Tuesday, November 04, 2008

1890s "Good Witch" Costume: Precis...and the Twins as Kittens!

This year, our boys and I dressed in black and white for Hallowe'en. The twins were Ladybug's kittens, and sported black and white kitty ears and little black tails, and I dressed as a good witch circa 1890s, with black antique skirt and white leg o' mutton sleeve shirtwaist, capped by the obligatory hat.

Photo: The twins and I on Hallowe'en evening. Oh dear, their ears are perfectly perky, but one of my sleeves has quite a droop.

The boys loved their ears and tails, especially the ears. When they see them in the cabinet now, they want us to pull them out so they can be worn again and again.

My camera having been on the fritz during construction of these costumes, only a precis follows.

The Twins' Kitty Ears and Tails
These were so easy to make.

For each ear, I cut a square of black fleece, folded it into a triangle, and stitched it into an ear shape. Then a triangle of white felt was stitched to the front to create the inside of the ear. Finally, I whipstitched the ear to a knit hat, in a slight curve, so as to make the ear rounded in back and hollow in front like a real cat's ear. The curve also helps the ear stand up on the hat.

Each boy's tail is nothing more than a long rectangle of fleece folded lengthwise and stitched into a tube, then turned inside out to hide the seam. To give the fluffy effect, I overcast stitched a length of maribou to both sides, wrapping it around one end so that the end of the tail would be fluffy, too.

The Good Witch Costume: Shirtwaist

The centerpiece of this costume is not so much the hat as it is the shirtwaist.

I used the Sense and Sensibility Beatrix shirtwaist pattern for the bodice, choosing the flat-front version rather than the gathered front. The bodice is straightforward to construct, offering no surprises, and the instructions are comfortingly complete. The bodice part consists merely of a front and two back pieces, and a collar.

Photo: A slightly more close-up view of the shirtwaist.

An Antique Model

All stitching and finishing I modeled on an original shirtwaist from the period in my possession. The shirtwaist is very plain, and very plainly homemade: most seams are French, but the armscye seams are left unfinished, the shirtwaist hem is just turned in once and stitched, the back is closed by only four snaps, stitched without apology right through to the outside of the blouse, the stitching in the hems neat but set more than an eighth of an inch apart. Of the two darts in front, one is set in backwards, a feat that reassures me...not every seamstress in the past was great or always fixed their mistakes!

The Sleeves

The sleeves I drafted from Hunnisett's Period Costume for Stage and Screen 1800-1930, choosing the 1894-1896 gigot sleeve (pattern A, pattern sheet 30). Sleeves during these years attained their greatest size.

The sleeve is gathered all the way around the armscye, as one might expect. Here is where I learned a lesson. I took tiny gathering stitches, as in my original antique shirtwaist model, but...but, but, I only made one row of gathers, not two. Upon stitching the sleeve to the bodice, though I tried to get close to the gathering stitches, I couldn't help but flatten out some of those pretty, tiny gathers. This doesn't happen when I run two rows of matching gathering stitches and then stitch between them. In fact, upon inspecting my original model and another original gathered garment, you can see that the original gathering stitches are left in the garments, and appear just outside the seam; they in effect hold those tiny stroked gathers in place. So my shortcut resulted in so-so, rather large, somewhat uneven gathers so common on modern garments, not the tiny, evenly spaced gathers I aimed for.

The Hunnisett sleeve design has two other interesting features.

Photo: shirtwaist front showing the curve in the sleeves.

First, after the sleeve is seamed up, the sleeve is drawn up from underarm to elbow in four small pleats placed right on the seam. This shapes the sleeve into a curve, making one want to hold one's arms slightly crooked, which I believe was considered a more elegant stance than allowing one's arms to hang down at the sides.

Second, the sleeve is set into the armscye so that the sleeve seam is a little towards the front, not parallel with the bodice side seam. This also curves the sleeve and by extension, the arm in the sleeve.

I drafted the sleeves to their original size, and it proving too hard to estimate their length, given the strange shape, I stitched them to the bodice and tried them on. The wrists proved to be too narrow, so, following my model antique shirtwaist, I opened up the sleeve seam at the wrist for two and a half inches, and hemmed the opening with a narrow 1/4" hem.

Trying on the shirtwaist again, I found the sleeves too long. Grrr. So, I simply turned up the wrists into a cuff, that turned out to look not only pretty, but to suit common styles of the era. However, the sleeve still wrinkles a bit below the elbow, meaning it's still too long.

Next time, I will cut the sleeves shorter.

Finish, and Achieving the Bouffant Sleeve Shape...with a Dip in Sugar Water!

I closed the shirtwaist with snaps, per my original. Nothing of note there.

As many 1890s ensembles featured collars contrasting in color with the rest of the bodice, as well as bows tied behind, I tied a dark ribbon around my neck, bow in back. Had time allowed, I'd have made a proper black collar bow with the usual poufy bow, sans tails.

When I tried on the shirtwaist, the sleeves drooped sadly. How to attain that fluffy-but-stiff pouf? Starch, bien sur.

However, my spray starch didn't cut the mustard, even when applied liberally.

Not being possessed of liquid starch, or possessed of time or energy for making my own with cornstarch (idea courtesy Hank Trent on Elizabeth Stewart Clark's board), I thought to employ the old trick of dipping the shirtwaist into a sugar syrup, then drying and pressing it.

So I mixed about a teacup full of sugar with three or so cups of water, heated it until the sugar dissolved, and commenced to dipping the shirtwaist.

The sugar solution was perfectly clear and acted like a slightly cold water, until I touched it and realized that it left a very thin, sticky film on my hands, and on the shirtwaist.

I dipped only the sleeves and shirt front, then wrung them out and hung the shirtwaist to dry.

Once almost dry, out came the iron and I began to press the shirtwaist.

But oh my! What I learned by trial and error! Never touch an iron to something that's been covered with sugar or it'll stick and leave a film on the iron. Out came the press cloth.

Then press, press, press, as hard as I could. I had to dampen much of the shirtwaist, for the sugar solution had left a faint mark at its edges, and that needed to be blurred away.

Nevertheless, the ironing went well, except without a pressing ham or sleeve board, it was hard to deal with the boufiness of the sleeves...they are all curves so you can't easily iron the sleeve flat, and the armscye is too narrow to allow the sleeve to be pulled over a full-size ironing board.

Once ironed, I put on the shirtwaist, had my mother snap up the back...it's impossible to do alone...and voila!

A note: I used this project as a tester, a prototype for a nicer shirtwaist down the road. It was a good learning experience. I wouldn't try a fancy leg o mutton sleeve without prototyping, since you're dealing with a very three-dimensional sculptural form that yet does not cling to the figure and relies on pleats and gathers and stiffener to achieve its shape.

The Skirt

The skirt is an original antique, made of what looks like a combination of silk and wool, woven with a gorgeous feathery pattern in relief. It is very thick and heavy.

The skirt lacked a waistband when I bought it, and the waist measured more than 50 inches.

It closed with a short placket with underlap and a single large, heavy snap midway down the placket.

If I get a chance, I'll add more photos of the skirt to this post.

Photo: the ensemble from the side back. You can see the back pleats and the tails from the ribbon around the collar.

The skirt is made of one front panel, a gored panel to each side, and two back panels, with the placket set in the center back.

The skirt is completely flatlined in polished cotton, and there is a deep hem facing in stiffer cotton as well. The bottom is finished with brush braid.

I believe the skirt to date to the late 1890s or early 1900s: it's built just like the skirts Kristina Harris describes in the Victorian Sewing Techniques book.

I folded, to the depth of about an inch and a half, the top of the skirt over onto a wide, thick grosgrain ribbon, and stitched all panels except the back ones to the ribbon from the right side.

Then I set each back panel into an inverted box pleat topped by another pleat facing to center back, and hand-stitched them to the ribbon. Setting the back into a few pleats was common in the 1890s, and to make the skirt fit me, required doubled pleats.

I should have used a hook and eye or bar as closure (can't remember which is more correct), but in a hurry, used a snap. Not a good plan. Snaps unsnap under stress.

All stitching was made such that it didn't harm the original, and could be removed easily.

The skirt was worn with a plain, masculine belt, common in plain shirtwaist and skirt ensembles.

That's it. The project took several weeks, but since my sewing stints averaged 15 minutes to 25 minutes in length (that's all I can squeeze in to busy work and family days!), really didn't consume many hours.

Wearing the Ensemble: Notes

The ensemble was suprisingly comfortable. The skirt moved easily, even if it was quite heavy, and the pleats in back and the construction inside ensured it didn't cling around my knees. However, going up and down stairs was a bit tricky because the weight really is a bit to handle, especially when you are carrying a boy and attempting to lift the skirts out of the way.

The shirtwaist's sleeve cut, what with the smallish armscye, and sleeve pulled into a downwards, front-facing curve, do make it hard to raise the arms too high, but then, so do my modern, heavily darted, "feminine fit" blouses, which also untuck annoyingly every time I lift my arms. The most interesting thing about this shirtwaist was that the pouf at the top was comfortable...it was so nice not to be constrained by a tight shoulder! On the other hand, I was rather, well, wide, and that was hard to get used to.

Though the evening was cool, I was toasty: I wore a camisole and corset cover underneath the shirtwaist, and petticoat under the skirt. It all kept the chill away. However, I wouldn't vouch for a sugar "starch" on a hot day: don't you know that the nice stiff sleeves would turn into a sticky, miserable mess! Next time, liquid starch, please.


Rebecca said...

OH, How adorable the boys looked and you looked fantastic in your ensemble...David and Rosebud had such a grand time. I'll have to post on the Tea Society Blog...

ZipZipInkspot said...

Dear Rebecca,

Thank you! We had a fun evening of it, running around outside.

Oh, do post pictures of David and Rosebud...I'd love to see her woodland fairy costume!



CrewJulie said...

I meant to write this days ago... What adorable little kitties! Great outfits all around!