Last month was my grandfathers 90th birthday! As this doesn’t happen every day I thought that I would make an outfit especially for the occasion. I’ve wanted to make a velvet dress for myself forever but just never had the excuse– until now!
Although I knew I wanted to make a velvet dress, the design in my head was more of a vague notion than solid idea. So I did some research with Edwardian actresses as my starting point; very rounded hips, smooth, flowing shapes and, of course, a hint of the macabre.
I couldn’t find any museum examples of dresses like the ones these women wear, nor in any of the books I own. All of the 1890s/Edwardian evening dresses I found had separate bodices and skirts, and the slightly earlier Victorian fashion of princess-line dresses were a little too fussy for what I was going for. So, going off of these lovely Edwardian cabinet cards, I drew up my own design.
(Also, fun fact, you may wonder how the Victorians and Edwardians had such tiny waists, but you can actually see that this photo has been touched up to cut into her waist more. In a lot of photos, especially the ones that make you go woah that waist looks crazy, have been touched up afterwards. They could also get rid of blemishes and imperfections the same way, so not everyone had perfectly smooth skin.)
This was my preliminary sketch– I don’t often go into a make with a fully realised concept, but I always do at least one sketch beforehand, even if it’s on the back of the napkin. I ended up changing the neckline quite dramatically (I wasn’t convinced by this one as I was drawing it), but I carried the cruor placement into the final make.
Before starting a new project you have to ensure that you have the correct underwear (I am very much guilty of rushing ahead, even though I love making underwear I do get carried away sometimes). I already had a corset and chemise that I was happy to use, but I wanted a new petticoat and I needed new hip padding in order to give me the uber-curvy Edwardian hips that I was after.
I bought some red taffeta for the petticoat (wholesalefabrics.co.uk– I’m planning to make a Georgian saque with the same stuff at some point). In preparation for making this dress, I read the ‘wedding and evening gowns’ section from Authentic Victorian Dressmaking Techniques, a reprint of a Butterick 1905 sewing book.
Not much of it was relevant as my dress was rather simplistic in construction, but I did get some valuable insights. ‘Foundation skirts have five or seven gores’– I gave my petticoat 7 gores, perfect.
The book also advised accordion pleats for a foundation skirt, 12-15” deep. Maybe it’s just because I’m really short, but I find that really long. But, I did as the book recommends and made 12” deep pleats. When it’s being worn, the pleats don’t actually look that huge and the petticoat does look like examples I’ve seen in illustrations from the time.
I cut out the pleats three times the length of the distance I wanted to cover (the book advises this, and I usually do this for ruffles/pleats/shirring anyway). They took a long time to do, so it’s a good thing I had an entertaining podcast. I used chalk to mark out the folds- I usually prefer the pin method to mark out points, but as taffeta tends to show pin marks, I thought it would look neater to simply brush off the chalk afterwards.
The book says to ‘finish one edge and shirr the other once it’s completed’. As a time saver, I used an overlocker to finish the other edge and then followed the book again as I marked ‘up the length of the skirt 3/4 of an inch of the depth of the finished pleats’. The finished result gives a very neat look, gives the ruffles support so they’re not flopping all over the place and it sets a very nice foundation for the skirt to drape over. The book advises that ‘the foundation skirt can be cut two or 3 inches shorter than the required length’, so I measured roughly 3” up from the floor at my natural height.
The hip padding is of my own design, but I used natural-form era padding as inspiration.
[More rough sketches of my ideas– you can see different bodice designs too in the corner!]
I made a rough pattern by fitting mockup fabric to my waist, roughly marking out how long I wanted it to be and then finalised the design on paper.
The finished padding.
I decorated the front with a little embroidery, the process of which you can see here.
Now all of the undergarments are sorted the actual dress can begin taking shape! Which means draping. To those just starting out their costuming journey, draping can seem very daunting and impossible, but let me reassure you it’s not. Once you start, it’s very easy to get a hang of, and it’s very forgiving too, provided that you have a lot of spare draping fabric.
Here I’m going to provide a little draping tutorial, to be expounded upon in the future with a proper post dedicated to it, but this is a starting point for those completely unfamiliar!
Mini Draping Tutorial
In order to drape, you do need a mannequin of some sort. Whether that’s a standard size, adjustable (like mine) or one fitted to your own custom measurements, you need something to drape onto. The closer to your measurements the better, but not imperative as you can make any adjustments during fitting.
This is my little lady! If your adjustable mannequin goes a little wobbly like mine, I would recommend getting a cover. Not only does this hold all of her innards in place, it also makes draping easier as it fills in the gaps on an adjustable mannequin.
If you want to ensure that the skirt is the right length, you can make your mannequin the right height by matching your shoulder levels. Then you can mark out the waist accordingly– I usually just do this by eye, but you can do it more accurately with measurements if you prefer.
Take your draping fabric– I’m a big fan of buying double sheets from charity shops as they’re cheap and you get a lot of fabric out of it. If you’re doing a very important project then it’s recommended that your draping fabric is the same weight as your final fabric but, most of the time, I just use whatever I have to hand. You should also drape over any padding/skirt supports you plan to use.
Whenever you begin to pin, always ensure your fabric sits on the straight of grain, so the fabric doesn’t stretch as you work. This fabric has checks so it was super easy to make sure it was on the straight!
You only need to drape one half so pick a side (my leftie brain likes the left side) and thoroughly pin your centre front.
With historical clothing, the shoulder seams are often quite set back, so that is something to consider as you pin your front panel. You will want to start the fabric higher so there’s enough fabric to curve over the shoulder as far as you need to go.
You can cut the fabric down now. Cut it with enough room to curve as far around the torso as the panel needs to be, plus a little extra for wiggle room. For mine I’m having only one front panel so I cut it just a little past where the side seam will go. You can also cut into the neck a little bit so the fabric sits flat as you (temporarily) pin the fabric to the shoulder so it’s kept nice and smooth.
Use scissors very tentatively, you can always cut off excess, but restoring fabric to where it used to be is trickier!
Do the same for the back panel, rigorously pin the centre back, dot a pin or two at the shoulder and cut down. Because I want pleats at the centre back I’ve left a lot of excess on right, the side I’m not draping, so I can include the pleats in my mockup. It’s well worth thinking about things like this beforehand (pleats, tucks, etc) because it makes it so much easier to drape without having to pin the fabric back on after, which is possible but time-consuming, and less neat.
I also needed a side back panel. With panels that aren’t at the centre front or back I tend to pin the fabric at the centre(ish) and then start roughly pinning the shape of the seams.
A bit of a mess at the moment!
Once the panels are all in place you can add bust darts (these tend to change a lot during fitting but I like to get the placement and shaping during drafting), neaten up the seams until you’re happy with how they look and also join the skirt panels: all of this using pins.
Once I’m happy with how everything looks, which will take a lot of subtle tweaking and changes of mind, I use a pen to mark out the armhole and my planned neckline. Sometimes if I’m really not sure I use pins first to mark out the neckline then trace the pins, or I use a frixion pen which erases with heat so if I’m really not happy I can steam the lines with an iron and start again.
Now that the pattern is finalised, cut down the neckline and armhole and mark out all of the seams, either with a pen or chalk. This is very important as once you remove it from the mannequin you need to cut off the seam allowances and transfer the pattern to paper, and if you don’t trace the seams you’ll lose them!
Once I had draped the dress, I made a mock-up up the pattern. I always do a mock-up of a new pattern now, because you can get such a better fit, especially if you’re making close-fitting Victorian bodices.
Tracing the draped project onto paper, you can see if some of the pattern pieces have gone a little janky and need some alterations. It helps if you know what the pattern should look like, and books written by Janet Arnold and Norah Waugh can help with that. On mine, my skirt panels were a little wobbly so I used a ruler to neaten them out.
Then cut the pattern out of mock-up fabric– mine is the same as my draping fabric. I was taught to cut with a 2.5cm seam allowance around everything save from the shoulder, hems and centre front where you leave a 5cm seam allowance. If you’re unsure about anything though you can always leave a larger seam allowance– again, it’s always better to have more rather than less fabric.
The initial mock-up was good, a little loose but I was happy with the neckline and shoulder placement. Even though the final dress will have a side fastening, I left the front open to fit as it’s easier to get in/out of and alter.
I was always taught to fit mockups right side out so you can see how the final garment will look, but it’s easier to see the alterations I’m making with the seams showing so that’s the way I like to do it (just don’t tell my old tutor). I’ve had to scoop out the armhole, tightened the side seam, taken in the back and removed the seam allowance on the neck so I can see where the final neckline will fall.
The Final Mockup
I stitched all of the alterations onto my mockup to illustrate how much better it fits after fitting! You don’t have to do this, but it does help you visualise the finished garment and ensures that all of your alterations will work on the final product. Then you can either transfer the mockup onto paper or make notes of the alterations and transfer them onto your original pattern that you made the mockup from.
‘An evening dress maybe high or low in the neck, but a wedding gown must be high in the neck with long sleeves, although elbow sleeves are permissible with long gloves’
Good thing I’m not making a wedding gown then!
I forgot how damn fluffy velvet was so everything in my studio was covered in a thin film of black dust during the making of this and I sneezed a record amount of times throughout.
Does anyone else do this? Make essentially a little ‘tester sheet’ whenever you work with a new fabric? Here, I practiced some different ways of finishing seams and also saw whether my beads would work.
What I learned from working with velvet:
If you have the pile going upwards you will have a richer colour, and if you have the pile going downwards it will have a less strong colour but will last longer
Remember the cut all of the damn panels in the same direction
Seriously, I never learn
Every time I’ve worked with fabric that has a pile I’ve always cut at least one piece the wrong direction. I’m so concerned about not wasting fabric that I try to squeeze all of the pattern pieces into as small a space as possible and forget about directional cutting. I really should’ve learned by now.
If you tack the pieces together with wide tacking stitches (like below), it’ll stop the velvet from slipping around as you sew
The initial stage of construction, all of the pieces simply tacked together.
Taking hints from our Victorian predecessors, I also made an under-bodice to add some structure to the bodice where the fit is most important (this can be done very simply by cutting off the top of your pattern, to about where your waist hits).
Finishing the seams was a little of a conundrum. I wanted quite a flat finish as it was going to fit so closely, and I also wanted the seams closed in so the pile of the velvet wouldn’t come off onto my undergarments for all eternity. The velvet was bulky so French seams were out of the question and overlocking wasn’t enough as the pile fell through the cracks of stitching. In my research about velvet, I found recommendations for using tulle binding to finish edges. I didn’t have any tulle but I did have black bias binding, which ended up working just as well!
All of the seams were closed in and it wasn’t super bulky– score!
The books advice for seams: ‘pink them, overcast, or bind them with taffeta binding ribbon sold for this purpose’.
I also closed off the shoulder seams with a hand felled seam, which worked really well but I needed a quicker method to finish off the other seams!
I then attached the under bodice to the dress, stitched the side fastenings and hemmed the skirt. The main construction of the dress was done!
This shoot was actually very useful as I discovered that my fastenings weren’t really working. I’d used a combination of popper and hook and eyes, but the bodice was so tight that there was one or two poppers that kept coming undone as I posed, so afterwards I replaced all of the poppers with hook and eyes. I actually re-sewed all of the fastenings about 5 times because I kept not being happy with the fit, and they were also very visible at times so I did my best to hide them.
I wanted this dress to have a lot of beading details. I had the Victorian inspiration of some pretty draped beads on the shoulder and then I could have fun with some rich, blood coloured beads. I wanted a slash across my waist and a bullet hole in my chest.
I usually do things like this in paper, doing a couple of iterations very roughly before finalising them and then finally marking the pattern out on the project.
The gash took me around four hours to bead, and the bullet hole took around 3 hours.
Then the dress was finished and I could party!
Thank you so much for reading! I hope the draping tutorial was helpful, let me know if you want the full tutorial soon!
Until next time,