Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Project Complete: Blue Wool Fitted Gown

I made a silly mistake. You may have noted on the photos of my in-progress blue wool dress that I had several wrinkles and creases on the pieces from storing it. I decided that I'd just toss it into the hand wash cycle of my dryer sans soap, and then tumble it a bit in the dryer to work the creases out- after it was completely sewn together. It had been machine washed before storing, so this wasn't really off the wall. Unfortunately, my husband (who transferred the load) took me literally when I said "low" heat, instead of just air drying it. And I ended up with a new blue wool fitted dress about 12" too short.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I was also on-the-verge-of-crying disappointed because I had decided, completely randomly, to hand-sew it. So yes, my friends, my very first completely hand-sewn gown got shrunk in the wash.

Not a total loss, though. The advantage of the specific wool flannel I used is that, though tight, it does actually still fit. So it's mostly just not long enough to be the 1390's fitted gown I was aiming for. So, let's move on to the Project Log to see what I was able to do with it, shall we? 

Though originally intended to have the quality of a hand-me-down, 7-panel surcote altered to be fashionable in the 1390's, the final result is more appropriate as a mid-14th century layering gown. A "Hunting" gown, if you will.

BL Yates Thompson 13, "Taymouth Hours", circa 1320-1350, f. 72.
When paired with my pink wool fitted cotte (now with buttoned forearms!), I get a look that's quite reminiscent of the lady pictured above from the mid-14th century Taymouth Hours. Many of the over-gowns pictured on the lady-hunters in that particular manuscript have a long slit up the sides (this one does too, it's just folded over so the inside is showing, rather than the slit), but there's enough of a similarity without a slit on mine to go with it.

The issue, however, is that I was trying to make a late 1390's gown, like the full-skirted examples spotted in the Grande Chroniques de France. (You can see my first progress post for a look at that.) So I was aiming for a tightly fitted torso, which suits the turn of the century, and is much more modern in overall style than the hunting gowns of the Taymouth Hours. Since fitting of this type- in the sleeves, bust and ribcage- isn't seen among women's gowns until after the 1360's, I'm dating this one to plausibly 1370's.

The real purpose of this gown was to test using a 7-panel construction to achieve a fuller skirt. In my first progress post, I shared what the gown looked like after assembling the 7 panels (without godets) directly from their straight-cut format. The front and back panels were rectangles, and the four gores (side panels) were trapazoids, angled on one long edge, but straight on the other. 

Then, in my second progress post, I showed what simply fitting those pieces on the body was able to accomplish. Introducing curves in every seam except for the center side seams, I (with the help of my mom) was able to get a very shapely fit, with a good amount of support on its own (though it's never intended to be supportive alone- it needs a fitted kirtle underneath.)

While cutting all the pieces down, I decided, very randomly, and very late one evening, to start hand sewing the dress together. I pulled out a spool of navy blue silk thread I didn't really have a use for previously, a long needle, and went to work. I used a tight running stitch, which is surprisingly sufficient, though I may need to reinforce a few spots given its final fit. 

Looking at the photos I had my husband snap when I was patterning the sleeves, I saw that I wasn't getting the correct drape in the skirt. The skirt wasn't as full as I was hoping, but I was getting a fairly good drape. The problem, though, was that I'd started the flare too low, and I wasn't getting the sudden fullness toward to top of the skirt that I wanted.

The front gore, especially, was not draping correctly. Which was a shame, since I'd gotten it perfectly sewn in on the first try. It was also too short. I had somehow managed to shift the side panels up when I reassembled the dress after fitting and it was about 3" from the floor, instead of just a hair above it like it should have been. At this stage of the fitting, I was starting to feel like I'd missed the mark, but it was still turning out okay enough that I just kept moving forward with it. Plus the skirt was fairly twirly, and that's always fun.

The advantage of hand sewing the dress together, though, allowed me to finesse the sleeves enough to get the sleeve seam and the side back seam to perfectly align on each side. Generally speaking, the hand-sewing on this gown ended up being the easiest and most rewarding part of it.

I'd been having an issue, though, with stubborn creases from storage. I tried ironing with no results. I tried a damp cloth between the wool and the iron, and it sort of worked but it was way too time consuming and I would have been at it for several hours. I decided to just finish the gown then wet it without soap in the hand-wash cycle of my machine. The idea was that I would tumble it a little in the dryer afterward then hang it up to dry the rest of the way, and the creases would be gone. My husband had a few wool items that needed the same treatment, so we tossed them all in. When it came time to move everything over to the dryer, I had said "low heat" when I really meant "no heat", and my husband, not really thinking about it, did as I said and the items tumbled around for about 40 minutes on low heat in the dryer.

When I pulled them out, I was surprised that the items were dry, and I noticed immediately that the blue wool had felted somewhat. Eagerly, ignoring the signs, I tossed the dress on, and knew right away that it had been shrunk. I mean, really shrunk. I wanted to cry.

I have to thank my mom. Completely distraught, and feeling that I'd wasted all that time and energy, I did concede, at least, that it still fit (though snug). A few minutes later, mom declared that all was not lost, and she reminded me of the Taymouth Hours. Thinking on it a moment, I decided to go with that idea. A few minutes later, I'd made the mental conversion.

The interesting thing, though, was that despite it being just a hair too small, and much too short for what I wanted, it looked (and made me look) much better.


The shrunken length, with everything pushed about 6 inches higher toward the middle of the dress, did exactly what my fitting didn't. The looseness of the skirt now starts just under the tight rib cage, rather than several inches below it. The skirt isn't as full as it should be to match the Grande Chroniques example, but I did end up with an extremely loose and twirly skirt that loves to dance as I walk.

As we took photos, I told my husband that I felt playful in the gown (and happily started throwing snowballs at him). I also felt well supported, but I was concerned that I would pop a seam. I didn't, even as I crouched down for another handful of snow.

Having been felted, the blue wool is now plush and warm, much like the gold wool of my gold wool gown. I've joked that the gold gown is my garb "sweatshirt", but this one now definitely holds that honor. It's comfortable, and I feel great in it.

The back godet (two half godet, actually) did end up a bit too high visually, with the point now landing well above the small of my back. It is, however, perfectly placed for the better skirt fit. I'm not sure anybody but me will really care to notice that it's just a bit too high.

While I didn't open any seams, there were a few places where the seam was strained more than the running stitch really wanted to handle. A second line of running stitch within the open dashes of the first should do the trick.

The heat from the dryer also did damage small spots on the dress, resulting in areas that look slightly faded in the right light. There are two on the front of the skirt, and at least one more on the side. They are hard to actually register in person, so I'm not really concerned about them.

This project is what Bob Ross would call a "happy accident". By shrinking the whole thing, I ended up with a better fit, a better skirt, and a completely unexpected and extremely fun new item of garb. The seams are perfect, and I'm still patting myself on the back on the craftsmanship I put into the assembly. I'm in love with the way the seams flow into each other and along my height.

And, the cycle through the machines did take out the creases.

More photos over at Flickr or on Facebook!


  1. What an unfortunate accident! I have to say, I'm surprised you considered tumble drying wool at all. I've always been taught that not only will it ruin your wool but it's the best way to cause a dryer fire and burn your house down - and the amount of static generated when a single stray wool sock gets in the dryer gives me no cause to disbelieve that. But I guess dryers aren't really used much in the UK, whereas they seem near-ubiquitous in the US...

    Anywho. I do think it is a happy accident. The fit in the torso is, I think, just about the best you've done so far. Partly, I think that's the shrinkage. Partly, I think it's a fine demonstration of how much better things look with two layers of wool rather than linen.

    The seam-matching is just divine. I hope you'll be joining us in the handsewing dark side, if only for armscyes and sleeve gores. ^_^ It really does make those neat, precise touches so much easier!

    1. Our dyer is actually made to handle a huge variety of fabric types, including wool, but certainly accidentally having it on a heat setting was a bad idea all around. I don't put all my wool cloth in the wash, only those pieces that would not be ruined if they felted/fluffed up a bit, like this flannel. A lot of the wool I get has a stiff quality to it, so the cold wash/tumble dry really helps. The blue wool had actually gone through the washer and dryer when I first got it, just not with any heat. I prefer to only tumble dry for about 20 minutes, then finish the drying by hanging or laying out. Up to this point, I haven't had any issues with this process. This result, however, was a total accident, and not likely to occur again. :)

      I think I'm on the dark side at this point. Unless I need to work quickly (though this one was pretty quick, even hand sewing), I do enjoy having a pile of fabric on my lap and a needle in my hand. The trick for me, though, is that I still have 4 pairs if curious fingers around me, so I have to cram in all my sewing when none of the kids are around. Which tends to make for late nights!

      I agree that the slightly too small fit does greatly work to my advantage here. Now I need to work on replicating that fit intentionally!

  2. I like it with the pointy red hat though - it makes you looks like a jolly gnome queen in the snow!

    1. I was having so much fun. I was actually running around, and that's a very unusual thing for me! I honestly don't think any other hat of mine would have produced that same feeling. There's something so incredibly not-serious about a 14th century tippet hood.

  3. The length is not at all bad for an overdress. And considering snow it is a good idea to have the hem higher to avoid dampness and cold. Beautiful fit! And handsewing is addictive, be warned :-)

  4. You look lovely! A sad accident, to be sure, but it all worked out to a beautiful end.

  5. The fit is really good! I prefer hand sewing - I live in a tiny room so my sewing machine is stored in the cellar. The effort to pick it up seems bigger than sew my things by hand. :)

  6. Whenever I encounter spots, stains, or fading in my garb, I just consider them "authenticity". This is clothing, not a costume, and therefore it shows signs of its useful adventures. You must learn to say, with confidence and finality in your voice, "It's not dirty; it's authentic!"

  7. Also, girl, I'm diggin' that hat! Have you done a blog post on it? If not, will you? I want to add one to my closet!

    1. I haven't done a dedicated blog post on that particular hood, but I introduce it here: http://edythmiller.blogspot.com/2009/03/great-event.html and I have a "pattern" for it in my Medieval Hoods class notes here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/gvxh7727lcvm8vs/HoodsHandout.pdf