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Monday, February 10, 2014

The Yellow Dress

I had a rush order recently for a historic 1770s-era silk gown.... which is a tricky order to undertake by any means, but to make it in under a week was quite trying. I took photos while making it, so I could show you the many steps that go into the making of an elaborate costume like this.

The client requested the dress look like the one in this painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a French artist who lived from 1732 - 1806. The painting is entitled Young Girl Reading, c. 1770.

Since the dress isn't fully shown in the painting, some of it was left to my imagination.
Sketch copyright Rosie Rose 2014
Step one, find the perfect saffron yellow silk dupioni.


The Essential Patterning Tools- tape measure, yardstick, clear ruler, sharpies, kraft paper, thin masking tape, and that little spiky-wheel thing is called a patterning wheel or pounce wheel.

First mockup of bodice (a mockup is a quickly-made version of a garment made in a cheap fabric like muslin, or in this case in a print I was never going to use, in order to test & adjust the fit of the pattern before cutting it out of expensive fabric). Verdict, side bodice pieces too short, center panel needs adjusting as well.

 Redrafting bodice pieces

Ripping out the stitches in the mockup to try again.

Bodice mockup #2- Much Better.

Mockup with sleeve

Back, with tape marking lines of corset-style opening in back which will have lacing to cinch it in.

Cutting out the silk dress and cotton lining. I had just enough silk, leaving only tiny scraps (tippets for mice, as Beatrix Potter says in The Tailor of Gloucester, one of my absolute favorite stories.)

Measuring the yards of skirt.

Silk folds up tiny! This is the entire dress, stacked up & ready to sew.

Beginning sewing: back bodice pieces.

Cutting the boning, or "stays", which will help the bodice hold its shape. Traditionally a dress like this would go over a corset but instead I chose to incorporate corset elements into the dress itself. Stays need to be cut with rounded edges so they won't poke through the fabric.

Inserting stays in bodice center panel. 

Finished bodice front

Pressing nylon boning flat (Secret to flattening nylon boning- so easy- simply press with iron on medium heat. I pressed it while it was still in the fabric casing and then removed the casing before putting the boning in the dress to eliminate bulk in the seams.)

Stays in the waist of the bodice to help keep the tummy flat

Bodice back assembled, with loops for corset style lacing.

Stitching bodice to lining

Stitching both sets of sleeves, kind of like doing origami.

Trimming excess seam allowance 

Bodice is assembled, lined, with sleeves.

Finishing sleeve hems with bias binding.

Bias trim on sleeve.

Finishing the back.

Stitching lace to skirt edges.

Pinning twill tape over the raw seams of the skirt.

The skirt was so long it stretched across my living room!

Hemming the skirt- ultimate hemming tool, the Seam Gauge

Skirt gathered in at the waist.

Bodice pinned to skirt, ready to sew.


Sewing skirt to bodice.

Main dress in one piece. Next I put in the invisible zipper in the back.

Pinning lace to neckline

Closeup of gathers on skirt

Sewing the lace collar. I read somewhere while researching this dress, that a French queen (I believe it was Marie Antoinette but I can't find the reference now), decreed that it takes 5 yards of lace to make a proper collar. She was right- 5 yards was just perfect. It was common to starch the lace to make the collar stand out stiffly, but the collar in Fragonard's painting appears very soft, so I opted for a soft cotton Cluny lace.

Hemming the white muslin & lace underskirt

Gathering stitches on waist of underskirt

Dress is starting to come together...

It was about this point that I got that panicky, running-out-of-time feeling. The dress had to be shipped that day. My daughter, my little studio-monkey, illustrates how I was feeling perfectly!

But, no need to worry, I finished up the embellishments and put it on the mannequin one last time for a few more photos, before mailing it off to NYC to a very happy customer.