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.


  1. You get me interested in handsewing although it belongs into the third circle of hell - right next to ripping overlock seams... Maybe I should get the same pattern?!

    1. I honestly felt the same way but this pattern made it surprisingly painless!

  2. I'm glad you found the pattern/instructions worked so well, because I recommend this pattern to people all the time but have not tried it out myself!

    It is really surprising how much you can get done sewing by hand - I know I tend to lose a lot of time between steps when I work on the machine, because having to go from the couch to the machine gives me lots of time for "breaks", plus, as you said, maneuvering the fabric around to get it under the foot (plus, for me anyway, unpicking the spots where the lower layer of fabric shifted around while sewing and I didn't realize it). The literal speed at which you're making stitches is only a small part of the issue!

    1. I would recommend the pattern for sure; I hope everyone buys it so the company can keep developing more! :)

      Totally agree on the hand vs. machine sewing, too. Taking breaks between machine and couch often leads to me getting distracted, whereas if I just sit and start handsewing I tend to keep at it more consistently. So, I might still be a slow hand stitcher, but if I can work more consistently it helps make up for it!

  3. Looks great, and all the accessories really make the look come alive! I've been wanting to do a gown in this style, debating between paying up for the pattern and attempting to drape it myself... And I hear you about the cat hair :)

    1. I think even if you get the pattern there's still a certain amount of draping to be done. I already see some fitting tweaks I want to make! The pattern is really worth it either way, though.