Past Patterns’ Lowell Mills Dress Part 2: Sleeves

Ooh I love the way those pleats move.

There is something whimsical about 1830s sleeve patterns, the way they fan out like giant crenelated mushrooms, only to then fold into something as functional as a sleeve.

I was apprehensive about making these, but in the end really enjoyed watching them take shape. Past Patterns offers two sleeve options, mirroring the alterations made to Mary Gregg’s original dress (which the pattern is based on). The first version is a full gigot sleeve appropriate for the early-mid 1830s, and the other has the top of the sleeve banded down in a style commonly seen after about 1836. I made the second one, since the pleating looked fun. And it was!

I decided to cut the sleeves on the grain rather than on the bias (which is what the instructions recommend), just for looks. Although cutting on the bias can help the sleeves drape nicely, I didn’t think this would be a huge issue for me since my calico fabric wasn’t all that thick or stiff. In the end, the draping looked fine. However, if you’re using a heavier or stiffer fabric, bias sleeves may be your best option.

The pattern markings are pretty clear about how to fold the pleats. I used two pins per pleat so that they stayed in place, and made sure my basting stitches were both (a) straight, and (b) the same on each sleeve. I knew that later on I’d be chain stitching over the basting stitches to permanently affix the pleats, and wanted them to be attractive and symmetrical. I also used a heat soluble pen to mark the right and left sleeves, since it’s easy to get confused.

Next—without sewing the sleeve seam—I basted one of the sleeves into its corresponding armhole for the sleeve fitting. The sleeve fitting was more challenging than the two bodice fittings, so I asked my friend Brittany, a theater costumer, to help. She already knew how they were supposed to drape and fit, so I didn’t have to do any explaining. We poofed up the sleeve a little at the top, then pinned it narrowly to my lower arm. We also marked where the cuff should lie.

I also noticed some unwanted fabric bulges at the front of my underarm and in my upper back shoulder area. I had Brittany mark out areas of the sleeve head that needed to be pulled into the seam allowance, so that the upper sleeve would fit more smoothly into the bodice.

This all looked like a total hack job when I took off the sleeve and marked it up. There were slices marked out of the pleats on the front and back, plus more along the length of the arm. I trimmed everything on the sleeve seam and cuff area, but the markings along the pleats looked so odd that I didn’t trust myself to trim them. I just pinned them in place along the new markings, and only trimmed the seam allowances after I’d set in the sleeve and was sure it looked okay (it did).

Note: PLEASE REMEMBER YOUR SEAM ALLOWANCES when you are trimming the extra fabric away from your sleeve.

After trimming along the sleeve seam.

Before doing the seam, I chain stitched over the original lower basting lines on the pleats. For the most historically accurate finish, you can use silk buttonhole twist, but I didn’t have any in the right color, so I used topstitching thread instead. I love the look of the chain stitching, and like that it offers another option for pleating down sleeves if you don’t want to use fabric bands.

I then followed the instructions for gathering the sleeve and sewing the sleeve seam. Mary Gregg’s original dress only has piping down the seam, and not around the cuff. However, I decided to go ahead and pipe the cuffs as well. I used some extra bias strips as a cuff facing, and lapped the back bit of piping under the front one for a smooth looking finish. Although I changed the points where the cuffs met the seam from angles into curves, the piping was a little finicky around the curves. I had to sew those bits by hand rather than using my piping foot.

The instructions suggest tiny hooks and eyes at the cuffs, but my hands are really narrow, so I didn’t bother.

It looks like bagpipes.
Before I finished off the sleeve facing.

Setting in the sleeves was the part that made me nervous. I wanted to use my piping foot, both for ease and to save my fingers from the stress of sewing through so many pleated layers. But with as many as 8 layers of fabric sandwiched together, I wasn’t 100% sure it wouldn’t randomly stitch off course.

Piping pinned along the weird new seam allowance lines.

Guess what? It did work. The piping looks amazing, and the slices I took out of the underarm and upper back shoulder provided a better fit. They also didn’t make the chain stitching look crooked (although they could have if they had been in more central locations).

As is common with these types of drop shoulder styles, I will still need to add some little pads to the underarm/side boob area on the inside. This style creates a hollow in that spot that doesn’t correspond to most body shapes. It’s actually not unheard of to find slapdash pads stuck to the front underarm area of extant 1830s dresses (I’ve seen pictures but couldn’t find them).

Next…On to the skirt!

– Kate

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *