In December 2022, I made another wool gown and hat for the cooler weather events. Again, I was inspired by the woodcuts in Town and Country 1517-1550 (McNealy & Geisberg, 2021). I had some fabric on hand that would be perfect for this project. This dress is similar to the blue 16th-century townswoman dress I made several years ago. However, I went with different style elements in the sleeves and guards. I sketched out all my plans before starting; I currently cannot find this sketch and I will add it when I run across it. I used a mix of modern tailoring and historical techniques for this project. This article is a dress diary, not a tutorial; I will highlight any information I think would be helpful.
When making a gown I leverage existing ones I like the fit of and pattern off those. Provided I have the time to follow my own best practices (time does not always permit), I use paper to develop a pattern and then transfer that to a similar type of scrap fabric. I then baste and fit the mockup or toile (pronounced twarhl – I’m sure I do not pronounce this correctly…). I test the fit and adjust the toile over and over, then transfer it to my final fabric. I hand-baste and/or pin my seams and edges when sewing. I test the fit of the gown before going from the basted seam to the final. I also iron all the seams, use a ham and clapper, and use seam tape or a seam felling method. I highly recommend watching tutorial videos on modern and historical tailoring; I’ve picked up many great techniques that way.
Years ago, I was gifted some lovely 100% wool flannel in dark burgundy perfect for dress guards and bands. I also had some blue 100% wool broadcloth, a boiled or fulled wool that would take a cut edge without fraying, perfect for slashing. Both were light(ish), maybe around 11 oz per sq. yard (372 grams per sq. meter). I also had some mid-weight black linen (IL019 5.3 oz per sq. yard) for the bodice lining. I pre-washed on gentle and cold, using a detergent I trust not to mess with the dye. Then hung it to dry in the shade. Last I steam ironed all the fabric before starting. I bought some color-matched wool thread from a local embroidery store that I used for the hand stitching.
I decided to go with a supportive underdress again for my first layer. I could use the brown underdress again and pattern off of that. I used some tracing paper and traced the brown bodice onto it. I made minor changes to the outline to ensure the gown fully covers it and allows for sleeves. I used some of my scrap fabric with a similar feel to make the toile and transferred the pattern to the fabric with the tailor’s chalk. I cut out the pattern and used the sewing machine to put it together. Then I tested the fit. I did not take any photos of this part.
Once happy with the toile, I took it apart and trimmed it up. Using chalk, I traced it onto my blue wool and black linen lining. Then I cut it out, leaving very generous allowances. Once cut out, I sewed the neckline of the bodice; using the sewing machine, I sewed wrong side of the wool outer layer and linen lining. Then, carefully cut the excess, flip it, and steam iron the edge. I use a simple wooden clapper to set the steam and heat in the wool, adding the desired touch.
Once the neckline edge was finished, I basted the front pieces to the back on the sides and at the shoulder and tested the fit, pinning the front closed. When making a dress like this, I generally wear my underdress while sewing; it makes it easier to do all the fitting as I go.
When I was happy with the fit, I machine stitched the sides and shoulder seams. Then I went on to finish the front edge and bottom of the bodice, trimmed the excess, and then pressed it down. I whipped stitched the layers together. I put it on again and stitched it closed for a final test before adding the front closures. I add the closures early in my process because I like to have it set for when I pattern and add the sleeves.
Next, I added the hooks and eyes. I cheated and used a hook and eye tape. I whip-stitched the tape down and secured the hook loops through all the layers. I did this because I wanted a secure fit and knew I would cover it with the burgundy wool guards. I also whipped stitched down the bottom edge of the bodice where the skirt attaches and attached seam tape for added support.
Next up, I worked on the sleeves. I’ve made a lot of sleeves, so I had a general idea of how I wanted to cut. I drew out the plan on some tracing paper. I used the circumference of the bodice armhole for the top and my wrist for the bottom. I created the round swoop for the top of the sleeve to fit the arm scythe. I started by drafting the sleeves with the seam on the bottom. On the toile fabric, I went wider and longer with the sleeve and attached it to the bodice with a basting stitch. I kept adjusting the seam until I was happy with the fit. Then I tested out the location of the slits.
I detached the toile sleeve from the bodice. I left the seam that ran on the underside of the arm and instead cut a new seam along the back side of the sleeve. Of course, I do not have a good picture of this attachment in the back. I will take a picture the next time I wear it to update. Before I added the slits, I tested the fit again, basting the sleeve pre-slits back into the bodice. Then I used the toile sleeve as a template and traced slit marks on the sleeves. I used a rotary tool and ruler to cut the slits. Once I was happy with the sleeve, I added the burgundy flare guards at the wrist before attaching it to the bodice. I folded it back on itself, finished the sleeve seam, and attached it to the bodice. I attach the sleeves to the bodice by hand, it makes it much easier to get the best fit.
Before moving onto the skirt, I cut out a template for the burgundy bodice guards on paper and then transferred it to the wool. I carefully pressed and checked the width and pinned it to the bodice. I mitered the right angles for a nice, crisp angle. Once happy with the look, I used a hidden felling stitch and attached the guards. I left the guards at the bottom of the bodice opening unsewn for now.
I used seam tape for all my seams and machine stitched it to the seam allowance, then carefully steam-ironed the seams down into the desired shape using a ham. I then whip-stitched the seam tape to the garment and pressed them to ensure the wool was set.
I used my usual method for creating my skirt panels ( see blue 16th-century townswoman dress for more detailed info). I make my skirts about 3 X the desired finished waist circumference, plus seam and front opening allowance. I have a long torso and do not have a well defined waist, so my bodices look a little long for these styles, I may try going an inch shorter than this next time I make a wool gown. I sewed the panels together using the machine, then added a front opening slit midway through the front-facing panel. Along the top edge of the waist, I added seam tape for support to attach the skirt to the bodice. I then folded that seam tape under (to the inside). Then, I folded box pleats along the waist equally up to the front seam. I leave the front slit edge raw until the skirt is attached. I stitch the box pleats in place to make sure they are even and set. I sandwiched the bodice to the skirt, right side to right side, then using some heavy thread, I whip stitched the skirt to the bottom of the bodice. I tied off every 5 inches to ensure that I would not lose the whole thing if the thread broke down the road.
Finishing it up
After the skirt was attached, I finished off the front slit so it lays nice and flat when I closed the bodice. I also finished up the guards on the bodice at the bottom front opening. I didn’t use any hooks or anything on the skirt slit; the overlap was just right, and it sat smooth inside two box pleats. On my last try-on to figure out the hem, I wanted it longer and added a 3 inch strip of blue wool at the bottom. I then pressed it to the desired length and hem-stitched it by hand.
Overall, I’m happy with this dress. It is the best fit I’ve achieved thus far. I followed my best practices I mentioned at the beginning closely and I think the pay off came from that effort and taking my time. I also made a hat, but it was a super quick project, and I did not take good photos. I make a lot of hats. I need to write a good post about those adventures. I also doubled back and made a new white linen underdress not too long after this and wear it now as my underdress ( I hope to post more on that soon).