Remaking a Problematic Garment

The donated dress.
Let me begin by saying that this post  is not intended to insult anyone’s sewing abilities, knowledge of garments or historical wardrobe. The intent is to demonstrate how garments, that may not be quite right historically, can be remade and given new life.
As historical interpreters/reenactors, we will spend quite a bit of money on a wardrobe trying to “get it right”. Mistakes will be made. The longer you are in the field, the more you learn and with learning come change.  I have a few pieces in my old wardrobe that I shudder at having worn as ‘historical’ clothing.  In fact, a few garments have absolutely no historical basis what-so-ever such as the polyester English bodice, and faux suede skirt but I wore them thinking they were appropriate ( Boy, was I wrong). Hard earned money went pouring down the drain that day!
In a perfect interpretive world, there would be a benevolent sewing god who would bestow unlimited knowledge of fabrics, sewing techniques and styles upon us eliminating the pain of unfortunate mistakes.

A few years ago the 1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House (the historic site I manage) received a donation of a child’s dress for the interpretive wardrobe. Unfortunately the style of the garment was not appropriate for use at the house. Our interpretive wardrobe is extremely limited, and clothing donations are always welcome; but if something is not period correct, we must decide if it can be modified to work or needs to find another home. In this case, I decided to take the dress apart, because the fabric was passable, and re-cut the pieces to correct shapes. The pattern I chose to use for the remake was drafted from an original 1800-1810 child's dress owned by the Denmark National Museum (the pattern can be downloaded at www. tidenstoej.natmus.dk)
1800-1810 Child's dress owned by the Denmark National Museum

I actually enjoy the process of taking a problematic garment and remodeling it. I see it as paying homage to our foremothers, who often reworked older garments to be more fashionable or to fit someone else. It’s recycling, 19th century style. If fabrics were useable, it would have been a waste to discard an entire garment over something fixable.

The deconstruction part of this process can be very stress releasing. If you are having a bad day, there is something very satisfying about ripping something apart with your bare hands. And no, I am not usually a destructive person; but I have been called a “button counter” on occasion, so there is great satisfaction knowing I have removed one more anachronistic garment from public view. (Ouch! I think I dislocated my shoulder patting my back. J)

Step #1: Evaluate the situation. This is probably the most important step in the process. If you want to rework a garment for use in a historic setting then take the time to do a little research. First check the fabric. Be sure it is in good shape and correct for the period you plan to portray. Next, make sure there is enough fabric. A good guideline is to make a garment smaller than the original (i.e., converting a woman’s dress into a girl’s or teen’s).


Dress pieces after stress-releasing deconstruction.

Step #2: Deconstruct pseudo-historical garment. Try not to get carried away with the rush of power you will receive from the first ripping sound. It is important to salvage as much fabric as possible, because piecing may be necessary during re-cutting. I recommend using a handy-dandy seam ripper or small needlework scissors to cut seam threads before the ripping begins.

Step #3: Press fabric pieces with an iron. Another important step, removing wrinkles and seam creases will ensure better fit in the next step. If seam creases are stubborn, give them a good blast of steam.


Pattern pieces drafted from an early 19th century child's dress are placed on the decontructed dress pieces.

Step #4: Find the best fit. If you enjoy puzzles, you’re gonna love this step. Lay out your pressed fabric pieces. Position the pattern pieces according to best fit on the available fabric. Depending on the size of your fabric and pattern pieces, it may be necessary to sew remnants together. (“Piecing” the pieces...capicé?) One interesting thing to remember about historical garments when cutting out the pattern is that economy was often the driving force behind pattern placement in past centuries.
Close-up of front bodice piece where it was necessary to piece fabric remnants together

Step #5: Putting it back together. Once all pieces have been re-cut, it’s time to sew it together. Follow the instructions provide with the pattern, or if you are an experienced seamstress, commence as usual. Whenever possible use period-appropriate sewing techniques, at least in visible areas.



The finished dress.


This all sounds simple and easy, but there is a lot of work involved. Take the time to research the pattern, the fabric, and the sewing techniques you will use. Don’t use it if it’s not right! The first visible part of any historical interpretation is clothing. Unless you plan to be on a theater stage or several feet from the public, remember that clothing will either make or break your interpretation. If the fabric of an inappropriate garment is not correct for your time period, don’t waste time reworking it; give it to a local school drama department or thrift store. Evaluating the garment before you begin will save disappointment, embarrassment and frustration in the long run.



My daughter wearing the dress with a reproduction spencer jacket.


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