The Stays

The stays are complete!

The pattern layout on coutil:

First was seaming the coutil pieces together:

Then sewing on twill tape for bone casings:

I cut, sanded, and tipped the bones to length, and inserted them in the casings. Then I finished the edges with bias tape.

I marked and cut holes for the eyelets – my least favourite job! After inserting the eyelets, I strengthened them by going over them with embroidery floss. It took me HOURS, but it’s pretty so it’s worth it.

An explanation of why I used these materials is here:

The final product is based primarily on this 1780 pattern from Nora Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines:

Though I based a lightening of the boning off this1776 pattern in the same book:

Some more pictures of the final product:

I was really surprised at how long it took me to complete the stays, and have only now started worrying about my time-line. Onward!


Go to next post: ‘Round to Open Gown.’

Published in: on June 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm  Comments (3)  

The Shift

The shift is complete!

This is the original I worked off of, found in Fitting and Proper

And the final product! Not on Pollykin, but on Bertha. Someone kidnapped Pollykin from the costume shop while I wasn’t looking, so I had to use the slightly stouter (size 8 instead of 6) Bertha. Bertha has been my working companion many a time before though, and she was more than happy to oblige me for this photo shoot.

The creator of the original saved fabric by using a gusset in the sleeve. This is a piece of fabric inserted under the arm, so that the sleeve is wider under the arm and tight-fitting lower on the arm.

You can imagine how a gusset saves fabric when laying out the pattern pieces. If the sleeve were wider at the base, it would be more difficult to fit it on the 30″ wide fabric used. But, with the small gusset piece cut separately, the sleeve in its entirety can be made from the same cut of fabric as the body of the shift. These small fabric-saving details may seem penny-pinching, far too much effort for the small gain, to those non-student people who make enough money that an extra 1/2 yard isn’t so important. However, in 1790 fabric production was just beginning to be mechanized and was far less efficient than it is now.

In this vein, the seams are a miniscule 3/16″, with a 1/4″ hem.

The seams are flat-felled, which was so much fun! They didn’t have sergers back then (can you imagine doing the work of a serger by hand?), and this seam is more effective at stopping unravelling, not to mention is far stronger, than a zig-zag. And, naturally, a french seam adds too much to fabric consumption. Am I missing any other modern strategies of finishing edges?

Go to next post: ‘The Stays.’

Published in: on June 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm  Comments (1)  

An Ambler Family History

The prep work continues: I mocked up a shift pattern from Fitting and Proper, by Sharon Ann Burnston. This book is really neat; it’s full of background and patterns on the Chester County Historical Society collection (, which means each and every piece is local! Once I put the mock up on Pollykin, it was clear a much more stout lady wore this particular shift. But with a couple simple alterations, I can still use the basic shape and cut. Now I am waiting on the materials I ordered to be delivered. ::twiddles thumbs:: is a wonderful source for history. They had a write-up about the Ambler family (Polly’s maiden family), who apparently were an extremely prominent family in Jamestown. Polly’s grandfather, Richard Ambler, emigrated from England to Yorktown in 1716. He came to wealth and power by marrying the Jamestown Island heiress Elizabeth Jaquelin. In 1724 he became Collector for the Port of York River, and each of his three sons in succession inherited that title and claim to wealth and importance.

Go to next post: ‘The Shift.’

Published in: on May 18, 2011 at 3:27 pm  Leave a Comment  


My father had the kindness to point out to me I use a lot of costumer jargon that some people (he) may not understand. With the purpose of alleviating confusion, I have created a running list of terms I use at the bottom of the column on the right.


Go to next post: ‘An Ambler Family History.’

Published in: on May 14, 2011 at 2:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Start of Stays

I decided on a pattern for stays I found in Nora Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines. The pattern is based on stays made in 1776. It’s half-boned, which means it has less boning than the older style stays. I’m taking out even more of the boning to resemble a different pattern from slightly later.



I took a photocopy to Office Max, had them enlarge it about 400% until the size gauge was correct and made a pattern from the print-out.

Finally, I made a muslin mockup (sans boning) to make sure it fit my mannequin (who I’ve named Pollykin). The mockup was almost perfect! Pollykin’s waist is a bit smaller than the woman who owned the original corset, but only small alterations will be necessary. Now I can order the materials and get started on the real thing!

Go to next post: ‘Jargon.’

Published in: on May 13, 2011 at 9:55 pm  Comments (4)  

My Research Board

Hopefully by next week I will be in the pattern and mock-up stage, but for now it is all research, research, research. Check out my research board set up in the costume shop.

What’s on the research board:

Polly’s portrait, to remind me in my research wanderings what this is all about.

Patterns, sketches, and notes of dresses similar to Polly’s.

Patterns, pictures, and detailed descriptions of 18th century corsets.

A standing research question list.

What I hope to add:

My own research pictures and notes from my trips to museums.

Patterns I’ve drafted from future corset/shift/dress mock-ups.

Fabric swatches to compare to Polly’s portrait.


Go to next post: ‘The Start of Stays.’

Published in: on May 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pride and Prejudice and Round Gowns

In the portrait Polly is most likely wearing a “round gown.” These were popular from the 1780s into the Directoire period (about 1790-1800), and got their name because they were closed down the front. What had been popular in the past, and was still common, was a gown with an open front that revealed the (highly decorated) chemise and petticoat beneath. You may recognize round gowns as the lovely dresses featured in the many TV/film versions of “Pride and Prejudice.”

Dresses such as Polly’s were of delicate white cottons and silks, with a straight, narrow silhouette in imitation of the Greek golden age as represented in statues and case paintings. Influenced possibly by the political ideology of the French Revolution, which was inspired by classical antiquity, the dresses emulated the same culture. One of those funny things that I love about history is the mistakes we historians make when looking at the fragmentary evidence we are left with. This fashion of the Directoire period is a wonderful example of just such a mistake. The dresses were made with white cloth to imitate the clothing of the Greek golden age… For those of you who don’t know your costume history, the Greeks actually used bold colours in their clothes. But the colour on the statues was bleached away by time, leaving the impression that the clothes they wore were as white as marble.

The United States gained its independence in 1776, but women continued to follow English and French fashion trends. The French Revolution establishes the new Directory government, thus the period name “Directoire.” This was before the time of factories or the sewing machine, and most women’s clothing was made at home. Polly’s dress, most likely, was made by the household slave woman, from fabric ordered from England by John Marshall (a reproduction of the slave woman’s outfit is on display in the John Marshall House Museum cellar/gift shop).

For more information, read: Survey of Historic Costume by Phillis G. Tortora and Keith Eubank.


Go to next post: ‘My Research Board.’

Published in: on May 12, 2011 at 2:45 am  Comments (1)  

Levels of Bureaucracy, Levels of Research

I have reached my first challenge already: navigating the murky depths of museum bureaucracy! Trying to find the right person to talk to about what either the Smithsonian or the FIT has in its archives is impressively difficult. Two days in, I’ve made progress (I’m three-levels in, waiting for email/call backs), but still don’t have the information I need to schedule my trips to do primary research.

How does a portrait turn into a dress? I do not actually have the wand Cinderella’s fairy godmother used on mice and pumpkins. That wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as what I’m doing, anyway.

The first step is doing what is called “secondary research.” This is looking at source materials like books, patterns, and articles written by experts who have done their own research. The “primary research” I mentioned above, in a project such as mine, is looking at actual garments of the period and location. I can find a lot of information through books, but since my goal is a difficult one, I have a lot of gaps to fill in.

For one thing, I am trying to make a dress from a picture of only a torso. How long were the sleeves? What was the silhouette of the entire dress? What under-structure is hidden beneath the airy folds of white fabric? And what fabric can reproduce the texture the painter captured so delicately?

Books can give me information on what the fashionable silhouette was for the type of dress Polly was wearing. My fore-runners in period costume research can tell me the layers of garments underneath her dress. But I need to examine  the stitching techniques (all by hand of course) used for the cuff, the skirt, the bodice. I need to see how the fabric works with comparable dresses. And I need a visual and tactile frame of reference for when it comes time for me to drape Polly’s dress.


Go to next post: ‘Pride and Prejudice and Round Gowns.’

Published in: on May 11, 2011 at 3:09 am  Comments (3)  

The Proposal

Welcome to the John Marshall House Dress blog! This is a diary record of my 10-week research project, during which I aim to recreate the dress Mary Willis Ambler Marshall wore in her portrait painted in 1790. The portrait now hangs in the John Marshall House Museum in Richmond, Virginia, and the dress will be exhibited there at a date to be announced.


Who is Tania: I am a rising senior at the University of Richmond studying historic costume. I am building my skills and knowledge, working toward my dream of one day designing costumes for BBC, Masterpiece Theatre, and all those wonderful creators of historic drama! Maybe one day you’ll see my name listed as costume designer for the newest “Jane Eyre” mini-series. I can hope, right?

Who was Polly: Mary Willis Ambler Marshall was nick-named “Polly” by her husband John Marshall.  John Marshall was the “first citizen” of Richmond during his long lifetime, from 1755-1835. He is an extremely important historical figure for both the United States and Richmond. He was a successful local lawyer, but his most notable achievement was to serve on every level and branch of government: he served in the revolutionary war under George Washington (who respected Marshall greatly); he was a Virginia state congressman; he was magistrate of the Richmond city council; he was Minister to France; he was Secretary of State under John Adams; and he was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His house has been preserved, and is currently a museum near the Richmond capital building. Marshall married Mary Willis Ambler in 1783, and adored her until her death in 1831, when he wrote, “I have lost her! And with her I have lost the solace of my life! Yet she remains still the companion of my retired hours–still occupies my inmost bosom. When I am alone and unemployed, my mind unceasingly turns to her.”

A great thanks to the University of Richmond, which has awarded me this research fellowship. Also to Johann Stegmeir, my wonderful faculty advisor. And finally to the John Marshall House Museum, property of Preservation Virginia, who have already been so useful to me; visit them at


Go to next post: ‘Levels of Bureaucracy, Levels of Research.’

Published in: on May 8, 2011 at 10:44 pm  Comments (2)