Sewing Reproductions
History-Inspired Patterns
Working with Lace

Tips for Sewing Reproduction Garments

The first step in creating your own historical "reproduction" is to find an appropriate pattern. Many ordinary fabric stores carry historical patterns, often under the "Costumes and Crafts" section in pattern books. Butterick featured a line called "Making History," while Vogue carried a line of history-inspired patterns called "Vintage Vogue." Simplicity offers a good selection of period costumes, especially in Renaissance and Medieval styles. Costumes are not always easy to sew, as they feature special techniques and often different fabrics and trim. Many of these pattern makers will note whether their design is for beginner, intermediate or advanced seamstresses. If you are a seasoned seamstress and want to find a pattern that is more accurate to the period, there are also a variety of specialty pattern makers and retailers.

After you have found your pattern, you will need to choose the fabric and material you want to use. Historical clothing was often much more lavish than clothing today. Fine silks, damasks, velvets and lace were used to create a piece that was in itself a true masterpiece of art. Depending on your budget, it is often possible to get by with using fabrics that look like the originals but cost far less. Instead of silk shantung, you can find some quality polyester shantung that has the look and feel of the original at a fraction of the cost. Most likely, a historical reproduction will only be worn for a few special occasions. As such, it will probably be possible to trim some costs by being a little creative. If your budget allows, you can also find vintage fabrics, textiles and antique laces to add authenticity to your creation. Some seamstresses choose to add trims, notions and designs from vintage tablecloths, handkerchiefs and the like.

Jennifer Cech, of La Petite Trousseau, an award-winning reproduction seamstress, states that sewing a historical-style dress involves many of the same elements of modern dress construction. However, Cech comments: "There are major differences depending on the intent of the garment wearer. For costumes, you can take shortcuts to achieve the look or feel of a historical garment. A truly historical gown requires research on correct construction techniques, [for example], cartridge pleating in an Elizabethan overskirt and in a Civil War Era Skirt versus gathering on a modern evening or ball gown; proper shaping techniques that require the use of boning for period bodices versus fitted princess seams for shaping in modern blouses. The selection of period correct fabrics, colors and styles also plays a major role in construction."

The most interesting part of Cech's craft is "recycling" vintage textiles into "new" garments that can be enjoyed for many generations. When working with vintage textiles, Cech notes: "My first concern is the intended use of the garment, where it will go, who it will belong to, how it will be preserved. I try to provide some guidance about proper care for these intended heirlooms. Intended use also dictates certain construction requirements if the item is to be used repeatedly. Additionally, working with vintage trims requires careful measurement when applying to the finished garment--one mistake may mean an inability to complete the task... [Also] cleaning and restoration of some trims is necessary before they can be used as well."

Finally, if you decide that sewing a reproduction garment may be too much to undertake on your own, you may consider commissioning a seamstress or tailor to do the job for you. As for finding a reputable seamstress or tailor in your local area, Cech offers this advice: "I would question a prospective seamstress or tailor about their experience, and more than likely, I would ask for references. References should be asked the following: Was the garment what you expected? Was it completed in a timely manner? Did you need additional alterations for fit? Did it serve the purpose for which it was intended? But most importantly, would you recommend this person for future services? I would definitely ask to see current samples of their work to determine the quality of services to be performed. Several things to look for include seam finishing, seam bindings, neatness, appropriate use of period construction techniques. If someone doesn't have a tremendous knowledge about period sewing, it would behoove them to do a bit of research and get familiar with some of the terminology. A good seamstress or tailor will help educate the person as well and try to provide guidance and will not hesitate to answer questions or keep in close contact during the construction period."