Sunday, January 5, 2014

Pleated Viking Underdress - What Not to Do!

Okay, let's just establish this from the get-go: This was an interesting experiment that turned out poorly. I'm mostly posting this to a) record how I screwed it up and b) get the help of others in problem-solving this garment. With that out of the way, let's focus on what happened:

Ever since I first read Inga Hägg's writing about the Birka finds, I have been curious about the pleated linen garment she illustrated and described. Preserved by corroding metal in graves, small scraps of a finely pleated garment appear to be part of a larger underdress.

Now, I've seen a couple - not many - examples of pleated underdresses, but they always felt a little shapeless to me, and even a little wasteful when it came to yardage. I also hated the necklines.

Geijer's image with my brooches to show scale.
To the left is a picture of my brooches next to one of Agnes Geijer's images from the same book, to give you an idea of the scale. This was a very, very tight pleat.

But I was feeling a wee bit controlling, and felt the need to try to find something that would both create this effect and have some kind of staying power.

My mind immediately went back to something I'd seen when looking at period stitch types. On page 100 of Østergård's Woven into the Earth, she describes and illustrates stitched pleats, makes connections to the Birka finds, and goes on to describe them in further detail. Apparently seeing them illustrated in larger than real size (the text says they were 4-5 millimeters wide but they're shown as nearly a centimeter) caused some kind of misfire in my brain, because I was off and running with scissors in the wrong direction.

I decided to use it as an inspiration and do some experimenting. I cut the rest of the pattern out as normal, with the back being my usual underdress width and the arms, skirt gores, and underarm gores as usual. The front, however, I cut using the entire width of the fabric.

Here's my plan: I found the center point, marked room for the keyhole neckline to come, and then proceeded to gather in small pleats at each shoulder until the front was the same width as the back piece.

I went in half inches, pinching up and pinning down a half inch every half inch. I tried to go smaller, but it wasn't enough to consistently hide the stitching under the pleats.
I sewed down the first 10cm of each pleat - I figured that would be enough to hold the shape but also allow me to adjust the rest of the pleats as needed.

And once they were all sewn down, I ironed them into submission.

Looking at it now, it just doesn't produce the same effect as the Birka examples. The pleats are way too big, and the way they shift around on me is just horrible. I end up with big bunches under the arms and they travel in highly unfortunate ways.

The keyhole neckline has also become overwhelmed by the amount of fabric and doesn't sit right. I ended up tucking the sides underneath so I didn't feel so smothered, and it looks like more of a v-neck now.

I don't want to waste the fabric, so at this point, I think I'm going to rip out the shoulders and just gather the excess fabric in as small as possible. I'll finish the seam, wash it, then wring it out and allow it to dry in a bundle like that.

I'm not looking forward to ripping out all those seams!

Documentation... which I'll pay a lot closer attention to next time:

Geijer, Agnes. "The Textile Finds from Birka." Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson. Ed. N. B. Harte and K. G. Ponting. Pasold Studies in Textile History. 1983. Pg. 80-99.

Hägg, Inga. "Viking Women's Dress at Birka: A Reconstruction by Archeological Methods." Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E.M. Carus-Wilson. Ed. N. B. Harte and K. G. Ponting. Pasold Studies in Textile History. 1983. Pg. 316-350.

Østergård, Else. Woven into the Earth: Textile Finds from North Greenland. Denmark: Aarhus University Press. 2004. Pg. 100.

Update 6/10/14:

I ripped out the shoulders and gathered the fabric like I mentioned, but it just wasn't what I was looking for. During my one attempt to wear it, the fabric kept bunching up under my arms, the neckline kept losing shape, and overall it looked just awful!

Out of frustration more than anything, I decided to experiment with a little purple dye. It fixed nothing, and the color just wasn't right for me.

Finally, I decided to undo the shoulders - again! - remove the neckline, and chop the extra fabric out of the middle. There was so much of a difference between the front panel and the back panel that I was basically able to start fresh with the front piece. It allowed me to fix the troublesome neckline and to use the extra fabric for gores.

But it was still a too-bright purple for my purposes. Two boxes of RIT dye remover brought it back to a pale pink, and a bottle of Sunshine Orange RIT dye transformed it into a lovely turmeric-inspired color with white stitching accents.

I am now much, much happier with this underdress! It isn't pleated, but at least now it's something usable, and perfect with my summer apron dress!

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