Rate the Dress: a galant Nymph in a Robe a la Chinoise, retroussée

Last week for Rate the Dress I showed a late Victorian walking dress, which the Mint Museum had styled as a skating suit.  The mad authentic steampunk-ness of the ensemble captured some of your fancies, but the overall response ranged from quite negative to ‘it’s nice, but I’m not impressed’, so 7.3 out of 10.

My description came in at top points though!

This week I present another ‘walking’ dress, but this one with even less pretense of practicality:

Galerie des Modes, 46e Cahier, 5e Figure, 1785

Believe it or not, this is an outfit for walking (in the late 18th century sense at least).  Our ‘galant nymph,’ parasol at the ready, is hastening (‘tranquilly’, no less) toward the Palais Royal.

Galerie des Modes, 46e Cahier, 5e Figure, 1785

Her ensemble is described as a robe a la Chinoise (I believe that is meant to be Chinese inspired, and the parasol probably added to the effect), with the skirt lifted up  to reveal her striped petticoat and tucked through the pocket slits (retroussée).

Galerie des Modes, 46e Cahier, 5e Figure, 1785

The nymph’s bodice is also striped, with a striking chevron placement going up the centre back, and uncharacteristic (for the 18th century) horizontal stripes on her sleeves.  A double-layered pinked ruffle, fur tippet, and bouffant frame her neckline.

Galerie des Modes, 46e Cahier, 5e Figure, 1785

On her head she wears a bonnet á la Richard  (inquiring minds want to know, which Richard inspired a cascade of pinked pink ribbon, a plethora of ruffles and poufs, all surmounted with a flourish of ostrich feathers in pink and grey?  Is is supposed to be some sort of Medieval Lion-Hearted tribute?)

Galerie des Modes, 46e Cahier, 5e Figure, 1785

And her lifted skirt reveals white stockings and bowed shoes in a rich wine purple that perfectly coordinates with the stripes on her bodice and skirt.

Galerie des Modes, 46e Cahier, 5e Figure, 1785

 

Here she is again, in her be-wigged and be-poofed splendor, her deportment ‘majestic, noble, and proud’ (the writer who captioned the Galerie des Modes really didn’t hold back).

Galerie des Modes, 46e Cahier, 5e Figure, 1785

Clearly, it’s not an outfit for heavy exercising.  But from the era of fashion excess, for a light promenade on a sunny day, when one can admire the outfits of the other ladies, and be admired in turn, it’s perfectly admirable.

Right?

Or is it resoundingly awful?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10

A simple Regency chemise

One of my goals for the Historical Sew Fortnightly, both 2013 & 2014, has been to expand my Regency wardrobe.

So far, progress has been slow.  I’ve made mitts, and my 1813 Kashmiri dress is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, but my wrap corset a la paresseus is a disappointment on.

But look, now I finally have a proper chemise, so I can stop wearing my 1880s ones under my Regency dresses!

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

(and I just feel the URGENT need to point out here that I’m wearing a bra, camisole, knickers, tap pants, and a slip under the chemise, so any weird shadows in the photo are JUST weird shadows!)

It’s entirely hand sewn, in a lightweight (not quite handkerchief weight) linen I picked up at Fabric-a-Brac for $5.

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

The chemise is classic fabric-saving geometric construction: one rectangle for the body, little rectangles for the sleeves, the extra fabric cut into long triangles to add width to the chemise, and square gussets under the arms to help with movement.

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

All the seams are flat felled, to reinforce them and hide any raw edges.  There is something so wonderfully satisfying about hand sewing flat felled seams on nice linen!

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

I’ve been working on this for months, just as my bit of handsewing when there was nothing else on, but the vast majority of it got finished on a midwinter trip down to Nelson to visit my in-laws, where I sewed between rounds of scrabble and jenga.

I also got to sew somewhere quite exciting that used to be my most productive sewing place, but is now impossible except on tiny planes between obscure destinations (and even then I make sure to have my threads pre-cut, pack my scissors in my stowed luggage, and to use a needle I am willing to relinquish if the flight attendant isn’t sure it’s allowed).

Sewing a regency chemise, thedreamstress.com

To figure out the neckline, I put the chemise under the 1813 Kashmiri dress and copied out the neckline: low and square in front, dipped and round in back.

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

The chemise was finished well in time for the Under $10 challenge, and I got some quick documentary shots of it on Isabelle to post in the challenge album, but I just haven’t had the time to get photographs of me in it (and also, it’s been cold, and wearing only a chemise as outerwear when it is cold isn’t much fun).

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

 

This weekend I sucked it up and put on the chemise, and my corset a la paresseus, and a new pair of Under $10 stockings, and posed in the bedroom.

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

Unfortunately the wrap corset isn’t improving with time (sometimes I find I like initially disappointing projects much better the second or third wear), either in comfort, or in how it supports my bust.  C’est la vie.  Someone else will just have to wear it for me.

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

 

It’s still a really interesting garment, and at least I am very happy with the new chemise.

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

 

It fits just as I want it to, front and back, and the new (as in, not usually seen in earlier 18th century chemises) drawstring neckline provides just the right amount of snugging in.  I hadn’t originally intended to use a drawstring neckline, as there are plenty of examples of Regency chemises without them, but it was just a wee bit too open without it.

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

The Challenge: Under $10

Fabric: 1.5m of lightweight linen (found at at fabric fair for $5, and I’ve got a 30cm or so of it left)

Pattern: None, based on period examples

Year: 1795-1825

Notions: linen thread, cotton tape

How historically accurate is it?: 95.99% – almost as close as you could get with a modern recreation. Excepting the bias drawstring binding, the materials are virtually indistinguishable in fibre, weave, hand etc, the pattern is period, and the construction techniques all match those seen on period examples.

Hours to complete: Lots. Maybe 8? I’m a slow hand sewer, and worked on this while doing other things.

First worn: For the photoshoot

Total cost: $5 (about US$3.5)

And most importantly…

Does Felicity Approve?:

I think we can give this a wholehearted yes:

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

Linen Regency chemise thedreamstress.com

Terminology: What’s the difference between worsted & woolen wool fabrics?

If you have ever gone shopping for wool fabrics you may have seen some of the fabric described as worsted, and some of it described as woolen.

If you are me, you may have wondered what this meant.  Aren’t all wool fabrics woolen?  I mean, they are wool, right?

Not quite!

In brief, worsted and woolen are different types of wool (long staple vs short staple), prepared in different ways, resulting in a different look and feel.  Under magnification, worsted yarns look smooth with long fibres, and woolen yarns are much hairier, with lots of short fibres and more pokey-out bits.  Worsted wools are slick when woven, woolen wools are knitted, crocheted, or woven into softer, fluffier fabric, or fulled fabric.  Worsted wools are better at keeping out the wind and rain, but woolen wools are warmer, because they are full of air which acts as insulation.

What's the difference between woolens and worsteds thedreamstress.com

A fluffy woolen wool blanket

Worsted is also used to describe a particular way of spinning yarn, or weight of yarn, but I’m not going to go into that because it’s a modern spinning thing, not a historical textile thing.

Worsted wool comes from sheep with really long wool (long-staple): generally sheep that live in fairly easily accessible, lush, green pastures, as opposed to sheep that do best in harsher environments. The long wool from worsted-type sheep is arranged, either by gilling (pulling through holes) combing with metal combs, or as part of the spinning process, so that the fibres lie parallel and end to end: these long, parallel wool fibres are what characterise worsted wool processing.

The Weaver, 1698, Christoph Weigel.

The Weaver (with man combing wool on the left), 1698, Christoph Weigel

Because worsted wool is made from long fibres which all lie parallel, the natural crimp of the wool is removed, and the forms a very tight, hard yarn when spun, with little space between the fibres (as opposed to the more open, fluffy woollen yarn).  When woven into fabric, worsted fabric has a tighter, harder, shiny-er finish, and can make a finer, lighter weight fabric.

What's the difference between woolens and worsteds thedreamstress.com

The fine worsted twill weave of my 1813 Kashmiri gown

Here are two different worsted wools, so you can see how slick and hard the finish is, with few wool hairs on the surface.  The dark blue fabric is a serge, the camel a cavalry twill.

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

Worsted wool (what's the difference between a worsted & a woollen), the dreamstress.com

The development of worsted wool fabric (in the modern sense) dates back to the Middle Ages, when changing agricultural practices in England meant that new breeds of sheep that thrived on rich, enclosed pastures were being introduced, at the expense of older breeds, which did better in rougher environments.  At the same time waves of Flemish weavers, fleeing unrest in the Low Countries in the early 14th century, immigrated to Norfolk in England in response to invitations to settle in England offered in 1271 to fullers, dyers and weavers. They set up weaving in and around Worstead, in Norfolk, and introduced new spinning and weaving techniques.  The type of cloth they produced came to be known as worsted.

Worsted cloth was known in the 18th and through the 19th century as stuff to differentiate it from cloth, which was woollen fabric.  Stuff was also used to describe other woven fabrics of fibres other than silk, especially once cotton became more common as a fabric in the late 18th century, so a mention of a garment made of stuff does not necessarily mean the item was made of wool, simply that if it was, it wasn’t woollen.

Worsted wool fabric tends to be more expensive than the same weight and quality of woollen fabric, because the pasture land needed for worsted sheep varieties is in higher demand (in New Zealand, for example, it is far more financially beneficial for farmers to use pasture land for dairy cows than wool sheep), and because worsted fabrics require more processing.  However, you also get more wear for your dollar: worsted fabrics are also more durable than their woollen counterparts.  Desirable light or ‘tropical’ weight wools are generally worsted as well.

The one drawback, wear-wise, to some worsted fabrics is that they may go shiny at areas that receive a lot of wear, such as the seat of pants and skirts, as the parallel fibres are pressed more firmly together.  Twill weaves are more likely to go shiny than plain weaves.

There is also a semi-worsted type of fabric, with yarns that are spun tightly, but not combed.  This is a cheaper process, and is usually done with inferior wool to further cut costs.  Even with 100% wool fabrics there can be huge differences in quality and durability, which is why I prefer to buy fabric, and wool in particular, in person rather than online, unless it is from a very reputable supplier.

Today, worsted fabrics are most likely to be seen in men’s suiting, and in trench coats and other outerwear.

Woolen wool usually comes from sheep with shorter wool fibres, though the shorter fibres (under 8cm/3″ or so) of long-staple sheep varieties that are combed out in the worsting process can also be used to make woollen cloth.

To make all the short bits of woollen wool lie nicely together so that it can be spun into yarn, it is carded, or brushed in two directions at once with stiff brushes.  The name carding comes from the Latin carduus or teasel, because carding was originally said to have been done with teasel heads (note, the use of actual teasels for the initial carding is under some debate).

Giovanni Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women), 1374, illustration showing women spinning, carding, and weaving wool

Giovanni Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris (On Famous Women), 1374, illustration showing women spinning, carding, combing, and weaving wool

Once it is carded, the wool is spun, and then woven.  After weaving, woolen cloth is sometimes subjected to the fulling process (also known as waulking or tucking), which cleans the fabric, making it thicker, and works the hairs of the wool together, creating a uniform, almost felted surface, without much visible weave.  Fulling basically involves pounding or rubbing the surface of the cloth, either with hands, feet, or clubs, or in special water-driven fulling mills, which began appearing in England in the early Middle Ages.

The first part of the fulling process is scouring, when cleaning agents were pounded in to the fabric.  These agents were initially urine (the Romans used it), which is full of ammonia, which softened and whitened the wool, and later fullers earth, clay with mineral elements which performed the same purpose of softening, whitening, and absorbing oil and dirt.  Fullers earth is sometimes known as bleaching clay.

Once the wool was scoured, it would be rinsed (thoroughly!), and then beaten again, to matt the fibres together and thicken the cloth, making it more water and wind resistant.

Woolen cloth can also be brushed with teasels or carding combs after it is woven, to raise the nap of a fulled surface.  This too was done with teasel heads: in fact, there are still some wool processing plants that still use teasel heads set on to a special frame for the initial or post-wearing carding.  There is at least one teasel-head carding frame still in use in a commercial factory in New Zealand – which I think is pretty awesome.

Mendel Hausbuch, f. 6v, c. 1425, Peter Berber, Carder brushing woollen cloth with teasel heads

Mendel Hausbuch, f. 6v, c. 1425, Peter Berber, Carder brushing woollen cloth with teasel heads

When woven up, woolen cloth is usually softer and fluffier than worsted stuff, though it can also be pricklier and hairier, if made with cheaper wool.  It’s generally easier to fit and sew with, because it isn’t as slippery and stiff as worsted, and woolen cloth gives and eases around your body more.  However, certain woollen weaves are prone to snagging, and may sag at the knees and bottom, or wear out at the knees.

Have a piece of fabric and want to know if it is worsted or woolen? If it is soft and fluffy, or has a brushed, fulled surface that looks almost like felt and makes it hard to see the weave, it’s woollen. If it has a smooth, slick, hard surface, it’s worsted.

What's the difference between woolens and worsteds thedreamstress.com

The soft, open woolen weave of my Roman stola

Worsted fabrics generally look best for suits, and other smart, crisp, tailored garments.  Woolens are softer looking and drape better, so work better for more informal garments.

Common modern & historical woolen fabrics include:

  • Boiled wool – woolen fabric, woven or knit, which has been thickened or shrunk by heavy fulling and/or boiling.  You can create your own boiled wool by washing your fabrics multiple times on the hottest, roughest setting – assume that you will loose approximately 20cm of length for every metre.
  • Boucle – fabrics of wool or other fibres with twisted, irregular crepe threads and a loopy, textured weave.
  • Camelet – medium quality woolen fabric produced in England in the Middle Ages.
  • Camelin – luxury woolen cloth made from the wool of the angora goat, imported into England from the Near East in the Middle Ages.
  • Challis – soft, draping, lightweight, plain weave fabric of wool, cotton, or rayon.
  • Crepe – soft, draping fabric with a twisted thread, giving it a slightly nubbly surface and excellent drape, recovery, and movement around the body.  Wool crepes can range from very lightweight, to heavy double-weave crepes.
  • Knits (jersey, doubleknit, etc)
  • Tweeds – woolen cloth with an unfulled surface, often with mixed (heathered) yarns.

Common modern & historical worsted fabrics include:

  • Barathea – very fine twill weave fabric, mainly used for mens dress suits.
  • Bombazine – a twilled or corded fabric with a silk warp and worsted weft (now sometimes all silk, or made of other fibres).
  • Cavalry Twill - a fabric with a steeply diagonal twill weave, and a distinctive raised ‘cord’ or rib.  Also known as artillery tweed.
  • Gabardine – A very tightly woven fabric with a fine steeply diagonal warp faced (has a clear wrong and right sides) twill weave, invented in 1879 by Thomas Burberry, originally as a kind of waterproof fabrics, but used as a general term for the weave and fabric type by the early 20th century.  The name is taken from ‘gaberdine’, a word for cloak or raincoat dating back to the late Middle Ages.
  • Serge – Very tight, hard wearing twill weave, frequently used for suiting, but prone to shining.
  • Sharkskin – lightweight wool fabric with a fine, nubbly weave that is supposed to imitate the skin of a shark.
  • Whipcord – like cavalry twill, a fabric with a steeply diagonal twill, and a raised ‘cord’ or rib.  There is no official difference between whipcord and cavalry twill (except that whipcord may also be made of cotton), so either term may be used to describe certain fabrics.

For further posts on fabric, check out my post on the difference between brocade and jacquard (and all those other weaves that can be achieved with a jacquard loom), and the difference between voile, lawn and muslin, as well as all the posts through The Historical Textile & Fashion Encyclopedia.

Sources:

Cant, Jennifer and Fritz, Anne, Consumer Textiles.  Melbourne: Oxford University Press.  1988

Calasibetta, C. M., Tortora, P, and Abling, B (illus.).  The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion(Third Ed).  London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.  2003

Collier, Billie J. and Tortora, Phyllis G.  Understanding Textiles (Sixth ed).  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc.  2001

Ginsburg, Madeleine (ed), The Illustrated History of Textiles.  New York, New York: Portland House.  1991

James, John.  History of the Worsted Manufacture in England.  London: Frank Cass & Company, Limited.  1968

Shaeffer, Claire.  Claire Shaeffer’s Fabric Sewing Guide.  Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications.  2008

Wilard, Dana.  The Fabric Selector.  Millers Point, NSW Australia: Murdoch Books Pty Ltd.  2012

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Meet the Dreamstress

Leimomi Oakes is the Dreamstress, a textile historian, seamstress, designer, speaker and museum professional. Leimomi is available for educational and entertaining presentations, textile and fashion advice, special commissions and events. Click to learn more

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