Wednesday 30 June 2021

Experiments in woven bras, Part 1: The reasons and the initial process (and mistakes)

I've been fed up with RTW bras for quite a while now. The ever-present artificial fibre (even if the bra is mostly cotton, the various findings are not). The fact that I'm nominally one size but then when I try it on the cups are gaping. The fact that I have to keep searching for styles that are both as much natural fibre as possible and a cut that does not result in gaping. The annoyment of the sliders of adjustable straps often ending up sitting right on top of my collarbones, which can be a lot of fun (insert sarcasm) especially with a backpack on top.

I first started out, years ago, basically trying to replicate RTW underwire bras, and it never worked out. Eventually I found out, thanks to a random commenter in the Curvy Sewing Collective Community group on Facebook, that part of my problem probably is that I have Omega-shaped breasts - or something of that sort, anyway (what that article describes doesn't fit me on all counts, I also have top gaping and have never struggled with the bottom of the bra sliding that much; but more or less it does fit). So the standard cup setup probably simply doesn't quite work, even if I had managed to get it "right". (If you do not have that problem, and want underwires, I think the free Maya bra may be a good starting point for that sort of thing - the author says the whole front of the pattern can easily be made without any stretch, so if you combine that with some sort of vintage-style elastic setup in the back, you're probably good to go.)

(I would have shown you my most recent unsuccessful wearable muslin here - complete with self-made bias channels for underwires - but I think it went into the rubbish bin during last year's move. It did not sit right. It did at least serve to drive home the fact I really want to wear woven natural fibre bras in summer.)

And then last year I came across this review of the Vera Venus 1940s bra and realised, over that bra's clearly fabulous support, that proper vintage-style bras might be a much better solution for me. Especially because I had been wearing exclusively wireless in RTW bras for the past couple of years anyway and my absolute favourite, fit-wise (sadly not material-wise), was this rather vintage-style number from Marks & Spencer

I lifted this image off the interent somewhere; maybe the Czech M&S site. I normally don't do this. But links break, especially shop links, and I want this blog to serve as a record for posterity and to help people regardless of when they find it. And this image shows the seamlines in relation to fit relatively clearly.
Note: shaped cups, fabric around them and full coverage, and - as you will see bellow - taped seams. Those seem to be the crucial elements of support in here to take note of. Also, note central front seam. I don't know if the "grainlines" there also serve a purpose but what is certain - that seam is also taped.
It's wireless but it's not woven - I think the cups are some kind of tricot knit? They say it's part cotton and therefore nice to wear. Don't believe them if you have skin trouble and sweat trouble. I definitely sweat in it unpleasantly when it's hot.
So, as you can see, the seams are taped. With something that definitely isn't cotton. There's also some kind of mesh fabric under the cups on the inside (it does not look like the power mesh I google but presumably it serves the same purpose). Also definitely not cotton. Aaaand exposed bra elastic.

Sadly far from ideal in my world, even if it is much better than anything else before, and very instructive.
So I:
  • Collected lots of pictures of vintage bras (mostly from auction sites) in a secret Pinterest board (which I may eventually un-secret for general use but for now it's a bit too personal a research, complete with non-historical related material ideas etc.), and took mental notes of cut and construction.
  • Went ahead and drafted some patterns last year, based on my measurements in the above-mentioned M&S bra. Which were both (pattern and bra) subsequently, quite soon after I made that effort, rendered obsolete by my losing a whopping 6 cm in the full bust measurement due to a change of jobs (more movement & different food, and my body seems to primarily store fats in my bust area to begin with).

Bra calculators tell me, right now, that I ought to be 30F or 32E in UK bras (my underbust measurement is currently closer to 29 inches, BTW). Which I'm pretty sure would gape a lot in reality. I wore 32DD previously; the bra I have is 34D (I could not find 32DD in the shop when I bought it, so I did the improper thing of buying the upper sister size and wearing it on the farthest set of hooks). It's gaping in the cups now (and as you may guess from the above list of sizes, the band must be too big now). Presumably I could get away with a C or D in this style now?

But: material. I used not to have such a big problem with blend bras, skin-wise, but during the last year I got rash problems in the bust area as well. I don't know, maybe it was the stress of the past year - apparently atopic ecsema gets worse with stress, and let's face it, the past year plus has been... A Thing.

So. Time for more bra experiments. Especially because summer's here and the knit and partially-artificial RTW bras I have, currently also badly fitting, just really don't cut it anymore.

I drew on my knowledge of historical bras - from the Lengberg style and Katafalk's recreation of it through 1910s princess-seamed bras to 1920s and 1930s bras - and took lots of measurements and made an initial draft that I then refined the fit of in a muslin (considerably).

It turns out, as I sit down to document my process, that my initial princess-seamed draft does not exist anymore. Nor does the subsequent muslin-influenced draft because the garment that resulted from that is still faulty. In an attempt to be a good girl who cleans her room, I threw those patterns away immediately upon their becoming obsolete, without documenting them. Oops.

Anyway, here's my back piece, derived from my sleeveless spencer, which exists still mostly unchanged - I just took it in a tad from the top of the underarm area for better support, and I think I scooped it down / out in the underarm / armscye in general? The side seam sits a bit more towards the back than directly under my arm, incidentally. I didn't bother correcting that; it works better with the grainlines this way. (There are additional straps connecting the front and back, BTW.)


And this is my initial Lengberg-style front piece, not yet muslined, which is basically where I started - by drafting this flat piece out of my measurements, with breast cutouts, because I could hold that against my chest and roughly "test the fit" even in paper. (Considering my further fitting problems, I suspect this is inaccurate.)

From there, I drafted two princess-seamed pieces following that vertical line, both with a "bulge" for the bust, based on measurements of my breasts.

And then I made a muslin of that, with a front opening, and pinned and pinned. The bulge was reduced, more so on the central front pieces, but really both of them. I generally took in the seams for better support.

So I think you could basically arrive at a similar thing just by starting out with a vertically princess-seamed pattern for wovens, exactly as The Dreamstress recommends for 1910s bras.

I made a wearable muslin with lacing in the front (that will be Part 2), and found out that, oops, my muslin fabric was an old bedsheet and old bedsheets have considerably more give than new fabric so I had taken it in too much, especially in the underbust. Fortunately, the lacing takes care of that gap, and it definitely is a wearable muslin and already far nicer to wear than my RTW numbers. But - it needs improving.

So this is my pattern for the front with those further changes taken into account (and some sort of basis for a bust cup drawn in tentatively): 

Which will presumably go into a Part 3 of this adventure, this time with elastic. We'll see how many parts will follow after that. :D

Wednesday 26 May 2021

Regency picnic (Čechy po Kosířem)

Lockdown is finally slowly lifting, and so we pulled off an outdoors Regency picnic.

I had to leave earlier, because there was also a family gathering that weekend, but even then, I got a full blast of... being with "my" people. I'm not even close friends with any of them, but it was such a fantastic feeling to be in an environment where you:

  • share advice and opinions about historical costuming ("you can wear whatever you want as long as you don't claim it's accurate in an educational environment")
  • share opinions on the lack of meaty pastries in Czechia (shame, and also a sign we really aren't Eastern Europe)
  • talk of how you'd much rather have a nice interior than pretty exterior in a house
  • joke and commiserate about the woes of having too many books in too small a flat
  • share advice and joke about "historical" solutions for modern equipment
  • and just... make silly imaginative jokes.

We were all a bit drunk on sudden company, I think.

I also found out this weekend - or, rather, re-discovered something I already had had an inkling about - that I'm baaad at photographing people.

So let's just focus on the venue: the park at the chateau in Čechy pod Kosířem. It's the usual venue for the Jane Austen CZ's annual "Empire Day", but this was the first time I made it there for the event, and largely because it was very scaled down this year and there still aren't that many other events for it to collide with. The village is unfortunately very hard to reach in a time-flexible manner if you don't have a car. And May is always packed full, and even this time there was also a family gathering on the same weekend! (Basically, the first weekend such a thing was possible.) Thankfully, a family gathering is a bit more flexible than, say, singing in a choir, which was one of the colliding events in the previous years.

I had visited before, though, on a trip with my sister several years ago.

We had better, sunnier weather for the picnic this year, which was a great stroke of luck because it was still raining when I was getting on the bus in Olomouc fifty minutes before my arrival in Čechy pod Kosířem!

I had been in the chateau before so I did not go inside this time around, although we did have the opportunity to go on individual, unguided tours.

The interiors aren't as old as our era of choice, but the staff seems to be on very good terms with the organisers, which is probably the main reason the annual event takes place in a place that's a bit harder to reach. Still well worth visiting, though!

The chateau is mostly known for its ties to 19th century Czech painter Josef Mánes, who is responsible for the big paintings in the "ancestors' gallery", apparently based mostly on smaller period portraits?

This is Mánes and therefore should be taken with a grain of salt, costuming-wise.

So is this.

And this. Though this may be contemporary to him.

This, on the other hand, was one of several miniatures under glass, and presumably contemporary to the fashions depicted.

They had a whole "ladies' room" with crafty handworks, from later in the 19th century.

Our picnic this year took place on the slope between this orangerie (where there is normally a café but it sits mostly empty now and we kept our things there)...

... and this pavillion.

And the chateau sits next to what's an impressive but probably fairly "commonplace" baroque (?) church. Commonplace for Czechia, I mean...

It really is a great place for a picnic.

Also, ducks. And, inexplicably, a turtle. Or is it tortoise in English? I'm not sure.

Anyway, whichever it is: there was a fallen tree in a fishpond, covered in dinosaurs.

This was the point where I left to catch a bus: with everyone making jokes about ducks and turtles.

Saturday 15 May 2021

HSM '17 #2: The c. 1800 sleeveless spencer / bodice

No, that's not a mistake: it really is a make from 2017 (in its final finished state). There's really a lot I've never gotten around to blogging about...

Once upon a time, I fell in love with the 1802 portrait of Heinrike Dannecker by Gottlieb Schick, and decided I wanted to make an outfit inspired by it - really possibly my favourite portrait from the era, fashions-wise, as I've already mentioned.

Then later I came across two other portraits involving sleeveless bodices that I took inspiration from: this ca. 1795 miniature by Augustin Dubourg and the 1800 portrait of the Comtesse de Bonneval by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson which was good for figuring out how the front would sit at a slightly later date than 1795. :-) (Links to Pinterest because the original links are broken.) - Yes, they're both blue worn over white dresses. My colour bias is showing.

I had some fabulously shiny cotton satin upholstery fabric that I had snatched up from a remnant bin and that seemed to want to become this sleeveless bodice. Red! Shiny for evening wear! So wonderful.

I played with the pattern for my transitional "bra" to turn it into a front-lacing bodice, and as I placed it on the fabric, I thought "maybe I could squeeze two things out of this fabric" and pieced the front to accommodate a more tetris-style pattern placement.

I ended up shifting the grainlines in the three front-and-shoulder pattern pieces in comparison to the "bra". Since it was my own experimental pattern it wasn't exactly set in stone anyway but:


I find that shifting grainlines when altering and piecing historical patterns is actually mostly OK - as long as you keep your grainlines mostly the same / symmetrical on both sides of the body, don't remove bias from where it serves a purpose, or don't put bias somewhere you really don't want to stretch out! (Which was actually why I shifted it on the shoulder strap pattern piece: I wanted it lying nicely along the grain. That oddly shaped front bit got its grainlines shifted just for the sake of placement on fabric, though.) When loking at the patterns in the priceless German disertation on the Kostümsammlung Hübsch by Johannes Pietsch, I realised this was done historically, too, with pieced garments. So in that context, you can totally shift grainlines away to your heart's content!

I sewed the bulk of the seams by machine because I was excited and wanted to finish this bodice faster than my previous historical makes (four years is a rather excessive precedent and is stretching one's patience, once the undergarments are already done). Then I got the bright idea to fell stitch / whipstitch (?) the seam allowances down, which turned out to be not very brilliant actually because it resulted in ridges on the outside (thick upholstery fabric). But I kept it that way while I was ahead...

The lacing eyelets were rather a pain. The thick upholstery fabric was so hard to make proper awl holes in! And deciding to use buttonhole silk twist didn't help - it's bulkier. Though also neater, even if mine turned out to be lighter in colour than the fabric.

Thankfully, I decided to lace it with a cord I knitted myself out of cotton crochet yarn, with two stitches only (just like lucet, without a lucet), which is thin enough to pass through the resulting tiny eyelets (a large blunt needle in place of a bodkin helps, though, although it also passes through with more difficulty).

I spaced the eyelets as suitable for spiral lacing - although looking at Comtesse de Bonneval, I clearly could have gone with a regular criss-cross placement; I somehow forgot that part. (I need to work on keeping my inspiration images and sources before me throughout the process of working on things because that sort of thing happens to me far too often.)

I made a thread bar on the inside at the top edge, also from my buttonhole silk, to tie one end of the lace to. The bottom end of the lace I originally usually led back up underneath and tied to the thread bar again as well. When I had a not-lacing-tight kind of day (like when I wore this over a modern bra to church...), I just tied that end off at the bottom. Then that became the norm because my bust had grown about 6 cm since I first made the bodice... and now I've lost some cms there again, though not the full 6. But that's the flexibility of lacing for you! :-)
Originally, I only finished all the edges with piping. I don't even think it’s historically correct for the period anymore (maybe it's only an 1810s-onward thing?); and in either case, the folly of using an ahistorical thick upholstery fabric this way became apparent
soon: the fabric ripped / unravelled in several places at the edges in the first wash, before I even had pictures taken. (All the photos in this post were taken during the restorative process or afterwards, I have zero pictures of it in the only-piping state...)

ETA: The problem is that, in order to turn the seam allowances around the curves, I had to cut them quite narrow and - well, the thick fabric is simply not suited to that sort of treatment, together with the thick turn of cloth it puts too much strain on it, and the fact it's a satin (= a somewhat looser weave) did not help...

I was grumpy about it for a bit, because it ruined the clean look I was going for, but then I caved in and added more trim to save it / cover it up: bias strips whip-stitched (fell-stitched?) to the piping & stitched down with backstitch on the other side, and bias binding at the lacing holes in the front.

So that's the whole of the lesson of not using historically accurate fabric and historically accurate techniques. :P

(More historically accurate fabrics would also likely result in the historically accurate wrinkles one can see in the portraits...) 

ETA: Notice that the bottom edge, which isn't so curvy, survived my piping treatment unscathed, presumably because I did not cut the seam allowance as closely as I did around the curves and the lacing holes at the front openening.

Anyway. Despite the problems, I'm happy with it. I'm particularly happy with the basic shape of the pattern, because that looks exactly the way I wanted it to look. It looks so good I could not believe it when I first saw myself in the mirror and later photos... It sits just like the bodices from the portraits. It's a very satisfying experience to get that result without the jumping board of a pattern taken from an extant garment, with something you just kind of eyeballed.

This is a photo by Páv Lučištník, so far the only good one I have of myself in full Regency getup... my tendency to forget to put on jewellery strikes often! :D So does my "RBF"; for some reason the photos of myself from the events that I know of always make me look bored even when I know I was anything but! Here I was looking at the people dancing and apparently previously tried to take some photos of my own. It's back from the bodice's first outing in its altered state in February 2017. I think I need to revive that headdress style...

So I'm totally going to one day make another one in similarly rather inaccurate cotton velvet, with hopefully more accurate construction techniques. I was originally thinking of a blue velvet remnant, but now there's the Purple HSM challenge and I thought back to the purple velvet... and there's Vanessa's oh-so-pretty printed cotton one... aaand I have some thrifted silk garments intended for repurposing as accessories... so, considering how easy it is to make this garment out of remnants, I suspect I'll eventually end up with a wide choice of sleeveless spencers to spice up my Regency ensembles. :D

I also want to eventually share the pattern (because it turned out so well!), but this post has been in limbo long enough and I don't want to keep waiting till I finish digitising the pattern... especially because it occurred to me that with how simple it is, it may be a good training ground for improving my grading skills...


Just the facts, ma'am:

What the item is: “Regency” bodice / sleeveless spencer
The Challenge, and how this item fulfils it: HSM '17 #2: Re-Make, Re-Use, Re-Fashion. I used trim to save / cover up fabric damage.
Fabric/Materials: Marked down remnant of red cotton upholstery-weight satin (NOT recommended, with emphasis!); navy blue lightweight cotton sateen for trim (pretty great!)
Pattern: My own, an evolution of my wrap stays / brassiere.

Year: c. 1800
Notions: red thread (polyester, I believe), dark blue cotton thread; red buttonhole twist for the lacing eyelets & a thread bar on the inside which I tie the lacing to; dark blue cotton crochet yarn knitted into a lacing cord; thin linen cord for the piping.
How historically accurate is it? Meh. Fabric is wrong, some of the methods are wrong (it’s even partially machine-sewn). On the other hand, the shape is pretty spot on on me, so that’s a plus. Also, the Re-Make part is pretty good: using trim to cover up damage is a valid thing, bias strips as trim are valid as far as I know, and the handsewing stitches I used (backstitch & fell stitch) are valid.
Hours to complete: No idea whatsoever. Sewing down the trim at one armhole (cca 52 cm) took about 1,5 h, I think?
First worn: In the original state, for the first and the last time to a production of King’s Speech by the National Theatre in Brno (an occasion that seemed to call for an evening dress, so I used the best I had :D). In this new iteration, to the “All in the Garden Green” ball held by Jane Austen CZ on February 25 2017 in Brno-Tuřany. And then many times afterwards, not all of them historical occasions, either.
Total cost: Low. I don’t remember how much any of the materials cost anymore, but in any case, the red fabric was marked down and I only used about half of it, the blue was cheap to begin with and I only used a bit of it, and there wasn’t much thread or yarn used, either. All in all, I’m guessing about 70 CZK ( = less than 3 USD)? The cost would go up if I did it more correctly and used a thinner, historically accurate fashion fabric coupled up with a linen/cotton lining.

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Analysis of the proportions of a successful Regency dress

So you want to do early Regency but you don't exactly have a columnal figure...?


While searching for some other conversation I've found an old comment of mine in a Facebook group, a comment documenting the relative measurements of my Regency dress compared to my figure. I thought it was worth reproducing as a (more detailed) blog post for future reference for anyone who wishes to achieve this sort of early 1800s columnal style on a more "feminine" figure with bigger hips. Since mine was achieved through trial and error but I'm really happy with how it turned out in the end.

So here goes one person's experience:

I'm wide-hipped, approximately DD-cupped, but pretty slim.

My underbust measurement is c. 75 cm (29,5 inches), my hips are c. 102 cm (40 inches); 1,36 : 1 hips-to-underbust ratio. The vertical distance between the two is c. 40-42 cm (c. 16 inches). My bust span is c. 20 cm (c. 7,5-8 inches).

The dress has rectangular front and back panels, with gathers in the back and trapezoidal gores at the sides (more like side front I guess). The front panel is 24 cm (c. 9,5 inches) wide (= with 2 cm on each side in addition to my bust span). The gores are 18 cm on top and 29 cm at the hem (c. 7 & 11,5 inches). The back panel is 115 cm (c. 45 inches) wide, gathered into the waistline.

So it all adds up to 172 cm (c. 68 inches) at the waistline / underbust level, compared to my 75 cm (29,5 inches) measurement; 2,3 : 1 ratio. A lot of that is taken up in the back gathers. It's a drop-front dress, so there's also some overlap between the side gores and the back panel.

The skirt is 112 cm / c. 44 inches long at the front & sides (slightly longer in the back due to the raised waistline there).

The hem is 2,5 m (c. 98 inches & 2,7 yards) - so it's c. 2,5 : 1 compared to my hips measurement, and c. 1,4 : 1 compared to the skirt dimensions at the underbust level.

Update: I found this post trying to document the circumferences through the centuries, and my 2,5 m seem to fit in pretty well with the era I was aiming for - it's on the larger side actually, but then I suspect most of the museum items are in smaller sizes, as they tend to be (survivorship bias?). You can see how there's a fairly drastic change between 1790s styles and early 1800s styles - that would be the change from a skirt gathered all around to the typical Regency flat front.

All this in a very lightweight cotton sateen. There are tight gathers of the two rows of running stitch kind in the back; about 60 cm (c. 23,5 inches) gathered into about 10 cm (4 inches) - I'm not sure how much exactly it was anymore, this was just a very quick measure at the hem, but 60 cm kind of make sense to me as a number I'd have picked. :D I underlined the thin fabric with a strip of cotton plainweave so it's a bit thicker and not quite as much fabric is taken up in the gathers as it would otherwise take in something as lightweight as my sateen (it's a lot anyway - 6:1 ratio!). Then gentler gathers towards the sides.

Now you may not want to reproduce the exact proportions of my pattern pieces - my narrow front panel is a bit weird to be honest - but hopefully putting it down in exact numbers and proportions like this can help you decide how to proportion your dress if you're struggling with that. :-)

You see the trapezoidal skirt patterns more often on later, 1810s & 1820s dresses, but they do sometimes appear in dresses dated to the earlier, more strictly neo-classical era as well. Based on my own experience, they may well have been an invention to accommodate wider-hipped figures similar to mine who wanted the sleek columnal look with full enough skirts for movement and without putting too many gathers at their underbust level.

Good luck!

Saturday 20 February 2021

Pro tip (maybe) - Hip measurement complications

This is a blog post about the wisdom of very careful and detailed measuring of oneself.
(It's also one that, for the first time in my blogging history, made me want to go all silly puns with the title. I've stayed my hand.)

Re-measuring myself some time ago (it's now been several years - this is a post rescued from "development hell"), I found out a head-scratching thing:

At the largest part of my hips, my front measurement is bigger than my back measurement. That wouldn't be so head-scratching maybe; the head-scratching part comes from the facts that:

A) my hip-to-waist ratio is noticeably on the hourglass side, which one usually thinks of as "fluffy tissue on one's backside";
B) fitting tutorials dealing with bigger volume in the front assume volume in the belly; which is in center front and, once again, fluffy tissue;
C) meanwhile, my additional volume in the front is in my hip bones. That means I have volume at the side-front. Not an area you usually see dealt with in trouser-fitting tutorials. :P Conversely, I actually have a bit of a hollow space behind my hip bones at my sides.

The difference was about 4 cm some years ago when I first came across this problem. That's a lot of hip bone for an area of the body where the difference is usually in the back.

Seriously, I don't think I've EVER come across anyone approaching this as a fitting issue in explanations of fitting issues and how to fix them.
(Also, because it’s a bone issue, I think it’s a good thing I haven’t attempted a custom dress form yet, because that may well distort with stuffing. I will have to come up with some way to simulate my bone structure because one of the reasons I want a custom dress form is for it to be squishable for corsets. And its being squishable in places where I'm not - which is frankly most of them - would defeat the purpose.)

It goes a long way towards explaining some of my trouser woes. I have noticed that generally, trousers that fit me best in the hip area are actually often men's trousers (except then they gape awfully at the waist).

In historical costuming terms, most of the time I thankfully don't have to worry about it, because skirts. But because the re-measuring happened because of hypothetical future corsets, I came to wonder, how exactly do I deal with that in longer corsets? It's bone. It won't squish.

It's mostly something I'll have to experiment with on my own, I’m afraid. But I wanted to share it. In case there are actually other "curvy" women with bone structure interfering with the fit of their clothes, rather than being "fat"; and yes, to stress the importance of measuring oneself thoroughly.