If you’re like me, you’ve read a lot of historical fiction, or possibly historically-inspired fantasy books. Inevitably, somewhere in these books, a woman gets a new dress. The dressmaker comes, takes measurements, shows her swatches and sketches, goes away, and a day or two later, the dress arrives, lovely, and perfect, and above all, finished. Now in my case, when I was young, I dreamed of reaching a skill level where I could work that fast (yes, yes, I know, the dressmaker would have had apprentices to help as well, but twelve-year-old me does not care). The older I got, and the more I sewed, the more I was baffled. I could sew fast. I could sew neatly. I didn’t actually start using a machine until I was 18, so I had years of hand-sewing experience. But there was still no possible way I could complete a garment, let along a ballgown, (even with help) in 48 hours. If you’re someone who knows anything about the differences between period and modern construction, you’re already laughing at me.
Over the years, especially since I started interpreting, I have added to my repertoire of hand-sewing skills, but nothing has shone light on the mysterious speed of historical seamstresses and tailors like the Burnley & Trowbridge workshop I attended in October. I signed up with two of my dearest friends, Amy and Melissa, almost as soon as the workshop was announced last winter, and the three of us planned for months and then trekked across the Appalachians to Williamsburg, VA. There were several times over the months between signing up and going when I considered dropping out for purely financial reasons. Even minus the hotel, gas, and price of admission, this was going to be an expensive project. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I stuck with it.
The workshop was led by Janea Whitacre, who is the Mistress Milliner and Mantua Maker at Colonial Williamsburg. Over the course of the three day workshop, she taught each of the (approximately) dozen women in the workshop how to make a Regency pelisse from the ground up. We started by ‘cutting on the person’ (draping on a body, rather than a dress-form), and stitched everything using period techniques that have fallen out of modern dressmaking, but suddenly explain how it was possible for a skilled dressmaker to produce garments so quickly. Everything about period construction is centered around a single goal: sew the smallest number of seams possible, mostly by not sewing the same seam twice unless absolutely necessary.
Thanks Angela Burnley, for letting me use these photos!
With machines to help us, sewers today are rarely troubled by the idea of bag lining, where the same garment if made first of lining fabric, then of fashion fabric, and put together afterwards. But think how silly that would be if every seam had to be sewn by hand! You’d have to make the same garment twice! The period techniques we learned for lining are like magic tricks. You put your fabric together in a way that boggles the modern sewer’s mind, sew a single seam, and it all comes out stitched and lined! For example: did you know it’s possible to sew a lined sleeve with a single seam? You just fold the sleeve with the right sides together, fold the lining with the right sides together, stack the two pieces on top of each other, sew down the length of it once (though 4 thicknesses of fabric), turn the fabric right side out and, voilà! the lining is inside. The seam allowances are all going in one direction, but here’s the thing: who cares? When did it become more important to have seam allowances open than to sew efficiently?! The old finished product looks just as good, keeps the lining from twisting around inside the sleeve, and halves the sewing time. And it could be done on a machine, if you want. There’s literally no downside.
If you want to learn how to line a bodice in half the time, you’ll have to attend a workshop yourself, since Janea is a thousand times better at explaining in person with the real pieces in front of her than I could ever be trying to put everything in a single blog. I’m telling you: take one of these workshops, they are more than worth the price of admission and the travel time. The first couple of hours were worth the $165 I paid. B & T only have a couple of their workshops for this year up, but keep checking back.
But I suppose you want to see the concrete item I got out of this, and not just hear me geek out about all the tricks. So here you go:
Each of us brought our own inspiration images to the workshop, and I was working to reproduce this extant piece:
I’ve been wanting to try reproducing it for a while, and I’m so glad I didn’t get around to it until now.
When I was originally planning this project, I wanted to make it out of this silk from Renaissance Fabrics, but sadly, in the two intervening years, they ran out (shocking, I know). It’s incredibly difficult to find really interesting striped fabrics like this, and finding one that had stripes and florals was pretty much a pipe dream, but luckily, Renaissance also had a lovely cream, fawn and sky blue striped silk faille that worked very nicely. It even picks up the colors of the original piece.
Most of my process shots are from after I returned from the workshop. As you can imagine, everything there was happening way too fast to get many pictures in. By the time I left, I had a completed bodice and the sleeves and skirt were set and pinned in place, ready to be attached. The bodice seams are all sewn by top-or-prick-stitching (I chose prick) through two layers of fabric and one of lining, then covering the seam on the inside with the other lining piece and quickly slip-stitching it into place. Since I wasn’t lining my skirt, I got to learn about a fun little thing called a mantua maker’s seam, which allows you to sew a fully finished seam like a french seam with just one row of stitching. The Fashionable Past has a quick tutorial here.
The first thing I did when I got home was to sew the sleeves in place. Since the material is very thick and pulls hard against the pins, I basted it before doing the final prick-stitching. As you can see, the fullness is controlled by pleats, rather than gathering, since these are much easier to set on a person.
The skirt was attached the same way:
After that, I had to take a break for a while in order to finish the company dresses for the Jane Austen society AGM. You can read about Heather’s here, and Meredith’s here. When I got back to the pelisse, it was time to finish the front edges and hem.
At this point, life got in the way again as I rushed to complete holiday gifts. But once the holidays were over, I could finally buckle down and finish this project, which was now spread out over three months.
Not unlike the project itself, this post is not getting away from me, so I’ll wrap it up here, and there will be a special 2nd edition of this post on Wednesday, where you’ll get to see collar, trimming, buttonholes and the finished product! Here’s a sneak peek:
See you then!
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