Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Embroidered Sleeveless Spencer: Finished at Last!

Pinch yourselves all you want, but it remains real: I am truly done with the sleeveless spencer. The first post, Spenceration, is dated October 26, 2011. Well, well.

So how does it look? Here are the first shots, after I completed the last stitches at Noah's table by his sunny windows. I am pretty happy with it.

The sleeveless spencer from the front. It closes inside via stays-style lacing, and pins shut on the exterior. When wearing it, I'll use plain straight pins top and bottom and hide them as much as possible in the fabric.

As you know, the spencer is made of light purple silk shantung that I dyed myself. I embroidered it in flat silk (Soie Ovale from Au Ver a Soie), all-silk chenille from Hand Dyed Fibers, real 4 mm gold plate spangles, and real 2 mm gold plate spangles. The top-stitching and point a rabattre sous la main hemming work is done in Au Ver a Soie, gold color. The ruche is tacked down in French blue flat silk, the closest I could come to the purple with the threads I have. The stitches barely show at all, as I hoped.

Inside, the spencer is lined in white linen, with lacing pieces in a heavier linen. Part of the seams are sewn in Gutermann cotton thread (because I forgot to use linen), and the rest in natural linen thread left over from a stays project.

Christopher was excited about the finish, too.

Noah and Christopher show off the back of the spencer. Yes, the ruche on the back is incrementally wider than the ruche on the front. Ruches could be shaped, and I thought this looked extra nice, besides raising the back neckline a bit. More on the reason for that anon.

The Finishing Touches

Front Closure

Following a Swedish or Danish example, which I can no longer find, the spencer actually closes by lacing together two interior panels whipped to the lining. The original was a dress; the two flaps underneath, so common in early Regency dresses, laced shut rather than pinned shut.

I cut a rectangle of heavy-ish linen, hemmed three sides, and turned a wide hem on the fourth. Then I added a row of eyelet holes. Finally I attached it to the spencer lining; it's attached on the end closest to the spencer's side seam, and on the top and bottom up to the wide hem. That should hold it flat, without pulling, and leaves a flap with the eyelets for lacing. The flap's mate is on the other front piece of the spencer.

I decided that I wanted the close fit the lacing allows; the idea is that it should take the strain off the pins used to shut the garment itself and produce a smoother line, sans many horizontal wrinkles. My Metropolitan Museum inspiration garment laces shut, too. I decided that on my spencer, the lacing would complicate the visual impact of the spencer, since there is a ruche too, as on some early Regency spencers.


You know already about the embroidery, and how it was all an experiment in using the flat, almost untwisted filament silk normally used in 18th century and early 18th century silk embroidery, as well as in couching down chenille thread, another common embroidery element.

Yet there are spangles, too. How did I add those? The same way de Saint Aubin, in L'Art du Brodeur, suggests, with two stitches run through the same hole. Sometime I will show you in a mini tutorial.

By the way, because the spangles were thought of after the garment was sewn up, when adding them I slid the needle between lining and fashion fabric rather than sewing through both fashion fabric and lining, so as to keep the inside of the garment as free as possible of embroidery thread stitches.

Ruche and Neckline Shape

You also know already about my 2012 plans for a neckline ruche, and how I felt that the bodice straps would have to be curved, hollowed out at the neckline. In the event, it turned out no hollowing was needed, and my strap pieces were so wide anyhow that I had to cut them narrow and straight anyhow, so that all curve was lost.

I was so silly during the design and fitting phase: the ruche can create the curved shaping to the neckline! Just curve the ruche as you sew it down, and glide it over the corners where the straps meet the bodice fronts and backs, and there you have it, a pleasant round curve. Straightforward. No silly fancy cutting needed. The trim creates the curve. Sigh...lesson learned. Hey, that's what this is all about. Many failures can lead to a success :}

Pinning the ruche to the spencer.
Anyhow, why is the ruche so flattish? Because so many extant garments show ruches to be scant, and laid quite smooth. To make the shantung behave and not fray, I was going to use gum arabic, which had been used in the 18th century to stop fraying. However, this proved unnecessary. Why? Because I pressed the ruche silk, and starched it stiff. That made pleating fairly easy, produced the flat box pleats, and prevented fraying on its own. Yes, the shantung takes starch just fine; I soaked the fabric with it. So we'll experiment with gum arabic some other time.

Oh, you ask, won't the starch come out if the garment gets wet? Yes, of course, but this is a luxury garment, and it's fragile all the way around, and entirely unwashable. I wouldn't wear a hand-embroidered silk garment anywhere near the weather. Should the pleating lose its freshness, I can remove it and redo it -- that would be an entirely expected 18th century move -- or carefully re-starch and re-press it in place.

Why the Ruche Is Wider in Back

I liked a wide ruche in back; it gives extra oomph, and reminds me a bit of a collar. Ruching could be graduated during the period.

Yet there's a practical reason for it. It arises out of a fitting and sewing error.

Way back when I fitted the spencer, in 2012, the neckline wasn't all that deep, and the spencer came just above the natural waist. For safety, too, I made very wide seam allowances.

When I cut out the actual pieces in January 2013, somehow the straps got longer, and I thought, wait, this is so long-waisted! So I trimmed the bottom of the spencer shorter.

Once sewn up, the back neckline was very low indeed. Sure, there is at least one example of this, at the Met.

Spencer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, circa 1800. 11-60-295F
Yet the spencer would look strange with the dress neckline projecting above it. No neckline projects below.

Detail from plate in Gallery of Fashion, Bunka Gakuen Library.
Or here, either.
Detail of bodice (as it was described in the text), April 1794,
Gallery of Fashion, Bunka Gakuen Library.

Nuts. That's what you get for spreading a project over such a long period of time! Another lesson learned, maybe. Sometimes time just gets in the way.

So the, ahem, brilliant idea occurred to me of faking a higher back neckline with a wide ruche. Thus it is that on my spencer, in the back only the lower part of the ruche is actually sewn to the garment. The top line of stitching serves only as a stay, to keep the pleats in place and to match the rest of the stitching. I worry not at all about it. My inspiration spencer is a wildly homemade thing, the spencer above is roughly constructed, garments of the period are often pieced...one did what was needed. The same applies here. I did what was needed to make the garment work, and to recover from an error.

Below you can see the fabric for the ruche, cut with a graduated thickness. Given that the ruche is scant, the fabric making it being about 1.5 times as long as the finished trim, I totally eyeballed how much of the fabric needed to be wide and how much not, and when the trim was tacked on, used the pinker to graduate the curve a bit in some places.

Ruche trim pinned in place. The pinning process is straightforward. Eyeball each box pleat to about an inch wide, press the fabric with your fingers, pin it down. Leave about 1/4" space, and do it again. The starch ensures the pleat stays fixed.

So there we are. I'll wear it to a Regency-themed picnic this Saturday, and see how it does. Next up, photoshoot!


Laura Morrigan said...

Your dyeing and embroidery are great, I actually thought on previous posts that you had purchased the material like that!

wow, what a lot of work went into it! I can't wait to see it with an outfit to see how it looks!

I love the idea of separate fancier bodice to dress up a dress, it would have been great for the girls without enough money for many dresses!

Isis said...

Oooh, lovely! I look forward to see you wearing it!

Sarah Jane said...

Oh my goodness Natalie!


It is really spectacular. I am in awe, once again, of your incredible research, your construction techniques and your insane embroidery skills. The result is a truly beautiful garment that I've never really seen equaled in the costuming world - wow. This looks like it could have come from a museum collection.

I really enjoyed your progress posts. That is one good thing about lengthy projects - it is so much easier to document the process! And for your readers, that is a wonderful thing.

I really, really like the lacing panels in the front. What a brilliant idea! I may have to try this for a dress sometime. I think it would lay more smoothly than hook and eyes.

I cannot wait to see photos of you wearing this! And how you accessorize. Beautiful work!!

Natalie Ferguson said...

Golly, thank you very much, everyone. Am so grateful you all like the spencer too. It's been such a learning process.

I definitely need lots more experience in the fitting area; I do it so infrequently that invariably there are all kinds of mistakes...in this case, thank goodness, it all turned out.

Yes, I can't wait to wear it, too, this weekend! Have to find lacing, though. Uh oh. Time to borrow some from some old stays :}

Very best,


Fiorina said...

What a beautiful piece of art. I look forward to the pictures of you wearing it!

Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Fiorina,

Thank you so much!

Very best,


Jen Thompson said...

I love the way this turned out and can't wait to see it on you - it's gorgeous!

Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Jen,

Thanks so kindly! It will get its first outing on Saturday at a picnic. Here's hoping all goes well and I don't spill something on it :P

Very best,


Kleidung um 1800 said...

Dear Natalie,

I've rubbed my eyes once...twice...when the headline on your blogpost appeared on my newsfeed! The spencer is done??? Huzzah!!! Huzzah!!!
It turned out wonderfully and I truly can't wait to see it with a white dress - the purple will be even more bright and beautiful then.
It's a piece of art (with all the research and hours to complete...and not to forget all the lessons learnt), which you should celebrate on Saturday's picnic :)


Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Sabine,

Thank you so much!! You of anyone know just how much went into that little scrap of fabric.

Guess what? Last spring I half-finished a petticoat to go with the spencer, and oh woe, when I reorganized the sewing bins last summer, it was misplaced, and I've yet to find it. So it won't be worn with its mate on Saturday. Ah well...

Very best,


Anonymous said...

Great work Natalie! Like others, I had originally thought you were using pre-embroidered material. Silly me - of course you wouldn't! :-) Were you ten when you did your first embroidery for a Native American dress? How many times did we have to crawl on hands and knees noses to the woodwork looking for your fallen seed beads(as I recently relayed to T)?

My how the boys have grown and are BOYS! Looking forward to seeing all soon. Hugs to you, C, and the six year olds!

Natalie Ferguson said...

Dear Julie,

:} Thank you! Yup, I guess all that work is in character. Jeepers, I don't remember how many times we picked through the shag carpet, the blue rug, and the floorboards looking for beads. A few hundred times, I guess...so is T going to do beadwork, too? Watch out!

Yup, my boys grew big. They're funny little guys, and they are already counting the days until they see you all and the waves.