Historical Sew Monthly: March 2019


I feel like I’m cheating with March’s challenge of  “Sewing Kit” but honestly my sewing kit is a bit sparse so there weren’t many tools to choose from. The challenge calls for you to make something with your favorite tool or gadget from your sewing kit or make something for your historical sewing kit, like a housewife or pinball. 9EC540EE-2833-4CB6-8497-2CC1E3143468Since I have my historical sewing kit in order already, I turned to my favorite tool: the Bohin needle, a French company in business since 1833 and manufacturing needles since 1860. In this day and age it can be difficult to find sewing tools and notions that are produced by manufacturers that are focused on quality and not quantity and cheap labor. I love these needles, they glide like through fabric like butter; yes even that tough K&P wool doesn’t stand a chance with these and I gladly pay to have these little fellows shipped to my door from Burnley & Trowbridge.


For this challenge I am entering my Barbara Johnson fine white muslin apron which was all completed by hand, using period techniques, and my favorite french needles. This post will be short and sweet since I’ve already detailed the project in this post here, so let’s get down to business.

The Challenge: Fine white ruffled apron

Material: Fine cotton muslin “mull”

Pattern: None, self drafted based partly on the American Duchess Guide to Sewing

Year: 1780s

Notions: Thread and beeswax

How historically accurate is it? Nothing will ever be 100% accurate so let’s put this at a close 95% accurate.

Hours to complete: Honestly not as long as I thought, I didn’t keep track very well because I was sick but realistically maybe 6-8 hours.

First worn: Hasn’t been worn yet but fingers crossed we’ll have a photo shoot in a couple of weeks. If the weather doesn’t cooperate then it will make its debut at the Crabill Homestead event the last weekend of April. 

Total cost: About $36 in fabric between the apron and the handkerchief

From Book to Barbara Pt. III

The last time we updated you on the Barbara Johnson gown the project was still in the fitting stages with a muslin mock-up. I’m excited to report that over the past couple of weeks, in between other sewing projects, I have finally finished the c. 1781 red and white chintz gown that may have been in the style that Barbara Johnson had made for herself when she purchased the original fabric and lovingly pasted the swatch into her album.

If you recall in the last update I shared with you some of the details of gowns in a

The half Dress of the year 1782. Anne Frankland Lewis.

handful of fashion plates dating to 1780-1783 to reference for this gown. As I worked with the lovely printed fabric I instantly knew that I wanted long sleeves to fully show off the beautiful print and the changing style seen over the early 1780s. I also knew right away that I wanted full gown skirts that could be stylishly “rucked up” or worn down long on the ground almost like a train, as seen in the watercolor by Anne Frankland Lewis for the “Half Dress of Year, 1782”.

I first cut the bodice pieces and began construction on them right away using the 18th century techniques I learned through the Burnley & Trowbridge YouTube channel and the Larkin & Smith patterns. Once the bodice was basically finished I cut the petticoat panels, opting to use only 2 yards to ensure I’d have nice full gown skirts like I had originally planned. I next cut my sleeves from the 1 yard remnant from which I cut the bodice. Having forgotten that I had wanted to have long sleeves I put aside the rest of the fabric almost a full 4 yards for the gown skirts. It was at that point I realized I’d have to do some piecing to get the sleeve length I wanted.

I pieced in the top of one upper sleeve cap, thinking it would be more easily disguised

Pieced sleeve cap with tiny stitches

with the shoulder pleats and less likely to be at a stress point than if I tried to hide it in the underarm piece. The sleeves were made using two pieces, upper and under arm, and were self drafted using directions from the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking. I was so surprised at how easily they went into the armscye and how comfortable they are to wear. I fitted the bodice really so the underarm is right up in my armpit, but not digging in, and yet I have a full range of motion! I love it!

Ready for the gown skirts!

After the sleeves were set it only took me a couple of hours to pleat the gown skirts and attach them to the bodice. I managed to save myself some time by using the selvage edge for the hem (plus the other selvage side provides a nice and sturdy side to attach to the bodice) and only had to narrow hem the sides of the skirts. Go me for working smarter, not harder. So shes finished and completely wearable as is, but I can’t help to think that Barbara would have some stylish all white accessories to pair with this new gown and let’s be honest, I’m a glutton for punishment.

I decided that I really wanted an all white ruffly apron and handkerchief as seen in several of the early 1780s fashion plates to pair with this gown. I ordered the sheer cotton muslin “mull” from Burnley & Trowbridge and have already cut out the apron, handkerchief, and SIX YARDS of ruffle fabric. SO MANY RUFFLES.

I also can’t imagine Barbara Johnson wouldn’t have an updated cap or pretty silk hat so a new cap is in the planning stages – toss up between organdy or silk gauze, and a straw hat is currently being covered in white silk taffeta, to be trimmed with white moire silk ribbons and white silk gauze. Nothing says the 1780s like white frothy confections on top of the head!

Accessory Goals = ALL THE RUFFLES, also cute doggo!

From Book to Barbara Pt. II


Things are beginning to take shape with Barbara Johnson’s “red and white chintz gown” based on the description from her album of swatches currently located at the V&A Museum. I worked with Jess, of Penny River Costumes, to come up with an idea of what type of gown  Barbara might have been describing in the early 1780s when she first pasted in this pretty printed swatch. 


Three fashion plates dating to 1781-1783.

Is that a shaped sleeve I see?

Based on fashion plates and extant gowns dating approximately to the same decade, we think Barbara most likely had her mantua maker make her a robe a l’anglaise with a low cut “v” shaped back piece, sometimes referred to as an “Italian Gown” with a coordinating petticoat. Sleeve length during the decade seemed to vary and could be anywhere from the elbow to the wrist. They also could be trimmed, left plain, or with a set of fine white sleeve ruffles. The fashion plate Barbara carefully placed on the page accompanying her “red and white chintz” swatch appears to have a gown with sleeves just past the elbow, perhaps a shaped sleeve which had started to rise in popularity?

Ignore the lumps and bubbles 😑

Now knowing what type of gown I needed to recreate it was time to begin drafting a pattern and creating a mock-up of the bodice. To create the pattern I decided to work from an existing gown that I finished earlier in the year that features the same deep “V” shape in the bodice back and fits perfectly over my false rump.

The blue silk Levite gown was franken-patterned using the Wingeo Levite pattern, the fashionable gown pattern from Larkin and Smith, and my standard bodice sloper. Combining these three patterns I was easily able to create that desirable 1780s back, having done it once already I’m hoping the mock up process will go quickly this time around.

First, I cut out my lining pieces for the bodice back and fronts using the Larkin and Smith Fashionable gown back and my bodice sloper. I’m always up for shortcuts so I’m going to use my lining as my mock up just to save some time. Even though I’ve made gowns from these particular pattern pieces countless times I always start with fitting my lining EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. no matter how many times I’ve made that particular gown. It never fails that if I skip this step something will go terribly wonky for some unexpected reason. 

1. Uncut side, too low at the waist and hips.

2. Center back nicely trimmed to fit over false rump without any wrinkling at the waist.

3. Detail of one side trimmed out over  rump at hips.

As you can see here I have my mock-up sewn together and mounted on the dressform with one side cut and pinned into the shape I’m looking for. Now I just have to do the same for the other side. Is this method historically accurate? Meh, I can’t vouch for that but it works for me and that’s all that matters right now. 

For the back, I added length to the Fashionable Gown back pattern piece, just guesstimating how much to add to make the dramatic point. I’ve trimmed it away a little starting at the center back point to gradually sit just over the hips at the side back, this smooths out any wrinkles at the waist. Once the back is cut and looks even

Time to fix up the fronts!

I move onto the fronts. For this part I used my basic sloper for a center front closing bodice and cut the hips out slightly higher, just enough to accommodate the extra padding provided by the false rump. The center fronts are pinned closed and trimmed and then the bottom is shaped to meet with the cut-out sides. Once I’m done trimming I spin the form around to double check for any wrinkles or bubbles. What’s left should smooth out with the weight of the skirts and the extra stability of the fashion fabric. One of the curses of working with soft, buttery linens is its ability to wrinkle, bubble and stretch without that added foundation.

Now it’s time to try it on over my stays and fix any fitting issues! This process usually takes a couple tries so I was going to save this for another post but surprisingly enough it only took one fitting this time. I just need to trim a little under the arms to release just a bit of that wrinkling and it should be just about perfect!

Ps. Ignore the crappy fitting selfies, tiny bathrooms and stays making selfies difficult.


From Book to Barbara: Recreating Barbara Johnson’s Red and White Chintz Gown

F2C9BCA1-4F7A-4CC3-85E5-19A7CFD6325EIt all started with a book of sorts, Barbara Johnson’s album of textile samples and fashion plates, to be exact. While perusing the V&A Museum’s digital collection this past summer, Jess Young, owner of Penny River Costumes, stumbled upon the newly released images of a number of pages from Barbara Johnson’s album made over the course of her life from age eight in 1746 to 1823, just two years before her death. She says,


 “I saw the swatch and it struck me as almost contemporary looking. It was so unusual with the color and motif. I hadn’t seen anything like it!”.

Comparing designs

Enamored with the swatch, she sent the image to her sister in law, a graphic designer who has always shared an interest in the work that Jess does. The small swatch was then digitized and sketched to form a complete pattern.

From that complete digitized pattern Jess was able to collaborate with a traditional textile manufacturer in India on the rest of the process. From image to fabric in hand, Jess says her favorite part of the entire process was the making of the wood block for printing, “the idea of hand carving the wooden block still makes me giddy”.

Thanks to our highly connected world she was able to watch the magic happen as her digital image was brought to life, “it seemed like such a massive creative undertaking, and the printer was able to do it in about two days and now it exists”. 

The moment I saw what Jess was doing by creating this exciting new reproduction fabric I knew I wanted to be a part of it in any way I could. I reached out to her and we began talking over gown styles that Barbara may have used this fabric for.

A7CEF5E1-425F-49D7-B7F5-A1CF5B7B4B47The original swatch comes from a page with a couple of other colorful printed fabrics dating 1780 and 1781, along with a fashion plate titled ‘Dress of the Year 1783’. Barbara would have been in her mid 30s by the early 1780s and we can assume by her album entries late in life describing new pelises and other fashionable garments, that she was probably fairly fashion forward in her style of dress. After some perusing of various museum collections, fashion plates, and engravings we decided that a fitted back, center front closing robe a l’anglaise with matching petticoat would have been the most likely style of gown this fabric was made into. 

Digging deeper into extant garments we both fell in love with the details on this Indian inspired chintz, or Indiennes, robe a l’anglaise dated 1770-80 located in the Mode Museum. The ruched cuffs and deep cut bodice back with its hundreds of tiny pleats makes it visually interesting compared to dozens of other surviving cotton print gowns.

Another prime example, dating about 1785-1795, residing in the MET shares many of the same details with its striking deep “V” cut bodice back and meticulously pleated skirts meant to be worn over a false rump. Instead of ruching at the sleeve we see one gathered ruffle, presumably of a once fine white muslin or organdy. These two gowns along with the fashion plate for 1783 will be the basis for recreating Barbara’s red and white chintz gown and petticoat. 

In the successive posts I plan to detail the undertaking of mocking up and creating Barbara’s gown and accessories as she may have worn them in the early 1780s. With a vague description and only bits and pieces of her favorite period prints to piece together her personal style I hope that you’ll enjoy the process just as much I do!