Five for Friday: Tips for doing the Historical Sew Fortnightly

I loved doing the Sew Weekly last year because it really made me look at my sewing: my stash, how I sew, what I sew, what I spend the most time on, and what I waste the most time on.  At the end of the year, I’m sewing much more efficiently, both in how long I take, and in creating things that I’ll really use and that work with what I have.  That was part of the reason for suggesting the Historical Sew Fortnightly this year: I want to turn all that I learned towards my true sewing love.

Here are five tips based on what I learned last year that may help you tackle the Historical Sew Fortnightly.

  1. Plan ahead
    I’m announcing the Challenges 8 challenges ahead so that you have plenty of time to figure out what you are making for each challenge, where you are going to spend your time, and what you need for each challenge.   Make a list of the challenges and note what you are going to make.  If you really want a super elaborate striped bustle gown for Challenge #6, plan on very small projects for #4 (Embellish) and #5 (Peasants & Pioneers) so that you have almost 6 weeks to work on your big one.

    Just don’t do what I did and get your fabric out all ready for a Challenge 3 ahead and then misplace it 😉

  2. Just do it
    Procrastinating and spending too much time looking at all the options, looking at my stash, and dithering about what to make is where I waste the most time sewing – and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.  Sometimes I waste so much time I could make two outfits in the time I spend wondering about one garment and trying all the different options in pattern and fabric and buttons and trim.

    I get so focused on the ‘best use’ of all my pretty sewing bits that I forget that any use is a better use than just sitting there in the stash.  I hoarded my 1940s Western novelty print fabric for so many years – I’m thrilled that I finally made myself make something with it that I’ve stopped wondering if there was a better use.  Just pick a pattern, pick your fabric, and stop worrying about what you could have made – because what you did make is what is important.

    And if things don’t go according to plan, just makes something simple – you can never have to many chemises, and the sense of accomplishment at having finished something is way better than the feeling that you get when you look at an elaborate UFO.

    This leads me to #3, which is…

  3. You can never have too many chemises
    The Sew Weekly version of this tip was “You can never have too many simple tops” and it’s true.  Without challenges and deadlines I made far too many time consuming elaborate dresses – and I don’t have that many opportunities to wear elaborate dresses – modern or historical.  With deadlines I made a lot of simple tops, and they get worn almost weekly.  Not as exciting, but ultimately more fulfilling.

    I know many, many incredibly accomplished historical seamstresses who have a dozen beautiful Victorian dresses – and they wear the same raggedy chemise for all of them, and one corset.  This is exactly the opposite of what our ancestors would have done: guides for what immigrants should bring to NZ in the mid-19th century suggest 2 dozen chemises, and only 2 dresses.  So use the challenges as an excuse to spiff up your undies, build your historical hope chest, and make simple things (whether they are chemises or fichus or bloomers or caps) that will really grow your wardrobe.  They won’t take as much time, they won’t use as much fabric, they may not seem as exciting, but they will be used and appreciated.

    On the same lines…

  4. You can never have too many accessories
    Accessories are another quick, easy and satisfying way to fill a challenge.  They are also something I suck at.  I make a fabulous historical gown, loose interest, and never make the bag/hat/scarf/shoes that should go with it.  It’s really silly of me, because most of these finishing touches would only take an hour or two, compared to the dozens of hours I put into the gown.  So one of the things I really want to do is assess my outfits, and make all the bits that go with them – it will be quick and simple, and I’ll be so glad I did!

    Accessories are also one of the bits of historical sewing that most easily fit into modern wardrobes.  Both my Capelet of Yay and my Little Bit of Magic cape are based on a 1930s original, and I wear them all the time with jeans, but I’ll also wear them with ’30s frocks.

    So whether you have the full dress that needs the little bits that go with it, or want to add a vintage touch to your modern wear: accessorize.

  5. Look at what you have, and work from there
    Rather thank making a lot of orphan outfits that don’t go with anything, concentrate on building on what you do have.

    For example, this year I’d love to: make a pelisse or spencer to go over the Recamier gown; make a 1630s bodice that can be worn with the skirt from Ninon; make a 1860s bell crinoline and an evening bodice that can be worn with the Greek Key gown; make a  walking-length    late 18th century petticoat that can be worn with my pet-en-l’aire, and then make a pierrot jacket to go with it.

    I’ve also got a ton of UFOs to finish.

Does this help?  Anyone else have any other tips or suggestions?


  1. I’m finding that being on a limited budget, hand sewing everything and not having a huge stash I really have to plan. (Its working out I can do every other challenge ATM).
    I have so many ‘large’ scraps though that I really must use up….so accessories are a good option.
    I don’t actually have a chemise. 😮

  2. It’s interesting what you posted about the chemises because I’m a newbie costumer and I’ve been wracking my brain trying to get my undergarments as useful for as many outer garments as possible-from day dresses to evening gowns. I think now I’ll just work on finishing a complete set so I can get onto making dresses and if I find that I need to make a different set later, I will.

    Besides, I’ve found that it’s more fun making undergarments than I thought it would be!

  3. karenb says

    what a relief to read your post….I was getting far too confused and had almost given up even attempting one challenge. So now I will use your advice to try again and I can now think more clearly on how to go about choosing what to make.

  4. Great tips, thank you! I recently have gone through my stash and have set aside some fabric for specific uses and have others in mind for more general ideas (like ‘costume’ or ‘skirt’ etc). I also spend too much time planning and thinking about what I’d like to make and don’t spend enough time actually making it!
    I’ve also been hoarding some fabric I just love and can’t decide what to make from it, I keep going back and forth and I guess I just need to make something from it already!

    • Elise says

      I hoarded fabric and clothes–despite having no sewing machine and no talent for hand-sewing! I agree with your thoughts: Either use what you have or (What I did) give it to someone who will like it–you’ll be amazed at what comes out of the imagination!

  5. Chemises take a long time to make by hand, but I probably should make another (especially since I’ve gained weight and some no longer fit right). I have some freebie points with fabrics-store.com to get more linen, but I can’t do a complete one in two weeks by hand. Still, I may at least start one.

    • Elise says

      You can do it! (at least part of it–and with beautiful stitching!)

  6. Great post, Leimomi, and sounds like you’re not only inspiring your friends/fellow readers, but you’ll be getting a lot out of it as well.

    I’d love to read a “wrap-up” (heh) of your favorite Sew Weekly challenges (and not so). Or is it just the end-of-2012 mood I’m in?

  7. Pamlin says

    So… does finishing UFOs count in Fortnightly challenges??

  8. Excellent tips for any sewer in any era. Far too many have been crushed by their stash and didn’t know why. Now I do.

  9. Demented Seamstress says

    Great advice. I’m really bad about #2, I waste loads of time worrying about whether the seam allowances are the right width, and if the pieces will fit together, and if the finished garment will fit the way it’s supposed to. I also save out buttons with particular projects in mind and they don’t get used for anything.

    Another thing you can never have too many of: Petticoats.

    Too many costumers suffer from deflated skirts, even though their gowns are beautiful in every other way, the lack of petticoats makes them look so sad.

  10. Thanks for this list of tips…it’s making me feel like the challenge is much more doable knowing that chemises and bags can totally count. As soon as I get back to LA I’m going to inventory my stash and try to match fabrics with projects.

  11. The only ideas I thought of (when I saw your title) are the very ones you listed! I always get hung up on getting started if I’m not sure of something…which is common when trying to do something from the past.

  12. Tip #6: Make sure the lovely red wool you ordered is actually in stock! 😛

    I think I will focus on small things from now on!

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