Me: Yes. I'm going to spend two days in a museum watching a group of women make a dress.
Friend (dubiously): Riiiight. Have fun.
And I did. And have a lot of photographs to prove it.
I haven't done any historical costuming for a long time, due to a combination of lack of time and lack of opportunities to wear anything I make, but I still take an interest. So when I heard about Wedding Gown in a Weekend, a project to recreate the Isabella MacTavish Fraser wedding gown over a weekend in Edinburgh, the opportunity to see this and pay another visit to the city where I grew up was irresistable.
A bit of background: The original dress was worn by Isabella MacTavish for her marriage to Malcolm Fraser in January 1785 at Ruthven, near Inverness, and has remained in the family ever since. Remarkably for a dress from that era, it does not appear to have ever been altered. According to family lore, it was Isabella's wish that the dress be kept as a wedding dress. To the family's knowledge it has only subsequently been worn by Isabella's daughter-in-law, then by the current owner in 1978, and by her daughter in 2005.
The dress is on loan to Inverness Museum, but is currently on display in Edinburgh as part of the exhibition, Wild and Majestic; Romantic Visions of Scotland at the National Museum of Scotland. I went round the exhibition when I arrived in Edinburgh on Friday.
|The dress and arisaid on display
The fabric is what is called a 'hard tartan', woven from a worsted thread. Something which wasn't apparent from the photographs I'd seen before was just how textured the resulting cloth is.
|Not the smooth soft tartan I'm familiar with
So that's the (stunning) original, what about the recreation?
The project was the brainchild of Rebecca Olds of Timesmith Dressmaking. Among many other things, she arranged for the fabric to be recreated by Prickly Thistle, and assembled a team of dressmakers with extensive knowledge of eighteenth century costuming. This included Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox of American Duchess, Peryn Westerhof Nyman, Katy Stockwell, Alexandra Bruce, Georgia Gough and Flora Macleod Swietlicki.
Abby and Laren had done a lot of preparatory work before they arrived in Scotland, including making a mock up from wool flannel with a linen lining - you can read about it here. The mock up included details such as the linen lacing strips under the bodice front, and even the mistakes which the original mantua-maker had made (of which more later).
|Interior of mock up showing the lacing strip
Before the event started on Saturday, Abby had draped the linen lining on Georgia the model, and had created the bodice pattern. While the bodice pieces were being cut out, Lauren explained to the audience what sort of undergarments would have been worn with the original dress.
|Lauren demonstrating petticoats
This was the format for the two days: while various members of the team worked on the dress Rebecca, Lauren, Abby and Peryn took it in turns to explain what was happening, answer questions, and provide background information. I for one learned so much. I was also hugely impressed by the way that the members of the team who were working on the dress were able to follow the conversation and join in as required: when I'm concentrating on sewing my conversational 'skills' don't stretch beyond saying "Yes please" to offers of tea!
The tartan was woven 26" wide, the same as the original. The photograph below shows it laid out on the main work table.
|Abby and Lauren cutting out
The fabric was slightly warped, so the rectangular skirt panels had to be pulled back into shape.
|Every dressmaker has had to do this with fabric at some time!
As is obvious from the above two photographs, the team were working in front of a large window. As a result of all this light, some later pictures are a little washed out - apologies.
Like the original, the dress was sewn with unbleached linen thread.
|Bodice fronts and a sleeve
At this point the dress was still in a number of pieces, which meant that several people could work on it at once. All of the team were dressed as mantua-makers of the period would have been, and even with the barrier and modern tables and chairs, it was easy to imagine this as a scene from a mantua-maker's workshop.
|Lauren, Peryn and Abby at work
Modern technology did make the odd appearance though. Because the aim was to recreate the original dress as closely as possible, including the positioning of the stripes in the tartan, the team frequently referred to the photographs they had stored on a tablet!
|Abby, with reference materials
Day two started with a fitting. First, the pleated back panel was pinned to Georgia's stays.
|Fitting the back panel
Next, the bodice front was pinned to the back panel at the shoulders and the sides.
|Pinning the shoulders
|Fine-tuning the fit
Then the sleeves were added to check their fit.
|Slipping on the sleeves
The sleeves were removed again, to be tightened, and the skirt panels were attached to the back. There were five panels in total, two on each side. This was where the period-accurate width of the fabric and its beautifully finished selvedges came in particularly useful: the pieces could just be sewn together, with no raw edges to finish.
|Sewing the skirt panels together
|One side of the skirt
Lauren then pleated the skirt by eye, pinning and then basting the pleats into place.
|Pleating the skirt
Meanwhile Abby sewed the side seams and the lining only of the shoulder seams.
|Basting pleats on one side, sewing the bodice on the other
Then it was time for another fitting. At this point there was a huge amount of heavy skirt only attached to the bodice by the small pleated section at the centre back, so Lauren had to support the skirt until it was pinned in place.
|Lauren holding the skirt while Abby fastens the bodice front
Problems arose when the sleeves were added.
|Sleeve fit issues
Georgia is not the same shape as Isabella; she has wider shoulders. As a result it wasn't possible to exactly replicate the fitting of the sleeves from the original dress. Far from being a negative I found this fascinating; it really demonstrated the skill that the eighteenth-century mantua-maker needed to be able to properly fit dresses to all of her clients, as opposed to the modern one-size-vaguely-fits-all approach. (I also made a mental note to never again complain about setting in modern sleeves!)
Once the sleeve was fitted, it was on to the pleated wing cuffs.
|Attaching a cuff
Now came one of the mistakes from the original. The sleeves had been made tight, so tight that Isabella couldn't bend her elbows. This would be a problem at the best of times, but especially at a wedding celebration! The mantua-maker had solved the problem by slashing up the sleeve and covering the cut with the cuff, and Abby and Lauren had replicated this on their mock up.
|The green line shows the slash to make the sleeve wider
Now it was time to carry out the fix on the reproduction dress.
|Just cut into an almost-finished dress while it's on the model, what could go wrong?
By this point time was moving on, and it was all hands to the pump to complete all the stitching.
|Everyone hard at work
But at last it was completed (bar a few little finishing-off areas).
|Georgia in the completed dress
|Finished off with fichu and arisaid
All in all, it was an amazing project to watch; the two days just flew by. Even though I can't imagine ever making an eighteenth-century dress for myself, I learned so much and had a great time. A huge thank you to Rebecca, Lauren, Abby and the rest of the team for a fascinating weekend.
If you would like to see the original dress for yourself, Wild and Majestic runs until 10 November. As well as Isabella's dress, there are a number of other fabulous tartan garments on display (in fact, I feel another blog post coming on), and the exhibition overall is a very interesting look at how the popular image of 'Scotland' came into being. Rebecca will be giving a talk about the project at the museum on Friday 4 October, the museum will advertise this event closer to the time. Update: the event is now on the museum wesite, details are here.