One of the most fun projects that I’ve had the chance to bring to life is a reproduction of a late 1830s dress held at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Having sewn 1830s garments before, the bodice and skirt seemed rather easy to me. But the sleeves were where the fun began.
Besides the museum site, you can view this dress in Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail (a favorite drool book of costumers).
Let’s break down the sleeve then see how I translated that into reality with a few lessons learned as well.
Look close. Because of the particular weave of the fabric you can see the lower bishop part of the sleeve is cut on the straight of grain. It is set into a wide cuff that is piped all around.
Then there is a set of bands that are both piped. The upper portion of the sleeve is narrow pleated to fit the armhole. (We can’t see much here as the fabulous collar is hiding those secrets.)
I had read that as the sleeves were collapsing in style as the 1830s progressed, the full upper portion was simply smoothed down to fit a snug armband or lining through either pleats or multiple rows of fine gathers. You can see that here, so I decided to pursue this method.
After much research on sleeve pattern shapes I decided on one from Jean Hunnisett and drafted out an Early Victorian multi-puffed sleeve. It was a straight sleeve with lines for gathering sections bound by bands down the arm. I then greatly reduced the sleeve head and width to make it less like the classic Romantic Era leg o’ mutton sleeve.
Then came the hard part – pleating that entire sleeve cap into a shape that fit into the bodice armhole and fit my upper arm snuggly. Oh, and it needed to look good.
Well, I can tell you now that it was a PITA project.
Ok, so the original looked like it was simply pleated into about ¼” pleats. Nothing perfect or even uniform across the whole thing. So that’s what I did…. Yep…. 2 frickin’ hours later I had ONE sleeve pin pleated to within an inch of its life (and a sore lower back from standing hunched over my ironing board for so long).
I basted across the cap edge and at the two lines where I was going to sew the bands on to hold all the pleats down. Yeah… so not perfect. I didn’t like it but I wasn’t about to start over on another pattern.
So onto the easy parts: making the cuff and bias bands.
The bands holding the pleats were made from my arm measurements. They were cut as bias strips, topped with a mini piping edge then topstitched to the sleeve. I also made them narrower than the original because I wanted to show off more of the tiny pleats of the sleeve. I think my interpretation was short changed with this decision – a wider size would have looked better.
The cuffs were cut as 2-1/4″ finished width and piped all around to keep with what I had read in Costume in Detail as well as what you can see on the original.
The biggest lesson I learned from making up this sleeve was how the sleeve is actually cut. The fabric grain is so easy to see on the original – well at least in the lower bishop part. So I made the decision that the entire sleeve was cut as one piece on the straight of grain.
But it’s so hard to tell from the few photos of the original gown if that upper pleated portion is cut on the bias or on grain.
If I were to make this sleeve again (or for a future late-1830s dress), I would cut the lower bishop on grain then have a seam at the first band. The upper portion of the sleeve head would be cut on the bias so the pleating would be easier to manipulate.
Overall I love this dress and I enthusiastically love the 1830s no matter how the sleeves turned out.
I would definitely do it again. Hmm… perhaps in red. ??