Sunday, 29 March 2020

Historical Sew Monthly - Re-Use

Because I had my graduation outfit to complete for the 13th, and I was meant to be going on holiday for a week after the ceremony, I had decided that I needed something quick and simple for the Historical Sew Monthly this month. So I chose February's challenge; Re-Use. This is defined as "Use thrifted materials or old garments or bedlinen to make a new garment. Mend, re-shape or re-trim an existing garment to prolong its life.". This seemed the perfect fit for a job that's been on my to-do list for ages; fixing my 1911 corset.

I made this corset way back in 2012, as part of a sewalong run on the now sadly defunct Bridges on the Body blog. The pattern is taken from Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines.

The completed corset

At the time I didn't know much about corset making. I didn't blog about the making process in much detail, either, so I don't have any clues as to why I chose to have many of the bones ending some way below the top of the boning channels. The diagram in Corsets and Crinolines shows the bones coming to the top of the corset.

Corset pieces and bone placement

The bones end far below the top edge

The effect wasn't obvious when the corset was on the dressform, but when I wore it to photograph my Wiener Werkstätte ensemble, the unboned section buckled and rolled down. It was uncomfortable, messy, and clearly wasn't doing the corset any good.

Initially I planned to take the trim off the upper edge of the corset, cut it down to the tops of the bones, and re-apply the trim. Fortunately, before I could get round to doing this, witness2fashion wrote an excellent series of articles on the changing corseted shape from 1907 to 1914 (click on the links here for Part 1 - 1907-1910, Part 2 - 1910-1912 and Part 3 - 1912-1914). This was how I discovered that the shape of the corset wasn't the problem, it was the length of the bones.

I carefully took off the binding and trim as planned, unpicked the top flossing, and removed the bones (they were all flat steels).

This shows how the fabric had bunched up

I then measured the boning channels from the bottom flossing, and ordered new steels. Most of them were around 2.5cm / 1" longer. These were inserted and flossed, and the binding and trim sewn back on. In the picture below it's just possible to see the marks where the old bones ended.

The replacement bones in place

Please excuse the poor quality bathroom selfies which follow, and the fact that I'm wearing a tee shirt rather than my chemise underneath. I had foolishly put my tea in the oven once I'd finished sewing, and then realised that this didn't leave me much time to take the photos! Despite the quality, they show that the fit is much better.

Front view

Side view

It was only when I dug out the original images from 2012 for this post that I realised that I've sewn the eyelet trim back on wrongly - the pink satin bias underneath should be visible at the top, not the bottom. So guess what tomorrow's little job is going to be?! Despite that, I'm very pleased to have finally fixed this.

The small print:
The Challenge: February, Re-Use
What the item is: Fixing a poorly-fitting corset by replacing some of the steels which were too short
How it fits the challenge: Left as it was, the corset would wear through due to bunching and rubbing. All the existing trim was re-applied once the corrections had been made
Fabric: Coutil for the corset, synthetic satin for the bias trim
Pattern: 1911 corset from Norah Waugh's Corsets and Crinolines
Year: c1911
Notions: cotton eyelet lace for trimming, flat steels
How historically accurate is it? The pattern is from an actual corset, and the materials are accurate apart from the synthetic satin, so I would say 80%
Hours to complete: 8, a fair amount of which was unpicking. Partly because when I sew something, I don't intend for it to come apart easily, and partly because I was making sure that the materials could be re-used
First worn: Not yet
Total cost: I am only including the cost of the new steels, not the materials for the original corset, as the challenge was to fix it, not make it from scratch. £11.47.

Sunday, 22 March 2020


Not so much a progress report this week, more of a ponder. Like a lot of people, I suddenly find myself with more time at home than I'd bargained for, and a need for something to take my mind off the news. Fortunately, sewing fits the bill. With all the things I want to make this year, I'm really not at a loose end. But just to add to the fun, I'm hoping to use the dresses I make for the UseNine challenge as a way of ironing out some fitting problems.

A long, long time ago, I wrote about the alterations I needed to make when I'm sewing. I have a short torso, and taking roughly 5cm/2" out of the bodice length seemed to do the trick. How much and where varied between pattern brands, but it was the same amount all round. I also knew that I was (rather to my disappointment) a B cup.

Well, in the words of Joni Mitchell, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

In the last couple of years I'd noticed that my dresses were getting a bit tight round the bust, but I just put it down to middle-aged spread. What I really couldn't understand though, was why bodices suddenly seemed to be slightly short on me. It was only at the front, so couldn't be a very late growth spurt! I even wondered if my posture had changed - was I standing more upright?

Eventually light dawned; my bust has got larger. This was one effect of the menopause that I really didn't expect. I've only gone up to a C cup, but dress patterns have traditionally been created to a B. So for all these years, while I've occasionally grumbled a bit about having to alter patterns, I've really been leading a charmed life. Bust alterations, I've been led to believe, are scary.


When I made Butterick 5748, I used a size larger than I normally would, shortened the centre-back by 5cm as usual, shortened the centre front by 4cm, and tapered the waistline between these two points. This seemed to work, but I wear the dress with a belt, and it's got a wide neckline, a full skirt and no sleeves, so I didn't have to worry about the fit of the larger size anywhere else.

Out of curiosity, I then took the bodice front in the size I'd usually use, added my standard shortening alteration, and then altered the pattern using this FBA method from the Curvy Sewing Collective. My first attempt at making the bodice up was dreadful (too dreadful to even photograph), because I'd got the bust point in the wrong place, so the darts were spectacularly wrong. The bodice length, width and neckline all seemed fine, however.

My altered pattern piece

The extra length at the bodice front and the extra width at the bust are quite similar to the changes I made myself, so I'll need to consider which method to use on future dresses. I'd love to hear from anyone who has experience of fitting a C cup bust, or who has had to alter their fitting practice in line with a changing body - this is all new territory to me!

Sunday, 15 March 2020

When it all goes a bit wrong (and then right)

So, Vogue 1277. The outfit I was making for my graduation. The outfit for which I have made one dress bodice toile, one full dress toile and one jacket toile (give or take a few sleeves). The outfit I have been working on for weeks. Last weekend I finished the dress bodice in the 'proper' fabric, and tried it on.

And. I didn't like it.

I had already accepted that my tailoring skills weren't good enough for me to complete the jacket in the time available, so was just making the dress. But it was only when I tried the bodice on that I realised that most of the detailing is on the jacket, and the dress on its own is quite plain.

Vogue 1277, the dress

This hadn't been a problem with the white toile, but I was concerned that a darkish blue version worn with a black gown over it would look too severe. The hunt was on for an alternative*, and at first I considered wearing something I had already made. But somehow this didn't seem right, after completing an entire dissertation on home dressmaking.

While looking through the stash for inspiration, I unearthed a length of navy viscose with a small floral print, which I'd bought for its 1940s look. And it struck me that I had the perfect 1940s pattern to go with it. In my dissertation I had discussed the authenticity (or otherwise) of reissued patterns, and had used my comparison of Simplicity 1777 and 4463 to illustrate the point. What could be better than actually wearing some of my research for the graduation ceremony?


In terms of construction, I mostly followed the methods I'd used the last time I made this pattern up. The only difference was that I used a zip, rather than a placket and press studs, for the side opening. In theory this was to save time but, as I always hand pick zips anyway, I'm not sure that it ended up being any quicker.

This is definitely a pattern which needs a fabric with drape. The previous, cotton, version has not softened over time, and the gathers at the waist bunch up awkwardly. In fact, I'm considering unpicking them and pleating the fabric instead. The viscose works perfectly, however. I founds some buttons which matched the brown of the flowers, and I think that they provide just the right level of contrast.

The completed dress

On top of this, the navy background went well with the blue hood of my graduation robes.

With my robes and degree certificate

(As a side note, I was unreasonably happy to finally get to wear a mortarboard. I did my first degree at Liverpool, and the female graduates weren't allowed to wear mortarboards at the ceremony - we had to wear weird square berets instead, which were a nightmare to keep on. I haven't exactly been nursing a grievance for 34 years, but still.)

Anyone who followed the progress of my Masters on this blog (thank you!) will be familiar with the Dissertation Police and their vital role in getting me over the finishing line. So it seemed only right that they accompanied me to the ceremony at Chester Cathedral. My parents meanwhile watched the livestream from the comfort, and warmth, of their own home - the cathedral isn't the cosiest building to sit in for two hours.

Flanked by the police, F and D

Not only did this end up being the perfect dress for the occasion, it became my March dress for the Vintage Sew A Dress A Month, and it also used up some stash fabric as well. Although I do have to confess that some fabric has been bought recently. I've discovered the Ditto Fabrics website, which I fear may be a Very Bad Thing. I tried to resist, honestly I did, but then I came across this.

Because who doesn't want a dress with pineapples on it? (image © Ditto Fabrics)

So fabric has gone out, but fabric has also come in.

Still in credit

* - Just to be clear, Vogue 1277 hasn't been completely abandoned. I still want to make it, but it's now more of a long-term project.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

Hidden Stories from a Costume Collection

Getting up close to some Victorian costume

Well, I wasn't in any danger of not hearing about this. It was co-organised by Professor Deborah Wynne, who is responsible for the annual Textile Stories study days at the University of Chester. Deborah was also my dissertation supervisor, and she let me know about this event as soon as the details were confirmed. At the same time Meroe, a friend from my Ya Raqs days whose work is based at the museum, also contacted me to say, "Don't miss this, you'll love it"! She was right.

A popular event

The day began with Deborah interviewing Ruth Caswell about her remarkable, textile-filled life. Ruth sold her first clothing designs to a local department store while she was still at technical college in Leeds. She chose not to pursue this line however, and instead trained as a theatrical costumier, becoming costume supervisor (at 22) for the company which would eventually become the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.

Ruth (left) and Deborah

In the early 1970s she and her husband moved to London. At this point she returned to making clothing, which she sold on a stall in Kensington High Street - at least until her 'Bird' dress featured in Vogue's 1971 Fashion Photograph of the Year.

'Bird' dress, photographed by Norman Parkinson

Ruth explained that the structure and volume of the dress did not 'just happen', but came from the frilled cotton culottes worn underneath it - an example of both the importance of underpinnings in costume and her strong practical training. She moved into bridal wear when it became apparent that women were buying her clothes to use as wedding dresses, and later began making clothing for the museum sector. This led to work in both film and TV: she was a textile advisor on the BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice; and made some of the costumes for the film Elizabeth. She now runs workshops with young people, introducing them to the possibilities of making a career in the creative arts.

A selection of Ruth's work through her career

After a delicious lunch, we moved onto the second part of the day, an 'unboxing' with a difference. Wrexham Museum owns a collection of Victorian costumes which was donated some years ago, but does not have the resources to display them. The hope is that by making the public aware of the existence of the Corbishley Collection, they might be able to change this. Two boxes had been brought out of the museum's stores, and we were able to see their contents in detail.

First out was this fan-front dress.

Lifting the dress out

It was a relatively plain design, but made from a lovely yellow and blue shot cotton. We were able to look at the construction details from the inside, such as these amazing cartridge pleats.

So. Much. Fabric.

The interior of the bodice showed where the fan pleating had been stitched down - and also the later addition of press studs!

Another interior shot

Once we had all had a chance to examine it, the dress was put on a mannequin.

Smoothing the dress in place

The dress had clearly been widened at some point. There was an obvious strip of fabric added at the back, the cartridge pleats had been let out, and the beautiful piping around the bodice lost.

Back view showing the added strip

Close-up of the loosened pleats and missing piping

Although plain, the dress was clearly of good quality. Ruth surmised that it was the type of garment which could have belonged to a governess. The addition of a lace collar and a red ribbon created a look very similar to this image of Charlotte Brontë.

A style fit for a governess, or author

The second dress was the one which had featured in the publicity materials, and was already on a mannequin.

Striped silk dress

This one had amazing sleeve details.

Scalloped, piped and buttoned sleeves

Like the first dress, it had been altered, albeit with rather less skill.

Clumsy pleating at the back

The state of this dress however was nothing compared to the indignities heaped on the next one to emerge from its box.

The bodice, on its bed of tissue

The silk was faded in places and shattering, presumably in part due to the aniline dye used. However the saddest discovery was that this wasn't a separate skirt and bodice; it was a dress which someone had at some point cut in half!

The skirt, complete with raw edge

Back view - this must have been a beautiful dress once

The final dress to emerge from storage was also in two pieces, this time intentionally. It was in remarkable condition, as if it had never been worn.

The bodice

Again, we were able to examine the interior in detail.

Flat-lining, boning, and a waist stay

The bones were laid over the seams, and sewn in place at the ends. The flat-lining was done in two different materials; fancy at the front and plain at the back. I wonder if this was deliberate, or just using whatever fabric was to hand?

Showing the different linings.

There was also a name printed on the waist stay, which showed that the dress came from Chester.

Madame Hamley, Eastgate Row, Chester

While the bodice was almost perfect (apart from badly sewn-on buttons), the skirt showed some signs of having been either altered or very awkwardly mended at some point.

Obvious stitching on the skirt

But this didn't detract from the overall look.

A very elegant back view

The dress from the front

In line with the 'hidden stories' theme, seeing the dress like this rather than fully done up on the mannequin allowed for one final detail to emerge. The button side of the bodice had been cut into, and the edges overcast with tiny stitches, to allow it to lie flat when done up.

Showing the cut, three buttons up

All in all it was a fascinating day, and I really hope that Wrexham Museum are able to show more of the collection to the public in the future. You can read Deborah's account of the event here.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Time spent in reconnaissance

Jennifer Rosbrugh, who runs the excellent Historical Sewing website, recently asked on Facebook what 'top tip' people would give to sewing newbies. At 800 comments and counting, I've not managed to read them all, but one of the recurring themes seems to be the importance of preparation.

I've had reason to think about this a lot this week, as despite working on Vogue 1277 for what feels like forever, I've still not taken scissors to (proper) fabric. My plan to leave the jacket toile until the dress was complete came unstuck when I discovered that the dress and jacket pieces are jumbled together in the cutting layout, so I need to have everything drafted properly before I could begin.

If only I'd looked at this before I started!

Proper drafting is taking time. Unprinted pattern pieces were cut in thick stacks with a bandsaw, and the pattern markings punched by hand, so there's plenty of opportunity for inaccuracy - and this pattern seems to have made the most of that opportunity! So it's not just a case of making fit alterations; I have to check that notches and circles match up, and 'straight' lines are actually straight.

That's a lot of markings to check

Although it's taking a lot of time, it hasn't felt like wasted time. This pattern is in a different league from my usual projects, and making toiles of the dress and jacket has given me the chance to identify tricky sections before I start on my (limited) proper fabric, and also to work through and understand the instructions properly. The instuctions for pleating the skirt, for example, seemed utterly impenetrable at first. It was only by marking the lines of circles in different colours for different circle sizes that I could understand the process.

I did skimp a bit on making the toiles. I only made one sleeve, and I shortened the skirt panels a lot because it was the fitting at the top that I needed to check, not the length. This was however enough to demonstrate that the side panel markings are totally off, so I need to do do some more work in that area.

The dress toile, with very un-1950s ra-ra skirt!

It wasn't apparent until I made the jacket up that its sleeves are far too long for me. As they have faux vents at the cuff, this would have been almost impossible to fix if I hadn't checked it first. Because I had graded the pattern up a size, I basted on a jacket pocket flap to check if I needed to grade that up as well. I also added stashed buttons of the size I intend to use, again to check the proportions (although as the picture above shows, I didn't manage to add them symmetrically on the dress).

The jacket toile

Adding the jacket buttons highlighted something which wasn't so apparent on the pattern marking: the vertical spacing is uneven because I had to shorten the bodice above the waist. I'm not yet sure what to do about this, but I would have hated to have only noticed it after I'd cut the buttonholes!

Uneven button placement

I'm not entirely happy with the bottom edge of the collar either, so that will have to be tweaked.

These are all things which can be fixed, but I only discovered that they need fixing by making the toiles. It was my mum who taught me to sew, but my dad is a maker as well, and it was he who taught me the maxim, "Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted". It's certainly been the case with this project.

Making these pieces up in white cotton, and adding white buttons and trim, reminded me of my favourite section in last year's Dior exhibition at the V&A; The Atelier, with its floor to ceiling display of toiles.  Obviously, the inhabitants of 30 Avenue Montaigne are not in the habit of missing off sleeves or shortening skirts, but here is my little homage.

Spot the difference!