Wednesday, November 09, 2011


I know from following the blogs of online acquaintances that many of us have at one time or another fallen, plump, in pit-deep infatuation with a particular dress, and have decided, come what may, to create their own version of it. Demode's Maja dress, Diary of a Mantua Maker's 1790s plum embroidered evening gown, and The Aristocat's block print polonaise ensemble -- with handmade shoes -- come to mind.

It happened to me not so long ago. Here she is; meet my dream dress from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 1995.5.5.

She dates from the late 1790s, is made of cotton, and is lightly embellished. I think she is not well mounted on the model, because, looking at the detailed shots, I believe the loose pieces falling to each site were meant to cross over on the front and hide the front lining and especially the rather rough waistband. Yes, the lining is embroidered, but the fabric being so light, it would have shown through the upper layer in an attractive manner. In back, she appears to have a falling collar.

Unlike the V&A, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has not published much about her other than the above and some excellent pictures. You can zoom in decently on the dress to see details, although the original resolution is not terribly high.

So, what makes her so desirable, a real dream? Her combination of simplicity and the elegance of the feathery, limited-palette embellishment. Let's have a closer look at the latter.

Above, a photo from the back of the dress. Two of the back seams are embellished with close backstitching in yellow and cream silk, which I find effective, if not entirely in keeping with the rest of the embellishment design.

The whorl pattern made of spangles and silk embroidery is actually a stylized floral design, with a flower or leaf at the top left and a leaf at the bottom. It is executed with flat, untwisted silk, probably reeled and not spun, given its brilliance. By reeled I mean that these are long silk filaments reeled up from the unwound silkworm's cocoon, several lengths being twisted together to form the thread. They are not short bits of silk spun together to make a thread.

Because so many of the satin stitches are so long, and perhaps due to storage problems, in places the embroidery has really begun to degrade. See below.

Here's a detail of the embroidery pattern at the dress hem. The stems get their density from the spangles being overlapped. I think there is gold detailing around the spangles dotting the arrow-headed leaves.

Gorgeous, isn't it?

So, can I do this, from a technical standpoint? Mmmm. The dress itself is not so different from the wrap-front dress I made last year. I've done spangling and that is more fiddly than difficult. Nor is the backstitching embellishment an issue. It's the flat satin stitch that will give even accomplished embroiderers pause. It's slow to do, because one needs to lay each thread with the laying tool. Thankfully, the design is so stylized that one need only plan the direction of the stitches once for each type of motif: this is not a wandering, naturalistic design in which stitches would have to follow individually designed flowers or leaves at any of 360 degrees 'round the compass. Still, that is many, many months of embroidery...

What Would I Change, if Anything?

This needs research, but I have several ideas.
  1. Replace the cream satin stitch embroidery with ribbon embroidery. There is documentation for ribbon embroidery on Regency-era evening dresses. I just have to see if this was done in the 1790s. I am thinking not so likely...
  2. Replace the satin stitch embroidery with silk chenille, couched down. Now, there's an obvious choice. Chenille embroidery was popular, in part, no doubt, because it was fast and flexible. The issue is that the effect will be far less shimmery. You cannot see the shimmer too well in these photos, but I assure you, it is there. That's one reason embroiderers used the more expensive, harder-to-work flat silk. It is just lovely to look at. So, I would end up with a slightly less elegant, high style effect. It's something to ponder.
  3. Make the dress slightly less poofy, especially in front. This dress exhibits the extreme end of pouf of the fashion plates. If the Met has dated it correctly to the late 1790s, it would be no later than 1797 if worn in highest style circles, because poofiness, especially in front, was being slenderized. Now, 1796 was a poofy year, and there were all kinds of jokes abroad about the look of pregnancy that a portion of the bon ton sported. Certainly the front of this dress is just right for someone in maternity clothes :} Since I am no longer entirely a spring chicken, erm, well, it would be a case of mutton dressed as lamb. So some slimming is in order.
Will I Take the Plunge?

Again, mmmmnnn. It's a dream dress for now.


Gail said...

That dress deserves the "dream dress" section for real. I say make it. The embroidery can be done or you can find cloth similar to it. The only thing that frightens me about this dress is the bodice, it looks a bit too low. Nevertheless I think you can pull it off and I will be looking forward to seeing a project in the future.

MrsC said...

Gosh I am also a bit frock crushing over this one. Love the embroidery, I too fall for it every time, especially this stylised, graceful style. I'm beginning to know how you roll enough to suggest that some machining combined with hand work could make it go faster *grin* but I only suggest it because I notice that among the gorgeous gowns made by the clever costumiers out there, they tend to be light on the embellishments because we don't have armies of poorly paid embroiderers and lacemakers at our beck and call! So I am all for a bit of compromise to get a result that expresses the opulence of the originals with the least amount of corner cutting. Having said that I can't imagine how machining could help anyway! Now because of the value of the thread and to get the best effect, do you think the satin stitch is worked only across the surface, or is it 'wrap around'? I don't know the technical terms but I have seen it worked across the surface, catching the stitches to a stithed outline, and doing this one can even put a little silk floss under it like trapunto. Yum. :)

ZipZip said...

Dear Gail,

- Yes, the neckline is *very* low, as was the outre fashion. I'd raise it a little for sure!

- Good point on the embroidery: sometimes satin shapes were appliqued on top of other fabrics to get the glimmer effect. Another option...whee!!

Dear Mrs. C,

As flat as this embroidery is, machine embroidery really could work here!

Yet, I think that by the time I'd found a local embroidery company (I do not have an embroidery machine) to do it, produced a design for them, convinced them to use silk, and had the work done, I'd end up with quite an expense. Enough to dissuade me, anyhow.

As for the style of satin stitch, this dress is so beautifully and professionally embroidered that I suspect that regular satin stitch may have been used, but there are no interior pictures to know for sure.

The satin stitch in this example doesn't seem to be lies too flat. It would have looked yummy with a little relief added, I agree!

Now, will I try the puppy? Still unsure, but it sure is something to dream on, and somehow, some way, I will "get me a dress" like this, sometime.

Very best,


MrsC said...

Aha, now there's an interesting crossing of assumptions. I LOVE the work DOAMM did on the purple and gold gown, but I don't have any fancy machinery either, just the ability to drop my dog feed (yo!) and use an embroidery foot, and I do things free hand, sometimes in a hoop. No programming! Possibly some chalking or soaping of the lines to follow is all. I was thinking that machining in the outlines would give stability and substance to subsequent handwork. Like most machines (I use a Bernina 1230 that is 20 years old) I have a maximum satin stitch width of 4mm, so no good there anyway. The only possible technique in my embellishment lexicon I can think of that would sub for hand embroidery is needle turn applique using a silk charmeuse, and that would be just as much work and very likely so inaccurate for the era as to lose its appeal anyway. I'm sure it was used as applique is an ancient technique but I've never seen an extant robe using it.
Oh now listen to me living vicariously here. Sewing vicariously? It's high time I made me a dress and lavished all this enthusiasm on it! But not until our winter at the very earliest, when fiddly embellishment work suits long evenings and a slower pace of life. :) Merry Christmas Natalie to you and yours!

ZipZip said...

Dear Mrs. C.,

I was just thinking of the Mantua Maker's dress :}

She put a ton of work into it, despite it being machine done.

I've never been good at freehand machine embroidery, but have never spent that much time on it, either, so perhaps that could change. I have a Bernina of about the same age, with similar limitations. I suppose I could have a go, but again, there is the pucker issue, even with a hoop.

My increasing suspicion, based on the high gloss of the original, that the embroidery may be executed with silk ovale, or flat silk. One needs a laying tool to use it but the shine is incomparable.

Yes, they DID do applique -- you see it on gowns and waistcoats, so it's perfectly fine. Plus still not quite so fiddly as satin stitch in ovale silk.

So have I nudged your fancy for a winter project?

Hugs and Merry Christmas to you and yours too,


Gail said...

@ZipZip: Oh wow. I was imagining myself in it and I would not be fit for a ball. I have seen fashion plates & paintings of these dresses, the women's bosoms are simply "escaping" for the neckline but I never seen a dress in reality. Lol.

ZipZip said...

Dear Gail,

Yes, it is low cut :} I'd definitely raise the neckline!

Very best,