Thursday, April 8, 2010

Civil War Ball Gown & Simplicity 2881

On Palm Sunday, my friend Nona came over and asked me if I thought I could make her a ball gown to wear for a performance dance on the 17th of this month, in remembrance of Abraham Lincoln’s Death Day. She brought with her pattern, fabric and a notebook full of ideas. Together we planned a beautiful dress for her to wear, and two days later she came over for her first fitting. Today I finally finished “The Dress” which has somewhat overtaken my life lately! I used Simplicity 2881 for the pattern and did not alter it much from the original design. This specific pattern is one designed by the lovely Kay Gnagney of Originals-by-Kay. It is a lovely style for the 1860’s. It features a princess seam bodice, double-puff sleeves, bretelles, a full skirt with decorative tabs and elegant trimmings.

The pattern calls for silk taffeta, but due to budget constrains (silk can be expensive!) Nona purchased royal blue satin instead. The accent fabric is a matching royal blue velvet that was recycled from an old underskirt of hers. The lace around the neckline and sleeves was also recycled from another skirt she used to wear. The lining for the bodice and sleeves is white cotton. I followed the pattern fairly well (for me) but did make a few alterations. For instance, I did not use the skirt pieces guide given in the pattern but cut and sewed three panels (50” wide) together for the skirt and balanced the length at the waist. Mid-19th century skirts are so simple to make, they do not really require a pattern at all. I did not really follow the instructions. If you have a basic knowledge of mid-19th century construction techniques it is not hard. It becomes ingrained in your mind so that you do it automatically. But for basics; the bodice is flatlined, the seams sewn and pressed to one side (not open). The opening is pressed under to create a self facing and stitched down. The raw edges on top and bottom are bound or piped, and the sleeves set in (usually with narrow self fabric piping in this seam). I also covered every seam in the bodice with tape to finish it off nicely and the front seams are boned.This pattern seems to run large. We cut the bodice (for a mock up) in a size 18, which seemed to be the correct size based on the measurements we took. However, it was so large that even when it was pinned closed in the back it still slipped right off! The pattern says that 6” of wearing ease are added above the natural measurements of the person it is meant for! That is WAY too much wearing ease! We took the pattern in a lot and then I traced off the fitted pattern onto fresh paper. (ALWAYS trace off a pattern, once you have nicely fitted it, so you don’t have to go through the inconvenience of such a fitting again unless you change size). It was a little tricky working with the slippery satin and velvet. I had to sew much of the dress by hand with it lying flat on a table so it wouldn’t shift around. The finished dress doesn’t look as “crisp” as the dress on the pattern cover (made of silk taffeta) but well, satin is a slippery, soft fabric. For decoration I sewed blue bead fringe to the outer edges of the bretelles (which are of velvet, bound in satin), around the sleeve hems and across the neckline. The same bead fringe also is sewn to the bottom of each tab. The tabs are reversible and sewn to a separate waistband than the main skirt, so it can be worn in a variety of ways. One side is satin and the other velvet, with the gathered “petals” on the velvet side made of satin and on the satin side made of velvet. For additional trim I sewed on the satin and velvet covered buttons to correspond to the pattern. Around the edge of the neckline lace I sewed tiny glass seed beads and ran a blue satin ribbon through it to draw it up when it is worn. Today I sewed on the last petals and made the head-dress. The headdress is made like a decorated hairnet but is constructed of slightly different materials, to match the dress. Using small scraps of satin and velvet I made seven rosettes, which were sewn to a wired base. Inside each rosette I attached a blue silk flower and a tiny blue silk ribbon rosebud. The hairnet part is made of fine black net and has an elasticized bottom edge for ease of wearing.
It is very nice to have this project done! I am really happy with how it came out and how nice the pattern was to work with. All the pieces fitted together very well and created a very lovely, accurate silhouette for this time period. I especially like the bretelles - very graceful! I can’t wait to see my lovely friend in this; she is quite fair complected with very long, very dark hair so you can imagine how beautiful she will look. : ) Now the ball gown bug has bit me and I have been shopping around online a bit for silk fabric. I have always wanted a pale pink or pale yellow silk taffeta evening dress or ball gown, either solid or in a large plaid. Pink and yellow seem to be hard colors to find. Not that I need a ball gown. We don’t go to events that have balls. Most are just outdoor dances or, at most, a barn-dance where a day dress is far more appropriate to wear. Still! One can plan. . .in the meantime, I'm very excited about the straw bonnet I just ordered from Mrs. Parkers Millinery! Now THAT is a practical thing to have! :)


  1. My jaw is on the floor! Absolutely, incredibly GORGEOUS!!!

  2. WOW!!! That is just absolutely gorgeous!!!

  3. Oh, the dress is beyond gorgeous! You did an outstanding job, and your friend will be the envy of the ball!

    I've found working with the historical line of Simplicity patterns(Martha McCain), they are not historically accurate. She tends to leave out necessary information that anyone not familiar with historically accurate sewing would not be aware of.

    Plus, there are a couple of those patterns that simply 'everyone' is using and you know from 200 feet away they used the McCain Simplicity pattern.

    I like how you designed this dress, you'd never see it and associate it with any pattern. And I think that's what sets the pros apart from the amateurs. You are definitely a pro!

  4. Dear One,
    You have created a masterpiece.
    Absolutley beautiful.
    God bless,

  5. Oh my word! That is stunning Sarah! Such beautiful work :-)

    Just a note...I have yet to write my letter..I'm sorry :-( Things have been a tad busy and my baby girl has been a tad fussy at night. I hope to sit and enjoy writing it tonight or tomorrow! I have not forgotten though!

    Lots of love,

  6. W_O_W!! That is breathtaking, Sarah! I *love* that color blue, too!

  7. It's stunning, Sarah! I hope you will be able to share photos of your friend wearing it. I love the attention you give to detail, both in finishing and in decorating.

    A pink or yellow gown on you would be so perfect. I hope you find some nice silk soon!

  8. that dress is absolutely gorgeous Sarah!!! Oh my goodness! its so beautiful, any lady would want to wear something in that color I believe and the beading is lovely. great job!

  9. Oh my goodness! That is absolutely amazing, Sarah! You're are one talented woman!

  10. BEAUTIFUL dress, great job!!!!!

  11. It turned out awsome. It's lovely.

    The fun thing is, I using this same pattern at this moment to make the dress as well. Of course I've got a completely different fabric, and will nog be adding certain things, but it's nice to read your thoughts about the pattern.

  12. Hi! I am making the same dress at the momment and was wondering about the boning. Did you use the recommended steel boning? If so, what was it used for? If not, did you use plastic boning?

  13. Hi Sarah Jane,

    What a wonderful job!!! I too am a homeschool mom, training my children in the way they should go!

    My daughter and I are making this dress for a history play and are novices. We have run into a few problems. When we followed #34 and marked the two side panels, we ended up with one side markings sloping to the back and one side sloping to the front. What way should the slope go? and... Where is the skirt facing mentioned in #36? Is that literal "facing" or a piece of fabic, we don't see it in the list of "pieces". Any help would be appreciated. We can only hope our dress will come out wearable.
    Jill and Katie

  14. Beautiful. I just happened upon your blog and I am overcome by your sewing knowledge. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future and learning from your historical sewing knowledge.

  15. There is an Etsy shop that is using your top picture for their dress listing here:
    I didn't know if you gave them permission or not , but I wanted to let you know.

  16. So incredibly beautiful!! :O I just ordered this pattern and I'm going to give it a shot. I've never sewn garments before in my life :D Let alone a full on ball gown. But sewing a historically inspired ball gown on my bucket list and I think it's going to be an amazing project. I only hope it turns out half as nice as yours!


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!