I was recently asked to help a friend out by sewing her daughter a costume for an upcoming school history competition. I happily said yes and started researching for ideas. The character she was playing is Minna B. Hall, a Boston socialite with a love of bird-watching. Through hosting well-attended tea soirees she and her cousin, Harriet Hemenway, (and their influential husbands) fought for the halt of the use of birds for fashion in the millinery trade. This eventually led into the start of the Audubon Society and many other bird-saving-laws. Very heavy stuff for a 13 year old! Since we needed a turn of the century dress I found a few that I thought would work. Most seem to straddle the line between Victorian and Edwardian, which is where we want to be: Steampunk costumes Simplicity 7517, 5900, 6060 and then one historical pattern, Butterick 5970. After she picked out her favorite pattern, the Butterick, I took it home to get a lay of the land. First, I looked at the pattern instructions and it listed forty-seven pattern pieces. That is no typo. 47. Now, granted, that was for both versions, so I relaxed a bit, but when I did the final piece count for the version I was doing, it clocked in at 27 pieces. That is just per piece, not including that some of these pieces were cut double and some triple and quadruple! I don't think I have ever worked with a pattern with that many pieces before.
The pattern was created by the costumer designer Nancy Ferris-Thee and it must be based on an existing vintage pattern and/or techniques. There is no other way to explain the somewhat odd construction of the dress itself, for example, the bodice pieces are layered on top of lining and yoke and stitched down. Lace and epaulets are then placed on top of that to conceal all the raw edges. Nary a right-side-together seam, save the shoulders and side seams. Very interesting pattern. I searched online for reviews or any info and no one has conquered it yet. Not until today.
Not a perfect collar (read below) and you can see the overlap, but thankfully this is *only* a costume!
I used a cornflower blue polyester taffeta for the main dress that was on clearance at Joann's. I also used the same poly taffeta for the contrast in white for the collar and yoke. This fabric was extremely difficult to press and I finally had to bring out my wooden clapper to make the skirt seams a little crisper. But even with that, it still was not fantastic. For the lace overlay on the yoke and the trim on the cuff I used a pink (I assume poly) lace curtain that I had found for a few dollars at a yard sale. The lace trim bordering the epaulets was also purchased at Joann's, yet the lace appliqués for the epaulets were found at Natick's Fabric Basement. Finally a reason to make myself go and see this mecca of fabric! All of the flowers were plucked from a lace collar that was only $1.49! I skipped the steel boning and instead opted for plastic, but I did learn a new trick for straightening plastic boning, which I will share with you soon. Knowing me...don't hold your breath ;)
This dress was certainly a labor of love (even though it is not perfect!) and probably the most difficult dress I have made to date. All said and done, since I also made a cotton petticoat to go underneath, I think I spent over 40+ hours making this dress, not including the time to make the muslin. In retrospect, I could have just done the muslin fitting from just the lining pieces, which are essentially a bodice shell, but since I was so unfamiliar on how this would be put together I went the extra step and constructed most of the bodice (only one sleeve) and the skirt to see how it was all done. Why did it still take me so long? Just based on the sheer number of pieces involved the time to actually construct the dress was the bulk of it. The finishing of the dress, which was mostly hand sewing, also took a big chunk of time. I am glad to have it under my belt, but I would hesitate strongly to make this again, unless it was for myself :)
Half completed muslin on PGM
To those that are making this dress, I do have a few comments about the construction and a few things I did and also wish had done differently. For those who are never going to make this dress, you can stop reading now, unless you are curious!
Here are my thoughts on this pattern. First, the pattern pieces were all drafted well and fit together nicely, except the collar. When I did the first muslin the original collar pattern was about inch too short. So before you go cutting your good fabric double check those measurements. I made three different adjustments to this piece and still didn't come out great at the end. My final collar was exactly a seam-allowance too long. Go figure. My issues my be operator-error, but just keep it in mind or definitely make a muslin to test this out. Second, unless you are going for historical accuracy, see if you can find hook and eye tape. I ended up sewing all those little buggers on by hand, and there were A LOT! I can promise your speed and technique will be greatly improved by the twenty-something set or some equally ridiculously high number. Also the pattern recommends that you machine stitch the lace to the edges of the epaulets, and I hand-stitched it. I used a polyester lace that was not very forgiving when gathered and I figured to machine stitch would be a mess. It took longer, but I think it was worth it. The last thing I changed was the lining. The pattern calls for flannel for the bodice lining, which again I am assuming was for historical accuracy, but I opted for muslin to line it in. I also ended up not interlining (again calls for flannel) the skirt. I only underlined in muslin for the entire skirt.
The inside of the bodice
Bottom line, I would recommend this pattern and enjoyed sewing it. It was a learning experience and fun to sew. Was this because I hadn't sewn something in four months? Maybe. But, honestly, (besides the hook & eyes) it really was fun to sew. If for some reason I need another historical pattern in the future, I would definitely see if this particular designer had one available first. Instructions were helpful and clear (even for a big 4!) and I would not hesitate to recommend this pattern for a historical reenactment. For a halloween costume—get ready to invest some serious time into it and start early!
I already have my next project picked out. Grainline's Scout Woven Tee. Only *three* pattern pieces. Wheee!!!!