Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Regency Hand-Sewn Drawstring Dress: A Tour of Stitches, Part 3

We will continue our tour of the drawstring dress construction with the skirt, the last part of the my mockup dress to be sewn. See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series to find about why I am focusing on stitchery in this project.

AlohaAroha had asked that I provide better images of the full front and back of the dress so she could figure out where the detail photos were on the full dress. I've gone one better: here are two new photos of the back and the front, each labeled, by letter, with the seams being discussed in this series. I've gone back to the previous posts and added the photos there too.

Per usual, please click on the images to see much larger versions of them.

Photo: dress viewed inside out from the front, labeled with seams discussed in these posts

Skirt Seams
Costume Close-Up explained that skirts were seamed loosely; skirt seams had less stress on them, so the seams could be sewn with a running stitch, and besides, loose seams meant a skirt could be unpicked more easily to be renovated.

Jennie Chancey, in her Ask the Experts reply to my question about stitches, said that options included French seams (for very sheer fabrics), backstitched seams, flat-felled seams, and running-stitch seams.

I chose the last option, and made the skirt seams with a quarter-inch seam, sewn with a running stitch at 8-9 stitches per inch. To sew the running stitch, I would run the needle in and out of the fabric three or four times, picking up a little fabric each time, and then pulled the thread through, and following up afterwards with a backstitch to hold the stitches in place better. Then I'd repeat. This stitch is known as a combination stitch.

Why is the little intermittent backstitch important? Try an experiment, if you care to. Run several inches of running stitch into a folded piece of fabric. Pull the end of the thread. Puckers rather easily, doesn't it? Now run the same seam, but this time, sew the combination stitch like I did above. Now pull. Fewer puckers: it's a stronger stitch.

Photo: dress viewed inside out from the back, labeled with seams addressed in these posts.

Grimble's The Lady's Stratagem suggests attaching the fabric at your knee while you sit (pinning it to your skirt or slacks, for instance), so as to "work it [the seam] more comfortably" (p 305). I did so at times and at other times, held the fabric in tension with the aid of a sewing bird. In both cases, attaching the fabric to something allowed me to stretch out the fabric and thus put some tension upon it, and the seam would come out straighter this way. I found, also, that I could do something similar by holding the fabric in my right hand with my fingers stretched out while I sewed with my left hand. You sometimes see the stretched-finger position in old paintings of women sewing, and I always thought it just an artistic touch, until I found myself doing the same thing naturally.

I finished the skirt seams by overcasting them loosely, per examples I've seen on the Web and per Grimble (p 344).

Setting the Skirt on the Bodice
To attach the skirt to the waist, I used a single, backstitched seam for strength.

This is a variation of one of the methods Grimble's The Lady's Stratagem suggests, namely, to prick-stitch the skirt and the lined bodice together, with the prick stitching being done from the right side of the fabric. (See last section in this post for discussion of prick-stitching.)

The very center back of the drawstring dress is tightly gathered. I used stroked gathers, an effect quite common during the period. Costume in Detail shows many Regency dresses with beautifully stroked gathered backs (scattered through pp. 87-104 -- I am leaving out later Regency examples), and The Lady's Stratagem (p. 320) and The Workwoman's Guide (p. 2) both explain how to do them.

In my case, I did not do them as well as I would now, because at the time I wasn't understanding the directions I read very well. I backstitched them to the bodice, at the bodice seamline, but, did not make sure to backstitch each little pleat separately. As you can see, I got some no-no bunchiness in the pleats as a result. I am going to redo them.

Photo: the not-entirely-successful stroked gathers experiment.

Stroking gathers? In brief, the idea is to run two rows of very small, 1/8" long gathering stitches at the skirt seamline. Then, gather the fabric up, which as its strung on two rows of threads, will start of itself to form tiny pleats. Then, straighten each gather and line it up with its siblings by stroking the blunt end of a needle in between each gather, in effect training the fabric to lie a certain way. Then connect the gathers to the bodice. Here's where it gets tricky, and here is where you can easily mess up the gathers, as I did.

Grimble suggests to "fasten them, one by one, and very close together with one or two over-cast stitches. If hte skirt is set on by over-casting, continue to sew on the wrong side. If, on the contrary, you are using prick-stitches, turn the gown over to the right side, so that you may sew the folds from that side. " (p 320). This suggests two submethods to me.
  • The first would seem to be a very tiny version and variation on gauging (also known as cartridge pleating). When I had prepared the gathers, per Grimble (p. 319-320), I'd have turned in the top of the skirt to the seam line, then would have run my gathering stitches. Then I'd turn in the bottom of the bodice at the seamline, so I had a fold to whip to. Then I would have stroked and then whipped each pleat to the bodice. I know gauging itself was done during the period, because a late Regency skirt in Costume in Detail is treated with gauging, although the gauging results in larger pleats than do the tiny gathered pleats common with stroked gathers.
  • The second would be to use a method explained on the Elizabeth Stewart Clark board and which I have used to wonderful effect on a mid-century petticoat. It involves a version of overcasting or whipping (which term is correct, if any?) in which the skirt top for the gathered portion is not turned down, the gathers are made at the seam line and just below it, and stroked into place, and tiny overcast stitches are made from the valley of each pleat to the turned-in bodice bottom (that is, two layers of fabric). The bodice is caught only to the depth of about a 1/16th of an inch. I know for sure that results in tiny, perfectly tightly, gorgeous gathers, and there is no bulk from gathering through two layers of fabric. See photo.
Photo: stroked gathers on a mid-century petticoat I have underway. In this image I have already set the gathers, and now am attaching the waistband to the otherside, using 1/16" running stitches with the smallest sized needle I own. Much better results, here!

By the way, for those who are interested, I have a tutorial on -- successful -- stroked gathering. See Tutorial: Making Stroked Gathers on a Mid-Nineteenth Century Petticoat.

I have seen photos of a dress that appears to illustrate attaching the bodice and dress with overcast stitches as as I have quoted from Grimble. A cranberry-colored silk faille dress, circa 1800-1810, at Vintage Textile seems to display this treatment, as shown in the photos below. Look carefully (you'll have to click on the images to see the larger sizes for sure, this time), and notice that the stitches pretty much run vertically, not horizontally. That's why I think it's overcast stitching, although it's hard to tell from the interior shot. I am writing the owner of Vintage Textile for information and for (belated) permission to use her photos.

The front of the dress.

The back of the dress.

The dress interior. It is very hard indeed from this angle to tell how the skirt and bodice are connected.

Skirt Interior Drawstring Casing
There is not much to report here: all I did was to backstitch the casing down.

Skirt Hem
Costume Close Up explains that with fabric so expensive, hems were generally quite shallow...a quarter inch or less. My other resources, including Grimble, basically agree. So, I made a quarter-inch hem and running-stitched it, at about 10 stitches per inch. Again, why waste effort with a fancy hem when it would get dirty, need to be repaired often, and be unpicked anyhow when the skirt was renovated?

Additional Thoughts on Stitches

What other stitch options might I have for an unlined dress?

When I wrote to the Ask the Experts column on Your Wardrobe Unlock'd, Jennie Chancey of Sense and Sensibility gave some wonderful tips. Among them:
"One of the most eye-opening revelations to me when I began studying extant garments from this time period was how "un-standard" the seam finishes were!
With all the careful, intricate embroidery on the outsides, I'd often turn to the inside of the gown to be shocked by what looked like really sloppy hand sewing -- long running stitches, raw edges left unbound, odd shortcuts taken. But, even on sheer gowns, I realized that, once you backed away six to twelve inches, you just couldn't tell. The hand work blends in to the whole.
Over ten years into my research, I can tell you there isn't one "right" seam finish for the Regency era! All of the finishes you mentioned--backstitching with felled seams, lapped seams, running stitches, overcast seams--are kosher. I've seen incredibly tiny French seams so well made they resemble piping inside the gown, and I've seen long running stitches that don't look like they'd hold the dress together. One gown I viewed in the Valentine Museum (Richmond, Virginia, USA) had incredibly fine hand-stitching everywhere except the hem -- and that was done with a rather uneven running stitch (perhaps it was hastily rehemmed later for a shorter woman?). But, again, when you backed off a single pace to view the gown, you couldn't see the hem stitching at all. It just disappeared into the fabric. So you are on the right track with all of your seam finishes."
Doesn' t the above make you feel free? It does me!

I often wonder if prick-stitching might be among the options for sewing the bodice seams on an unlined dress? When Grimble explains prick-stitching (pp. 311-312, and scattered thereafter), she is assuming that the dress bodice will be lined. Prick-stitching, I take it from her, is a form of back stitching. It's always sewn on the right side of the fabric. To paraphrase her description, you make a fold of the fabric at the seam line, and place it down right side out over the fabric it's to be joined to, which is also right side out. The one piece will be lapped over other. The two pieces are basted together to hold them, and then the pieces are carefully backstitched together from the right side (either classic back stitch with one stitch beginning in the hole left by the last, or with a tiny space between each stitch). Often a second row of back stitches is added for strength.

So, if the dress was unlined, one would have to make the lapped seam in one of two ways:
  • turn under the top piece at the seam line and sew it to the bottom piece at the seam line on the bottom piece, but the edge of that left raw on the interior
  • or turn under the top piece on the seam line and sew it to the bottom piece, which has been turned inwards at its seam line. In this way the raw edges are sandwiched.
I wonder if this is an option because in so many pictures in Costume in Detail and elsewhere the back seams and side seams show neat back-stitches, often two rows' worth, just as Grimble describes. I just haven't seen any detailed photos of actual garments shown inside and out that show this method. Oh, for the chance to visit a collection and see for myself!

A final note: Anna Kristine over at The Art of Clothes also has sewn a striking Regency day gown in red with black trim. She has documented the process too, especially the slashed sleeves. If you visit the Regency posts in her blog and scroll around, you will find all the posts.

Thus endeth the tour. I hope it has been useful to you.


The Dreamstress said...

Whoo hoo! All the info I could possibly use! Thanks so much!

Sarah said...

Oh Natalie!!!! I am finally getting around to reading all this. Your blog is unusual for me in that it is not one I can just scan through with a cup of tea, it reads like a book and I need to sit down and thoroughly intake and digest all of your information. Wow, wow, wow! Thank you SO MUCH FOR DOCUMENTING THIS. I made a few handsewn regency gowns last year and used running and backstitch on all the seams; now I wish I had done it your way and when I make my next handsewn gown, I know I will often be referencing these posts. I can't wait to have the opportunity to try out some of these techniques.

Do you think the same construction process/seams would be used still into the late 1820's?

Fabulous job as always, and meticulous research!

ZipZip said...

Dear Sarah,

Good morning and thank you so much! When you mentioned last year's dresses, I had to giggle, because it was after reading your posts and the Rockin' the Rococo posts that the inspiration arrived to do a handsewn dress. When reading the blogs I follow each evening, if there's one from you I always save it for last, because it's such a treat.

Now: for the stitches you used last year, do remember what Jennie wrote: that seamstresses all had their own way of constructing things :}

About 1820s dresses: by the late 1820s the sewing is morphing a little. You mentioned piped seams in your dress diary...yup, that's right on the mark. Dresses seem by default to all be lined, too, or that's what I gather from The Lady's Stratagem and from Costume in Detail. You mention a waistband in your diary, too. Again, that's what I read was used. Do you have a copy of the latter book? It's really helpful for seeing how individual dresses looked.



M'lady said...

Just found this page when looking for how to do drawstring dress. I'm still at the toile stage. I have the basic S&S pattern and I've been using trial and error to try and work how to make it drawstring. Its nice to see all your pictures especially if you are doing it by hand which I do as much as possible (don't like machines.)
I was trying to decide how to do the waist drawstring, If I needed to gather the bodice first at all etc. And if I should use a sash or not.
I know its silly question but how do you get in and out that dress? I was hoping I could make one I can pull over my head. As I will have to dress myself and not good with fastening back buttons etc.

ZipZip said...

Dear Lady D.,
Good morning! Good about finding the stitch information helpful. You may also find the stitch information on the wrap front dress helpful, for the lapped seams and hemming styles were as common, espcially the lapped seams.

Now, about the S&S pattern. It's historically inspired, rather than closely historical, so you may want to adjust it if you are looking for a fit that's closer to what was actually worn, and make sure your toile fits properly over your stays.

As for adjusting that pattern to create a drawstring dress, doing so depends on your level of sewing experience. The regular S&S dress is back closing, while the S&S drawstring dress slips over the head and tightens courtesy drawstrings at neckline and waistline. You would need to drape a back piece in a sort of diamond shape, and then adjust the side back pieces to fit it. You'd want to examine extant gowns online very carefully to see how the backs were made. Just closing up the back into a single piece would not be that appropriate.

Now, you can adjust the S&S dress to still close in back, but with drawstrings instead of buttons. That was quite commonly done. (Refer to Nancy Bradfield's Costume in Detail for details) but then you will still have the problem of needing someone to tie those ties for you.

If you aren't interesting in too much fussing, you'd probably do best to get the S&S Elegant Ladies Closet pattern. It will have pretty much everything you need.

Hoping that this helps a bit!

Very best,