This is a photo diary of my costuming "travels"; where I've learned and struggled to make historical costumes for myself. They're not always pretty, but always fun. most of the time. And I want to share with others what I learn along the way. **You can find me on Facebook, or have my posts delivered to your email by signing up at the lower part of the right column.**

About Me

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HI, my name is Val. I'm a member of Costumer's Guild West in Los Angeles, Dean Emeritus of 2018 Costume College; member & Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, a representative of the San Diego History Center, & an honorary member of SITU (Someplace in Time, Unlimited) in Seattle. I make my own historical costumes but don't sell any unless I get tired of one.The eras I've made so far are 1770 up to 1918. My favorite is the 1880s bustle.


Monday, July 15, 2013


July 15, 2013
Its only two and a half weeks away from Costume College and I’ve had my nose to the grindstone (or as much as I can do) and trying to get my two new dresses done. The 1890s Seaside dress is done but the blouse isn’t. Right now I’m working on my 1905 silk voile gown which has been scary because I’m actually cutting out parts of the bodice behind velvet ribbon and lace trims. There will be photos of these at a later date, and hopefully they’ll work.
In the meantime, I felt the need to write something and decided to answer a question one of my readers had left where they said they really appreciated the historical information on it, and asking how do you pick the right fabric for a specific era. Yes, it would be easier to find the magical website that says THIS is correct for this time period.. ~~~~~~

I clearly remember being there; standing in the fabric store ten years ago staring at all the cotton calicos trying to decide what would work for a mid-1880s bustle gown. And not having a clue. My brain was more tuned to quilting fabrics after making quilts for years. Turns out it wasn’t a bad tune, as I picked a tightly patterned pink floral calico. But it still wasn’t quite right. I think the pattern was too tight, and over the years I’ve learned they aren’t quite so busy. *I’ll have to tell you a funny story about that first bustle gown later*.

Later I started searching online for historical fabric information and found some photos. From LACMA, this is a sample of a 1780 print.
These are some of my favorite reproductions for 1770-80s from 

Finding photos from extant gowns are the best way to see them. These are from extant 1850 gowns.

These from extant 1860s gowns.

Recently an online auction had these fabric sample books for sale and you can’t get any better than that. Some of them were totally surprising too. These were all 1860s samples. 

This website is not a bad place to start if you want to look at a bunch of reproduction fabrics online. Or purchase them.  - they have a good selection of fabrics broken down by dates, and but they don’t break it down as well. These are all cotton fabrics primarily for quilting but they’re acknowledging costumers as buyers too. The quilt store near me in San Diego, Rosie’s Calico Cupboard,  has a special room in the back specifically carrying reproduction fabrics from 1780s-1860s, and in another part of the store they have 1930-40s prints. They run about $7-$9 yd. Every once in a while you’ll find the 8 yards you need in their sidewalk sale for $5 yd.
But as I said, these are cottons and they’re pricey. So what’s a tightwad….I mean a penny conscious girl to do? How can you tell if that flat-fold cotton for $2.98 yard would work or not? And what if you want brocade, or printed polyester? If you look at fabric samples and extant gowns long enough, you will educate your eye and your brain, and you’ll be able to tell if it would work. Color is important too. I’ve been saving close-up photos of extant gowns for years to be able to recognize if something in that pile would work. The hard part is trying to keep your brain straight and remembering what works for 1795, 1840, or 1860. When I tried picking out rayon prints for 1930s, I did poorly because I’m just not used to seeing them. You can’t do everything. Wait, did I just say that?
You may not find the exact fabric like the extant samples but you can get pretty close.

Now for the funny story about my first bustle dress: It was for my first time at Costume College in 2003 and I was using a Truly Victorian pattern. At that time I barely understood how to make period costumes. Ok, I knew nothing. And I'd never seen any other than online of costume events. I wanted to make it with cotton since it’s so hot in SoCal. I contacted Heather from Truly Victorian and asked about the lining and flatlining the pattern required. I’d never heard of flatlining. Heather told me flatlining was very important but I argued it would be too hot. I have to give her credit because she really did try and talk me into doing it. But I resisted. That was my first mistake. See how loose the bodice looks in this photo from the 2003 Costume College? Flatlining is sewing a supportive fabric to the back of the outside fabric and you treat it as one piece. It would have given some body to the limp cotton fabric and make it look smoother, which was very desirable in Victorian gowns. BTW, I am wearing a corset. 
Heather, who is in the photo with me pointed out I only had one set of darts in the bodice, and it was supposed to have two. I thought they were for different bust sizes, so that was an education for me. She said I could just take a tiny tuck and fake them. Also, see my sad limpy skirt. Besides not having a decent petticoat under it, it had been finished for me by a Civil War dressmaker and she had made it in the circular style of the 1860s not the smooth-in-front 1880s. My overskirt looked more like an apron with the sides being open instead of pleated to the back section. But this was my first gown and I felt very pretty in it. That’s the important part. It also made me want to learn more about them, and ten years later, I’m still learning.
**ETA** I had to add this: Isis Wardrobe recently posted about the use of plaids in the 18th century. She has some wonderful photos and paintings of them. Isis Wardrobe blog
***ETA***Also adding this blog that's a great collection of correctly dated gowns for your visual education. They're taken off ebay & Isabella of All the Pretty Dresses confirms if the date is correct, and if not, why. She has tags to the different era dresses if you're searching for a specific one. Look at the column "Labels" on the right side. All the Pretty Dresses


  1. Way to go! :) It is so good for the soul to look back at early makes and see how far our abilities have come, in every area of life :)
    Just when I think I have my eye in for suitable fabrics, I get a surprise - Isis' Wardrobe posted recently a page of plaid/tartan 19th C gowns that really looked like they were made from late 80's early 90s silks (1980s I mean!) but they are the real deal. So funny!

  2. Can't wait to see you at Costume College! :D

    1. Stephanie, I'm looking forward to seeing you again too! I may not be at the Pool Party because we'll be setting up the Costume Display room but I'll be around.

  3. Great informative post Val. Thanks

  4. Thank you Val for putting this all in one place to refer to. Great detective work! Have this page bookmarked.

  5. Such great information and photos! Period-looking fabrics can be so hard to choose. I've added a link to your post on my website.

  6. Excellent post! And thank you for linking to mine! My first historical gown... Well, the patterns was all right, but it was made of polyster meant for lining...

    1. Me too! My very first gown was a modern costume pattern, the fabric too stretchy and it finally was too big for me. But we all have to start somewhere.


I would love to hear if this was any help to you. Pretty please!