Venturing into the 18th Century

18th Century Basics

I know I haven’t been posting often lately but I feel I have a good excuse. Costumes. All the costumes.

I’ve been dabbling in costuming work for the past year or so. If you haven’t been following along you can check out my previous Regency undies and dress and my recent cosplay.

I’m working on garments from several eras right now but today I’m showing off my new 18th century undies. I’m going for a target date of around the 1770s.

18th Century Basics

So far I’ve made a shift (The undermost garment you would wear to keep your sweat from soaking into your stays and nice dresses which can’t be easily washed, always white, most often made of linen), stays (The older name for a corset. This isn’t the curvy style corset from Victorian times. This shape is straight in front and curved in back, entirely boned so it’s pretty stiff), and a cap (Married women would have always covered their hair with either a cap or a hat or both. Although at night and on fancy occasions they could get away with smaller head coverings. Usually made of linen, sometimes with lace or ribbon or decoration.).

18th Century Basics

The Shift: Self drafted mostly using the info from this great site. I used a handkerchief weight linen from a store that is no longer in business so when I realized I didn’t have enough to make the shift the “correct” way I had to do some improvising on the sides seams. This shift also probably isn’t as wide as it ought to be.

18th Century Basics

The sleeves are gathered into little cuffs. For the neckline I put the shift on with just a slit for my head then put on the stays and used that as a guide to cut the neck hole. Then I machine stay stitched the new cut neckline so it wouldn’t stretch out and made a tiny pick-stitched hem by hand.

The Stays: I used the JP Ryan strapless stays pattern rather than their pattern with straps because they’re more comfortable. My Regency era stays have straps and I find them annoying and restrictive.

The pattern description says this design makes more of a cylindrical shape than the popular cone shape and I think that’s true. I was annoyed when I realized the stays made by waist bigger and my bust smaller. Not what I needed but whatever. They still look good.

18th Century Basics

I like that I can put the stays on and tighten the laces myself but it takes a few minutes.

They are fully boned with straight steels in the back to support the eyelets, spiral steel in specific places, and the rest is boned with reed. Reed is a flexible wood cut in strips. It’s an historically accurate alternative to the most popular support at the time: baleen (whale bone). Sure, I want to be accurate but I ain’t about to go killing a whale for it!

18th Century Basics

Since this was my first pair I used leftover strong cotton for the body and some linen for the binding. The bone channels were all stitched by machine but I had to do the binding by hand – it’s so curvy!

All the eyelets in back were done by hand as well and I think I’ve finally found a good method of making them so they don’t look uneven and wonky.

18th Century Basics

The Cap: No pattern. I just winged it by measuring my head for the band, tracing a big plate for the crown and adding lace and ribbon.

I pieced together the cap from scraps from my shift fabric.

It’s supposed to be a dormeuse cap, or a “French night cap,” popular in the 1770s. I liked this style because it’s more frilly than other plain caps.

18th Century Basics

But why wear a cap at all? Well, see, I don’t have long hair. And I have bangs. This doesn’t make for a great 18th century hair style so a cap (or a hat, which I might make later) hides my lack of hair.

For these photos I tried to fake the high up-dos of the era by piling my hair onto the top of my head over one of those hair rat donut things with a ton of pins and hairspray. It’s so tall that I don’t have any hair left to fill out the cap so the cap just floats on my head. I’ll need to work on my hairstyles next time…

18th Century Basics

But I did try to do the “look” by powdering my hair (which you really can’t see in these pics, I think it all got absorbed into the hairspray, oh well) and face. I also darkened my eyebrows and put on some pink blush and lip color. Fancy 18th century ladies liked their make up.

Next I’m working on petticoats and an outer skirt, maybe even a bum pad. I’m currently sewing up a jacket as well. Going for a dressy day look, I think.

Historical Sewing: Regency Dress

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A few weeks ago I showed you some of the undergarments that support this Regency Era outfit. Here’s the finished dress (actually I’m wearing a petticoat under this, too, but didn’t bother to take pics). This is in fact not my first completed Regency dress but I wasn’t too excited about that one so decided to make another dress.

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I started with a blue stripe cotton from Hancock Fabrics and Butterick 6074, blending bits from both versions A and B, but this dress you see now hardly resembles the original pattern at all so I don’t think it fair to call this a pattern review.

I made so many changes and adjusted bits here and there throughout the sewing process.

My biggest problem was the method of closure. Often regency dresses had drawstrings in back to gather up the neckline and waistline. This pattern used drawstrings but it just wasn’t working. The neckline pulled at weird angles, the drawstring binding crumpled up into a big pokey mess and it was difficult to put the dress on by myself. When I did manage to tie the strings together it would gape at the back waist no matter what.

So I ditched the drawstrings in favor of three hook and eyes but this caused a new problem. The string created the front gathers at the neck but without it I’d have to make a permanent way to keep the gathers together. I didn’t want to add a lining to the bodice so instead I made self fabric piping and attached it to the gathered front. Problem solved.

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Originally the dress was much higher in front but as you know from my last post that just won’t do so I cut the neckline down lower and lower and lower again.

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(the original neckline and big sleeves)

The short sleeves were also especially poufy, something I wasn’t comfortable with so I did a kind of hack job to them and now they have no pouf whatsoever.

And the entire dress was WAY too big around. I cut about 4in off the back of the dress and it’s still probably a little too big.

It was incredibly frustrating to face one problem after another and still not be any closer to a finished, working dress. And every cut, trim, alteration decision was plagued by doubt from Dixie Victorian, my historical sewing alter ego who demanded accuracy perfection and who seemed determined to make me fail.

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(Mid construction fit – with bonus commentary from Dixie Victorian: 
Shouldn’t the waistline be higher in the back? Are buttons better than of hook and eyes? 
Those sleeves are too short. How wide to cut the neckline?)
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Over time the revisions took their toll and in my darkest hour I started thinking “why bother? It’s never going to end. After I finish this dress I still need to make a hat, jackets, tuckers. I’ll need shoes and stockings and garters and a shawl. Besides, I’m never going to be able to wear this outfit out anyway. There’s no costuming group in Austin. There’s no appropriate photoshoot backdrops. There’s not a single building built before 1850 that’s still standing in this whole city. Texas wasn’t even settled by English speaking people until the 1830s, well before the regency era!”

Dixie Victorian had won.

Then later, while wallowing in sorrow over my sewing machine, I remembered The Oregon Regency Society, a very active group of enthusiastic men and women celebrating all things regency in a state of the union in which the population of white people residing there during the regency era was exactly none. Sure, Lewis and Clark trekked the area in 1804 but for some reason I don’t think Sacagawea was traversing the continental divide in a velvet pelisse and a feather trimmed silk bonnet.

That revelation at least suppressed the idea that my historical costume accuracy had to extend to geographical location. If those Oregon folks could enjoy teas and croquet and playing the pianoforte in the great Northwest then I could wear my dresses here in Texas just as well.

…That’s when Dixie Victorian reminded me that English and Russian ships did roam up and down the Pacific coast trading for furs with natives during the early 19th century.

To which I replied very politely that she should go die of typhus.

But I pressed on! I finished the dress and although there are mistakes and questionable decisions made while sewing I was relieved to be done with it. Dixie Victorian be damned because at this point the amount of f***s I give is proportionate to the population of regency era white people living in Oregon.

And if Dixie Victorian or anyone else wants to complain about it, well, I would kindly directly you to speak with Mr. Pemberly here:

(You know what’s sad? I felt the need to search out a men’s fashion plate from the same time period as my “Dixie Victorian” lady because even historical accuracy in stupid jokes is a necessity.)

But just for kicks let’s list all the accuracy discrepancies once and for all so I can be done with it:

  • Since the original sleeves were so gigantic I cut them down from the same pattern piece (I didn’t have big enough scraps to cut new sleeves) but the sleeve cap is very tall and the sleeves are pretty tight. Sleeves of this era would have had a very low cap and set into the dress at almost a 90 degree angle. Mine on the other hand keep me from lifting my arms.
  • The sleeves also aren’t gathered which means the dress would probably be from earlier in the period (like pre-1805) but in that case it means that the back bodice is too wide. Earlier dresses had narrow backs with the sleeve caps extending back over the shoulder blades.
  • My sleeves also conflict with my skirt – pre-1805ish you’d have gathers all around the skirt, only later did they start moving the fullness to the back to have a flat front skirt.
  • I’ve only seen piped necklines on a couple extant dresses and only ball gowns, not day dresses. It probably wasn’t very popular and I’m probably doing it wrong.
  • I’ve read conflicting reports on when hook and eyes were used. I know button back dresses were middle to late Regency but I didn’t want to mess with hand bound buttonholes anyway.
  • Oh, and with such a low cut front my neckline should also be wider, my shoulder strap area is probably too thick but if I made it any thinner you’d see all my undergarments.

Basically my dress is a hodge podge of eras which no one will notice except Dixie Victorian. And I’m fine with that. Mostly… My next dress will be much better and it’s all about learning, right?

This dress marks my second attempt at using a costume pattern from a Big 4 company and both had similar problems (like having waaaaaayyy too much ease). I’ve learned my lesson and will now only use patterns from indie companies devoted to historical garments.

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On the positive side I’ve improved my sewing skills quite a bit. My hand sewing is neater, more even, and I can sew more quickly by hand as well. That’s carried over into my modern sewing, too. I hand blind hem almost everything and I’m more diligent about pressing and finishing seams. I even spend more time on little details like interfacing zippers.

It seams my little experiment is proving beneficial – which is good because I have a bunch of plans for more historical sewing. I just got a kit to make a cute little regency bonnet! Who knew I’d ever be so excited about making a bonnet!??

Regency-era Underthings: More Adventures in Historical Sewing

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Here’s a sneak peak at my new Regency era outfit (with a poor attempt at a turban to cover up my lack of long hair).
If you remember I’ve been slowly working on historical costume sewing. I’ve made progress but until now no finished product has been blogged.
For those unfamiliar, the Regency time period in terms of fashion spanned about mid 1790-1820s. Think Napoleonic era or Jane Austen movies. Columnar skirts, very high waistlines, lots of white fabric, bonnets, “classically” inspired, ability to swoon over Mr. Darcy.
(novelist Jane Austen, 1775-1817)

(The cast of the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, aka, the best Pride and Prejudice evah!)

Of course if I’m sewing historical costumes this means that Dixie Victorian, my historical-sewing-accuracy-nazi alter ego, must reappear. *dun dun duuuunnnn*
She usually pops up while I’m making key decisions regarding garment design or construction…
Dixie Victorian: Wait, you’re not going to sew that corset by machine are you? You know they wouldn’t have had sewing machines for at least another FIFTY YEARS???
Dixie DIY: Yeah, but I don’t have time to sew a bazillion yards of cording all by hand. It’s just underwear, no one’s ever going to see it.
Dixie VictorianYou will see it. You will know. And you will hate yourself for it.
A little bit later:

Dixie Victorian: Is that plastic boning you’re using for those stays? You know they make synthetic whalebone nowadays and you can buy reed on the internet.

Dixie DIY: Yeah, but I don’t want to wait a week for that stuff to be shipped. I want to finish it now and I already have this plastic stuff.

Dixie Victorian: So you are both lazy and impatient. You disgust me.

Jeez, woman! Calm down…
Besides, there’s one thing so much more important than accuracy to worry about when sewing Regency garments: bewbs.
Allow me to explain: as a small busted, pear shaped lady attempting to dress in the soft, feminine, almost childlike fashions (actually, in the late 18th century this style was what little girls wore, and then their moms stole it from them) with that high empire waistline I run the risk of looking at best pregnant and at worst like a 12 year old girl. No, scratch that. At worst I look like a pregnant 12 year old girl. And no one wants that.
The solution? Up the bewbs! I once read that the idea was to put the chest “on a platter” as it were. For me that’s a very small platter but I am determined to look like I at least have something, uh, to be served.
And how do we go about getting that… effect? Why, with the sexy sexy Regency underwear, of course!
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…Uh, or not… Yeah, that’s not in any way sexy but it does the job, right? Yes? Maybe? I hope?
Let’s begin with the shift – the undermost layer that just looks like a big long woven t-shirt with a drawstring at the neck.
I used the Sense and Sensibility Regency Underthings Shift pattern with a pima cotton batiste from The Common Thread. I made a size M and machine sewed most of it. I machine flat felled all the seams (great instructions on how to do that with the sleeve gussets) and finished all hems by hand. There’s a little ribbon that runs through the neck binding to adjust the shape.

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Now for the “stays” – what they called a corset before corsets were a thing.
Normally when you imagine a corset you’re thinking of the victorian style – cinched in waist that makes an hour glass shape. Laces in the back. Busk with hook and eyes opens at the front. Steel boning.
Regency corsets were much different. No steel (not invented yet). No opening bust (also not invented yet). Straps (which are just as annoying as bra straps that slip off your shoulders, even in 200 years no one’s fixed that problem). And this style wasn’t designed to make your waist smaller – it’s all about THE LIFT! Which is the goal, right?
The stays I’m wearing in the previous photo were not my first attempt. I started with the “short stays” from Sense and Sensibility patterns. They’re kind of like a lace up bra only even more uncomfortable.
For Short Stays Version 1 I cut (I think) a size 12 with b-cup bust inserts. Disaster. The girls kept sliding down into the depths of the stays never to be seen again. And digging your fists into your shirt to fish them out isn’t very lady-like. Massively failing at the prime directive of Regency styling.
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(Short Stays version 1, the case of the missing bust. I cut off the binding and took out the bones for version 2)
So I went for a different approach. Version 2 I cut two sizes smaller (to my under bust measurement) and cut d-cup inserts. More like modern bra sizing in which the band size is based on under bust. Better, but the cups were probably a bit too big (they lacing pulls too tight at the top).
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(Short Stays version 2, with dreaded under-bust poof)
There were more issues. The bottom of the stays dug into my sternum and the short-ness did nothing to curb the bulge of fabric at my waist created by my shift. Even with the over dresses that pouf of fabric didn’t go away, only adding to the pregnancy vibe.
Defeated, I decided to try the more traditional “long stays.”

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(no poof, yay!)

These are from Laughing Moon patterns and consist of straps that tie on in front, drawstring gathers over the bust for “containment,” hip gussets, lacing in back, cording for support and wooden busk in front.

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My busk is actually a paint stir stick. It’s there to support your front (no slouching, ladies!) and to “lift and separate.” Seriously, they used to call this style a “divorce corset.” Because in the year 1800 you couldn’t divorce your man you could at least divorce your bust (can I get my right one to pay my left one alimony??). Now, I need my bewbs to stick together but at this point I’ll take what I can get.
***Funny story – this corset uses cotton cording (the kind used inside piping) which produces a surprisingly firm result. Unfortunately it requires MILES of it.
I bought enough cording for the corset but then used some for piping on another project so I needed more. Then I used more of it, didn’t have enough. Back to the store again.
In the span of a few weeks I had gone to Joann Fabrics so often for this stupid cording that the lady at the check out counter literally said to me, “More string? I hope your not tying up your sister or something with all this.”
*deep breath*
The corset has twill on the outside and muslin inside with cording sandwiched in between. Machine sewn because sanity. There are more skilled and patient costumers than I who hand sew these things. There should be a shrine dedicated to them.
If you’re wondering where Dixie Victorian is at this point, well, I think I scared her off because screw accuracy at this point. I just wanted to stop crying after sewing so much endless cord…

 

Oh, and then there’s the two dozen eyelets sewn BY HAND. By now I’ve probably sewn near sixty eyelet on this and various other unblogged historical projects. Tiny blanket stitched holes haunt me in my dreams…
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(I could have tightened the stays more, they’re kind of loose, but I was alone and didn’t have anyone to help me)

In the end the stays do their job well enough and I’m proud of myself for sticking with it. AND no waist pouf! And no wandering bewbs! Success!
Well that’s enough for one post. Next time I’ll talk about the dress…