Introduction: 1860s Civil War Era Dress

This dress was inspired by a number of old photographs of 1860s dresses. The style presented here better represents the clothes worn by the working class rather than the upper class.

To make this dress you will need:

  • About seven metres of fabric. I used cotton but you can use any period-accurate fabric you like.
  • Fabric for bodice mock-up (about two metres).
  • Thread that matches your dress fabric as well as contrasting thread for your mock-up.
  • A sewing machine
  • Sewing scissors
  • Chalk/Pen
  • Sewing pattern (see step one)
  • Pins
  • Needles (for hand stitching lining, cuffs, hem and cartridge pleating)
  • Iron and ironing board
  • Military thread in matching colour
  • Quick unpick (seam ripper)
  • Ruler

Step 1: Making the Pattern

First you'll need to make your pattern. If you live in America you can use Historic Moments 250, which is similar to the pattern I drafted, but otherwise you'll have to draft your own pattern (they don't post overseas). Don't worry if you don't think the pattern is perfect. Just add large seam allowances and make a mock-up before you do the real thing.

I also suggest you overlock or zigzag stitch the edges of each piece on the mock-up. This keeps them from fraying when unpicking to adjust the pattern.

After sewing a section together, try the bodice on to check whether it needs any adjusting, and mark any adjustments you make on your paper pattern. If you sew many sections together before trying it on, this may result in a lot of unpicking as you go back to adjust a particular section.

Step 2: Cutting Out the Mock-up

I used an old sheet for my mock-up but you can use pretty much any fabric you have that is a similar type to the fabric you will use in your final dress.

There are several different ways you can cut out your pattern pieces, but my favourite is to place a book or two on top of the piece to keep it from moving, and then cut around it. You can also pin the pattern piece onto the fabric or trace around it with chalk before cutting out the pieces. However, these methods do take longer.

I also suggest that you write the name of the each piece on the fabric cutout. This helps to avoid mixing up the pieces as well as to distinguish between the right and wrong sides of the fabric.

Note: All the instructions for making the final bodice are given and illustrated on my mock-up as it is much easier to show the steps and seams when sewing with a contrasting thread. Each step that involves sewing seams that are not done on the mock-up will have a note at the bottom.

Step 3: Sew Shoulder Seams

First sew the yoke shoulder seams to the two back shoulder seams. Don't worry if your pieces don't line up perfectly. If it is less than a centimetre or so, it will be hidden in the seam anyway.

Step 4: Gather and Sew Front Gather Onto Yoke

Sew a gathering stitch at the top of the front gather panel and gather it to fit the bottom of the yoke. Then sew it to the yoke, right sides together.

Step 5: Bottom Gather and Sewing Up the Sides

Next run a gathering stitch along the bottom of the front gather panel, roughly 10-15 cm in from each side. To avoid the gather dropping at the sides, I like to do a small D-shaped curve at the two ends of the gathering stitch as shown above.

Sew up the side seams (wrong sides together) connecting the front panel and the two back panels.

Step 6: Sew Back Pleats

Make two marks along the bottom of the back panels. I did mine at 10 cm and 13 cm from the edge.

Next fold the back panel onto itself, right sides together, so that the two marks line up; mark with a pin.

Now sew vertically up from the bottom edge of the waist band for the length of your seam allowance. Don't worry if you think you stitched too far. You can always unpick any excess seam that peaks out from the waistband seam after the next step.

Fold the loop created away from the side seams and hold it there with a pin.

Step 7: Attach the Waist Band

Fold the waistband in half and mark the middle with a pin. Then do the same with the bottom of the whole bodice.
Lay the waistband onto the bottom of the bodice, right sides together; line up the pins and pin them together at that point.

Next pin the whole bottom edge of the bodice (that does not have the gathering stitch) to the waistband so that the edges of the waistband line up with the back opening on the bodice.

Gather the gathering stitches so that the bodice fits the waistband; pin, then sew on the waistband.

I had to adjust the side seam so that the gather would be the correct width (shown in the 5th picture above).

Step 8: Sleeves

You will only need to make one sleeve on your mock-up in order to make sure your pattern is correct. Start by cutting out the sleeve piece and the cuff piece.

Sew a gathering stitch along the top of the sleeve about 7 cm in from each side.

Zigzag stitch (or overlock) the two sides of the sleeve then sew up the side of the sleeve (right sides together), but stop when you reach about 7 cm from the bottom. (In the picture I forgot and sewed all the way and had to unpick it.)

Gather the top of the sleeve to fit the armhole; pin in place and then sew it in.

Turn sleeve through so that the right side is facing out.

To do the cuff, gather the bottom of the sleeve so that it fits the cuff, pin right sides together and sew.

Fold cuff down and press seams up towards the sleeve.

Next, fold the cuff in half longways, right sides together, lining up the raw edges as show in the picture above.

Press seam back down in the direction of the cuff; then sew down the sides of the cuffs stopping when you hit the previous seam. Repeat on the other side.

Clip the corners and turn through.

Fold under cuff edge (to form a hem) in line with seam and hand stitch to finish the cuff off, making sure all the seams are hidden inside the cuff.

Next, sew and cut a button hole on one end, and stitch the button on the other.

Note: You do not have to hand-stitch the cuff or add the button and button hole on your mock-up.

Step 9: Trying on and Adjusting

As well as trying the bodice on as you have been sewing, try it on now.

Pin the back closed, overlapping it the same amount you would if there were buttons and do one final check on the pattern. You can see that I need to bring the front gather up a bit higher, make the sleeves not quite as dropped and take off a bit around the neck.

If you would like to make sure that it's sitting exactly the same way it will when you sew the final bodice, sew on the button lining, the yoke and buttons and stitch the button holes (see the next two steps for instructions). This isn't necessary and does take a while but, as well as making sure of the fit, it helps with practising the stitches for the final bodice.

Step 10: Bodice Facing

First cut out two button facing pieces and one yoke piece.

Next, zigzag the edges to avoid fraying and sew the button facings onto the yoke facing at shoulder seams with the right sides together.

Pin the facing onto the bodice (right sides together), then sew around the neckline. Clip the curves before turning through to avoid any bunching and iron the neckline seam.

Finally fold over the seam allowance on the exposed sides of the yoke facing and hand-stitch it to the corresponding seams like you did with the sleeve cuff.

Note: If adding the bodice facing to the mock-up, do not clip the curves until you are happy with the neckline.

Step 11: Waistband Lining

Cut out another waistband to use as a waistband lining.

Pin its right side to the bottom of the bodice's wrong side such that the raw edges of all three layers of fabric (waistband lining, bodice and waistband) are in line on one side of the seam. (Make sure the waistband is also folded up behind the bodice piece so that you will not see the seam you are about to sew from the right side of the dress.)

Sew the lining in place.

The bottom of the waist band should be open. It will be sewn up in a later step.

Step 12: Buttons and Button Holes

Mark where the top button will go on the back opening of the bodice and then mark four evenly-spaced lines along the back opening where you would like the remaining buttons to be placed.

Next sew and cut button holes along that side. The top button hole will be horizontal while the others will be vertical.

Hand-sew the buttons on the other side. I used a hook-and-eye for the waistband instead of a button.

Note: If you are sewing the real bodice, I suggest skipping this step for now, coming back to it once the rest of the dress is sewn. If you are sewing your mock-up, do it now.

Step 13: Sewing Your Final Bodice

Now that you have finished your mock-up and have adjusted the pattern to fit you, it is time to sew the real bodice!

Go through all steps (2-12) again, but this time sew with the real fabric and matching thread, completing all steps carefully. Remember to zigzag stitch all exposed seams.

Step 14: Drafting the Skirt Pattern

Now that you've finished the bodice, it's time to move on to the skirt. I used four rectangular panels the width of the fabric (110 cm) for the skirt, but if you aren't going to wear a crinoline underneath, there is no need to make it that full.

First you will need to measure the desired length of your skirt. Do this while wearing your crinoline as the hoops push your skirt out, making it seem shorter. Measure the front, sides and back. This is especially important if your crinoline has a small bustle.

Once you have these measurements, take the longest and add 4 cm for the hem, 5-10 cm* for the cartridge pleating and 4 cm for each tuck.

Cut out four rectangular panels (front right, front left, back right and back left) the width of your fabric (110 cm) using the measurements you got from above.

I used as a guide to draft and sew my skirt.

* During this time period, the skirt was lengthened from the tucks or the waistband, not from the hem. If you would like to be able to lengthen your skirt but do not want to have the extra length in tucks, you will need to allow more than the 5-10 cm allocated for the cartridge pleating at the waist band. However, to lengthen it from the waistband will require undoing and redoing the cartridge pleating.

Step 15: Sewing the Sides of the Skirt

Start by sewing all your skirt pieces right sides together stopping 10-15 cm (plus the amount for the cartridge pleating) from the top on the back seam. This will be for your skirt placket.

Step 16: Skirt Hem

Hemming the skirt can be done either before or after the tucks are sewn. I like to do it before so that it is easier to measure where the first tuck needs to be, but other than that, it really doesn't matter.

Start by folding over the bottom of the skirt by 1 centimetre; iron and pin. Do this the whole way around the bottom of the skirt. When you (finally!) reach the start again, fold it over a second time (I did 3 cm on the second turn over), iron and pin in place. Continue doing this the whole way around the bottom of your skirt.

When you've finished folding over the hem, you can either hem it by hand or with a machine. I did mine by hand and, although it took a long time, it does look nicer than if it was done with a machine which would have made it look like just another tuck.

Step 17: Skirt Tucks

To make the tucks, fold the bottom of the skirt up and iron as shown above. I ironed mine so that they measured 9 cm from each previous tuck and 16 cm from the finished hemline.

Next, sew 2 cm in from the crease using a long stitch so that it can easily be unpicked if the skirt needs to be let down (lengthened).

Step 18: Adding the Skirt Placket

To sew the placket, first measure the amount you allowed for the cartridge pleating down from the top of the skirt at the waist, fold over (wrong sides together), iron flat and pin.* (First 2 pictures above).

Next, open the back opening such that it sits in a straight line (as you need to measure both sides of the opening for this step) and measure the length from one edge to the other.

Add a centimetre or so to the measurement; cut out a rectangle that long and about 5 cm wide.

Zigzag stitch all the raw edges to prevent fraying. Pin it to the skirt opening, right sides together, and sew in place as shown above. If the rest of the skirt keeps getting in the way, hand-stitch it in place.

Note: Although you can see the bodice and cartridge pleating in some of the photos above, you will have not done this yet. These pictures were taken once the dress was complete because I hadn't taken any pictures of me sewing it in.

* If your crinoline has a small bustle, fold over more at the back than at the sides and front. My crinoline is the same shape all the way round so I folded over the same amount the whole way around.

Step 19: Cartridge Pleating

There are two historically accurate methods that I know of for bringing in the skirt to fit the waistband. They are either knife pleats or cartridge pleating. I choose to do cartridge pleating on this dress as I love the way it sits, and I thought it suited the style better.

First draw two lines for the dots around the top of the skirt 1 cm apart and 1 cm down from the top of the skirt at the waist.

Next, with a contrasting colour mark dots 1 cm apart along the two lines. Make sure the dots in each line match vertically with the other line. This is VERY important. I used a pen instead of chalk to mark the dots so they wouldn't rub off as I worked around the whole skirt. This also meant the dots were more accurate which is also important.

Once you have finished marking the dots, it is time to sew the cartridge pleating. I find it easier and quicker to sew both rows at the same time. To do this, cut two lengths of military thread almost twice the circumference of your waist and thread a piece into each needle. At the other end of each piece, tie a big knot to make sure it won't slip through the fabric when you are sewing.

Sew a running stitch through each dot in each line. (See the above picture.) Make sure the two lines match where the needles come in and out. This is also VERY important.

When you reach the end, tie the ends of the threads together to prevent them from slipping back in.

I found a very good reference when sewing mine. The only thing I did differently was to not top stitch when I folded over the allowance for the cartridge at the top of the skirt. Top stitching may be helpful if your crinoline has a bustle.

Step 20: Attaching the Skirt

Line up the bodice to the skirt (right sides together) and pull the cords in the cartridge pleating such that the skirt fits the bottom edge of the bodice. Make sure the pleats are even. Pin in place.

Tie off the ends of the thread, and then whip stitch it to the waistband.

Finally, stitch the waistband lining to the inside of the skirt like you did with the sleeve cuff.

Step 21: Finishing Touches

Now all that's left is to sew on the buttons and button holes (if you haven't already done so) and attach the hook to the waistband.


DIY Dress Contest

Grand Prize in the
DIY Dress Contest

Full Spectrum Laser Contest 2016

Participated in the
Full Spectrum Laser Contest 2016