My Purple and Green Wool Dress

While I have been following The Dreamstress ( and the Historical Sew Fortnightly faithfully, I’ve been too busy to participate. I have kept up with sewing, though, including historic sewing, and I think that Leimomi Oakes has been a blessing to the online sewing community in encouraging us in our creativity and productivity. I hope she oversees more such projects!

I have accomplished a lot of sewing this year, mostly for Civil War reenacting, since I am a new reenactor and am assembling a wardrobe and supplies. It has been a learning curve, and I will probably continue to sew things for myself as I learn more about historic accuracy. The things that I have made so far are wonderful, but I tend to be self-critical and will want to make sure my own belongings meet high standards before I sew for others. Thus, I may replace things though I have mostly everything I need at the moment.

Last winter, I made a few essential reenacting items. My dear and generous brother bought some wool fabric for me: I found it on sale for $6 a yard! I think I got about six yards. It is coat-weight, mostly wool with some nylon content. I immediately began using it to make a warm 1860’s dress. Being somewhat under-educated about the details of historically accurate sewing, I based my dress on what I knew about the era from reading blogs, sewing forums, museum collection descriptions, and other reputable sources. I undertook the crazy idea of drafting my own pattern, which was difficult, but I spent so much time and effort on it to make the best of the experience. It was a great way to learn. Thankfully, my extreme care and patience made the effort worthwhile, and I succeeded in making a dress that I appreciate.
I looked at lots of photos and drew sketches of the style I wanted. I chose coat sleeves cut in two pieces with a slight flare at the wrist, topped with cap sleeves. The bodice has a W-shaped waistline and has two darts on each side. The back is fitted with angled curved seams. First, I drew generalized shapes of pattern pieces on scrap fabric and basted them together. I put the mock-up bodice on over my corset and pinned them to get proper fit and proportion. I do not have a dressmaker’s dummy, so it was difficult, but the method worked. Then, I traced the pieces to make a paper pattern.
Patterning the bodice

My next hare-brained idea was to learn how to match plaids. I had never done it before. I did some research and followed the standard method. It was a painstaking process but the results were well worth the effort. In order to match the plaid on both shoulder seams, I had to cut the center back piece down the middle. The pattern at this seam did not match perfectly, which I knew I had to sacrifice if I wanted the shoulder seams to match. Therefore, I placed a double layer of piping at the center back seam (I doubled it so that I could iron the seam open with the same thickness on both sides). I also piped the other back seams and the armscyces. The purple piping and the purple binding tape on the waist edge and the sleeves is made out of a 100% silk blouse that I bought at a thrift store for $1 U.S.
Basting on the silk piping

The bodice is fully lined with white cotton broadcloth. The side seams are exposed inside so that the bodice can be altered without taking apart the lining. I used hook and eye tape to fasten the front opening; they are inset so that the hooks and eyes are exposed but the tape is hidden between the fashion fabric and the lining. I added a stand-up style collar. The decorative touches are gold-looking buttons from my collection and a green silk ribbon that I have had as long as I can remember. The bodice is a little poorly fitted between the bust and the armpit, but otherwise not bad for a first attempt.
The skirt is simply a large rectangle, measured to fit nicely over my hoopskirt. I sewed eight seams along the skirt because, if I am not mistaken, fabric was narrower in the 1860’s; a seamstress would have had to sew together several pieces of fabric to make a skirt that big. Next, I sewed a large rectangular pocket into each side seam—pockets are extremely convenient! Subsequently, I box-pleated the front of the skirt. I folded the fabric along its top edge to balance the length and make it longer in back. Then, I gauged (cartridge pleated) the back and whip-stitched the skirt to a waistband. The pockets were tacked to the waistband after the pleats were sewn. The skirt opens in front with a dog-leg closure and fastens with hooks on thread loops and two buttons on the waistband. I finished the skirt by facing the bottom edge with a strip of cotton five inches wide and then binding the bottom edge in black cotton twill tape (I didn’t have black tape, so I had to dye it). The skirt is a little too long for easily walking, but I will either cut it and re-finish the bottom edge or sew a pintuck near the bottom.

I love my wool dress; it is very warm and comfortable and turned out just the way I envisioned. It was a great way to learn how to make my own patterns (though I am no expert yet) and match plaids. I wore it to a practice drill for my Civil War reenactment group’s soldiers. It was a snowy, slushy day, so I was happy to have a wool dress!


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