Making an 18th century, quilted petticoat… actually ensemble

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I have always been somewhat ambivalent about quilted petticoats. On one hand, they are unavoidable if you are a completist when it comes to 18th century ladies garments. *cough* It appears that the quilted petticoat used to be a garment of universal appeal for all social classes, nearly as ubiquitous as stays and shifts.

On the other hand they look…. cozy. Like “my grandma would have loved one” cozy. When I think of the “ideal” frilly, frothy, pastry-colored 18th century dress, the dress is quite changeable but the quilted petticoat is never featured.

Now I was never sure whether this is sour grapes. Hand-quilted petticoats  are serious, seriously work-intense pieces. Until you made one, you don’t know what that actually means. I certainly didn’t. But it’s easy to say that you only want to make frilly, frothy pastry dresses anyway.

Now I started this project…  for reasons I am not all that proud of. I needed something new for an event (and that was not a good idea) because it looked like everyone else was bringing new things and I was literally bringing last year’s wardrobe. A helpful “it goes faster than you think” from another petticoat quilter made me seriously consider it and then I got myself some silk satin and thought up a pattern and there were six seasons of Downton Abbey I had never seen…

Spoiler alert: It did went faster than I imagined. It also went slower than I imagined.

But let’s start at the direct inspiration for the petticoat:

Left is the color inspiration: the famous mermaid quilted petticoat from the Connecticut Historical Society. In the middle is the main inspiration for the pattern. I simplifed mine  and added a curved collection of leaves not unlike the petticoat on the right. Of course there are a large number of petticoats with similar colors and patterns, like these two from a museum in Utrecht.

I adjusted the quilting pattern I had made a bit to have a width of 105 1/8 in/267 cm all around.  This width was based on two realities: the width of my fabric and the width of this petticoat. One justified the other. This meant that the the repeat would not be centered (I think  I could have centered it while transferring and just didn’t realize it at the time because sometimes the easy way doesn’t just occur to you.) which meant that late in the process I would have sew both panels together and then cut into the petticoat to put the pocket slits elsewhere in order to center the pattern.

Funnily enough in the quilting process I lost only about half an inch (1 cm) in width but actually 2 in/5cm (!) in height. This was even more pronounced with the stomacher. I think it’s a weft/warp issue where the warp simply had more stretch than the weft to accommodate the quilting. Loss of width and height is obvious and unavoidable once you think about what quilting actually does. But I didn’t realize when I made the pattern that this was a thing.

Thankfully, I had some seam allowance on top of my petticoat and my pattern was endlessly repeatable at the top – so it didn’t even matter. But if you ever make your own pattern, it’s something to keep in mind.

The color caused the first challenge. The duchesse satin I had bought was not red-red but rather brownish red. If this had been a quick and easy project I would have dealt. But this once-in-a-lifetime-because-I’m-not–doing-it-again project? No.

So I first hit the fabric with some color remover and then dyed it red again. Now it was a wine colored red (and the fabric was a lot less stiff) which had to suffice as “close enough”. Interestingly hardly any photographs actually capture the color correctly, causing it to look pink, orange and all shades of red in between. I apologize for that.

Dyeing the fabric caused major wrinklage and an attack of pure “WHHHHHHHY” as I spent two hours ironing it. And then some of the dye was running into the fabric of my ironing board. At this point – ironically, only at this point – the whole project started to look like a stupid idea to me.

Challenge #2: transferring the pattern onto the fabric in a way that would last through the quilting process but was removable without getting the satin wet again. I didn’t trust carbon paper or tailor’s chalk  to stay through endless touching or to be easily removed. (I  have a silk petticoat with tailor’s chalk on the hem that has still not gone away after three years.) Trick marker would fade too quickly. So I chose to use water-removable trick marker on the inside cotton fabric. If push came to shove and my great “wipe it off with a wet cloth” plan  didn’t work and I would not be able to remove it, no one would see it anyway.

(Unsurprisingly, my plan didn’t work, but I figure with time the markings will fade. For the later part of the project though I used actually tailor’s chalk (on the lining fabric) and it did stay on exactly as long as I needed it and was actually gone when I finished quilting. Who knew the obvious answer was so simple?)

The obvious downside was that I was quilting from the wrong side but it seemed the lesser evil at this point. It was a compromise, if not a last resort. I would not really recommend it. Because it is important that you do see the “good side” of your quilting when you quilt. Quilting from the wrong side means that you lack quite a bit of control over your stitch length and spacing and even placement of your stitching. You have to wrestle the control back and be much more alert and constantly check that the good side actually looks good.

I transferred the pattern by putting a lot of light under a huge glass table that I happen to own and putting the pattern (printed on transparent paper) between the glass table and my fabric.

Now, not everyone has a big glass table. Other options are apparently carbon paper, using heat transfer pencils or artist’ chalk and then applying that onto the fabric  or using so thin, light fabric that your pattern shines through without being illuminated from below. I only ever tried the carbon paper for stays. It’s okay but the light table method is better.

I didn’t trace the diamond pattern, it just happened to have the exact same width as my ruler.

Then I made the quilt sandwich. I made sure the fabric layers had the same size and extended past the quilting pattern. However, the batting only extended to the quilting pattern and ended up a few inches under the top of the petticoat pattern. Originally I left of 10 in/25 cm free of batting but then changed my mind about that later and added more batting at the top, so only 4 in/10 cm were free of batting.

I used fairly thin batting because I didn’t want my petticoat to be too thick, heavy and unwieldy and harbored the suspicion that the original petticoats I liked were also not that thickly batted.  I pinned the layers together – not only on the outside of the pattern – but all over. There is really no reason to be stingy there. I mean if you actually want to spend time on that you should baste the layers together all over. I just used a lot safety pins because I am a lazy person making a quilted petticoat.

Then I queued up Downton Abbey and started quilting from the bottom up of the pattern. Technically, I could have also started going from left to right, right to left, and centre out. (Top down, going through the unbatted part first, would be not such a great idea though.)  But you need to pick one of those and stick with it.

I picked bottom up because there the pattern was the most complicated and I wanted it out of the way. This was the only part that had curved lines which renders the typical quilting stitch aka “rocking stitch” inefficient to useless. With small, curved lines you often have to make only one running stitch, pull the needle through and then to do the next one. To make this even more annoying is that in order for a small form to be visible, your stitch length and spacing has to be small.

My general non-curved lines quilting technique was pretty simple, just move the fabric sandwich up and down so the needle picks up something between three and six  running stitches and then pull the needle through the sandwich. Depending on the batting and the pattern at this point, some stitches were tinier than others. My smallest stitches per inch average was 12, my largest was 6. Mostly I was between  those extremes. Sometimes I threw in a backstitch because I love backstitches and think they make things more secure.

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Anyway Season Four of Downton Abbey was over and I got finally started on the diamond/lattice pattern of my petticoat. Since it was all straight lines, I thought it would go really fast. (I was so wrong about that.)

At the point where I finished the lattice pattern, I had already spent roughly 100 hours quilting. (Not counting the 10 hours of prep work.) Now this could have been it, if I hadn’t had the great idea to shade the background of the bottom pattern with thin lines. And with thin lines I mean, lines that had the width of a chopstick which amounted to 3/10 of an inch/0.7cm. This was ambitious and stupid.

You can see the resulting problem in the last image. My shading made the actual flowers and foliage practically invisible. So I turned to trapunto/corded quilting. Here you pull yarns with a needle through the quilt sandwich to raise certain elements. Alternatively you can push batting through the backing fabric into the sandwich with a toothpick.

Unfortunately, that was dull and boring work. So I started working on the matching stomacher. (I needed one since I wanted to wear the petticoat with the green casaque and none of my existing stomachers matched in color.)

My inspiration I found on Instagram of all places, just as I was kind of despairing over what the design should be. The gown there is usually exhibited in the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice, Italy but was apparently part of a temporary exhibition in New Orleans. Here we have a quilted (but not corded) stomacher with a latice pattern and some flowery foliage stuff. Just what I was looking for. I  changed a few things up to make them more like my petticoat but kept the overall look. Then I started quilting… and then reigned myself in and continued working on the petticoat.

Straightforward cording is pretty easy to understand. The only caveat I have for this tutorial is that it’s easier to built up thinner threads/yarns by pulling multiple strands into the same place than try to accomplish this with one thick thread. (I also would not use artificial fibre for an 18th century petticoat but that’s me being weird about artificial fibres.)

Pushing batting through elements that are too wide or large for cording sounds like a good idea, but unfortunately it’s more complicated than cording.

The tricky thing is pulling apart the backing without being cutting into the fabric. Using a toothpick really helps here. After you finished pushing the batting in, you use the toothpick to pull the weft and warp back into place. It’s a bit tedious but the result was an improvement from before.

So then it was time to make the petticoat itself. I sewed the panels together (first the fashion fabric, then the backing fabric because I thought that the sharing of batting in some of the quilted elements would make the seam less visible (It doesn’t even sound right to me but well, it can’t hurt.)) I bound the bottom of the petticoat in self-fabric, then cut into the petticoat to make the pocket slits, which I bound in bias-cut self-fabric immediately afterwards to minimize the fraying. Then I pleated the petticoat, attached the ribbons and bound the upper edge of it.

So here is what I have learned about quilted petticoats while making one:

  1. Size matters. Having quilted a doily does not prepare you for quilted a fabric sandwich that is more than a yard high and 1.5 yards wide. It’s unwieldy as anything and nothing but handling this unwieldiness prepares you for it.
  2. This is a not a test. Yes, you are lying to yourself if you think you are going to make your “real” quilted petticoat five weeks after this one. So, splurge. Use the good batting, use the silk satin (it highlights the quilting better), use the color you really want. Odds are that this will remain the only quilted petticoat you will ever do.
  3. Do all of your panels at the same time. Even if it is impractical, switch between working on your panels and ensure that you will finish them nearly at the same time. Basically, there is a huge psychological hurdle that you will face at finishing one panel and then looking at an empty, equally large piece of fabric where you have to do the same thing all over again. Maybe you will have the willpower to continue but it’s a psychological challenge that is to be avoided. You could also make just one gigantic panel but that’s even more impractical.
  4. Don’t quilt on a deadline. Your hands and wrists might not be able to take it.
  5. Switch it up with other non-quilting projects while you are at it. Something that doesn’t require making the same hand movement over and over again. (See #4.)
  6. Don’t switch it up too much or you’ll never finish it.
  7. The thickness of the batting matters. As does the density of your fabric and the sharpness of your needles. All your technique will not wield you a tiny stitch length if you have to stitch through a super-thick quilting sandwich.
  8. Try to line up the quilting pattern repeat with the centre front, centre back and side seams. Cutting into a finished quilt is nerve-wrecking and not a great idea for durability.
  9. Don’t eat or drink next to your quilting. Or your sewing, cutting, hemming or whatever. Because nothing will kill an unfinished quilted petticoat faster than a simple coffee stain.
  10. Consider doing this only if you have run out of other clothes to make. A quilted petticoat was ubiquitous in the 18th Century but in 21st Century it’s not an essential garment. The time you spend on it could be spend making a very decorated gown with a equally overdecorated petticoat. You could make fully-boned stays with hand sewn boning channels and still have plenty of time for a chemise. You could make a wonderfully embroidered stomacher and the matching gown. There is so much else you might need before you need this. Because actually no one needs this.

So in conclusion (to steal the Historical Sew Fortnightly format):

The challenge (to myself): A quilted petticoat

Pattern: My own based on a bunch of originals

Year: 1730-1790 (trends are hard to discern with this item)

How historically accurate is it? It’s entirely sewn and quilted by hand, using only natural and historically accurate fibres. The pattern is based on extant examples. The only thing that is problematic is that I made two of the ties out of self-fabric which is technically a thing you could do in the 18th century but is unlikely to have been done.

Fabric: 90 in/230 cm x 54 inch/138 cm of red duchesse silk satin and 90 in/230 cm x 43 inch/110 cm of a Ikea Ljusöga cotton duvet cover

Notions: 5 yards/450 metres of 730 Guterman silk thread, cotton batting, linen ribbon, trick marker

Hours to  complete: more than 170 hours (unknown hours for research, 10 hours prep, 100 hours quilting the basic pattern, 40 hours of “shading”, 10 hours of cording/trapunto quilting, 10 hours of hemming, sewing, pleating, fishing out a leftover pin etc.)

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Is this worth 170 hours of my life?

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This?

These 170 hours are pretty insane. They didn’t feel like 170 hours because they were not intellectually challenging. Quilting is painting sewing by the numbers. It’s just moving the needle along a few drawn lines without doing anything else. So it can be done with three-quarters of a mind focusing on Downton Abbey or Lucy Worsley’s documentaries and watching all of Horrible Histories. That you can entertain yourself while quilting without getting distracted by switching into another part of the process like you have to when you properly sew, can give the impression that quilting goes by pretty fast.

The thing is – it is still 170 hours. I usually have a only vague idea of how much time I spend on making a garment but that’s enough to know that 170 hours is perhaps actually a record for me to spend on a garment or even entire ensemble. That at the end of the day I am not standing here with a super-ruffled Francaise but rather a mere petticoat is sobering.

That being said, I would have done it anyway if I had known this from the beginning. I mean I kind of knew this from the beginning. However, I cannot imagine doing another one. (Well, at least not one with this sort of complex and narrowly shaded pattern.)

Anyway the petticoat being dealt with meant I went back to the stomacher. I decided to quilt this one with as tiny stitches as I could manage (thickness of the batting is a major factor here) and then corded/trapunto-ed the decorative elements. I trapunto-ed the five-leaved clovers and corded the foliage, stuffing one vine fuller  than the other three for some contrast. The diamond pattern (where I had thinned the batting quite siginificantly before quilting) I left as it was.

I whipstitched the two sides together and then added a strip of folded bias tape as a makeshift boning channel to the back.

After this was done the stomacher lost 1 in/2cm in height, even though the width remained pretty much the same. Since I did make the stomacher a bit longer than my normal ones, this was actually not a bad thing.

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It fits pretty well.

Time spend on the stomacher?: About 20+ hours.

Now after this one, I actually packed my quilting things away and looked at all the other things I had on my to-do list. But then the leftover fabric irked me. There was very little of it but just enough to maybe tease out a 1750s type of jacket.

A quilted jacket.

But “maybe just enough fabric” turned out to be tricky. I didn’t cut corners, but I literally cut some corners very close and still had to piece three pattern pieces (one underside of a sleeve and two bits at the side of the bodice) using literal scraps from the very beginning. (In the process of fitting the quilted jacket I ended up needing two additional pieces. Fun was not had.)

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Who needs seam allowances anyway?

I didn’t have enough material to bind the pieces, so I sewed the left side of the lining (plus the batting I had pinned to the lining) to the left side of the silk and then turned everything over. (Of course, after pulling the pins out of the batting.) Then I closed the open seam. The only exceptions for this were the sleeve heads were I actually had an open seam allowance.

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At this point of this seemingly simple process I had spent already 15 hours on the jacket and yet had not quilted a single stitch.

I halved my batting before making my quilt sandwich. There were four very good reasons for that: 1. Vanity, because I didn’t want to end up looking like the Michelin Man 2. It would be much easier to make smaller stitches. 3. I didn’t actually have enough batting left to use it at its full thickness 4. The pattern was a tight fit without the batting. Fitting issues were bound to arise even with minimal batting and quilting. (And arise they did.)

Quilting was fast though. It was a simple diamond pattern with three lines at outer edges of the jacket and it went so, so fast. I think the difference  to the slooow petticoat was in the small size of the individual pieces. They were simply easier to handle while quilting.

The last step was sewing the jacket together. This didn’t went fast at all and then I had that fitting issue where the skirts of the jacket didn’t fan out properly and so they bunched at the waist a bit. More piecing, quilting and sewing commenced.

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A bit of Frankenstein never hurt the aesthetic value, right?

Time spend on the jacket?: About 30+ hours, although with a little more fabric it  could have been a few hours less. I also sacrificed another 110 yards of silk thread for the stomacher and the jacket.

Time spend on the whole ensemble? 220 hours.

Time I have spent wearing any part of this ensemble so far?: 6 hours.

And yes. This hobby is ridiculous.

 

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220 hours…

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Which is nearly as long as it has taken me to finish this post…

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