I decided to make another sleeveless middle dress to wear under my velvet houppelande. The other one (similar to this one, also in black silk taffeta) I made before apparently shrank on its own in the wardrobe during the winter, and come spring was a little too small over the waist. Can’t imagine how this could happen..?
This style of dress may also be worn on its own with sleeves, in the Italian style. The amount and choice of fabric and decorations does all the difference in placing this dress on the fashion timeline, as well as the waist seam is a clear indicator of region and time. I fancy the waist seam placement in the natural waist so I took inspiration from these paintings, as well as the Italian examples further down the post.
This kind of dress may also be made in wool or cotton, depending on the area you would like to get your inspiration from. Cotton was more common in Italy, while wool is much more common in Northern Europe. (For more information about cotton dresses, I recommend “The Italian cotton industry in the later middle ages 1100-1600” by Mazzaoui.)
I used a black silk taffeta, because I wanted a cool dress, matching the silk and velvet outfit and taking as little room as possible in my event packing. If you are going for silk fabric, taffeta is more similar to historical fabrics than, for example, uneven dupioni or raw silk. Medieval dress silk should be shiny and evenly woven as far as I have seen.
I also have a similar one in amber wool twill, recreated to be worn by a woman not as high in social status as this black silk one will belong to. I took photos from both processes to be able to show you some different techniques.
Want to see how I made it?
1. This is a basic sketch of the pattern pieces. Really simple; a front and a back upper body + linings. Also, 2 different ways to make the skirt; the black one are made of a rectangle and gathered in the waist. The wool dress is made of panels (opt 2) to create more width in the bottom hem, but wide enough in the waist to gather.
2. Upper body pieces: I started with a front and back, loosely based on my toile/mock-up pattern, and added 5 cm in each side to be able to adjust the fit and have some extra fabric to fold to the inside for support. If you go for side lacing you can have a whole front piece, and the curve from the front seam will instead be moved to the sides. I will show you later!
3. Cut two of the outer fabric, and two lining pieces. Then baste them together to be able to work with the pieces without risking any movement.
You also need to decide if you are going to have lacing on both sides (seems to be usual in Italian portraits and handy if you often change your size) or on one side (faster to sew, allow you to get the dress on quickly).
4. Pin or baste the body pieces together and try them on. Having a friend to help you will be really helpful! Adjust and take in the side seams to create a smooth fit. You can also adjust the shoulders by gently pulling the front upwards if necessary. The fit doesn’t have to be all smooth, if you have lots of curves there will be some room in the dress (just decide on wearing a bra or not, or making the dress supportive before you finish).
Basting the skirt into place for the fitting is really good if you want to see how the fabric falls, and where the waist is going to be placed. Skirts usually “hang down” the bodice and make it look longer. Not the silk though- silk is such a light fabric.
5. Here is the body, inside out, after the fitting above. The line is really curved to make a good fit, and support the bust thanks to the stretch in the fabric and lining (lining is really important, don’t forget the lining!) If you are going to sew one side, use backstitching to create a durable seam.
Or if you are going to lace both sides, press the fabric to the wrong side of the body so you have 4 layers of fabric to sew the lacing holes through (if you work with a medium to thick wool this might not be necessary, you may instead trim some fabric down and whip stitch it into place. Remember that all the sewing allowance needs to be pressed down- don’t be tempted to leave “a little extra” as this might lead to a little bit too loose dress.
6. The bodice during the sewing phase. I closed one side seam with backstitching but left the sewing allowance. It is nice to have if you need to adjust the size or fit in the future. To keep it from fraying you can baste or whip it loosely to the lining of the bodice. The other side gets folded and pressed down.
7. The neck opening and arm openings I fold down (once for thicker fabric and twice for thin and fraying fabric) and whip stitch into place. To make it both pretty and durable, you can then press the openings and sew them one more time with a stab stitch.
Or you may finish the openings with a separate strip of fabric on the inside, as a reinforcement. Here I overlocked the lining and the outer silk fabric together after basting and fitting and finished it off by sewing a fabric piece to the outside around the opening. That one I then folded and pressed down on the inside. This technique is good for sensitive, fraying fabrics and machine stitching.
Here you can also see the clamps; some silk fabrics get small marks by pins, and I, therefore, use clamps when working on visible places like the neckline. But they are very handy for all kinds of fabrics, so if you are not a fan of pins- try them out! (Search for sewing clamps or fabric clamps on an internet or sewing store of your choice)
8. The skirt part of the dress I usually sew separately from the bodice when I make garments with waist seams. Sewing the skirts together with running stitches, occasionally locked with a backstitch every needle lenght or so, will give you a fast and good seam. Press the seam allowance to one side, trim, and whip stitch it down. This is my favourite way of making long seams faster by hand. Or use a sewing machine, it is your choice!
9. After that, I hem the upper lining of the skirt, before gathering it (see the tiny stitches at the top of the skirt below?)
10. There are several different ways to gather or pleat a skirt to a bodice. I use different methods depending on the look I want. The wool skirt got gathered in soft pleats and then sewn onto the bodice. I used a waxed linen thread, to make the seam steady. Silk would have been another option, but as I wanted to create a working-class garment I mainly used linen thread.
The black silk dress got a pleated skirt instead. The skirt part is simply made out of two rectangles that I have stitched together in the sides, leaving the seam at the top open for around 15 cm, to be able to get inside the skirt when it is attached to the bodice (if you have side lacings on each side, leave both side seams open a bit)
I use something to measure with, and then mark the pleats with a pen, or make them at once with pins or clamps. You could also calculate the amount and size of pleats if that is to your taste, but I usually just roll with it. There might be an extra pleat or some unevenness- but it won’t be visible.
In the front, the folds are sewn towards the side of the body, while in the back the folds meet in the back. By arranging them this way you create a flatter front, with more volume at the hips and back. After the entire waist is gathered/pleated, I often secure the folds with a basting stitch, or pins before I sew it to the bodice. (See the photo of the wool dress above, I use this method for most waist seams.)
11. Lacing: if you are a bit unsure, you could save the lacing holes to last and do them after one last fitting with the dress on, with the right shift/chemise under. Otherwise, I like to sew them before attaching the skirt, I feel it is easier to sew with less fabric on my knees. I use a spiral lacing and finish it off at the waist seam. Often my skirt will stay closed enough without any further closure, but if I have a more narrow skirt that fits snugly over my sides I might need to add a fastening like a hook and an eye, to keep it closed.
Spiral lacing on another project, just to show you what it looks like. If you need lots of support from your dress, make the lacing holes tighter together. If you have a looser dress style, you don’t need as many. I usually have 2-3 cm between each hole on one of the sides.
12. Last; finish off the bottom hem. Check to see if it is even and adjust if necessary (a friend is good to help here but modelling yourself and adding pins might work) I usually just finish the hem with a single or double fold and a whip stitch. After that, just try on your new dress!