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The first garment we are making is by Alice Louisa Bygrave. It consists of a convertible cycling skirt. We are also making a jacket and bloomers.

We are working with an experienced pattern cutter to translate the patents into patterns. It is not an easy task. The language is….. well, unique. Take this for example: ‘As to the sides they are reached only through the fabric – there is no direct pull upon them or they would not festoon’.

Festoon?

So we are very pleased to be collaborating with Nadia Constaninou who did not so much as twitch at the task in hand. She is well versed in a range of garment production having worked on the US TV drama “The Good Wife” and  British and European couture collections.

We provided Nadia with a brief – kind of a character storyboard – for the garment. This comprised a copy of the original 1885 patent, articles of samples of the fabric we are planning to use, various visual references to skirts and bloomers of the period and my measurements. Excitingly, she drew all of these references together into a block pattern and series of instructions.

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The pattern comprises 9 pieces:

Skirt front  |  Skirt back  |  Front cord casing  |  Centre back cord facing  |  Front hem facing
Back hem facing  |  Waistband  |  Front placket  |  Front waist facing  |  Back waist facing

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We planned to make a trial version first on a cheaper wool blend tweed before cutting into the lovely Dashing Tweed fabric. We figured this would give us a chance to try and work out how the pulley system worked. Although Alice Louisa Bygrave’s patent provides 3 pages of detailed instructions and Nadia also interpreted this into a pattern, there was still a bit of ambiguity. To be honest we were not totally convinced it would work as well as it did in the end. We hoped it would enable a performative transformation but to see it in action was a delight.

There were many potential issues; – the pulley system in the front and the back of the skirt relied on an appropriate sized weights (there are 4) to enable the skirt to drop quickly but not be too heavy so to inhibit walking. I could imagine it banging into my ankles on each step. – the cord needed to be strong enough to ruch 2 metres of heavy wool but not be too thick to bulk out the waistband – the various button holes to channel the cords needed to be strong enough not to fray – the weights needed to be sewn in so they did not pull out on each application – the stitched channels for the pulley system  needed to be of a slippery enough material to ensure ruching up and down was possible.

It would hardly be a ‘quick change’ skirt if it got stuck half way!

The only thing to do was to make it and see what kinds of problems, mistakes and work-arounds emerged in the process.

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Rachel cut out the skirt in a shared open space in the Sociology Dept. I can safely say I think we are the first to use the office in this way.

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Making Alice Bygrave’s skirt involves not just the skirt. I also needed something to wear on top and underneath. We decided to make a jacket and initial pair of bloomers from an existing 1890s pattern (the one on the right).

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Cutting bloomers – we have made two types of bloomers so far. While this version is still quite bloomery (I am using this verb a lot lately) when compared to jeans/trousers of contemporary fashion, they are designed to be streamlined for wearing under dresses.

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The sizings are all very interesting (ie. odd and confusing) when you don’t wear a corset (not a chance). According to the sizing table which is translated from the initial Victorian pattern I have the waist of a Size 18 and the chest of a Size 8/10. Hmmmmmm. I cut a Size 14. This turned out to be a mistake as I had to adjust the jacket a LOT to fit.

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I was a little nervous as to how the ‘leg-o-mutton’ sleeves were going to look and I was pleasantly surprised. They were definitely full at the top but they elegantly tapered in to the wrist in an appealing twist. I was also taken by the asymmetric design. My current waterproof cycling jacket has a similar asymmetrical zip closure. It goes to show how some things have change little over the last 130 years.

(Also note the messiness of the office. It got worse).

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The bloomers one the other hand are meant to be bloomery, so I simply adjusted the waistband and cuffs to fit. This is a pic of me saying “this is only ONE leg”.

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The jacket and bloomers (despite requiring fairly extensive tailoring to fit) were relatively straight forward in comparison to the skirt.

Rachel did a brilliant job making the skirt, which took two days – one of which was pretty much dedicated to looking at it, trying things out and buying the appropriate bits and pieces. Although Nadia (our experienced pattern cutter) provided clear instructions as to how she thought it would come together, there was still a reasonable about of interpretation in actually making it material.

Firstly, it required purchasing a constellation of objects not normally associated with (my experience) of dress making – weights, waxed cord, rings. Rachel was directed out of of the dressmaking section of a large store and into the curtain department.

Hence, the skirt became termed here after as the skirtain.

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The channels down the front and rear of the skirt required significant attention. Although the check pattern proved to be a bit of a nightmare when cutting the material (each pattern piece had to be cut separately to ensure the pattern matched at the seams), it turned out to be be advantageous when sewing perfectly straight channels. We chose to use lining material for the inner channels to ensure the waxed cord would smoothly run between the pulley systems.

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Threading the waxed cords.

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Attaching the weights to the cords in the hem.

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The first ruching experiment – it WORKS!

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This is (a bit of ) what the ensemble looks like. More here.

 

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