Okay, this is both not-retro and beyond-retro, but since it’s newly-sewn non-modern clothing, I’m including it. I also hope it might be helpful to anyone else who sews this pattern, since it’s a common pattern.
I have a small group of friends with whom I play “old-timey” music–guitar, banjo, Appalachian dulcimer, washtub bass–a few times a year. We’re not very good but we work for free so people ask us to play for historical events on a fairly regular basis. This almost always involves “pioneer dress”. None of these events are die-hard historically accurate so what exactly is meant by “pioneer dress” is open to all kinds of interpretation.
My brother got into Civil War reenacting when we were in junior high school in the early 1990’s. I’m sure historically accurate patterns existed then but this was years before we had internet access, and the ladies’ auxiliary of his regiment was not very serious about it, so we had no idea where to find them. My mother made Simplicity 8006 (1992) for me out of dark brown and black plaid brushed cotton. There is nothing even remotely 19th century about this dress but, in a modern-detail-obscuring dark color and with an apron tied around it, it at least didn’t scream “Civil War Barbie!”. I wore that dress for about ten years before I started promising myself I’d make a new reenacting dress in time for the next event.
It took me another ten years to act on that.
This year, I was determined. I changed my mind probably thirty times: Which pattern to use, how accurate did it need to be, how inaccurate [read: easier to sew] could it be before I felt too guilty to wear it, etc.? In the time I spent waffling, I probably could have sewn three or four dresses. Oh, well.
This isn’t as terrifying as it sounds. One, since the dulcimer is played on one’s lap, you can’t wear hoops. I own a hoop but I think I’ve worn it exactly once in fifteen years. When I do reenacting dresses, we’re talking work clothes. No hoops, no Scarlett O-Hara tight-lacing, no fancy stuff.
I finally settled–I thought–on the Past Patterns 803 Round Dress, which is an historically accurate 1850’s everyday dress. I decided to simplify things by making it button-front (less fussing with the lining) and omitting the off-center skirt closure, which made it less accurate but was also less complex thing to do. It would be under an apron, anyway, right? I got most of the bodice made, though, before I realized that a) attaching the skirt was going to take me the rest of my life, and b) I really needed a corset. I could wear it without one but it just wasn’t going to look right. The final blow was discovering that the very low-set shoulder seams would make it difficult to play the guitar. I mothballed the project and reconsidered.
(For the record: This is not a criticism of the Round Dress. I absolutely adore Past Patterns. The 806 Mill Girl dress was a miracle of accurate pattern drafting and astonishingly easy to assemble considering my mother and I had never done historical sewing before in our lives. I just did not have the time and energy to devote to the Round Dress that it needed.)
The next candidate was McCall’s M4548 (2004).
This is a pretty standard cheesy costume-quality pioneer dress, but it does have two things that put it at the head of the class where cheesy costume-quality pioneer dress patterns are concerned: It does not have a zipper, and it does not have bust darts. Zippers are pretty easy to replace with buttons or hooks and eyes, although they usually run up the back of a dress, and a “wash dress” would fasten up the front so the wearer could dress herself. Bust darts, though, are not accurate for mid-19th century dresses and are a lot more trouble to alter out. That this dress already relies on double waist darts, which are A-OK, is a significant advantage.
The advertising picture for this pattern is a horror-show of garish color and terrible fit:
Also, I think that might be the worst bonnet I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen a lot of bonnets, too.
Luckily, I am both stubborn and not-always-very-sensible, so I didn’t let this stop me. Instead, I made a list of things that I had learned from the Round Dress that I thought could be applied to M4548 to make it, if still not very accurate, at least less inaccurate. It turned out to be a very long list, but most of the things on it were not very difficult (follow the links to Flickr and blog posts that illustrate the process):
1. Eliminate collar. A dress like this would have had a detachable collar basted on. (Super easy. Easier, really, than making the dress with the collar.)
2. Close up neckline (if needed). (Easy.)
3. Lower shoulder seams and corresponding sleeve caps. (Mildly problematic. I went to Leena’s to find out how to do a dropped shoulder seam.)
4. Interline bodice. (Easy. I cut a second bodice and trimmed back the edges along the front opening.) Even dresses with blousy fronts had fitted linings, and they really need the structure of a lining to look at all right.
5. Rotate shoulder seams back. (Easy.)
6. Reposition back princess seams. (Probably not necessary and potentially problematic, but I wanted the look . The blog post links show how much fiddling I did to get this to work.)
7. Merge reduced side-back pieces with front pieces. (Easy in theory, but I could foresee this getting a little hairy.)
8. More buttons. (Easy, except for the fact that I have to make more %#@!! buttonholes.)
9. Fuller skirt. (Easy, except for gathering the sucker into the waistband. I should have gauged the skirt but I just wasn’t up for it.) I ended up with three yards, which is too narrow, really, but was all I could manage.
10. Wide skirt facing and kick-plate instead of a regular hem. (Easy.) Somebody else’s blog post here.
11. Piping at neckline and armscyes. (Fiddly because of the fabric bulk but not actually difficult, especially if you’ve done it before.) This photo on someone else’s blog shows the neckline finish nicely: Its applied to the outside, then turned inward and the piping seam allowance is tacked to the dress lining. I am over the moon for the look of this but 803 called for 1/16-inch piping cord. The smallest I could get was 1/8, which isn’t bad but still looks fatter than I’d like. I’ll try something else next time.
12. Reduce sleeve fullness (probably a step back in accuracy but necessary since I’m going to wear this to dulcimer plays. I don’t like huge sleeves, anyway.) (Easy.)
13. For person fit issues: Lengthen bodice, lengthen sleeves slightly, add side-seam pockets, improvise sweetheart yoke (totally unnecessary, but cute). And, because I ended up overbuying fabric because I wasn’t sure how well all this would work, I indulged in a bias panel around the bottom of the skirt.
Illustrations of many of the changes are here.
The dress isn’t totally finished here: I forgot to bring my hooks and bars to Fort Parker so the waistband is being held closed by the tight apron. Oops. You get the idea, though. The fabric was blue 1″ triple-windowpane homespun and the buttons are polyester that kind of looks like horn, from Joann Crafts. I’m still working on the hand seam finishing.
I cut a size 12 (bust 34) which fits even though I think I’m more accurately in between a 12 and a 14. Since the advertising illustration looked so baggy I figured I could err on the small side. Also–TMI alert–I’m not wearing proper undergarments. I made the chemise for M4548 years ago but never liked it because I didn’t cut it a size larger below the waist and it didn’t fit my pear shape that well, and I haven’t made stays yet. I didn’t have time to make a petticoat so I’m wearing a modern dirndl skirt underneath.
This isn’t a great picture but it’s all I have right now:
The bonnet is McCall’s 1980 (1955) View C which, apart from the elastic across the back of the neck, is a pretty classic slat bonnet pattern. I should have used ties instead of elastic, but I didn’t. I made this about a year ago and remember finishing it at 2:30 in the morning the day of an event, when I was well beyond caring. I guess I could add them now just for appearances.
This is what I looked like in 1870 (thank you, Vintage Camera and your novelty filters):
The apron was improvised from an old bedsheet. It’s a rectangle pleated into a waistband.
I am oh, so, very happy with the finished dress! I have at least one more dress planned to make by tweaking this pattern yet again (it will have a yoked and gathered bodice something like the one seen here) and could even see myself making a version with modern sewing methods and a shorter, gored (to reduce bunching at the waistband), skirt to wear on days when I’m feeling a little bit Prairie.
Update, better pic!