A Stitch is Worth a Thousand Words, Part II: The Bodice

Constructing the Bodice

[There will be time] for a hundred visions and revisions,
before the taking of toast and tea.
-“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

Visions and Revisions

T.S. Eliot may not have been writing about sewing, but his words provide us with a bit of wisdom for this project. Before “taking toast and tea” in this gown, I can assure you of one thing: there will be quite a few visions and revisions.
Sewing any historical garment should always begin with a mock up of the pattern. A mock up is simply a rough draft in which one cuts out the pattern based on the necessary body measurements, sews up the garment, and tries it on for a fitting. If there are any fitting issues, one will mark up the necessary changes and cut the intended fabric based on these alterations.

Measuring Up

It is worthy to note that all measurements should be taken with the appropriate undergarments. I took my measurements while wearing a pair of short stays, which is a historical reproduction garment that stops just under the bust.

A pair of Short Stays
Because I’m working with historical patterns and historical silhouettes, modern day sizing doesn’t apply. We may be able to go out to the store and buy a T-shirt in a particular size— a size which theoretically fits several different body types— but that doesn’t work with historical garments.
Historical gowns are different than modern gowns in two major ways:
  • The popular silhouette of the particular period yields different cuts than modern clothing
  •  There are no standard sizes and all gowns are made to fit a specific person
And so, historical gown construction is not “make a size small gown,” but rather “make a size entirely customized to YOU gown.”

Stitching the Bodice Pieces Together

Note: I began working on this gown before realizing that I would be making a blog series for it. As a result, I have few photos of putting the bodice pieces together. However, all future steps will be documented!

To help understand how I constructed these pieces, please check out the video below. The video features four short clips that highlight the basic stitches I used to complete the bodice:

  • Back Stitch
  • Basting Stitch
  • Running Stitch
  • Gathering Stitch

Please note that I used a contrasting thread color and made larger stitches for better viewing purposes.

Basic Stitches How To Video

Cutting the Fabric

With my measurements in mind, I cut out the lining (the white muslin interior) and the fashion fabric (the green silk). There were five pieces for each set: the center back, two shoulder straps, and two side pieces.

Visual Representation of the 5 original pieces cut to form the bodice

I stitched the fashion fabric pieces and lining lining pieces together separately. Each piece was stitched together with a back stitch.

Joining the Fashion Fabric to the Lining

To join the fashion fabric to the lining, I matched both pieces together with the right sides facing each other. “Right sides” refers to the outer facing fabric (or the fabric you see). I stitched the neckline together and then flipped the fabric right side out.

View of the lining stitched to the fashion fabric (as seen at the top). The seam line in the white fabric is the joining edge of the center back piece and the strap.

To prevent the two fabrics from moving, I stitched a basting stitch, which is a large, temporary running stitch, around the armscye (armhole). From there, I simply turned under the raw edges (or the frayed bit of fabric) of the front lining and fashion fabric and stitched them down.

Attaching the Sleeves

As discussed in my previous post, the sleeves of this gown vary in length, and there are examples of long sleeves, three quarter length sleeves, and short sleeves. I have opted to create short sleeves, as seen in the portrait of Mrs. John Hoff.

A finished short sleeve attached to the bodice.

To create the sleeves, I cut out two pieces of fashion fabric and two pieces of lining fabric. I then placed one lining piece and one fashion fabric piece together.

At the top of the sleeve, or where the top of the shoulder would be, I stitched two rows of running stitches. At the end of the row, I left the thread unknotted. These stitches will be used to gather the sleeve into place in the armscye.

Next, I stitched the side seams together with a back stitch, joining the fabric in a cylindrical shape so that the lining was facing out. I finished the sleeve by hem stitching the bottom of the sleeve.

With this complete, I turned the sleeve right side out to reveal the fashion fabric. I placed each sleeve into the armscye with the bodice lining facing out. Using those threads I left unknotted, I pulled the thread, gathering up the fabric in slight ruffles at the top of the shoulder. This eased the fabric into place in the armscye, which enabled me to stitch the sleeve to the bodice using that handy back stitch.

Gathered sleeve attached to the shoulder strap.

Once that was complete, I flipped the bodice over to reveal an almost complete bodice.

An almost complete bodice.
Upon viewing the bodice, you may be wondering why the lining is longer than the fabric. This is quite intentional. The white lining pieces that are sticking out will be used to pin the bodice together. In a later step, I’ll be creating the gathered bodice front piece that goes over this lining. Stay tuned!
With the bodice nearly complete, I set it off to the side and began working on the next step. Are you curious as to what that step may be? Tune in for my next post, coming soon.

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today.

From History From The House