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Friday, April 13, 2012

The Titanic Dress Chronicles: Design and Construction

We are going to a dinner April 14th at the Austin Club that will recreate the last dinner served to the first class passengers on the night the Titanic sank. In the spirit of the evening, I decided to create a 1912 gown to wear to the event. I have been documenting my sewing progress on one of my online craft groups and I'm re-posting some of that information here.

First, a little background about this project: Because life is rather unpredictable, I had the good sense to begin work on this back in January when we first learned of the dinner. Also, for various reasons including the fact I could better supervise our two year old daughter Mary Page, I decided to sew this project by hand using just a needle and thread. Yes, they did have sewing machines back in 1912, but the ability to sit on the couch and watch “Downton Abbey” while I stitched was too appealing. Incidentally, I viewed both seasons of “Downton Abbey,” the 1920s Manchester hotel drama “The Grand,” and “all four seasons of “Bramwell” while sewing this gown. Thank goodness for Netflix on Demand!!!

For this project I chose Sense and Sensibility's 1910 Tea Gown pattern to be sewn in dark green satin and black lace. Not only did the pattern feature real sleeves, but the lines were clean and would be a fairly quick sew. Also, the design lent itself to creative embellishment. I would use the pattern for the base of the dress--other talents would be cultivated to finish the gown!

After tracing the patterns onto tissue paper, I cut out and sewed a "toile" using unbleached muslin in order to fit the bodice. Not only would this extra step help me get a better result, I planned to use the muslin as the bodice lining. It’s a good thing I chose to do this as I had to make some changes--namely lengthening the bodice pattern by 2 inches--the high waisted bodice was TOO high and it looked like a vest that Jeannie on "I Dream of Jeannie" would wear!

Once the toile was fitted, I took the plunge and cut out the dress fabric and lace overlay-- you can see the pattern laid out on the table. I've never worked with satin before and knowing that the fabric is pretty unforgiving about holes, I made sure to use satin pins only in the seam areas.

Laying out the lace was more of a challenge because the lace has a distinct, though repeating, pattern. I wanted to make sure that the lace lined up appropriately on the two sides of my bodice and so I made sure to lay out the pattern side-by-side. It was more wasteful of the fabric, but this way I'm hoping the design isn't jarring.

I originally planned to line up the pattern so that the scalloped lace was on the edge of the sleeve (the bodice is cut out in right and left halves with the kimono sleeve already attached) but it would have made the bodice lace line up perpendicular to the lace in the skirt. If I decide I want to have the lace edge on the sleeve cuff, then I'll just applique it.

I pinned together the satin bodice pieces and lace overlay and hand-basted the parts together. Then Mary Page woke up from her nap and I had to set the project aside...

Next update:

One of my quandries was what I was going to do with the center section of the bodice. My dress is designed with black lace over dark green satin. Rather than use an entirely different combination of fabrics, I decided to create a darker, yet visually cohesive look by arranging the black lace in layers on top of a base of green satin. I ended up using about five layers of lace.

Having created the center section, I was ready to sew up the bodice and bodice lining. Unfortunately I didn't think to get out my camera until after these sections had been sewn, but I laid out my handiwork and will try to show what I did. I used the muslin toile as my lining. You can see how the bodice sides came together to form the kimono sleeves and how the lining was sewn to the seam allowance of the green satin/black lace

Views of the bodice from the inside. Also, you can see the bodice with the darker black lace middle section.

Next, I tackled the skirts. Even though I treated the satin and lace as one piece on the bodice, the skirts are sewn separately. The satin and lace layers, plus the underskirt meant I had to cut and sew three different sets of fabric.
Each skirt was cut in three pieces--a front and two backs so there were two side seams and one seam in the back to sew on each layer.
Sewing the satin skirt and underskirt was pretty straightforward as I did a simple seam. Because the cut edges tended to fray, I snipped the outer edge with my pinking shears after I had sewn up the seam.

The lace overskirt, however, was a little more complicated. The pattern suggested assembling the lace with French seams. I chose instead to do a modified flat-felled seam. After sewing the sections together with a 3/8 seam allowance, I clipped one of the two edges by half then folded the longer edge over the shorter and sewed them together again.
I then sewed the folded edge to the actual lace itself. Now I have a completely enclosed seam that won't catch on the lace.

Next step: gathering the skirt layers and attaching them to the bodice.

Having finished assembling the bodice and the skirt, lace overlay, and underskirt, it was time to put them together. My first task was to gather the skirts so that they would fit onto the bodice waist.
Because I am hand-sewing this dress, I chose to use a gathering technique similar to that used when creating 19th century dresses--cartridge pleating. Cartridge pleating draws large amounts of fabric into a small space--necessary with wide skirts that need to be gathered onto a proportionately small waistband. However, because the skirt on my Titanic dress wasn't so full and the waist will ultimately be covered by a sash, I didn't have to make the pleats either as fine or as even.

After layering the lace over the skirt and underskirt and pinning all three together, I sewed two lines of stitches through all three layers parallel to the waistline.

I used white thread to for the stitches because I wanted to differentiate them from the seams AND I wanted to make it easier on myself when I removed them.
Once I stitched all the way 'round the waist, I pulled the strings to gather the fabric. After lining up the center front of the skirts with the center front of the bodice, I turned the bodice upside down and pinned the top edge of the skirt with the bottom edge of the bodice then sewed them together.

Once the skirt and bodice were attached, I was able to lay out the dress and see how well they went together.

You can see in the photograph some of the gathering threads peaking out below the waist--that's ok, I snipped them and pulled them out--the gathers will be held together by the stitching at the waistband.

Then I put in the zipper (not period correct, but it will ultimately be hidden) and placed the dress on my very crooked duct-tape dressmaker dummy.You can see how the multiple layers of black lace in the center section provide a subtle difference to the rest of the dress. Its actually a very plain gown and I'm nowhere near finished with it.

Next steps involve hemming the sleeves and bottom as well as adding the trimming. I will be taking a basic dress and really making something special! That will be in the second part of Titanic Dress saga...

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