Tuesday, October 25, 2022

An 1880's Wash Dress

I made this dress about a month ago to wear to a local Sorghum festival, held at a wonderful historic farm and celebrating Appalachian crafts, culture and, of course, sorghum! The first weekend of October saw plenty of visitors to the farm where they could observe the processing of sorghum and enjoy food items made with the resulting sweet syrup. Different heritage artisans and crafters had demonstrations throughout the days. I went on Sunday, since Saturdays weather was less than ideal and I didn't want to risk damaging the cabinet to my treadle machine. 

The festival focuses on the mid 1860's - 1940 period. My demonstration was that of using the treadle machine and as I researched more into the history of sewing machines and their use in more rural and less affluent areas I got really excited about talking about this topic. I brought three dresses with me to show the evolution of the use of the sewing machine in the construction of home-sewn clothing; an 1860's dress that has a little machine sewing with a lot of hand finishing; an 1890's two piece dress that shows a more equal division of machine and hand sewing, and finally a 1930's dress that is mostly all machine sewn. 

I intended to wear my 1890's dress to this event since I had not yet had an opportunity to wear it but decided I would rather have it available for people to see its interior construction, as that is the most interesting part! So, I made this dress to wear instead and whipped it up quickly over a three day period. It helps that I've had a dress like this planned for a few years - I already had the sketched design, bodice pattern and fabric folded and set aside - so in the end it was just a matter of cutting it out and sewing it together. Which I did, of course, using my treadle sewing machine. 😅

Over the past few years since I got my great great great grandmothers machine I have used it very often. At this point, I use it the majority of the time. I still have my electric one that I will sometimes use but the treadle seems to offer far better control, makes a better stitch and is much easier to clean and maintain. 

By the 1880's, the use of a sewing machine for clothing was common across all classes. There are some things that necessarily have to be done by  hand, like buttonholes, but nearly everything else can be, and often was, sewn on the machine, especially for everyday clothing that was washed frequently. 

My bodice is cut in the late Victorian style, with the center back, side back, undearm and front pieces. The shoulder join is just at the top of the shoulder and the sleeve head is fitted with very little ease into the armscye. I used the 1880's sleeve pattern from Kay's Housekeeping Dress for my sleeves and they worked very well. These sleeves have a few pleats at the back of the arm, just at the elbow, to allow for flexibility of movement. Despite being slim fitting sleeves they are easy to wear and quite comfortable.

The skirt is cut with a front gore, two side gores and a straight rectangular back panel, as per an 1883 diagram in Frances Grimbles wonderful book Fashions of the Gilded Age, Volume 1. The skirt has an offset, or dogleg, closure and fastens with a hook at the side waist.  The skirt is hemmed with a separate bias cut facing of scrap fabric that is about 5" wide. The bodice closes down the center front with white china buttons. The skirt is gathered along the raw top edge by machine and hand stitched with a back stitch with heavy thread to the bodice. 

Marna Jean Davis blog post on wash dresses was an invaluable aid to me as I made this dress. I also found her publication No Lady of Leisure extremely interesting and very helpful as this book examines the everyday styles of working class ladies and how their clothing combined the basic fashionable silhouettes of the era with practical fabric, construction and styles. 

I used a mid weight cotton for my dress. This was a piece I picked up from an antique shop awhile ago and unfortunately there are some fade lines where the fabric was folded for so long. I put the worst of these sections in the back of the skirt so hopefully it isn't as noticeable. The bodice is flat lined in white cotton and the rest of the dress is unlined. 

I had so much fun at the festival and I really enjoyed wearing this dress. I wore it with my 1880's chemise, my generic Victorian corset and the petticoats I made to go with my 1890s dress (as the cut really doesn't change over these decades, I figured the petticoats would work fine for a little earlier than the 90s). I also wore my black shoes from NJ Sekela. They are a little early in style for 1880's but I love these shoes so much and they go with everything! It was really chilly that day so I also wore my yellow quilted Victorian hood and a shawl I crocheted a few years ago. They aren't specifically 1880s but they worked. 

If ever a Victorian style is wearable for everyday life, I think the 1880's and this wash dress style would be. I felt exactly how I always imagined I'd feel in the world of Laura Ingalls and I rode that high feeling of childish joy with great delight. 😂

Much love,


1 comment:

  1. Such a beautiful dress! I always enjoy your posts, you do such a good job of explaining the process.


Thank you for your lovely thoughts!