Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Tissot Dress: The Making Of

or, How Katy Lost Her Mind And Decided To Hand Pleat Over 80 Yards Of Fabric

I have loved the pink dress in Too Early by James Tissot for years and have always wanted to make it. This dress of course appears in many of Tissot's other paintings as well. This past autumn I made a huge step towards my goal and made a day dress version. It was a huge undertaking and I'm still amazed I managed to pull it off. This is actually the first Victorian dress I've ever made. It's so nice to start simple (har har)! As of now I only have a day bodice, but I also have plans to make an evening bodice so I can recreate the painting exactly. Click here to see the finished day dress!

My initial inspiration is of course the painting in which the pink dress features the most prominently, Too Early.

James Tissot. Too Early. 1873. Oil on canvas. London: Guildhall Art Gallery.

I made the dress out of a lovely pink sheer cotton lawn. The color of the fabric is a bit more intense than in the original painting but I liked the brightness of it. The dress was machine sewn because it's from the 1870s and they had sewing machines then, and because there was so much fabric that had I tried to hand sew everything it would have taken the rest of my life.

The main decoration on the skirt is the ruffles. While it would have been so much easier to gather the ruffles, I had my heart set on pleating them. I used a Perfect Pleater because I really wanted 1/4" pleats. The other thing I had to consider was the sheer quality of my fabric. If I had used the full 3/8" return of the pleater, the fabric would have consistently doubled up on itself and merged into one solid color which I didn't like. I wanted some differentiation in the color once the fabric was pleated, if that makes sense. So I marked a 1/8" measurement on an old credit card and used that to mark how deep the return should be in each pleat. It made the process much more time consuming but I'm so happy with the result.

Note how the fabric doesn't completely overlap under each pleat and there's two shades of pink based on where the fabric is and is not doubled.

The skirt has five ruffles along the bottom. Each strip was made from a continuous length of 12 yards of fabric. I also had two long strips which I used to cover the drape that decorates the top portion of the skirt. I also pleated thinner strips as decoration for the day bodice. All told there are over 80 yards of fabric in my decorations! Before pleating the strips I hand-rolled the worlds tiniest rolled hems on each side. I really need to get a rolled hem foot for my machine.

The five main strips laid out in my living room for scale.
Once pleated up, the strips shrank to a little more than half their original size. Here you can see a pleated strip next to an unpleated strip for comparison:

Everyone has their own pleating board trips and tricks and I was a complete novice to the entire operation. The process I came up with was to pleat each section, iron it with a vodka-water soaked press cloth, and then as I waited for the new section to cool I pinned the pleats of the previous section on each end. Once I finished the strip I sewed a quick basting stitch through the pinned pleats to make sure they stuck. Finally I ironed the fully pleated strips again using a Sullivan's Rajah Pressing Cloth to make sure all the pleats were really really set. Was this the best way to do it? Who knows. Was this the most efficient way to do it? Probably not. But it's the method I came up with and it's what worked for me. Each strip took anywhere from 6 to 8 hours to pleat, depending on how much coffee I'd had.

A panoramic shot showing the entire process from plain strip to pleating to pinning to basting.

A couple artistic shots of pleated and basted strips!

The other major component of the dress is the burgundy ribbon. I wanted to use velvet ribbon and just happened to have burgundy velvet ribbon in the perfect shade and size in my stash, but of course I didn't have enough yardage. So I set out to try and match the color of the ribbon I already had. It turns out that the ribbon I already had is completely unique and no other ribbon in existence matches it. I ordered swatches from dozens of stores to try and find the color but no luck. Here you can see a comparison of my original ribbon (horizontal) and some of my attempts to match it (vertical).

Eventually I had to bite the bullet and make peace with the fact that I just needed to buy new ribbon. I had grand plans to use the ruffler foot on my sewing machine to pleat up the ribbon but I couldn't get it to work. I don't know if the ruffler foot was the wrong size for the machine or the velvet ribbon was just too slippery but either way after a lot of trial and error I had to come up with a new plan. Which involved sewing a few stitches, then stopping and making a tuck, sewing a few more stitches, stopping and making a tuck, etc. I just eyeballed it so my pleated ribbon isn't perfect but I'm very happy with how it turned out. Below you can see the ribbon going through the machine. Once again, was this the best or most efficient method? Probably not. But it worked!

All was not lost for my original velvet ribbon though! I got to incorporate a bit of it into the day bodice. For the day bodice I took some inspiration from The Ball on Shipboard. You can see it on the woman ascending the stairs in the lower right corner of the painting.

Detail of The Ball on Shipboard by James Tissot. 1874. Oil on canvas. London: Tate Gallery.
However, I don't like the exact design of the bodice in that painting so I took at as inspiration only and then went my own way with it. I took further inspiration from these fashion plates:

And in this shot you can see the final design I came up with:

For the "stomacher" (for lack of a better term) I was able to finally use that original ribbon I had! I layered alternating strips of the original ribbon and the new ribbon I used for the dress to create a series of V's.

As you can see from the above photo showing the finished product, the design is subtle but I absolutely adore it and I think it really sets off the dress nicely.

I don't really have many photos of constructing the actual base skirt and bodice, since pleating the trim was the biggest hurdle. I draped both on my dress form.

My final step was making a hat! I could have just bought a hat pattern but I couldn't be bothered so I sort of messily created one using some old calendar pages.

I run an extremely high tech operation.
Then I made the real thing out of buckram. There's wire along the outer and inner edge of the brim. I covered the hat in a layer of white sateen and then my pink fabric.

When I pinned the lining to the interior my hat became a super hardcore punk rock hat!
The hat looks pretty boring without any trim and the seams were really noticeable, but all of that would get covered in trim. I'm so happy with the final shape!

And finally here's the hat with all it's bells and whistles that conviniently cover the ugly bits!

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