A blouse from 1921, as advertised.

The prompt for the Historical Sew Monthly in July was “Sleeves.” Initially I had grand plans of making an Ionian chiton and even dove far enough down that rabbit hole that I was reading an archaeological journal article from 1928* to understand ancient Greek fastenings…but it was getting a bit overwhelming, so I turned to the 20th century, instead. I turned exactly to 1921.


Is that even historical? A plain shirt with cut-on sleeves and some gathers at the waist? Yes! Below is a set of instructions for a pattern that you could buy if you were a reader of the Woman’s Home Companion in 1921. As a source, it has several exciting features: an exact year, period-accurate instructions for a home-seamstress, and, conveniently, the actual shape of the pattern piece. Pattern piece–singular–because as advertised, it’s Cut in One Piece.

I also found a Sears catalogue page from around the same year. I liked the blue one on the upper left, and based my own on that.

You know, if I walked down the street in 1921, I don’t think anyone would point and shriek at the time-traveling lady.

Of course, this isn’t a totally accurate reproduction. I sketched up a pattern based on my best guess of how it’s supposed to fit; I couldn’t find an extant example. Regarding the embroidery, which is the most obvious difference–I researched hard to justify not doing any. Alas, the style was for large-scale, symmetrical motifs in at least two contrasting colours. Even the Woman’s Home Companion version includes fringe and satin stitch. My double-line of running stitch represents the the most I could handle and still took two full episodes of The Night Manager (special thanks to Olivia Colman for being excellent). I’m thrilled with how crisp it came out, but it has zero historical basis that I could find.

To my credit, though, I sewed the whole shirt by hand. I wanted to practice my hand-sewing, and it was (surprisingly) pleasant, just very slow–those underarm seams are French seams. I don’t see myself doing that again any time soon.

The rayon poplin is a substitute for tricolette, a fabric I’ve never seen; it’s is a drapey knit of rayon or silk. I finished my version with facings and hems instead of bias tape, because hand-sewing rayon bias tape sounds like a shifty, slippery nightmare.

Some shirts closed with a sash at the back instead of snaps.

In Summary:
Pattern: Self-drafted
Fabric: 1 m rayon poplin
Approximate Cost: $13.00 CAD ($10 for the fabric, $1 for the embroidery thread, $2 for a box of metal snaps)
What didn’t go well: The sleeves should be about 50% wider at the hem, and the puffs at the waist could less puffy. For some reason, the snaps don’t lie nicely when I wear the shirt, and look like they’re straining even when they’re not. Maybe they’re too heavy? I also managed to cut a slice out under one arm near the seam and had to patch it.


What went well:  The embroidery went much better than expected, as did the hand sewing. The facing went in smoothly. I drafted a pattern myself and it worked! Most importantly, I got a new shirt that I plan to wear regularly. Hurrah!

*Kate McK. Elderkin. “Buttons and Their Use on Greek Garments.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 32, no. 3, 1928, pp. 333–345. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/497471.



A formal dress, some tablecloths, and a laundry disaster.

This? Oh, it was nothing!

Last month, I decided to sew myself a dress for my end-of-year formal. I talked myself into it, really, promising myself that it wouldn’t be stressful. It would be relaxing! I wasn’t going to spend more than a few hours on it! I definitely wasn’t going to stay up late for it!

In retrospect, it doesn’t sound convincing, but I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

I decided to make a version of this dress by Chi Chi London. Princess bodice with lace overlay and a gathered skirt? Seems pretty straightforward.

I picked out my pattern, feeling smug about my ability to look past the sample because…well. Look at it.

Some amateurs might get distracted by the satin bodice with lace undershirt and the double layer of sparkle tulle over a satin pencil skirt, but not ME.

I even managed to find fabric at a thrift store; a length of polyester crepe-back satin that someone used as a tablecloth. I also bought a lace tablecloth for the overlay. I figured I’d dye the whole thing pale blue or dusty pink so that it wouldn’t look like a wedding dress. This clever and thrifty shopping had me enormously feeling self-satisfied.

I lost my pic of the lace tablecloth, but picture a cream lace rectangle with three large motifs in the middle.

Initially, it was all going smoothly. I took extra time to cut everything symmetrically and decided that I wanted a full lace motif over the front bodice. That meant doing applique seams.

Ta-DA! It was all going so well! And here, of course, is where it all started to go very, very badly. See the orange marks on the lace? Generally, I use Crayola markers on fabric; they’re cheap, accessible, and water-soluble. This time, I’d absentmindedly grabbed a highlighter. By the time the bodice was done, I’d already spent something like eight hours with all the careful cutting and hand-sewing so I thought I’d just double check that the marks would come out and…yeah, as it turns out, highlighter’s not water-soluble. At all.

I soaked it overnight with detergent. No change. I tried alcohol hand sanitizer. Nope. Acetone (i.e. nail-polish remover) had a slight effect, but I was still looking at a dress that had a lurid orange frame around my chest. Could I chuck the whole thing in the dye pot and hope for the best? Nope. I had assumed that the tablecloth was polyester, but it seemed to actually be mostly cotton. Polyester and cotton require different kinds of dyes, and accept dye to different degrees. Given all the hand-sewing I’d done (untidily, in polyester thread, on those applique seams) there was a good chance that either the overlay would dye dark but the seams would show as scraggly white, or the thread would dye but the fabric wouldn’t. So I doused the thing in nail polish remover, hoped that it wouldn’t dissolve altogether, and left it for another day.

At this point, it was Monday and the formal was Friday.  After even the dry cleaner refused to try anything, I grabbed some Oxi Clean. I misunderstood the instructions and wound up using two cups instead of two scoops of the stuff, but after a day and a half of soaking and a run through the washing machine, the orange was finally pale peach. I dabbed some white fabric paint over the remaining marks and called it good.

Late on Wednesday night (through til early Thursday morning, because I ignored everything I told myself about not staying up late) I used some RIT Dyemore in Kentucky Sky and Frost Gray to dye the remaining crepe-back satin.

Thursday afternoon, I sewed a green floor-length gathered skirt with pockets. I didn’t have enough lace left to make an overlay for the skirt, so I changed my plan to go for something like this instead:

Graceful, elegant.

Unfortunately, I looked in the mirror and realized that I had managed to make a perfect fake-Edwardian 1980s bridesmaid’s dress. So, on Thursday at 11:30 pm, I re-cut the skirt into a waistband and a half-circle skirt with another set of pockets. I was in a doggedly stubborn place where I couldn’t give up on the pockets. I couldn’t.

The next day, the waistband and skirt were attached, the zipper was inserted, and I sewed the opening of the upper back shut ( because it was looking droopy). I finished hemming and ironing it and then headed straight over to a friend’s to get ready. The choruses of “You MADE that?!” have never been so sweet.

No orange in sight! And the sleeves are symmetrical.
You can see the lumpy zipper, but it’s symmetrical! Also, less twisted usually, but I was sitting to get this photo.
As you can see, during wearing the collar flopped down. That happens on the Chi Chi London dress as well–it occurs to me now that starching it might help. Or using garment tape.

In summary:

Pattern: McCall’s M7321. It’s decent, and I’d use it again, but I’d try to raise the armscyes and get the whole thing a bit more fitted.

Fabric: 2 m of polyester crepe-back satin, 1 mid-sized lace tablecloth

Approximate Cost: $40.00 CAD ($12 for the fabric, $12 for the dye, $10 for the pattern, $0.30 for the zipper, and $5 for the thrifted dye pot–though that’ll get reused)

What went well: I got a usable dress! I really like how the lace motif on the front looks. I’m pleased that the sleeves, back, and sides are all symmetrical. It was my first time trying applique seams, and it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. And I’m really glad that I stuck with the project and finished it.

What didn’t go well: Highlighter fiasco aside, I think dyeing the fabric was a huge pain. With polyester, you actually have to stir it over the stove for the colour to take. The fit could be better. It wound up costing more than I wanted it to. The lapped zipper is pretty bad.

Closing thoughts: Overall, I’m happy with this project! And it was fun, even though it got a bit crazy in the middle.