The cutting & fitting of Miss Abby's Red & Black Silk Gown

Abby has been dropping subtle and not so subtle hints for the past few weeks about me blogging about how we cut and fit the gown she currently has is working on….so finally I’ve forced myself to sit down and do it.

For those not acquainted with me, I am a Colonial Williamsburg trained mantua-maker and milliner. I served a 7 yr apprenticeship there and became a journeywoman in the trade….then a few months later my husband and I moved overseas so he could pursue his dream of teaching at an international school. I went many months with cutting or sewing anything. At first it was okay as I needed a bit of a break from the trade I had focused so intently for so many years. But by Christmas I realized I needed to get back into not only sewing but cutting and fitting 18th C clothing. So in March I flew up to Scotland to visit Abby and cut and fit a 1790s jacket for her.

The jacket was the first thing I had draped in months…and I was a bit rusty. We draped the shape in cheap muslin: bodice front, quartered back pieces and sleeves. Unfortunately I left a bit too much seam allowance on all the pieces so Abby had a lot of work to do to make it fit snugly as she wished…but in the end it turned out okay.

This summer I visited the UK again. The first evening there with Abby I draped a new shape for her ball gown. This time I didn’t want the fit to be an issue. So not only did I cut the gown to fit her perfectly we made the effort to get all the front and back pieces made up in the next 2 days so that I could do a final bodice fitting and leave her with a bodice that fit perfectly…

Two problems immediately presented themselves…
One… we didn’t have the old bodices shapes, any costume books or internet access at the hotel where we were staying…so I had to do the draping from complete memory and trust my eye (which was still out of practice).
Two…Abby had created new stays which gave her amazing shape and support, but were not finished…we had to pin on the shoulder straps and wrestle a bit with the boning in the back and underarms to keep it from getting in the way!

We started by draping the basic bodice front with center front closing. This was the easy part. All we had to do was leave enough fabric on the side seam for wherever we decided that should end up being after the back pieces were cut.

Next I cut the back piece that would start at the center back and go party over the back to the side. I really struggled with this piece as it was hard to decide how deep I wanted the point to go, how straight vs. curved should the side seam be and where should it hit the shoulder strap. I was a bit conservative with my choice not making it to dramatic or narrow as that would allow it to be used for a wider range of dates instead of placing it too late for any 1780s events she might wish to attend at a later date.

Once as the back pieced was cut I then laid the muslin in for the second back piece that goes between the center back piece and the bodice front. This piece is the easiest to do as all you have to do is play with where it side seams look good and then mark it, take it off and cut it larger for the side seams.

We next cut out all the lining pieces from linen. Cut the silk pieces to match for the back…but for the front we decided to add to make the red/black silk stop with a rounded edge to show off the white silk “zone” below. (Many costumers debate when this term started being used…is it 18th C or is it a modern costume word we have created to describe something the 18th C person had a different word for or didn’t have a name for at all). The curve we came up was decided solely by how the fabric wanted to work…sometime that is the best way to design something!

We then split up the sewing work to be done. Abby took the fronts, first attaching the red silk bodice to the white zone and then lining it with the linen. I took the back pieces. The first piece I started I did in the way I had been taught…I basted back the silk edges and then slipped the lining to them. Then I backstitched the pieces together along the little bit of red silk that peaks out from where the lining is laid down….but this is not how we ended up doing the whole back…
The next day we visited the costume collection owned by the museums in Liverpool. There we looked at several pieces up close including 3 1780-90s gowns. All 3 of them were quartered back, all three had much deeper points to the center back pieces that I had cut, and all three had different seeming construction to attach the back pieces. While I could not change the cut of the back pieces by this point (well I could but that would have set us back enough in the re-draping and cutting that we wouldn’t get it fit by the next morning) I decided I could adjust the seaming of the back pieces to be like one of the gowns we studied.

Instead of slipping the lining to the silk and then backstitching the pieces together this one gown had a different method that I quite liked. The linen is still laid to out fabric but then right sided of both back bodice pieces are laid together and stitch all at once by going through the two layers of silk and out the lining ….then back through the 2 layers of silk and out the lining. It is like a whip stitch but it never goes over the edge of the silk pieces but through. So much faster than slipping and then seaming. The only problem with this method is that if the thread starts to come out the whole thing, lining and all fall apart, but this gown was over 220 years old and its seams were together.

The next morning with all the pieces assembled we were able to fit the side seam of the bodice front to bodice backs and on the whole the fit came out really good…definitely not the loose fit of the previous garment…possibly almost too snug if Abby wears her stays any looser than when we fit the gown.

We did not end up having to cut new sleeves for the gown as we lucked out in finding the sleeve shape from the jacket I cut earlier in the year…but we did take the seam in a good ½” on each side.

On the whole I am pretty happy with the result of the cutting, fitting and sewing of the bodice. If I could change one thing it would be to make the center back point of the bodice a bit longer to give a more dramatic shape, but I think with all the fabric in the skirt and the bum roll under it will end up looking pretty much how it should. (To see pictures of the bodice we ended up with look at earlier posts)


  1. I'm so excited that you finally posted! It was a great read! :)


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