I was super excited last month to receive an invitation to a friend’s roaring twenties-themed birthday party. I might have jumped up and down a bit. I do love me a good theme party.
I spent a good month planning the perfect dress. I wanted to do something with stripes, to coincide with the historical sew fortnightly challenge ending the week before. Alas, there was an ordering snafu with the online fabric store and my fabric did not look likely to make it in any way soon enough to use. In the end it got to me Friday afternoon before the party on Saturday. By Wednesday before the party, of course, I had to start sewing SOMETHING.
Not wanting to buy more fabric, I tried to figure out what to do last minute with what I had. I didn’t have an awful lot that would work for evening wear. Period. Let alone for the drape-y, loose styles in the 20s. The only thing I could come up with was an old sequined silk skirt of my grandmother’s. I’m not sure how old it was as the elastic at the waist was all stretched out but the rows of machine-stitched flat sequins were clearly modern plastic material. Could be from anywhere from the 70s on, I expect. I pulled out some black polyester velvet that I bought on sale from the remnant bin, which I expected to have a fairly stiff hand. In fact, it had a better drape than I expected, so I threw it into the mix.
I looked at a lot of period dresses,as well as the booklets “The one hour dress” and “Easy ways with pretty frocks”, which I purchased from Emailed Vintage Patterns, in order to come up with the dress pattern. In the end I didn’t have much time so the dress was made pretty simply. The bodice is basically a 36″ wide tube of velvet with the wider tube of sequined fabric pleated onto it to fit. It is open under the L arm and closed with a ribbon lacing (I wanted hook-and-eye tape but none was available locally, so I improvised). The straps are inspired by a dress Edith wore in Downton Abbey’s last season. The side openings and the top are faced with bias tape and quilt binding in a lovely crimson color.
The side detail I also got from my grandmother. It was pinned onto a terrible sequined elastic 80s style headband. I’m not sure what it was meant for, or what it was originally, but I thought it matched well. I glued it on with fabric glue, but will have to be stitched on eventually. The sequins on the top were originally the belt of the skirt.
I made the headband out of two leftover strips of velvet sewn together onto some ribbon. I added a cheap feather detail that I picked up at the local fabric store when looking for hook-and-eye tape, and hot glued on some pearl and crystal beads. I did this at 4pm or so the night of the party. The whole thing was covered in hot glue, and it was quite a mess, but under low light nobody was going to notice.
What I love: I was able to finish this fairly quickly. The overall shape/pattern would have gone together in a few hours if not for the materials used. It gives a period sillouhette but has the “glitz” that people expect of a flapper costume. Honestly, this was probably a better fit for the party than the original dress I had planned.
What I learned: I have never sewn on velvet. It is a (if you will excuse the acronym) PITA. It slides around, it ruches unpredictably when sewn to the bias binding, and you can’t really unpick it because the act of stitching ruins the pile. The good news is all the things I thought of to do (use a stabilizer. decrease the tension. decrease the pressure foot pressure. baste.) are good ideas. The bad news is I didn’t do most of those things (other than decrease the foot pressure) but just powered through it, screaming at the fabric.
I have also never sewn with sequined fabric. This fabric was particularly difficult because it was already sewn to a lining, and it was slippery and hard to get a straight line. I spent HOURS clipping off sequins, trying not to pull a thread that would unravel an entire row of sequins. It was not fun. And I kind of hate this gaudy all-over sequin look, so I probably won’t be sewing with sequins again any time soon.
Ribbon lacing is probably best done with the laces on the outside of the garment. I didn’t do this because I wanted an “invisible seam”. Instead I got a seam that puckers and gapes. Oh well. I’m hoping a few strategically placed hook-and-eyes will fix the gaping. It is still in a very awkward place to tie.
You can’t make a tube that is several inches larger than your upper chest and expect it to sit right on a sleeveless dress. Maybe if it had been a really really drapey fabric it would have been OK. In the end I put in an inside-out box pleat in the back to take in the extra room. We’ll call it a “design feature”. Next time I need to plan for a narrower upper chest if making a sleeveless tubular garment. It seems it might pull tightly over the bust, but I guess the 20s silhouette called for a flattened bust anyhow. As long as it ends above the hip points I can cut the skirt with pleats to accommodate my wider hips.
Love it or leave it?: Eh. For historical accuracy it gets few points. Plastic sequins weren’t invented for years after, and it is unclear to me if celluloid sequins were even widely available in that era. Seems like most sequins were metal or possibly shell. The all-over sequin look doesn’t appear to be particularly common (except maybe in 70s-80s reproductions). Modern polyester velvet doesn’t really have the same soft hand as period silk velvet, so the overall drape of my garment is a little too stiff. But it looks pretty. If I were in this situation again I would probably have tried to find some passable polyester charmeuse and draped a Vionnet style dress. But I’m not sorry I made it, and I will probably wear it again given another flapper party opportunity. I will still plan on making my original brown-and-blue striped dress, but it might turn out as more of a day dress, and I can wear it to the Gatsby picnic someday if I can make it up to the bay area. Someday.
For HSF #7 I made the partlet and necklace for my Italian peasant outfit. This outfit is based off a Campi painting of a fruit-seller. It is a bit fanciful, showing a necklace of red beads and a frilly and heavily embroidered/couched partlet. I think these accessories would be more appropriate for a middle-class woman, as the expense of the coral beads would probably be prohibitive for most working-class women. I suppose they could be stone or painted wood, and there do seem to be other paintings indicating peasants wearing large beaded necklaces, so maybe it’s not completely unrealistic. The partlet is still a bit fantastic. The rest of the outfit is pretty consistent with the other paintings of peasants by Campi and other italian painters in the late 1500s.
I made the necklace by stringing the coral onto waxed hemp cord. I wanted to use silk cord, but the size I had was too small and the beads slid right over the knots. I was about to give up but I remembered I had some multicolored hemp cord for macrame that I’d bought on sale for bracelets. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t use a needle because the cord just barely fit and it was hard to get the beads on sometimes. But I made it work!
The partlet is adapted from the downloadable pattern on Margo Anderson’s site. I felt bad downloading it without buying a pattern so I pledged some money for her kickstarter for her new Italian patterns without asking for a reward. Now I wish I had pledged more and gotten the pattern, because I loved how easily the partlet went together. I will definitely buy her pattern if I ever want to make an Elizabethan or Florentine dress. It was a bit wide and overlapped more in the front than I wanted, but I trimmed it until I was happy with it. I also didn’t use a collar but knife pleated the ruffle right onto the bodice pieces and used bias tape to finish the seam. I haven’t tried it on under the dress since I haven’t opened up the slits on the skirt yet, and it won’t fit over my head.
Fabric: Cotton voile
Pattern: Margo Anderson’s lower-class partlet pattern, somewhat modified to get the right shape.
Year: Roughly 1580s
Notions: Thread, bias tape, satin ribbon, dyed coral beads, waxed hemp cord, hook clasp
How historically accurate is it?: All machine sewn including the satin stitch edging. The bias tape and satin ribbon are synthetic, and the coral is probably dyed using a modern technique, but otherwise I think pretty accurate, at least if I can go by the painting.
Hours to complete: Maybe 2 for the necklace and 4-5 for the partlet.
First worn: not yet, planning for upcoming Renaissance Faire trip!
Total cost: Maybe $5 for the voile, a few dollars for thread, ribbon, and the hemp cord. The beads were the most expensive but I’ve had them for a while so I don’t remember quite how expensive. $10-15 probably. Overall less than $25.
And my info:
What I learned: It is surprisingly easy to do knotted bead necklaces using waxed hemp cords. Who knew? It’s so much harder with silk cord.
If you are going to edge finish a ruffle, do it before pleating the bottom, even if you think you don’t have to. I pleated the ruffle band to the partlet first because I wanted to be able to trim the ruffle on myself, as it were, but I should have basted it or pinned it and then finished the edge, and then sewn it to the rest of the partlet.
Coral beads are HEAVY! Seriously.
Satin stich edging on really light fabrics on the sewing machine is pretty tricky. You have to finish or fold over the edges, and even then it tends to stick in the feed dogs at the beginning if you are using a light fabric, and then stitch on the same place a bazillion times. It also looks thicker where there are more layers of fabric (because it doesn’t roll over as easily). I’ve done this stitch on a heavier fabric neckline and sleeves and it was a lot easier. I think it’s partly the fabric, so stabilizer might have helped. I also think that it’s easier to do on a continuous edge like a hem where there is no discrete beginning to catch in the feed dogs.
What I like: I love the way the edges ruffle on the partlet with the knife pleats and satin stitch!
Also I just adore the large beads on the necklace strung on the hemp cord. I bought a bunch of hemp cord in different colors and now I want to make more of these necklaces! I’m not usually a huge fan of large beads, but this really works for me.
Love it or leave it? Love it! I would use this pattern again.