18th century, projects

18th Century Sack-Back Gown Workshop Report

Wow, am I wiped! I spent the past two days sewing sewing sewing, with side trips to the land of fabulous friends, wine, and too little sleep. But the workshop was really really cool! It was taught by Janea Whitacre, who is the supervising mantua maker at Colonial Williamsburg. What a job! We focused on the sack gown of the 1770s, spending Saturday learning how to make the gown (and splitting up the actual making of the various parts of one gown among ourselves), then Sunday we draped our own.

First, fabric report: I did go peach, and was saved by the fabulous Diana of Renaissance Fabrics who sold me this peach/gold shot silk taffeta, which was far more interesting than the paler, more muted fabric I had found before.

The draping method Janea taught us was very intuitive. It was so helpful to hear her experience looking at a bazillion period examples. What it really brought home to me was how because this style of gown was handmade, and draped on the body, there aren’t really “right” ways to do anything. Of course, there is a range, but if you needed a tuck here or a piecing there, they would have had the same problems and come up with the same solutions. So it felt liberating to just go with what worked rather than “but Janet Arnold shows a slit there!” Janea is able to measure everything just using handspan and fingerspans — she said she banishes tape measures for her apprentices — so again we went with just what worked or looked right.

I think the best part of the workshop, overall, was working on our own dresses on Sunday. There is nothing like having a gown draped on you by about 2-5 very talented costumers, or to be draping someone else and being able to call those 2-5 costumers over to get their opinions on that slash you’re about to make. We were draping our gowns out of the fashion fabric itself, which was fine when it happened on me, but was terrifying when I was working on others. I just kept cutting only teeny tiny little bits, and triple checking, before going any further. The responsibility!

My dress is only very partially assembled. The back pleats are basted on to the back lining, and the front is pretty well fit (the back needs some adjustment), plus I have the sleeve patterned (draping sleeves really works well when you’re not trying to do it on yourself!), and the petticoat pieces cut. Otherwise, I’ve got a lot left to do (luckily with lots of fabric left over). I am planning to hand sew the whole sucker (for the glory, and because I love handsewing), and I’m hoping to have it done by Costume College (don’t be sad, 1910s fans, but I am hoping to wear this to the gala rather than the Lady Maud 1910 evening dress). I’m not a believer in secret projects, but I do think that since I’ve started this offline I will keep it offline, so at least people will be surprised by seeing it in person even if they know what I’m working on.

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