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Women's Patterns & Sewing How-To:

Past Patterns: All of their output is excellent. We particularly recommend the gathered and fitted bodice patterns. If you buy both of these, you have most of the regular variations in sleeve styles and can make a variety of dresses. All patterns are directly based on originals. We recommend that you do NOT use the fitted bodice pattern for a cotton dress, use the gathered bodice pattern instead. The fitted bodice pattern in particular suffers a bit from being multi sized and therefore the back seams are wider apart than is usual in originals. To remedy this, you do NOT need to do the complicated three piece back. Instead, use the pattern piece for the back lining (one piece) to cut from your fashion fabric and take a tiny tuck along this curved line. This technique is used in large number of originals. Also, do not use pagoda sleeves on a cotton dress, other than a fancy 1850s sheer. You don't really need the skirt pattern, as you can easily gauge or pleat a 3-4 panel skirt without a pattern. The wrapper pattern and sacque and petticoat patterns are also highly recommended and their liner notes are worth having just to read, even if you don't intend to make the garment. Their chemise, drawers, petticoat and crinoline patterns are also good.

Homespun Patterns: Jean Warren -- part of James Country Mercantile. Their work dress pattern is very good and all their patterns come with a glossary of period sewing terms. All patterns are directly based on originals and documentation provided. Their work dress follows the usual pattern of nicer calicos with a fitted lining and fashion fabric gathered over this, and is also suitable for using in making a sheer dress (cut the bodice lower). The skirt is front opening, which is common in quite a lot of cotton dresses.

Atlanta History Center: This pattern for a v-necked cotton summer dress, produced for the Atlanta History Center by Figleaf Patterns, is one of the best we've seen for documentation, with color photographs of original and sewing instructions. A nice option for hot days.

Figleaf Patterns: In addition to the Atlanta History Center dress, Figleaf Patterns has produced a number of other patterns for our era. We have not tested these patterns yet. The 1857 and 1859 dresses based on originals in the Sumter Museum look intriguing. Both dresses were maternity dresses that were later altered. The 1859 dress has a yoked bodice. Their new cage crinoline pattern looks expecially good as it has many rows of boning, as do many originals. They also offer a corded petticoat patern and a chemisette pattern that look good. Avoid the corded corset pattern -- if you read the description, the original garment is French and the dating and provenance are hard to nail down and it's an atypical style for our era. Interesting from a costume study standpoint, but not a good idea for your impression.

Chile 'n' Crackers: The bad news is that Chile 'n' Crackers has stopped reproducing calico buttons. The good news is that they're refocusing on reproduction patterns from original dresses. Their "Isabella Workdress" is based on a late 1850's - early 1860's calico workdress in their personal collection. It's a gathered bodice variation with tiny pleats at the bottom instead of gathers. The original garment may be viewed here (it's the second dress on the page)

Patterns of History (State Historical Society of Wisconsin). We haven't tested these yet. The 1857 promenade dress, if it comes out looking like the illustration is a good example of a mid to late 50's pagoda sleeved dress with basque. The 1865 dress is too late for our era.

Simplicity: Simplicity has now come out with a fancy 1850s silk day dress pattern, an everyday work dress and apron pattern, underpinnings patterns and a new ball dress pattern. All of these look pretty good although the armscyes seem a bit high on the work dress. Unfortunately, the sewing instructions given rely on modern techniques. We recommend that you learn to do period sewing with either the Past Patterns and/or Homespun patterns before using the Simplicity patterns as yuou canb then adapt them to period sewing techniques

Period Impressions: They have a bad reputation for pattern pieces that don't fit together right and unclear or sketchy instructions, but as a begining sewist we found their paletot pattern very easy to put together and well drafted. Some of their other patterns apparently aren't as easy to use.

Period Sewing Guides: We highly recommend the series of books on period sewing techniques that Elizabeth Clark is producing (available on her website). Kay Gnagey carries these in her mercantile at events too. The overview book should be required reading even if you don't intend to make your own clothes, as it will show you what to look for in others' work. For a period version, we recommend Beadles Dime guide to dressmaking, available via Glenna Jo Christen's "Mrs. Christen's Miscellanea" and via Sullivan Press. Both Glenna Jo and Elizabeth have how-to guides for gauging a skirt on their websites.