The art of sewing 1860s style

I have been sewing most of my life. Growing up poor, it was a means of survival. My grandparents had lived through the great depression, and the term “Make do, do over, or do without” still remained in the thought processes in our home. We worked hard, we made do, and we did over.

So, starting about age 9, my grandmother began teaching me how to mend clothes.

By the time I was in my “tweens” and teens, I was tall and lanky and good luck to my mom to find clothes that fit me and were modest! So I started making clothes. Over the years I became very proficient at 1950s clothes, even tackling moderately advanced Vogue patterns.

So when I started reenacting and realized how much I loved it, I started building my “kit,” as we call it. That started with making my own clothes for the reenactments. We can buy clothes and supplies from sutlers, but they tend to be expensive. I thought, “I have made all these other clothes, this should be no problem!”

One of the first things I learned was 1860s sewing was NOTHING like 1940s to present. The techniques are completely different.

The first Singer sewing machine was patented in 1851 [for more information about the development and progression of sewing machines check here: Prior to that, all sewing had been by hand, and the majority still was into the 1860s. Some sewing was done on the new machines, if you were fortunate enough to be able to afford one, but all details, and much of the joining of pieces was still done by hand. I remember one of the first pieces I was working on, I started putting the pieces together like my 1950s patterns—right sides together, stitch in the hidden part, flip and finish with top stitching or by hand.

Easy, right? WRONG! First of all, they didn’t attach their waistbands that way, nor finish seams that way. I had a whole new way of sewing to learn. So with a little help from the internet, and a few phone calls and texts to a friend who has been reenacting for years, I made my first tea skirt (with a little finishing help from my awesome friends on the Gettysburg trip!) with great success!

Then it was time to make a proper tea dress. I knew I was staying in this lifestyle as a living historian, so it would be one of my tools of the trade. I thought I had mastered a lot after making the skirt, like what size pleats do I need to get 5 yards of fabric down to my 26 inch waist? How do I put on the kick pleat to keep my skirt from being torn? How do you attach the hem tape to keep your hem edge from tearing or wearing out (which I have sense found out there are even more ways to do it!)? How do you close the waistband properly? While I had learned some of those, there were still new techniques to be learned.

I had a custom pattern someone had loaned me, but the proportions were just a little bit off for me. So, I packed up my sewing machine, fabrics, and other supplies and headed to my company captain’s house for his wife to teach me what I was missing. In one day of work, we created a custom pattern to me, and had half of the bodice together. My head was almost spinning. From learning how to cut out the fabric so there is no break in design with the curved darts, to the proper fitting for a bodice (with the corset of course. One must always build the clothing fit to the proper underpinnings if it is going to fit right later), to the sizing and correct way to do the piping in the seams, to how much to roll under for the bodice closure, and the attaching of the hook and eye tape. I soaked it all in. About 24 hours later, after bad weather had blown by, I packed up all my stuff and went home, hoping I remembered everything and that I had taken enough notes to finish it by myself. (Plus I had a little “help” along the way!) Many phone calls for clarification, and a lot of tea ingested, and I was making headway.

First, I realized that all my sewing skills were very necessary for 1860s sewing. All my years of cross-stitch, needlepoint, embroidery, and quilting came in handy for the detail of the handwork, and the special knots I decided to use, as well as the hidden stitches to finish the trim and keep it from being seen.

The pagoda (bell) sleeves gave me FITS! We had cut the pattern piece that was supposed to fit my size dress. For starters, it was six inches too long, then it wouldn’t fit in the arm hole correctly, so I had to figure out how to cut it down and still keep the right line and shape-after we had already cut out and stitched the pieces together! It took hours! But once I had it, I altered the pattern so I could make all the rest the same. When the sleeves were attached, I loved it!

The skirt was relatively easy after the one I made for Gettysburg, but now I had learned the proper 19th century way to attach a waist band–by hand, and it certainly takes more time! But when you consider that the skirt fabric was folded over at the level of the waistband, and then the waistband attached by hand in such a way that the skirt could later be let out or mended with the extra fabric, and the stitching method created a grove for them to later attach the bodice, suddenly everything started making more sense.

The trim had been carefully chosen (actually changed about three times prior to attaching it to get the best period type trim with the right type dress and correct colors, etc.), and attached at various stages of building the sections of the dress. Then came time to attach the skirt and bodice. I was getting so excited! The weeks of hard work were about to pay off. I started “stitching the ditch”-remember that special way to connect the waistband, it comes into play here-that is when you stitch in this special ditch created by the bottom piping on the bodice, and through the waistband about where it is connected to the skirt. When done this way, the bodice fits closely, hides the waistband, and you get a dress in one piece. There is also something called a dogleg, but that is for a different post.

A few minor alterations to the bodice while it was being attached, the addition of special filigree silver buttons I had found, a few hook and bars to close the waistband, and my dress was FINALLY finished!

The final stitches were placed just 14 hours before I was wearing it at the Confederate Memorial Day at Stone Mountain, GA. It was worth every stitch by hand, every alteration to the pattern, every near-sleepless night for the way it turned out. The addition of a crocheted collar given to me by my friend Mary, a hat I borrowed from my friend Eva, some under sleeves and jewelry, and the look was complete.

That day, I would meet the command general staff of the CSA-General R.E. Lee, President Davis, General “Stonewall” Jackson, and General J.E.B. Stewart. I was so grateful that I had taken the time to pay attention to the details, the accessories, the materials, the fit, and to make it period correct, even if that required extra time and energy. I now wear that dress with pride, knowing the work and the correct details that went into it, but most of all, knowing that when someone looks at me or takes a picture, I am giving them a correct impression of one of the hooped dresses from the 1860s would have looked like.

I hope I inspire little girls everywhere to want to dress up like this, and to consequently learn about our history or learn to sew. If my walking by in a dress sparks someone’s desire to learn or change, then it, and I, have certainly done the job.