Last week I showed Élisabeth Alexandrine in a mad hat and a bizarre fabric dress and a robe. Many of you found the hat just wee bit weird, but the suggestion of the outfit as a masquerade costume for Nanny Ogg tilted the balance in its favour (and besides, it was rich and elegant and fashion forward), and the rating came in at exactly 8.5 out of 10.
This week’s Rate the Dress was chosen primarily because the mannequin and presentation are strong contenders for the creepiest costume photos ever. I’m not sure it quite beats the staging of the plunging Regency frock for dreadfulness, but I could equally see it as a Dr Who villain!
So yeah, no points for the mannequin. But what do you think of the riding habit with its gold trim and high standing collar? The gigot sleeves and back pleated skirt? Perfect sartorial elegance for a day with equines, or too stiff and formal?
Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10.
Do you ever have days where you have a plan for the day, and you totally throw it out the window because you need to make something and have it done NOW?
Saturday was exactly that kind of day for me. In the morning I volunteered at Fabric-a-Brac and bought lots of gorgeous goodies (I shared some of them on Facebook, and will be showing you a project made with something else I got on Wednesday).
I was supposed to spend the afternoon working on a dress that I’m planning to wear to a wedding I’m going to next weekend. When I began to work on the dress and tried to iron the fabric I was just so disgusted with my ironing board cover that I couldn’t deal with it anymore.
I whipped out some heavy white cotton fabric I’d bought less than two hours before, pulled out some wool batting from Made on Marion, and some purple lingerie elastic I’d got in a Wellington Sewing Bloggers swap (purple isn’t a colour I like for underwear, and it was the only elastic I had around the house that was the right width, length and elasticity) and got to work.
I used my old ironing board cover as a pattern:
I just drew a chalk line around it. In retrospect I wish I’d added more ease all around the edges, because my old cover (you can see how revolting looking it is in this photo) was ‘shaped’ on the corners, and more ease would have pulled the cover tighter on the ironing board.
Then I zig-zagged the elastic all around the edges, pulling the elastic tight as I sewed.
And there it was – the cover pretty much done! I know it’s boring, but I really like plain white ironing board covers, so that I can see if they get any marks or stains that might transfer to my fabric.
My ironing board pad was just as disgusting as the cover, so I used it as a pattern to cut a new one out of the wool batting. I’m using two layers, but want to buy a bit more so I can have three.
I like this photo – the wool batting looks like scissors and you can see my awesome red patent leather shoes.
I had to piece the batting a bit on one piece:
Then I sewed pieces of elastic on either end to slip under the bottom of the ironing board to hold the cover on snug. And, less than an hour later, I was done:
Very gratifying! And something that has been on my to-do list for ages but was never quite the top priority is finally done.
Miss Fiss approves by the way:
As far as she is concerned I just re-covered her throne.
She loves the ironing board because 1) I’m always using it so it must be important and thus should be hogged, 2) I’m always using it so it’s often warm, 3) it’s padded, and 4) it puts her at the perfect height for all sorts of passing pets and cuddles.
When I made my nettle shift/smock I wanted my construction to be reasonably historically accurate, but in researching 14th century smocks* I discovered that there are so few visual images of smocks of that period, so few extent garments (none of which remotely match the visual record) and so few written mentions that we really don’t know how 14th century smocks were made. The best guesses are based on extrapolating backwards from extent garments from later periods, and matching that up to the few period depictions and the single extent (sorta, it’s been missing since WWII so all we have is a black and white photograph) example (which doesn’t look at all like period depictions) and known sewing techniques from other garments.
Many reproduction medieval smocks/shifts/chemises are constructed like 16th-18th century shifts – a series of rectangles and triangles, with gussets under the arm, and side gores to allow the shift to flare. It’s a frugal, practical and durable construction method. However the single extent (sorta) 14th century smock, is side gore-less (and while there is a 13th century shift that does have side gores, both it and the 14th century example are sleeveless – very helpful). So other patterns are certainly plausible.
In addition to wanting my shift to be at least plausible, I also needed it to be as quick as possible. I’m time poor at the moment. So I opted for a more-or-less midpoint between the two patterns: a simple one piece T shape with flared sides.
The T-shape is cut to the full width of the fabric, so I didn’t have to hem the sleeves, because they end on the selvedge edges. The flared sides are slightly curved, because both extent medieval shifts have curved sides. The only extra pieces are square gussets to set under the arms.
As you can see, cutting the garment this way leaves a scrap of triangular fabric cut from under the arm, effectively ‘wasting’ fabric, which makes it slightly less historically plausible, as fabric was so valuable it would have been used as frugally as possible.
With the pattern sussed, I sewed.
Felicity, as per our cat-owner sewing agreement, helped:
The smock is sewn with silk thread (would linen be more accurate? Likely, but since I was using ramie/nettle instead of linen I felt a little thread jiggery pokery was not really the biggest issue) with basic running backstitches. The neck edge and hem are simply turned twice and stitched down with the same running backstitches.
As I began setting in the sleeve gussets the problem with my pattern became immediately obvious. Without a shoulder seam, there are stress points where the corner of the gusset meets the shift are going to be quite vulnerable to tearing.
A shoulder seam would have provided extra strength to this point, and made it easier to set the gusset, and would also have let me cut the sleeves alongside the smock, saving fabric, and giving me full-length sleeves, instead of 3/4 length sleeves.
I could have skipped a gusset altogether, but that would have reduced my arm range in the smock, and it would still have been very vulnerable to underarm tears – perhaps even more so than with the gusset. I suppose I could have cut across the underarm at an angle, as if the gusset was there.
In order to re-inforce the gusset, and stop the ramie from fraying (it frays badly) I flat felled all the seams, just as you would with an 18th century shift, though I haven’t been able to find information on whether that was done with medieval smocks (it’s seen on some examples of medieval wool garments, and makes sense with linen, so I’m guessing it’s more likely than not).
Many of you asked about ramie/nettle fabric – I’ll be doing a full terminology post, but here is a close up of the fabric to try to show you the texture as much as possible. You can clearly see that it is fuzzier and more fibre-y than linen:
Unlike linen, ramie doesn’t seem to soften press and meld together as you sew it. It’s much ‘drier’ and crisper, and I suspect will not wear as well. It’s also itchier, so I’m glad that I didn’t put as much effort into this smock as I would one of proper handkerchief linen.
Ramie is a lot like linen though, especially in that it finger-presses beautifully. Sewing all those felled seams was a breeze, and turning and sewing the hem and neck was also easy.
I did wear the shift to climb trees and scramble up a steep hill and carry things around, and it held up very well (without even a dress over it to protect it), so the sleeve gussets aren’t as fragile as I thought they might be.
However, having made this shift, I don’t think the construction is the most plausible method for medieval shifts, simply because it isn’t the best use of fabric (though I’d have to do more research on the width of medieval linens to find out what layout would be most likely), and because it leaves weak points in the garment, and I can’t imagine even the richest of medieval queens being thrilled about a shift that ripped out under the arms. In the future, I will at least be constructing my shifts with separate sleeves and shoulder seams.
*translation: reading all my historical costuming books that mention medieval clothes at all, all the main medieval blogs, checking all my pinterest links, and finding almost nothing, and finally just polling the brilliant minds of the Historical Sew Fortnightly facebook group for information