Mistress Kate's Folly


I really shouldn't have made this!

But it was fun!  And that, ultimately, is why I sew!  I started this because I was jealous!  I saw all the fun of the Faire, and it was happening in the States, and I couldn't get there.  I've always like historical dress, and always intended to make another mediaeval gown to follow one I made a few years back that danced in the Great Hall at Belvoir Castle...

Well I got to thinking, and I decided that as Sunday afternoon is 'my' time, and I can do what I like, I was going to have a go at a 'ren faire garb' costume.  Nothing fancy to start with: just a simple chemise, a bodice and a big skirt: the 'wench' uniform!  With all our recent expenses (cat's busted leg [he did a Beckham!], a friends wedding [new dress & shoes for me, new clothes for James, waistcoat for same] and the extra trips north to visit Alan's dad after his triple by-pass), this kit HAD to be done entirely from fabric/sewing stash!  Not even the thread could be bought!

The first thing to look for  was a suitable pattern to play with: I found one that used to fit well, before the days of the cherub, and thought that as I was never going to wear it again, and I'd used it 3 or 4 times already, I could sacrifice it to a good cause...  Then I found some excellent instructions for altering a princess line top into a more historically accurate pattern shape on Dawn's Costume Pages.  These worked well, and I soon had a pattern.

The next thing to do was have a hunt through the stash to find suitable fabrics and fixings...

First I found some loom state calico: quite substantial, and it had been through a boil wash.  It was left over from doing some costumes for Dr Faustus in 2001, so was even paid for by someone else!  It would make a good lining, I thought.  I also found a nice bit of rusty orange fabric.  This was a left over bit from the costume that was never used in the Hotel California outing earlier this year, and it had originally been given to me by a friend.  It is a light weight ladies suiting in a linen weave polyester: looks authentic enough, and you'd never know to feel it, but the giveaway is that it doesn't crease!  Hey!  It was free too!  I then needed an interlining of a stiffish sort, so I had a hunt about and found this really stiff cotton  canvas that is like cardboard, so I used that.  I bought it years ago out of an overdeveloped sense of curiosity, and it was something like 50p a meter, so I had nothing to lose there!

I also hunted out a few bits of white cotton for the chemise, and had a look for some suitable skirt fabric...

Then I really got started...  First I did the bodice, as this was the most complex bit of the kit.


The Bodice!

Alan was making a model of the Death Star on the dining room table, so I had to cut out on the sewing room floor...  Not a lot of room there!  I also had to remove extraneous bits of thread from the fabric before sewing...

The fabric is folded across the width, to give me the two selvages down the front, and a fold for the middle of the back.  I couldn't quite fit it in the other way, even with a seam down the middle of the back, and I wanted to avoid this.  Because of the weave, it's only noticeable if you look hard and know what you're looking for!

Pattern on fabric.jpg (22293 bytes)
Sewing the seam.jpg (48327 bytes) Sewing up the seams!  I used a size 90 needle as the canvas interfacing was so thick and stiff.  Not so easy to sew, but great for holding shape once the thing is made!
The advantages of accurate seaming: the garment turns out the right size!  Now that's straight... five-eighths of an inch seam allowance.jpg (52897 bytes)
dscf0001.jpg (82480 bytes) Once all the seams were sewn, I had to clip the seam allowances round the neck/front/bottom, and the armholes, turn them to the inside and tack/baste them down.  This held them in place ready for inserting the boning and the lining.
The boning has history!  It was given to me by a friend, and it came out of the hooped petticoat of her 1960's Big White Meringue wedding dress.  It is the only bit left!  The stuff is white painted clock spring type steel, and I cut it with a pair of otherwise useless scissors! boning.jpg (54908 bytes)
Inserting the boning.jpg (54533 bytes) I squidged it into place down the front of the bodice, then tacked/basted it in place.   It was later sewn with a line of machine stitching to prevent it sliding around inside the front of the bodice, and escaping to poke me in the ribs!
The lining pinned in all the way round.  This has to be done slightly inside the very edge on the inside, so that it doesn't show on the outside. dscf0003.jpg (68657 bytes)
dscf0007.jpg (108663 bytes) Sewing in the lining: I did this with a medium sized slip-stitch (about 4 stitches to the inch).  I sewed this in by hand as the shoulders were too narrow and the interlining too stiff to allow me to pull through using the 'waistcoat' method.
Experimenting on some off cuts: eyelet practicing!

The first ones were not so hot, but later they got much better!  See the eyelet plate seated in the stitch plate?  Under it I lowered the feed teeth.  I found that going slowly made a better finish than going too fast!  You soon get the trick of turning at an even rate...  The difficult thing was cutting a nice even hole in the multiple layers of fabric - oh, and remembering to lower the presser foot lever, even though there's no foot on the machine!  It's the tension, you know...

dscf0008.jpg (132937 bytes)
dscf0011.jpg (136159 bytes) Once they were as good as I could get them, I had to put them all down the front of the bodice!  Measuring and marking accurately takes as little time as doing it badly, and looks better!
Et voila!

Looks OK, dunnit?  Not quite 'sell to customer' standard, but not too bad for a first attempt!  

dscf0012.jpg (83821 bytes)
bodice9.jpg (111437 bytes) Well, it looks OK, but there were several things I wasn't wholly satisfied with:

Bodice length: it needs to be longer: it only just reaches my waist, despite having adjusted it for length on the original pattern.  All I read states they had a longer torso profile, and pictures bear this out.  Suits me: might make me look a tad less wide...

It needs to be tighter: about an inch tighter at the bust level, and 3 inches tighter at the waist.  As it is, there's insufficient bust support because it's not tight enough!  Instead of being squashed into the correct cone shape, with cleavage under the chin, I slide down and get flattened (well, as far as I can be flattened!

The shoulder seams need to be longer: these worked out as very narrow straps!

The armholes are way too big!


bodice1.jpg (190017 bytes)

pattern2.jpg (55609 bytes)

This is what the pattern looks like now I have altered it!

I took out the extra inch added at the sides because the pattern was 'too small' according to my measurements.

I took another chunk off the back half of the side seam at the waist, tapering up to the bust line.

I raised the armscye at the side seam by two whole inches!  I also widened the shoulder straps by two inches.  As the pattern now stands, the circumference of the armscye is 16 1/2 inches, which is closer to a historical 'norm' for my size.

I added 1 1/2" to the length at the midriff.

I lowered the front neckline by an inch, as it was a bit too modest for a wench outfit!

I removed the facing allowance from the center front, which will mean I can fit the eyelets closer to the front boning.

Next time I make this up, I shall try boning the side seams as well as the center front.


I do love the digital camera for this sort of project. I can take as many pictures as I like, and plonk them into place really quickly.  

If you have any ideas or want to ask any questions, hit the feedback link on Kate's index page.


A whole chunk of research confirmed a deeply held suspicion that  the 'wench' uniform was more a fantasy outfit than a real set of clothing any self respecting woman or girl of the 16th or 17th centuries might have worn...  However, I am determined to make this kit through to the end - it may be as period as a fax machine, but it is a lot of fun!  My 'court dress' in lilac cotton and silk satin will be more accurate in all but colour - and that will be unusual rather than unheard of!  It did make me giggle to read all this stuff about how this that or the other wasn't 'period' and one needed to do XYZ instead - which was also about as authentic as sliced bread.  Still, the research was fun, and at the end I'll give you a few links to some of the really nifty stuff I found on my way...


The Chemise!

For the basic Wench chemise, I have yet to find a better or clearer set of instructions than those on Dawn's Costume Pages, so this is what I followed.  The fabric is a white cotton poplin with a fairly high thread count.  It's a more substantial cloth than I would usually use for this sort of job, but it was in the stash, and has been there so long I can't remember buying it! It's probably no more than 5 years old, though I do own cloth at least 4 times that age...  First cut your rectangles.  Then...

chemise2.jpg (91058 bytes) 'Stack & Whack' costuming!  Stack up the 8 layers...

(Two rectangles for the front and back, and two rectangles for the sleeves, all folded in half.)

Whack the spare corners off with the rotary cutter - just like quilting, only the bits are bigger! chemise4.jpg (86666 bytes)
chemise6.jpg (38185 bytes) Serge the Serger threaded up and ready to go at 1700 stitches per minute...
And here he is eating up the yardage (I have to keep the fabric lined up but my fingers away from the cutting knives!  This machine will eat four layers of Polartec 300 quite happily...  ) chemise7.jpg (51614 bytes)
CHEMISE11.JPG (97614 bytes) And here is serge the Serger widdling fabric tagliatelli on the carpet!  You do a lot of clearing up after an incontinent sewing machine...
I serged all the seams and round all the raw edges to make sure there was no raveling. CHEMISE14.JPG (69278 bytes)
CHEMISE17.JPG (362260 bytes) Hemming by rule of thumb!  the hem is one thumb wide - means I don't have to measure or pin, just fold it over as I go!
And now the tape is in!  Actually, I used a fine cord elastic for the neckline, and put a permanent knot in it.  I used the same elastic for the sleeve ends so I could roll them up if I wanted to get them out of the way a bit more. finchemise1.JPG (41000 bytes)
finchemise2.JPG (44739 bytes) Chemise and bodice together!  Now for the skirt...
And from the back, it looks like this!

The sleeves are about elbow length, and the 'skirt' of the chemise comes to mid calf - long enough to make a layer of petticoat!

finchemise3.JPG (146698 bytes)

The trouble with this project is that I put it away because I had more important things to do.  Now I'm gearing up for a big costume thing, and have a lined customer dress to do by the end of next week, and what am I doing?  A wench kit that may never be worn in anger!  Typical!


The Skirt!

Doing this is quite good fun, really!  I hunted through the stash, brought down a pile of bits to look through, and finally decided that:

a: The bit of dark khaki cotton drill was a good colour, but far too nice a fabric to play with on a purely experimental project...

b: The 6 m long 60" wide charcoal gray light weight suiting might just end up in suits for the next play - we need 4 of those sixties collarless  Beetles things with the slit pockets and 4 buttons up the front, coupled with drainpipe trousers!

c: The nearly green with a faint gray stripe poly/something (can't remember if it's wool, viscose or cotton!) in two 1.5 m by 60" wide was just what was needed!  I didn't like it enough to do anything else for me with it, and my darling husband didn't like it much either...  As for young James - 'Ugh!  NO. Mum - preserve me from the horrible trouser fabric!' was the polite end of his comments...    It's not that bad!  I have MUCH uglier fabric in the stash!

This last bit of fabric had the added advantage of being cheap!  It was part of a bundle of 'skirt lengths' from Croft Mill.  They do these things in bundles of four 1.5 m lengths for 10, or two bundles of four for 15.  I'd bought these two bundles together, asking for two with the same fabrics in them so I got 3 m of the same fabric in two lengths.  This works out at 80p per metre - dead cheap!  A good weight without being too heavy.

Cut skirt lengths needed to be 42", and this left me with enough over to make another bodice with the modified pattern...  Mebbe next week, hn?  This will be a wide skirt, with a combined fabric width of 120".  There may be enough left for sleeves or possibly a pouch and hat.  We shall see!


Still a Work In Progress...


Having cut all the boring bits and made up the waistband (with some ancient fold-a-band that took AGES to fuse!), I had to pleat the skirt onto it.  I used a soft thumb measured pinch pleat - it doesn't need to be 100% accurate, and I could do it quickly. pinned pleats.JPG (224493 bytes)
sewpleats.JPG (53816 bytes) I then sewed them down to the waistband - over the pins!  I bend a lot of pins this way, but it's still easier and quicker than anything else!
Every now and again, you need to slip a pin out and ease in a little ruckle...  Not hard, but you need to be careful not to sew your fingers! easingin.jpg (34648 bytes)
skirtserge.JPG (36090 bytes) Serging the edges of the waistband and skirt!  I'm not sewing this one down by hand on the inside, mate!
FLUFF!  AKK!  Now you see why I vacuum out the serger after every project! fluff.jpg (80313 bytes)
threadend.JPG (125867 bytes) To tidy up the chained ends of your serged seam/finish...
Thread the tail through a large darning needle,  endthreaded.JPG (149223 bytes)
tidyneedle.JPG (102532 bytes) slip it through an inch or so of stitches, and
snip off the end! snip.jpg (121441 bytes)
tidyend.jpg (82388 bytes) See!  All tidy on the inside, and less danger of it raveling.
Hemming on the machine with the blind hem stitch and the adjustable blind hem foot is easy once you have the knack.  Line up the needle and the foot so the 'bight' of the needle just takes a thread or two... hemming.jpg (62411 bytes)
hemstitched.JPG (125707 bytes) Just like this!  It takes a bit of practice, and is better on thicker fabrics like this, but you can get excellent results.
Looks nice and neat on the inside... insidehem.JPG (206141 bytes)
stitches.jpg (534637 bytes) Stitches?  What Stitches?  They are there, I assure you!  They show up better on the real thing, where you can lift them up and get your nose right in there!
And the back's all finished off nicely! finishedback.JPG (76817 bytes)
finishedfront.JPG (84244 bytes) And so is the front!  There are LOTS of pins holding it together at the waist for the pictures because the dress stand is a little small for the outfit, and the waist is a tad long - like mine!  I really will have to hook it together if I wear it for real!

OK!  It's done!  Was it worth it?  Well it was quite a lot of fun to do, and it wasn't difficult - especially the chemise and skirt!  There's enough of the skirt fabric left to have another go at the bodice, but it will have to wait until I've done four bridesmaid dresses, a wedding gown, some jackets and a few other things...  Like the Row Robin quilt I'm involved with - international quilting rocks!  (Hehehehehe!)

Things I need to do to make future outfits fit me:

Take in/re-do the waistband on the skirt - I lost a stone recently, and intend to loose a couple more!

Make a better fitting bodice!

Try a lighter weight fabric for the chemise - this is nice and sturdy, but a little too sturdy for the purpose!

Here are a bunch of nice links so you can go costume spotting and see some MUCH more accurate and inspiring things:

Dawn's Costume Guide: http://www.reddawn.net/costume/index.html  Very useful for ren fair garb makers, nice photos, and helpful when you contact her.

http://www.faucet.net/costume/index.html  Some excellent costume stuff, including how to goffer a ruff with curling tongs!

http://www.tudor-portraits.com/  Extremely useful details from pictures of real people!

Seamstrix: Period costumes for the Modern World:
http://members.tripod.com/seamstrix/  This one's nice!  Very competent seamstress with nice ideas and photos.

Drea: The Elizabethan Costuming Page
( http://costume.dm.net/ ). 1997-2000  Everyone in the Elizabethan costume making game should have this book marked!  It leads to all sorts of other good stuff!

http://www.reconstructinghistory.com/irish/shinrone.html  Very nicely documented bit of real historical research.

Margo Anderson: One Tough Costumer:
http://www.directcon.net/wander/main.htm  I wish I was this good!  I have now dissolved into a virulent green greasy puddle on the carpet with envy!  ;P Fabulous things!  Definitely what to aspire to!  http://www.margospatterns.com/mainframe.htm  Patterns from Margo!  Wonderful!  I'm ordering from here, I'm telling you all now!  Partisan?  You bet!  ;)

http://www.sempstress.org/  More nice costume pix and ideas.  Another professional at work, and do look at the bit on dressing a queen - lovely gown!

If you got here from the internet, and would like to explore the rest of my site, click here:

 Kate's Pages

If you would like to contact me about something on this page, click here:

Contact Kate

Back To Table of Contents