Gowns of most of the 18th century came in two flavors: Sack back (or Francais, called a Watteau back in modern times) and English back (or a l'Anglaise, or fitted back). Both are pleated directly onto the corseted body of the wearer and then pinned and stitched into place.
As the polonaise took hold in fashion, it also started to be made in a third way: with two or four shaped, cut back pieces. This unpleated back gradually took over and by 1800, most bodices were cut this way.
I like the look of the English back, which is cut in one piece from neck to hem, pleated, and topstitched. It doesn't take as much fabric as a sack back, but it is unique to the 18th century and pretty.
I draped a mockup of the bodice but I don't have a photo of it. Suffice it to say, I relied primarily on Patterns of Fashion, with some Costume Close-Up and 18th-Century Fashion in Detail for good measure. For those of you playing along at home, I mostly used Janet Arnold's 1770-80 polonaise layout as inspiration.
As you can see from the layout at right, it's one thing theoretically to have enough fabric and another to make it work with a very demanding brocade pattern. Piecing Is Period, I kept telling myself. Those darned roses are very unforgiving - too far apart to create a general, allover pattern, they have to be placed carefully on each piece. AND I had some marks in the top right area to work around - ink marks from the hemming, and two sticky spots where, obviously, labels had been stuck. A missing rectangle by the bit labelled PATCH was one of those sticky areas.
Basically, the back was the least forgiving section, and I had to get it centered on the pattern without waste, so everything else was worked out around it. The very wide piece labelled SKIRT BACK is really the Skirt Back with the Side Backs cut in one with it. That's just how the layout worked best. I will throw a false seam in on either side to imitate period fabric widths.
The Skirt Fronts also needed to fall in an attractive, balanced way. Usually these are wider pieces, often cut in one with the Side Fronts with a slash for the pocket holes. I just carried the slash down as a seam instead.
The Bodice Front placement was extremely important, of course, and I wanted the roses to end up somewhere attractive. To my chagrin, they kept winding up right on the peak of the bust, which was rather burlesque! I finally got them lower.
The Sleeves are not perfectly matched - one rose is a little higher than the other - and they are a bit off-grain, but Too Bad. And the Side Fronts only worked if I decided to piece in one bottom corner. Piecing Is Period. Ahem.
The Straps are placed over the shoulder from front to back, and create the neckline on one side and the top of the armscye on the other. fortunately they will be covered with trim so they could come out of any straight-grain bit.
Finally, all the long, straight pieces will be used as pinked ruching around the neckline and possibly the sleeves, and some of the bitty scraps will be used as neck facings. Whew!
April 22, 2008: It Got Done, But...
So I got this gown wearable for the event...barely. I was rushing like crazy to get dressed, I was running late, I was about to head out the door, I ran through the kitchen doorway, got about four feet through, and - r-i-i-i-i-p! I froze, but my momentum had done the damage. We've been doing some remodeling around here, and a nail had caught the edge of my overskirt and torn the skirt right away from the waist all the way to the back.
I will be honest, I sat down on the kitchen floor and cried.
After examination, I realized that mostly what had given way was all my lovely handstitching, although there was also a tear into the fabric below the center back piece about three or four inches long. After a brief snivel, I carefully got myself back out of the gown, pinned the pleats back into place (fortunately I had pressed them, so they fell back together fairly easily) and topstitched on the machine. I still managed to make about two hours of the event.
But the heart was kind of out of me for awhile on this gown. I had taken photos as I assembled, but I just didn't feel like diarizing (especially with my husband's health not so good over the winter). So, I laid off for awhile.
Now it's spring, and it's time to get this diary up to date. It's also time to do the finishing touches on this gown I didn't have time for in the fall. I just need to remember what I was trying to show in some of these pictures!
Starting to Sew.
First I patched the missing bit into the skirt side front, and then I ran the skirt fronts together with their respective side fronts. I used linen thread, in a running stitch with the occasional backstitch to secure it. 18th-century gowns were sewn primarily with undyed linen thread, with some decorative elements (like trims) being sewn with matched silk thread. (Apparently good silk thread, besides being expensive, can saw right through fabric if it's strained - in other words, the fabric will give before the thread does. Not a good thing.)
I also turned under the other edge of the skirt front and hemmed it down, again with a running stitch. This shows on the right side of the fabric, but that's how it was done.
In the image at left (click for readable version), note the opening at the top of the seam for a pocket. If your fabric placement allows it, the front and side front can be cut as one piece, with a slash for the pocket opening.
Re: handsewing, I must say that this dress was something of a revelation to me. With a lightweight, easily handled silk like this, and the medium-sized running stitches that were standard for the period, it really went fairly quickly - and it was much easier to manage all the fiddly pattern matching, strange contours, and multiple fabric layers by hand than it would have been on the machine. Notice how beautifully flat my seams are - that's because I wasn't fighting the machine's overeager tension and presserfoot.
Next I turned to the bodice back. It is made a bit unwieldy by the attached skirt section, but again, sticking to handsewing helps.
Now, properly, the silk should be fitted directly to the wearer, pleated into position, and then cut to the shape of a bodice back plus skirt back. But I obviously can't drape this to my own back, so instead I draped a muslin to a mannequin with my corset on it, checked it against myself, made a few adjustments, and made a pattern from the muslin with which to cut my silk.
The only tricky part with this system is that the pleats in the silk have to absolutely replicate the pleats in the muslin, or it won't fit. It helps somewhat that you stitch the pleats down to the lining material, so the lining piece acts as a sort of guide, but the linen is rather wobbly and so I did have to check carefully against my pattern piece as I went as well.
The pleats are stitched from the outside, right through the material and the lining, with fairly widely spaced backstitches. Then you take the bodice front and, instead of putting right sides together, you fold under the seam allowance on the bodice front, lay it over the bodice back seam allowance, and once again topstitch through all layers, including the back lining.
In the second picture above, I am stitching the lining of the bodice front to the lining of the bodice back. I am bringing the front lining, with its allowance turned under, just past the stitching line where I seamed the two silk pieces together. I used a simple whipstitch here.
I can see several advantages to the 18th-century topstitching system:
I didn't find the descriptions of how many stitches per inch were used (in books such as Costume Close-Up) nearly as helpful as the wonderful, full-color mega-closeups of 18th-century gowns in Historical Fashion in Detail. I tried my best to replicate the stitch length and spacing seen there.
April 24, 2008: Sleeves & Facings
I tackled the sleeves next. In an 18th-century gown, the sleeve head is so large and comes so far over the shoulder in back that you don't just set the sleeve into an armhole. Instead, the sleeve becomes part of fitting the gown to the body.
It is easiest to make up the sleeve completely before attaching it. Once again, the seam is lapped and sewn from the outside, but not quite like the bodice (where you leave one side of the lining loose and whip it down after). Sleeves apparently were treated differently. With the sleeve, all four edges are sewn through at once - folded-under silk edge hiding raw silk edge, raw lining edge lapped over lining edge. This leaves one raw edge inside the lining.
In the image below right, the opening has a slightly strange shape. That's because the sleeve I was copying comes down just over the elbow, with a little dart at the back of the elbow (just visible at the bottom of the picture) and a raised scoop over the inner elbow. There will also be tucks taken at the inner elbow, but I didn't want to do it until it was attached and worn, to make sure they wound up in the right place. With a more common above-elbow sleeve, the shaping is much simpler.
Then the sleeve hem is sewn. In the 18th century, most lined garment edges were finished with a hybrid running/whip stitch called le point a rabattre sous la main. At least, that's how it's referred to in the French 18th-century book that describes the stitch. I'm sure the English and American seamstresses who used the stitch called it something else, but that something has been lost to time. Anyway, Koshka-the-Cat has a better visual on this stitch on her c. 1775-1780 Jacket page.
So, time to set in the sleeve. When the bodice front and back are sewn together, you have only the lower half of an armscye. The bottom half of the sleeve is set into the bottom of this armscye, and then you put the gown back on the corseted wearer and pleat the sleeve head to fit onto the wearer's shoulder. Note that here, you put right sides together and tightly backstitch through all layers of material, leaving raw edges at the underarm.
For the pleating, I just fitted it to the mannequin and then carefully slid into the gown and checked it on myself. Fortunately, I didn't have to do much adjusting. The pleats should only be visible from the back, by the way, not placed on top of the shoulder.
Now, I believe I did things backwards. I think you should next sew on the strap that runs over the top of the sleeve, thus stabilizing the pleats and connecting front and back. Then the back facing goes on. I did this in reverse order - back facing, then straps. The only real difference is whether the back facing laps over or is lapped by the straps. But it's all covered by trim in the end, anyway.
Once again, the straps and facings are primarily sewn by folding under the raw edges and topstitching through all layers. This does make it easier to make sure your pleats don't slip and the strap angle is correct where it meets the bodice front and back pieces. I did do the first seam on the gown facing right sides together, though.
I had to piece my back facing in the middle because I had so little fabric to work with. Again, it'll be hidden under trim. My facing was also as narrow as possible; on some examples, it's a couple of inches deep outside and in. Note that on the inside view, you can see the lines of backstitching holding the pleats in position.
Such a Waist
Looking through extant examples, it seemed that most silk gowns were not lined in the skirt, and I was afraid that the extra material would weigh the silk down and keep it from forming lovely polonaise poufs. So many repro gowns are made of too-heavy materials, spoiling the effect, and I did not want that.
My unlined overskirt does indeed maintain maximum pouf, looking very fresh and lovely when "polonaised." But on the other hand, if I do not tie the skirt up, the fabric is so lightweight that when I walk forward the sides fly open, exposing the wrong side of the fabric somewhat. It is so charming as a polonaise, however, that this is probably a non-issue!
The bottom edge of the bodice gets hemmed before the skirt is applied. It is the same treatment of folding in the raw edges and stitching le point a rabattre sous la main. Although the techniques used to make these gowns may be unfamiliar at the beginning, the same ones are used over and over, so that one feels quite confident by the end.
Next, the skirt is pleated up to fit the waist. These knife pleats could vary in size from several inches across to tiny 1/4" pleats that resemble cartridge pleats. On the whole, English-backed gowns seem to have had smaller pleats that sack-back gowns (the sack hides a lot of the pleats, anyway) and later gowns have smaller pleats than earlier ones, on average.
Although I like the look of the tiny pleats in themselves, I prefer the overall proportion of the gown with medium-sized pleats, so mine are 3/4", with the first pleat starting a few inches from the front edge. This helps the front edge lie flat against the petticoat.
You will note in the pictures above that there are two pins in the bodice waist. The one at the bottom of the photo marks the CF (center front). The second one marks the point at which the skirt will begin.
However you do your pleats, remember to make them A) come out evenly overall, B) come out evenly at the pocket holes (you don't want to be burying your pocket hole inside a pleat!), and C) work the pocket hole to a reasonable position - i.e. more or less centered at the side of your hip.
Also, notice that the pins are a couple of inches down from the raw edge, and even further down toward the front. That's because the top of the skirt is cut straight across (see cutting layout at the top of the page) but it has to follow the curve of the bodice. Rather than cut the skirt to the curve, the 18th-century mantua-maker simply folded the extra material down. Not only does this give a little "kick" to the pleats by supporting them underneath, but if the gown were ever taken apart and remade - a common occurrence - every little bit of extra fabric in the skirt would be welcome.
April 26, 2009: Tidying Loose Ends
These over-the-elbow sleeves are designed to have tucks taken at the inner elbow to improve the fit. Since the tucks are topstitched through all finished layers, I simply put the dress on, moved around in it a bit, and saw how much the sleeves wanted to crease up. Then I evened this amount into two symmetrical tucks at each inside elbow (with an absolute ton of pins, since these tucks have a lot of curve) and topstitched each one into place.
I also added a pleated, pinked self-fabric trim to the neckline of the dress. Very similar to the pleating on the petticoat ruffle, this is a widely-spaced box pleat. Unlike the petticoat ruffle, however, this is straight pinking-shear pinking. It's a fairly common finish on these narrow decorative strips.
The neckline ruffle is simply tacked through the middle with small running stitches.
I wore the gown a couple of times with the raw, pinked edge on the neckline ruffle, but while the pinking on the taffeta of the petticoat is holding up well, the pinking on the neckline is not so stable. This is due to the jacquard weave of the gown fabric - it's just not nearly as tightly woven as a good taffeta, so it is less stable and ravels more easily.
So although the raw edge is perfectly period-appropriate, there is another approach that is also period: edging the ruffle with braid or fly fringe. I have quite a lot of a pretty vintage braid with not fringes but little loops of "silk" - er, rayon. I admit, it's not 100% period, but the rayon is much closer to silk than most modern polyester or nylon trims. It doesn't have that hard, shiny quality.
It's a little hard to see in the photos, but there is a narrow central braid of dark yellow thread with a fine gold thread running through it, and then pale pink and pale blue floss forms loops on either side. It picks up the colors of the dress very well. I added it to the cuffs, also (and you can see my engageantes in place - more on those on the Accessories page). Sorry, no stays on the mannequin; they don't fit it very well.
A tip for keeping your braid or fringe from weighing down the feel of the dress: I stitched it only to the ruffle, not to the underlying dress. This allows the ruffle to stand out from the dress just a little, and also allows the braid to be tacked as lightly as possible.
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