Two years ago, I got into historical reenacting and docent work. I owned a lot of vintage clothing at the time – still do – but nothing remotely appropriate for Georgian or Regency events. I found a couple of gowns that will just barely pass muster for the latter period (they have zippers! Quel dommage!) on etsy and eBay, respectively, but a good quality 18th century-style dress isn’t so easy to come by unless one has about $500 lying around. Yikes! I borrowed a “working class” outfit for a couple of events, but it wasn’t exactly figure flattering (loose jacket over very full skirt on short woman… no. Just no.) So, I enlisted the help of a dear friend, spent about $100 on the red and white fabric, and made this outfit:
(“Peacock” dress, Silly Sisters petticoat, hat from Fort Frederick Market Fair, American Duchess shoes)
Okay, confession time: my friend did most of the work. I’m still not a pro, and when we began working on this gown, I couldn’t even thread a sewing machine. So, I did cutting, tracing, bits of hand sewing, trim attachment, pressing, and other not-too-skilled labor. My friend tried to teach me to use an antique treadle sewing machine, but we gave that up shortly due to our desire to remain friends and our need to finish the dress for an event. We made it, and we’re still speaking to each other.
And I caught the sewing bug, big-time.
I love clothes, especially vintage styles, but the “real thing” can be a bit pricey these days and sometimes has condition issues, a 24-inch waist, or both. I’m kind of surprised that I didn’t discover sewing earlier, but my mom wasn’t making a lot of clothes (except Halloween costumes) by the time I was growing up and Home Ec was sort of “uncool” when I was in high school. But last year, I began searching for vintage patterns online and was amazed at the number of them one can purchase, usually at reasonable prices. I also discovered Gretchen “Gertie” Hirsch’s wonderful blog and her very instructive sewing books, which come complete with lots of vintage-inspired patterns. My mom sent me her “extra” sewing machine – a Necchi 524FB from the late 80’s or early 90’s – and I was off to the races. Sort of.
The Necchi had some quirks – she’d been sitting around for over 20 years, for starters – and then there was the fact that I couldn’t sew a straight line despite the very clear markings near the machine’s feed dogs. Aargh. After my machine had been tweaked a bit, I did manage to make a wrap skirt using a 70’s pattern and really loudly patterned cotton fabric to hide my poor stitching skills. I also bought some wonderful (and expensive!) fabric with radios on it, started making it into a skirt using a newer pattern I’d been given, and discovered there was so much ease in the thing that it could nearly have gone around me twice. Since that disaster, I’ve learned to make a muslin of each project or at the very least measure the pattern pieces before cutting and do a pinned or basted fitting prior to sewing. I had to rip the whole thing apart, lost some fabric in the process, and started over using a 1950’s pattern I’d bought online. That one was still larger than the measurements on the envelope indicated, but at least the end result will be wearable. Here’s my “radio skirt” in her unfinished state:
I also tried to make a nightgown without using a pattern last summer. If you’re a novice sewist, this is probably one of the silliest things you can attempt. “But the instructions I found online looked so simple…” No, no, no. Fortunately, I didn’t mess up that fabric too badly, and this spring, with the help of the Pencil Skirt pattern from Gertie’s New Book for Better Sewing, I came up with this:
It was only a matter of time before I’d want a vintage machine, no? The Necchi actually sews quite well now, but many older machines were built like little tanks and are still going strong. Plus, they’re often gorgeous.
This beauty came out of an estate and was a recent Craigslist find. She’s a 1946 Singer Model 15, and aside from needing a little cleaning, oil, and grease, she’s good to go! I named her Elsa after Schiaparelli, one of my favorite designers.
Eventually, I hope to have enough of my own creations in my closet to participate in events like “Me-Made-May”, in which sewists and other crafty types post pictures of their DIY outfits online each day in May. I’d also love to own another 18th century-style dress someday, but it will be a while before my skills hit that level, so perhaps I’ll save up for a Silly Sisters gown or bribe the friends who’ve been helping me in this process with lots of home-cooked meals. If any of you sew, I’d love to see pics of your work!1946, American Duchess, clothes, Craigslist, eBay, Elsa Schiaparelli, etsy, fabric, fashion, Fort Frederick Market Fair, friend, Georgian, Gertie, Gretchen Hirsch, Model 15, Necchi524FB, new york, patterns, Preservation Society, Regency, Robert Long House, sewing, Silly Sisters, singer, treadle, vintage, Visitors Center