Past Patterns’ Lowell Mills Dress Part 1: Bodice

After making so. many. foundation garments. for the Lowell Mills Dress, I was excited to finally get to work on the dress itself. Past Patterns’ instruction booklet copies Mary Gregg’s original dress exactly, so I knew I could learn a lot from this project.

As always, make a mockup! I did the bodice plus one sleeve, to see how well they fit together. Before doing so, I graded the pattern between multiple sizes for the bust and waist, since (as with most people) my measurements didn’t match up perfectly with any one size on the chart. This helped me achieve the right fit in those areas, and I didn’t have to adjust them later on.

This is what my bodice mockup looked like when I placed it too low on my body. Don’t do this!

However, during the mockup phase I had to be really careful about where the neckline, darts, and waistline hit when I tried it on. 1830s darts are different from present-day darts, in that they often extend from the waist to a point higher than (or to the side of) the fullest part of the bust. I forgot this, and initially placed the darts right at my bust point. This pushed the neckline, underarms, and waistline lower than they were supposed to be.

Luckily I realized my mistake and was able to correct it. The bottom of the waistband on this dress should sit just above the natural waist. By using this as a reference point, I was able to pin the mockup onto myself appropriately.

Note: The bodice lining is longer than the bodice (see later pictures where I piece them together), so it is helpful to do your mockup with the bodice itself, as you will more easily be able to determine where your waistline should be.

After the bodice was in place, I pinned the straps on. Don’t sew them down before trying them on! Everyone’s shoulders are different, both in length and angle. Once I had lengthened the straps by a few inches—which I always have to do for any pattern—I had a friend mark the angles at which they lay best against the bodice front and back (remember, though, this is a drop shoulder dress, so the straps lay across the rounded part of the shoulder). It would have been impossible to do any of the fittings for this dress without help, which was a good reminder of how communal an activity sewing could be in the 19th century.

Now I was ready to begin the final version. The pattern tells you to cut both the sleeves and bodice fabric on the bias, since that’s how Mary Gregg did it. You don’t have to, though. The direction of my print was just not appropriate for a bias cut bodice, and I figured that cutting on the grain instead would also keep the bodice more stable. I kept the sleeves on the grain as well, which I’ll talk about in my sleeves post.

The first steps are to construct the bodice front piece and the two back pieces. The instructions for this are fairly straightforward. I did all the visible finishes by hand, and the interior ones by machine. I was really pleased with my pattern matching on the back and side body pieces

Front piece. The gathers go at the shoulders and at the bottom between the darts.
Back piece. Pattern matching!

Next, I ran gathering stitches at the waist and shoulders on the front piece, and the waist and neck on the back. They’re gathered later on, so I didn’t actually make the gathers yet. The instructions only show one row of gathering stitches, but I did two, so the gathers would be tidier and easier to control.

After that, I stitched together the lining. The first fitting is done with the lining only, and all I did was pin it closed and have a friend mark the center back on both sides. After removing it, I drew another line just outside of each, 1/8” out at the top and 5/8” out at the bottom. These eventually became the fold lines at the back opening of the dress. There was a LOT of extra fabric, so don’t worry if that happens to you as well. This is what it looked like:

This is from my mockup, but it’s pretty much the same.

The following step is an odd one. It has you make two little flappy things at the bottom of the center back (see picture below) that were part of Mary Gregg’s original dress. They sit behind the waistband rather than being connected to it, so they likely exist to make the dress easier to let out in the waist by loosening the gathers at the back of the dress (if you look at the pictures in the booklet, this will make sense). Although I initially followed the instructions for it, you do not have to do this part if you don’t want to! The dress will be a little more stable and durable around the waist without the flaps. When I put on the waistband later on, I just sewed them right into the waistband anyway, like they’d never been there at all.

Piecing the bodice and bodice lining together. One of the flappy things is visible at the lower left. I chose not to keep those.

Then I put the bodice and bodice lining together. This involved pulling on all the gathering stitches I’d made earlier, so that the bodice pieces matched up with the size of the lining pieces. After that I tied off the gathers and basted the lining and bodice together. The gathers were both functional and pretty, and the back gathers helped to hide the hook and eye closures that I added later on.

Waistband going on. Bye bye flappy things!

Next I pinned the waistband on and did my second fitting, to confirm that the bottom of the waistband sat just above my natural waist. This ensures that it won’t bulge in the back, or fold over in the front when I sit down. I also chose to add a strip of cotton canvas inside my outer waistband layer to further stabilize it before half-backstitching it to the bodice. Although the instructions say to then “hem” the waistband lining to the inside of the bodice, I just interpreted this to mean stitching it down with whatever your preferred method is. Mine is whipstitched on.

Hint: If you make the waistband lining just a smidge narrower than the outer waistband, it will make it easier to whipstitch the waistband lining to the bodice, since the outer waistband edge will then hide any whipstitches that show through from the inside.

The next step was to pipe the neckline, which was fun and had really clear instructions. I used a piping foot on my machine, both to make the piping and to attach it later on. If you haven’t yet learned of the glories of the piping foot, OMG IT IS THE BEST. I bought a set of three different sizes for $15, and they are truly a wonder. Each has a groove that channels the piping right under it, and a hole that allows the needle to stitch it right up against the edge. Rather than attaching my piping and neck facing separately, as the Lowell Mills instructions suggest, I stitched them on in a single stack, pinned 1/2” from the edge.

Making piping. Soooo magical.
Bodice/piping/facing sandwich.

Ideally, a piping foot stitches everything tightly enough so that the stitches from the piping itself won’t show on the outside of a garment, which meant that I could use it even though I wanted the exterior of my dress to have hand-stitched finishes. When I unfolded and pressed the neckline, there were only a few spots at the neckline corners where the machine stitches from the piping were visible, but that was an easy fix. I hand stitched them down, and it looked great.

Note: Use smaller cording than you think you should. 1830s piping was really narrow, and was essentially string. I used Wright’s #2 polyester cord, which is a tad larger than 1/16”. If you use cotton cording, wash it first so it won’t shrink when you wash the dress.

Stitching on the sandwich with my piping foot.

Per the pattern instructions, I added hooks and eyes at the end, after the dress was pieced together. Since the original dress had metal hooks and thread eyes, that’s what they use, but I just used metal eyes for the sake of durability.

Next: sleeves.

– Kate

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