It’s not every day that you are offered a gorgeous 1930’s silk chiffon Dressing gown to borrow, and even rarer to be allowed to take a pattern. But in February I took the opportunity very gratefully, knowing a reproduction of it would be a striking addition to my newly launched Etsy Store!
This is the glorious original garment I was loaned:
Made from a soft peach, crinkly silk chiffon the original wearer would have been a little pixie lady; even my small frame at 5’4″ left the hem comically short, and the snaps at the waist were unable to close around my 25″ waist. The challenge was therefore not just in copying a pattern, but in scaling it to fit a modern body.
The wonderful thing about taking a pattern off an original garment is that you learn so much. This robe features many 1930s details:
- Hand-sewn lace applique
- Ruched sleeves
- Bias cut skirt
- Nipped in waist
- Asymmetric neckline and sash.
But it was only when tracing the pattern that I discovered the skirt was cut in a very clever way: it is self lined, but the lining and outer layer are cut differently. The outer back panel is cut on the bias, so although the pattern piece has the hem at one continuous length, the bias stretch in the centre back creates a small train which hangs 12cm longer than the rest of the hemline. By contrast, the lining for the centre back skirt is less flared and cut on the straight grain, this controls the fullness of the outer skirt and saves on fabric!
Like many long bias cut garments of its time, the pattern pieces were obviously wider than the narrow fabrics available, and so the skirt is cunningly pieced. Additional seams in the corners of long panels extend the pieces beyond the width of the fabric and are sewn with selvages together so that there was no risk of fraying and no added bulk of finishing any raw edges.
Of course, the most obvious detail is the lace! This too has been very carefully worked, and has become a part of the garments structure. Rather than being sewn flat to the chiffon, the chiffon has been tucked and gathered onto the lace, adding a blousy fullness into the bodice.
The sleeves are of an eye-catching shape peculiar to the 1930’s; being gathered along the underarm seam and from the shoulder seam along the length of the arm.
The bodice is also lined, and again the lining is less full than the outer layer, this holds the fullness in position and guides the gathers on where to sit.
All these details were carefully traced onto pattern paper. The pattern cutting process is quite simple in theory; lay newsprint down on the carpeted floor, lay the garment on top and stretch and pin each panel piece one at a time. The pins stick into the carpet and provide as much or as little tension as needed. On a delicate garment like this it is important to stretch only very gently to prevent the pins pulling holes. Silk chiffon is always a trick to work with, it stretches where it should not and skews into deformed shapes.
But with patience, the pattern I ended up with was accurate. So I scaled it up to approx an NZ size 8 or 10, and adjusted some details to suit my fabrics and purpose.
While I admired the self lined skirt and the inserted lace of the original, I was using a lustrous viscose satin which is not sheer like a chiffon and so I chose not to line the skirt at all. I retained the bias cut skirt back and straight-grain skirt front, french seaming them together to maintain a high standard of finish on the inside.
The Neckline and cuffs I trimmed with lace, but rather than inserting it (cutting the fabric away so the lace is un-backed) I appliqued the lace on top of the satin. This was done mainly for ease of sewing, but also for structural strength – this is a wearable, (hand) washable garment, able to be lived in!
The silver viscose satin was rather beautifully partnered with a purple-grey lace from my stash. This was hand trimmed to remove the mesh, pinned in position and painstakingly hand-sewn to keep each twirly pinnacle in its proper position. Due to the smaller lace motif than the original, the lace sat with two points down the back as opposed to one.
After over twenty hours of work, from pattern-making to the final scraps of lace being stitched down, the gown was completed!
We chose to do a photoshoot in central Napier, as Napier is the ‘Art Deco Capital of the World’ and allows a wonderful variety of appropriate back drops, from the detailed entrance-way of the Gallery, to the modern pier. Though I had not intended to model the robe myself, I am very happy with the photos!
The gown was delightful to model, catching the wind in its billowing skirt, shining in the sun and attracting attention from passers by.
The crowning glory, however, is the lace detailing – hand cut lace applique, painstakingly sewn around the cuffs and neckline – which provides the quality finish that sets this garment apart as a unique hand crafted item.