I'd previously referred to this as the dark colored wool dress. After working with the wool, I'm fairly confident in calling it a charcoal gray. That's the color it appears to be in most lighting situations, though there is also often a slight greenish tinge.
Several months ago, I'd decided to start logging my major projects in a consistent format. I hadn't had much of an opportunity to use it before this dress, so I'd like to debut it for you now. The "log" is broken down into three sections: 1) What it is; 2) How I made it; and 3) What I think about it.
Project: Charcoal Gray Wool Fitted Dress
**NOTE: as of the writing of this, the dress is not yet complete- I still need to sew the eyelets for the lacing, and create the buttons and button holes for the sleeves.**
What it is:
This supportive, fitted dress is a rather basic and versatile version of a typical kirtle. Kirtles were worn by women of all levels of 15th century society, but its specific usage depended on whether the wearer was able to wear other gowns (more fashionable overdresses) over top of it. This particular dress is intended to be a multi-use item for use as an underdress as well as wearing it on its own for "working" situations, typical of the lower classes in Flanders and France. In terms of placement in the period, the styling of this dress is appropriate to the first half of the 15th century, with long sleeves, visible center front lacing, no waist seam, and a rounded neckline.
|That's my 15th century apron, BTW. It didn't photograph well, though, so I took it off for the other photos!|
I used the body block patterning method developed by Robin Netherton and adapted by both Tasha Kelly and Mathilde Bourrette (mka Charlotte Johnson). Mathilde's method was the greater inspiration for this particular dress pattern. This type of patterning may also be referred to as the "draping method". The pattern for the dress is created through a process of direct fitting to the body, starting from scratch with rectangular pieces of fabric draped over the body and systematically pinned, then later basted into place to create a tight bodice (shoulder to hip) that not only conforms to the shape of the wearer's body, but works to shape it as well. In my case, as with most buxom women, the shaping that occurs through the bust area is a crucial factor of the success of a dress made in this fashion.
To create my pattern, I used scrap corduroy cloth for its sturdy qualities, though a heavy material like corduroy (or canvas, bottom weight or even denim) is not necessary for the fitting process. It was suggested by Mathilde, in her instructions for fitting yourself for a dress, that a heavier material would make the patterning process easier, particularly for the well-endowed. Though the stiffer material can sometimes be difficult to work with, it is helpful for getting larger breasts into place with a minimal amount of effort. After the corduroy pattern was complete, I transferred it to muslin to make notations and for easier storage.
Throughout the patterning process, I had the assistance of my mother. She did the pinning and marking for me. Though it's not impossible for a plus size woman to fit herself from scratch, it can be quite difficult and time consuming. We need to be honest with ourselves that we are not as nimble as we'd like to be, and cannot accurately fit our bodies if we cannot maneuver ourselves well enough to actually see where we're trying to fit! Help is not a requirement, but it definitely makes the procedure smoother.
During the patterning process, I used lacing strips to assist in getting the pattern on and off easier than sewing myself into it each time. These reusable strips were very well worth the time to make- they are now an essential tool in my dress-making kit.
Once the pattern was complete, I transferred it to my lining material. I used a lightweight green linen (purchased from Fabrics-Store.com), and cut the lining as a bodice, extending only to just below my hips. Dress linings are difficult to accurately document in period because of the scant and ambiguous evidence we have for them. There are some reference to linen linings, but there is also evidence that fur and silk were also used. To what extend and of what quality is largely a matter of contextual guesswork, based on the class, time period and regional location of the wearer. In terms of functionality, however, the second layer created by a lining works to prevent the outer fabric from getting all the wear, particularly stretching. A lining also protects more costly outer cloths (usually wool) from body dirt and oil (though the smock, worn under the dress, does most of that work). I used linen because it was easy to obtain and makes sense in the context of this dress.
After cutting the lining out, I basted it together, attached the lacing strips and wore it around the house for an hour. Linen, like all natural fibers, stretch and "ease" as they warm up and are worked in. The laundered linen, having never been softened through a wearing process before, was actually smaller in weave than it naturally wanted to be. By wearing it, allowing it to stretch and loosen, I was able to force the linen into a looser weave. The major benefit of this wearing in process at this point in the dress construction is that it allowed me the chance to re-fit the lining based on this looser weave. Now, though it might expand slightly more when it is worn for a full day, the linen is basically pre-stretched, and should now not stretch so much during wear that the dresses fitted properties are compromised.
The re-fit lining became the pattern for the wool, cut to full length panels. The wool is a worsted, twill woven cloth. It's lightweight, but it is not thin. It would be perfect for spring, if spring wasn't unseasonably hot. Through my research into 15th century women's clothing, I discovered that wool was the better and more appropriate cloth for dresses and gowns befitting my persona. Though this might ultimately be unfortunate in terms of modern climate, I'd rather have more wool garments in my wardrobe than purely linen ones for the authenticity they inject into my persona portrayal. This dress is the first of many new wool dresses planned.
The dress is comprised of four main panels that encompass the bodice, four sets of gores (each full gore being made up of two halves), and the sleeves. The seams are placed in the centers of the front, back and two sides, meaning that there are no seams that run directly over the bust, and there are no darts. This is in keeping with the evidence available for the kirtle style. I used the straight front method, in which the center front seam is a straight line for the corseting quality this achieves and well as the ease of cutting and assembling that particular seam, especially for the lacing area. I have created curved front dresses in the past (my recent blue linen test dress is an example) but the straight front does a better overall job of supporting and shaping my bust. For me, curved fronts typically work in tandem with gravity, and the fit is not as tight.
The primary seams (the ones that hold the dress together) were sewn with a machine using black silk thread. The sleeves were hand sewn onto the dress with black linen thread using a backstitch. The seams were then all finished by hand with black linen thread. I did, however, cheat on the hem- that is also machine sewn. The remaining finishing work (eyelets and button holes) will be completed with size 8 black pearl cotton. The lacing is a 4-strand fingerloop braid made with black cotton embroidery floss with beeswaxed ends. You can learn more about that here.
What I think about it:
While I am overall pleased with the fit and look of the dress, there are some elements I wish to either alter on it or be sure to change for the next dress. The dress is very flattering on me, and shapes my torso very precisely. It is comfortable and I believe it to be a very good stepping stone on my path to better, more authentic garb. Unlike my previous attempts at the quintessential 15th century kirtle, I believe this dress fits the bill and will get many years of wear.
The set in sleeves are not quite placed correctly, nor did I cut them properly to correctly place the buttons. I struggled for a full day to get the sleeve head correct (and ultimately had to get help from mom), which set me back. In my efforts to make up time, I skipped the step in which you adjust the seam placement to bring the buttons away from your elbow and under your wrist. The process by which you do this is described by Mathilde here. Since I'm not sure that the sleeves will actually work this way, I have not taken the time to create the button holes and buttons to finish them. I also did not finish the seams at the top of the sleeves (my hand-sewn seams that attach the sleeves to the dress) in case I decide to remove the sleeves altogether and create new ones. If I do that, they will be unlined, as I used the last of the green linen to line the current sleeves. I am fine with rolling them up for now, as this isn't too different from mid-15th century practice. For an example of rolled up sleeves, check out this image from Le Decameron, and look at the woman in the green dress.
|The kirtle in use at Coronation, May 5, 2012.|
To view more of this dress, check out the Flickr set!