work dress, which will just have a corded petticoat under it, or my tea/ball gowns, which will have hoops under them. For me, at almost 5’8”, I finish my work dresses at a 39” skirt, which means I cut them out at 41” in length. Three panels of 45” fabric sewn together gives me 143” of fabric that I then have to calculate how to pleat down to my 26” waist. I know, it’s no Scarlet O’Hara, but I am telling on myself! I have found after making several of these, that I like having a little wiggle room. With as much fabric as is overlapped with the pleats and folded over for finishing the skirt to the waistband, I now finish my work dresses to a 29” waist closure. That gives me just a little wiggle room over all my under-pinnings and all the layers of fabric around my waist. I have finished these last two dresses differently. On one, I used double box pleats due to the design in the fabric. They worked PERFECTLY with the softness of this dress, the weave, and print of the fabric. It was a much nicer type of dress so this worked well with it.

The second work dress I made was definitely made to be a WORK dress. The coarser fabric and checked print all said it was made to work. For this one, I made knife pleats all the way around. On my tea dresses, I will often change the directions of the knife pleats as I go around the skirt for a nice finish detail, but on the work dress, I had them all facing the same direction. Now that I know the math for getting all that fabric pleated down to my waist in each way, I make notes of it and keep it for future reference.

Another trick I have learned along the way is to sew the skirt panels together, press the seams open and then go ahead and attach the kick pleat to the bottom and hand stitch it in place before I ever work on the waist. I find this makes it MUCH easier to keep it flat and smooth, without buckles or puckers that will show on the skirt when it is done. It also makes it faster for sewing. I pin everything in place with the fabric laying flat, then I drape the fabric over my knees, keeping it taught by applying just a little outward pressure with my knees, and then hand stitching in between, rotating the fabric and resetting it after each section is stitched.

Once all that is done and I have a good crisp edge, then I start on the pleating for the waist. The other thing I have noticed by doing it this way is that I can find my measurement on the print of the fabric, and know that it is going to be the same all the way around the skirt, so I get a perfectly even hang from the waistband without extra work.

Once I pleat and pin the whole skirt, I baste the pleats in place. I learned the hard way about trying to attach the waistband without it basted. I also learned on this last dress, that it is so much easier to apply the waistband and keep anything from moving if you will pin the pleats under the location where the waistband will be attached. This keeps the pleats from moving and everything consistent while you hand stitch the waistband in place. Be sure to get enough of a bite on the fabric with each stitch while you are attaching the waistband or it either will not hold, or will not go through all the layers.

Once all that is done, and I know I have the right overlap on the dogleg and the tab of the waistband, I consider the skirt done for the time being and move to the bodice.

When working on the bodice, I go ahead and sew the back pieces together, and pleat the front panels on both the fabric and lining material. I press them – pressing the back seams open, and the front pleats toward the side seams – then I carefully pin and baste the pieces together, making sure not to baste the neckline or the front opening, as these will be adjusted and trimmed while assembling it. Once these are satisfactory, I sew the side and shoulder seams together.

1860s dresses have piping around the sleeves and the bottom of the bodice, if not in every seam on the bodice. I prefer just the armholes and the bottom, so that’s what I do. Piping is made by using strips of fabric long enough to go around both arm holes with some overlap, and long enough to do the whole bottom of the bodice with a 1” tab extra on each side. I like the strips to be between 3-4” wide so there is enough room for them to be folded over to encase the yarn (making the piping) and still have room for it to be included in the shoulder seam, or to become the finishing casing at the bottom of the bodice. You can either cut these out in line with the pattern of the fabric, or on the bias, depending on the design and the look you want.

I have done both, and liked the look I achieved with both. I attach these with a zipper presser foot on my machine so that they can be stitched very closely to the piping and it doesn’t pull away from the seam at all. At this point, it’s time to start hand stitching.

I go ahead and fold in the front, making the placket on which I will be attaching the hook-and-eye tape. Once this is done, and I know the pattern is continuing unbroken or blending across the front of the bodice, I stitch it in place with double thread in the needle (see figure A).

Then, I trim the lining away from the neck at least ¼- ½ inch and roll the neck in place, pinning as I go. Once it is done, and I know the neckline is in the right place, and lining up correctly, I hand stitch it in place as well, making sure it does not show on the outside (see figures B and C).

If my hook-and-eye tape tab needs to be under the edge of the rolled neck, I will go ahead and set it, making sure that it lines up right for the proper closure, and then pin it in place, that way I can stitch the neckline down on top of the tape. Sometimes I will attach the hook-and-eye tape first and then do the neckline depending on what is going on with the dress. Hook and eye tape is attached with even stitches done with double thread, making sure it is secure and does not shift while you are stitching.

The bottom piping is then folded up and the edge rolled under forming the bottom interfacing for the bodice. Be careful to make sure your bottom hook and eye are not covered. Usually my interfacing ends up being about 1.5” deep. I stitch it in place with the same stitches I have been using for the other parts of the bodice.

On to the sleeves. There are several types of sleeves for this time period. Bishop sleeves, coat sleeves, and Pagoda sleeves with under sleeves were the three most popular and most represented on original dresses now in museums that I have found. Depending on the dress and the purpose for the dress will depend on which type of sleeve you use. One would only use Pagoda sleeves on day dresses or tea dresses, never something as common as a work dress, and ball gowns were usually cap sleeves or with a Bertha (That’s for another post). When doing a work dress, some people like a coat sleeve, which has two seams the length of the sleeve, no cuff, and generally fits closer to the arm. Another option is the bishop sleeve. This one has a lot more fabric and a cuff, which is easily unbuttoned and rolled up, allowing for washing dishes, work, getting bloody working on the wounded such as when I portray a nurse, or just when it’s too blasted hot and you need some air movement! I personally prefer this option considering all I do at events, and the rolls I portray. I also like that there is more air room around your arm making it more comfortable in the long run. I chose Bishop sleeves on both of my new dresses for this reason.

With there being extra fabric to the sleeve, it will not fit securely in the armhole without gathering it. Based on the research I have done, a Bishop sleeve is either gathered, smocked, or pleated to fit the hole. However, while I have read it can be pleated, I have never found evidence of pleating in Bishop sleeves, so I decided to gather these. I did a quick stitch by hand through the top edge of the sleeve and gathered it, carefully spacing all the pleats so that it was evenly distributed across the cap of the sleeve. Once this is done, I stitched the sleeve close to the piping, making sure there are no gaps.

At the bottom of the sleeve, you whip stitch the opening between the sleeve body and the cuff, allowing enough of an opening to roll the cuff and sleeve up. Attach the sleeve either completely by hand, or sewing the first side on and then folding it over and stitching the second side to the inside of the sleeve. Make a buttonhole with tight stitches, slicing the inside open with a seam ripper when finished, and attach the button to the opposite side, making sure it fits your wrist.

At this point, the bodice and skirt are both done. Pin the bodice to the skirt, making sure the bottom piping is fitting securely to the top of the pleating, completely hiding the waistband. Then stitch from a couple inches into the front, around the back, and a couple stitches onto the front on the other side of the bodice, stitching between the piping and the bodice body through the waistband, securely attaching the two pieces. You don’t stitch the front to the waistband so that there is room to open the front of the bodice and the skirt to get in and out of the dress. Once this is done, attach hook and bar closures to the tab of the waistband, making sure that the dogleg closes correctly. Then I attach a hook to the bottom of each side of the bodice front and bar closures to the waistband so that the waist band doesn’t dip down but the whole dress functions as one piece.

Once all these are in place, add collars, cuffs, jewelry as desired, perhaps a pinner apron over the front to protect the dress, particularly if cooking or getting dirty, then enjoy your new dress!

-By Rachel Holland