Important Note, 11/07/10: this entry is being rewritten and is in progress.
As part of the preparations for the Jane Austen Festival, I made Polly an open robe. This one is made of a sheer fine, soft muslin hand block-printed in India. The fabric just floats and is amazingly similar to the drape and patterning on extant garments I have seen pictures of. In fact, have a gander at the image of a similar dress, in the Design section below.
The next paragraphs cover high points of its making. If the verb tenses in this diary switch around a bit, it's because I reworked some in-progress blog entries and then added a good bit of material.
Level of Authenticity
On starting the robe, I wrote:
The garment, which is lined in white linen, is assembled entirely by hand using seam techniques and stitches from Costume Close-up and Costume in Detail because the muslin is so fine that mounting it with a machine might risk risk pulling and tearing it and I cannot afford to waste a scrap. Besides, gives a far more authentic feel in the result. Plus it's easier not to get a machine out.
Further, in line with period practice, part of the garment is actually sewn upon her. Pins bother me when fitting, anyway, so most pieces have been recut and then basted directly on her. She's patient :} Here, for example, I have just lengthened a sleeve and am cutting the front edge on the fly so that it will hang elegantly down over her knuckles. How could I have done this properly if she was not wearing the toile? The completed garment can be worn with the sleeves over the knuckles or pushed back to ruche a bit up the arm. Extant sources? See Janet Arnold.
When it comes time to set the sleeves, I will sew them right in place on her in order to get the best fit. Once again, Costume Close-Up explains how this was done. What a gem of a book. Linda Baumgartner and her colleagues are terrific curators, too...their Colonial Williamsburg eMuseum site is far and away the most informative in its garment documentation of any museum site I've yet uncovered.
Photo: Cutting the front edge of a sleeve toile while Polly wears it. The sleeve original from Jennie Chancey has been lengthened -- you can see where I basted on the extension and I am cutting the shape of it. After the picture was taken I cut some more and then hemmed the edge to get a final sense of the look, and then narrowed the fit of the entire sleeve to the very tight fit for the 1790s.
[insert 1793 dress image]
Unlike Laura's robe, this robe is fitted in front and pinned shut at center front like earlier round gowns, since Polly prefers a more tailored look. The overall design is taken from extant examples in Nancy Bradfield's Costume in Detail, along with pictures of dresses from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Colonial Williamsburg, a dress from the Kent State University Age of Nudity exhibition, and this dress, shown in the image, for which I embarassingly have no documentation. It comes from a blog called Pride and Sensibility: Women's History Through the Ages, and is, I understand, from England. What I have changed from the design you see is to remove the deep point at the center front, like several dresses in the Bradfield book, and have kept the waistline just above the waist.
Once again, I used the Sense and Sensibility ELC pattern as a fitting base, but all bodice pieces were lengthened by two inches and then the back was recut to new shapes more in line with the mid 1790s, straps cut from the original front piece, and the front entirely redraped and recut to suit her, and with the addition of two bust darts.
[image of Polly]
The darts created themselves when the fronts were draped on her, and it was fun to look at Costume Close-Up and see the darts in extant examples in exactly the same places. I wish I had taken more detailed pictures and notes at this juncture, but the festival by then being two months away or less, that did not happen.
Attaching the Skirt
Each evening after the twins are in bed, it's sewing time. Am so close on Polly's open robe! At this point I have pleated and whipped the skirt on to the bodice.
The bottom of the bodice is finished by turning the lining and dress fabric raw edges inwards to each other and then sewing them with spaced backstitch. Should Polly want to trade out the style for another one or even wear the bodice as a spencer (you see this treatment in Heideloff fashion plates), she can easily, for the bodice could stand alone.
In tune with practice of the day, the skirt is made of two full-width panels of the dress fabric. Conveniently, only one side of the fabric features the banding pattern, so on the selvage sans banding, I sewed the two panels with a 3/16" or so seam in combination stitch (running stitch with a backstitch every needleful). Because the fabric is so light and translucent, I felt it necessary to sew medium-close stitches, perhaps 10 to the inch. The selvages with the banding serve as the skirt front decoration, something you see in extant robes.
The robe is quite full, perhaps a little fuller than most were, at 90". However, I did not want to cut the panels, for then they could not be reused later, and the fabric is so sheer that I worried about tearing. Best to keep it whole. This seems to be the attitude mantua makers took whenever they could.
Photo: Robe from the side. The fine muslin is very sheer and it's billowing into a circular shape in the breeze from a fan.
Again due to the very sheer, light fabric, I probably ought to have gathered the panels, but chose to pleat them instead: Polly likes a tailored effect. I examined all the open robes in Janet Arnold's book from 1780 onwards, and found that pleating practice varied, so, taking what I hope is a late eighteenth-century view of options, I concentrated the deepest pleating at center back, with a series of three double inverted box pleats to either side of a central inverted double box pleat that is centered on the center back seam. Knife pleats facing outwards then travel to approximately under the arm. Then from the front selvage back to the underarm, the pleats face backwards. Therefore we avoid the potentially awkward flow of a pleat at the front opening out towards the front in an unflattering manner.
The box pleats bothered me a bit because I am not sure they were extensively used, except in saque backs. However, I had 90" wide of fabric to gather into a 24" space, since I wanted to attain the favored cutaway look, and I couldn't do it and maintain 1/2" wide pleats without stacking some of them. With the fabric so sheer, the result is not bulky so I hope it's a plausible solution. (An edit: Renna_darling wrote me to say that Costume in Detail features such pleating treatments, and to please see pages 83-84. Thank you kindly!)
Then I whipped the skirt onto bottom of the bodice.
Jennie La Fleur calls, them, sleevils!
Whatever. We recut them and I sewed one on Polly and pleated the sleeve head to the bodice but it was clunky, and in frustration that evening I went back to Costume Close Up, to find that the Sense and Sensibility pattern's sleeve really only works for a gathered head sleeve. More fitted sleeve heads have a strange, angular shape. I checked the sleeves on my own robe, which Jenni and I had cut on the fly to fit, and sure enough, there was that angular shape, in line with originals.
Photo: the robe from the front...you can see the skirt puffing out courtesy a breeze from a fan, and the sunshine coming through at the back.
So tonight or tomorrow, it's back to fitting them to Polly. She has been so patient...
At this point I wrote...So there we are. I have two weeks left and have to finish my robe (hard), two outer petticoats (easy) for Polly and I, and an under petticoat for me (easy), and cover a hat and shoes, and do a reticule (easy), and deal with hair (hard or easy, we shall see).
My goodness. These months later, as I complete the documentation of the project, it is hard to remember just how intense those weeks were, for not only was I doing the above, but I had the family to care for, springtime outdoor work, and a job. Goodness. I am not likely research, coordinate, and make, so many garments for so many people all at once for quite awhile.