Way back in 2015, I started coordinating a little monthly get-together I like to call the Victorian Sewing Circle, based out of the Marr Residence, the Oldest House in Town* that the City operates as a sort of mini-museum. I was hoping to indulge my latent interest in historical costuming, meet some like-minded people, and give myself a venue to WEAR at least some historical stuff. Since the house was built in 1884, a mid 1880s outfit seemed like a good goal.
I picked an inspiration dress from a reproduction of the 1886 Bloomingdale’s catalogue, acquired a ridiculous amount of discount wool blend suiting in my favourite muted blue colour, and ordered two Truly Victorian patterns for the bodice and overskirt, TV462 and TV368.
I started work on the skirt in October of 2015. Later that winter, I got sidetracked and made a “quick and dirty” version to actually wear to our little meetups… and then my progress on the blue “good copy” slowed to an utter crawl. And then when I got pregnant early in 2019, it stalled completely. And what started as a planned hiatus of a year or so turned into three, and I didn’t dust things off until this past fall.
At which point pretty much every measurement on my body had gone up 4-5”. And the “quick and dirty” outfit (the first pic in this post) no longer even remotely fits, so making the blue version wearable became a lot more urgent.
I was pleasantly startled, actually, when I pulled everything out again, at how close to complete it actually was. The skirt just needed the waistband finalized. The bodice just needed boning—but it also no longer fit, and I had accidentally used a very rigid ticking for my underlining, which wasn’t ideal in any way. And (which I had completely forgotten), the overskirt was complete, just needing a way to connect the back tails to the front apron. And perhaps some trimmings.
Adjusting the skirt wasn’t going to be a big deal—I had only basted on the waistband, and it needed length taken out at the top. I marked the new length on the front, basted and trimmed down to it, but then for the back I folded the extra down and just stitched the edge of the pleats to the waistband, so the seam allowance doesn’t add bulk to the waistband. This is a technique I’d read of in both historical sources and costuming articles, but never actually tried before. The transition from “seam allowance in” to “seam allowance out” is maybe not perfectly smooth, but every original Victorian skirt I’ve examined (which isn’t a high number, granted) had the most half-ass slapped on waistband, so I have a hard time being too fussy over it.
I had made a whole new corset, back at the end of summer, so all I had to do now was adjust the waistbands of both petticoats. For one petticoat this was no big deal as I had originally made it far too big and had to put in two large tucks in the waistband to make it fit. Ripping those out took about 30 seconds and it was good to go.
The second, on the other hand, was snug even when I first made it, and by the time I last wore it in 2019 I had already added a hair elastic looped through the buttonhole as a makeshift extender. But that no longer did the trick so the only option was to unpick the gathered back portion of the waistband and attach a substantial additional piece, then re-attach my painfully stroked gathers one by one, just spread out over a larger space.
It’s definitely an improvement though. I think even my hand-worked buttonhole is better, not that it’s a thing of great beauty.
And then there was the issue of the bodice.
I had steeled myself, frankly, to make a new bodice from scratch. The seams were only 1/2” and already somewhat frayed from a ridiculous amount of handling, and the rigid ticking underlining made the whole idea of altering just seem unpromising. I had enough fabric left over, just. But every time I went to start tracing out a new size of the pattern, a wave of exhaustion struck me.
I decided to try, just try, and see what happened if I let all of the back and side seams out as much as possible. Some of them, especially the waist, had been taken in quite a bit in my previous fitting adventure. And while 1/2” seams don’t allow for a lot of letting out, there are quite a few of them. I tried the bodice on again… it wasn’t enough. In particular, actually, the BACK just didn’t seem wide enough. Not at the waist, but the upper back, and there was still a stubborn 2” gap all along the front. I did toy with a plan where I could add a panel to the centre front, creating an “open jacket” look that is pretty common for the era. But the back still felt uncomfortably tight. If only I could just add more fabric, right at the centre back seam.
Well, why couldn’t I?
So I ripped open the CB seam, from just below the collar to about mid back. Try on. Rip a little further. Try on again. And lo and behold, after ripping it all open except for about 3” at the bottom, it closed in the front.
So I pulled out my scraps, cut a long, tapered spindle-shape, and set about stitching a panel into the back.
It’s not an ideal fix—it’s added some of its own fit issues and ripples, and makes boning the CB of the bodice difficult. But it’s also saved me an immense amount of work. Which these days, I’ll take.
After all that, all I had to do was add all the boning to the bodice, which I wound up doing by stitching the casings on by hand since my seam allowances were both narrow and quite irregular. Unfortunately, I also had to pull off the bias facing at the front hem to add the bones to my darts, because past me got ahead of herself in the finishing department. Mistakes like that played a huge role in why this damn thing took forever to make, by the way.
Anyway, the bones definitely help smooth out the look, though I might need to redo my buttons to get a truly smooth front. I’ll face that some other day.
After a fair bit of waffling, I decided to attach the tails to the overskirt apron the same way I did with my first version, with elastic loops and large buttons. It’s not historically accurate, but it’s easy, comfy, and highly adjustable.
And, at last, I finally got to wear it!
There are a few more tweaks that could be made. The back of the skirt, where I had omitted one of the overlay panels, looks a little plain. I’m not sure that my draping of the bodice tails or the back of the overskirt is finalized, and I do have some black tassel trim that might look good there.
But after a saga like this, wearable, in any degree, is a huge step forward. And for the first time in ages, I can actually say to myself “what’s next?”
(Actually, I finished this back in early December, so what’s next was the Edwardian skirt. But I really wanted some pictures that weren’t taken in my hallway. Thank you to my mom for digging out her good camera to take most of these, and for braving the technological minefields of iCloud and Dropbox to get them to me.) Next up… an Edwardian-style blouse to go with the skirt. Unless I get highjacked by one of my children, anyway…