Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Steampunk Black Dress: Building the Underskirt

Edited September 8, 2020

In the rush to get the steampunk dress ready for the Halloween tea, I neglected to share with you several aspects of its construction, most of it based on my extant 1870s dress, and/or on Harper's Bazar instructions. So here they are, after the fact, in the next few posts.

Let's talk about the underskirt. Watch out: this is an image-heavy post.

A Late 1860s Extant Dress as a Model

I used a late 1860s dress as a model for many construction decisions in this dress. Recently a dress historian and costumer, Cassidy of A Most Beguiling Accomplishment, analyzed the dress in detail in her video and post "Ca. 1866 Brown Gown - A Close-Up Look". I had sent the dress, along with many other antique garments, to her several years ago, believing she could analyze and conserve them better than I could. The analysis dates the dress to 1866-1867, probably altered for a first time in the early 1870s, and she walks viewers through a number of minute construction details and later alterations that I entirely missed, while confirming some of my findings. I hope you will view the video, because the construction certainly affects how the dress would look when worn.

The Underskirt Pattern and Seaming up the Pieces
The extant late 1860s dress that I used
as a model for construction methods.
This garment was straightforward: I used the TV201 pattern again, the same as for the petticoat, for the pattern pieces, except that I added a bit of a train...just adding some inches to the back piece. I did not, however, follow the Truly Victorian construction directions, but instead the construction of my extant dress. You'll see why in a bit.

The skirt is entirely lined in lightweight muslin. Why? Well, my extant dress is, and I wanted the solid effect that most non-summer 1870s skirts have. They drape crisply and a bit heavily. You can see that in the image of the extant dress here. That silk, by the way, is light as air, and backed by polished cotton and "book muslin" at the hem.

Had I been able to find polished cotton, it would have been great, because then I wouldn't worry it would cling to the petticoat. In the event, it didn't anyway, which is good. It would have been NOT good if the skirt had clung to the petticoat and crept out of alignment or pulled up or something.

After seaming up the skirt pieces, I overcast the seam allowances to finish them and keep them from fraying. In this skirt, the two allowances are placed together and overcast as one: the skirt is thick enough to do this without it showing on the right side.

The Placket

Next, the placket. It sits on the wearer's right side, just in front of the back piece. This makes the skirt a bit of a pain to put on, because the opening is so far back, but it's well hidden by the overskirt.

Each side of the placket opening was turned inwards into a hem, and the lining ditto: then the lining and fashion fabric were slip-stitched closed. Easy peasy.

How the 1870s extant skirt did the placket was a little different. Here below is the placket from the outside. See the big running stitches where the lining and the placket are sewn together. No slip stitches here.

On one side of the placket, the fashion fabric is brought inwards, and hemmed down. Note the tobacco-colored polished cotton lining. Pretty color, isn't it?

On the other side of the placket, the lining is brought out to the edge, turned in, and sewn together. Note the old repair at the bottom of the placket. This dress has layers and layers of repair; at one point it may have been used as a costume.

Skirt Hem and Facing

Then the bottom hem was completed. As with any mid-century skirt, the skirt is "balanced" so the hem is made even by adjusting the waist, not the bottom hem. This makes finishing the bottom hem infinitely easier.  You just turn it up and sew it. Plus you have the extra fabric handy in case you want to make the skirt longer in the future.

Harper's Bazar recommendas and my extant dress features a deep facing at the skirt hem. It makes the skirt hang better. I simply followed the extant dress as closely as I could. The skirt's fashion fabric was turned in about a half inch and pressed flat.

A wide facing -- about 9 inches -- was cut in black muslin, following the bottom of the pattern pieces, and seamed together.

Facing seamed up.
The facing was placed on the outside of the skirt, right side to right side, and sewn. Then the skirt was turned inside out, and the facing was turned inwards, and pressed so that the fashion fabric shows a little on the interior.This prevents the facing from ever showing on the outside of the skirt. Then the top of the facing was turned down into a hem and was slip-stitched to the skirt lining. This was kind of a pain, because sometimes the needle would go all the way through to the outside of the skirt, and I'd have to take it out, or hope that the trim would cover up the stitches that showed :)

Facing pinned in place.
Completed facing. (The black fabric showing on the ouside of the skirt is actually flounce trim.)
Skirt Waistband

Big fun, this part :} Really? Well, maybe. Depends on your point of view.

Let's look at the extant 1870s dress and see what it tells us. When I first bought the thing, I was a bit flummoxed, because it seemed to have a petersham waistband. You can see it clearly in this image below...the big ribbon-like band at the top of the photo.

It turns out that the original waistband was either worn out or fragile or didn't fit the new wearer, because the petersham waistband is a later addition, made in a hurry with a combination of machine and hand stitching.

The next picture might tell the story better. I've marked where the petersham band begins: we're looking at the inside of the skirt at the waistband level. The petersham band was sewn to the outside of the skirt. The original skirt features a wide-ish waistband. The skirt was leveled at the hem, probably while on the wearer, with the raw top edge turned inward and pulled down until at the floor level the skirt hem was positioned where it was wanted. The raw edges were loosely overcast to protect them from raveling. Then the skirt was pleated as needed until it fitted the wearer's waist, pinned in place, most likely. Then, probably while off the wearer, the waistband was whipped to the skirt with thick, strong thread. You can see all of this below, with my annotations.

The original skirt wasn't pleated all the way around, of course, since fashion required a nice flat front. Instead, a very few wide pleats were taken at front and sides, and then the back of the skirt, where all the fullness lies, was cartridge pleated, and then sort of whipped to the waistband so that the pleats would swing clear of the band and stand out in back, helping the bustle pouf. You can see that below. Note that the lining goes right up to the top of the skirt fabric! This gives the pleating more strength, of course, but also helps to make the pleats stand out more.

When the skirt was redone the seamstress just sewed the cartridge pleats flat.

The Truly Victorian pattern directions ask that the skirt pleating or gathering be fitted inside, encased, in the waistband, and this is easy to do, of course. Yet it makes for a thicker waistband, and forces the skirt fabric downwards. When you want a bustle pouf, you want that skirt going outwards at the first available opportunity, so cartridge pleating is a better bet for that effect.

Now, what did I do? What the extant skirt did. I just put a few fitting pleats at the sides and front, and then cartridge pleated the skirt in back until it fit tightly at the waist. This is key: you can make the cartridge pleats bigger or smaller, so do that part last: get the smooth parts in place first. I set each pleat while on my mannequin, pinning it in place. It's all eyeballed, not measured.

Memo to file: it took two tries to get a good fit. The first time round I box-pleated the back of the skirt, but didn't like the effect.

Then I whipped the skirt to a waistband. The waistband was made of a tube of both muslin lining and fashion fabric, sewn right sides to right sides, turned, and then one long edge topstitched so that the tube laid perfectly flat.

I made the waistband about two inches longer than needed, not being sure if I might need to make it bigger down the road. To wear the skirt, I just pinned the waistband ends together with straight pins, like an 18th century garment would be. That way the skirt will always fit pretty well, whether I lose weight or, please not, gain any.

So that's it for the underskirt construction. No one sees much of the underskirt when it's worn, so it's not that exciting a garment, but the shot below gives you an idea.

Next up, overskirt and trim notes. Then it's on to the small finishes that will make this a better dress, and lastly, better hair!


Cassidy said...

Very analytical! It's nice to see all of those close-ups. My goodness, the life that dress must have had with all those repairs!

ZipZip said...

Thank you, Cassidy! The 1870s extant dress has been so useful, because I can see and touch what's been done and understand it better. Poor dress, it HAS been through a lot...

Thanks much,