Friday, January 16, 2015

1920s Beaded Dress | Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge #24 "All That Glitters"

All of the details on the design and construction of this dress can be found in my previous post!

What the item is: Beaded 1920s Dress

The Challenge: #24 All That Glitters

Fabric: Polyester Satin

Pattern: "Back Drapery in Cascade Effect Trims This Graceful Costume," by Ruth Wyeth Spears. Illustration found in The Midvale Cottage Post blog.

Year: Mid-1920s

Notions: Thread, 3 beaded appliques cut from beaded trim, vintage seed beads, bugle beads, self-fabric bias binding

How historically accurate is it?  Very, aside from the polyester fabric. The neckline and armhole facings are self-fabric bias binding and were handstitched to the dress. The hem was also handstitched. The french seams on the shoulders and side of the dress are supported by instructions in period sewing manuals. The drape is finished with a handstitched rolled hem, and all beads were applied by hand. The seed beads are vintage and I believe they could date to the 1920s.

Hours to complete: Approximately 5 days

First worn: January 2015 for the filming of a video tour of Hobart Manor, a historic building on my college's campus

Total cost: Nothing! The satin was from the stash, and I think I only payed $2 or $3 per yard. The beaded appliques were also in the stash, and the bugle and seed beads were given to me for free at a yard sale!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Making a 1920s Dress: Pattern, Construction, and Embellisment

In my last post about my handmade 1920s dress, I left off with the fabric and pattern I was using. The pattern, an illustration by Ruth Wyeth Spears that, along with other articles and illustrations made by her, was published by Illustrated Home Sewing Magazine in 1927. The Midvale Cottage Post blog has published these articles and illustrations.


"Back Drapery in Cascade Effect Trims this Graceful Costume"
Blogger and sewist Loran of Loran's World also made this exact frock, which she describes in her blog post here.

"The body of the costume is cut by a straight sleeveless pattern."
Here, Loran recommends using the Collete free Sorbetto pattern as a starting point for drafting a straight dress. I already had made a toile for Festive Attyre's Downton-esque One-Hour Dress, and so just adjusted it to be totally straight, without the hip gathering.

Here is where I ran into my first problem: my bust is 31.5 inches, my waist is 25, and my hips are 36. This meant that in order for the dress to be loose enough around my hips and butt, it would be far too large for my very narrow shoulders and back. To fix this, I narrowed the dress at the top by 1.5 inches, tapering it above my hips.

Ruth Wyeth Spears doesn't give any other details about the dress's construction, so I scoured through period sewing manuals available for free from the Library of Congress and the Antique Pattern Library. The side and shoulder seams are sewn with a french seam. The neckline and armholes are bound with self-fabric bias tape, sewn, then understitched, and then handsewn with a slipstitch to the dress. Though I was aiming for .5-inch-wide binding, I miscalculated and added .5 inches for seam allowance and ended up with large binding for the neck.

I also ended up cutting the armholes too high, afraid that a too-loose armhole would bag and crease (as they usually do from the Big 3 commercial patterns...the narrow shoulder strikes again!). The height of the armhole is not uncomfortable, however, and I wore the dress from 10 am to 5 pm for a video shoot with no wardrobe malfunctions!

The hem is also sewn by hand with a slipstitch. I tried marking the hem as I was wearing the dress, and intended for the hem to hit just below the knee. The hem ended up at the top of my knee, but I don't think this is glaringly inappropriate for the era. It's a deep hem and I didn't cut any material from it, so I could always go back and lengthen it.

"The cascade drapery that falls from the left shoulder in the back is shaped as I have shown here in the diagram sketch. The drapery is cut six inches longer than the dress from shoulder to hem. It is twenty-five inches wide at the top and is gradually sloped to the lower edge. At a point halfway between the upper and lower edges it should be about twenty inches wide as indicated in the diagram."

I followed Spears' instructions exactly here. Like Loran suggested, I cut the long, straight edge of the drape on the selvedge.

I finished the two other edges of the drape by doing a mock rolled hem; that is, when I tried doing a normal rolled hem, the fabric would bunch rather than roll, or not roll at all. Instead, I sewed a line of stitching 1/4 inch from the edge, trimmed it to 1/8 of an inch, folded and ironed it just past the stitching line so the stitching wouldn't show, folded and ironed again and then sewed it with a slipstitch. Time consuming, but easy and it achieved the desired effect!

"When the edges of this piece are finished it is pinned and sewn loosely to the costume and stitched from the shoulder to the hipline as indicated in the draping chart."

Again, I followed Spears' instructions exactly. The drapery would move and reveal the selvedge, though, so I tacked the top few inches of the cascade down over the selvedge to disguise it. At this point, the selvedge was really visible at the bottom of the cascade as well, so I just folded over and ironed down the selvedge and secured it with a slipstitch up to the hipline.

The finished cascade DOES NOT look exactly like Spears' drawing, even though I followed her directions exactly. In her drawing, the cascade effect of the drape begins just a few inches below the elbow. In reality, the cascade begins at the butt.

The cascade effect, though, is worth the effort. It looks very beautiful and could easily be added to any dress. Note, however, that the finished cascade is heavy. Mine was so heavy that it kept tilting the dress back, even on the hanger!

"The girdle is a band of self material cut about fifteen inches wide and slightly on the bias so that it will fall in soft folds. It is draped high on the left hip where it fastens under the cascade."

The girdle DID NOT work for me. I suspect this is because my satin was too think; had it been a crepe or chiffon, the effect of the draped girdle would have been stunning. The girdle drew more attention to my already large hips, and made me look more triangular. I felt that it also interfered with the fluidity of the dress with its thick horizontal lines. I removed the girdle from the dress and moved to other methods of decorating it.


With just the cascade, the dress was very plain. Since it was to be used for the filming of a tour of historic Hobart Manor, I wanted it to be recognizable as a 1920s dress but not stand out as a costume. Beading looked like the best option: beaded dresses are quintessential 1920s evening fashion, and the beads would catch the dim light of the Manor.

The neckline is beaded 1/4 of an inch away with iridescent bronze/black seed beads that were sewn 1/4 of an inch from each other. The edges of the drape were also beaded every 1/4 of an inch.

The front of the dress is decorated with 3 vertical panels of beading, using seed beads and bugle beads. I wanted a geometric design that could easily be mapped out on the fabric; I didn't have time to figure out how to transfer a beading design onto satin. My linear beading design was inspired by the illustration on the left, from 20th Century Fashion by John Peacock.

The shoulders and bottom tip of the cascade are also decorated with beaded motifs left over from my prom dress. All the beads were resewn onto the motifs to secure them, and more beads were added to fill in empty spots.

White silk beaded dress, 1926

Though time consuming, this beading was VERY easy!! My trick for beading straight lines? Use a piece of twill tape or ribbon basted into place to help you align the beadwork!


I am very proud of this dress! This was my first time making a garment entirely in satin; this fabric in particular had a tendency to snag on pins so I worked very slowly and carefully. This was also my first time sewing beads! I learned that the beading part itself is pretty easy and relaxing, but threading that tiny needle requires patience, tweezers, and a magnifying glass! Including the beading and handsewing, the dress took only 5 days to make!

The dress looked amazing on camera, and moved like it was silk instead of $2/yard polyester satin. The drape, just like Ruth Wyeth Spears says, is simple but really "makes" this dress. It was such a pleasure seeing it flutter behind me as I went up the spiral staircase or turned a corner!

This was my first foray into the 1920s, and now I think I'm hooked! Once you get the basic straight and sleeveless dress shape down, it's very easy to add embellishment or interest. And if you've always wanted to add a little extra to your dresses, consider beading! It is a special and unique touch.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Making a 1920s Dress: Designing a Simple, Elegant, and Easy Gown

I work in Hobart Manor, a national registered historic landmark that was built in 1877 (and later remodeled in 1915) on William Paterson University's campus. The Manor was home to the widow and descendents of Garret A. Hobart, the 24th Vice President of the United States. The front rooms of the Manor, including the foyer, reception room, gallery, library, drawing room, dining room, and billiards room, are restored and decorated with period pieces (our offices are in the less exciting places, like the kitchen, playroom, and servants' rooms).

I am also on the Hobart Manor Revitalization Committee, where we work to maintain and improve the Manor. Our latest project is a video tour, and I was chosen to star in the video tour because I researched and wrote the material for our regular tours. And, what could be more fun, than wearing a historically accurate dress in a historic mansion?

I had just a few weeks to prepare, and knew that a Victorian or Edwardian outfit would be impossible during that time. I chose to make a 1920s evening dress, to capture the atmosphere of the Manor on a night it was entertaining. I also wanted to submit this dress as a late entry to the Historical Sew Fortnightly All That Glitters Challenge.

I wanted something quick and easy, and started by looking at Festive Attyre's 1920's one-hour dress pattern. I love Jen Thompson's dress, but felt bad for wanting to recreate it exactly. I searched my 1920s Fashion Pinterest board for inspiration, looking to modify her pattern. I then looked through several auction sites, and found what I thought was the dress.

Velvet and chiffon dress (left), via Augusta Auctions
Simple shape? Yes. Light beading? Yes, along the neckline and hem. Feasible? Surely!

I had a lovely dark, mauve-ish pink polyester satin in my stash, which could be the underdress. I ordered this Black Rose Burnout Velvet from for $5.75 a yard, what I thought to be a bargain. However, after receiving it, I realized that the pile of the velvet flowers was very short and shiny, and the ground of the fabric was like an open mesh. I purchased a polyester black satin to line this piece.

Black Rose Burnout Velvet,
Mauve poly satin, from the stash
I drafted and fitted the pattern, and then unfolded my lovely satin and realized that it's drape was too beautiful to be wasted underneath a heavy velvet. I went back to the drawing board, to look for an easy dress with draping. By this point, I had about 4 days to make the dress.

I tried searching through period sewing manuals, assuming they would contain easy dress designs for the home sewer. Midvale Cottage Post has a series of posts taken from a period book by Ruth Wyeth Spears. Seriously, there are embroidery and beading designs, tutorials for silk flowers, appliques, and cloche hats, and many ways to easily embellish a straight, "one-hour" style dress! Perfect!

"Back Drapery in Cascade Effect Trims this Graceful Costume"
This design has it all, from the straight, one-hour base dress, to the elegant and easy drapery!

My next posts will show my experience with Ruth Wyeth Spears' pattern, and my final beaded 1920s dress!

Have you ever used simple drapery as the focal point of a garment?