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; Past President of the San Diego Costume Guild, member of Orange County Costume Guild, and a representative of the San Diego History Center. 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.


Tuesday, January 11, 2022


 My blog last year was very sad. Only three posts for an entire year. But there was barely anything worth writing about. I played around with a couple dresses but didn’t finish anything. Yes, a couple are very close, and I wrote about one in my blog (1887 Autumn Plaid bustle dress)) but to date, none are finished.

Last week I was contacted by one of our fashion show organizers updating us on the status of the Riverside (CA) Dickens Festival, and this year’s theme, so it made me start thinking hard of what I wanted to wear for it. I had a few ideas for new dresses, but really? Did I think I would get it together enough to start and finish a NEW dress by the end of October? Not the way my life has been going. I took a look at what was in progress and decided to picked one from there.

About 5 months ago I tried to get my sewing mojo back in gear. I spent days looking through dresses from my inspiration file, and then cross-referenced my fabrics, all while trying to get a spark going. Something finally kicked in with the 1830s fabrics I’d collected, and boy, did I have a lot of different fabrics for that! I have cottons, I have silk taffetas, I have plaids! Plaids have been hard to find lately, at a reasonable price, so I’d been grabbing any that struck a cord, and were a good price. I still consider this a hobby and a costume, so I don’t throw a lot of money into it unless I have too. These are my pretty fabrics. 

Rather than make yet another Truly Victorian pattern for this period (of which I’ve made 5 from it), I looked at two other ones I had. And this time I wanted to convert the pattern to a front opening. I’d seen it done by a friend at Costume College and you could barely tell it opened there, which is what I was hoping for. I also wanted one that wasn’t off the shoulders. I had Period Impressions 1837 Day Dress pattern that I’d seen made up by another friend, Carolyn, and it was lovely, but she said it was very hard to work with. The Past Patterns #003 1830-36 Full High Gown was the one I chose, which was also the one another of my friends, Cindy, had made up and she said it wasn’t hard to make.


I didn’t have much luck in trying to find some extant examples of the ones not off the shoulders; most of what I found weren’t. I also read front closures were more likely for work dresses, like this brown one.

But I had an idea of putting a decorative placket down the front to help conceal that.

Since this was going to be a test pattern, and also the silk taffetas were a little fancy for a closed neckline day dress, I decided to start with one of the cottons. The purple cotton was my favorite, and I also had that fabric the longest, so it had plenty of time to age properly. Last August I cut out my muslin and roughly fitted it, knowing it would have to be fitted on me with the gathers at the shoulders down to the waist. I cut out the purple bodice pieces, flatlined it, and sewed it together. Later I sewed the skirt and sleeves, and set them aside. That was as far as I got, because I couldn’t go farther without the bodice being fitted.  

Jumping forward to last week with the Dickens Festival, and I started thinking about this dress again. It had some aspects that would fit with the Festival’s fashion show theme and it was slightly close to being done. And then I came across another version of a work dress that Past Patterns had done in the meantime, converting it to a front closure, #017.  If I had known this pattern was out there, I would have bought that and saved myself a lot of work converting #003 to a front opening. Today I bought it for myself as a late Xmas present, and I may use that for my other fabrics in the future. 

And then I remembered one of the dresses from my very favorite series, Cranford, and Return to Cranford. This was the series that started me on my love of 1830s.  The dress Imelda Staunton wears numerous times was BUTTONED DOWN THE FRONT. And just look at those magnificent sleeves of hers! This certainly didn’t look like a “work dress” the way she accessorized it up.

I also made a note of her belt, and saved this photo of a red plaid dress from another exhibit I saw. I think a black belt on mine would look good. It was also plaid so a two-fer.

Since I still didn’t have anyone to fit the pleating on the front of my bodice on me, I pulled out the skirt, which I’d forgotten I’d already sewn the side seams, and this made it quicker), and began to cartridge pleat it. I got to use my new package of Tiger Tape I’d bought recently for this. I heard about it from another costumer, and its pre-marked for the ¼” that we use for pleating. You can use any width you like. Its slightly sticky but I found mine didn’t stick very well and used some pins to keep it in place. Others said they had no problem with it sticking, so maybe mine is a bit dry, or its my cotton fabric. I bought it on Amazon but quilt stores carry it. I don’t know about fabric stores. Because my eyes made the tape markings a bit blurry, I marked every other line w/ a dot of black felt marker to make it stand out more so I wouldn’t miss a stitch. I used one 18” piece I cut for the entire skirt. The roll comes with 30 yards.

My sleeves also were sewn together and I plan to baste those in today. I pinned my skirt onto my dress form to see how it looked. The pattern called for 4 panels of 45” wide fabric for the skirt but I only had enough fabric to cut 3 panels for it. I think it will be fine.

The end of this week Shelley Peters is holding a sewing workshop again, so I’ve decided to go up on Friday and ask her to fit my bodice for me. I may get this done by this weekend! Since I like to name my dresses to remember them, I think this one will be Indian Gardens.

While I was reading all the information in the Past Patterns booklet, I kept looking at the paper doll drawings she’d included of all the underpinnings. One thing stood out to me, a stiff ruffled “bustle” on the back of the petticoat.

I know they wore corded petticoats under their skirts at this time, and I’ve also used a cheater one using a quilted fabric that I pleated the waist to hold it out. But it didn’t have the fullness up at the waist that they had. I wasn’t sure about the accuracy of this “bustle” because I assumed they’re were from the much later bustle period. So, I asked on a Facebook group, 1730-1830 Clothing Construction Support Group for any insight. They confirmed that this was authentic, and was documented in the 1838 version of The Workwomen’s Guide, with description and diagrams.

I first wanted to try and buy one already made since I didn’t want to start yet another project, but had no luck. However, after talking to those ladies, and seeing how easy it is to make, and also happen to have quite a few yards of a denim twill in my stash, I’ve decided I’m going to give this a try. This is one that one of the ladies there made. There is also a similar one in the American Textile History Museum, in Lowell, Mass.

To further assist me, there is also a video on the American Duchess Youtube page showing how one is made. 

I need to get the twill fabric down off of one of my closet shelves so I can start it, but I don’t know why that seems so hard to do these days. Baby steps, girl, baby steps.

Saturday, December 11, 2021



We all know costuming events have been a desert out there for the past two years. And I’d guess that most of us are still in a costume sewing slump too. I’ve continued with my “baby steps” sewing my costumes, or a better description, “bits & pieces”. Right now, I have four different dresses in various stages of construction that get worked on when the mood or energy strikes me, which is mostly about a day.

A while back I had recognized that this was becoming a pattern with me; I’d go full-on enthusiasm to start a new dress, and after a short time it would fizzle away. And then another dress would be started, and same thing would happen. I’d put it aside as I had nowhere to wear it so what’s the rush? But eventually one of them would get done, or at least closer to being done. I decided that if this was how I worked, so be it. Don’t fight it. When an event comes up for it, you can be that mad crazy lady again.

Towards the end of the year, things began to loosen up from (need I say it?) Covid isolation, and a few events cautiously started up. There was a dim light in the tunnel, inviting us to come out again. There was hope. 

In September, I had helped my mom move into a retirement community and noticed they had a beautiful indoor dinner theatre with a stage, great lighting, and lots of seating.

It reminded me that a few years ago I’d seriously begun to plan on offering historical fashion shows to retirement communities, and had even participated in two that my friend, Cindy, put on. Today I had a Memory pop up on Facebook that showed I was already thinking about this 9 years ago, in 2012. A few years ago, there was a really nice location down the street from where I lived. But then we moved away. And now here was a brand-new location only ten minutes away from where we moved to, and I had a connection to approach them about doing it. I had already designed a flyer that had photos of previous fashion shows I’d put on or worked on that I could hand out. I sent an email to the Activities Director at the community, and got an enthusiastic response back.

She had the next two months, November and December, open for activities, and after polling the ladies in my pool of models, we decided on November 6. Over the years I’ve done a variety of themes for my shows, even having stage settings like a grand parlor, or an atelier’s dress shop. But for a first-time event I usually do a timeline. It’s the easiest to work with and gives the models of variety of periods to work with, depending on what they have available. The hardest part is making sure we have a good variety of time periods to fill in the timeline.

Most of the fashion shows I’ve been in have had other costumers in the audience, and many of them know the time periods or the differences. With a senior community, you can’t expect this. So, I lean towards making them educational, along with being pretty and entertaining. We’ve found that most audiences are really interested in what’s going on underneath our gowns, in other words, what makes the shapes. Occasionally, if you have time, you can have a model that’s willing to be dressed from the inside out. But in these, our time is shorter, and I like to have examples of the corset, hoops, and bustles to hold up and show them how they work. You also wouldn’t want to shock the audience if they’re not used to them. 

For this show I tried something different, rather than have the models come out one at a time. We were all seated onstage, and then called on to come forward. I thought this would make it easier for us, and also give the audience more time to see us after we’d done our “twirl” on stage. We even have a gentleman who participates, and gives us a hand up.  

Here Shelley is not showing off her undies, but showing how sheer her cotton voile dress is for summer wear. 

After the show we stepped off the stage and walked among the audience members so they could look at our dresses close up and ask questions, which they did! That also gives me ideas of things to include in the narratives of future shows. And there will be future ones. They were all asking when we would come back so they could invite their friends. The Activities Director gave us the green light for that. We also were asked about two other locations that we might do this in, so we have that to look forward to in the coming year. We were all just so happy to be able to dress up and show off our "works of art" again. 

I’m hoping after the holidays are over, the mood might come over me again to finish up all those other dresses. 

Thursday, June 17, 2021


I knew I’d been working on this dress off and on for a couple years. But I was shocked today when I saw the last blog post I made on it was in October 2018. Almost 3 years ago! Actually, it was finished last January when I was going to put it on and take photos for the online fashion show for the Riverside Dickens Faire but that wearing never happened. But today I can say officially it was finished and worn.

Our Ladies of the Traveling Tea Society had our first tea outing after 1 ½ years yesterday at the Tea House on Los Rios, in San Juan Capistrano (CA). We’ve been having unseasonably HOT weather, getting to 100d at my house the day before, but predicted to be about 15d less the next. But still, getting in costume in hot weather is no fun. And we were going to be outside on a covered patio. At least my dress was a very lightweight cotton voile.

On the day of the tea, after I got all dressed, I was sweating already.  I was going to wear my wig for an 1870s style, with a thick braid on the back, much like this plate shows so I can wear my hat tilted forward as they did in this time period. Except wearing a full wig is so darn hot! Instead, I decided to just wear my halo braid with bun. I plop it on top of my head, which leaves the top open and cool, then topped by my hat. Except with wearing that, my hat wouldn’t tilt forward where I could use my hat pin to secure it to my braid. So, I had to wear my hat tilted back. Which is fine because that was also an 1870s style. I pulled a thin fringe of my bangs out but not long after I left home, all my bangs came out and I had a very heavy fringe across my forehead.   

And guess what? Surprise! With the tearoom being close to the coast, it was still partly cloudy at noon (its our June Gloom) and only got to 73d, so it was wonderful. Perfect for being outside in costume. I should have worn my wig. Now I’m starting to try and figure out how I can have another fake heavy braid hanging from the top of my head with a headband holding it on. With having very short hair, I don’t have enough to just pin one on.

I was really happy with how my dress came out. The addition of a dark purple wide ribbon as a belt & tied in a big bow in back, the purple silk rose brooch, and my purple grape earrings (from LadyDetalle brought out the lavender flowers of my dress. And my custom-made hat by Atelier Mela was the perfect touch. I forgot to have a full-on photo of the back of my dress to show how I did the bustle and tails with the solid lavender fabric folded over to show it.

So please ignore the messy hair. I am just the mannequin. I think the side of my bustle was slightly askew, as there’s a part of it coming forward that shouldn’t be. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

GETTING BACK TO SEWING—1887 Plaid Bustle Dress

 After almost a year of not feeling like sewing any of my historical dresses, I FINALLY broke through the wall a little bit. My inspirations that have been wiggling their fingers at me have been mostly plaid fabrics and I did an excellent job of collecting plaids in both silk taffetas and cotton. Those dress ideas ranged from 1830s-1890. The hard part was deciding WHICH dress I would make, and for what?

For what, pretty answered itself. At this point, nothing. Which meant I could make anything. Next was what would get the most wear? For me, its mid-1880s. In a spurt of enthusiasm last October, I had made a fitting muslin from the Truly Victorian #466, Alexandra 1887 bodice. So, I decided, ok, I made that, but does it still fit? You know, Covid weight. After a bout of being sick, I lost that extra weight, so I didn’t have to worry about it as much. That ended up also deciding on what to start first. 

I had this lovely orange, blue and red plaid medium weight cotton blend fabric, and I could pull out the colors in it for my accents, and after wavering back and forth on the vest color, I decided on a navy or royal blue to contrast with it.

Next up was my favorite part, looking for ideas. This blue plaid dress was my original favorite but I only had 5 yards of my plaid, so I could only make the skirt or overskirt in that. Later when I finally got around to cutting fabric, I forgot I was going to do the bodice in the solid blue and instead cut it out of the plaid. So, the dress decided to be a plaid bodice, plaid overskirt, and I had to go buy more solid royal blue for the skirt. Sometimes the dress or the fabric tells you what it wants to be. 

I started working on ideas for the trimming so it didn’t look like a cookie cutter pattern, and came across this from a fashion magazine, where I noticed the large buttons going down the lower portion of the jacket. I have some pretty antique Victorian black glass buttons that are 1” across but only have 4, with a 5th mismatched one. Although I have used mismatched glass buttons in the past because no one looks that close. 

But then I needed 14 buttons for the vest closure. I would love to use these 1/2” antique blue glass buttons. I have 19 of them, and the gold edge picks up the gold in my fabric. Except they don’t look well next to the bigger black ones, so I’m at a standstill with buttons. I may go shopping for 2 more large black ones, and just used some small black glass buttons. That can wait until the end though.

Then a few days later I went back to searching online on etsy with a different idea of using metal buttons, specifically antique brass ones. This seller had multiple ones and I ordered 2 sets of 10. They’re described as having cabuchon settings where you can put a colored stone in the center, but I think I like them plain.

Back to my planning stage and what to make the lapels with? I tested doing my lapels in a blue silk taffeta but it didn’t go well with the color of the blue cotton vest. I asked for suggestions on the Truly Victorian Pattern Sewist group on Facebook, and one lady had made her dress with a similar plaid, plus the blue vest. I noticed her lapels were a dark orange to match the plaid. (btw, notice her watch chain at the waist and watch pocket going to the side of her bodice?).

My plaid has a brick-red thin stripe in it and that’s what I decided to do my lapels in.  These photos just have a piece of the blue fabric in the middle faking the vest.

I had a boo-boo moment sewing the lapels. I first sewed up the royal blue taffeta one, and had it pinned on the edges so I could press it. Then I decided to make one from a brick-red silk dupioni instead. I sewed that up and was about to pin it and then remembered I needed to under-stitch the seam allowance. I totally forgot about that on the blue one, and it makes a huge difference on how crisp the edge is. You open up the two pieces flat, topstitch the seam allowance to the facing side, close to the seam line. Cut your usual notches in the seam allowance as needed. The turn it right side out, pin and press. It holds the lining flatter and looks so beautiful. This can and should also be done on the collar and cuffs.

I finally got my bodice sewn together, after a little hiccup where I couldn’t remember how to sew the vest portion into the bodice around the neckline (where the white line is in the photo) or stop at the top of the side (where the red line is). I thought I could see how to do it but wasn’t quite sure. I got a confirmation on the Truly Victorian group that I was thinking correctly that I stop at the top of the red line. The rest will be part of sewing the collar on where the vest attaches to the bodice.  

I sewed up the collar and placed it around the neckline but it was about 3” shorter. If I wrap the collar around my neck, I have a 1” overlap, and I plan on using a bar pin as my jewelry there and that only needs to butt together. I have three antique bar pins to choose from. But until I get up the enthusiasm to put on my corset, and try on the bodice, I won’t know if it really will fit. So, I’m setting that aside for a while.

Since I’d played with the bodice for two weeks, I went on to sewing up my overskirt, using the Truly Victorian #364, 1886 Autumn overskirt. This takes 4 1/2 yds of fabric. And that back piece is as wide as a queen bed! I’ve been exhausted just handling it. And now I see I also have to cut out a lining for that. Ugh. I started with sewing the center front and two side pieces together that make the draping from side to side, and pleated the sides up.  

I pinned it on my dress-form to see what it looked like and it wasn’t impressing me. First off, the front panel is way too long for my height, and I had even shortened it by 8” when I cut it because I didn’t have quite enough fabric. It was bunching out on the sides like a 18th century panier, or like pocket hoops under it. I may be doing a deep hem on it once I see how long it is on me.

Eventually I saw what I was doing wrong. I wasn’t pulling it up and to the center back like I should. So, before I taking any length off the front, I’m going to first see what happens when I do this correctly. *I just adjusted mine, and I think its still too long, especially for my height.

**I am again rethinking the vest on this. It looks off to me with so much blue, and I think I like it being shorter like the sample photo I did earlier where it stopped closer to my waist.

I’m now considering changing out the red lapels for matching plaid fabric like the fashion plate here in brown plaid, and making the lapels a bit narrower since I don’t have a wide chest. Good thing it’s still in construction mode.

At about the same time I was planning my trims, I was also looking for hat ideas. I found a couple I liked but didn’t want them out of straw since this is an Autumn dress. I could steam a straw one to make it the correct curve on the brim, but I think I may make one out of buckram. And I kind of like the idea of covering it in brown velvet. I’m pretty sure I still have some in my stash too.

Finding a hat pattern was a little harder. But I’ve narrowed it down to one by 1886, the Impressionist hat  pattern , which has the curved front already but might need a higher crown, OR Truly Victorian #551 with the short crown, if I can curve that point. I have both patterns so I need to play with them a bit. 

Last week I went to a sewing workshop with four other ladies. My plan was to put the bodice on, have it checked for fit, and see if my collar was going to work. Then I was going to cut out the skirt, and sew that up. What happened was we spent a good part of the day chatting about sewing, doing some show & tell with some antique clothing, and then looking at ideas. By the end of the day, we had worked out how to do the pleating on the back peplum of my bodice, and I cut out the skirt and sewed up the side seams. It wasn’t a lot accomplished in sewing but it was a good day well spent talking with friends in person again.

I got home and suddenly I was sidetracked by petticoats and crinolines. I haven’t done anything with those other than talk and plan but I think the enthusiasm is coming back.

In the meantime, I have continued hand-sewing some 1830s pelerines, and sold my first one. These are more time-consuming sewing them than my simpler Regency kerchiefs, but it gives me something to do while I binge-watch all those programs on Netflix.