Saturday, April 30, 2011

Historical Underthings: On Shifts & Chemises

So, I mentioned something about Regency costume a while back. Said project is now Officially Underway and the first piece is finished.

When creating an entire historical costume from scratch, one must begin by making the underthings. This is because they are often designed to change the body's shape, and they often (especially for women) consist of a few layers of fabric. The result can be a very different set of measurements from your natural shape. Therefore, it's important to make the undergarments first, then take a new set of measurements while wearing everything that's going to be worn underneath your gown.

In light of this rule, I started with the chemise.

It's made out of 100% cotton lawn, which is a fine, lightweight fabric. It's a very simple shape, long and loose and flaring only slightly at the hem.

It has a simple drawstring fastening at the neckline; I've used thin white ribbon to gather it up.

It has a large gusset under the arm (the diamond-shaped fabric insert) to allow for freedom of movement. The rest of the sleeve is merely a rectangle of fabric.

I gather that the common length for a Regency chemise is about calf-length. I lengthened mine by a few inches.

All of the seams are fully enclosed, which makes it a strong, long-wearing garment. If you imagine how harsh the process of washing was during the nineteenth century, it would need to be!

By way of interest and comparison, here are a couple of other historical shifts and chemises I have in my possession:

I made this chemise a year or so ago to wear underneath a late nineteenth-century aesthetic gown. It's made of medium-weight cotton - heavier and thicker than the cotton lawn. It has fully-shaped sleeves and, instead of a drawstring neckline, it buttons closed. There are long inserts from hem to waist adding space in the skirt area. This one is a bit prettier than my Regency chemise, having some trim around the neckline. I could have trimmed the Regency as well, but I like it plain and simple.

This is an eighteenth-century style shift (the terms change, by the way, from shift to chemise but essentially they refer to the same basic idea: a loose, plain garment worn closest to the skin). This one was made for me. It's made from medium-weight linen and it's the most voluminous of my collection. It has a drawstring neckline, like the Regency, but it has long sleeves (it's quite interesting fitting these under the tight sleeves of my eighteenth-century printed cotton gown!).

The next phase of production is the stays (stays were the forerunners of corsets: designed to cinch in certain parts of the anatomy and accentuate others). Regency clothes had some interesting variations in corsetry-style garments. There are two common styles: long stays, which do look like a sort of halfway point between eighteenth-century stays and nineteenth-century corsets, and short stays.

I'm making short stays. It's an interesting garment because it's probably the closest thing to a brassiere that's seen in costume before the twentieth century. I'm probably going to quilt them rather than bone them. (Notice my grammar's wavering a bit here. It's a single item of clothing most confusingly called 'stays', a plural term. Does one refer to it/them as it or them? Hmmm).

It's going to be a delicate, tricky job so it'll take some time before they're finished. In the meantime, I'm embarking on a range of gypsy/peasant blouses in honour of spring, and planning a post on this sometime soon!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fun & Games in the Land of Regency Costume

So, I think I've maybe overdone it a bit lately. Maybe more than a bit. My shop'll probably wander along by itself at this point without my needing to be obsessing over it all day every day, and my novel finally feels like it's on track. It's past time I did something just for the fun of it.

I have for years been wanting to do a proper Regency costume project - undergarments, dress, spencer jacket, bonnet, reticule and all - and I can't understand why it's taken me so long to get around to it. So: I've taken this up as a holiday project for the next couple of months.

Course, even setting it up takes time and certainly money. I guess that's why I've postponed it. To start with, I need...


I'd love to develop these myself, but I require a lot more specific historical knowledge to do that. So for the time being, I'll base my costume on someone else's. Get a look at these beauties:

I got these as a birthday gift courtesy of my costumier sister (thanks, Kate). They come from the brilliant website 'Sense & Sensibility Patterns', which I highly recommend for a range of costume interests, not just Regency. Here's the link


Expensive, this part, if one expects to use authentic fabrics - and of course, I do. By authentic I mean as close as possible to the original materials employed for garments like these back in the day. It's not always possible to get it spot on - for example, I'd love to use a pretty printed muslin for my day dress, but nobody manufactures fabrics like that anymore. Did you know that a lot of the fabrics used for period dramas like Pride & Prejudice had to be custom-made?

I expect it'll take me another week or two to find all the fabrics I need. After that, I'm starting out with the undergarments. I'll be blogging about it as I go, so visit again for the updates!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Velvet: How to care for it, how to work with it

Dear Velvet Lovers,

I have no hesitation in addressing you as such because who could resist velvet? It's absolutely the most lush, plush, luscious and beautiful fabric known to man.

Unfortunately this is one of those things that by its mere existence offers a challenge to the universe. As punishment (or justice) for being so obviously superior to every other fabric alive, Master Universe ensured that velvet is also about the most difficult fabric to sew with and to keep in good condition.

Fear not, however. It's not impossible. It's just damn tricky. Here are some bits and pieces I've learned about velvet, through years of stubbornly refusing to leave it alone.

How to Launder Velvet

'Velvet' is not just one fabric but a whole category of fabrics. To qualify as 'velvet' a fabric must have a woven base topped with closely packed, short, soft fibres (called the 'pile'). It's a bit more complicated than that but we'll leave it there. Now, these fibres can be made up of just about anything.

The cheapest grades of velvet are pure polyester. Most of these can stand being put through the washing machine, but I don't recommend washing them any hotter than about 30 degrees centigrade. If in doubt, hand wash.

Cotton velvet is, obviously enough, pure cotton. It's less soft and plush than some velvets, but it's sturdier. I don't recommend putting these through the washing machine at all. Dry cleaning is best.

Silk velvets are the most expensive. Usually they are not 100% silk: a common composition is about 30% silk to 70% viscose (rayon), or thereabouts. These should never be machine washed (it ruins the lie of the pile, so the colour will appear patchy. Like crushed velvet, but more chaotic). It's best to dry clean anything made out of silk velvet.

How to Dry Velvet

Simple rule here: never tumble dry.

It might be possible to make an exception for the cheaper grade stretch velvets, but it probably isn't worth it. Tumble dryers are pretty bad for all luxury fabrics. Hang your velvet garment up somewhere and let it dry naturally. Or, if you're pre-washing a length of velvet prior to sewing with it, hang it over a drying rack.

How to Store Velvet

Here, again, velvet shows its contrariness. It should not, cannot ever be ironed - and yet it's great at developing deep creases which are very hard to remove.

To avoid the creases developing, don't store it folded. If it is an uncut length of fabric, store it on a roll. If it is an article of clothing, hang it up in a wardrobe.

Keep it out of direct sunlight. This actually goes for all types of fabrics, especially the delicate ones. Sunlight fades colours over time (don't worry: it takes a long time in direct light for this to happen). Make sure that when you put it to bed, it goes to sleep somewhere dark.

How to Press Velvet

I know I said it can't be ironed, but it's not hopeless. While you should never touch the surface of your velvet with the hot plate of an iron, it can be steamed.

Hold your steam iron a couple of inches away from the surface of the pile and press the steam button. Repeat until the creases disappear. Be careful with this: don't let the velvet get too wet. If it gets soaked through, pause for a few minutes and then resume.

If all else fails, you can turn the velvet over and press the back. GENTLY. I've heard other seamstresses suggest laying a towel over the ironing board before you do this, to protect the pile. If you're trying this, choose a thick, soft, fluffy towel, not an old ratty one.

These policies should help keep your glorious velvets in top condition. For those of you who wear velvets but don't sew with them, that's the end of the relevant part of this post. Anybody who has plans to sew anything velvet anytime soon, read on...

The Problem With Sewing Velvet

... is that it has a mind of its own. No, really. Pin the stuff down as much as you like and it'll wriggle away. This is because, when you lay two pieces of velvet right sides together, the piles of the two pieces work against one another and create a slight shift sideways. When you put it under the sewing machine, you can end up with an uneven seam and a rapidly narrowing seam allowance.

How to resolve this? Well, one thing that helps is to remember that it can move in different directions. Just putting your pins in a straight line won't hold it; if you'll halted the shift lengthways it'll jump sideways. It can help to put the pins in at different angles.

If you're sewing with two small pieces - like sewing patchwork patches together - then pin all the seams, even if you're only sewing one.

Failing all of that, tack it. (Tacking is putting rough hand stitching in to hold your fabrics together while you machine stitch them). Usually it's fine to just use running stitch when tacking, but velvet needs more. If I'm sewing any larger pieces together I usually use a herringbone stitch (cross shapes). This takes extra time to do, but it can save time in the end, as you're much more likely to get it right first time.

Another problem with velvet is cutting it out in the first place. It's slippery and can twitch away from your scissors. This is especially true of silk velvet. I usually counter this by cutting a couple of millimetres outside of the pattern line. If it's stretched or moved, this can cancel out the problem. You can tidy up any slight unevenness after you remove the pattern piece.

So: it might be hard work, sometimes, but it's worth the pain because the results can look spectacular - especially if you use a decent quality piece of velvet. Here's my most recent creation, made from a high grade polyester variant: