Wednesday, 3 April 2013


As a costumer I do get asked to make some pretty weird things -
Santa suits and slave outfits come to mind here! and although I'm not one to turn anything down right away, reproducing Mina's red dress, from Dracula, on the right, was one I did have to say no to, sadly. Mostly its a case of the time, and space, needed to make the thing puts the cost up to ridiculousness, and I do like to keep things affordable.  Lauren, aka The American Duchess was asking me about commissions recently - the good the bad and the ugly - and I have been giving it some thought.

I think most costume makers have at some time or another struggled with the unhappy customer that you knocked yourself out to please.  Hundreds of e-mails to discuss every detail and in the end you  produce something neither of you is happy with.  On the other hand, I find it difficult to be really strict and dictate to people exactly what they should and shouldn't have. I'm always open to suggestions and some of my clients have come up with some great ideas that I've been really happy to work with. you know who you are RD....

I think there are two aspects of the problem. The first is trying to read the customers mind - difficult! Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, how many pictures you exchange and diagrams you draw -what's in someone's head is never going to be translated into reality. This is particularly true of people who don't sew I think, and its true in general that that gorgeous dress in the photo/picture/on the peg, will look nothing like as good on most of us.

The second part is more to do with creativity. Excuse me if I am getting a little precious here but there's a certain indefinable something that makes a dress all come together beautifully and in order to capture that I need to be allowed to work spontaneously. Sometimes the best things come together by accident - rootling through my stash and finding that piece of fabric or trim that I'd forgotten was there but that I knew would come in handy.

The turquoise ribbons for the silk passion flower polonaise on the left, were an example of this - I was looking for green or gold - but when I found turquoise and tried it - well it just lifted the whole thing, and I'd never have thought to try that colour, or suggest it to a customer.

Obviously though, I like to keep my customers happy too, so I've come up with a new commissions policy. If you see something of mine that you would like, but its sold, or you want a different size, colour, fabric or trim, feel free to get in touch, tell me what you want and I will make it up for you and give you first refusal.
Different sleeves, necklines and trims will all be at the standard prices, fancywork like frills, ruffles and pintucks will cost a little more.  That way you get to commission what you want,  I get to be creative, you only buy if you like the end result - and nobody is disappointed. I've kind of been doing this anyway and it seems to work, so now its official.

You can still order direct from my website or through my Etsy Shop, Classic Costume, and any special commission - that is outside the standard patterns, will still need a 50% deposit and the rest due on completion. Back to the sewing machine now.................

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

International Living History Fair February 2013

Another marathon  trip up to Bruntingthorpe in Leicestershire completed. As well as loading, a 4 hour drive, set up and open by noon, it always seems to be bleak, icy and this time snowing, at Bruntingthorpe. Fortunately thanks to Dave and the lovely friendly team from PASTE it was warm enough in the aircraft hanger where the show takes place.
This time I was next to Dressing History, awith their beautiful bonnets, and also sat with Vickyfrom Aquerna Fabricae,  her mum in the most gorgeous, warm, fur trimmed medieval gown,which I WANT and Bayley Heritage Castings. 

The stall is far more streamlined this year but there's still plenty to buy.  Cloaks were popular - due to the weather no doubt - it really wasn't the weather for light muslin gowns at all. I wore my 18th century caracao jacket throughout and it was extremely warm and comfortable. Of course I managed plenty of shopping as well. I was delighted to finally find the perfect lacing cords for jackets and stays, from Lucy the Tudor.  It isn't actually making the cords that is a problem, but finding and attaching small, smooth aiglets, and Lucy's ones are perfect.

I took my recently completed silk-sari fantasy/18th Century polonaise with me this time as a showpiece - not without some trepidation as it hasn't quite got the authentic look - but it was not as heavily criticised as I had feared. Of course finding the occasion to wear something like that is hard - no good in a muddy field, but it is available in wool and linen as well.

The whole outfit is in 4 pieces: top petticoat/skirt and then either open or closed overdress or jacket, stays or bodice, and stomacher, so pieces can be bought separately and it can all be worn mix-and-match winter or summer. Buying the whole thing in one go really  is quite an investment.

 I found some lovely wools and linens for more practical items, and I also managed an ash wood chopping board and a trivet for myself, for camping season, and fresh supplies of Plague Rats for the Plymouth cats.

All in all another inspiring weekend, with lots of good people and nice chats - oh and will the lady who bought the lilac linen dress please please get in touch?!!? - I have found more of the fabric but can't find you on the trader's list. More soon - got to get sewing!

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Sari Dress

For a while now I have been wrestling with the issue of how to reproduce all the beautiful hand work that was such an important part of clothing in pre-industrial days. Embroidery and lace are two of the big ones. Basically its hand work, very time consuming and specialised and you have to pay for it - lots!
I tried tambour work and abandoned that pretty quickly - its lovely and covers a lot of ground fairly quickly, but takes a while to get the knack and I haven't time just yet! There's a great video - making it look so easy - here and links to applying sequins and beads in the same manner as well.

So when I saw this, on the left, on a well known auction site I thought it might be the solution. When it arrived it really was silk, it was undamaged, and  the embroidery, beadwork and sequins were even better than described - result!

 I almost couldn't bear to cut it up, but I had to make a showcase polonaise for the upcoming International Living History Fair. and the work in progress is shown below.
As its chiffon I decided to back it with a black silk dupion, and interline the bodice with a stronger cotton drill. I sewed the bodice outer in chiffon backed with cotton, with each panel double layered and treated as one - this worked surprisingly well - no wrinkles or droop - the only thing to watch out for was removing any beadwork at the seamline. I'm proud to say no needles were broken in the construction. I used the 'pullao' part of the sari for the bodice and sleeves, matching the pattern on each piece for symmetry.

I used the length of the sari with its deep embroidered beaded border for the skirt, again backed with black silk to give it some crispness, beaded chiffon can be too drapey for a polonaise on its own. I was worried that the weight of the beadwork would cause a bit of droop at the hemline as well - so I hung it before sewing and that appears to have worked. The chiffon is a little tighter than the silk and there's no droop so far. If it does sag I will run a line of catch stitches above the beadwork to hold it in place. 

I  intended to make a black silk petticoat, but when  I found this gorgeous gold for the petticoat I couldn't resist. I added a stomacher, pinned over blue brocade stays - which go beautifully with the gold top-petticoat - and with panniers, bustle pad and a chiffon scarf its turned out well. I have my doubts about the actual authenticity,  using this fabric seems to have taken it over the edge from historical to fantasy,which all goes to show the importance of fabric choice. Will grab some more pictures at the fair as its all packed away now.

 I will be interested to hear what feedback I get on it over the weekend and I'll let you know. Since these outfits are such an investment I'm working on making up a set of mix and match items which can be ordered separately. I have more of the gold silk so a rear-lacing bodice is definitely on the cards - turning the outfit into real 18th Century style again. That gives you the option of having one outfit - plus possibly an overdress or even a jacket at a later stage to vary the look.

 Here's a list of what you'd need for a full, historically correct outfit:
Linen shift - 3/4sleeves, knee/calf length.
Stays - front lacing usually
Hooped panniers, and bustlepad, OR Bumroll OR large hooped underskirt.
Petticoats - maybe several!
Tie-on pockets!
Top Petticoat
Stomacher - pinned to stays
Overdress or Jacket/Jumps
Fichu ..... hat, gloves, fan, parasol - not to mention  Shoes and stockings....

Will have to get more images but I'm packing for the fair today so it will have to wait.

Saturday, 29 December 2012


I love stripes and I often wear them myself as a way of adding colour and interest without being too flowery. I've got some great over the knee stripey socks from a famous bargain store that I wear as 18th century stockings. In those days, when pattern was often (hand) embroidered or woven in expensive jacquard and brocade,  and  printed fabric was pretty much a luxury, hand painted and of dubious colour-fastness, stripes were a popular way of adding interest to a fabric.

 The classic 'Recency stripe' is a combination of stripe and brocaded florals, such as those I used to make this 18th C style jacket from a few scraps which had previously been chair seat covers. I think on the whole this fabric is best left for upholstery, but it was great practise for matching stripes.  I was very happy with the match I got here, and its so satisfying when you get it right. Notice how I made the side-back seams join on the cream coloured part of the pattern so it seems like the cream stripe widens going up from waist to shoulder? That was more luck than judgement really - but good to remember for next time.

Stripes are tricky and they can go horribly wrong. The pink stripes on the front of my jacket did match but then I noticed that the florals were alternating,  and there was nothing to do about it once cut as I had such small pieces of fabric. Here's an example of an original dress from the Killerton House Collection where someone else has obviously had a similar problem. Its quite jarring - but there may well have been a lot of lace covering the neck and shoulders. The repeat of the stripe pattern is also quite wide. Simple stripes which repeat every 2 inches or so are a bit easier to deal with as you don't need to move the pattern pieces about so much to get a match.  Here it looks like you would need at least 12 inches - so lots of spare fabric.

There are many examples of striped fabric used in the 18th century, and people got quite creative with it, mixing large and small stripes on dresses and trims or adding embroidery to pattern - lovely when it works, and there's a great modern example on my facebook page. What I love about these stripey frocks though, is how well they give away the grain line, and how helpful the stripes are at telling you how to cut the pattern.  This beauty on the right is from the LACMA collection although I couldn't find a link for you. It shows where the boning was inserted, and how there is clearly a centre back seam. Using a centre back seam is the way to get those downward pointing V lines with your stripes -  look how cleverly those blue lines accentuate the narrowness of the waist. Another thing to note is that the stripes on the sleeves are horizontal. Contrast these one piece sleeves, with the two-piece sleeve on my Regency stripe jacket above.
The centre back seam was not always used - particularly in gowns cut 'en fourreau' where the shape is derived from folded darts or pleats - sometimes having one long uninterrupted stripe from neckline to hem produced spectacular results. Janet Arnold has a pattern for a gown with the skirt and centre back cut in one piece, like the picture on the left,which is from Anna's Pinterest page  I see that Anna is Koshka the Kat - who you may well know - and who has made some amazing dresses herself.
There's some very clever sewing in that original gown, particularly  the placement of the white and yellow stripes at the centre back, and the purple stripes at the side.

This blue striped polonaise on the right is is made without a centre back seam as you can see from the stripes, but the skirt is attached separately. I had a beautiful cream embroidered cotton trim for this gown and when I was gathering the skirts I realised that I could sew the gathers with only the cream stripes showing, to match the trim. I could have just gathered the stripes randomly, or done this with the blues stripes uppermost, but I was pleased to realise that just a bit of extra thought made all that difference.

So matching stripes is important, and it can even be fun, but you must start right from the design stage. Be sure you know where you want your stripes and mark your pattern pieces with the stripes - usually on the grain line. Choose your fabric carefully and remember printed stripes don't always match the grainline, so woven stripes are a better choice if you can find them.

 If you are using a fabric with a wide repeat or complicated stripe patterns, you will need to allow extra fabric for matching. Another thing to watch out for is whether your stripes are symmetrical, and whether that have an obvious 'up' and 'down'.
On the left is an example of a non-symmetrical stripe. Using this type of pattern is very strongly not recommended. You would run into a great many problems, message me if you want to know why! Its fine to use a fabric with a clear up or down though as long as you cut all pieces  running the same way on the fabric, with all flower heads pointing up, for example.

So choose a symmetrical fabric, press, and fold it lengthwise. Check that the fold is on a point of the stripes where it is symmetrical. In the image on the right that would be the centre of a grey stripe, or the centre of the narrow blue stripe between the two white ones. Because this fabric is a symmetrical stripe you will find that all the stripes line up as you move along to the edge. The edges might not match up but a little fiddling and you can find the least wasteful point to make the fold.

Then, working from your central fold, pin the stripes together so they match, all the way to the edge. Do this several times through the length of your fabric, then place your pattern pieces. Cut all pattern pieces the same way up if using any kind of directional pattern, and experiment a little in where the stripes run on the pieces. Its sometimes nicer to have the obvious colours, like the blue and brown here, more central on the pattern piece, and the curved seams cut on the less obtrusive grey parts, but have a look at the images above and compare with your fabric. In the yellow, white and purple striped dress for example, she did just the opposite of this.

Once you've done all this good groundwork  you should find sewing fairly straightforward. Pin and tack your seams so that the stripes match and can't move, and off you go. Here's a final boost of inspiration from the V& A on the left, and this amazing stripey dress from the Kyoto Costume Institute, below.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012


BIG issue here! Of course you will be wearing your frock and of course at some stage it will need to be cleaned - those hems dragging on the ground, those muddy streets and fields, a little too much wine or dancing - what can you do? In the past, when gowns were laundered this often involved removing the lace and trims, sometimes taking the skirt off the bodice, perhaps the sleeves as well, and reassembling it once cleaned. Laundry maids and ladies' maids did all this scutwork for you but today who has the time?

A good airing and use of fabric spray helps but can only go so far, although wool is a good candidate for this. Small marks can sometimes be sponged away - but watch out they don't leave a watermark. If they don't go with a damp sponge its usually better to hand wash the whole thing.

 I would prefer that none of my gowns need to be dry cleaned. Its not very environmentally friendly and it is not cheap either. The only advantage to dry cleaning is that someone else does the ironing for you. It is also too often used as a sort of 'get out' clause to avoid problems with shrinkage, colour runs etc . Sometimes, with large, silk garments and difficult trims I do suggest it, though hand washing - if you have space and can be careful - is always an option.

I like to think about washing right from the design stage. That means choosing a washable fabric - cotton, linen, some silks - and making sure it is pre-shrunk. I've used the dreaded polyester taffeta occasionally purely because it is machine washable, colourfast, pretty much mud- and flood-proof.

Using historical patterns and techniques means that its it also possible, for example, with the polonaise gowns like the one on the right, to remove and replace the skirt and the cuffs, for separate washing. I don't know how much sewing my customers would like to be doing - none I guess or they'd be making their own gowns - but I do supply separate or removable sleeve frills so these can be washed more often, which is nice as they are white and tend to trail in things. The laces I use are quite capable of being machine washed with the dress, and I avoid all the gorgeous colours of hand dyed silk ribbons for fear of dye bleed.

 Mostly, then, its quite safe to machine wash your dress on a gentle cycle, and perhaps using a large lingerie bag to prevent too much rough and tumble on the laces.

Where I use boning though its a little more difficult - you don't want that swishing about in your machine and getting bent out of shape. Again, in the past, boning was sometimes removable - with one edge of  the garment tacked closed so it could be unpicked, the garment washed with the boning removed and then replaced and resewn. I haven't yet made anything like this, but the option is there.

For boned items I suggest hand washing and using a brush. This is a handy method for spot cleaning and dealing with the underarm area as well. You need to wet the whole garment, and scrub the soiled area with a soap solution on a soft nailbrush, before rinsing.

Large garments are heavy when wet, especially wool, so should be dried flat and only hung when damp - helps with the ironing later. Linen and cotton can both be ironed when damp. Silk should be dry though as washing silk tends to weaken it and ironing can strain the fabric. Be especially careful with wool as steam tends to shrink it - couture sewing makes use of this to shrink wool rather than use darts. So don't dry it on the radiator - you're steaming it and its likely to shrink - and use a cool iron only when its dry.

Friday, 21 December 2012


Trimmings are such an important part of a gown and they really are the bit I
 find most difficult. The American Duchess says.'trim, trim, and trim again' and she's certainly got that right - its what takes the gown from stylish to spectacular - and it was so important in the 18th century with all that lace, ruffling, pinking, ribbon and bows. That's where part of the problem lies... it all needs to match and and harminise but  there are a lot of components to it, it should all be authentic looking, and a lot of these things were hand made. But another part of it that once you start the trimming you're committed - gold or silver? cream lace? pink ribbon? gold bows? I find it really hard to decide.

Of course, as a start, the ruffles and pinking were typically done with self fabric - that's the dress material itself, and you need quite large quantities of that to work with - especially when its gathered up. The one on the right shows creative use of the striped silk for the frills across the underskirt - but there's loads of hand made lace on there as well.

  I do love the pinking, but it frays pretty quickly, so I've used that fray stopper stuff and rolled it around the edges with a cotton bud - which is fine but its not guaranteed to work after washing. I love the curved pinking on this gown on the left - from the Kyoto Costume Institute - and I've used this on my passionflower print silk polonaise - on the right - and it works. I wonder if they used some kind of glue for this in the 18th Century?

Actually hemming the yards and yards of ruffles isn't something I'm prepared to do - by hand its very very tedious, by machine its not only inauthentic but it tends to give a far too clumsy edge on the narrower frills. As a work-around I've done as many seamstresses did in the 18th century and turned the edges under before gathering.

Of course you need more trimming than that - you need lace! Hand made lace is very hard to find and very expensive. It is still made the old way but making it is very time consuming so this is always going to be a luxury. There is cotton or even linen lace available, new and machine made, but seldom in the widths needed for the sleeve frills. What is really irritating is to find lovely nylon net with bright blue-white polyester yarn used to make really very pretty patterns. So far I haven't descended to using any of this - but I've often been tempted. Instead I've used vintage broderie anglaise in cotton - harder and harder to find and not always in great condition, mostly machine done but it has the right feel and colour - something that nylon and polyester completely fail to achieve. Vintage linens, often with hand embroidery are also a good solution for  shawls aprons and fichus - like the ones shown on the right - though finding them in good condition is hard.

Heritage Trading Old Gold Braid
I should mention braid alongside lace as they are closely related. Some vintage flat woven or jacquard braids can be lovely if you can find enough of them to incorporate in a gown - a lot of the new ones have a very crude nylon look and feel and pretty garish colours. Indian trimmings of various types are a useful option, and I have found some beauties online, like the one on the left from my favourite store - but watch out for plastic sequins,- not authentic, and also for the very bright gold colour, which can seen too garish for modern eyes and western tastes. Pale gold or old gold are better choices. I have to admit I've sometimes spent more time looking for the right trimmings than sewing the actual dress.

 Finally there's ribbon. finding a good colour match or contrast, can be a challenge, and I prefer to avoid the ubiquitous polyester is the bog standard colour ranges where possible. Silk ribbon is ideal - but be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for it. Double sided satin woven silk ribbons are just gorgeous, a lot different to the very fine ribbons used for silk ribbon embroidery, and worth paying for on that special dress. It is hard to find striped, ombre or patterned silk ribbon though - but worth it again, if you can.
Another tip is to have a goodly swatch of your fabric and try out different combinations.  I have a vintage ribbon stash with some beautiful petersham and velvet ribbons of a quality you don't find these days and I always go through that as a  first option. That's how I found the turquoise bows on the passionflower dress - I was looking for green or brown or gold, but when I tried that colour it just lifted the whole gown and made me smile - but I would never have gone out and actually looked for that colour.


Friday, 16 November 2012


Regency Ballgown, poly-taffeta

Well, time to bite the bullet on this one I think. We all hate polyester don't we? I just made up a few polyester taffeta Regency style gowns, shown on the left, and what a kerfuffle!
One of the main reasons why I do costuming is so that I can work with what I call real fabrics - wool, linen, cotton, silk and variations thereof. They've always been my favourite fabrics and of course until recently they were pretty much all that there was. So, yes, I know the fabric is not authentic, but I like to offer something for all pockets and this was an opportunity to do a 'budget gown', plus in gorgeous colours, plus with a train that won't suffer from being dragged on the ground and trodden on at a ball, and which could be machine washed and hung to dry. Not so nice to work with but when finished I find them pretty convincing - if not one for the purists.

Here is a list of the development dates of the main man made fibres:

First Commercial U.S. Production
 1910 — Rayon  1941 — Saran  1959 — Spandex
 1924 — Acetate  1946 — Metallic  1961 —Aramid
 1930 — Rubber  1949 — Modacylic  1983 — PBI
 1936 — Glass  1949 — Olefin  1983 — Sulfar
 1939 — Nylon  1950 — Acrylic  1992 — Lyocell
 1939 — Vinyon  1953 — Polyester
 This table is taken from an excellent article on Fibresource, which actually mentions Robert  Hooke, a well known 17th Century naturalist, attempting to develop artificial fibres 'as good as silk' in 1664. Nice coat he is wearing in this painting, on the right.

So even 400 years ago people were trying to improve on natural fibres. Why? well - take a look at my pages on laundering and there's one reason right away! To sew and to wear, I really don't think natural fibres can be beaten, and although there is a lot that is not natural about their production today at least they do fade charmingly and decay in an environmentally friendly manner. Of course the downside to this is that these fabrics need to be cared for - washed and ironed carefully, kept away from sunlight, moths, mould and mildew, termites... every thing's attacking them from day one, as you would naturally expect.
The first artificial fibre developed, and the one that I do like - love in fact  - is rayon/viscose, although I'd far rather it was made up for me by someone skilled like those lovely people at the famous Ghost. Rayon  is derived from cellulose, found in wood and other vegetable matter, and was patented in 1855. It's often called artificial silk, and often sold as 'art. silk' by people who are not too scrupulous about clarifying the abbreviation. It is closely related to acetate - and both come under my heading of 'good synthetics' - if there is such a thing. These man-mades all  have a lovely drape and weight and feel, but are not easy to sew. The production methods are basically similar and extremely environmentally unfriendly, involving sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), and carbon disulphide to make a sticky viscous liquid - hence the name - and then  hardened to produce fibre in a bath of sulphuric acid. There's a lot more on the environmental impacts of textile manufacture here at O ECOTEXTILES, including an explanation of how the viscose process can be used on any cellulose containing natural fibre - like bamboo.

To get back to the table though - actual synthetic fibres are those produced from chemically manufactured molecules, usually derived from oil, and yes, among them is the hated polyester. When first produced these fabrics were hailed as marvellous - and of course heavily advertised as such. Machine washable, moth proof, bright non-fading colours, drip dry, easy-care, non iron - what's not to love? After the burden of washing, bleaching, starching, drying ironing, darning and storing all those heavy linens and cottons it must have seemed like a miracle. Fashions  changed in response to these new materials.  The 1960s metal and plastic dress on the right by Paco Rabanne shows how he just dived right in there and  made something fabulous with this fantastic new stuff - genius!

Of course we are now much more aware of the downsides - the sweatiness, the nylon sheets that threaten to strangle you in your sleep, the sparks of static, the dreaded bobble forming and maybe even the environmental cost. But the real downside for anyone who makes clothing is that synthetics are so much harder to sew, and to get to look right - even in modern fashions. They're either too stiff or too floppy, they don't hang right, they don't drape right and  they stick out where they shouldn't, or you need a special machine.  I think one thing I have learnt - although I do still mess up sometimes - is that to make a good garment you need to hit that elusive combination of the cut and style, and using the right fabric. Now I'd say at least 98% of the time, for historical garments that means no synthetics. Of course if you are doing museum work, hand sewing, and for that matter hand spun-woven-dyed and finished fabrics are your only option and will get you the best result. Simply using a machine spun and woven 'natural' fabric isn't necessarily going to hack it here though. Modern day techniques mean that fabrics can be made of a more tightly spun but often thinner thread, leading to a more finely woven, denser, smoother fabric than was historically possible.And if you're doing art - well why not try a fleece polonaise? Quite tempted to do that myself!
For the rest of us though - its horses for courses I think. I would always far rather use natural fabrics, as they're much more pleasurable to actually sew with and behave themselves. I use cotton thread on cotton, darning wool on wool, silk on silk. It 'sinks into' the garment better is the only way I can describe it. It doesn't seem to happen with polyester or other synthetics,  you're always fighting to get them to lie flat or keep that crease. You can't roll seams so well or run your thumbnail down the seam to open it out, it doesn't fold it makes a mess and it sticks to you! .Having said all that however - there's the remaining 2% of the time - when you can get a roll end of something  - the perfect print but in polycotton - like the V&A historical patterns reproduced on sheets on the left
(why o why not 100% cotton???) or a gorgeous brocade but with gold plastic filament - it can often sew up perfectly fine.

Reproduction of historical fashion is all about illusion at the end of the day and if you find a fabric that's going to work, go for it, it doesn't have to be 100% natural - although at the end of the day I have to say - there's nothing like a silk gown - they're the best.