Historical Sew Fortnightly, Sewing
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Little Red Spencer-ette

A Regency Captain Janeway cosplay, thedreamstress.com
A Regency Captain Janeway cosplay, thedreamstress.com

I promised posts on all the new (or re-made) elements of my Regency Janeway outfit, and the sleeveless spencer certainly got the most questions & comments, so it’s first in line.

For my Regency Janeway look, I originally intended to make the military inspired sleeveless vest from An Agreeable Tyrant (which Carolyn of Modern Mantua Maker has made a beautiful version of).

I traced out the pattern, graded it up, and mocked it up, was all set to go sewing it up in a beautiful bright red silk taffeta…

Toile of sleeveless vest from An Agreeable Tyrant
Toile of sleeveless vest from An Agreeable Tyrant

When I decided that the red was too bright for the dark Star Trek red, AND (more importantly) I realised I had a length of slightly moth-damaged red wool (upper left) which would be perfect for a Star Trek meets Regency shawl.

The only problem? The wool clashed horribly with the red silk taffeta (lower half). I did have a 30cm long length of silk twill (upper right) that was a good match in my stash, but it wasn’t enough for the Agreeable Tyrant vest, and it was entirely the wrong hand for it.

So I went looking for inspiration for a little tiny sleeveless spencer I could fit on the silk twill.

I found this:

Jean Francois Soiron, Young woman with a golden chain
Jean Francois Soiron, Young woman with a golden chain, ca 1800

And this:

John Trumbull (American artist, 1756 – 1843) Sarah Trumbull with a Spaniel

And liked the front lacing and tassels on this:

Comtesse du Bonneval by Girodet, c. 1800

For extant inspiration, the little V overlap on this number is beautiful, and very Star Trek esque, but I had to pass on it because of logistical and fabric shortages.

Bodice belonging to Empress Joséphine, ca.1805-1814, RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau
Bodice belonging to Empress Joséphine, ca.1805-1814, RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau
Bodice belonging to Empress Joséphine, ca.1805-1814, RMN-Grand Palais (musée des châteaux de Malmaison et de Bois-Préau

I almost recreated this one, but couldn’t find suitable buttons.

Sleeveless bodice, NordiskaMuseet, NM.0050686

Numerous sleeveless spencers appear in fashion plates as well, and give more clues as to styling:

Journal des dames et des modes, Costume Parisien 191, ca. 1800
Journal des dames et des modes, Costume Parisien, ca 1800

Jen of Festive Attyre has many more examples on her excellent pinterest board.

With some ideas in mind, I patterned up something inspired by this spencer, but based on my bodice pattern, to move the shaping back to ca. 1800:

Norsk Folkemuseum (Norway) item NF.1959-0069, silk bodice, 1815

Unfortunately I thought the end result looked a bit odd over my round-gown. I would like to try the pattern given by the museum over a smoother fronted 1810s dress someday.

Toile of a sleeveless spencer, thedreamstress.com

With time running very short, I settled on a little tiny spencer primarily inspired by the first three paintings.

I used Katherine’s of the Fashionable Past’s instructions on making a sleeveless spencer as inspiration, but deviated signficantly with my construction, as the V back makes back-piece-first sewing impractical.

Red silk sleeveless Regency spencer thedreamstress.com

I intend for this spencer to be used and worn lots, but I also knew from the start that on some levels I wouldn’t ever love it. Silk twill is a horrible fabric. It’s difficult to work with, and I don’t think it feels nice. So I machine sewed most of the spencer, and finished it with hand sewn detailing.

Red silk sleeveless Regency spencer thedreamstress.com

All the night and day of the Time Travellers ball!

The goal of this spencer was definitely effect, not perfection, but I still want it to be a reasonably quality garment.

Red silk sleeveless Regency spencer thedreamstress.com

Very few people are likely to notice that the silk has pulled ever so slightly around the eyelet holes, because stretching them carefully enough to not have that problem in silk twill would have taken 6 times as long…

Red silk sleeveless Regency spencer thedreamstress.com

The most beautiful part of the spencer is definitely the tassels: I asked Hvitr to make them for me: she is a master tassel maker, and has excelled herself with these:

Red silk sleeveless Regency spencer thedreamstress.com

The fabulous tassels are part of the spencers remake: I wasn’t happy with the fit after the first wearing, so made adjustments, which included cutting off and re-doing the lacing.

A Regency Captain Janeway cosplay, thedreamstress.com

My original tassels were much less phenomenal.

A Regency Captain Janeway cosplay, thedreamstress.com

The re-make included cutting a side seam under the arm, and replacing it with a new, longer side-back piece, which moved the front strap towards the front, and meant I had to cut off the and replace the front lacing.

A Regency Captain Janeway cosplay, thedreamstress.com

I haven’t gotten photos of the re-done spencer when worn, but I’ll be wearing it at Costume College in under two weeks time!

A Regency Captain Janeway cosplay, thedreamstress.com

And wonderfully, the spencer is perfect for the June Historical Sew Monthly challenge: Favourite Technique.

What the item is: A 1798 sleeveless spencer 

How it fits the challenge: The spencer features not one, but four of my favourite techniques: late 18th century dress construction where you build the lining, and then the outer on top of it, lapped seams, hand-worked eyelets, and tassels! But if I were to pick one it would be the eyelets.  

Material: Linen lining, silk twill

Pattern: Adapted (significantly) from the dress pattern, which is itself adapted from the 1790s silk round gown pattern in An Agreeable Tyrant

Year: ca. 1798

Notions: cotton thread, cotton cord.  

How historically accurate is it? Due to time constraints (and because I hate sewing with silk twill) it’s partly machine sewn. And silk twill isn’t an accurate fabric. So maybe 70% at best

Hours to complete: 5 (not counting toiles and fitting)

First worn: Sat 22 June to the Featherston Time Travellers Ball

Total cost: $10-ish. All bits were from stash and purchased years ago, but that’s my best guess.

A Regency Captain Janeway cosplay, thedreamstress.com

2 Comments

  1. Elise says

    Fascinating! I want to know more about late-18th-century dress construction. And what makes a back “more 1800”? This is so cool, and around one of my favorite time periods to look at. I would love to know more of the ins and outs of the actual making.

    Thanks, as always, for sharing the process with us.

  2. I don’t think your silk twill is like mine then, I’ve got cream silk twill which I used to make a set of full length regency stays and I loved working with it. It was a lot more stable than most twills and has excellent body. I even made a fair bit of bias tape from it since I loved it so much! I have enough left to make a wee spencer like yours too since I adore yours. Though it’ll have to wait for a bit as practical sewing is needed here and I can’t start until I get my sewing chair back from my son.

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