Thursday, March 12, 2015

February Challenge: "Blue"

The February challenge for the historical sew monthly is "Blue" and I happened to stumble across a piece of blue plaid sale fabric in my wanderings late in January. I immediately knew what I was going to do with it too. I had recently been watching the BBC miniseries "North and South" which I may love as much as Pride and Prejudice, and I've been hankering after some of Margaret Hale's dresses. Specifically a particular blue skirt with white blouse combo.

Now sadly this ensemble is a total historic fabrication for the era of the movie. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote and set North and South in the 1850's. This sort of blouse and skirt combo didn't become a thing until the 1860's. Furthermore this kind of smooth topped gored skirt is much more of an edwardian fashion than a thing of the 1850's. Skirts in the 1850's and 60's tended to be gathered or pleated into a waistband to assist in creating the bell shape that was popular at the time. All those inconsistancies noted. I love love love this outfit, and wanted to use it as a jumping off point for a historically accurate ensemble. I may still make the right hand blouse though, because it's so pretty.

Since the pairing of a blouse with a skirt is a later construct, I fished around and came up with this stunning photo from the 1860's. And the resemblance to the Margaret Hale costume is really remarkable: although the skirt has more volume and is pleated (the movie skirt had to have been heavily gored, because it had a fair amount of volume around the hem, and she was definitely wearing petticoats) we see a full sleeved light colored blouse, and an accent belt with a decorative buckle. This lovely photo became the basis for my own ensemble.

I would like to mention that I had a lot of advice and help from the wonderful people on the historical sew fortnightly facebook group as I was trying to figure this out. Civil War is not an era that I have a lot of familiarity with the details of, and most of my costuming books are still in storage, so I was sort of flailing around on the internet. Several people who know a lot about this era really stepped in and helped me out with advice and pointing me in the direction of good sources.

So, having dithered around finishing my corset (which I needed to have to get the waist measurment for the skirt) until I only had a week left, I took my several yards of blue plaid in hand and went forth.  Right from the start this was less of an exercise in creating a historcally accurate garment, and more of a process of fudging modern materials to create a historically accurate look. This started with the purchase of reasonably priced fabric that had far too soft a hand for this kind of skirt. Well, unless I planned on wearing a hoopskirt under it, and I do not. This will become a article of clothing I wear around the house in winter, and believe me when I tell you, hoopskirts are not a practical item of dress in a house the size of mine! So that means the fabric itself has to have a bit of bounce.  Thankfully one of the beauties of underlining is that it allows you to fudge the weight/hand of your fabric. Ideally I would have underlined the entire thing with silk organza, which would have given it marvelous volume and made it a joy to work with. Unfortunately I do not have that much silk organa lying around, and it would get pricey underlining that much skirt with it ( I routinely use it in collars, cuffs, waistbands, and anywhere else I used to use the icky commercial underfacings, so I always have some on hand just not you know, six yards). After a lot of dithering in the fabric store, I finally settled on using netting as an underlining, the heavy kind used for modern crinolines, as it's cheap and bouncy. It is NOT a joy to work with, but with a lot of pins and basting, it's doable.

I very carefully measured the panels so they started and ended at the same point in the repeat, and cut along the lines of the plaid. Then I underlined all the panels with net, and basted all four sides to keep the net in place. All the preparations finished, I lined up the panels.... And discovered that somehow I had missed the fact that it was a directional plaid, and had not cut all the panels running in the same direction. So I had three panels, one of which would never line up properly. Thank goodness I had measured for the skirt by stepping on a couple inches of the tape measure and measuring up, so I had almost three inches of hem. I flipped the offending panel and realized that I was only going to lose about an inch off each end when I lined everything up and trimmed things to be the same length. Problem solved, although not without much moaning and groaning and drinking of tea. This is why I so rarely work with plaids. They're a pain in the bum and and even when you think you're being careful, they find a way to trip you up.

My sewing buddy practicing his stitches with a
scrap of fabric.
Since the net underlining is very scratchy, I decided to make a second lining out of an old bedsheet with a nice crisp hand. This lining is joined at the waist to the skirt, but not at the hem, and is hemmed up above my ankles to keep me from tripping over it. It's sort of like a attached petticoat, except that it's pleated into the waistband with the plaid, which gives it a bit more body coming out of the pleats and contributes to the desired "bell" shape without adding another 20lbs in petticoats. Once I had the lining seamed and hemmed, I basted it together with the skirt at the waist.

With the skirt together I measured and calculated for the pleats. Since this challenge is "blue" I wanted to highlight the blue stripes. So I counted how many blue stripes there were, and divided the waist measurement by that number. That told me how many inches (in this case 0.5 inches) of each blue stripe should show. I then test pleated a piece of the waist in several different ways to decide

exactly how i wanted to pleat it. Then I pinned it all and attached it to the waistband, and added long modesty placket (I set the waist of this skirt to two inches less than my current corseted waist, so it should fit for a while.) and finsihed the inside of the waistband by hand. A buttonhole and a button finshed the waist. I didn't worry too much about the waistband being less than beauteaous because it will be covered by either a belt or a bodice (if I have enough leftovers to make one) at all times

Pinning in the hem facing.
I was considering finishing the hem with a facing in the first place, but because i used up a lot of my hem allowance with my directional plaid debacle, it became necessary. This didn't hurt my feelings much, because I like hem facings: they keep your skirt clean, and they add a little extra stiffness to the hem: almost like modern horsehair braid. In this case I wanted something very springy but not too heavy to use for a wide facing, again to continue fudging this fabric into a period shape. I dug around in my stash and came up with a piece of very icky light tan polyester, almost exactly the color of the light stripes in my plaid, lightweight, and very springy. There was enough of it to make quite a wide hem facing. A good two hours of hemming later, and I was done.
Skirt flipped back to show lining.
a couple petticoats would widen the bottom.
it really spreads when you sit!

There are a few interesting things about wearing this skirt. I can really see why women greeted the cage crinoline with relief. Just the two layers of this skirt are HEAVY. It's fine for winter (keeps my legs warm) but I can't imagine wearing this thing in the summer with even more petticoats underneath it. Even if I were going for the lower volume effect seen in some photos of the period (especially in wrappers and day dresses) I would need at least two more petticoats. Whereas if I were to wear this with a cage crinoline I would get air flow around my legs (for summer) it would be easier to walk (not so many layers tangling around my legs) and significantly lighter. So while I look at wearing a hoop even some of the time with mild horror (and an eye to narrow halls, doors and stairs!) I can see why, to the lady of the time, it would have been a vast improvement.