Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Bootlegger's Ballgown: Fabric and Pattern

I've been wanting to give a 1920s style dress a shot for a while--it's an era I'm kind of wary of. I think it's the lack of corsetting. Can any historical gown without an elaborate network of corsets and petticoats really work?

I think it can. A friend of mine hosts a Prohibition Party in February (aptly nicknamed the Bootlegger's Ball), and I decided that a new dress would be just the thing (thus, the Bootlegger's Ballgown). The plan--make it in a classic 1920s shape, and also create a self-belt so that I can wear it with some waist definition as a modern cocktail dress, too.

Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion II has (along with a bevy of other historical gowns I must needs haves now) a very lovely, very simple, very 1920s evening dress:

The dress as featured is a silk sheath, heavily beaded, with a decorative hem.
And this is the pattern:

Yep, that's it. Incredible how the complicated, pieced, fitted garments of only a decade earlier gave way to....this. Lest you think that the lines on the pattern are some fancy fitting or pleating or pintucking, rest assured--those are just the lines that the beading is done in on the original.

I plan to make the dress in silk charmeuse, with (hopefully) a beaded silk gauze overlay. The beading will be far less extensive than the original. I'm still deciding on the hem--do I want to do an allover uneven hem, or a decorative hem on the overlay and a straight one underneath? Decisions, decisions.

Phase one was getting the fabric ready. I ordered white silk charmeuse and gauze from Dharma Trading Co, and finally, after much debate, settled on a rich, dark royal blue dye.

I think it turned out gloriously. There's just something about dark blue, isn't there? My door kindly offered to model the uncut fabric.
The charmeuse:

And the gauze:

Another gratuitous gauze shot--so filmy and sheer but still holds the rich color so well!

And now to the fun part--hashing out the cutting layout, playing with the overlay, deciding on a beading pattern, and deciding how to handle the hem.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Two-Day, Two-Yard Turquoise Dress

Let's be perfectly honest--I am not usually a quick sewer. This is something I want to get better about--starting, working steadily, and finishing a project in a normal amount of time.

Done, and done, friends--I think I broke a record with this dress.

Remember the turqouise dyeing experiment? It left me with just enough cotton voile to eke out a dress. And I mean just enough--it was an exercise in spatial reasoning as I sat on the floor with an assortment of pattern pieces, the fabric, my drafting/cutting board, and a determination to get this worked out. I had barely over two yards total.

It's a bit of a Franken-dress: I used the skirt from one pattern, the bodice (sort of) from another, and then reworked that bodice into a sleeveless style.

To make things more challenging, I had a rule. Because this was an experiment dress on so many levels--experiment fabric, experiment draping, experiments out the wazoo--I wasn't going to let myself use any resources but those I had at hand.

So instead of a zip, it's got a snap closure.

It's not lined--I'll wear it with a slip. (Or, I thought as well, over a tee and leggings for modern wear.)

And no separate facing material either--I literally pulled scraps from the bin to piece (yes, piece) facing for the neckline.

Given all that, it turned out quite nicely, I think! It was fun to have the challenge of "make do or do without"--if this had only been a more exact 30s or 40s style, I could have called it my Depression dress or rationing dress!

I also had fun fitting the dress to the form--though I've used my form for a while now, this is the first time I did most of the fitting to the form itself instead of following a pattern. I felt very accomplished. Especially when it actually fit me, when all was said and done--and fit better than just following a pattern, which is the point, really, of having the dress form to begin with, isn't it?

Now I just have to wait for a summery day to wear this! Too bad it's frigid, windy, snowing, and shows no sign of letting up anytime soon!

What challenges or goals do you have or want to give yourself in your creative endeavors? How do you plan to--or have you--met them?

Monday, January 9, 2012

iDye, YouDye, We all Dye for...ahem.

I've found myself frustrated of late with finding likeable fabric. I find a fabric with the right fiber content and drape, and the colors are all meh....I find a color I love and it's ratty polyester...I find the perfect fabric and it costs...my firstborn child. And we've all read Rapunzel, kids--those kinds of deals don't end well.

So I decided to venture into dyeing fabrics.

I had some leftover white cotton voile from Dharma Trade Co., and a packet of idye brand dye that I thought I needed for something else, but didn't. So I thought--why not give it a go? There's enough fabric for a lightweight shortgown or jacket, and a light blue would be just the thing.

After perusing the interwebs and learning about different dyeing methods, I decided that the stovetop method looked like the best for getting even-hued results. Here's what you need:

Pictured above:

Large stockpot you don't plan to use for anything else. I found this at the "end of aisle sale" in the grocery store.

Dye. I used idye, available from Dharma Trade Co and other places, too.

Salt. The non-iodized kind. Or, if you were dyeing silk, vinegar. Don't do what I did and realize you only have iodized salt in the pantry and have to make a run to the store on a Saturday afternoon.

Garlic. Kidding. That's just my stash.

Bamboo Skewers. Ok, this is my contribution to the world of dyeing advice. You'll need to stir the pot o' dye, and I didn't want to sacrifice a spoon to the cause. Plus, the thin skewers made maneuvering the fabric and, eventually, lifting it out of the pot, a cinch.

Fabric. Pre-wash--I did this right before so the fabric would already be wet and ready to add to the dye bath.

Follow your dyeing directions! Here's what I learned:

Heat your giant pot, filled most of the way with water. If you're dyeing cotton, you'll need to add salt to the dye bath. I learned that, despite what idye packaging claims, you can't dissolve a cup of salt in "a little" hot water. I would recommend heating water for your salt (I just nuked it) and start mixing to dissolve it separately while the dye dissolves in the dye pot.

When you add the dye, you'll find that a) it looks really purty:

and b) it takes FOREVER to dissolve completely. I had little chunky bits hovering on the surface until I started stirring to create the Tidal Wave of Blue. Then I finally agitated it all outta there.

You'll add the fabric only after the dye is completely dissolved. That, along with nearly constant stirring, is what I thank for the evenness of the color job I ended up with.

Stirring with skewers:

idye has you add the salt (er, saltwater) now. And stir.

Stir some more.

Keep stirring for about a half an hour.


I forgot to mention that you will also need a cup of tea and some fabulous 30s music. Or your choice of beverage and distraction.

You'll then need to dispose of the dye and launder your fabric. I gently maneuvered the pot to the sink, held the fabric back with the skewers, and poured most of the dye off. I added a little cold water, swished, and poured the rest of the dye off. I then scuttled the pot to the washing machine and lifted the fabric into the machine with the skewers. Easy-peasy. Ish.

After drying:

The only problem? It worked too well. I confess--I had not expected the dye to turn out so vibrantly! Lesson learned! Unfortunately, it's a bit bright for my 18th century wardrobe, so I've parlayed the loss into a gain for my vintage wardrobe: It's becoming a little summer sundress.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Are you Amish?" and Other Questions Only Reenactors Must Answer

Once in a while, a reenactor has to enter the real world dressed in period clothing. Sometimes, this happens on purpose--we're going to an event for the day only, so need to show up dressed, and need to stop for gas. Sometimes it's unexpected--you're completely rained out, tear down camp in your 18th century clothes, and retreat to a McDonald's to wring yourself out and change. Sometimes it's just for fun--like the time a group of us walked to a Big Lots to buy sparklers. (You'd think we would have had enough fun with explosives given all the black powder we'd already burned. But no.)

Regardless, you get some funny looks. And sometimes some interesting questions. Clare at Magpie Makes reminded me of this with her recent post on translating a love of 18th century to modern clothing--because sometimes you don't *want* to be accosted on the street with odd looks. Below, a quick primer for how to answer common assumptions:

1) "Are you Amish?" Where I live and reenact, there actually are plenty of Amish communities, so this isn't such an outlandish question. Except for how bright, patterned, and even revealing our clothes are in comparison to the Amish. And the fact that the Amish are conscientious abstainers from military conflict...so the fact that many of the guys are wearing what are pretty clearly military uniforms makes it sort of funny. My personal favorite response: "Yes, but we're a militant sect of Amish bent on bringing the simple life to the rest of you."

2) "North or South?" This may be an appropriate question for Civil War reenactors (though I'm sure you get tired of answering it--and isn't the blue vs. grey thing enough to at least begin to answer that question for many of the gentlemen?). However, for us Revolutionary War folks, I find it sufficient to simply answer, "Yes."

3) "Civil War, right?" Again, a predicament only for those of us not involved in Civil War reenactment. As a Rev War person, I tend to fall back on, "Oh, dear, no, nothing civil about us. In fact, we're revolting."

4) "Are you a pirate?" Thank goodness this has died down a little since the height of popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Depp, Bloom, Knightley, Bruckheimer--I harbor a slight grudge against all of you, and everyone else involved. Admittedly, sometimes it's not an off comparison. Some of us do look, perhaps, a little pirate-y at times. However, when I was playing with my friends' baby and chatting with her older sister on a blanket, all of us wearing our "lady clothes," all I could muster in response was a blank stare. The fearsome Captain Babypants replied, "Arrrrr."

5) "Are you in a play?" "Well, actually, ah...yes. Yes, I'm in a play." Sometimes it's better just to keep things simple.

In reality, this is usually a great chance to do some free publicity for the event--I take the time to explain who we are and what we're doing and give a quick rundown of the event vitals--when we're open and if admission's charged. I think a few people have ended up coming by because they stopped to ask!

Friday, January 6, 2012

"Are Reenactors Really *That* Mean?"

Recently, one of my favorite costuming bloggers, American Duchess, began plans for participating in a Revolutionary War event in Williamsburg. One issue that came up as she planned were the authenticity standards of historical reenactors.

Her fear, confirmed by individuals such as the illustrious Hallie Larkin, was that reenactors would be likely to criticize any inaccuracy in her clothing.

The response from many comments was "WOW! And this is why I don't want to get involved with reenactors."

I'll tell you what, it made me cringe.

I'm a reenactor. I'm a member of an organization that has relatively strict authenticity standards. We undergo inspections to make sure our stuff is right and that we're documenting everything.

But are we stitch-counting authenticity police?

No, most of us are not.

I felt the need to respond to the conversation in more detail because I feel that a few individuals create a false reputation for our hobby as a mean, hostile place filled with jerks who like nothing better than pointing out perceived problems with your outfit. Now, to be fair--there are a few jerks out there. But there jerks everywhere--have you ever been involved in any hobby for any length of time and not encountered at least one blowhard who thought s/he knew all there was to know and found great joy in correcting others? Me either. (Let me tell you, swing dance is way worse than reenacting for know-it-alls.)

To be fair, as well, there is a difference between creating reenacting clothing and historical costuming in many cases. Many costumers take inspiration from the past without feeling the need to create a dedicated reproduction of it. Reenactors document everything they make or buy (or ought to). An example--a costumer and a reenactor may want to create, say, a ladies' jacket. The costumer broswes images and extants and designs a garment. Perhaps she wants it to button as a closure, but can't find documenation for buttoned jackets like hers--she may go ahead with her plan as it still captures the spirit of the period she's stitching. A reenactor, on the other hand, is much less creatively minded about the process, and will find particular garment/s to copy. She won't use those buttons if she can't find documentation for their use.

So are the streets of a reenactment filled with people waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting newb? Definitely not. In all my time in the Midwest and somewhat more limited time on the East Coast, I've never been corrected in such a fashion. And my costuming has not always been perfect. I've heard comments made perhaps a few times, which given I've been doing this for over 20 years is not very often. A couple of them were rude and uncalled for, and I *may* have responded under my breath to one individual's "They didn't have that kind of blanket then" with "They didn't have slag-faced loudmouth b!tches, either." If it happens, sure, it raises your hackles. But it's very unusual and most reenactors consider it very, very rude to barge up to someone and correct them.

Perhaps even more important, overwhelmingly, new people are welcomed and encouraged. If you're trying the hobby out, and find yourself with a group of people who are not encouraging or are rude, you're in the wrong group of people. I have to take serious issue with Hallie's assertion that "reenactors, especially in groups, can be critical, cruel and downright unkind." I don't doubt that she's speaking from experience, but: The vast majority of reenactors I know are the nicest people I've ever met. They want to help new people. They want to spread knowledge and understanding of the time period. They want to do it kindly. I kid you not--some of the best-put-together reenactors I know and I have had conversations about how to most kindly touch base with new people (and not-so-new people) in our group about serious inaccuracies because the clothing experts were worried sick about hurting feelings. These were problems that needed to be addressed in that "Hi, Sue--you have spinach in your teeth" kind of way. Because we don't want to hurt any feelings or drive anyone away. Again, if the group you encounter is cruel--they're bad apples. Period. Get away from them and find nice people.

I'll add as well that not every reenactor is a clothing expert. We all know enough about *our* clothing to get by, but many people have other interests--perhaps military drill, perhaps carpentry, perhaps authentic cookery, perhaps medicine. So don't feel that you have to be a clothing expert if your interest is elsewhere. Know enough to get by and seek the assistance of those who are into clothes.

The one thing that will sink you, in my experience, with reenactors? Being a know-it-all yourself. There are newbies, there are experienced reenactors, there are experts in particular fields, but nobody knows everything. This is why it's such a terrible idea to correct someone else--for all you know, his persona is a recently arrived Italian immigrant and you have absolutely no idea if his clothing is right because *you* know nothing about Italian clothing! Talk to people. Learn from them. Know that not everyone is right about what they say, but keep an open mind.

In the end, reenacting is a community. I happen to love being a part of it. And I want to welcome anyone who wants to try it out.