How to Teach Yourself to Sew

People often tell me, “Wow, I could never sew the way you do!” Or, “I wish I had that kind of talent!” Hearing comments like that makes me kind of sad, because I think there are lots of people out there with unused potential. They think they can’t sew and that they wouldn’t be able to if they tried…. but that’s the problem, they never really gave it a real try!

I used to be one of those people who thought that sewing was such a distant, difficult skill to learn and that it would never be “my thing.” When I was very little, my grandma taught me how to use a sewing machine, but I used it so infrequently that by the time I would try it again, I had forgotten again. But costuming and fashion design was a part of my life even as a little kid. I used to love making sketches of princess dresses. I used to hand-sew little costumes for my stuffed animals. And as I came to be a teenager and I began to write a fantasy novel, I always sketched out the characters’ costumes. That was the point where I started to wish I could make my fashion sketches real. I was at the exact same position as many of my friends and readers- wishing I knew how to sew, but I had no idea how to get started.

Thankfully, I had a friend who knew how to sew cool costumes and one day I just asked her if she could help me create a Jedi costume I had sketched. She walked me through, step by step, how to make a basic Jedi tunic and tabards out of basic shapes like rectangles. That came out to be my first Jedi costume, the one I mentioned in the Anakin cosplay post:

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Trust me, I knew nothing back then about finishing seams or adding darts or making nice attachment methods like zippers, hooks and eyes, snaps, or anything like that.

That Jedi costume was the only one where I ever used assistance from another live human being. From there, my guide was all YouTube and costuming blogs! And that brings me to this post today. I want to address anyone who dreams of creating their own clothes or costumes, but feels intimidated by all the complexity involved in sewing and doesn’t know where to begin.

First of all, I know how you feel! Nobody starts out instantly an expert at anything. I started out as a beginner too. Look through my costuming portfolio and you’ll find all sorts of fraying polyester edges, crooked underarm seams, ill-fitting bodices, you name it. Those are all beginner mistakes that everybody makes, but they’re necessary if we want to learn from them and become better at our craft.

If you want to learn how to sew clothing well, you also have to know that it is a time commitment. Costumes and apparel are some of the hardest things out there to sew. They’re much more oddly shaped and structurally complicated than, for example, tablecloths. Lots of people who sew make beautiful crafty things for their homes, but costumers are a bit harder to find. One reason for that is because it takes so much time to become even halfway decent at costuming. So if you are serious about learning costuming, you will manage to find the time for it even if you’re really busy. But just know that you won’t become like Firefly Path on Instagram overnight. If you don’t want to invest the time, you won’t be able to get much past the beginner threshold.

You also have to set realistic goals for yourself. Do you think a historically accurate 1912 ballgown would have been a feasible idea for my very first sewing project? For anyone sewing for the first time, I would advise that your first project should be something simple, one or two pieces at the most. Like a blouse and skirt or a Jedi tunic. It shouldn’t be one of your dream projects, because your first project will be the lowest quality project you ever make. I would also recommend you don’t make a historical costume your first time dressing. You want to learn modern techniques of sewing before historical techniques. Make sure you avoid structurally complicated things like lots of darts, pleats, princess seams, or pintucks. (Though just trying one new technique like that might be helpful!) Finally, I would also advise that you do NOT make your first project from a pattern. Patterns are full of complicated lines and weird terminology and can be extremely confusing for a new costumer. You’ll learn how to use those in due time. It’s more intuitive to draft it out of basic shapes like rectangles.

From there, you can focus more on your long-term goals. If you dream of being an expert at Victorian costuming, don’t go off making an 1880s bustle dress immediately. As your skills develop, you can try simple but relevant things such as just the chemise. Then eventually you could work your way up to the petticoats and corset cover, and finally the corset and bustle itself.

Once you’ve got your level of time commitment and your goals figured out, you need to know where to look on the Internet for tutorials. There’s plenty of stuff out there, and that’s the beauty of being a costumer in the era of the Internet! You just have to know where to look.

  • For the raw basics such as how to use your sewing machine and what sort of supplies you need, those are really easy to find on YouTube. Though it’s probably even easier to get a real person to show you the very basics. If you have a friend or relative who does quilting, they won’t know any costuming stuff but they can certainly help you figure out your sewing machine! Make sure that, in this raw basics stage, you learn about adding seam allowances and hemming edges.
  • For learning the basics of drafting (making something without a pattern), there’s not really a general guide on how to draft everything in existence. Instead, search for specific examples based on what you’re trying to do. For example, you could search YouTube for “drafting a basic blouse” or “drafting an A-line skirt.” Whatever drafting tutorials you watch, it will probably give you at least something applicable to your specific project. If a video is so complicated that you don’t follow it, search for a different video, or look up the terminology they used. Don’t pretend to understand something if you actually don’t.
  • For learning how to use a pattern, search the Internet for the exact pattern that you’re making. Chances are, someone else made it too and they have a tutorial on it. They might be able to help clear up any confusing parts. Again, always look up terminology you don’t understand! I have to do this all the time!
  • If you’re making a cosplay, search for the name of the cosplay and just see what comes up. Searching for “padme meadow dress” brings up the Jedi Council Forums thread and some other various blogs relating to making the Padmé meadow picnic dress.
  • As you get more comfortable, search the Internet for ways to make your costuming more professional. In my opinion, the #1 Way To Make More Professional Costumes is by finishing seams properly, so make sure to search for seam finishing techniques. Search for these techniques as they are specific to your fabric type- for example, you may want to search “how to finish seams on chiffon” or “how to finish seams on denim.” Chiffon and denim are extremely different fabrics, so they will have different techniques for finishing seams. Other good things to search for are darts, pleats and gathers.

As you watch tutorials and read blogs, you will easily figure out what other things to look up. My list above is not extensive. My rules for sewing research on the Internet are simple: look for people who have already made what you’re making, and look up everything you don’t understand.

Here are some specific resources I use consistently in my costuming adventures:

  • Padawan’s Guide. This is a thorough and extensive site for any Star Wars related costuming, and their advice is relevant to both new and experienced costumers. They have both a website and a Facebook page- the Facebook page is updated more recently. Plus, on Facebook, you can privately message the members and ask questions directly. Here’s the Facebook page and here’s the website.
  • Lucy’s Corsetry. Both on YouTube and on her website, Lucy teaches you pretty much everything you need to know about making and wearing corsets. I learned how to insert eyelets, busks and steel boning through her tutorials. I can’t recommend it enough! Here’s her YouTube channel and here’s her website.
  • Ralph Pink. Ralph Pink is a corsetiere from Australia or something, and his YouTube channel has helpful videos on drafting corsets. Plus, he has free corset patterns on his site! Here’s his YouTube channel and here’s his website.
  • Jennifer Rosburgh. She has created this amazingly helpful website about sewing 19th century costumes. I don’t do 19th century just yet, but her articles relate to pretty much any type of historical sewing. If you need to make a petticoat for anything, read her site. If you need to know how to make ruffles, read her site! She gets really specific about techniques that are pretty universal to sewing. Even if you aren’t a historical, I still recommend you check out some of her articles. If you are interested in costuming, read her site.
  • Sew Historically. This is a really helpful site with tons of helpful Victorian and Edwardian sewing information, and there are some other great DIY tutorials and recipes and all kinds of crafty stuff. Lina, the author, has made and bought a lot of Edwardian and 1920s stuff. Here’s the site.

I think that’s about it! If you’re interested in costuming, I hope this post has inspired you to take up some research, and that you find these resources to be helpful. If you did, please let me know, I would love to hear from you!

Movie Costume Review: Wonder Woman

Let me be perfectly honest- when Wonder Woman first came out a couple weeks ago, I assumed that it was not the type of movie I would be interested in seeing. I assumed it would just be a postmodern feminist rant with lots of thoughtless blowing things up. But I heard such good things about it that I finally decided to see it, and I was FAR from disappointed! I enjoyed the plot, the WWI setting, the characters, and, of course, the high quality costumes.

~An Overview of the Costumes~

Overall, the costumes in this movie were nothing short of eye candy, and very diverse. We had classical Grecian inspired gowns and armored bodices for the Amazon women, grungy and worn battle fatigues for all the soldiers, and all the variants of post-Edwardian women’s fashion.

First let’s address the Amazon outfits.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am extremely picky about female armor. I don’t like it when it tries to blur the lines between men and women, as in the case of Captain Phasma in the new Star Wars. And I think they did their armor perfectly in Wonder Woman! These armored bodices are every inch feminine, and practical and protective. They don’t try to make the women look “manly.” It’s just armor for women that looks like armor for women. That’s all.

Another thing I love is the inclusion of SKIRTS! I love this because it combats the postmodern message today that skirts are oppressive/they hinder movement or whatever. But actually, if the skirt is full enough and short enough, you can do almost anything in a skirt. Martial arts. Running. Horse riding- and yes, astride! (I’ve seen many Victorian costumers make a riding habit with a long skirt, and ride astride, not sidesaddle.) Sometimes the Amazon skirts have slits in the legs or something, but guess what. They are still skirts. They add beauty and elegance to the costume.

Next, let me address the WWI fashion they included in the “real life” scenes. This would be the year 1917, when WWI ends. I know a thing or two about 1915-1919 fashion. The silhouette is quite a bit different from the 1910-1914 silhouette. Instead of having long, columnar skirts, they have much fuller, tea-length skirts. Here are some actual examples of late WWI fashion:

The waistline was also a bit lower than the Titanic silhouette.

In Wonder Woman, there was only one scene where we saw any post-Edwardian evening dresses. I enjoyed them quite a bit, but they looked a bit too Titanic, and not enough WWI. They would have been excellent for 1912, but they’re a little bit dated for 1917! And Diana’s blue dress looks too modern. It has very little structure, and not the right silhouette. It’s still lovely, but not very accurate to the time period.

See what I mean? Hobble skirts (super narrow skirts) went out after WWI started. Also, a 1917 evening dress would probably not have a neckline that low. Some 1910s evening dresses showed a little cleavage, but not that much.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many pictures available of the other partygoers, which is a shame because their costumes were quite beautiful, even if a few years behind on the historical accuracy.

~The Messaging of the Costumes~

Considering that this is a modern “feminist” movie, I was prepared to see a lot of hate on the everyday Edwardian fashion. While there are certainly things to critique about Edwardian society (and ALL societies made by flawed humans), I never like to see people go overboard with it. Living as an Edwardian women probably wasn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The everyday 1910s woman was not in constant agony because of wearing a corset, and long skirts don’t make you trip all the time if you’re used to them. I could go on.

While there was a little bit of critique on the fashions of the day, I didn’t find that it was as bad as some modern interpretations of the early 20th century. There was this one scene where they had to get her some clothes in order to blend in better with the other people. And I found a little bit of it annoying, like when she ripped this narrow skirt trying to do a kick in it. First of all, narrow skirts had pretty much gone out by 1914, as I’ve already mentioned. Second of all, not everyone needs to do martial arts in their everyday life.

Here’s what I liked, though. They made it pretty clear that Diana is not opposed to skirts and other societal standards of “dressing like a woman.” She didn’t insist on going off and buying men’s trousers or anything like that, even though they easily could have done that in a movie like this. The outfit she decided on had a long, full skirt- much more WWI accurate than some of the other costumes in this movie. And she did a fight scene in it- and nobody tried to complain about the outfit hindering her or something. I couldn’t find a picture of the full dress, but here it is.

Another interesting point is the part where they walked past the corset section.

(First of all, that is a pretty cheaply made corset there- you can see it is hardly boned at all, so it has a lot of wrinkles. And it looks a little bit too curvy to be a WWI corset. WWI corsets were pretty straight and tubular. But I digress….)

Here’s how I remember the scene taking place: Diana came up and said, “Oh, is this armor?” And the cheerful little lady who was shopping with her (on the left in this picture) kind of laughed and said, “No, those keep our tummies in.” To which Diana replied, “Why would you need to keep them in?” And then they moved on.

Here’s what I find interesting. Diana seemed to like the corset! Which makes perfect sense to me, because you could argue that the armor the Amazons wear are basically corsets, only even heavier, and thicker, and probably less comfortable than a well-made corset.

What she was questioning, in my opinion, was the body image standards. I have no problem with questioning body image standards. I do the same thing today, since the modern silhouette of being slim AND curvy and full chested- and naturally, since we don’t even have corsets to help in most cases- is pretty impossible!

So, if anyone approves of the Amazons wearing armor like they did in this movie, but not corsets, I’m going to call them out on a massive double-standard. Corsets function the same way as armor. You can’t bend from the waist in either one. And, a corset would probably be more comfortable, since it can at least stretch and conform to your body a bit, whereas a metal armor bodice is so inflexible, it wouldn’t. Armor is more protective, and a corset is more comfortable. There are pros and cons to both.

~Miscellaneous notes~

Overall, I loved this movie. I really loved it. Even though it’s supposed to be a feminist movie and I am not a feminist in the modern sense (though I would have been in the Edwardian sense), the movie did not attack my views or feel like a lecture on why men are evil and all that. It was just a high quality, exciting, creative, and thoughtful film.

The thoughtfulness was actually the main thing that won me over in this movie. Superhero movies these days are often shallow, with a forced, superficial theme or message, and way too much destruction and blowing things up. Wonder Woman was completely different. It posed very deep, unanswerable questions about the bleakness of World War I, the innate good and evil of mankind, the nature of justice, and probably a lot more too. I also, as a Christian, enjoyed the spiritual metaphor in that movie. Diana is a metaphorical character, supposed to be perfect- and she left the perfection of her home world to save humanity from bringing themselves to destruction. I love movies that give you something to think about. This is why I’m so drawn to movies like Revenge of the Sith, Les Miserables, Titanic, and other sad but hopeful dramas.

I also appreciated that Diana is innocent, a bit naive, and compassionate. The trope of “tough” characters who are untrusting and coldhearted really gets on my nerves after a while.

I think part of the reason why there was so much more heart and soul in this movie than in other superhero movies, is because it was directed by a woman. A woman director is more likely to give sufficient attention to the emotional part as well as the plot/action part. I highly recommend this movie to basically anyone- if you like action, it has that. If you like drama, it has that. If you’re a feminist, you’ll like this. If you’re more traditional like I am, it won’t make you feel lectured or undermined. Wonder Woman is just a high quality, well-made, and thoughtful movie.

 

 

Analyzing a REAL 1910s Tea Dress!!!

Always go into your local antique store when you get the chance. Always.

A few weeks ago, my mom and I wandered into this antique store that we literally drive by all the time. We had never even been in there despite all the times we drove past it! As it turned out, the place was really huge inside. It was endless, with piles of old stuff everywhere. Everything from dishes to furniture to dollhouses and pretty much every random thing you can think of. I was most interested in the clothes, as you might imagine! They had a lot of cool clothes, like 1940s bomber jackets, 1960s party dresses, 1980s wedding dresses, and they even had this beautiful 1910s tea dress. I couldn’t believe they actually had one.

~Some background information about Edwardian tea dresses~

For the middle and upper class in the early 20th century, women usually wore four outfits every day. In the morning you would wear a morning suit, which was very form fitting and tailored and made out of a heavier material. Then would come the afternoon dress, and around 4:00 PM each day you would have tea. Teatime was a more relaxed time of day. You would take a break from your corset and probably entertain guests during that time. (A side note: I am a proponent of wearing corsets and I believe that they don’t cause any dangers to your health if they’re worn correctly, but it is a good idea to take a break after wearing one for a while.) Tea dresses were white, lacy, and usually pretty sheer, and lightweight so you feel comfortable sitting out in the sun in it. Here are some examples of 1910s tea dresses.

People often comment on the timeless, enduring nature of Edwardian tea dresses. Many of them look like they could just be a bohemian maxi dress from today.

~How I know it is actually from the 1910s~

Before we bought it, I inspected it closely to see if it really was a 1910s dress. I am no professional antique appraiser, so everything I know may not be 100% accurate, but I’m pretty confident that this is a real 1910s tea dress. A couple of things tipped me off.

The seams and raw edge finishing techniques. One way to know for sure if something is NOT Edwardian is if it has serged edges. (A serger is a fancy sewing machine that can do really nice, perfect hems and raw edges.) If you look at the shirt you are wearing right now, there is a high chance that the hem has really fancy zigzag stitches on the underside. That was done by a serger. They didn’t have those in 1910, though they did have simple sewing machines that could do running stitches. And all the seams in my dress looked like this:

If you look super closely at them, you can see that they are really finely done French seams. A French seam is where you stitch the raw edges together right side out, trim off the excess, turn it inside out, fold it over and stitch it again, so that it looks like that on the inside. (Here’s a good tutorial if you’re having a hard time visualizing this.) You can see that the edge is not folded over, it is stitched together at the top on the underside. Just after I got the dress, I was scratching my head and wondering how they did that! But after reading about French seams it all makes sense. (It’s an excellent technique, by the way, for finishing seams on lightweight fabrics.) So, in short, we know that the French seam was used in the Edwardian era, and that a serger was not used on this dress.

Another thing to note is the sleeve construction. In the 1910s, the “kimono sleeve” was very popular. To do this, the bodice or blouse is cut in one piece, on a fold, with the sleeves already attached so you don’t need a shoulder seam. In other words, it looks kind of like a letter T when you cut it out. My dress was cut in the kimono sleeve style- it does not have seams at the shoulder.

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Looking at the hem of the skirt, in the lining layer, you can see that the hem was turned up very far (like what we talked about in the last post). Edwardians did this to help the skirt train nicely.

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You can also see if you open up the back that this dress closes in two layers- the lining closes separately from the outer fabric. This is consistent with what I’ve seen in pretty much every museum antique dress that has the back opened up.

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(Note: This shows the left side of the dress only. The inner layer closes with hooks and eyes, and the outer layer closes with snaps.)

A common 1910s technique was to mount the bodice and skirt on a waistband- this helps make construction easier.

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Another important factor in determining the age of a dress is the fabric type. If it’s polyester, you can know for sure that it’s from, like, the 1960s or later because they just didn’t have polyester before that. This dress is definitely not polyester. I would guess that the outer fabric is cotton voile and the lining fabric is some sort of lightweight silk, silk crepe maybe?

Finally, you can just see by the style that this is consistent with the 1910s style. I’m saving the pictures of the full dress for the end, but it has a high waistline and slim silhouette, as was common in the 1910s.

~Details and Embellishments~

After I looked at this dress thoroughly, I realized that somebody really put a lot of thought and a lot of love into it. First of all, just look at all the pintucks. (A pintuck is when you pinch a small amount of fabric and stitch it down to make a tiny fold.) You have them all over the hips…

Each one is an eighth of an inch wide and they just look so perfect. Trust me when I tell you that this would take a LONG time and really good technique to make them look this good!

There is also lace at several places- under the bust, at the arms, at the neckline, on the sleeves and on the skirt hem. Even more amazing to me is the fact that this lace appears to have been all made by hand. It doesn’t have the sterilized perfection that machine made lace has today. (Make sure to click through all 5 pictures here- it’s a slideshow.)

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Did you notice the little pastel-colored knots at the neckline, and the colored embroidery floss that weaves through some of the lace edges? And that there are even more pintucks underneath some of the lace? The attention to detail in this dress is simply mind boggling!

I get kind of scared when handling that lace. It feels kind of dried out and really fragile, like it will just fall apart at any second.

Another detail I appreciated was the details on the bodice and skirt that made the entire material look lacy.

The picture on the left gives away how they did this. I think somebody used a stencil with this flowery pattern and used fabric paint or something to paint the shapes on there, and then sewed embroidery floss onto the edges to give it a puffed out, 3D sort of look. This is really neat because, from a distance, it makes it look like there are holes in the dress, or a different material underneath! I am saving this to my arsenal of DIY fabric embellishment ideas!

Few of us today can fathom the amount of time and patience that went into a dress like this, especially when so much of it is not noticed or not seen. Everyone likes to harp on the faults of Edwardian society, like the class distinctions and racism and sexism. But there are pretty bad faults in today’s society too, and there are a lot of things I think we can learn from the Edwardians and the 20th century in general. They used to put so much excellence into everyday things like clothes. I wish we would put that much effort into things we do today.

~Damage and imperfections on the dress~

This dress is wearable and in pretty decent condition. But there is a lot of damage on the lining of the bodice.

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Remember that Bible verse about how you don’t patch up old fabric with new fabric because that will make the tear worse? Definitely true here. Apparently there were some pretty bad rips in the underarm area, and somebody tried to patch them up with fabric that didn’t match perfectly. And now the original fabric of the dress is pulling away from the patches and making the tear worse! I wish they hadn’t done that. Whoever owned this dress should have replaced the bodice lining as soon as the rip happened. Because now, I’m scared to actually try to fix it myself. That silk lining is very tightly stitched to the lace and the cotton voile, so there’s a big risk of that being damaged if I were to try to replace the bodice lining. I also don’t want to further hurt the dress by using new thread on it. That just seems like a bad idea. And also, no matter what I get, the bodice lining just won’t match the skirt lining. My feeling is to just leave it alone and maybe try to stitch up the holes as best I can to prevent further damage.

There’s also a lot of other, smaller holes in the skirt lining. The cotton voile on the outside is in pretty great shape, thankfully. There’s also some perspiration stains at the underarms, and I think a tea stain on the hem. I’m going to research vinegar treatments to see if I can reverse the discoloring there, or at least lessen it.

With that being said, it is pretty impressive that the dress is still an off-white color, and not yellowed from being in the sun! That tells me that this dress has been in a closet for many years.

~Final Pictures and My Theory on the Dress’ Story~

As I have hopefully made obvious, somebody REALLY cared about this dress. There’s so much hand stitching and attempts at repairs, and obviously the pintucks and the lace. Somebody desperately tried to salvage the bodice lining after it really took a beating from some aggressive use. If I were to guess, I would say that this dress has a lot of nostalgia for someone. Maybe the owner’s grandma hand-made all this lace for her as a gift. The owner probably was so attached to it that she refused to give it up, and probably just put it away sometime in the 1920s. It probably was not worn much after that because it was out of style, and it is very small, so maybe the owner was not able to wear it after several years. But she loved it too much to just throw it away. My guess is that she died, and her family found it and sold it to this antique store. Who knows how long it was waiting around at that store before I bought it! I may very well be the first person in almost 100 years to wear that thing…..

That’s the final amazing thing about my dress- it actually fits me. It’s not too long, which is pretty incredible considering that I’m not even 5’2″. It’s a little loose in the waist but I think it’s supposed to be that way. I have never been able to purchase a full-length dress today without having to hem it or have it custom made. People were closer to my size back then, I guess.

I feel so blessed and thankful to finally have a little piece of my favorite period in history!

Lessons from the Past on Making Ballgowns

It occurred to me the other day that we really don’t make ballgowns like we used to. And I’m not talking about my nostalgic feelings of the Edwardian days and earlier, where I think the style was so much more elegant and tasteful than it is today– nope, I’m talking about the raw practicality here. How to make ballgowns easier and more comfortable to wear and avoiding wardrobe malfunctions. Since the ballgown silhouette was extremely common in the 1860s, they developed some good old fashioned techniques on how to make ballgowns easy to wear. I think we would do well to relearn some of these techniques today.

First of all, in the 1860s, a decade of extremely full and heavy skirts, the bodice was always made separate from the skirt. Here’s an example of how this works.

One common complaint about modern ballgowns, especially strapless ones, is that the weight of the skirt pulls down on the bodice, which can obviously lead to VERY embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions! The Victorians had the solution a long time ago, and it’s really simple. Make the bodice and skirt separate. That way the bodice holds itself independently and isn’t pulled down by your skirt. I think they made evening gowns two-piece all the way through the 1900s, and stopped at the 1910s, where evening dresses became so light and narrow that the separate bodice and skirt system was not needed. And thus, the poofy princess ballgown wasn’t really used again much until, like, the 1950s. And then people must have forgotten that it’s a good idea to make the bodice and skirt separate.

Next, a hoop skirt is actually much more comfortable than modern methods used to fluff out ballgown skirts, such as gathering up large volumes of net or tulle.

I can’t attest to this personally because I have not made a hoop skirt, but I have read from a lot of Victorian costumers who have. The argument I’ve seen is that our net and tulle is scratchy, whereas a hoop skirt is not. Gathered net tends to cling to your legs, while a hoop skirt swings freely away from your legs. Plus, a hoop skirt literally gives you a circle of personal space, lol!

Related, the Victorians and Edwardians used separate petticoats to add fluff to their skirts. This is another concept on issues related to the weight of the skirt. Modern ballgowns usually have the outer skirt, gathered net, and a couple of petticoat-ish layers all attached to the bodice. That makes the whole dress very heavy! Whereas in the 1860s, your bodice, hoop skirt, and petticoats each come on separately. They each carry their own weight.

Finally, the Edwardians in particular added weight to the hem of the skirt to give it a better drape.

This might involve turning the bottom hem edge up about two to four inches, instead of stitching the hem really close to the edge and cutting it all off. Or it might involve adding a heavy trim like what we see in this picture. I tried this technique (turning the bottom edge of my hem up four inches) when making the train of my 1912 evening dress, and I was amazed by the difference it made! The train had not kept its shape very well as I walked in it before it was hemmed, but after I turned the edge up a lot and basted it, the train laid flat on the ground and kept its shape so nicely. Anyone who makes a drapey or trained skirt should really try this technique.

That’s about it! I have always loved a good ball gown, whether it’s historical or modern or fantastical. And these are just sensible tricks that can really improve the function of a ball gown.

A Little Tea-Dyeing Adventure

Now that my corset is done, it’s time to move on to the next phase of the Edwardian project: the combination chemise, petticoat and corset cover. As always, I like to prep my fabric before I use it, and that’s what this post is all about.

For those of you who follow the Facebook page, you may have noticed my picture of the cotton voile I ordered.

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Cotton voile and cotton batiste are the most highly recommended fabrics for historical undergarments. This is because they are very soft and lightweight. Cotton is one of the most breathable fabrics out there. Cotton batiste and cotton voile are not very coarse weaves of cotton, so they’re not scratchy against your skin. Very important for the underwear that’s right up against your skin! I got cotton voile partly because it was cheaper than batiste, and partly because I love the semi-sheer nature of it.

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Depending on the lighting, the amount of detail you can see through cotton voile varies, but usually you just sort of see a shadow of what’s underneath. Perfect for Edwardian undergarments to go with an evening dress! (Cotton batiste is opaque, so it would be more practical for everyday wear.)

Before using this fabric, I noticed that it was very obviously true white, whereas my corset is a creamy off-white color. Those two didn’t go well together. I didn’t want the true white cotton voile to make my ivory corset look dingy! So I decided to try something that many people in the DIY community are quite fond of: tea dyeing. Basically it’s where you dye fabric with tea. Lots of people use it to warm up true white fabrics to make them match an ivory thing. Figured it would be a fun thing to try, and super cheap!

First I cut out some test swatches of the cotton voile and put one in some lukewarm water with a moderate concentration of regular tea. (It was just the Lipton iced tea stuff.)

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Testing a swatch in lukewarm water, for five minutes, with a moderate concentration of dye is always a good place to start, because that will dye silk and anything else that dyes easily. (Mortal fabric! Haha, get it? Sorry, I’m bad at bad jokes!) Anyway, five minutes in lukewarm water with moderate concentration didn’t put a dent on my fabric, so I heated the water on the stove to almost-boiling (steaming and swirling, as I think of it) and put another two bags of tea in. A few more minutes in that did the trick! Here’s the test swatch, and a control swatch (one that was not dyed) both against my corset:

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Funny how a little bit of tea makes such a difference! Now, just looking at the dyed swatch, all by itself, it doesn’t match the corset color exactly. It’s considerably paler. That’s because the fabric is semi-sheer, so it will look more like whatever color is underneath it… so putting it on the corset makes it look more like the corset color. But at least it’s not as blatantly white as the control swatch!

I was satisfied with how those two came out, so I split my 7-yard length of fabric into 3 yards and 4 yards, because they didn’t both fit into my pot, and dyed them separately.

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Setting them out overnight to dry:

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Except, when I woke up this morning to check on them, there was a problem! The tea dye did not dry evenly, so there were these ugly brown streaks all over…..

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Talk about a big OOPS!

I think those streaks came because I didn’t rinse off the fabric before setting it out. Rather a silly mistake, isn’t it? I guess I was just afraid of washing out ALL the tea! This stuff isn’t as strong as Rit dye, after all. Oh well.

Thankfully, it was an easy fix. I found out that you can use white vinegar to remove tea stains from cotton! So I put the fabric in the washing machine, and added vinegar instead of detergent, and it washed it all out for me.

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(I actually think the warm water was more important to have than the vinegar, because the stains started to come off in the washing machine even before I added the vinegar. But I’m sure it helped.)

The one last thing I was worried about was that I might have washed the fabric TOO white… that it no longer had that same nice ivory color as the swatches. It still looks pretty pale against the corset. But after cutting a swatch off the dyed fabric, and comparing it to the control swatch and one of the test swatches, I found that it still matched the corset more nicely than the control swatch. (Top is the control, middle is the final product, bottom is one of the test swatches.)

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I decided I’m happy enough with the result to not go through the whole process and dye it again. I don’t think the tea will ever make it match the corset perfectly. The tea is more reddish while the corset is more yellowish. The important part is that I can reasonably call my fabric ivory now, and not true white, even if it’s not a perfect match.

Sewing is like gambling. You are constantly making choices about whether you should stop and take home what you already have, or keep going and risk losing it all! But unlike gambling, with sewing (and art in general) mistakes are easily fixed. Sometimes you may lose a little bit of time or money, but it doesn’t ruin your life or your project.

Stay tuned for posts about the chemise construction! I hope to start that today. Thanks for reading!

Oh! And if you haven’t taken the fashion era quiz on the previous post, or if you have and you haven’t told me your results through the poll, I encourage you to do one thing:

Quiz: Which Fashion Era Would You Like Best?

Are you interested in historical fashion, but not really sure which era you should research? Do you just feel lost in all the massive amounts of variety that we’ve seen just in the last five hundred years? If so, then you’re not alone- but don’t be intimidated! I’ve designed a quiz that will ask questions about your actual fashion preferences and aesthetic sensibilities so that you can easily figure out a good place to start in your historical fashion research. I’ll put a poll at the end so you can tell me what results you got! Enjoy!

(Note: The quiz covers fashion eras from the Renaissance to the 1920s. Anything before 1500 and after 1929 won’t be covered. The reason for this is because including more modern eras can distort the results because people are more familiar with 1930s and beyond, and ancient/medieval fashion isn’t all that interesting, lol. This quiz is meant to help you explore time periods that you might not be very familiar with.)

1: Pick how you would describe your figure:

a. Full-figured all around

b. Proportionally very full-chested, and proud of it!

c. Moderately curvy, soft and delicate arms, wide hips

d. Slim hips, tall and column-like, full chest and shoulders

e. Naturally curvy and high-waisted (meaning the slimmest part of your figure is higher up, closer to your chest than your hips)

f. Classic hourglass- slim waist, full hips and chest

g. “Boyish-” petite, long torso, flat chest, not curvy

2: What part of your body would you like to emphasize?

a. Arms- I would enjoy wearing very long, poofy sleeves

b. Bust- I am comfortable in plunging necklines

c. Hips- I love to wear very full skirts

d. Height- I like high-waisted gowns that make me look taller

e. Hips and shoulders- I wouldn’t mind wearing a bustle and puffed sleeves to enhance my curves

f. Everything- I could cinch my waist and add padding to the bust and hips.

g. Legs- my legs are long and shapely and I want to show them off.

3: What is your pet peeve with modern fashion?

a. It is too simple and boring. I don’t like the minimalist trend.

b. People seem to be ashamed of their own bodies; they cover themselves up in unflattering ways.

c. There is no sense of quirkiness in fashion anymore. Everyone just wears the same generic, uncreative things.

d. Everything is designed for people with curvy hips- I can never fill out skinny jeans!

e. People often dress inappropriately and make fools out of themselves!

f. Fashion has lost its femininity. Women ought to be proud to dress like women.

g. Everything is designed for full-chested people. I can’t fill out normal bras, and some tops/dresses look deflated on me.

4: Pick an aesthetic (out of these photos)

a. a3f110a7669b62101f97c21c9cdb8f4c

b.

c.

d.

e.

f.

g.

5. What kind of skirt would you wear?

a. Simple in design, but has lots of fabric and full volume.

b. Full and drapey, with two layers visible (the fabric parts in the middle to reveal a contrast fabric underneath)

c. One with padded or otherwise- accentuated hips, very wide

d. Long and slim, made out of a thin fabric that clings to the body

e. It would have a hoop to give it width, or a bustle to puff it out in the back, with a couple of petticoats (underskirt)

f. Flowy and drapey, with a long train in the back

g. A slim skirt that goes just past the knees

6. Which sleeves sound the coolest?

a. Long sleeves that have several openings which show a contrast fabric, very poofy and full

b. Frilly, with lots of ruffles and details all over it, off the shoulder

c. Tight around the upper arm with lace flowing delicately around the forearm

d. Really short, puffed sleeves that just cover the shoulder

e. Tight around the wrist and forearm but puffed at the shoulders

f. Flowy and loose sleeves that go down to the elbow

g. No sleeves thank you!

7. Pick a color scheme

a. Deep red, dark purple, gold

b. Emerald green, royal blue, dark pink

c. Cream, pink, beige, pastel green, light blue

d. Powder blue, ivory, gold, pale pink

e. Peacock green, burgundy, light purple

f. White, light pink, beige, silver, bright blue

g. Black, turquoise blue, bright pink

8. Pick a corset out of these pictures:

a.

b. (Note: Ignore the sleeves on this one, they are not a part of the corset, they are a part of a separate undergarment.)

c.

d.

e.

f.

g.

9. Which of these classic works of literature or theater would you want to be in?

a. Any play by Shakespeare

b. Any play by Moliere

c. Marriage of Figaro (opera by Mozart)

d. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

e. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

f. My Fair Lady (Broadway musical)

g. The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

10. What do you value in a culture?

a. Appreciation of the arts, sciences and ancient cultures

b. Dignity and grandeur, feeling like royalty, appreciation of theater and drama

c. Very fine music, emotional balance, everything made with symmetry

d. Emphasis on the family, dreaming of faraway lands, stability and kindness

e. Properness, practicality and elegance combined

f. Politeness and beauty in everything, even the unseen

g. Individuality and uniqueness, exploration of new ideas

11. In your view, fashion should be…

a. Regal and queenly, evoking a sense of power

b. Bold in colors and style, controversial

c. Frivolous and elaborate, a work of art

d. Simple and elegant with long vertical lines, flattering to all

e. Poised and well-put together, everything is neat and tidy

f. Delicate and feminine, ladylike and gentle

g. Sparkly and glamorous, youthful and sassy

I hope you were writing your answers down! Time to add them all up and see what you get:

Mostly A’s: Renaissance/Elizabethan! (1485-1600)

The Renaissance is what I think of as the beginning of Cool Fashion. Now that living conditions had improved a little bit and people weren’t constantly fighting wars every day, people had time to actually put some effort into their clothes! The silhouette aimed to flatten the chest, not reduce the waist, and accentuate the hips with a full skirt, so that the torso looked like a cylinder. Fuller figures often worked well especially in the later end of the era. The Renaissance had all sorts of cool sleeve ideas, as you can see in the example picture. Here’s my Renaissance board on Pinterest if you want to take a look!

Mostly B’s: Baroque! (Roughly the 1600s)

I love Baroque fashion because it looks slouchy but structured at the same time. The sleeves and the neckline hang loosely off the boned bodice, creating a really unique silhouette. The Baroque corset (or stays) was more tubular like the Renaissance silhouette. Some easy ways to remember the Baroque era are by the very revealing necklines we sometimes see, and by the very long bodice that sometimes pointed past the hips, making the skirt seem shorter. If you have a full chest and aren’t afraid to show it off, and you love the artsy nature of this era, you would have fit right in.

Mostly C’s: Rococo/Georgian! (Roughly the 1700s)

The 1700s is the century of Mozart and of the American and French Revolutions. There’s really a lot to love, fashion-wise, about this era because of the really gorgeous bodices and sleeves, and of course, the really wide rectangle shaped skirts. Every little detail was thought out- ruffles here and bows there and all the trim and embellishments, talk about fun! The silhouette is still roughly similar to the Renaissance and Baroque fashions. The ideal body type was somewhat similar to what it is today, but the stays would flatten out a lot of your curves and show some cleavage. I love the quirkiness of this era; it is on my costuming bucket list!

Mostly D’s: Regency! (1800-late 1820s)

Not a fan of the exaggerated-hip fashions of the 1700s? The Regency era peeps weren’t either! For the first time in about 200 years, the 1800s introduced a silhouette that was really different from the Renaissance, Baroque and Georgian fashions. The silhouette lifted up the breasts with its unique corsets and high-waisted dresses, and the ideal hipline would have been slim and column-like because the skirts were slimmer. The fashions of this era were somewhat controversial because they had a lot of sheer, clingy fabrics that clung to the legs. Petticoats were a must! This is the era of Jane Austen’s novels, and many people find the delicate, elegantly simple Regency fashions to be quite charming.

Mostly E’s: Victorian! (1830s-1901)

The Victorian Era was an exciting time in history because of the Industrial Revolution and the invention of photography. And the fashions were no less exciting! There is a wide variety of styles within the Victorian Era, including the balloon-sleeved gowns of the 1830s, the super full hoop skirts of the 1850s and 60s, and the bustle gowns of the 1870s-1890s. (The picture above is from the late 1880s.) Aside from being very poised and elegant, the Victorians were rather practical people. Undergarments, for example, were mostly functional, not there for aesthetic purposes. If you are naturally curvy, lucky you, you will work quite nicely with the spoon-busk corsets of the 1870s and beyond! (I couldn’t pull one of those off to save my life!) A staple in any fashion history buff’s store of knowledge, the Victorian Era is truly worthy of some investigation.

Mostly F’s: Edwardian! (1901-1914)

Oh the Edwardian Era, that magical blink in history that I wish we could go back to! Edwardian fashion is some of the most beautiful clothing you will ever encounter, from the inside out. Unlike the more practical Victorian fashion, Edwardian fashion was more sensual. The S-bend corsets from that time caused people to lean forward and puff out their chests, and the pigeon breast look in many blouses and dresses reinforced this. Other undergarments like the chemise and drawers were lacy and elaborate; they were more decorative than their Victorian counterparts. Here’s my Edwardian board on Pinterest. It has 400+ pins. You will be entertained for quite a while.

Mostly G’s: 1920s! (Flapper era/prohibition era/art deco era)

Yay! The 20s! Who doesn’t love this era of bias-cut, heavily beaded and fringed, sleeveless, knee-length party dresses? It’s the one era in pretty much all of history that doesn’t need a lot of curves to pull off the look. Flat, boxy figures and well-toned arms and legs were IN! The 20s look can be difficult for a lot of people to pull off because of the dropped waist we see a lot- the tightest part of the dress is around the hips, so if you’re not a stick it can be really unflattering to a lot of people. But hey, it’s artsy, it’s different, and it’s very unique. Most of us love researching the 20s fashions even if they’re not easy to wear. Here’s my 20s-50s board on Pinterest– you’ll have to filter through the 30s, 40s and 50s pictures but that’s okay!

Three way tie or even more mixed than that? Congratulations, Honorary Fashion Nerd! You could never pick just one of these fabulous eras, so it is in your destiny to become a historical fashion buff! Chances are, you will probably end up researching all of them at some point or another, just like I have. It can be challenging to take it all on at once though, so if you’re not sure where to start, I would take your answer to the very first question (the body type question) and research the era associated with that first. It’s often easier to learn about the era that idealizes your body type, because it helps you connect to it a little more.

So, which era did you get? I will post a poll right here and you can let me know, or tell me in the comments section! Preferably both!

Oh! And before I forget, I made a Facebook page for Aurora’s Costuming! Check it out, there’s some content on there that doesn’t get posted on here…

https://www.facebook.com/aurorascostuming/

In Defense of Corsets

Our society in general has a widespread fear of corsets. Ironically enough, the negative perception of corsets we see today has been spread around by people who have never made, worn or touched a corset. Meanwhile, the main proponents of corset use are people who wear and/or have made corsets. If corsets were a bad thing, don’t you think it would be the other way around? People who have extensively worn corsets would be warning everyone to stay away, while the only people who like them would be people who have never worn them. But it isn’t like that. Those of us who have made corsets, or wear them extensively, are likely to argue that corsets are not only harmless, but also beneficial.

Here are some examples of the culture’s (incorrect) attitude towards corsets. I’ll post a picture and then quote someone’s comments from Pinterest.

“Now we know why they never smiled in the photos… OUCH!”

“Could you even imagine?! Ugh, I would die.”

“X-ray images of women in corsets..so what’s the big deal? I mean a skinny waist is the only way to be happy. duh. (DUH. sheesh. corsets. MALE-created devise fer sure.)”

“The Queen of Norway … look at that waist! Thanks to low waisted jeans being back in style for 14 years, I’ve let my waist get to the point to where that looks positively painful”

And finally, here’s an article that made my eye twitch. It was all praising Emma Watson for not wearing a corset in Beauty and the Beast. (Honestly her refusal to wear the corset, all by itself, wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t for everybody else being like, “YEAH! Ban all the evil corsets!”)

Okay. I will now address the most common arguments I see that enforce a negative view of corsets.

  1. Corsets look so uncomfortable, how do people breathe in them? There’s a very simple answer to this. Corsets are NOT uncomfortable and you CAN breathe in them, even the ones that reduce the waist by several inches. Now, this is only true if the corset is well-made. A cheaply made corset that doesn’t conform correctly to your body, such as a standard-sized costume corset that is boned with plastic, won’t feel comfortable at all. But if you go to a professional corsetiere, or develop the skill to make one yourself (like I did), you will get a corset that conforms perfectly to your body and feels like second skin. People also get freaked out when they hear of people wearing metal, in the form of corsets that are boned with spiral steel or spring steel. But actually, spiral steel is way more comfortable than plastic! This is because it’s so flexible and it easily changes its shape to fit you perfectly. And people can breathe just fine in a properly-proportioned corset. Let me tell you how. The waist is restricted, but more room in the bust is allowed! This means that you are given plenty of space to breathe from your upper chest. So you can breathe normally even if your waist is restricted by several inches. Opera singers often perform in corsets. I’m sorry, but you really can’t convince me that an opera singer can’t breathe!
  2. Corsets make you faint/force you to sit down all day/severely restrict your movement. Um, I can testify firsthand against this, after having worn my corset to school all day! In my corset, I can haul around heavy backpacks and walk around in the cold weather at a brisk pace, and easily do push-ups, and do overall normal things. Sure, the corset keeps you from bending at the waist. But people are not actually supposed to bend from the waist for every little thing- it can cause back strain, which can be corrected by bending from the hips and keeping your torso straight. Which is exactly what a corset does!
  3. Corsets are sexist- they enforce sexual stereotypes on women, forcing them to be unnaturally thin. And this is where I have to make a major point: corset use does not necessarily equal tightlacing. Tightlacing is where somebody wears a specially-made corset designed to reduce their waist by several inches, like 6 or more inches, to create a very proportionally small waist. Believe it or not, MRI scans have been done on the body of a tightlacer and the organ displacement is not severe. So tightlacing is not harmful if people do it correctly. (That’s a big if, but still.) So there are two important things to remember: not all corsets are designed for tightlacing, and tightlacing isn’t even a bad thing. The vast majority of high-quality corsets being made might reduce your waist by a little, like two inches or so, but that’s all. The main reason why we have corsets is so that they can improve your posture, make you feel curvier, and produce a correct historical silhouette if you’re doing historical corsetry. Once I saw a quote about bras, and I paraphrase: “People sometimes think of bras as a purely sexual garment, but really they are purely a functional garment.” The same can be said of corsets. In fact, I would say they are even more functional than bras. A bra cannot correct bad posture, or smooth out awkward folds in one’s figure (particularly heavier figures), or produce a desired look for an overall figure. Another important thing to remember is that a corset can be made for literally any body type. It can be made for larger, curvier figures. Or it can be made for awkwardly skinny people like me. Corsets do not force everyone into a 16-inch waist. They can be made for anyone, and make them look however they want.

And now, going to address some of those specific comments from Pinterest I posted up there:

  1. “Now we know why they never smiled in the photos… ouch!” First of all, people did smile in early photos. Go to my Edwardian board on Pinterest and you’ll see plenty of smiles and natural-looking expressions.  The stereotype of people not smiling comes form the days of Diguerrotype photos, like in the 1860s, when taking one photo could take 20 minutes, so people would have to have neck clamps and such to keep still that whole time! THAT’S an ouch! Not at all linked to wearing corsets. I already addressed why corsets are actually comfortable.
  2. (Addressing that sarcastic post saying that the aim of corsets is to make people skinnier, and that corsets were invented by men): Corsets are meant to make people curvier, not necessarily skinnier. Reducing the waist means adding more to the bust and hips. A corset doesn’t make you lose weight, it just redistributes fat. Also I addressed above that MRIs show no serious health effects of prolonged corset use. Finally…… who cares if corsets were invented by men or by women? Sure, women didn’t have as many rights back then as they do now. But as far as I’m aware it was mainly the women’s choice to wear corsets. Women’s rights activists like Susan B. Anthony wore corsets, and didn’t seem to think corsets were the problem with society. They were concerned with bigger things, like the right to vote! Here’s a picture of Susan B. Anthony. It’s obvious that she’s wearing a corset in this picture.

3. The remark about the Queen of Norway’s waist- Yeah, she had a small waist. Sure. But what’s wrong with having a small waist? People today have small waists. Other people don’t. And that’s okay. Again, corsets are not forcing everyone into Queen Maud’s measurements. A corset is made to fit YOU and meet YOUR goals.

I just wish that people who don’t know anything about corsets (but think they do because of cultural stereotypes like Pirates of the Caribbean) would just admit that they don’t know anything about corsets, and not make remarks like, “Oh, that’s gotta hurt!” or, “Man, you have to be skinny to wear one of those!”Better yet, they would do well to do some research. Find out more about how corsets actually improve your posture, which can be linked to many other health benefits, and there are emotional and psychological benefits of wearing a corset as well. When I wear my corset, I’m in control. If I want it tight I lace it a little tighter. Otherwise I just let it leave my waist in a natural position. If I feel like taking it off I take it off.

My hope is that someday, corsets will be reincorporated into the mainstream culture. Not as a replacement for bras or anything, but I think they should be interchangeable. Going to be on your feet all day? Wear your corset, it will help your back. Lounging around the house on a rainy Saturday and don’t feel like wearing your corset? Don’t wear it, wear your bra instead. Going out with friends, or to a job interview? Wear your corset, it will give you confidence and a strong-looking poise. Going to get some exercise? A bra will probably work better (unless you’re doing push-ups; corsets are really helpful for those, trust me)! There is no reason to be afraid of corsets when they can actually empower you.

For further reading, check out…

This blog post by Damsel In This Dress, it makes some great points!

Lucy’s Corsetry– she has taught me so many things about corsets! I thought tightlacing was unhealthy until I read her site. She really knows what she’s talking about.

Thanks for reading this long informative post! I hope you enjoyed it and found it helpful!