… or, “How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.”
1790 round gown modelled by Caroline
Before I go any further, I have a piece of advice for anyone who is contemplating making a similar doll dress out of gauze: DON’T DO IT. It was never-ending hassle and frustration and absolutely not worth it. I have come to hate this project and am only posting it because I need closure.
Although this resembles a chemise à la reine from the front it’s not. The chemise is basically a tent dress open at the front, with three drawstrings (neck, under bust and waist) and usually has long sleeves and one or two deep ruffles over the neck and at the hem. This dress has short sleeves and a fitted bodice back with gathers on the back of the skirt.
The pattern I used as a base was the 1790 Open Pelisse and Regency Dress by Thimbles and Acorns, purchased through Pixie Faire. I know I had issues with this pattern when I made it in March but they don’t apply here because I made several modifications for this dress. All the new issues are due to the modifications I made and the fabric I chose.
I wanted to avoid a closure for the bodice because the fabric is so sheer that any snaps or Velcro would stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Given that the neck and waist were going to be gathered, I re-drew the pattern, adding about 5″ to the centre front of the gauze overlay pattern piece and cutting one bodice back on the fold. This yielded a neckline of 17″ circumference and a waistline of 26″ which allows the dress to be lowered over the head and arms of a doll (it actually helps if the strings are a little loose so that the arms can be more vertical). The front skirt was a rectangle that matched the bodice width, while the skirt back was both widened and lengthened with a train. Both front and back skirt pieces were allocated a half-inch seam allowance at the waistline to enable a casing to be made (more on that later).
The fabric I used was a gauze-like “muslin” from Lincraft — much looser in weave than the muslin from Spotlight that I have used previously. After a trial run of stitching the back and side pieces to check the pattern (wise decision, as I did need to make an adjustment to the bodice back) I found that it moved around constantly and I knew that I would never be able to cut or sew it without some from of stiffening. I didn’t want to treat the whole 2 metres so I tore off a strip.
Pro-tip: don’t do this with gauze. The weave is too loose and many threads will pull. I managed to straighten out most of the pulls but it was one more hassle I didn’t need.
I knew that my fabric stiffener was pretty strong so I diluted it by half in tap water (1:1) but the gauze ended up much too stiff all the same — I would have been better off diluting it 1:3 or weaker (but see below for more issues). However, it made marking and cutting the gauze a breeze. I used an old rotary cutter blade and paper scissors as I wasn’t sure if it would dull the blades. I rinsed some of the stiffener out before stitching down the gathers on the sleeves and skirt back. Even so, the stiffness affected my wrists so I was only able to stitch for about 1-1½ hours a day (as opposed to 2-3 hours on a normal day — I have issues with my scapho-metacarpal joints in both wrists).
For the sash I used 80 cm of red organza ribbon.
As usual, all stitching was by hand. All seams and seam allowances were stitched with Superior Threads Kimono 100-wt silk thread (no cotton floss in this dress).
I first stitched the bodice back and side seams together. Given the transparency of the fabric I elected to trim the side back seam allowance to 1/8″ and fold the bodice back seam allowance over it. The raw edge was secured by herringbone stitch. For the shoulder seams (and the side seams at the waist) I did the same trimming of one side but stitched the folded seam allowance down to the dress so that there would be no loose pocket to catch the gathering cord when it was inserted. It looked a little messier because of the pull on the threads, but it had to be done. There are no photos of the seam treatments because white silk thread on white gauze is almost invisible (even with a 5x magnifying lamp I had difficulty seeing the stitches at times).
I faced the neckline with a bias strip to make a casing for a drawstring. Once it was stitched on I made two eyelet holes with a hera at centre front and secured them with white coton à broder (50 wt) from DMC. The facing was narrow enough that I couldn’t make the eyelets big enough for my bodkin but I managed to get around that (see below). I discovered when basting down the turn that I had applied the facing to the wrong side of the bodice, not the right side. Oh well, it doesn’t look too bad and it’s all going to be obscured by the gathers. It was also at this point that I realised I would have to rinse the remaining pieces to remove some stiffening as there was no way I was going to be able to stitch down gathers with the fabric literally as stiff as a board.
I inserted the gathering stitches on the sleeves (both top and bottom) and then rinsed them in cold water. This enabled the gathers to be stitched down more securely. It proved impossible to turn the gathered seam allowances so they were trimmed to 1/8″ and overcast with blanket stitch using coton à broder. The binding was stitched on and then, after the side seams were sewn, turned and basted in place and left until after the hem.
I stitched the side seams first and finished the seam allowances with herringbone stitch as for the bodice. For the top inch I stitched the seam allowance down so that it wouldn’t catch the bodkin later on (a wasted effort, as it turned out). Next I started on the hem. I had drafted a half-inch hem allowance (a quarter-inch turned twice). Because of the curve around the train I inserted a gathering stitch at a quarter-inch from the edge. When the hem was turned twice this thread allowed me to ease in the excess without much puckering. A steam iron greatly helped with the turning as it softened the fabric temporarily. I basted the hem in place then left it while I attended to the waistline. The gathering stitch along the top of the skirt back was inserted and then the skirt was gently rinsed. Once I had attached the skirt to the bodice I realised that my original plan of turning it down to make a casing wasn’t going to work for the back as it was all gathered. I didn’t want to make a separate casing so I decided that because the back bodice wasn’t gathered I could get away with only having the drawstrings run from the side seams to centre front. The front skirt seam allowance was turned over the bodice; two eyelets were inserted at centre and then it was stitched down to make a casing (I didn’t want the eyelets to show on the bodice so the waistline has to be tied from the inside, but the skirt has plenty of fullness so it isn’t too fiddly).
I tried to find some very fine cording but was unsuccessful. Instead I made my own from white cotton floss. (Oops — I lied. There is cotton floss in this dress!). The finished waist cords had to be about 20 cm / 8″ long and I wanted them to be four-ply so I cut two lengths of 1.2 metres which gave me a comfortable margin in case twisting took up too much length or the swing point wasn’t exactly in the centre. I folded the cords in half and marked the centre of the doubled length. Then I hooked the floss through a door handle and started twisting. There was a lot of twisting — about ten minutes for each one — and my wrists definitely did not like it. The cords ended up around 9″ so there wasn’t that much excess.
Of course, three days later I found a YouTube video on making rope using a marlinspike — that definitely would have made things a lot easier. Unfortunately that particular design (with the crossbar) isn’t common at all but I’ll keep looking. I’ll probably end up with a normal marlinspike and an improvised crossbar … or basically anything vaguely cylindrical with a neck and a freely moving crossbar.
In order to get the cord through the casings I had to resort to an intermediate line because the cord wouldn’t fit through a needle and the eyelets were too small for a bodkin or safety pin. Instead I threaded a tapestry needle with some leftover basting thread and looped it through the end of the cording. I had to massage the cording through the eyelet but after that it was fairly easy. Once the leading edge of the cord reached the side seams I stitched it down — luckily the twisted end made it easy as I could poke the needle through the loop. Once that was done I trimmed the back bodice and skirt seam allowances to 1/8″ and overcast them as one.
I started to make a drawstring for the neck using the same method, but my starting length was 4 metres and I figured it was going to take forever. I made the very stupid decision to double it before twisting and use a single twist. Those of you who have ever attempted this will know what happened next: as soon as I cut it free it started unrolling so the whole thing was useless. Instead I opted for 3 mm white ribbon — given the previous mistake with the neckline casing it was probably a better choice anyway, as the ribbon is visible at centre front of the bodice.
Even though I had rinsed pieces of the gown while working on them, there was still a lot of stiffening in the fabric and I wasn’t able to get it to fit well enough to be confident of placing the petticoat neckline correctly. Since I had some white flannelette to wash I put the finished gown in a lingerie bag and threw it into the hot wash with the fabric. It came out as a tiny ball which took me a while to straighten out but most of the stiffness was gone and I thought it would be fine when it dried. Unfortunately, it wasn’t — it was still very much stiffer than the original gauze. A second wash produced no further improvement. I’m not sure if the stiffener reacted with the fibre itself or was fixed into the fabric when I pressed it, but either way it’s now there to stay.
When it came to pressing, I was able to use my Clover mini iron on the bodice, and I improvised a tiny ham for the sleeves by using an old cotton sock. I also have a miniature sleeve board that I made from a 6″ wooden ruler so I used that for the sleeve bindings. For the skirt I used my normal iron on the standard sleeve board.
Although the dress looks a lot better than it deserves, there are still issues that are clear to see. The neckline casing is too thick and bulky and doesn’t sit right. The waist seam is a lot bulkier than I like, too. The skirt back doesn’t flare out as I intended because the front panel is too narrow at the base — I should have made it a trapezoid instead of a rectangle. The back and sleeves are good but they are the pieces I didn’t change (well, I took a quarter inch out of the centre back but that’s all). The petticoat doesn’t sit just inside the bodice as I hoped it would and the margins are clearly visible under the gauze.
All in all the dress is pretty much a failure … but I have learned some important lessons so it wasn’t a waste of time.
1. Never use gauze for this scale of work. Just don’t.
2. Never tear gauze. Cut it instead.
3. Synthetic starch doesn’t wash out completely. If you need to stiffen fabric for clothing (human, animal or doll) use actual starch, preferably starch you make yourself from rice or cornflour.
4. Skirt backs with a train need a trapezoidal skirt front to avoid that dip above the ankles.
5. Casings at neck and waist need to be planned more carefully to ensure that the thickness is kept to a minimum.
6. A cord made from hand-wound floss is feasible for short lengths but if a long cord is needed I need some sort of two-axis spinning device to speed it up.
Notes for future versions: