Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Regency Picnic and Testing Out the Embroidered Sleeveless Spencer

Last Saturday some of our little sewing group/tea society met at Waveland Estate at the edge of town for a Regency-themed picnic.

It was a morning of mixed promise, hazy blue skies and sunshine in one direction, and a cobalt blue enhanced with gray in the other. Rainstorm, I thought, that's what that is, rain in the making.

Sure enough, mountains of clouds moved somewhat overhead, pinches of blue above their enormous lumpy sides, but they just spat sprinkles on us while we lingered over the picnic. Jane remarked that we wouldn't melt, so there was no mad pick-up and dash for safety. I had forgotten, of course, about how my sleeveless spencer and water don't mix, so it's lucky the sprinkles were scant because while I might not dissolve into a puddle, the spencer surely would have been ruined.

Oh, how we feasted. We paid as much attention as we could to creating the atmosphere: luncheon dishes and teacups and wineglasses, and a block print tablecloth for a colorful background like the skirts of an early Regency dress.

Then there was the food...oh, the food. Why did such dishes ever lose their way in history, and become lost and foreign?

Autumn Jane, and Jane, as we set up for the picnic. Do you see the lovely raised pie in the center? That's Jenni's
onion pye.
Chicken pudding, onion pye (with potato and apple), Salmagundi, a solid whip't syllabub, lavender cheesecake, good bread with Seville orange marmalade, tea piping hot -- Maryanne's Wild Abandon (Bingley's Teas) and Jasmine Darjeeling (Montea), real honest-to-goodness Mount Rainier cherries.

Salmagundi: a composed salad with the scents of lemon and herbs.

Whip't syllabub: light, cold, and creamy all at once.
All eaten to the tune of a breeze and birdsong and lots and lots of conversation and chatter, under welcoming old trees and the shadow of Waveland. We sat so long that plans to tour the home were tossed aside, so we strolled around the grounds and gardens.

Polly identifying flowers. The garden is maintained by a garden club my mother's a member of.
They use lots of native and heirloom species, drought resistant, perennial.

Polly and Autumn Jane consider the afternoon.
Jenni and Autumn on the estate's massive portico.
Jenni wrote about the picnic too: she has much better picnic pictures, since my camera chose to hiccup and then go dead. That's also why she and Laura are not in any of the pictures just yet.

So How Did the Spencer and Ensemble Do? Fine, with a Tweak or Two

This was the spencer's first step into the world, a beta test to see how it, and the rest of the ensemble, performed. Now refinements can be made for the Jane Austen Festival in July.

On the portico. Perhaps the bodice mixed with white and the end of the bandeau flying,
but this picture reminds me of some Eastern European dress.
I suspect those massive columns are brick underneath, stuccoed. They are
magnificent, aren't they? The steps are native limestone, worn with rain and feet.
The spencer itself turned out to be comfortable. Yes, it's another layer over the dress -- two, counting the lining -- so perhaps it was a little warmer than I anticipated. However, the natural fabrics did what they were supposed to: they wicked away the ladylike "glow", leaving me, if not cool, at least upright. Despite years in Atlanta's jungle-like humidity, I've always wilted in the heat, so knowing if I can even stand the garment on a hot day is useful information.

The spencer, laced. Nice sneaker laces, eh?

Once laced, the spencer front lies smoothly, without wrinkles. Oh, how I love the
spangles twinkling as the spencer moves.
The spencer's interior lacing worked beautifully to set the garment in place. It didn't shift and wrinkles were minimal and natural. The fronts are pinned from inside. I do need three pins, top, middle, and bottom...this wearing I only had two, and the middle of the overlapped front pulls a little.

The back is where I am concerned. Remember how the back is lower than originally designed, and how I built up a high ruche to mitigate this? Well, not high enough. Plus, my chemise is showing. Our house has no full-length mirror, if you don't count the 1920s mirror set into a door that's so de-silvered the view is obscured with dots and splots and scratches. Therefore, I left the house gaily unaware. The solution? Add a ruffle to the dress neckline, to match that on the hem. It will fluff over the ruche, obscure any wardrobe malfunctions, and in the front provide some welcome screening.

Plus, the ruche bows out a little in back. I will take two tiny pleats in the top of the back to pull it all inward.

Bowing on the back ruche, peekaboo chemise, but still a pleasant, fresh effect.
Oh, one last note. It's impossible to tie arm ribbons onesself. I've tried it. Many times. So we tied them at the picnic, and I failed to notice that the sleeves are poofed out shorter in back than in front. They should be the reverse with longer ends in the back, to get the nicest drape. A memo to file for the festival: examine your sleeves! I was just going to say, "Can you imagine all the items a woman would have to think about before stepping outside?" Then I remembered that I check for bra strap peekaboo, skirt hang, zipper condition, muffin top, hair muss, and make-up smear before I go outside today. Different era, same concern.

Now, About That Hair, Missie...It Was Supposed to Be Curly, Not Mussy! Tsk, Tsk

All my livelong life, I've warred with my curls. For decades, I endured frizzhead, bobble-curl, and the electric-socket look. Until the Flatiron Age. Now I sport straight hair with flipped ends. Ahhh.

Now, here I was trying to make the hair hold ringlets, especially in front and it did...but only in the back. Even the humid air didn't help. It wasn't the beach humidity that creates Greek ringlets, just Kentucky humidity that pulls individual hairs into a Mrs. Frizzle bob. Fine for 1780s, not for 1794-6.

Yes, I hear you, and no, I didn't put Lottabody on it, that fantastic setting lotion. I reserved that for the artificial pin-in curls that I tried that morning, and gave up on because they looked flat ridiculous. Hrrmph.

So we had that morning hair au naturel, with a silk gauze bandeau. Cute, but not the Master plan.

So, between now and the festival, it's hair play time! We'll set it with Lottabody in foam curlers, we'll test the famous papillote curls, we'll "turn up" chignons at the ends per Gallery of Fashion, and we'll twist and tie turbans a la Festive Attyre (thank you!) until we have something a little more of the date. I'm looking forward to this.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Embroidered Sleeveless Spencer: Finished at Last!

Pinch yourselves all you want, but it remains real: I am truly done with the sleeveless spencer. The first post, Spenceration, is dated October 26, 2011. Well, well.

So how does it look? Here are the first shots, after I completed the last stitches at Noah's table by his sunny windows. I am pretty happy with it.

The sleeveless spencer from the front. It closes inside via stays-style lacing, and pins shut on the exterior. When wearing it, I'll use plain straight pins top and bottom and hide them as much as possible in the fabric.

As you know, the spencer is made of light purple silk shantung that I dyed myself. I embroidered it in flat silk (Soie Ovale from Au Ver a Soie), all-silk chenille from Hand Dyed Fibers, real 4 mm gold plate spangles, and real 2 mm gold plate spangles. The top-stitching and point a rabattre sous la main hemming work is done in Au Ver a Soie, gold color. The ruche is tacked down in French blue flat silk, the closest I could come to the purple with the threads I have. The stitches barely show at all, as I hoped.

Inside, the spencer is lined in white linen, with lacing pieces in a heavier linen. Part of the seams are sewn in Gutermann cotton thread (because I forgot to use linen), and the rest in natural linen thread left over from a stays project.

Christopher was excited about the finish, too.

Noah and Christopher show off the back of the spencer. Yes, the ruche on the back is incrementally wider than the ruche on the front. Ruches could be shaped, and I thought this looked extra nice, besides raising the back neckline a bit. More on the reason for that anon.

The Finishing Touches

Front Closure

Following a Swedish or Danish example, which I can no longer find, the spencer actually closes by lacing together two interior panels whipped to the lining. The original was a dress; the two flaps underneath, so common in early Regency dresses, laced shut rather than pinned shut.

I cut a rectangle of heavy-ish linen, hemmed three sides, and turned a wide hem on the fourth. Then I added a row of eyelet holes. Finally I attached it to the spencer lining; it's attached on the end closest to the spencer's side seam, and on the top and bottom up to the wide hem. That should hold it flat, without pulling, and leaves a flap with the eyelets for lacing. The flap's mate is on the other front piece of the spencer.

I decided that I wanted the close fit the lacing allows; the idea is that it should take the strain off the pins used to shut the garment itself and produce a smoother line, sans many horizontal wrinkles. My Metropolitan Museum inspiration garment laces shut, too. I decided that on my spencer, the lacing would complicate the visual impact of the spencer, since there is a ruche too, as on some early Regency spencers.


You know already about the embroidery, and how it was all an experiment in using the flat, almost untwisted filament silk normally used in 18th century and early 18th century silk embroidery, as well as in couching down chenille thread, another common embroidery element.

Yet there are spangles, too. How did I add those? The same way de Saint Aubin, in L'Art du Brodeur, suggests, with two stitches run through the same hole. Sometime I will show you in a mini tutorial.

By the way, because the spangles were thought of after the garment was sewn up, when adding them I slid the needle between lining and fashion fabric rather than sewing through both fashion fabric and lining, so as to keep the inside of the garment as free as possible of embroidery thread stitches.

Ruche and Neckline Shape

You also know already about my 2012 plans for a neckline ruche, and how I felt that the bodice straps would have to be curved, hollowed out at the neckline. In the event, it turned out no hollowing was needed, and my strap pieces were so wide anyhow that I had to cut them narrow and straight anyhow, so that all curve was lost.

I was so silly during the design and fitting phase: the ruche can create the curved shaping to the neckline! Just curve the ruche as you sew it down, and glide it over the corners where the straps meet the bodice fronts and backs, and there you have it, a pleasant round curve. Straightforward. No silly fancy cutting needed. The trim creates the curve. Sigh...lesson learned. Hey, that's what this is all about. Many failures can lead to a success :}

Pinning the ruche to the spencer.
Anyhow, why is the ruche so flattish? Because so many extant garments show ruches to be scant, and laid quite smooth. To make the shantung behave and not fray, I was going to use gum arabic, which had been used in the 18th century to stop fraying. However, this proved unnecessary. Why? Because I pressed the ruche silk, and starched it stiff. That made pleating fairly easy, produced the flat box pleats, and prevented fraying on its own. Yes, the shantung takes starch just fine; I soaked the fabric with it. So we'll experiment with gum arabic some other time.

Oh, you ask, won't the starch come out if the garment gets wet? Yes, of course, but this is a luxury garment, and it's fragile all the way around, and entirely unwashable. I wouldn't wear a hand-embroidered silk garment anywhere near the weather. Should the pleating lose its freshness, I can remove it and redo it -- that would be an entirely expected 18th century move -- or carefully re-starch and re-press it in place.

Why the Ruche Is Wider in Back

I liked a wide ruche in back; it gives extra oomph, and reminds me a bit of a collar. Ruching could be graduated during the period.

Yet there's a practical reason for it. It arises out of a fitting and sewing error.

Way back when I fitted the spencer, in 2012, the neckline wasn't all that deep, and the spencer came just above the natural waist. For safety, too, I made very wide seam allowances.

When I cut out the actual pieces in January 2013, somehow the straps got longer, and I thought, wait, this is so long-waisted! So I trimmed the bottom of the spencer shorter.

Once sewn up, the back neckline was very low indeed. Sure, there is at least one example of this, at the Met.

Spencer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, circa 1800. 11-60-295F
Yet the spencer would look strange with the dress neckline projecting above it. No neckline projects below.

Detail from plate in Gallery of Fashion, Bunka Gakuen Library.
Or here, either.
Detail of bodice (as it was described in the text), April 1794,
Gallery of Fashion, Bunka Gakuen Library.

Nuts. That's what you get for spreading a project over such a long period of time! Another lesson learned, maybe. Sometimes time just gets in the way.

So the, ahem, brilliant idea occurred to me of faking a higher back neckline with a wide ruche. Thus it is that on my spencer, in the back only the lower part of the ruche is actually sewn to the garment. The top line of stitching serves only as a stay, to keep the pleats in place and to match the rest of the stitching. I worry not at all about it. My inspiration spencer is a wildly homemade thing, the spencer above is roughly constructed, garments of the period are often did what was needed. The same applies here. I did what was needed to make the garment work, and to recover from an error.

Below you can see the fabric for the ruche, cut with a graduated thickness. Given that the ruche is scant, the fabric making it being about 1.5 times as long as the finished trim, I totally eyeballed how much of the fabric needed to be wide and how much not, and when the trim was tacked on, used the pinker to graduate the curve a bit in some places.

Ruche trim pinned in place. The pinning process is straightforward. Eyeball each box pleat to about an inch wide, press the fabric with your fingers, pin it down. Leave about 1/4" space, and do it again. The starch ensures the pleat stays fixed.

So there we are. I'll wear it to a Regency-themed picnic this Saturday, and see how it does. Next up, photoshoot!