The 1830s Project and the Lowell Mills Dress: Notes on Style, Pattern, and Fabric

As always, I feel compelled to acknowledge that I don’t have enough hair for sausage curls.

The 1830s Project:

Every so often, we are treated to an era of utterly outside-the-box fashion exuberance that later leaves us asking “What were we thinking?” I’m sure plenty of folks in the 1840s looked at their own high necklines and sensibly narrow sleeves, and breathed a sigh of relief as they thought back to the whims of the 1830s: The pineapple shaped hairdos! The scandalously visible ankles! The dresses with gigot sleeves so big you could hide babies inside them! Not that anyone did, but you get my point.

BABIES. (Unknown Artist, Portrait of a Lady, c. 1830.)

I really can’t blame the haters. I’ve been there. But truly, I now adore the 1830s. The poofy sleeves, bell skirts, and short hemlines have a joyousness that doesn’t reappear until the 1890s. However, it took this entire project to bring me to that point.

My 1830s project revolves around the Past Patterns Lowell Mills Dress, which I chose for the truly astonishing amount of research that went into it. The instruction booklet includes an extra 18 pages of history, photos, and notes on historical sewing techniques. The pattern itself is taken directly from a dress at the Lowell Historical Society in Massachusetts, originally owned by Mary Gregg. Gregg worked at the famous Lowell textile mills between 1825 and 1830, earning a salary of fifty cents per week. It would have taken her weeks of work to afford the fabric and finishings for her dress, which was made with full gigot sleeves in the late 1820s or early 1830s. Later in the decade, Mary banded down the sleeves at the top for a more updated look.

With each garment I made for the project, I imagined a woman like Mary: working hard, saving every penny, and doing her best to look presentable on a minuscule budget. My ensemble is meant to be a “Sunday best” type of outfit for a lower- to middle-income woman, circa 1836-37. The white muslin apron (rather than a darker print), self-embroidered cap, and fashionably banded-down sleeves would have been appropriate for socializing or doing light work.

The Lowell Mills Dress pattern instructions were average in terms of their clarity. They assume a lot, and are not intended for beginning sewists. If you’ve never set in a sleeve, made a facing, or constructed a dart, this is probably not an ideal pattern for you, since it doesn’t explain how. However, I made it through the construction phase without ripping out a bunch of work, which says a lot.

There are two things I wish were different about this pattern:

1. The fabric length estimation of 7.25 yards is too conservative for fabric with a directional print, and doesn’t include yardage for piping and facings. Usually I end up with loads of extra fabric from a project, but the 8 yards I purchased for this one were barely enough. This is despite the fact that I didn’t make the pelerine and shortened the skirt panels by 5 inches.

2. I’m not impressed by Past Patterns’ size ranges. This one offers a broader size range than most of their other patterns, but it is still only 8-26. Translated from pattern sizes into commercial sizes, that’s XS-XXL. Some of their dress patterns offer only four sizes, 10-16 (4-10 in commercial sizing). I know that many of PP’s offerings were originally published in the 1980s and 90s when extended sizes were even more of an afterthought than they are now. However, I believe makers have a responsibility to acknowledge that the costuming community comes in all sorts of sizes and shapes, and to make their patterns reflect that reality. I am hoping PP will update their offerings, and in the future I’ll look to pattern companies with more inclusive sizing.

It’s a little more minty than this in person.

My fabric for the dress (which I wish I’d bought more of!) is a lovely green calico with a stylized floral design from Maggie May. Although it’s a reproduction print, the flowers are delightfully reminiscent of Super Mario flowers. The background is a striking creamy green that is uncommon among reproduction calicos, but not unheard of. Green prints like this could be made in the 1830s by layering blue and yellow. Because so many of them eventually faded back to blue or yellow, there are not a lot of period garments that still exist in their original green.

For more on step-by-step garment construction, see my links at the top.

Pattern: Past Patterns’ Lowell Mills Dress, made without the pelerine


Photo shoot pictures are by my sister Emily (Thanks!).

– Kate

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