Friday, June 18, 2021

A Steam Train Trip Up a Mountain and from Early Summer Back Into Springtime: Cass Scenic Railroad

Two weeks ago it was early summer but chilly in West Virginia as we wended -- there is no better term -- our slow way east deep into the mountains to an early 20th century logging town called Cass. 

This is what we were heading for: a nice, long ride on the Cass Scenic Railroad

First, Just Getting There

The Appalachians start less than hour east of our home in Lexington, and only a few hours of the trip were on the interstate. The rest? It was very late afternoon when our family left the highway for narrow two-lane roads, often lacking a shoulder on the side in case we had needed to pull off, winding in tight curves and steep grades up and down the sides of heavily forested hills and then mountains, passing through gaps and passes, snaking along ridgetops or threading along creeks in valleys so narrow that they're mostly shaded year-round. Kentucky has plenty of land rather like this, but in West Virginia I swannee the hills are even tighter, and ever as we drove they became taller and steeper, and less and less peopled. 

Evening drew on when the deer come out of cover to find water and graze, and so I slowed to a usual 35 miles and hour, passing a few deer within feet of the road and many more in meadows and glades in easy view. We met only a car or two, and by nightfall there were few lights in the few houses we passed, usually clustered in villages, but sometimes in ones or twos in the forest or in small farms in the few places where the hills weren't too steep for agriculture. 

I'm originally from a town of roads that cling to high hillsides, too, where multiple rather terrifying clifflines drop hundreds of feet to the valley floor a quarter mile from my then home, but there at least when you get to the top it flattens out, or ditto the valley, so that your mind can rest. This was a whole other level of driving.

Then it was pitch black. By this point we were on a long, very narrow road leading into Cass, entirely forested, the trees meeting overhead and their boles just off the roadway, making a such number of switchbacks and steep winding ascents and descents. I know to use the engine rather than the brakes to slow the car, but even so we began to smell hot brakes and I stopped and downshifted into the lowest gear. By this point I was so tired that I had to ask my husband how to do it: the brain was completely fried. It began to feel like I'd been leaning forward towards the windshield, peering around blind curves for days. A fox rocketed across in front of us.

And then we left the forest suddenly into a narrow river valley, the road lined by matching white plank houses, circa 1900, and a few commercial buildings, including a long and tall white wooden building containing what was once a very large general store. And a depot. Cass. Golly, the whole body was trembling as I left the car to meet my dad and stepmother and sister and her family, in front of one of the old worker houses now made into plain but comfortable lodging. Good to be there at last.

The Steam Train Trip: Upwards and Back Into Springtime

Next day showed gray and drippy, but still good for a ride in open-sided train cars pulled by a steam engine, box lunch in hand.

The little village is rather pretty in its plain way, mostly courtesy the mature trees that shade the houses now, and the soft mountain grass, the wildflowers, and the shallow little river in its stony way, and the deep quiet, except when the engines at the depot squeal or puff.

A lot different than the raw landscape in 1900, when the village was new, peopled mostly by Italian workers there to cut red spruce trees, and from the pictures, much of everything else, too. Once the wood was gone, they mostly left, and the place sank into quiet again, and the forest has regrown, thick with the amazing variety of species that the Appalachians and all shades of green, misted with a reddish tone where the red spruce are.

Here, mostly in pictures and video, the way up.

As we were leaving the rail yard, we passed cars and engines, specifically engines loaded with coal and fired up -- it takes a day to get them to the proper pressure. They're ready to rescue any engine that might have a problem on the track.

Here's a video (

Riders, including my family, looking serious for some reason. The rain? The coming chill? Still, it was a nice group.

Puffing out of the valley, most of the riders at the open arches, looking out. A scent of coal smoke every once in a while. I am not a fan of coal, as a rule, but for a ride on an antique steam train...

Beginning the mountain's ascent. We would end up high on top, up in the clouds we were looking at.

A red spruce pokes up from the forest cover.

Looking out across the mountain ridges; we're perhaps a quarter or a third of the way up, and still in maples, a few oaks, wild cherries, and on and on.

The air was so thick with moisture that "Blue Ridge Mountains" makes sense, doesn't it?

Every so often the train would stop to replenish water from a spring. At this point, the engineer had too much pressure in the engine so was letting off steam, as well. They run the train frequently but do not know the engines as intimately as the engineers who first used them did, and so this happens occasionally; apparently it happened less often when the engines were in constant use pulling logs.

Here's what it looks like in video (

As we ascended, the types of trees became to shift with the elevation, birches appearing, and increasing numbers of spruces, especially young ones. The leaves on the trees decreased in size, as if we were traveling backwards from early summer into springtime again. I drank in those views: the forest is lovely.

Replenishing water on the way up. Looks like the water is gathered into a tank from a spring, and fed into the side of the engine.

5,000 Feet In the Air, Looking Out, and Well Chilled In the Breeze

From the top of the mountain we looked down into what's rather a bowl, a large valley -- a surprise -- with mountains all around. It was beautiful. The Appalachians are not the Rockies, or the Alps, or the Andes. Not that kind of spectacular beauty. Much, much older, and rounded down with eons of water and flora and fauna plashing upon, growing upon, gnawing upon their rock. They are, for the most part, friendly mountains, deeply green, a temperate rainforest. I adore them.

Noah and Curte out on the overlook.

There was something odd down there, though you cannot see it in the photos. It looked like a white road making a sudden angle from that altitude, but I knew I was looking not at a road, but at part of one of the Green Bank Observatory telescopes There since the 1950s a series of enormous radio telescopes have been discovering the black hole at the center of our galaxy, pulsars, the composition of parts of the Milky Way, and much more.

It's quiet in that valley. No bluetooth, no TV or radio over the airwaves. Microwaves and light fixtures and such on observatory property are shielded so as not to contaminate what the telescopes receive.

We would visit Green Bank the next day, and thoroughly enjoyed the peace, and watching telescopes as they turned with a minimum of motor noise, shifting for whatever it was they were watching. Much of the telescope time is shared: teams of scientists from all over get time on it. How neat is that?

My it was chilly up there, and waves of mist and curtains of rain blew through. The trees weren't short, but they weren't nearly as tall as in the valley, and it was quite clear that springtime still had a hold -- summer hadn't reached the mountaintop yet.

We had a bit to inspect the engine. The engineer and crewmen did too. The engine's gears got a thorough greasing

Do you see two of what looks like a very wide gear, up against two wheels but back behind the horizontal shafts at the outside of the engine? Well, the shaft is driven by the steam pressure, and it turns those gears, which then turns the wheels. That's a Shay engine.

Here is where the steam is compressed and drives the horizontal shafts.

The air cleared a bit, but it was still chilly. Time to head down the mountain.

Back Down, Watching the Gears Drive the Shay Engine

Down through spruce, yound and old, through birches. All of us wrapped up from the damp and wind and cold.

Ridge after ridge...far beyond our vision.

Think about a train, loaded with heavy lumber, inching down a steep grade. They needed Shay engines, driven directly by big gears, to do the work: a regular steam train wouldn't do well.

Here's a video of it (

Replenishing water again, this time from a tower. 

Here is a video of it (

I noted that the railroad employees, one per car, often leaned out and looked at the brakes on each car, to make sure that all was well. Even a scenic ride is a bit of an adventure on such steep grades.

As we came back into Cass, the engineer blew the achingly haunting steam whistle into the valley air. I never tire of the sound. Here it is in video (not mine this time, but a better recording). Believe it's the same engine; it has a particularly resonant voice. There are lots of videos of Cass trains, and different engines have different whistle voices. Wonderful, isn't it?

So that was our ride. I grew up loving steam steam trains because my dad is a big train buff -- so is my husband -- but hadn't ridden one in many years. This trip was a welcome reminder of how nifty they are.

Working Eastward Again, the Mountains Are Easier

Leaving Cass and heading east again, to the observatory and then Floyd, Virginia, was a far easier trip than winding our way across the mountains from Kentucky. The mountains run more north to south rather than gidget all over the place, and though the ridges are higher, the valleys widen and become soft and full of farms and woodlots, and there are more towns and eventually the city of Roanoke. It's beautiful country, too, in a softer way. Alas, I have no pictures, as again, I was driving.

If you ever get the opportunity, the railroad is a neat one to visit...I hope you will!

Sunday, May 23, 2021

An 1895 Godet Petticoat With Boning and Stiffened Frills: Trials With Forms of Boning, Cables, Reed, Rope, and Steel

You still with me on this petticoat journey? It's an extraordinarily long one, isn't it? The goal of figuring out how to make a godet petticoat with the proper flare is no longer me trying to make a costume, it's trying to figure out how original methods might have actually worked. After all, we have read about them, seen them in photos and film; let's see one in action.

(By the way, if some of the pictures aren't set to the middle of the page and the text looks wonky, I cannot seem to fix the HTML; the code view won't allow most of my edits and the "Compose View" tools don't always work as they should. It's annoying.)

Last post I added a buckram-stiffened tall hem facing to the seamed-up silk petticoat, creating a perhaps unnecessary understructure to hold the boning/whatever and haircloth frills that are supposed to create the silhouette we're after. It's not likely that I will quite reach the look of the lady in a frame from an 1890s film clip, standing in Plaza San Marco in Italy, feeding the pigeons, but that remains the goal.

From a workaday conservative silhouette to a fashionable silhouette

You can find all of the posts describing the design and construction of this petticoat on the 1890s Costume & Research page, under the header 1895 Silk Godet Petticoat With Multiple Hem Stiffeners and Stiffened Frills.

This post describes the set of experiments I made on the bottom of the petticoat while winter still had its hold on Kentucky, and then a second round in May. I tested some of the means that dressmakers had employed to achieve amplitude and that are explicated at length in the posts 
By the way, almost all of the posts in the series have been edited and expanded over the last year as I have returned to the primary resources looking for answers to questions that would come up as this project proceeded. There's nothing like making a garment to make you ask new questions, is there?

Also in the mix were some unusual materials, because I wanted to see if recycled materials might work.

What Shape Do I Want to Create -- The Godet Look Physics

I wanted to echo the shape of Isobel Mallon's moreen and haircloth-frill petticoat* and add the lovely godet flutes present in The Delineator haircloth petticoat, but with the boning or wires creating a lightweight petticoat. After all, writers of the day complained about how heavy petticoats and interlinings were and how hot and tiring to wear.

This is a complicated shape to create, because the boning or wire or rattan has to both hold the skirt out at front and sides but also be flexible enough to collapse into godet plaits in the back when those flutes are forced into position by being sewn to elastic tapes set in 2-3 rows down the back. It truly is a physics problem because the boning or stiffening has to be good at two things, not just one.

We know that creating this shape using other means than building it entirely out of hair cloth or grass cloth is possible because of all the period magazine, newspaper and book content discussing the matter that I have uncovered, and of course the sample of Warren's Skirtbone.

*Note: The Ladies Home Journal petticoat description said that the petticoat had a godet cut, but the illustration doesn't show fully formed godet plaits up to the top of the petticoat like the Delineator design has. A godet shape could also be obtained by gathering the back of the skirt, according to some sources I've read over the lifetime of this project. A petticoat with a drawstring arrangement in the back would do the job, and because the magazine description and illustration did not include godet flutes all the way up to the top of the petticoat, I am inclined to think that the design was intended to use the drawstring method.

Were Wired Petticoats Usually Round? I Don't Know

However, I do NOT know how many petticoats that sported wires or boning were shaped with godet plaits. Yes, people took patents out for underskirts in the godet shape, but I don't know if any made it to market, and doubt any did or magazines and advertisements would have trumpeted it. None of the textual evidence is clear about what shape was created when boning or wires were used in petticoats as opposed to wired or boned outer skirts. For all I know, most petticoats stiffened in this way looked rather like a variety of hoopskirt, and only the outer skirt had the godet shape. Take the example of the petticoat and its matching outer skirt sold by Live Auctioneers. We don't know how the auction company mounted the garments, and so the petticoat may be held out by modern means, but it could be boned or wired...but not in a godet plait shape.

1890s brocade petticoat and outer skirt. Live Auctioneers, 2019.

I don't have extant examples or images of godet-plaited petticoats held out with boning or wires yet for evidence. I do have images of extant wired skirts with the proper effect. The search goes on :}

It's only as the project has worn on that I've realized that I might be creating an outlier petticoat.

Ah well, it's all a journey.

As we learned in Petticoats with Crinoline, Ties, Bones, Wires, we could insert boning into the bottom to help hold the petticoat out. I thought about Isobel Mallon's directions in "Comfortable Dressing in Summer" (Ladies Home Journal, July 1895, p. 21):

I would advise a skirt of mohair, cut exactly as if it were a dress skirt, and stiffened with five rows, quite close to each other, of the narrow whalebones that come for this purpose. They are mounted in the center of a braid that, extending beyond the bone on each side, makes it easy to sew the bands in position. This bone is pliable, as the best quality of whalebone is used, and it certainly will hold the skirt exactly as fashion dictates."

Lots of other sources, which I have documented in the Period Methods to Add Skirt Fullness post series suggest needing only one row of boning or wire. I decided to start with just one row of boning.

Here's where we get to have some fun. The search for a good boning product that would allow the petticoat to undulate rather than stand out like a hoopskirt has been many months long.

Some ideas were dismissed:
  • Warren's Skirtbone is no longer made or sold, and it's too valuable an historical notion to use in a skirt. Warren's Featherbone is too big and stiff for the job.
  • We'd never want to use baleen.
  • Regular steel boning and tutu wire are too stiff.
  • Very thin and flexible zip ties connected with duct tape might work, but I'd have to buy some and test it. Zip ties of the quality used for corsets are far too stiff.
  • I thought of the wire option, also common in the period. 
    • Most easily available fine wires hold a bend when you put one in them (which feature is called memory). We don't want that for sure.
    • We definitely don't want that springy jewelry wire for stringing beads because it's is too thin unless braided, and then it would become quite expensive to use. 
    • Sailboat stay wire for small dinghies was a thought, since I am familiar with it from my sailboat, but it won't produce enough curve for the organ or godet pleats.

That left the following stiffeners. I inserted each of them in turn at the bottom of the faced hem of the petticoat:
  • round spring galvanized wire -- more of a wire rope, because it's composed of many wire strands
  • two kinds of boning
  • rattan cane
  • PET material from milk jugs (yes, really)
  • Cat5 cabling (desperation time)
  • 1/4" diameter nylon rope, to stand in for 1.25" thick silk cord which was out of budget
  • And one more.
Meanwhile, I had pinned and sewn the top of the petticoat into three box pleats and created three ersatz godet plaits with pins and bias tape straps on the inside. Two plaits is the minimum used originally: dressmakers sometimes created many of them across the back of the skirt. Then I stuffed each plait, in line with period suggestions to use stuffing to help hold the plaits in a rounded shape. To hold the stuffing, I pinned the plaits shut. I won't do that for the final plaits: they need to be open in back and I haven't worked out how to hold the stuffing in there. The resulting plaits are not shaped well, frankly. They need a lot more work.

Some pictures:

The pinned godet plaits. You can see that there are two box plaits. The silk shantung has enough body to ensure that there is already a bit of roundness to the pleats.

Here are the finished plaits from the inside. The plaits are controlled by being sewn in place with elastic. Here, I am using just a single row of bias tape as a placeholder.

Here are the placeholder ersatz godet plaits again from the outside, with the top 12 inches or so (a quarter yard, per instruction from Ladies Home Journal, stuffed with washed and carded wool from my sheep, Lana and her daughter, Nina. Real godet plaits are prettier. They are wider at the top, and less crazily tube-like. You can see, however, how the back at the hem begins to form wide flutes. They are far from perfect, but the idea is there.

PET Milk Jug Strips

This was the first experiment, about which I was really excited in fall of 2020 when I ran a first test. PET is the acronym for polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic increasingly used as food packaging. It recycles easily, it can be melted at low temperatures, and it's really bendy. I cut up milk jugs into roughly 1" wide strips, literally ironed the strips together into a four-yard length, boiled them in a pot for a few minutes to relax the milk jug shape, and wrapped them around a steel water bottle to cool into a spring shape. I made two strips, one from Kroger milk jugs, and one from thicker Sam's Club milk jugs.

The pieces of milk jug "boning" were nested next to the bottom seam, then held in place by oh so many pins. The petticoat was the mounted on the dress form to see how the edge held. I compared it to the period photographs and film clips of how 1890s skirts moved.

I was so excited about the potential victory that I videoed it...but never used the video because, well, the PET strips didn't work.

  • The Kroger thinner milk jug strip gave the petticoat hem some shape, but it wasn't great.
  • The Sam's Club milk jug strips partially reverted to their old shapes when the plastic cooled, and created too stiff a line anyhow.
Here are some pictures.

A roll of the processed milk jug "boning".

Now for how it looks on the petticoat.

Results, front.

Oog. The front of the petticoat is collapsing. The milk jug boning doesn't have enough strength to hold the fabric out.
Result, back. Yuck.

It's hard to tell from a distance, but only one godet plait has been held out; that's the two sides of the skirt flaring out in imitation of godet plaits, but in the wrong place. Failure.

1/8th-3/16ths Diameter Galvanized Wire Rope

Well, that experiment lasted oh, five minutes. Wayyyy too stiff: it turned the petticoat into a sort of hoop shape. Besides, it added more weight than was good. Maybe a smaller diameter wire might work? Didn't follow up, because entering a store during the height of COVID spread wasn't going to happen (I am immunocompromised due to a kidney transplant so that it's super-easy to get sick).

The results:

Here is the wire. It's the same stuff I used for the sleeve puffers.

The back when the wire rope was threaded into the bottom of the petticoat hem. The spring was just too much: it created one giant swoop of fabric that ate the godet plaits, and would overpower whatever ties I created under the skirt to hold the flutes in position. Failure.

Very Thin Split Cane

Dee-saster. I used split cane, which is rounded on one side, flat on the other. Not only was the cane so stiff that it wouldn't hold godet plaits, but it's quite brittle: I broke it several times. It's also so light that the petticoat hem wouldn't stay even. Soaking it would strengthen the cane, but again, it wanted to go all hoop-like.

Here are the results.

Here is the front. It's rounded but the slides collapsed. Wish I had a picture of that.

Here is how the cane at the bottom of the hem looks in back. Meh. Once again, the cane boning eats the godet plaits, and creates swoops at the sides. When I forced the back swoop into two godet plaits, the cane argued with me and then broke. You can also see that it's so light that the hem won't stay even at the bottom. No go: failure again. 

Recycled CAT5 Cabling

By this time I was getting punchy, having spent probably 5 hours over several days readying materials, and sitting on the floor threading whatever material I was testing into the hem, then pinning it like crazy. A trip to the basement hunting for options produced this silly idea, but you know, it created massive flutes! Just a little too big for our purposes. I've always wanted an internet-ready skirt, haven't you?


Here is the CAT5 cabling; it's ordinarily used for internet service. It has a little bit of spring to it, but not much.

Here is the cabling threaded through the hem in the front. It creates nice swoopy folds, but we don't want that in front, we want a nice flare! Still we could plug it in, right? :}

Here's the back view. Nope. The cabling is trying unsuccessfully to follow the lines of the two trained box plaits, but there is a giant "in-swoop" to the inside of the petticoat. Again, failure.


It's pretty soft for boning as Quinn of The Quintessential Clothes Pen warned, and doesn't give a whole lot of support in bodices, but people are using it to stiffen ball-gown skirts, so it seemed I'd better test it. Ordered a roll of 50 feet for a few dollars, and tried it. Was feeling good about the material's chances so took the time to sew it into the buckram-stiffened hem. What a bloody -- literally -- mistake. Blech.

The Rigilene boning comes plain. I decided to encase it in twill tape, thinking I could sew the tape to the buckram right at the bottom of the petticoat hem.

Here we are in the painful process of sewing the Rigilene into the 4-yard hem.

Here is the front of the petticoat after the Rigilene has been sewn in. Underwhelming. It sort of flares, but also collapses. The sides collapse inward, too, so that the petticoat has little backward thrust. Once again, wish I had a picture of that. Would a second layer help in the front and sides? Probably, but it already weighs a bit. I was worried that it would add too much weight.

The back. I bet I could train the plaits into place with the second row of elastic sewn to the edges of the plaits inside the skirt, so it sort of works. Well, one criterion has been met, but not the other.

At this point the plaits had been stuffed, by the way.

At the time, I counted the Rigilene boning as a failure. In retrospect, with multiple rows of it in the front and sides, it might have worked. Someone else might want to have a go. It's inexpensive, especially if you already have yards and yards on hand.

Nylon Rope

By now, it was mid-March. Several period sources suggested using silk cording on the exterior of fashion skirts to impart simultaneously some stiffening and some visual interest. Silk cord is available, but it's terribly expensive and I couldn't find anything in the 1.5-inch-diameter class. Since so many cords for centuries have actually been silk wrapped around a less expensive material, perhaps that's how the original 1890s cord was made.

Anyhow, being lean of purse, some 1/4"-diameter nylon rope in the basement looked like a good candidate. I cut it into the four-yard length, unstitched the Rigilene and pulled it out, and slowly coaxed the rope into the hem bottom.

Hey, we had some nice undulations, but the front a sides were too likely to collapse, so I ran another length on top of the first cord around the front half of the skirt. Again, feeling good about the chances of this being the solution, I sewed it again, and added more blood spots to the silk. Nice.

I made a 2-minute video about it. Watch it if you like. (If the video is not visible, please follow the link:

The results were not bad, really. There wasn't a whole lot of backward thrust in the petticoat but it did look rather like the silhouette of the Ladies Home Journal illustration. The rope is heavier than I wanted and I think that decreases the amplitude obtained. It was a decent if somewhat underwhelming candidate. We can't count it as a failure, any more than we can count the Rigilene as a failure. Unfortunately, you will have to take my word for the rope working, because I blanked out and didn't take photographs. After all this work, to miss documenting the results. Disappointing.

The Project Sits Because I'm Unhappy With the Results, Until...Eureka!

The costumer hack had worked but wasn't the boning I had promised. It was frustrating. The Rigilene was modern boning and in my view then had failed, and the reed was historical boning and it had failed too. Modern steel boning or tutu wire would produce a hoop effect, I knew for sure.

I had the wild idea of purchasing a whole bunch of chicken feathers and processing them into homemade Skirtbone by core-spinning them on the spinning wheel with thread, for example, or using the information out there in the original patent. What a huge project replete with pitfalls that would have been.

So the project went dormant. The petticoat left its spot on the mannequin and was banished to the shelf of an upstairs closet. We had three ice storms in a row, and then a week later springtime arrived. One day in April I decided to return to any primary source I could turn up about the wires: patents, newspaper articles, catalogs, advertisements, legal papers, magazines, surely more information would turn up. Although jeepers, in this overall project I've had to have spent over a hundred hours combing through primary texts and writing up thoughts afterwards, just like in the graduate school era. I guess you can't take the historian out of someone, even after they change careers. It's a rather insatiable urge, satisfied with little hits of dopamine, I suppose, whenever a lead turns something up.

Back to history of this project. I struck gold this time and edited the Petticoats with Crinoline, Haircloth, Ties, Bones, Wires! post on April 25. Several quotations and an extant dress gave me what I needed. Here's one of them:

From a syndicated article appearing in The McCook Tribune (January 12, 1894):

A swell dressmaker confessed recently that the reason why some of the flaring skirts hung out around the bottom with such a graceful flare was because of a flexible steel a quarter of an inch in width which runs through the hem. Some of the latest silk petticoats have two of these wires run through the folds, one at the hem and another a few inches above.

Flexible steel is spring steel, which is ubiquitous today in industrial applications. 1/4" wide, too; that intimates that it's flat, not round. Because it's pretty narrow, and flat, and super flexible, it is likely a very thin steel. I was off to the races (an apropos choice of phrase because the thoroughbred racing Spring Meet at Keeneland was on just then). I was looking for an inexpensive source that wouldn't require me to talk an industrial supplier into selling oompty-tiddle feet of whatever. After rejecting a whole slew of options as out of my league, it seemed that repurposing an existing light industrial or consumer product was the way to go. A reel of steel fish line used to run electrical cords through walls looked promising, but it's pretty strong stuff, as I found by watching videos of electricians using it in houses.

And then, it hit me. I probably had the stuff already, in my house, all this time. Have you guessed?

It's a thin steel measuring tape, the miniature purse size that I carry around everywhere, ready to measure lumber, furniture, fabric. Pulled mine out, waved it around, bent it. Ooh! It bends into narrow flutes -- so it meets criterion #1. It springs back into a soft curve -- so it meets criterion #2. Plus, it's light as a feather. Holy cats! Eureka! (Maybe) I have found it!

I pulled up a ten-foot Stanley brand 1/4" steel measuring tape online, and bought two. So here's the experiment.

1/4" wide steel measuring tape 

After ripping out the stitching (again) that held the rope at the bottom of petticoat hem, I disassembled one of the measuring tapes, to find that not only did it hold the steel tape, but a nice long length of plain spring steel in the same bendiness and size. That's the steel spring that drives the pull of the measuring tape itself. It meant that I had more than 10 feet of steel in one container and would need only one measuring tape to create the four yards needed to go round the petticoat hem. I cut the steel off the reel, unhooked the measuring part that's barely attached to the spring part, overlapped them and duct taped both sections together, measured out just over 4 yards (12 feet) so there would be overlap once the steel was threaded through the hem, and duct taped each end, both of which were sharp.

Then the metal strip was nested into the bottom of the petticoat. It was a slow go threading it in because there was no way I was going to take out the finished stitching holding the buckram. I'd had enough of that. One of the twins helped guide it through -- it's so thin it wants to try and bunch up.

The results? At last. Even with ersatz godet plaits, you can see that the measuring tape offers the front and sides of the petticoat the desired flare. The back? It can be guided into the handsome godet plaits.

Here are pictures.

The spring steel from the disassembled measuring tape, with the second measuring tape (still whole) beside it for comparison. It's a small measuring tape that you can hold in the palm of your hand.

Here you can see that I have run the final length of spring steel into the petticoat. The ends, protected by duct tape, just overlap each other. I could have used fabric and thread to bind the ends, but did not. Patience with the endless project is waning by this point.

Here is a view of the petticoat from just off the front. You can see that the front and sides flare out. The final darts haven't been set in the waistline, the yoke isn't in to strengthen the top, and the second row of steel isn't inserted above the first row yet, but we have a good shape emerging. The steel is super-light, but heavy enough to hold the hem pretty even.

Here is the side view. Do you see how the back-thrusted cut of the petticoat shows? That's the line of original godet petticoats. You can imagine just how excited I was to see this. All those illustrations in magazines and advertisements, they weren't exaggerating too much, were they? Do you see the rounded end at the back? The steel can curve pretty tightly. Good.

Here's the back. Now, I freely admit that the ersatz godet plaits have been eaten by the spring of the wire. However, I had removed the plait stuffing, and the interior placeholder elastic godet shaper, so there's nothing but two box pleats to create the shape. Why did I do that? You're not supposed to change the experiment from trial to trial. Dumb move on my part. You can see a curve emerging, however, at the top of the petticoat, and we already saw the tight curve on the side view. 

The back looks like a failure on first inspection, but I was still excited. It was the only material to create the back-thrust effect, and I could see that the spring steel was capable of holding a tight curve. 

I then held the wire in my hand and moved it into the shape of two funnel shaped godet plaits, and the steel moved easily and without resistance. 

This material, despite the lack of complete plaits in the back, I counted a better success than the others. Not only did the overall front and side shape appear, and hints of the back plaits, but it was made of a close approximation of the period material.

Now I need to build the real plaits and hold them in place with three rows of elastic sewn inside the the petticoat, and probably stuffing. Two rows of elastic will not be enough. Then we'll have another gander at it.

Here's a video tour of the pre-finalized petticoat hem. (If you cannot see it, please see the link:

Mmm, I've just noticed that the buckram is tipping in towards the interior of the skirt. The fix, below!

The Petticoat Project's Next Steps

The next step is to add a second row of spring steel at the top of the buckram so it won't tip inwards and to strengthen the flare. The second row of steel will perhaps go only on the front and sides, perhaps all the way around. Then I will test the look by making a beta test of the godet plaits. This is likely to take some experimentation, because the measurements in the German skirt pattern assume a smaller waist measurement than I have.

While the rest of the petticoat has been handsewn, except for the frills to come, stitching through buckram has been a miserable experience, so the spring steel will be threaded through channels sewn on the Willcox and Gibbs machine.

Then it will be time to sew the godet plaits into their final form, and to figure out how to stuff them so that they will hold their shape when the outer skirt is placed over them.

After that, add a placket behind one of the box pleats, and sew on the hair cloth frills after box pleating them. I made the frill strips back in March. Then finish the waist with a yoke. Still a lot to do, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel! Boy, won't it be good to finish at last! I don't know how long this will take, however. Summertime is here, the boys are out of school, and so there is a lot going on.

Hope you have enjoyed this part of the adventure. It took months and months, but it's so nice to have come up with a material that I believe is pretty close to the original. I'd like to schedule a visit with a museum in Ohio or Indiana at some point if they will allow it and see if a wired extant skirt is available for inspection. Then we may finally have full closure to this long-lasting puzzle.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

An 1895 Godet Petticoat With Boning and Stiffened Frills: Adding a Stiffened Hem Facing

While I haven't posted about the petticoat since February, it's not for lack of working on it. Oh no. There's been a ridiculous amount of work. Documentation simply fell behind. So. In this post I'll talk about a step I never meant to take: adding a stiffened hem facing before tackling the boning.

The petticoat, laid flat, inside out, with facing sewn on
but not finished at the top.
The little lump of shadow on the sofa is Lily kitty in 
the middle of a mid-winter nap.

How did that happen? Trying the petticoat on the dress form is how it happened.

It seemed smart to see what the petticoat was like sans any stiffening whatever but with the godet pleats set in place. After all, without those large undulating flutes, the back is longer than the front and the entire thing looks ill-fitting.

So I set the petticoat onto the form, and then pinned the side darts approximately where my original pattern suggested to fit the sides into that hip-defining shape so typical of the decade, and pinning three very messy box pleats in the back, as close to where they are supposed to go as I could get given my larger waistline. The original pattern has oodles of initial waist room. Remember, it's the box pleating of that excess, and how the pleats are handled, that creates the godet plaits.

No opening was cut. That can wait until the exact placement of the box pleats is set, and then an opening can go under one of the pleats.

Here's what it looked like. My adjustable dress form isn't "me" at all: it's too wide across the front and two narrow from the side, especially if a corset were worn, and the godets are just pinned madly, but you get the idea.

The petticoat without stiffening, back

The petticoat without stiffening, front

The petticoat without stiffening, side

What a droopy back, but you can see that the godet plaits -- godet fluting -- organ folds -- whatever you want to call them -- have the potential to be beautiful if given something to help them puff, and that the full body of the silk shantung is a good match for that sort of effect. Something to keep in mind for outer skirts!

Adding the Facing

However, I looked at the silk and thought, putting boning or wires and especially the pleated haircloth frills from my inspiration petticoat is going to drag on that silk. I need a hem facing. Then I thought, whether it's overkill or not, I am going to stiffen that facing with interlining.

I am beginning to think like a mid-1890s home seamstress: stiffen, stiffen, any way you can! Beauty before ease... 

The prospect of paying for more haircloth to use as interlining was not attractive, so out came milliner's crinoline (a bit different than tarlatan) from the stash. It proved too limp to do much. Here is some in my hand, so you understand what it's like.

Milliner's crinoline

Out came milliner's buckram, a medium-heavy weight. That seemed about right in the hand, and probably too stiff, but I have what I have. Here it is.

Milliner's buckram, mid-weight. No flopping in the hand here...

So I cut the silk facing and the buckram interlining:

  • 5-inch wide facing pieces (including 1/2 inch for the bottom seam allowance and 1/2 inch for the top) was cut using the original pattern pieces as a guide, with 1/4 inch for each side seam allowance;
  • 4-inch wide interlining, again using the pattern pieces as a guide.

Because I had sewn the petticoat seams by hand, I hand-sewed the facing pieces onto the petticoat bottom too. Running stitch for two stitches, then a backstitch, and so on.

Sewing the facing to the bottom of the petticoat while Nutmeg naps

...And tacked the interlining to one layer of the silk by hand. The tacking stitches will be covered by the haircloth frills. Dear Heaven, was tacking an awful, unpleasant, bloody-hell process. Why didn't I use a sewing machine? At that time we were in an icy cold snap, outside it was still getting dark early, and sitting at a machine up in the brr-chilly, shadowy upstairs was not enticing. 

So instead, stubborn -- but warm! -- silly that I was, the silk and buckram and I battled the entire four yards around the petticoat bottom, leaving multiple little bloody marks on the silk that never did come out completely. The needle kept hating to go through the silk and then would stop angrily on tough, thick buckram fibers and slip unexpectedly sideways and into my fingers.

The facing was not hemmed over the buckram to finish the inside. That's a later step.

That's the post for today.

Next up, the battle of the bones, wires, CAT5 cabling, canes, milk jugs, and cords to give the petticoat the delicious width and sweep it cries out for. Can you guess which one ended up staying in the petticoat hem?