Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Anatomy of a Real Vintage Petticoat


A few weeks ago a vintage white cotton petticoat came into my possession. Don't ask me how old it is...I am still trying to figure that out! However, it's likely that the skirt is late Edwardian or early teens, given the approximately 2-yard sweep. It's not very full at all. How it is constructed is really interesting and some things about it I find puzzling, although they probably would be crystal clear to a real expert. If anyone can set me straight on a couple of points, it would be most appreciated.

How It's Constructed

This is a 5-gore petticoat. Three gores up front, and two in the back. When worn, at the top the front gores at the edges rather wrap to the back a bit. Perhaps the way the gores are set will help date it?

The gores in front are very scantly gathered; those in back more so but these gathers are tiny, fine and stroked, not chunky.

At the back a gusset in two pieces has been inserted. See the picture below.

The petticoat is scalloped at the bottom. The scallops are set in a nice, complex rising and falling pattern. I can't entirely tell if the scallops were handmade or not: if they were machine made, they were not the most perfectly done. If they were machine made, the fabric was sold such that it was long enough widthwise to make a full-length skirt without piecing on the scallop pieces. I cannot tell the lengthwise grain on the fabric so that doesn't help: it's a really plain weave. Were such fabrics sold in such wide widths...kind of a la disposition?

The skirt is set on a narrow waistband and the placket in back closes with extraordinarily long tape ties. Surely these wrapped around the waist once or twice before being tied, else, whoops, the lady treads on a tie and she goes head over heels or flat on her face.

The Measurements

Waist, by gore measures at the top:
  • left front=5 3/4" I measured several times :}
  • center front=6"
  • right front=6"
  • left back=5"
  • right back=5"

Sweep (bottom gore width) measures:

Approximate sweep is 76", or just over 2 yards. That is quite narrow, but when worn feels roomy and does not constrict movement.

  • left front=12.5"
  • center front=12.5"
  • right front=12.5"
  • left back=17.5"
  • left back width to top of gusset=17"
  • right back=17.5"
  • right back width to top of gusset=17"

Length of skirt, top to bottom=38" (highest point of scallops), 39" (lowest point of scallops)

Waistband=1/2" wide

Placket=5/8 " wide, 9" long, not including waistband.

Tie tapes are each 40" long!

Handmade, and Not Always Neatly!

All you hurried seamstresses out there can relax; it'd appear that what we'd call semi-sloppy seam finish work was definitely out there.

Now the Williamsburg Foundation book, titled something like "What People Wore", says that 18th century clothes were often ill-finished on the interiors. Having to be completely hand sewn, and often reused and retooled until the poor garment fell apart, there was little point in finishing each seam. I understand from Elizabeth Stewart's excellent board, The Sewing Academy at Home, (see http://www.elizabethstewartclarkandcompany.com/Forum/index.php) that simply overcasting the edges of seams was a quick and effective and common way to finish seams at the mid nineteenth century.

The sewing machine's wide adoption may have helped to make neat finishes not only more common, but more a social standard, or at least that's my personal suspicion. By the time a lot of teaching texts roll around at the turn of the 2oth century, nice, even fancy seam finishes were expected. However, as with ettiquette and cooking and fashion sense, what was expected was probably far less than universal on handmade clothes.

On my petticoat? No fancy finishes there! The interior seams are simply overcast, and loosely at that, with not terribly even stitches in a fine thread. I was shocked, shocked! Rather hard to see on the picture of the interior of a back gusset at left, but you could try...

Look at the way the waistband is sewn on, too. Nice tiny machine stitches, but look up close and you see, what's this? Edge stitching that wanders a bit and falls off the edge of the band? Quel horreur!

What It's Like to Wear This Petticoat

The petticoat is surprisingly roomy, and when I press it will look quite nice and sharp. You'll laugh but we have no full-length mirror that doesn't suffer from an advanced case of silvering. So the only shot I have is taken in front of a small mirror propped on the staircase landing, and shows only my feet. You'll note the roominess and how nice those scallops look.

Monday, November 07, 2005

An Edwardian Flounced Petticoat Dress Diary, Part 2: A Puzzle of Proportions

Currently I am drafting a 5-gore underskirt or petticoat, with dust ruffle and flounce, according to instructions in the 1911 textbook, Textbook on Domestic Art. It has been an interesting process. The instructions rely on sizing up or sizing down a draft based on proportions taken from a model skirt. Since my body no longer follows the suggested proportions of a waist 15" smaller than the hips, whoops, well, something interesting happened to the results, and I am still mulling over my solution and whether it was the right one.

Instructions for drafting and then making up the skirt appear on pages 74-85. You can find the orginal source materials, in full, on the Cornell University Home Economics Archive (Hearth), at http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/.

By the way, the text bases a street skirt on the same draft...you learn how to do variations to make a pattern endlessly useful.

Drafting the Petticoat

Here is the skirt draft illustration.


I found the instructions to be clear and simple. First, the textbook discusses the proportions necessary. From these, if you like, you can calculate the waist measure for each gore, the hip measure, and the length to the skirt bottom (minus the dust ruffle). However, you don't have to do this: the step-by-step drafting instructions have you make these measurements as you draft up your pattern on paper. I laid long lengths of freezer paper on my big Hancock's measuring and pinning board and drew the drafting dots and lines with pencil and ruler.

The Proportions Problem Appears

When I finished the back gore, it looked too narrow compared to the model drawing, which had quite a flare on it. What was going on?

Remember that the draft is based on proportions, right? Well, oh dear, I have a thicker waist of 30" compared to the model's 24". So when I drew the oblique line from waist to skirt bottom that forms the back of the gore, I got less of an angle than a woman with a smaller waist would have. What to do?

The text states on p. 76 that "(t)he average width of an underskirt on lower edge, before dust ruffle is attached, is between 2 1/2 and 3 yards, for the average person, unless very wide skirts are in vogue". For the model that's 90" inches of "sweep", as the term has it.

Well, I bet mine wasn't any 90". It didn't have the right flare at all, and I had checked my math, I hoped.

What Textbook on Domestic Arts Suggests Doing

The textbook writer knew that some girls would have thicker or thinner waists. So on pp. 83-84 it says,

"If more fullness is desired at bottom of skirt, increase width of each gore by starting 1/3 of its length below the waist line, on each bias side. [If you read Harriet Pepin's Modern Pattern Design on http://www.VintageSewing.info, you'll see this mode of splitting the angle of the gore into two parts in action.] For less fulness, decrease....(T)he width around bottom should be in good proportion to the height and size of hips of each individual, even when extreme fashions are in vogue."

Aha! So I was supposed to add inches to the sweep by adding width at the bottom of each gore. Okay, how to do it?

Solving the Proportions Problem...With Algebra?

So I rummaged in the brain and remembered the simple algebra formula for coming up with a proportion. The model waist of 24 is to model sweep of 90", as my waist of 30" is to X. I solved for X and it said I needed 112" of sweep, distributed around each side gore and the back gore. By the way, that comes to the 3 yards circumference maximum suggested by the book.

I measured the bottom width of the side gores and the back gores with a ruler...but didn't know how to distribute the inches needed to make up 112". That's when I had a, perhaps, bright idea.

Using the proportion formula again, I calculated the waist/sweep proportion of the model back gore, and compared it to my waist/sweep propertion. Aha: I was 4 inches short on my back sweep measurement.

Surely the side gore would have the same problem, but it didn't. The results were the same, no matter how many times I redid my math.

Further, the four inches I needed in back, when added to the sweep of the other gores, added up to the ideal 90"!

So, suspecting I had drawn my lines wrong on the gores, I redrafted them. (Oh, how boring that was.) But no! I had done it right.

When That Doesn't Work Perfectly, a Middling Solution

Frankly, I don't know what error I made or what principle of geometry is in effect that causes the bottom width of a gore to come out differently when you do it by math versus drawing it out.

But I did decide what to do. I kept that 90" sweep, as being befittingly narrow for 1911. Then I distributed 2 inches of extra to the back gore and 1" each to the side gore. If when I build it in muslin it makes me look dumpy, well then I'll redo it with a 112" sweep, and I will have learned how proportions affect the line of a dress in a visceral way.

A Final Notice to Teachers: Make Algebra Actually Apply to Something and Perhaps We'd Take to It More

I'll see how it turns out! Oh, by the way, had someone back in high school applied algebra and geometry to something interesting like sewing instead of to endless drills, I might actually have liked math class. All you teachers and homeschoolers out there, take note!

An Edwardian Flounced Petticoat Dress Diary, Part 1: Neat Tips on How They Were Worn

My cool textbook "Textbook on Domestic Art" has given me some key knowledge into how people fitted and wore their underthings. In reference to what they call an underskirt and I call a petticoat, did you know:

  • "An underskirt should be 1" shorter than the outside skirt, as well as narrower, except the flounce."
  • The outer skirt length for the high-school girl audience was set at 4 inches above the floor...that comes to right about instep. The petti would be one inch shorter than this.
  • "The flounce is added for flaring as well as beauty." Note that the flounce was a second layer to the petticoat added towards the bottom: the text's model has a 12" flounce set on such that its bottom is even with bottom of the dust ruffle.
  • "A dust ruffle about 4" deep is generally put on to prevent wear."
  • (The) "width around the bottom (of an underskirt) should be in good proportion to the height and the size of hips of each individual, even when extreme fashions are in vogue."
  • A petticoat could have a gathered back, a pleated back, or a "habit" or straight back. The text recommends a fuller back, as opposed to the habit back, for those whose "figure" needed it to sit well.

By 1913, the situation was a little different. Garment Construction in Schools (also available on teh Hearth site) writes:

  • "(The) petticoat is intended to fit closely around the hip, and is narrow at the lower edge also (2 yards)."
  • "The fulness at the lower edge is supplied by a scanty frill of material..."
  • Embroidery is suggested as being a pretty and effective alternative to a frill. Naturally it wouldn't pouf out the skirt either, in this time of severely vertical skirt lines.
  • The top was faced with a "false hem" cut on the bias, in calico for a cotton petti, and sateen or calico for a woollen one.

Both texts recommend quite a variety of materials. Petticoats could be cotton, either plain or in colored prints with "a deep frill of material", or in flannel. Wincey (a type of wool) was used for summer wear, at least in England.

Friday, November 04, 2005

A Glimpse of the Antique Treadle Machines I Use

Part of the fun of sewing period- or vintage-style clothing is making up the pieces using vintage sewing treadle machines. At least it is for me.

I find antique machines pretty to look at. My boxy, modern Bernina with its single bland pink and blue decal is a visual yawn compared to my Warwick, with its romantic hand-painted tendrils and mother-of-pearl decor on the bed, or to the elegant classicism of the legs, or "irons" that support the Willcox and Gibbs.

That's just a start, though. Most antique treadles were designed to take on a wide variety of materials, some of them very heavy and dense. They power through heavy-duty tasks that will wear out a motor on an electric machine. They won't whine if you want to go one-slow-stitch-at-a-time-in-a-really-delicate-spot. Granted that this is not a vintage sewing example, but I am proud to write that when I constructed floor length silk curtains recently, the Willcox managed sewing through four layers of silk and cotton lining, all together, and topped off by sticky, heavy commercial curtain header tape, without an issue. I turned to it after the Bernina refused to operate on such a heavy load. Silly me. Should have started with a treadle.

Then too, a vintage machine will produce vintage effects. My handcrank Singer is a whiz at setting up gathers in heavy materials...it was built to do it. The Willcox (mine dates to 1911) will produce stitches so fine you can barely see them. A chainstitch machine, it was popular for making underclothing, among other things. As one contemporary guide explained, the stitches have more stretch and give than do lockstitches. You can produce simple chain stitch embroidery with it too, or sew on soutache braid just as such braid was originally meant to be attached. The "tuckmarker" produces perfectly aligned tucks of all sizes.

There are many of us out there who love these machines, who conserve them and rescue them from being broken up for lampstands or other uses. Some of us collect them, others of us collect and use them, too. Most all of us feel that we are custodians of an important part of sewing history.

Where To Learn More

If you have the least bit of interest in learning more, try these sites.

  • TreadleOn, "headquarters for a group of almost a thousand people who collect and sew with antique sewing machines". See http://www.treadleon.net/. This is a truly amazing group of folks from all over the world.
  • The NeedleBar, "A reference site for collectors of antique and vintage sewing machines". See http://www.needlebar.com/
  • ISMACS. "The International Sewing Machine Collectors Society caters to those interested in collecting and learning about full size and toy sewing machines". See http://www.ismacs.net/
  • Photos of the vintage machines in my possession, at http://community.webshots.com/user/inkspot106. My collection is very small. There are many sites across the Web belonging to folks who have collected and conserved dozens and dozens of machines.

How 1910-1911 Clothes Really Looked When Worn

I've stumbled upon a truly fascinating series of photos of a young woman and her friends and family, circa 1910-1911. A number of them are snapshots as opposed to posed shots, of this young woman, Pauline, and her friends on a park bench, or mugging for a photographer, or Pauline posing thoughtfully in a meadow.

Formal posed pictures can show you someone's outfit at its best; a snapshot shows the outfit as it actually lived on the person...lapels awry, buttons straining fabric, hat flapping in a smart breeze. Then too there are the intangibles: in Pauline's photos you glimpse how people walked and sat or lolled in their clothes, and how they felt in them.

If you look carefully at these particular photos, you will see a long coat that Pauline favored, for instance, and didn't mind wearing out to play in. You'll see exactly how she wore it, sometimes with a hat, but no gloves in evidence. You'll see a handsome suit she sported one fall or winter day, and in one special snap of Pauline and her classmates, you'll see how a group of women all differently approached dressing for an occasion. How they wore sashes, or whether they choose plain skirts or ones with buttons or pleats, what neckline treatments, and how they did their hair to complement their outfits, is all crisp and clear.

See the Pauline set, maintained by BigBrownHouse, on Flickr, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/93468869@N00/sets/807535/. With kind thanks to BigBrownHouse for those shown here.