Making an 18th Century Floral Round Gown

Today I’m writing about another casual late 18th century dress. And I’m happy to say, this piece turned out much, much better than the poorly thought out purple linen dress that I talked about yesterday.

For this dress I managed to resolve all the fit issues with my pattern. I drafted a new, much more appropriate sleeve pattern. And my skirt was constructed properly. It took a little longer to make than the previous dress, but the end result is so much better.  I’ve included comparison photos at the end so you can see what a difference a bit more time invested makes!

This dress was intended to be a remake of the purple linen dress, but once I started looking for more references I decided to make a round gown instead of a skirt and bodice.

Round gowns were very popular in the second half of the 18th century. You can see a rather glamorous example here, and a more casual style here. But my main form of inspiration was this piece – I really liked the boxier neckline, and appreciated the interior photos.

The fabric for this is a Moda quilting cotton, in a floral print. I was attracted to it based on the colors – I love how purple, pink, green, and yellow have all been entwined so effortlessly. It’s a little busy…but busy prints weren’t uncommon in the 18th century.

I also bought two and  half yards of a wool that matches perfectly. So eventually this costume will get a coordinating coat.

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Just as a note, this is how the fabric looks in person. The worn photos of this dress do not do it justice since they were taken in really poor artificial lighting. It shines in the sunlight and I can’t wait to get outdoor photos of it – but the snow we have needs to melt first!

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I used my pattern from the linen dress as a base, but I raised the neckline significantly and made a few other changes. The first mock up was not great. But I made a some adjustments, and a second mockup, which was much more successful.

The only part I couldn’t get right is the back point. I’m convinced it’s impossible to properly fit this part on your own body. It’s tricky to fit it on a dress form, when you can see everything clearly. When it comes to it fitting YOU it’s a matter of luck, unless you have a helper. This lead to a lot of frustration but I eventually got something passable.

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Once I was happy with my mock up I cut out the lining.

I had been intending to follow some techniques from The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking*, since the Italian gown is somewhat similar to this piece and I’m so interested in trying the hand sewn methods…but I got too impatient. And I really liked the construction method for the linen dress. So I did this by machine instead.

But I will hand sew an 18th century dress someday soon!

Here is the front panel. I cut it from linen, then folded the front edges inward by one and three quarters of an inch. I sewed a quarter inch away from the folded edge and inserted a piece of plastic boning. Then I sewed eyelets right next to that.

This is the closure method used on this dress. I thought I would give it a try since I would rather sew eyelets than hooks and bars!

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I cut and sewed the rest of the lining together. I also sewed the seam allowance down to create boning channels, then added eight pieces of quarter inch plastic boning to the back and sides.

Then it was tried it on. I was focusing so much on the waist and bust that I didn’t realize the straps were too wide (or that it was gaping on the inner edge of the shoulder). But the waist and bust did fit pretty nicely!

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Or at least it did from the front. Once again, the waist at the back was too big. This made my waist look larger from the side than my bust.

How do you fit this on yourself? Someone please tell me! I tried doing it on my dress form but my back slope is different.

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I settled on adding a few darts to the back. This improved it a lot, but it still wasn’t perfect.

I also lowered the neckline slightly. I regret doing this – the half inch made all the difference, and the finished neckline is very low. I don’t dislike it, it’s just very different than what I had planned.

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I evened up the darts and sewed them by machine. I also altered my base pattern so the reduction from the darts is incorporated in the seams. This way there won’t be darts on the top layer of fabric.

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I didn’t take a lot of photos of this process, but the next step was cutting out the back panels. I got into crazy perfectionist mode with the center back pieces, and tried to get the  flowers to match up. This is impossible since the pieces are curved, but I did my best!

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The rest was constructed normally. The only difference between it and the lining (aside from boning and eyelets) is that I only folded the front edge inward by an inch and a half. This way it extends slightly beyond the lining.

The layers were pinned together with the right sides facing each other.

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Then I sewed around the edges with a half inch seam allowance. The only edges I left open were the tops of the straps, and the front edges.

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Then I sewed around all the edges by hand. Once again I left my stitches pretty large since I wanted them to be visible. This time I also sewed down the center back.

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I also did the shoulder seam up by hand. But after a fitting I finally caught the gaping on the inner edge. So this seam was ripped out, and re sewn wider so there was less volume on the inner edge. red (23 of 52)

Instead of sewing against the center front edges (which would prevent me from lacing it closed) , I sewed alongside the outer edge of the eyelets. red (24 of 52)

Now for sleeves! My firs pattern had a lot of guesswork in it, and was SO far off. I don’t know if you can see all the pins in this, but they were plentiful.

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My second sleeve pattern was much better in terms of shape. It was just a little large, so I removed a quarter inch from the seams and it was perfect!

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It this point I also noticed how wide the strap was. So I undid all the stitching and removed almost half an inch of material. I turned the remaining material inward by a half inch, then topstitched around the edge to secure it.

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The sleeves were made from a layer of cotton and lining, sewn together by machine at the hem. When they were turned the right way out I bound the top edge with lace binding and topstitched across the hem by hand.

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The sleeves were sewn on by hand, using whip stitches. Then I tacked the seam allowance to the lining for a cleaner finish.

After a final fitting I noticed the back gaped a little, so I sewed two darts parallel to the back seam. These look pretty ugly from the inside but are barely noticeable from the exterior.

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Now for the skirt! I adjusted my dress form to my height, then measured from the waist to the floor at the center back while the appropriate foundations were in place. Then I added two inches, allowing for a hem and seam allowance.

I cut four pieces of material that were this length (around 52″, I believe) and sewed them together selvedge to selvedge. I left the top 18″ of one seam open, on the side front panel.

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Then I sewed in a modesty panel into this seam. I folded the edge on the other side inward, and topstitched everything in place. This will serve as the closure – note how I put it at the front this time, not the back?

Also I left 18″ open, as opposed to the usual 10-12″ because I knew I would be cutting several inches off the top.

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Now I hemmed the skirt. I folded the bottom edge inward by a half inch, then inward again by an inch and a half. This was sewn with a cross stitch.

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Since the top edge was straight, it was very easy for me to mark the pleats across the back three panels. I marked and pinned all the pleats on one half, then pinned it to my dress form.

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While it was on the form I adjusted the skirt until the hem was positioned how I wanted it. I used pins running horizontally to mark where I wanted the top trimmed down to. I ended up making a pattern for this, to used as a guide later on, but I didn’t get a photo of it.

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This test also made me realize the pleats needed to be deeper – the waistline was several inches too big.

Here it is pleated down properly. Note how the top edge is level? That is what you want!

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I used my pattern and chalk to mark the waistline onto the fabric. I sewed across this line, and stitched another line three quarters of an inch below that.

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Here it is after being trimmed down.

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I cut almost five inches off the front panel, then gathered it down to ten inches.

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I trimmed the allowance down to a half inch, then backed the top edge with ribbon.

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The skirt was pinned to the bodice. The pleated portion will be sewn to the bodice, the gathered portion is left free.

I secured the pleated parts in place with whip stitches.

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I notched the curved edges and pinned the seam allowance to the interior of the skirt. This was also whip stitched down.

For the seam allowance at the front, I whip stitched it to the lining. This isn’t historically correct, but I didn’t want the excess volume it would provide at the sides if I whip stitched it to the skirt.

This edge was left raw, as was common in the 18th century.

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The gathered portion was left raw as well.

I sewed a hook onto the end of the ribbon, and a loop into the interior of the bodice to serve as a closure. Here you can see it done up, the bodice simply laces overtop.

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