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, December 17, 2013

THE TARTAN TWINS--1870s Christmas Plaid gown

Began November 8/ Finished December 14, 2013
This was my first time ever to be challenged to make semi-matching gowns for an event. Cindy asked if I wanted to make matching Xmas plaid 1870s gowns for our Costume Guild’s Holiday Dinner in December. I decided I was up for it since I didn’t have any projects that needed to be done by then.

Cindy wanted to do the Truly Victorian #216 (1875) Parisian Trained Skirt that she’s done a few times, and I’d never done but she said it was easy. We both liked the Truly Victorian #405 (1872) Vest Basque Bodice to go with it, which I’ve already made and liked it. Both patterns have a lot of possibilities for different types of trims and fabric use.

We drove up to the Garment District with open minds regarding colors and fabric types. We knew we didn’t want the same color and that we would absolutely not look like Xmas tablecloths. I was leaning towards cotton but when Cindy said she was now thinking of silk taffeta, we added that to our search but knew the choices would be very limited. The first store we started looking in at Robert’s got the ball rolling. Cindy found a red and black Tartan plaid in a good quality cotton-wool blend and for an excellent price. So now I needed to find something similar that would compliment her color in a Tartan for me.
It took us walking through seven more stores before I went back to one that was a hunter green and black Tartan but was a polyester blend. But it had a good weight and I can line it with cotton.  Then we went looking for some sparkly trims, and both of us found glass beaded trim at Target Trims. Mine has a slight green tint to the glass; and Cindy’s is black.

I found a couple fashion prints made with plaids from the 70s, and liked these two where the sleeves were a solid color, making it look like she was wearing a vest. And I like the BIG bow in back!

I even made paper dolls this time to try and decide what parts of the dress I wanted plaid and solid black. After playing with it for a while I decided on black sleeves, plaid bodice, with a black vest insert. The skirt will have a panel of black going down the sides, which also leaves me an area to do some trims too. Maybe big bows?
I’ve made a few plaid dresses and so far really haven’t paid much attention to how I’m cutting the fabric but my plaids always seem to match up pretty well. Not perfect mind you, but not bad either. I’m not that precise. This time however I paid attention to how I did it out of curiosity and took photos as I went along to show how I do it.
My first method requires lining up the plaid on both sides of the fabric at the selvedges. Apparently I’ve always done this but didn’t think about it.
This time I put a little more effort into it, if you can call this an effort. Once I placed my main back pattern piece I found out where the front piece would line up to it by finding the waistline and putting it on the same line to match. Then I place the sides panels in similar locations, so when I cut and sewed them together, that one line was fairly close together. Not a precise method, but close enough for me. And no stressing over “is it going to match?!!”
And voila! A sorta matched plaid! For me, this is satisfactory. I’d never get it made if I made myself worry over every little detail. And there’s not enough time in my life to do that.

Cindy came over to my house at this point so we could work on them together. She had started with her skirt, and I had started with my bodice. We both use black silk taffeta as the vest insert, and I chose to do black sleeves to get the “vest effect” and Cindy did hers in the plaid. My collar was in the matching plaid, and hers was in black. So we managed not to be too matchy-matchy.

Peplums are still a bit of a mystery to me and I wasn’t quite getting it in the written instructions, so I was able to work it out by just looking at the picture on the pattern.
Cindy thought the bottom edges of the bodice and peplum was too long so we cut off three inches in the back and one in the front, and it did look better. This is the longer version.
When I had the bodice mostly constructed I did my buttonholes on the vest and used two different sets of black glass buttons I had. They were similar and showed off very nicely. I tried to find some more to put on my sleeves or other places I could trim at an antique show and etsy but as time ran out I had to give up on that idea and come up with other trim plans.
Then I got started on my skirt, which was a new one for me. Cindy had made it twice before. It has an underskirt, two aprons, and two bustle sections plus a side panel on both sides. We made the under skirt that doesn’t show out of black cotton and the side panels from the black silk taffeta. Once it’s all sewn, the skirt is just one big piece.
All that pleating in the front and back into the sides of the side panels made for a very heavy skirt. My polyester blend fabric was slippery and heavy, and it fought me tooth and nail whenever I was trying to pins things, or run it through the sewing machine. It got called many flowery names while I was sewing. This is the two layers of the front apron where one overlaps the other, and then is sewn onto to the side panel. The overhanging edge, where my finger is pointing, shows on the outside at the front and was later trimmed with beads and braided trim.

To help create the big bustle in the back, besides wearing the regular steel bustle under them, Cindy had us put two layers of tulle under the upper portion of the bustle fabric. It was pleated and attached to the waist and sides. Although with the heavy fabrics we were using, they only added a bit of poof but still was worth it. It works better with lightweight fabric. We would also have a bit of train and we’d planned to put a ruffle (called a balayeuse or “female sweeper”) under it to protect it but ran out of time for that.
You may have noticed my sleeves are STILL not on my bodice. I leave the hated Sleevils off till last and as usual they fought me the whole time and I ended up not happy with them but what can you do?
At the bottom of the front apron we attached a knife pleated panel to the portion of the black cotton underskirt to cover that. Our panels were twelve inches finished, and went around the side panels ending at the edge of the back bustle.
Now for my favorite part, TRIMS! In the evenings Cindy and I sat at our prospective sewing machines with our computer chat box open and talked back and forth about what we were doing, bouncing ideas back and forth and sent photos what we tried. We decided on large bows on the side panels out of our plaids. And big bows of black taffeta under the lower back bustle. Small black bows were placed on the back peplum at the waistline but we didn’t get any photos of those in progress.

I made my sleeves without the folded up cuff shown in the pattern and just had a cuff that I added a band of my plaid to it by topstitching it onto the finished cuff. I had a long car trip so it was something I could do sitting in the car. My final touch to it was a plaid bow which now I’ve decided that the tails are a bit too long but they were cute.

As we were getting down to the two days before our holiday dinner event we had to decide what still needed to be done and what could be left behind to finish at a later date. I was finishing up my bows and started on our hats, while Cindy got more beads sewn on hers. She put them along the bottom of the bodice and on top of the black pleated ruffle. Her beads are black with a black braid while mine are the pale green beads but I will be adding a black braid on top of mine later.
On the day of the dinner, we got them finished as best we could, then Cindy came over to make our hats. I had the base of them done and ready to trim by the time she got here. *More on those in another entry*
Our costume guild’s dinner at the Harbor House restaurant in Seaport Village was the first time we got to see each other fully dressed in our completed gowns. And we were both very pleased by what we saw. Cindy started calling our hats “The Ridiculous Hats” because they were so poofy and feathery. I hadn’t stood back and looked at mine when I was finished and didn’t notice it was a bit flat in the center. More feathers are needed! But overall we were happy.
You can read about Cindy's dressmaking in her blog- The Broke Costumer

 And the dress project still continues as I’ve been sewing the rest of my beads and braid on each evening at home. And my brain is already thinking about next year when I could add some white rabbit fur trim to it. I promise, no rabbits will die in this process.


  1. Dear Val,
    Augghh, I LOVE them, love them, love them. Such fun, fa la la la dresses! Your writeup is a hoot, too. Oh, so been there...
    Thanks for sharing the process and the ducky results,

    1. Thank you Natalie! Still working on it too. :)
      Happy Holidays, Val!

  2. Hi Val!

    Your dress turned out fabulously! I love the look that you and Cindy pulled off! How utterly adorable you both look in your Christmas Tartan Plaid Twin Dresses!



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