Everyone who loves creating historically-inspired garments, at some point or another, will want to improve their skills in the accuracy department. As we are all on various creative journeys, this urge falls upon us at different times and with diverse intensity.
For some, the “accuracy thing” hits as soon as we sign up with a civilian Civil War group. For others, it’s been years since their first costume steps, but now time allows for the progression of “doing it like they did.”
It doesn’t matter where you are in your costuming time-travel excursion. You may be completely new to historical techniques or perhaps gone to that realm, traveled back to Shortcut City and now want to do it again.
So how do you know you’re on the right path to making that dress more historically accurate?
First off, you must remember NO ONE can be 100% accurate in their reproductions. We simply cannot be. And Fooey! to anyone who thinks they can be.
Sure, you can maneuver your needle & thread into the exact stitches they used, but you are still working with modern textiles and, most likely, contemporary tools and equipment. (And for those who are insane and use actual needles and scissors from 200 years ago cleaned up with a little CLR, cutting into antique textiles and hand sewing by the light of mere candles… well, you probably don’t need to be reading my articles anyway.)
If you are confused about where to head in the “Accuracy” direction, let’s take a look at areas you can immediately work on for becoming more historically correct with your projects.
Use Natural Materials
This is a simple one. Don’t make this more complicated than it is. Only work with natural fiber fabrics: cotton, wool, silk and linen. Sure, the weaves may have been a little different than what is available to us now, but the fibers themselves are spot-on perfect for that period look.
Avoid at all times anything with polyester, nylon, acetate, etc. – all those man-made, chemical fabrics. Yuck! Even run like the wind away from blended fabrics like the ever-in-stock broadcloths made from poly & cotton. No. Do not go there if it can be avoided.
Even stray away from most rayon; although, it was in use by the 1880s and many, many wonderful trims can be had nowadays made from rayon. Just keep in mind that it’s close to accurate but still man-made.
Hand Finish All Outer Edges
Unless that hem will be covered completely by a ruffle or other trim, hand sewing is the way to go. Sleeve hems, skirt hems, and bodice necklines and lower edges should all be finished with hand stitches.
Even if you decide to put in a full lining in your 1890s bodice, turn under the outer edge seam allowances and whipstitch to the bodice proper. Top stitching and understitching techniques came about in the 20th Century.
A widely used method of finishing bodice outer edges was to use a strip of bias cut from a lining fabric. They could be cut from any of the natural fiber fabrics (silk was common in late Victorian years). Sew the bias right sides together with your bodice edge then flip to the inside, tuck under the opposite edge and hand whip to the underlining fabric.
Flatline Your Fashion Fabrics
Speaking of underlining – did you know that nearly ALL 19th C. antique bodices (and many skirts too) were supported by layers of fabric under the fashion fabric? Really, the only bodices NOT flatlined are sheers… and even then you’ll find loads of half-cut linings under the sheer fabric.
Underlining fabrics are generally cotton or linen, although silk organza makes for beautiful support too. To flatline a bodice cut your pattern pieces from the fashion fabric and the support fabric then baste together.
I see many costumers skip this step of adding the extra layer of fabric. Yes, it adds weight, but most important is that it supports the trims, boning, and silhouette of the garment. Even flatlining sleeves will carry off a tailored look more than simply sewing up the single fashion fabric layer.
Flatlining is crucial for a well put together historical look. Use it early and often and your accuracy level will bump up a significant notch.
Use Metal or Reed Boning in Bodices
If you have any aspiration of making a costume “as close as historically accurate as possible” then please do yourself a favor and throw away any plastic boning you currently have. (You could burn it too because it really is THAT awful for period pieces but that would make a huge mess.)
Reed was used throughout the 18th Century and into the early 1800s. However, whalebone was most popular. Being that whalebone is illegal nowadays it’s best to go with the other historically accurate boning material – spring steel.
You will find no substitute for spring steel bones. Yes, I know they make “plastic whalebone” today, and yes, it supports corsets and bodices well… but seriously!
Do you want to encase your body in plastic pieces?!? Uh… no.
[Editor’s Note: I’m sure you don’t want to encase your body in metal either as it also doesn’t breathe as with plastic. BUT… metal is more accurate than plastic anyway you slice it (or cut & tip it).]
Plastic does not equal historical accuracy unless you are making vintage go-go boots.
1/4″ steel bones come in a couple of thicknesses. Choose the thinner ones for light boning in your bodices. The thicker ones work great around corset grommet areas and in bodice backs where you have eyelet closures.
And if you’ve heard the “but I’m wearing a boned corset, I don’t need to bone my bodice” or even vice-versa – No. One will not substitute the other.
Good to Know: A corset holds YOU in the fashionable silhouette. The bones in a bodice support the garment keeping it in place for a tight fit and minimal bunching around the torso.
Use Hem Facings
The simple “press up 1.25 inches” for a hem, then press under the raw edge and sew” instructions stem from a modern viewpoint. Hem treatments speak volumes about the dressmaker. And clothes made in the past were, for the most part, not slapped together quickly (even if one COULD sew fast). Thought was put into why certain things were done.
Hem facings support the skirt – the hang of the garment and the silhouette as it lies over the petticoats. Sure, they take a bit more time and fabric but are well worth every minute put into the making.
Even if you decide to flatline your entire skirt or add in a full lining (hemmed separately), a hem facing will kick your accuracy look right up the costuming ladder.
Use a sturdy fabric for structured skirts. I like muslin, polished cotton, and even lightweight twill. For sheer gowns, use a self-fabric hem facing – meaning, cut additional length on your skirt panels or cut separate pieces from your fashion fabric.
Bias cut hem facings work best; but if you have straight-cut skirt panels then you can cut straight strips for facings. Read my article on hem facings for more info on how to apply one to your skirt.
Of course, there are dozens of ways to give your historical clothing an accuracy boost. But that’s the beauty of moving forward in our costuming journey.
Every challenging technique increases your sewing skills. And every new project is better than the one before. Apply these steps in your next garment when you want to “make like they would.”
A final word: remember, not everyone wants to move along the Path to Accuracy. And that’s ok. We shouldn’t knock those who really only do costuming for fun or simply don’t have the means or desire to pursue historical methods. But same for that person trying to be accurate but is just not there yet – be kind, for you were there once too.
Do you pursue historical accuracy with your costuming projects?