This post is the twelfth in a series in which I endeavour to create a historically-accurate late-1910s outfit to the best of my ability. From using an antique sewing machine, finding modern patterns of historical designs to using contemporary sewing manuals, this project is a huge challenge and one that I’m super excited about. I hope you will enjoy following along with my baby steps in historical costuming.
In August 2020, I undertook my first ever historical costuming project: a complete late-1910s outfit. Now, eight months and nine garments later, the project is complete and I’m writing this blog post to share my reflections on the process.
New skills and an excellent challenge
I suppose the best place to start is how I found making my first historical costume! I had lots of expectations for how this project would pan out, like what kinds of challenges I would face and what new skills I would learn. It’s really interesting to look back and see what things I was right or wrong about! For instance, I thought the corset would be by far the most difficult part of the project but the tailored suit presented it’s own challenges which I didn’t foresee. Also, I never intended to make a hat and that was incredibly difficult!
I learned so many new skills throughout this project which I am looking forward to building on and employing in other projects. I know that there are issues with my corset, for instance, but I have learned a lot (like the importance of tight boning channels and techniques for fitting) and I’m really excited to make another one. I also really enjoyed learning to pad-stitch and becoming more comfortable using the antique sewing machine. Using the ruffle-foot to make the bustle pad is definitely one of my highlights of the whole project.
A huge revelation for me was the value of a mock-up! I had never really used mockups before because I didn’t want to waste the fabric. However, when it came to complicated pieces, like the corset, or pieces which used expensive fabric, like the tailored suit, I didn’t want to risk having irredeemable fit issues. As well as resolving fit issues, I enjoyed using mockups as a test-run of the pattern, trying out complicated construction before working on the real thing. I wouldn’t do mock-ups all the time, I wouldn’t do a mockup for more basic garments as I know how to fit those as I go along, but I am definitely converted to team mock-up for some of my future projects.
What I also found really interesting is the continuity in sewing techniques from the early-20th century to today. For instance, the advice I got from modern tutorials, my Grandma and the contemporary early 20th sewing manuals were all broadly the same when it came to tailoring and canvas placement. Although there were differences in terminology (such as ‘plait’ instead of ‘pleat’), I didn’t have much trouble following sewing manuals from the twentieth century and it’s really heartwarming to think that sewers a hundred years ago would sit with their thimble and thread just like I did.
Overall, I really loved the process of making this 1910s costume. I loved the challenge of historical sewing techniques and patterns and I’m so proud of the final result. This is definitely not my final historical sewing project, that’s for sure!
Slow sewing and taking your time:
This project took a LONG time, far longer than any other sewing project I have done. I’m used to a really quick turnaround on my garments, usually less than a week but I found the process of slower sewing really valuable!
One of the reasons why these garments took so long to produce is the large amount of hand-sewing they required, such as the tailoring of the jacket. One thing that surprised me while making all the garments in this project was actually how little I used my machine: it was only really basic construction seams, like the side seams of the skirt and seams making up the shell of the jacket, that were sewn on the machine. Other things which I would usually sew on the machine, like hems, were sewn by hand. I really fell in love with hand-sewing during this project (mostly because I actually learned how to use a thimble!) and I’m already using more hand-sewing in my day-to-day sewing! I’m really enjoying taking every time on my projects by hand-sewing, and the finish is so beautiful!
I also generally took more time on each garment to make sure I was sewing everything correctly and that the fit was spot-on as I didn’t want to waste time taking apart seams which I had sewn on the antique machine! Obviously this mentality is just good practice so I’m making sure not to rush in my sewing because I want to get it done faster!
Since starting the 1910s project, I have noticed a difference in how I approach my sewing projects. Previously, there was often a sense of urgency in my sewing: either in my excitement to get a garment finished or my frustration when things went wrong, I would rush things and make more mistakes! Now I am trying to approach my projects differently, taking the extra time and care, and making the sewing experience more relaxing.
The trouble with ‘historical accuracy’
Throughout this project, I have prefaced my blog posts with the commitment that my garments will be ‘historically accurate… to the best of my ability’. Even before starting this costume, I knew that historical-accuracy is a problematic term both for its practical limitations and its usage as a gate-keeping device. In the case of the former, historical accuracy is an impossibility, you can never really reproduce a historical artefact exactly in the conditions it would have been historically (this is why I added the caveat ‘to the best of my ability’). That is not to say that the pursuit of historical accuracy is futile, it is still worthwhile to research the way things were done historically and try to recreate them, it can be really illuminating! I really enjoy programmes like Amber Butchart’s ‘A stitch in time’ for precisely that reason: it’s fascinating to learn about how things were done historically and see practical experiments of those techniques.
There has been much discussion in the historical costuming community on Instagram recently about the second issue of ‘historical accuracy’: its role in gatekeeping. In some circles, the pursuit of historical accuracy is used to exclude those who have not used period-appropriate techniques or fabrics in their outfits. However, historically-appropriate fabrics like wool, linen and silk can be too expensive for makers, and not everyone has the time or resources to conduct thorough research about period sewing techniques. Also, new research is being conducted all the time so something you believe is historically-accurate may be shown to be anachronistic or inappropriate in a few years time!
I remember before starting this project that I was worried about getting my silhouettes wrong or using the wrong tailoring techniques and this was something that made me reluctant to get started. Eventually I realised I had to give myself permission to be a beginner and get things wrong. There were also times I deliberately chose not to take the most historically-accurate path. For instance, I used synthetic ribbon and lace on my combinations because they were cheaper and I knew they wouldn’t be seen. I used a anachronistic hat decoration on my hat simply because I fell in love with it. I really enjoyed doing all my research into period sewing techniques and I wanted to use natural fibres as much as possible (but this is due to my own environmental concerns about synthetic fibres rather than any belief that natural fibres are superior) but my outfit is not completely historically accurate and it never would have been.
I also became more confident in taking initiative when it came to construction as the project went on. If I couldn’t find specific advice for how to construct something or finish something in a contemporary sewing manual I just did what I thought was best. For instance, I used a double fold bias binding to finish the armhole seam on my blouse. I began to adopt the mentality that if a method made the most sense to me as a sewist then it probably would have made sense to a sewist in the early-twentieth century!
Obviously a commitment to historical accuracy to a certain degree does have its place. For instance, a reenactment group employed by a historical site may want their costumes to have a high degree of historical accuracy to produce an authentic experience for their visitors. I have also seen the point made that reenactment groups that meet outside near open fires may have genuine concerns about the dangers posed by synthetic fibres. However, in recreational historical costuming, you shouldn’t demean another person’s work because of the fabrics, techniques or features they choose to use – let this be a fun, creative space!
All that being said, my experience of the historical costuming community on Instagram has been amazing. Posting about my historical costuming project on Instagram has made me an active member of the historical costuming community and I have made several friends throughout the process! Users from other makers to the people who made the historical patterns I’ve used, like Lauren from Wearing History, have been endlessly encouraging and it’s wonderful to feel part of the community. I am learning so much from other people’s research and projects and I’m always amazed by the things other people make.
Becoming more immersed in the historical costuming community over the last few months has also given me greater confidence in making and wearing historical costume as a hobby. While filming the video which accompanies this project, I wore my costume to a local park. I got a lot of looks, ranging from the confused to the amused, but it didn’t bother me at all! I explained to curious passers-by what I was doing and it was lovely to be able to share my project. I also hope that I made a few people question if they saw a ghost, just for a moment.
A welcome distraction from a chaotic year:
Obviously I can’t talk about a project which I completed during 2020 and early 2021 without talking about the Covid-19 crisis. As a clinically vulnerable person, I have had to shield for most of the last year and this project has really kept me sane in a time of uncertainty and instability. All the research, as well as the construction of the garments, has provided me with real fulfilment.
As well as the actual making of the 1910s costume, me and my Dad have been working a joint venture which has been a really fun lockdown project. We have combined my sewing skills with his expertise in videography to make a video about the 1910s project. It’s been a really fun challenge for both of us and I’m delighted to share the video with you now, I hope you enjoy! Thank you to anyone who has followed my project on either this blog series or my Instagram, it’s been so much fun and I’ve loved sharing it all.