Thursday, May 16, 2013

An 1860's Cage Crinoline, Pt. 1

I've known for a while I need to make a new cage to go under my 1860's dresses. My first hoop skirt was one of those adjustable bridal hoop numbers, that I bought in Billie Creek Village, IN back in 1999. It was actually a not so bad hoop as far as cheapy sutler hoops go. It was cotton and had 6 buckram-covered bones and the only bit of polyester was the lace at the bottom. I was able to adjust the bones to get a tolerable bell shape for my skirts, though I had none of that desirable and ubiquitous "back thrust" that all original crinolines seemed to have. Here is an original 1860's crinoline from the Victoria and Albert museum. You can see how it is definitley *not* round, but with a very specific shape and back thrust:

That bridal hoop lasted me a few years until I wanted to upgrade, then I got the Originals-by-Kay kit. My dad helped me cut the steels and put the thing together. Here you can see the really nice shape that cage gave; this picture is from back in May of 2005 right after I turned 19 (actually the very same day I first met David when he came in to visit that historic site! He was wearing blue jeans and a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt, had a great big bushy beard and was wearing, to my distaste, sandals. I just don't dig sandals on dudes. Needless to say, he doesn't wear them anymore.)

In various forms, (it was remade several times) that cage lasted me until last spring, when I made the little 5-steel covered crinoline from Costume in Detail, which worked well enough (and is still in fine almost-new condition) but did not really give me the shape I wanted. The loft it gives is quite small and low and although it works great for working-class impressions or for use when I need to have less restriction, it just isn't exactly pretty. It's a period correct shape, but not a fashionable one at all. It is quite utilitarian.

This year I decided I would make a new cage. I ordered 2 rolls of hoop steel from and then I thought about how I would actually go about making it. For some reason the math aspect scared me. I had no idea how I'd figure out how long to cut each steel and how to space the tapes that would hold the hoops in place. So for a few months I shelved the steel and worked on other projects.

After Grampie passed away and I began to research a mourning impression I realized I really needed to actually make this cage in order to have the right look. So last week I finally gained a foggy idea of how to construct a cage: Make the tapes that hang from the waist. Sew pockets into the tapes to hold the steels. Cut the steels. Sew the tapes to a waistband. Thread the steels through the tapes. Try on to adjust for fit and shape. Permanently stitch each steel to the tapes and voila! There's a cage.

It hasn't been as easy as that. I decided to use twill fabric for my tapes instead of buying a woven twill tape or ribbon to use as tapes. (What can I say, I'm cheap and I already had the twill on hand.) I decided to go with a 2" wide tape. It seems the width of tapes varies a lot from original to original, but the wider tapes appealed to me for some reason. I don't know why. Anyway, to make the tapes, I tore lengths of the twill 4" wide x about 68" long. I then pressed each strip in half to find the center:
Excuse the faded and stained ironing board cover in the background.  They don't last me long. I need to get a new one.

Then opened the strip back up, and folded each edge in towards the center and pressed:

Then, wrong sides together, I pressed the entire strip in half. This gave me a finished side on both sides and the raw edges are tucked within the strip.

I did this to 7 strips. I was going to do 9 strips but I figured that was overkill. If my tapes were narrower, then I think 9 strips would have been nice. But not necessary with the wider strips and with the rather modest size of my cage.

Then I carefully measured and marked the little pockets I would sew into the strips. This took a very long time to do. My steels measured just under 1/2" wide, so I sewed the pockets to be just over 1/2" wide. Sewing the pockets took a long time too! But finally they were done.

After that, I cut the steels. It was late at night when I started cutting the steels. I was tired but I wanted to see how the cage would look. I decided to go with a bottom circumference of right around 100" (smaller than my Originals-by-Kay cage, but larger than the Costume in Detail covered hoop I made last year) and then decrease in 5" increments from that til I reached the top hoop. I decided to make the top 4 hoops partial hoops, leaving an opening in front. This method enables one to have hoop support springing almost from the waist, while giving you enough room to actually put the cage on. If I made full hoops, the hoops would have to start lower down on the body to enable the lady to step into the cage and pull it up to the waist. You can see the partial hoops at the top of an original cage at Ruby Lane, Here: c, 1863 Hoop Skirt, and in the photograph below:
This was my "main inspiration" cage. And when all the steels were in, mine did look a lot like this one. I wanted more of a bell shape than an A line shape, though. 

After cutting the steels I began to insert them into the pockets. Or, at least, I tried. The steels would *not* go through the pockets. The pockets were just a tad too narrow! I kept trying to force them through, to pull them through with needle nose pliers and to wiggle and tug the pockets over the hoops. The buckram covering on the steel started to peel away and I had not got a single hoop through a pocket. I was about to cry when David, who had idly been pursuing various online activities, suggested I cut the steels into two narrower steels. Modern steels are made by encasing two narrow steels into a glue and paper covering, and the whole thing is covered again with a layer of glue and cotton buckram. So it is possible to slice down the middle of a steel strip and separate the two steels that are inside. I had previously considered doing this, even before sewing the pockets, because narrower steels are more accurate for the 1860's period and seen in almost all examples of cages from then. However, doing so requires having to cover the bare steels with fabric or twill tape or *something* to prevent them from rusting, and I didn't want to have to do that.

David suggested using medical tape, also known as athletic tape, to cover the steels. He brought me a roll and I tried it. It worked! I wrapped a strip of the tape very tightly around the steels, rubbing it down smoothly and here is the result:

I was delighted. I had a sudden renewal of energy, so I covered 3 more steels before going to bed. David let me use his forceps from his medical kit to pull the steels easily through the pockets.

The next day I covered the rest of the steels and put them through the pockets. Here is the cage, with all the steels in, but still unshaped. I am building it on my much-shortened dressform, so I can sit on the floor and work on it easily. That is why the cage looks so long here! In general cages should be about mid calf length. This picture shows the side view, which has some back thrust already. From the front, the look is much more A line.

I made a quick waistband based on the crinoline on. p. 202 in Costume in Detail. The same kind of waistband is on this original 1860-1870 cage from The National Trust Collections.

This waistband has a little  half-oval shaped extension sewn at the center back, to allow for the greater length of the back measurement. From the waist to the ground in the front the length can be several inches shorter than the length from the waist to the ground in the back! This is because of the back thrust. I pinned the tapes to the waistband and tried the hoop on. It wasn't bad! But I was disappointed it was so A-line in shape in the front. The top steel barely encircled my hips. I wanted a more rounded shape at the hips, instead of skirts flatly hanging in a dreadful "lampshade" effect.

Now, it is true that the A-line-from-the-front shape is very appropriate for the 1860's. If you look at cdv's you can easily see many women who have the A-line shape to their skirts:
I have no idea who or where to credit this image. If it is yours please contact me ! I will gladly remove it or give you proper credit, whichever you desire. 
But then there are also images that show a much more rounded shape, with a back thrust that is very nice. (and even hoop skirts that are A line in front can have a great back thrust too, and some that are rounded may have very little back thrust. And it depends too on if you wear a bustle or bum pad underneath, and if your skirts are pushing against anything at the time a picture is being taken. There is a lot to take into account.) But I like the look of the skirts in this image:
Same notation as above - if this is yours let me know! It is one of those  "floating around on the internet" images.
I adore the skirts in this picture. It is A-line, to some extent, in the front, but see how it springs away from her waist just a tad? I like that. It gives much better waist definition! (not that she needs her waist to look narrower in the first place - she is very slender!)

I decided that the final steel at the top of my cage was too small and the whole cage was just a bit long. I ended up cutting off the tapes at the top and removing that smallest steel. The cage shifted up; I had more circumference of steel around my hips and the shape was immediately much, much better. In this front view, it looks more "hippie" that it will when finished. The partial steels want to naturally bow out, but when I add lacing to draw them closer together and keep them flat in front the look will be less hippie.
In-progress. The front is just temporarily taped for now and I need to clip the front partial steels on the left. (or, well, the readers right. The wearers left. :P)

I spent a while after that arranging the tapes. The creation of the back thrust is achieved through the placement of the tapes. If the tapes are equally spaced then the shape will be pretty much round. If you have tapes spaced wider in the back and narrower in the front, you will get more back thrust with a flatter front.

Many original cages I looked at seem to have tapes that start at almost center back then angle to the sides. This "pulls" the steels towards the back, creating even more back thrust. I had fun playing around with it. It was totally un scientific and when I got a shape I was happy with, I tried the cage on again. Love!!

To attach the tapes to the steels I decided to whip stitch the edges of the tapes together, wrapping the thread tightly around the steels when I reached one, then continuing on with the whip stitching up to the next steel. So, all up and down each side of the tape I need to sew. I'm still working on it. It will take a while. I only have one tape sewn to the steels and have six more to go!

After the steels are all secured to the tapes I plan to work eyelets along the edge of the tapes at the ends of the front partial steels, then have lacing in that area to draw the steels flatly and evenly across the front. This technique is seen on the Costume in Detail cage crinoline. I also plan to enclose the bottom steels in a bag, to prevent my feet from catching up in the steels when I walk. This isn't always a problem, but I did experience it a few times when I wore my Originals-by-Kay cage. You can see a similar bag on this original 1860's cage from Bonhams:

I may go over and paint the exposed steels (the parts that are not in the pockets) with glue afterwards, to more firmly secure the tape to the steels. Or, I may cover them in twill tape or something. The tape is working fine at the moment but has seemed to loosen a bit over the last few days. I am afraid of it "sliding" around the steels eventually. At least it was a temporary fix that gave me back my motivation to keep working on this thing.

It's an on going project and is taking a lot longer than I anticipated but I think I will be pleased with the end result.



  1. Awesome post. I have been wanting to make a real cage for several years. Great Job explaining the process.

  2. Wow amazing, I loved seeing all the antique ones and your trials and experimentation. I was mentally asking you about getting feet caught in the hoops, and you answered that question also. I really enjoyed your post on this subject, thank you!


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!