Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian – Mistakes were made

Sorry it’s been a while – war got crazy, my husband’s grandmother passed away in the middle of it, and I’ve been trapped in the whirlwind of all the stuff that has to get done for the end of the reign. Coronation is in four days, and one of my best friends is being elevated to the Order of the Pelican at it…and she was announced three days ago. Wow. Coronation is fancy anyway, but now that there’s a good chance I’ll be processing in for the Elevation, I’d better make sure to look my best! That means fixing some things on the purple Italian gown. Forgive my super special bed head hair and mirror shots.

Bad Italian 1

Wearing it at war was frustrating and kind of disappointing. I beat myself up for being a bad costumer because I made a couple of errors in construction that are messing with the fit. For one, I forgot to leave a slit in the waistband where the dress laces, so it’s pretty snug and hard to get in and out of. Another problem is the sleeves. They’re so silky and long that they just wind up bagging weirdly and hanging too low on the arm. I think I made it about half an hour in them before I untied them and tossed them back into the tent. The plan is to add more ties and lacing rings for securing them on the upper arm. Maybe a few box pleats to take up extra length if it won’t ruin the look of the ribbon stripes…

The last thing is that I changed the way I assemble the bodices on these to make the shoulder straps lie better. Previously, they were the last thing to be sewn and had to be done by hand, turning their edges in on themselves, inserting one into the other. It has a lot of extra fabric bulk in there, and I don’t like the way it looks to so clearly have the straps nested. Now, I sew them together early on, they look perfect, and the fiddly bit of final hand-sewing gets to happen in a more discrete spot against the ribs. However, I haven’t adjusted my pattern any to see if the new construction method changed anything. I didn’t even think to do it.

Bad Italian 2

The result is a dress that fits well through the lower part of the torso, then gaps and sags through the top half. Tying on sleeves pulls the shoulders right off and down the arm. The nice, rounded bustline that’s a hallmark of these gowns is lost in a boxy mess of extra fabric. The back is just as bad as the front. I hadn’t made time to put on the whole ensemble before we left, and I was so sad to spend the afternoon constantly trying to tug and adjust the thing into submission.

I spent some time looking at costuming blogs with Italian dress diaries and tutorials, desperately hoping to see some brilliant explanation of what I did wrong, how to draft a bodice pattern more correctly, or even just a post on how to fix what went wrong on your rushed novice sewing job.

I found none of those things. What I did see is that these people whose work I so admire make a lot of mistakes, just like me. Mistakes in fitting are an unavoidable part of sewing, and a necessary part of advancing your skills. These other costumers put on the sad dress, play with it and pin stuff until it looks right, fix it, and fix the pattern. What makes them better is their perseverance. I’m stubborn. I can persevere. I was even prepared to totally disassemble this thing to make minor improvements if it would help everything that comes after fit like a dream.

Turned out all I had to do was take a couple of inches out of the shoulder!  It seemed too simple to work, but taking that in seemed like a good way to get a clearer picture of the kind of armscye reshaping I was sure was going to have to be done. I was shocked to see the difference such a small adjustment made! I’m glad this is an easy fix that makes a monster difference. The waistband will not be an easy fix…

Fixed Italian

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian – Sleeves and Details


I wanted to do a lot more with this dress than I’ve been able to in the time before war. Some of it will get done down the line. Some might get done before we turn the house over to the friend doing dog sitting on Friday night. Who knows? I really want a cool shoulder detail. So many of the gowns have them, and I never seem to pull it off.

What I have pulled off are really lazy lacing rings on the cheap. These sturdy little white plastic rings. I have no idea what they’re for, but they were in the sewing section, and I have been tacking them down as fast as I can while we’ve watched the new season of House of Cards. This dress is side lacing, and it’s taken a little less than one pack. I usually do eyelets, but never, ever again on synthetic fabrics. Yuck. Hopefully, these will work out well. To lace it up, I’ve made a purple cord on my lucet with very thin nylon cord. The nylon satin ribbon lace on my gold Italian dress is far sturdier than the one I braided from silk needlepoint thread for my green linen Italian. In retrospect, I have no idea why I didn’t just grab some ribbon and be done with it… *sigh*

photo 3


I already have some sleeves made that I threw together before last year’s Known World Scribal and Heraldic Symposium. They’re gold polysilk from the dress I made for that, lined in completely obnoxious red Chinese brocade I bought to line sleeves with. The pattern I made them with has proved problematic. I made it and made it WAY too big because I was having one of those days where I’m convinced that I am much larger than I am and added about 4″ too much room in the bicep. This was the perfect chance to do something with them that made taking in the extra room a decorative feature and made them special.


I’ve put an inverted box pleat up the center length. The pleat is relatively narrow at the wrist and gets much wider as it goes up. They still won’t be tight, but I think they’ll be a much better fit overall. (Here I am at the symposium in my gold dress, and the sleeves are nothing special. After this, I ripped off the shoulder poufs so the dress can be worn with a loose coat in black cherry silk over it.)

While Italian is forgiving, I would like the sleeves to actually add some panache to the outfit instead of being sad and droopy. I’m not in possession of dainty little arms and get scared of fancy sleeves doing some horrible body morphing thing that make people say, “OH MY LORD. Until Peeps put on those sleeves, after all those hours of handwork, I had not realized how fat her arms are! But now that’s all I’ll ever see when I look at her!” That’s really dumb because beautiful work is always beautiful, and I am delighted by all sorts of bodies in costume. And amazing costuming is much more likely to showcase someone’s loveliness than it is to detract from it. BUT I DIGRESS.

Velvet ribbon is a deficit in this country’s craft stores, as I’m sure you are well aware. I wanted GREEN! and GOLD! for Mardi Gras. Big, fat strips of green and rich golden velvet. The best I found was skinny strips of moss green velveteen ribbon, and in small quantities. It’s the best I’m going to do. Not even Amazon could save me. Velvet sort of demands hand-sewing to look right anyway, and the thinly flocked stuff I found has not inspired confidence in it looking presentable if I run machine stitching down it.

photo 4

Attaching the velvet ribbons to the sleeves has been an adventure. I did the first four with this careful, tiny stitch where I passed the long part of the thread back and forth between the two sleeve fabrics so as to not do anything to compromise the other side. It was SO. DANG. SLOW. y’all. And kind of lumpy and wrinkly. Part of that is the nature of cheap, cheap velveteen crafting ribbon that you have been forced to scour multiple Hobby Lobby stores to obtain enough of. The other part is that I was being all kinds of precious with something that I should acknowledge is a rushed salvage job on some sad sleeves using inferior materials.

On my way out of town to go to San Angelo for a last-minute sewing weekend, I stopped at Hobby Lobby to look for more pearls to sew on and stumbled onto a giant display of fabric glues. I forgot about gluing fabric. One of them is even called “OK To Wash” to make it even easier for me. Sold. The rest of this sleeve action has gone a heck of a lot faster now! Sadly, the glue is visible when dry if you accidentally squish a little out onto your fabric. I’m trying to not be bothered by this and am moving on with life. Now let’s hope I get busy tonight and finish slapping the velvet on the last sleeve tonight since it has to dry for 8 hours (gah!) and needs a teeny bit of hand finishing at each little area to tack down the pleats.

EDIT – I lost the glue at some point and had no option but to try machine stitching it down. Turns out I’m a total doofus. Machine stitching was the most subtle, quickest method. *FACEPALM* I’m such a special darling sometimes. Maybe one day, before I spend a dozen hours on something by hand, I might remember to actually TEST the attachment methods and not just assume that the most time consuming will be the best.

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian – Putting It All Together

The basic pieces of the dress are done: the underskirt is all pinned into the completed skirt, the bodice is all ready with the waist seam allowance ironed under, and to have a wearable thing, I just need to attach them. If you are doing attached sleeves, attach them to the bodice before you sew the pieces together. I’m doing tie on sleeves because they’re period, and I hate sewing sleeves. Plus, I just have to make one really fancy reversible pair to be forever a Super Fancy Lady. I had wanted to do obnoxious shoulder loopy things, but this is war sewing, and I am already behind schedule.

Before you attach the skirt and bodice, put on the bodice and tug it roughly into the right place, then put on the skirt and check yourself out in the mirror. This is your last chance to easily add or remove any details, like ribbons or edgings. The pieces are really easy to work with separately, and kind of like wrestling a drunken octopus once you’ve put them together. Make sure your look is balanced and that any design choices you made look balanced on YOUR body. If you’re busty, pin those bodice details on and check them before you sew them down since that’s the biggest culprit for things on paintings of Italian dresses that inadvertently make you look weird in real life. (Ok, holding the severed head of John the Baptist would make you look weirder, but badly placed velvet boob rectangles are a close second.)

In my case, I took off the gold ribbons I had planned to run up the front of the purple split front and up the bodice. They weren’t very visible from a distance because it was shiny on shiny, it looked a little off balance over my bust without also having the neckline edged in the same ribbon (oh HELL no not doing that at this point) and sewing them was going to add more time than is worth it for a detail that doesn’t make much impact.

Pro tips for attaching skirt to bodice (you’re almost finished!!!):


1. Change to a heavy duty needle and some serious business thread before you sew through layers of pleats and bodice and linings since it’s easy to have MANY layers of fabric in there. Machine quilting thread or upholstery thread isn’t a bad idea.

For example, where the line goes through this, there are 8 layers of pleat to go through, plus 2 for the bodice, which is ten. Only those raw edges have been serged at the edge and folded in to reduce satin’s notorious fraying. It’s a very, very thin fabric, so the machine will do it, but the actual count on layers at the thickest points is 26, including the ribbon that the skirt is anchored to. My pleats are positioned so that’s kept to a minimum (more like 20), but this is a sewing expedition your machine should be equipped for. This is an extreme number of layers, and my simple linen Italian working class dresses are maybe 8-10 layers.

2. Sew slowly and patiently so you don’t break a bunch of needles in the process or do a bad thing to the innards of your sewing machine. This is like driving up the mountain in second gear. It’s why after breaking a couple of the under-$100 machines doing mighty sewing, I saved up some and sought out a used machine with metal gears instead of plastic. And I learned to slow down and use the right thing for the job.

3. This is often a place where pins don’t really work for holding everything in place. There’s too much fabric, so they warp and bend and can easily cause problems with the seam laying right when you’re done. It’s easier to be patient and hold things where you want them with your fingers, bit by bit. When I was sewing these together, I needed a couple of pins to get it started, and even then had to be careful about them making everything lie awkwardly.

4. Absolutely take the time to turn under the raw edges at the bottom of your bodice and iron them towards the inside with a generous seam allowance before you start. That way you KNOW the waist will look nice and straight, and there’s a lot less effort when you’re actually sewing them skirt into it. You can just sew the skirt to the bodice without turning, but it creates a big, bulky ridge of skirt that is now pointing perpendicularly at your belly. You’ll wind up having to fix that with top stitching, which is quick. However, it never ever looks as good as it would have if you’d spent five minutes with an iron.


Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian Skirt

photo 2-fixedThe skirt was just going to be a simple knife pleated affair with the rest of the purple fabric. There’s a lot of this fabric, and it’s too tall to just run around with one selvage in the bodice and one as the hem. So once I cut it down and sewed the pieces together, I wound up with five yards of skirt. Clearly, I’m a very fancy lady of means. *hair toss*


This is not my first pleating rodeo. I have learned hard, sad lessons. Measure a sturdy piece of 1″ grosgrain ribbon the same circumference as your bodice. Mark the halfway point on your ribbon and pin the halfway point of your skirt to this spot. Now you start pinning your pleats to the ribbon. It’s a stable method of attaching them and inserting them into the bodice. It also makes it really easy to adjust how big they are or how they’re spaced because you’ll know if there’s an issue before you get to the end of the skirt. It’s easy to hold up your ribbon and make sure you like how the pleats fall on your body, too. It usually takes me more than one try to get the pleats right, and this time, I got all five yards just perfect on the second try.


See this fancy lady? Those dark stripes are called guards, and they’re usually velvet. Velvet is expensive and evil and requires handwork to look right. One day I will buy velvet, make strips and lovingly stitch them on with my hands. Today is not that day. I had intended to do satin ribbon stripes, but then I did all the pleating without thinking about that part. Italian skirts are rectangles, so adding these stripes is absurdly easy, IF you remember to do it BEFORE you pleat anything. I never remember. The guards are actually helpful in weighing the skirts down, giving nice drape, and in being some fabric reinforcement in the bodice over where you put your lacing rings. A big solid one at the bottom is an easy way to either fix where you didn’t have enough fabric to make the skirt full enough and long enough or to refresh old dresses whose hems have spent too much time on the ground.

I resigned myself to a plain skirt and a plan to tie on some existing gold sleeves to make the thing all Mardi Gras. But then I remembered some cream polysilk embroidered with gold fleurs-des-lys that I had in the stash. The drape is horrid, there’s only enough for half a skirt (or sleeves?), and ohmywordy’all – now it’s a split front Italian with a fancy underskirt with bands of gold satin ribbons carefully placed between the rows of fleurs. Woo! Maybe it’s wrong to put such a French motif on an Italian dress, but I don’t really care. It’s going to be pretty, and I’m finally using up a bunch of stash yardage.


I’ve decided to run the gold ribbon up the split edges of the skirt and up the bodice. Here are a couple of paintings* from the first half of the 16th century showing two common treatments with a split bodice and a split skirt edged in contrasting fabric. Googling Renaissance portraits of Italian women will show you every variation on this you can think of. Anything I do is arguably “correct 16th c. Italian”. Whether the effect is worth the effort is the main question. And the fact of the matter is that I had planned to knock out a dress in maybe a maximum of three hours, but this plan is deteriorating rapidly (we’re well past the three hour mark) in the face of all the cool stuff I could do to make this the fanciest of all the dresses.


Bottom line – I need to tie more green into the dress for it to be properly Mardi Gras. Adding green velveteen ribbon strips into the mix is an option, but I think too many ribbons will do unflattering things over the bodice. Or worse, I’ll wind up looking weirdly like 70’s supergraphics paint effects have taken possession of me. My guess is that it would all together wind up being a solid band of alternating gold and green vertical stripes 6″ wide across the whole bodice. I’m a big, curvy girl and can pull off some bold things, but that might be too much for anyone to pull off. I certainly don’t see any examples of a chest full of crazy ribbons in paintings.

I think keeping the vertical ribbons simple and working the green into the sleeves and maybe a necklace is probably the best and easiest way to manage my time and up the Mardi Gras factor.

*The lady in gold and red is Raffaelo Sanzi, c1505: Lady with a Unicorn. The lady in all green is an unknown Venetian from around 1520.Plus there’s the part where I’m lazy and don’t want to hand-sew on or carefully line up

Dress Diary: Mardi Gras Italian Bodice

photo 1

With all the travel I’ve been doing for the current reign, a trip abroad and a cross-country move in the summer, and the general instability of not knowing when I’ll get a job in Savannah, we’re trying to be really smart with money. So war sewing is almost entirely from old bits of things in the stash. Maybe the yardages are weird. Mostly, they’re fabrics that are pretty but made from dead dinosaurs, purchased at breath-taking discounts when I started playing and knew less than I do now.

There are some rolls of fabric in the back of the studio closet, and one of them is a beautiful polysilk dupioni satin bought the week after my first event. It’s heavy, drapes beautifully, and the wrong side of it has just the right texture and sheen amount to be almost indistinguishable from real silk. Better still, it’s a shade of purple that I KNOW I can get with natural dyes in a couple of different ways. The photos below are a true representation of the color. It’s perfect for an Italian (my pattern is at the bottom of this post). And a nice Florentine dress is perfect for war sewing because it’s fast and really flexible and forgiving on how much yardage you have to work with. I planned to whip something out in an evening, trim it with some gold ribbon I have left over from the wedding, and move on to even more sewing.

photo 3

HA! A friend is making a purple and gold entari, some jokes about making Mardi Gras garb ensued, and now it’s become A Thing Which Is Happening For War. I modified the bodice pattern to add some fabric around the inside of the neck opening a little so there’s less chance of bra straps showing and more room and stability to tie on sleeves.

photo 2


photo 4And – a totally new thing for me – I decided to use the lightweight interfacing I have in my stash for some reason. The gold one I did is lined in a really heavy fabric, and I love how secure it is and how much it allows me to have the right shaping and smoothness I see in portraits. The more experience I get, the more I find that there’s a good reason people tell you to do things, like use similar fabric weights together, or take the time to line garments, or to pick the right needle, thread, and stitch for the fabric and seam type.

So the interfacing is an experiment. The internet made it seem like it might be a good idea, and looking at the layers inside the bodice of my wedding gown backed up that guess. A Laurel I trust said I probably wouldn’t like it and that a heavier lining would be a better choice. I’d already fused it on by the time she said that, so now it’s going to get field tested!

It’s a fusible interfacing, so you just put down a damp cloth and iron that sucker in place. A previous experience with Heat n’ Bond has made me wary of things that fuse with irons not holding up to the first washing. I’m really scared it’s going to unstick and get all bunchy and awful inside the bodice.  Let’s hope it stays put…