Close-front English gown in indigo, over a lemon petticoat, with a fichu. Modelled by American Girl doll Marie-Grace (because she’s my favourite, even though her hair is definitely not right for this period).
English gown ensemble
There are many layers to this outfit:
1. Chemise, stockings and shoes. The stockings and shoes are from American Girl; and I made the chemise from cheesecloth entirely by hand. You can read more about making the chemise here. I found that the chemise made it almost impossible to get the bodice sleeves on, and since it was going to be completely covered by the fichu anyway I figured it wasn’t essential and removed it.
2. Underskirt. I made this from white cotton homespun without a pattern, mostly by machine. I wanted a wide waistband so that the gathers would be slightly lower than the gathers on the petticoat. I cut it 1½” wide but I think 2″ would have been better. I also made the skirt a bit too full, with a circumference of 91 cm / 36″ — the usual circumference for an underskirt is approximately twice the hip measurement, so it should have been closer to 60 cm / 24″.
3. Hip pads. I realised that this gown needed a little more padding over the hips so I made up a couple of pads from the same homespun and filled them with loose polyester stuffing. I joined them with ties so that they are versatile — they can be tied close together for a bum pad or separated for hip pads. The ties are polyester-cotton bias binding but they are very stiff so I’ll need to find some 100% cotton bias (or make it myself — I can see I’m going to be using a lot of it). They were also completely stitched by hand.
4. Fichu. I have about fifty old handkerchiefs, some of which came from my grandmother. Four of them are very fine white cotton lawn and are perfect for a doll’s fichu. This one has an initial embroidered in one corner but that’s tucked under the bodice, so it looks plain and very suitable for a day dress like this.
5. Petticoat. Made from the pattern, mostly by machine. To be honest I’d like this to be about ½” to 1″ longer than it is now, but it will do. I’m not sure if you can see it in the photo but it’s actually a very fine lemon and white stripe. I’m toying with the idea of adding embroidery in either white or blue along the bottom.
6. Gown. The gown is made from half a metre of an indigo quilting fabric with small floral sprays in yellow and green, and has sleeve ruffles of cream broderie anglaise. I haven’t quite decided on the fastening yet so it’s pinned together at the front for now (which is historically accurate but impractical for a doll that will be handled). It’s lined with a grey cotton voile. I didn’t add the ties inside as I don’t want to pull the skirt up en retroussée.
For complete accuracy there should be a mob cap or similar, an apron, a pair of pockets and a pair of stays, but I don’t have any lawn or gauze fine enough for the apron and cap, and since dolls can’t actually put their hands in any pockets I figure she can live without them. I thought the stays would add too much bulk but I may make a set anyway for the next time.
The pattern I used was Thimbles & Acorns 1770-01 En Fourreau Gown. The name is technically a misnomer — it’s a closed-front English gown. The term “en fourreau” has been used frequently for the English gown back (Janet Arnold uses it in her book covering the period) but the original meaning was apparently “a frock for a child” without any reference to style (Source: American Duchess Guide to Eighteenth Century Dressmaking). My Collins-Robert French-English dictionary describes fourreau in two ways: as a noun, meaning a sheath or scabbard, and as an adjective, meaning narrow or tight-fitting. The “tight-fitting” is certainly accurate, but could equally well apply to most forms of fashionable dress from 1500 onward.
The pattern is well written, but because it was my first attempt at the pleated back it did take me several read-throughs before I felt comfortable enough to start cutting. Everything went together fairly well, and most of the small errors I think are due to my lack of precision or trying to do things in the wrong order. The gown was almost entirely stitched by hand, the exception being the seam that joins the sleeve, cuff and ruffle, which was too thick. For the seams and top-stitching I used Superior Threads Kimono 100 wt silk thread which absolutely melts into the fabric, and for overcasting I used single strand DMC embroidery floss.
There are some things I’ll change when I make this gown again:
1. The centre back of the bodice is three to five layers deep over the pleats and it was difficult to turn the seam over once it was stitched to the bodice lining. I’d like to trim it to the seam line and cover it with bias or ribbon, but I can’t do that on the current pattern because the outermost pleat on each side involves the seam with the side back panels. Consequently, I’ll have to adjust the pattern slightly to add half an inch to each side of the centre back portion and remove same from the side backs so that all the pleats are in the centre back portion.
2. I’m not entirely happy with the way the bodice is buckling at the sides. Technically the bodice should be sitting over a pair of stays but I thought they would add too much bulk, and there would still be problems arising from the hip pads and petticoat, which sit over the stays. I may add some interfacing to the next version. The other option is to overcast the bodice/skirt seam and turn it downwards so that all the fullness is below the waist seam and not above it.
3. The armholes in the bodice lining didn’t quite match up with the armholes for the bodice — I’m not sure why. It could have been that one or the other was stretched or distorted or that the shoulder seams were slightly off-true. I may cut a slightly larger seam allowance in future and leave the curve-clipping until the last minute.
4. The cuff and ruffle make a very bulky seam at the end of the sleeve. Next time I’ll do a single layer cuff (If I add a cuff at all) and I’ll make a pair of engageantes (lace ruffles bound at the top) that can be hand-tacked to the sleeve. I may also cut the sleeves a quarter-inch shorter.
5. I managed to get the skirt pleats the wrong way around because I was working from markings on the wrong side of the fabric. It doesn’t look too bad but traditionally pleats always fold to the back so I’ll make sure I do better next time.
6. The skirt gapes very slightly at the front on each side — I thought this was another personal error until I saw someone else’s version of this gown in the Bbeauty Designs etsy store (the doll was actually modelling a wig) and saw exactly the same issue. On looking back at the pattern it’s also there on the front image. This does need a small pattern adjustment to give the front edge of the skirt a slightly steeper angle than it has now.
All in all, though, I’m very happy with the result and I’ll definitely make this gown again. In fact, I’ve already started on the next version so I can do it while all the above issues are fresh in my head.