Saturday, August 17, 2013

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.
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...capicĂ©?) 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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Neat School Girl's Day Cap

One of my favorite historical reference books is The Workwoman's Guide: A Guide to 19th Century Decorative Arts, Fashion and Practical Crafts by a Lady, originally published in 1838. Personally, I think anyone who does period sewing for the early 19th century should have a copy in their reference library. This book is Wonderful! It has instructions for everything from undergarments to bed hangings. The instructions can be challenging at times because the author assumes that the reader has basic knowledge of hand sewing techniques in general use at the time. Unfortunately, today's seamstress may find herself at a loss when deciphering the measurements and instructions if she has no experience with traditional hand sewing techniques..
My reprinted copy purchased from

Recently, I decided to draft and make the pattern on page 64 entitled, A Neat School Girl's Cap (illustrations on page 63, plate 9, figures 13 & 14). Of course, I would pick the pattern with the vaguest instructions (as a professor in college once said to me, "You can't start with the easiest project can you? You have to go straight for the most challenging.") Anyway, after some serious head-scratching over the non-existent details of construction I decided to reference what I already knew about cap construction techniques. The day cap was of simple design and what the instructions didn't elaborate on was easy to figure out.
Illustration of cap on page 63. Some of the measurement are visible.

Actual instructions from the book:

    " This pattern needs little further explanation, the shape and size are so clearly given in the Plate. The head-piece is sloped off at the ears, beginning to cut at 1 nail above the corner, to 1 nail beyond the corner, at the bottom of the cap.
     This cap is for school-girls, and is particularly neat if of checked muslin with corded muslin frills."

Seems clear as mud!

First, I drafted the pattern based on the measurements and the illustration. One thing about drafting patterns from this book is the type of measurement used. The author uses the measurement of 'nails' not inches. Luckily on page 14 there is a section on how big a 'nail' is in comparison to an inch; 2 1/4 inches equals 1 nail. You will want to create some type of measuring apparatus to make drafting easier. I created my 'nail' ruler several years ago while making another project from the book.
I used the backside of an old ruler to draw out the 'nail' measurements. 

Measurements for this cap are as follows (I have left out the additional measurements for fabric yardage which the author includes for economical cutting of more then one cap):

Length of crown down the selvage...6 nails
Width of the crown, or three in the breadth.....8 nails
Length of the head-piece down the selvage.....8 nails
Width of the head-piece, or twelve in the breadth....2 nails

As I was drawing the draft I studied the illustration and made changes where necessary. Each piece started out as a rectangle. The crown was 8 nails by 8 nails. The curve for the crown began 6 nails up from the bottom and sloped gently to the center back. The headpiece measured 2 nails wide by 4 nails long (the illustration provided the 4 nails measurement) with the curve beginning 1 nail from the corner on the long edge to 1 nail from the corner of the short edge. Here is how my final draft looked.
Final draft of the cap pattern.

Once I was happy with the draft it was time to start cutting. I cut one of each pattern piece. The crown was cut with the center back on the fold. The headpiece was cut with the short straight side on fold. The fabric used for this project was 100% cotton batiste from my stockpile. I would have preferred to use a nice light weight linen but made due with what I had on hand.

One thing I noticed studying the draft was the crown is extremely wide at the neck edge. The illustration shows no evidence of a drawcord along the neck edge to help fit the cap to the head. Since the instructions were vague and the author obviously expects her readers to know what to do, I decided to add a casing for a drawcord. The casing is folded 1/4" plus another 1/4". I also stitched an eyelet on the outside center of the casing to allow for the drawcord to be tightened or loosened according to the wearers preferences.
Eyelet sewn on the outside of crown casing at center back of neck edge.  I stitched the eyelet before sewing the casing.

The crown cut out with the neck edge casing folded and pinned. Ready to start sewing.

The casing was sewn with a plain hem stitch.
Once the casing and eyelet were complete, I inserted the drawcord. The cording (also called tape) I used was purchased from Wm. Booth Draper ( It is roughly 1/8" wide. I buy a lot of this cording because it is very versatile in period garments (they have other widths too). It is wider then period cording but I have not found anyone producing anything close to period cording; which was very thin and durable.
Cording inserted into casing on crown. 

1/8" cording from Wm. Booth Draper. 
Around the outside edge of the crown I worked a rolled hem. This created a very nice finished edge that will be attached to the headpiece. It's important to work the rolled hem from the bottom of the crown edge (including the casing and cording) all the way around to the other side. 

Rolled hem edge including the casing and cording. 
Detail of rolled hem edge around crown.

The crown with the rolled hem complete.

Once the crown was finished, it was time to move to the headpiece. I started by pressing the front of the headpiece (the side with the curves) with a 1/8" fold + 1/8" fold. This required some finagling around the curves. I used a plain hem stitch to finish the hem.

Headpiece with the front edge hemmed. The straight side (back of headpiece) is pinned for hemming.
The straight edge of the headpiece was stitched last. I used the same hem measurements as the curved edge; 1/8' + 1/8". This is the side that the crown is attached too.

Now comes the tricky bit. I'll do my best to explain this next step.......

I marked the center point on the crown and the headpiece. I also marked a point on each side of the crown where the gathering will begin and stop, leaving the crown straight; approximately 3" up from the casing on each side. The curved side of the crown ( rolled hem edge) needs to be gathered to fit the headpiece. Over the rolled hem I worked a whipped gather stitch that was pulled tight to create very tight gathers along the edge. "The Lady's Guide to Plain Sewing" by a Lady, (available at has an excellent description of how to work this stitch.  

Detail of the whipped gather stitch. It's hard to see in the photo but the stitches are roughly 1/8" apart. This is pulled tight to create the gathers in the next photo.

It worked easier for me to gather half of the crown at a time and attach it to the headpiece. I started on the right-side of the crown at the mark 3" up from the casing and whip gathered to the center point of the crown. It took some gentle persuasion and work to pull the gathers tight enough to fit the right half of the headpiece (Take your time and ease the gathers to form! Don't yank the thread or pull to hard because it could break from the tension. Use a STRONG hand-quilting thread or double your plain cotton thread for this step.) Matching the center points and the edges, I pinned the the crown and headpieces together.

Right half of the crown and headpiece pinned together. The pin at the top left of the photo is the center point of the the crown and headpiece.
Sewing the crown and headpiece together. The needle goes through the top edge of the headpiece fold and the loop of the whipped gather. The thread will lay naturally in the space between the gathers.
Stitching the headpiece and crown together was very simple. I did a overcast stitch (catching just the fold edges) from where the pieces were pinned together at the crown casing edge and back corner of headpiece to the 3' mark. When I reached the gathers I began catching each gather at the loop side closest to the headpiece and run the needle through the top edge of the headpiece (see photo above for a visual). The thread will naturally lay within the space between the gathers if the stitch is done correctly. 

Continue attaching the left side together in the same manner as the right side. When both sides are completely sewn, open the seam by gently working the headpiece away from the crown. This makes a very flat and tight seam without the bulk modern seams create.

The headpiece (left) and crown (right) after seam has been opened up.  You can see the overcast stitches that attach the pieces together.
Below is the finished day cap. The drawcord at the back really helped in making it fit a child's head. I decided not to do a ruffle (as in the illustration) around the cap. A period ruffle would be attached in the same manner as the crown to the headpiece; with whipped gathers. A nice piece of period lace would be another alternative to finishing the edge and dressing-up the cap. A chin strap could also be added similar to the one in the illustration.

The finished day cap. It reminds me of the day caps worn by the school girls in the latest Jane Eyre movie (2011).
*I realize the final cap is not an exact copy of the one illustrated in the book. The differences are minor but it bothered me enough that I went back and double checked (and triple checked) my measurements. All the measurements were correct. The casing at the neck edge makes the biggest difference in shape; without it the cap would be entirely to big for a girls head or even a woman's. The illustration is not clear if there is a working casing on the neck edge but adding it definitely helped.