Sewing Project: 1860s Day Dress

This is the entry that I don’t want to write, but I have to. It’s important for me to admit my mistakes and to point out potential pitfalls to anyone else who tries this particular pattern.

I decided to make an 1860s dress for a living history abolitionist character and as costuming for some upcoming Civil War-related events at the museum. I wanted to make the dress in worsted wool because some abolitionists avoided the use of cotton, which was mostly planted, harvested, and processed by slaves, as much as possible. I ended up selecting a lovely dark green worsted wool and some nice black buttons. I also used black braided trim that somewhat resembled a chain around the cuffs. This was a reference to one of the abolitionists’ favorite Bible verses, Hebrews 13:3, which says “Remember them that are in bonds [chains], as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.” My character would have “chains” on her wrists to help her remember the plight of slaves during her time. As for a pattern, I thought that the Laughing Moon 1860s Day Dress would be great and I knew that Laughing Moon had a pretty good reputation. I was right about the latter but not the former.

This pattern is…well, it’s not terrible. It’s just not ideal. It’s taken from an extant dress from the pattern designer’s collection. That means that this pattern makes an exact copy of that dress, right down to some of the strangest dressmaking details I’ve ever encountered. I ended up being so confused and having so many unanswered questions that I had to call the pattern company! I ended up speaking to the pattern designer herself. She’s a lovely woman, very kind and helpful, and she guided me through some of the tricky parts.

I had managed to muddle through most of the instructions (and there are a LOT of instructions for this dress) but I got stuck at the front of the skirt. The instructions tell you to cut through the fabric at the front upper edge of the skirt, then fold the cut edges 1/8″ of an inch and then fold them 1/8″ again to tuck in the raw edges. That is physically impossible because you have to fold the dress fabric AND the muslin skirt lining. It’s simply too thick. It also creates serious wonkiness — for lack of a better word — at the bottom of the cut. The pattern maker gave me the verbal go-ahead to put one of the skirt seams in the center front, open up the seam a bit, and fold it under 1/2″ on both edges (the same as the seam allowance).

Then there’s the craziness of cutting the top edge of the skirt at an angle (AFTER you have stitched all the pieces together, which means you now have unraveling seams!) so that the dress is ends up being slightly longer in the back. I’m sure that creates a lovely profile, but I had to skip that step because it was too confusing and strange.

Oh, but there’s more. The bodice has optional bust pads.Yes, even back then, women were stuffing their busts. If you dare to make this dress, skip the bust pads. They create an unnatural shape will make you look like you are smuggling goods. For this dress, I originally used a different corset that flattened my bust, so I put in the bust pads. They ruined the look, so I took them out and used my 1880s corset instead. Corsets with bust gores existed in the 1860s, so it’s passable. This makes the dress fit much better, though there are still fitting issues around the waist (see photos below).

That’s not all. When attaching the bodice to the skirt, there are three different gathering/pleating styles! The skirt has knife pleats on the front, box pleats on the side, and cartridge pleats across the back. I guess the dressmaker liked all three styles and couldn’t choose just one or two. The pattern maker assured me that “any pleat is fine” as long as the skirt is attached to the bodice in some way.

I ended up doing all three styles, and it was a pain. The knife pleats were wonderful and relatively easy, but the box pleats were annoying. There were so many layers of fabric to poke through, especially since there was a muslin lining underneath, and it created these weird chunks of fabric inside the dress. Cartridge pleating is surprisingly easy for me. It sounds so intimidating, but I had very little trouble with it. Basically, you gather the fabric, then stitch the folded edges to the bodice.

1860sDress4

It’s a little hard to see in the photo, but the back top edges of the folds are stitched to the bottom of the bodice. Yes, I know there are ugly unfinished seams, but I ended up being so sick of this dress that I didn’t bother to finish them.

1860sDress3

Here’s what it looks like on the outside. No, I don’t know why the back bodice seams are crooked on the dress form. They don’t look like that when the dress is on me or on a hanger, so I don’t know what’s going on there.

1860sDress1

Here’s the front of the dress. It looks OK for the most part but there are serious fitting issues around the waist, as usual, due to me fitting the muslin on myself in front of a mirror. Once again, I’ll need to go back and refit the waist and adjust the darts. It will be easy except for the part where I have to redo the knife pleats and box pleats. I’m really not looking forward to that.

1860sDress2

Here’s a view of the sleeve with the “chain” on the cuff. You can also see the knife pleats and the box pleats.

In addition, this was my first experience with piping. The instructions call for adding piping to the armscyes and collar. The piping actually turned out pretty well; it’s a little off in a few spots, but they look fine to the average person. As scary and infuriating as this dress is, it at least helped me learn how to make and apply piping, and I have since applied that skill to two dresses and a pair of pillows.

I have really mixed feelings about this dress. I absolutely love the concept — worsted wool, the “chains,” the jet-black buttons — but I am very bitter about the pattern and the agonizing process that actually made me break down in tears a couple of times. I think that some parts of it turned out well, but I know that it has deep flaws and it needs refitting. Some of its problems are my fault, but the rest are the fault of the strange pattern, instructions, and the original dressmaker’s weird techniques. While making this dress, I searched the internet for advice on certain parts. It was then that I discovered that many reenactment seamstresses consider this to be one of the worst 1860s day dress patterns on the market! By then, it was too late. If I ever make another 1860s dress, I’ll definitely go with a different pattern making company. However, in the process of making this dress, I learned that I hate making 1860s garments. The skirts are just way too big and there’s too much fabric to wrestle around. I have friends who can make absolutely lovely 1860s dresses, but clearly this era is just not for me. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever attempt another 1860s dress. I think I’ll stick to 20th century clothing and make occasional forays into the 1890s from now on.

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1 Response to “Sewing Project: 1860s Day Dress”


  1. 1 Bev May 31, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Thanks for your input on the pattern. I had considered purchasing this pattern. I also have found problems with instructions with other reenactment pattern makers for the Civil War era. I have decided to make a pattern out of inexpensive fabric first to see how it turns out then try it in the fabric I have originally planned. Many of the patterns do not show how to lay the patterns (up or down, if needed) or even the grain lines. I was so used to Simplicity, McCall’s, and Butterick that I found I missed the explicit instructions and sketches-the other pattern makers have challenged my abilities. I had already done piping in the past so I have that covered.


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