Victorian Christmas

I hardly gave myself a moment to rest on my laurels before I jumped headfirst into my next project: Victorian Christmas! A few days after I finished the Turquoise Victorian Ensemble, I jaunted off on a Girl’s Weekend in St. Pete with my besties. While there, I met up with my sewing Partner-In-Crime, Renee Stewart.

Ages ago, Renee had a side business sewing skating costumes. She used her expertise with stretchy fabric to mentor me through a project that was giving me trouble back in the 1990s. She’s been my sounding board for sewing projects ever since. Nowadays, Renee is semi-retired and works at JoAnn Fabrics in Tampa, as well as running her side business selling Zero-Waste shopping bags and promoting her Zero-Waste Lifestyle, Scrappy Life.

I knew Renee would be the person to help me locate just the right items for my Victorian Christmas ensemble. I most needed buckram and feathers for my French Bonnet. She didn’t let me down. We spent a wonderful morning scouring her store for just the right colors to match the Christmas fabric that I had bought in the early 1990s because I just loved it and had to have it despite not having a clear idea of what I was going to do with it!

Renee knew the fabric in question because I’d marched it out as a table runner or some such for every Christmas for the past 20-odd years. Using up a fabric stash to make a Victorian Costume was right up her green little alley! Reduce, reuse, recycle! She was also tickled that I was making the matching hat out of a velvet remnant that I’d found in a home-dec fabric shop 10 years earlier. I’d bought the remnant for two reasons, 1) It matched my Christmas stash fabric, and 2) It was super cheap at $5 for more than one yard!

Granted, my husband thought I’d lost my mind when he saw the colors I was working with. He also thought I was out of my mind for trying to finish this ensemble in less than a month! I mean, we’re talking a bonnet, a bodice, a skirt, and flannel underwear! I suppose I was a bit ADD about the whole project because I no sooner put one element down and I picked up another and started working on it.

The skirt was the quickest element to knock out. I had a pattern I knew worked. All I had to do was trace, cut out, and stitch up a duplicate of the Turquoise skirt in Royal Blue. However, due to time constraints, I left off the pleated ruffle to give myself more time to work on the hat. The skirt came together in two days. I used what I had on hand to finish it. I know the white button was a bold choice, but I gambled that the bodice would cover it and it wouldn’t be noticeable to anyone but me.

The wired bustle had sustained some wear on Halloween and required minor repairs. Sally, the Tipsy Mannequin, would simply have to try to get along without it until I managed to fix the minor tears.

I won’t lie. I was very excited at the prospect of making a bonnet for the Victorian Christmas ensemble. Between my anachronistic bobbed hair and lack of proper accessories, the Turquoise Ensemble had looked unfinished and lacking. I swore I’d have a hat of some kind, and I’d fallen in love with French bonnets. The pattern offered a variety of looks, so I opted for the high crown, narrow brim. The very night the pattern arrived, I set to work cutting out the buckram and stitching the basic shape. Of course, I hadn’t fully worked out the overall look yet and was putting it together on the fly. (Don’t tell my husband!)

Thank goodness for Hallmark Christmas movie marathons! Everywhere I went, I had my oversized canvas tote bag filled with my busy work. Thank goodness I didn’t have to go through any metal detectors. I’m not sure how I would have explained millinery wire!

Honestly, once I got the basic form finished in buckram, I was at a standstill. I wasn’t sure whether I would finish the bonnet in the velvet remnant, or the Christmas fabric. I was stalled until I could make up my mind. As each day passed, I knew I was running out of time.

As the date closed in, the weather of the event came into question. The City of Thomasville, Georgia hosts a two-day festival each December called Victorian Christmas. Last year, the second night had been rained out. Some years it has been sweltering hot, other years it’s been absolutely freezing! Honestly, in South Georgia, you never know what kind of weather it’s going to be. Two years ago today, it was snowing. Today it’s a balmy 78° and we have tornado warnings! The way the forecast was looking for Victorian Christmas, it was going to be cold and possibly rainy. I didn’t have time make a coat. I was gambling that I wouldn’t need one, or that my reliable dress wool coat would suffice. The potential for blustery wind was what worried me. The idea of chill winds whipping up my skirt while I was wearing thin batiste drawers did not appeal to me.

As you may know from some of my previous posts, I am in a state of fluctuating size and shape. The batiste drawers I’d finished for the Turquoise ensemble were a bit too large in the waist. I’d always planned to whip up some flannel undergarments for Victorian Christmas, so I went ahead and knocked out a chemise and drawers. I didn’t spend a lot of time making them fancy. I was primarily concerned with making them warm!

In keeping with my schedule, I took them everywhere with me, (along with the hat,) and stitched at ball games and school assemblies. I attached some simple crochet lace trim that I had on hand. For the buttons, again, I chose to use some vintage buttons from my great-grandmother’s stash. I thought she would be tickled that I was using her old buttons to make brand-new drawers like the kind her mother wore! My great-grandmother was born in 1888. It seemed apropos.

Once the undergarments were settled, it was time to work on the bodice.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to make a muslin first. I don’t know what went wrong. I measured everything correctly. Despite my utmost care, the first muslin was much too small for me.

Frustrated, I turned my attention to the hat.

I’m really quite glad I did. I needed a victory and quite honestly, didn’t know what to expect from the hat. My previous attempt at hatmaking was a complete failure. I took advantage of the Indian Summer and ventured out onto my front porch for some sewing. I knew it would likely be the last day for months that I could do so.

I’m happy to say, the bonnet came together quickly. My husband was dubious. Within a few days, I had the entire thing completed. I’m quite pleased with the bow on the back. It’s one of the prettiest I’ve made, if I do say so myself!

I took a bit of buckram and machine stitched rows of feathers to it. It was a time-consuming and needle-breaking process, but I’m pleased with the way it turned out. On a shopping expedition with my husband, I’d found a lovely spray of silk flowers in autumn colors that were just the right shade to complement the feathers. Of course, I had to dismantle the one big bloom that I liked because it was too large for the narrow brim.

I nestled a large, decorative snowflake button encrusted with sparkly crystals into the center of the flower and sewed the whole to the crown of the hat. A satin ribbon and matching ties finished her off nicely.

Naturally, once I had the thing completed, I couldn’t stop admiring myself in it. Quite proud of my accomplishment, I galumphed over to present my masterpiece to my mother for her inspection. She was quite impressed. My 84 year-old mother giggled like a schoolgirl when I asked whether she’d like to try on this lovely chapeau. She beamed and preened like a peacock when I settled it on her head.

Don’t you think she looks lovely?

Hat completed, and feeling much better about myself, I measured again over my period undergarments to make sure I had the correct historical ease, and the second muslin fit much better. Sometimes we need little victories to help us keep going.

With a properly fitting muslin, I tackled the layers of the bodice. Time was running short for too much detail work, so I cut out the lining the interlining, opting to forego the boning and praying it didn’t need it.

I laid out the bodice pattern on the Christmas fabric, unsure of whether I had enough for sleeves as well as the main body. To add to my torment, another costumer posted the most beautiful pattern matching I’d seen. I took it as a challenge.

I had to make a decision. It was crunch time. I would never have enough fabric if I matched the pattern. As it was, I wasn’t sure I’d have matching or coordinating sleeves. Two friends gave me excellent advice. One said, “It’ll never be noticeable on the back of a galloping horse!” Another suggested laying out the sleeves first, then the other pieces, which I did and found to my relief that I did indeed have enough fabric to achieve the look I wanted.

Once I had all the pieces in place, it was simply a matter of following the directions. I flatlined the layers and assembled the fashion fabric and interlining as one piece. The lining, I sewed separately.

Word of my project spread like wildfire. In a tiny town like mine, people are curious, but not rudely so. To accommodate their friendly curiosity, I set Sally the Tipsy Mannequin up in my picture window for passersby to see and follow my progress.

From there it was easy enough to attach the sleeves and contrasting cuffs, finish the darts, which I did not cut, until after my final fitting.

And when I mean final fitting, there were several fittings and much tweaking. Sally is not an exact replica of my form so it was hit and miss with the mirror. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked.

Once I was in the homestretch, I attached the lining to the outer layers, flipped it right side out, finished the lovely pleated peplum, and when all was said and done, the buttons and button holes.

As it was, my family was sitting around asking my hubby, “When are we leaving for Victorian Christmas?” To which he replied, “When Mama finishes her outfit.”

I put the final touches on the ensemble and buttoned myself into it for one last check. There are an awful lot of buttons. I found myself wishing I had put in a zipper instead. It was indeed cold and blustery with the threat of rain. I did get to wear my flannel undergarments, and was grateful for them. Though I carried my wool coat, I hardly needed it all. I was quite comfy in my layers.

My hubby snapped a few pics on our way out the door. I didn’t even have time for a final pressing. Though I have to say, I am pleased with the way it turned out. There are still a few issues with the way the bodice fits that won’t be addressed until I replace Sally with a Bootstrap dress form. Given that my own form and figure are in a state of flux, I’m not concerned.

There are some photos of me at the event floating around the Internet. A few tourists asked for pictures that night but I haven’t seen them. These are the only pictures I have of myself wearing it. Please pardon the fact it isn’t properly pressed.

Making this ensemble was a bucket list item for me. For nearly 30 years I held on to this Christmas fabric not knowing exactly what I was going to make with it. When I bought it all those years ago, I had something like this in the back of my mind, but at the time, it had seemed to be an impossible dream.

What fabric is in your stash that you just love, but still haven’t figured out what to make with it?

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