Historical Sew Monthly: Out of Your Comfort Zone


What the item is (and why it was out of your comfort zone): 1879 Overskirt from Harper’s Bazar

While I have scaled up patterns from a book before, the challenge in this particular project came from the rather minimal directions.  You would think a skirt pattern would be fairly straight forward, but the drapery of naturalform era proved to be rather complicated.  I ended up doing both a quarter scale and full scale mock up of the skirt before I finally figured out how it was supposed to be done.

The Challenge: Out of Your Comfort Zone

Fabric: Silk taffeta with a satin stripe

Pattern: Overskirt for Pompadour Foulard Dress from Harper’s Bazar, July 1879, reprinted in Fashions of the Gilded Age, by Frances Grimble.

Year: 1879

Notions: Cream colored embroidered net lace (nylon), ribbon to tie the skirt, hooks and thread eyes, black linen to face the hem.

How historically accurate is it?  I’d say it’s about 95% historically accurate.  I used synthetic lace, as that is what is available and within my budget, and there’s visible machine stitching on the ruched trim.

Hours to complete: I definitely lost count on this one.  At least 30.

First worn: August 1, 2015, at Costume College.

Total cost:  The fabric was from the stash (and technically came from a friend’s stash…I purchased it from her when she was de-stashing a few years ago).  I spent about $25 on the lace.


Now that this monster is finished, I figured I’d do a write up explaining how it all goes together, in case anyone else wants to use it (and save some time).  So here goes…

IMG_1189You MUST start with a base skirt.  The overskirt gets anchored to the underskirt in several places.  (Please forgive the glimpses of my very messy studio in the background.  I’m not a clean person and would pay good money for an organizational expert to come in and organize my sewing room.)

The overskirt pattern consists of three pieces.  The directions say to cut out two of each pattern piece.  Do NOT follow those directions.  Yes, you need two of the back, but the “right front” needs to be cut on the fold.  If you are following the pattern, you need only one “left front.”  I chose to make the left front and apron, and so I cut that one on the fold as well.  (I partly made this decision because the “right front” is not shaped correctly to make those graceful swags you see in the picture–it only produces a few unruly pleats toward the bottom.  If you are going to use only half of the “left front” you may want to choose a different pattern piece for the “right”, one shaped more like a trapezoid.)

First, finish the hems of each piece.  Trust me; it will be easier to finish the hems before you start all the pleating.  You might even want to add your trim at this point…that would have made my process much easier.

Now, baste all your side pleats in.  The back pieces are the most complicated…the top and curved part of the side of the piece are what get pleated to become the side seam.  You will also want to do the “tie-back” pleats across the back of the skirt.

The top edge of both front pieces simply get folded over.  You can technically fold them together and treat them as one, but I didn’t think of that until afterwards.  You’ll at least need to tack the “left front” to the “right front” and the center front.  I finished this top edge by topstitching.  It will not show afterwards.  (One note on this…your bodice will need to be fashionably long in order to cover the top edge of the underskirt.  You’ll see why in a minute.)

You can then finish the side seams and the back slit.  This is also the time to finish any other unfinished edges that you are concerned might fray.

Once you have pressed everything, you will want to tack and/or pin the pleats on the “left front” and the bustle in the back (*b gets tacked/pinned to *a on the pattern piece).  I chose to make a third pleat on the “left front” because with only two it wasn’t showing enough of the “right front”, but that might just be a result of making it up as an apron rather than the half apron/asymmetrical drape it was supposed to be.

Okay, now, putting this thing on.

First, I placed a hook on the center front of the overskirt and a corresponding thread eye on the underskirt to keep everything in place.

IMG_1191I then sewed ties to the side seam (which really ends up being in back).  This creates the correct drape over the hips.  This is also why your bodice needs to be long, particularly in the back.

While this placement works in theory, you’ll really have to play around with it.  I found that my bodice still wasn’t long enough and that the two front pieces were not wide enough at the bottom.  As the night progressed, it felt more and more like a hobble skirt, especially once I bustled up the train.

At this point, you have the entire back of the overskirt hanging down rather unattractively.  This is when you sew a hook to each side of the top of the slit and a corresponding thread eye just to each side of the underskirt center back.






























You end up with two unexpectedly graceful poofs on either side of the center back.  The pattern also calls for a scarf to be draped down the side back and the illustration shows a bow at the back waist.  I had very little fabric left from my underskirt and could not find any very wide ribbon to match my fabric, so I’ve left the sash off and settled for a bow at the center back pleating, which I love immensely.

Final thoughts:  I absolutely love the finished overskirt.  It’s exactly the look I was going for–an overskirt that had the right length and pizzaz to work well with my trained dinner gown.

However, the messiness of the front pleats bother the tiny little perfectionist inside me that I mostly successfully suppress.  The apron doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the “right front”, which never really drapes to my satisfaction.  The saving grace is that it’s underneath everything and really doesn’t show that much except for the trim.

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