Monday, March 28, 2016

Cute or Creepy?

Three years ago, I posted about this wee little pin:  Tiny Treasures: an Itty-Bitty Brooch.  The piece itself was a fun find on eBay, and at the time I had nothing to fill it with.  It stuck with me through a move and a wedding, and then--most importantly, Rich's first haircut in ten years.

As I said in my original post, the idea of wearing a stranger's hair from 200 years ago kind of creeps me out, but the history of hairwork and how it was used to honor and commemorate loved ones is really fascinating to me.  And, I am convinced, not all hair jewelry was 'mourning''s just that eBay sellers have learned you can charge more if you call it 'mourning' something.  So, with that in mind, I decided that I wanted a brooch with my husband's hair in it.  Even though he's, well, not dead.  And I like him that way!

I ended up going with Lucy Cadwallader, who does absolutely amazing work!  And, wow, was she fast.  I got the brooch back within a month of sending it off with payment enclosed.  Her prices are very reasonable and I couldn't be happier.  If you're hankering for a hairwork piece of your own, I can definitely recommend her!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Blue Wool English Gown

Oh, 18th century, how I’ve missed you!

I’m pretty sure the last time I sewed anything 18th century was in 2010. I made this dress, which was one of my favorites. Since then, though, my sewing has focused largely on 1860s and 1812. Well, not anymore! Ever since the Larkin & Smith 18th Century English Gown pattern was released, I’ve wanted to try it. I really like the style but never felt quite up to draping something like that on myself. I posted (well…gushed) about how great the pattern is in my last blog post, and now I can finally share photos of the finished product!

Bonus kitty!

The gown is made of a lovely deep blue worsted wool suiting that I got for a song from Fabric Mart Fabrics. As recommended in the pattern instructions, it is lined with medium weight linen (B&T) and sewn with silk and cotton threads.

 I chose the fabric on the highly scientific criteria of “what do I have in my stash with enough yardage for a gown and petticoat that won’t make me sad if I totally mess it up?” It turned out that I didn’t need to worry! I honestly don’t think I could be any happier with my first time trying a new style and I can’t wait to expand my wardrobe!

It turns out that was a good criteria because there are definitely things that I will change the next time I use this pattern.  Don't get me wrong--I love the finished product and the pattern is great.  The failings are entirely mine, namely my job done in fitting the initial muslin.  The lining, which I used for fitting, fit GREAT over my stays...without petticoats.  D'oh!  It's a total rookie mistake, I know, but I fit my muslin over stays and a chemise, but no petticoats.  So, when I put the finished dress on over two wool pettis, even though they are lovely and lightweight, the extra bulk threw off the fit of the bodice.  I am in an endless quest for a smoothly-fitted bodice with no wrinkles, so obviously this has a ways to go.  But all in all I'm very happy with it!

Pay no attention to all the cat hair.  It adds character.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Larkin & Smith 18th Century English Gown Pattern Review

Do you want to build a snow man sew a gown 100% by hand with period techniques?

If yes, proceed.

If no…this is not the pattern for you.

If you had asked me the above question before this winter, I would have laughed in your face. I am the QUEEN of hidden machine sewing. Long skirt seams? Ain’t nobody got time for that! Setting sleeves? Oh hell naw. Where can I set up my machine?

However, I came to a realization over the past few months. You know what I really like to do? Sit on my butt on the sofa while watching Netflix and cuddling my dog and/or cat(s). You know what I can’t do while machine sewing? Sit on my butt, etc. You know what works really well with hand sewing? Sitting on my butt! While watching Netflix! And cuddling a critter or three! Well, other than the kitten trying to eat my pins. But with a little vigilance, that is easily solved.

So, while I wouldn’t say that I’m a total hand-sewing convert, I have definitely softened to the idea recently. As such, when the Larkin & Smith 18th Century English Gown Pattern arrived on my doorstep, it was just about perfect timing.

The pattern is $28, which is a bit steep if you’re used to paying $0.99 at JoAnn for Simplicity tissue patterns. I would argue that this particular pattern is worth every penny, however. The instructions come in a spiral bound booklet and comprehensively walk you through the process of fitting, cutting, and sewing the gown with photographs of just about every step. There is also a short primer on the stitches you will need to use, as well as notes on materials and how your choice of fabrics will affect what decisions you make along the way. The pattern is printed on nice, thick paper (i.e. not tissue) with all pieces clearly marked. I haven’t used every piece that came in the envelope, but the ones I have used have lined up perfectly—no weirdness with grading or mismatched pieces. I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked with some pretty poorly-done patterns in the past, where you look at your pieces and go, “those are supposed to fit together? Yeah, right!” Well, there was none of that here. Everything went together very smoothly!

Zoe the Tiny Kitty thinks the instructions are delicious.

I read the booklet cover-to-cover before I started and found it really helpful to know what was coming in the next few steps, so I’d highly recommend doing that. As the authors point out in the instructions, you are paying for their years of research and expertise—so make use of it! Yeah! I didn’t pay $28 plus shipping to totally ignore people who know better than me even though I hate being told what to do! But no, really. The instructions are very clear and helpful, and reading ahead will help make sure you don’t go on autopilot and sew yourself into a proverbial corner. Although judging by my n=1 sampling, that’s still a possibility even after reading the instructions multiple times. Don’t sew like me, kids—pay attention!

Now, the big question: how much of a pain in the ass is it to sew a dress 100% by hand? Surprisingly, it is actually very fun, and easy. One of my least favorite things is trying to wrestle a crazy half-sewn octopus of fabric under my machine arm, so obviously doing things by hand avoids this. You will need a large flat surface in order to do the pleating work, and +10 points to Gryffindor if it’s at counter height rather than table height so you don’t have to bend over. Doing the bulky tasks on a large flat surface really takes the ass-pain out of the whole ordeal, though, and I find it much easier than trying to do things on a dress form, too. With the steps broken down the way they are, things go together quite quickly and painlessly, and none of the steps seem overly arduous or intimidating.

Another thing that surprised me was how quickly this pattern went together. The steps make sense and the construction process is shockingly fast. Maybe because everything is broken down into little bite-sized pieces? I don’t know. But I remember when I heard that the Margaret Hunter Millinery ladies do this thing every year where they make a dress in two days, and I was like “ffft, yeah right. If you have twenty people who all sew like lightning.” Well, this pattern uses many of the same techniques and let me tell you—I get it now. Granted, I don’t have a day job that involves sewing, and I am only one Katie rather than three or four Fancy Ladies of Accomplished Needle Arts, but I can totally see how you could put together an outfit in two days with two or three people sewing full-time. A relatively plain dress took me a week, but again—day job!

Done in one week!  Not pictured: stomacher.
One last thing that I really appreciate about this pattern is knowing that if I follow the directions, my garment will be “right.” I know for some people, that doesn’t matter…but I was raised by engineers and my grandpa to this day still eats his waffles in squares. I come from a long line of needing things to be “right.” So for me, knowing that the knowledge that went into creating and producing this pattern is correct as far as it can be with the available information on how clothing was made in the period is very, very satisfying. I liked how logically the steps flowed, and of course how well made the pattern is. At the end of the day (er…week) it resulted in a finished product that I would be proud to wear anywhere and show to anyone. That, in my opinion, is enough recommendation in itself! But, if you need a little more, here’s a summary:

Skill level: Intermediate. The sewing itself isn’t hard, but cutting must be accurate and small seam allowances (3/8” in most places) don’t allow for much fudge factor. MUST be worn over proper undergarments. The fit is forgiving with the stomacher front but the lining must fit the body well…and fitting on yourself can be tricky! I’m glad I tried it in a forgiving fabric (wool) for my first time out, as opposed to a more unforgiving silk (shows mistakes, frays like a biatch, has no give on grain).

Quality: Pattern came printed on sturdy paper, clearly marked and cleanly printed. Instructions are bound in a handy booklet.  Drafting is, as far as I can tell, flawless.

Ease of use: Instructions were clear (and clearly illustrated), pattern was well graded (no wonky misfit pieces).

Attention to detail: Almost so much so that it’s easy to miss things unless you read the instructions multiple times. But, you’re paying for the expertise, so I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Overall experience: Amazing! I will definitely use this pattern again and recommend to my friends. One Katie with a head cold can produce a 100% hand sewn dress in a week using this pattern. With no whining! A++ would Larkin & Smith again.

Stay tuned next week for photos of the finished dress!  I tried to get photos over the weekend, but the weather was abysmal.  It'll happen this week though; we're supposed to have warmth and sun at some point, I swear.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Mid-18th Century Stays

I’ve posted about these before while they were in progress, but they’re finally done!

Super classy bathroom mirror pics ahoy!

These are copied directly from the stays in Costume Close-Up.  My friend Twila enlarged the pattern for me with her projector and I used it with no modifications—so these are the same size and shape as the originals.  On me they have a fairly substantial gap in back, but I am still losing weight and would prefer to not have to make new stays again anytime soon!  I also find that corsets and stays invariably stretch over time, so a nice big gap is fine by me.

The outer layer is a dark blue worsted wool while the bones are sandwiched between two layers of cotton twill.  They are boned with half oval reed from JoAnn Fabrics, of all places, although I believe it’s only available online, not in stores.  The seam tape is narrow cotton twill tape and the binding is a very soft, fine leather that I bought at Haberman Fabrics a long time ago and was always too chicken to cut into.  The tabs are lined in the same leather, with a loose linen lining tacked over top.  The boning channels were sewn on the machine, then the pieces assembled by hand and finished in a period manner.

Common wisdom is that the lining could be removed for washing, but let’s not kid ourselves here…I will not be doing that.  I sewed the $@#& thing in once already!  By the time I got to the lining my fingers had such thick calluses that I couldn’t feel anything but pressure and I was using hemostats to pull the needle through the fabric.  On the upside, now when the new kitten noms on my fingers it doesn’t hurt.

For more (and extremely helpful information) on how stays were constructed in the 18th century, definitely check out Katherine’s tutorial and Merja’s post on her 1780s stays.  Katherine also has a tutorial on how to achieve tiny binding here.  I deviated from these methods a little but they are amazing resources.  I'm super happy with how these came out, and now I can start working on a gown to go over them!