Making a Plaid Dress, 1860s, Part One

This is going to be a simple project. I swore my next 19th century project would be something elaborate and unique…But then I bought this plaid fabric with a civil war era gown in mind. Chopping it up to make a huge gored skirt would result in none of the stripes lining up and i’m not sure if I could deal with that!

So my elaborate dress from the 1860s is going to be on hold for the new year, and i’m making a much easier dress instead, because it suits this fabric nicely.

The design I came up with was mostly inspired by this and this. But instead of adding darts to the bodice, I want to pleat it. My original design also features bishop sleeves with cuffs, but I ended up changing that later on.


 I’m making the dress from eight yards of this plaid material I got from Joanns, plus a yard of matching green fabric. This fabric was part of their “Fashion for Fall” line or something like that. It feels like a really nice wool flannel, and I love the weight of it.

Unlike wool flannel, it frays a lot, which sort of sucks. But on the bright side, it was 50% off and I had a 25% off entire purchase coupon, so it ended up costing $35 for the whole bolt!


 I started off by draping the pattern. This was a big struggle to get the way I wanted. Usually draping goes quite quickly but I must have fought with this for a good hour!




 I marked out all the pleats, then removed it from the dress form. It looked a little sketchy, not very precise at all, but I fixed it!

DSC_0560 Once I was done I had a functional pattern! It’s on the left, I’m not sure why but the Christmas Angel bodice pattern is on the right.


 I turned that into a mock up and tried it on. I wanted a little more wiggle room, so I decided to let it out a half inch at each side. I also added darts to my pattern to take care of the shoulder wings.

The biggest issue here is that the front didn’t line up! I’m not sure how I didn’t realize that this would happen. It seems really obvious looking back on it, but it didn’t occur to me at all until I tried it on.

Since this bodice will close at the front with buttons, one side overlaps the over by an inch and a bit. Which means the pieces won’t meet in the middle – duh!

Photo on 11-22-14 at 9.43 PM I fixed this by straightening the pieces so they are flat in the middle, which I think is what was done in the picture I used for inspiration (it has a similar seam line across the bust)

When that was resolved I cut the pieces out from my plaid material and marked out all the pleats and darts.


 Then the front and back panels got pleated.



When that was done I stitched up the side seams – unfortunately these seams don’t line up! Neither does the one at the back. But everything else is pretty damn perfect when it comes to matching the stripes.


I marked the hem on the collar.


Then stitched it in place.


Before I could stitch that onto the bodice, I had to add lace! I was given two yards of this lace a few months ago, it’s really delicate and lovely. But it also happened to be white, and I wanted it to be darker.

 I darkened it by tea staining it. I put it in a plastic bag with three packets of black tea for ten minutes to darken it to a beige. I let it dry overnight and sewed it on in the morning.


 The collar portion was sewn onto the body of the garment and ta-dah, I had a bodice!



 I tried it on and was quite pleased with it! The fit was very nice, the only issue were the shoulder wings. But I had been expecting those to pop up, so I wasn’t surprised by them.

Photo on 12-5-14 at 12.07 PM I took it in at the shoulders and I was very pleased. Unfortunately the next step wasn’t a fun one, because it involved stitching button holes by hand.

If you are wondering why I don’t do them by machine, I have a few reasons! The first is because I don’t have a machine that does satin stitching, or button holes. I could borrow one but even then i’m not very fond of how machine stitched button holes look.

Even though you can adjust it, most machines don’t stitch very densely around the button hole. Which is okay with lightweight fabrics that aren’t prone to fraying, but really sucks if you are working with thicker fabrics, or fabrics that fray a lot. It’s the same thing for eyelets. You can do them on a sewing machine, but if done properly the hand stitched versions should be more durable, and hopefully, more visually pleasing.

But I totally suck at button holes, so that isn’t usually the case.

To prep for it I drew out some guidelines and stitched around them with my machine.


Then I slashed each one and stitched around them with a quadruple layer of cotton thread.

This sewing session went better than I had expected, but I still ended up with a lot of size variation from hole to hole, which isn’t good. The only way to get better is with practice, maybe next time will go better!


The buttons I chose were ones I picked up in NYC. Most of the buttons I came across were too shiny, plastic, or ugly. I don’t love these but they were the right size and had an okay finish so i’m happy I found them!


I actually think they look really nice on the garment!



The only photos I have of it worn also include my sleeve muslin. So that’s all for now. Next time i’ll talk about making the lining and sleeves.

Thanks for reading!

9 thoughts on “Making a Plaid Dress, 1860s, Part One

  1. misat0 says:

    Lovely work, as usual!
    Just one remark, unless your photo is mirrored, your dress is closing like a man’s jacket (left over right) but should be closing like a ladies garment, right over left. It may sound picky, but only with the popularization of androgynous fashion (around the 1920’s-30’s) that rule started not being kept all the time.
    Also, to avoid having the upper part mismatch, try adding to the under side, where you sew the buttons, it would fix it just as nicely 😉

    • Angela Clayton says:

      Thank you! I know what you mean about is closing the wrong way, I couldn’t remember the rule so I googled dresses from the 50s-60s and it seemed to vary a lot from dress to dress. I found a pretty even amount of examples for both ways. I’m not sure if these images are all mirrored or not? My main reference photo seemed to close left over right, and I found other dresses that did the same which is why I went with that, but I could easily be wrong!

      Ohh that’s clever! I wish I had thought of that. Even if I had I might have been lazy and not wanted to alter the pattern so dramatically (taking it in at the sides, moving the arm holes, etc..) haha. But I’ll keep that in mind for next time!

      • misat0 says:

        Photo references are what they are, but when I was a kid in the 70’s that was a rule everyone paid attention to. If I wore some piece of clothing inherited from my older brother, people would comment that I was wearing men’s clothes (which made me proud because I was a tomboy). The only common exception to this were jeans, back when all jeans were dyed with true indigo and faded with time, that used to close always the “men’s” way.
        I checked with my copy of Janet Arnold’s “Patterns of Fashion” (as a more reliable source) and you’re right, the dresses close both ways in different decades and centuries. Maybe that’s a “modern” rule, anyway, my great aunt, who started sewing about the 1910’s-1920’s, made it a golden rule.
        So, keep up the good work ^__^

  2. annekecaramin says:

    Your buttonholes look nice enough for someone who says she isn’t good at them! Did you use a buttonhole stitch? It’s sort of like a blanket stitch, you end up with a finished edge so you don’t need as much thread to cover the raw edge and the whole thing gets less bulky. I’m curious to see how this turns out!

    • Angela Clayton says:

      Thank you! No I didn’t….last time I tried that I ended up with a pile of thread and had a lot of ripping out to do. I knew with how much this fabric frayed I wouldn’t have a second chance so I went with what i’m familiar with. I REALLY need to practice that stitch though, because I know it would make the end result better.

  3. Charity says:

    I love the combination of the plaid, lace, and buttons! I have a situation that requires buttonholes right now too, and my usual machine isn’t working, so I pulled out a vintage buttonholer for my other machine…. but unfortunately I don’t have a cam the right size for the buttons I have. I didn’t even think of doing the buttonholes by hand! Interestingly, the buttonholer manual suggests going around twice for fabrics that fray, and the results aren’t too far from your hand-sewn ones. I’m curious though- are bound buttonholes not period-appropriate?

    • Angela Clayton says:

      Huh, that’s interesting! I never would have thought of going over them twice. Then again, the machines i’ve used for buttonholes in the past would probably jam and make a mess if I actually tried that haha.

      I’m actually not sure! I’m pretty sure i’ve seen ones bound with fabric on mens jackets in the 1800s, and in the 1700s it was common for buttonholes to be decorated with trims. I haven’t seen them on a dress from the 1800s which is why I didn’t attempt that.

      • Charity says:

        Yeah, with the automatic buttonholes on my usual machine trying to go around twice would make a horrible mess, (sometimes it can’t even make it around once without snarling and stalling) but with the buttonholer it worked beautifully even on fabric that wasn’t super sturdy.
        That makes sense! I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of the dress. =)

  4. zertina says:

    Your page gives me life, every time I want to give up on becoming a costume designer seeing your work inspires me to keep going ☺

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