Sewing 1860s style

I have been sewing most of my life. Growing up poor, it was a means of survival. My grandparents had lived through the great depression, and the term “Make do, do over, or do without” still remained in the thought processes in our home. We worked hard, we made do, and we did over. So, starting about age 9, my grandmother began teaching me how to mend clothes. By the time I was in my “tweens” and teens, I was tall and lanky and good luck to my mom to find clothes that fit me and were modest! So I started making clothes. Over the years I became very proficient at 1950s clothes, even tackling moderately advanced Vogue patterns.


So when I started reenacting and realized how much I loved it, I started building my “kit,” as we call it. That started with making my own clothes for the reenactments. We can buy clothes and supplies from sutlers, but they tend to be expensive. I thought, “I have made all these other clothes, this should be no problem!”

One of the first things I learned was 1860s sewing was NOTHING like 1940s to present. The techniques are completely different.

The first Singer sewing machine was patented in 1851 [for more information about the development and progression of sewing machines check here: Prior to that, all sewing had been by hand, and the majority still was into the 1860s. Some sewing was done on the new machines, if you were fortunate enough to be able to afford one, but all details, and much of the joining of pieces was still done by hand. I remember one of the first pieces I was working on, I started putting the pieces together like my 1950s patterns—right sides together, stitch in the hidden part, flip and finish with top stitching or by hand. Easy, right? WRONG! First of all, they didn’t attach their waistbands that way, nor finish seams that way. I had a whole new way of sewing to learn. So with a little help from the internet, and a few phone calls and texts to a friend who has been reenacting for years, I made my first tea skirt (with a little finishing help from my awesome friends on the Gettysburg trip!) with great success!


Then it was time to make a proper tea dress. I knew I was staying in this lifestyle as a living historian, so it would be one of my tools of the trade. I thought I had mastered a lot after making the skirt, like what size pleats do I need to get 5 yards of fabric down to my 26 inch waist? How do I put on the kick pleat to keep my skirt from being torn? How do you attach the hem tape to keep your hem edge from tearing or wearing out (which I have sense found out there are even more ways to do it!)? How do you close the waistband properly? While I had learned some of those, there were still new techniques to be learned.IMG_7921

I had a custom pattern someone had loaned me, but the proportions were just a little bit off for me. So, I packed up my sewing machine, fabrics, and other supplies and headed to my company captain’s house for his wife to teach me what I was missing. In one day of work, we created a custom pattern to me, and had half of the bodice together. My head was almost spinning. From learning how to cut out the fabric so there is no break in design with the curved darts, to the proper fitting for a bodice (with the corset of course. One must always build the clothing fit to the proper underpinnings if it is going to fit right later), to the sizing and correct way to do the piping in the seams, to how much to roll under for the bodice closure, and the attaching of the hook and eye tape. I soaked it all in. About 24 hours later, after bad weather had blown by, I packed up all my stuff and went home, hoping I remembered everything and that I had taken enough notes to finish it by myself. (Plus I had a little “help” along the way!) Many phone calls for clarification, and a lot of tea ingested, and I was making headway.


First, I realized that all my sewing skills were very necessary for 1860s sewing. All my years of cross-stitch, needlepoint, embroidery, and quilting came in handy for the detail of the handwork, and the special knots I decided to use, as well as the hidden stitches to finish the trim and keep it from being seen.

The pagoda (bell) sleeves gave me FITS! We had cut the pattern piece that was supposed to fit my size dress. For starters, it was six inches too long, then it wouldn’t fit in the arm hole correctly, so I had to figure out how to cut it down and still keep the right line and shape-after we had already cut out and stitched the pieces together! It took hours! But once I had it, I altered the pattern so I could make all the rest the same. When the sleeves were attached, I loved it!

The skirt was relatively easy after the one I made for Gettysburg, but now I had learned the proper 19th century way to attach a waist band–by hand, and it certainly takes more time! But when you consider that the skirt fabric was folded over at the level of the waistband, and then the waistband attached by hand in such a way that the skirt could later be let out or mended with the extra fabric, and the stitching method created a grove for them to later attach the bodice, suddenly everything started making more sense.IMG_8293

(My little “helper”)

The trim had been carefully chosen (actually changed about three times prior to attaching it to get the best period type trim with the right type dress and correct colors, etc.), and attached at various stages of building the sections of the dress. Then came time to attach the skirt and bodice. I was getting so excited! The weeks of hard work were about to pay off. I started “stitching the ditch”-remember that special way to connect the waistband, it comes into play here-that is when you stitch in this special ditch created by the bottom piping on the bodice, and through the waistband about where it is connected to the skirt. When done this way, the bodice fits closely, hides the waistband, and you get a dress in one piece. There is also something called a dogleg, but that is for a different post.


A few minor alterations to the bodice while it was being attached, the addition of special filigree silver buttons I had found, a few hook and bars to close the waistband, and my dress was FINALLY finished!IMG_8398

The final stitches were placed just 14 hours before I was wearing it at the Confederate Memorial Day at Stone Mountain, GA. It was worth every stitch by hand, every alteration to the pattern, every near-sleepless night for the way it turned out. The addition of a crocheted collar given to me by my friend Mary, a hat I borrowed from my friend Eva, some under sleeves and jewelry, and the look was complete. IMG_8660

That day, I would meet the command general staff of the CSA-General R.E. Lee, President Davis, General “Stonewall” Jackson, and General J.E.B. Stewart. I was so grateful that I had taken the time to pay attention to the details, the accessories, the materials, the fit, and to make it period correct, even if that required extra time and energy. I now wear that dress with pride, knowing the work and the correct details that went into it, but most of all, knowing that when someone looks at me or takes a picture, I am giving them a correct impression of one of the hooped dresses from the 1860s would have looked like. 🙂

I hope I inspire little girls everywhere to want to dress up like this, and to consequently learn about our history or learn to sew. If my walking by in a dress sparks someone’s desire to learn or change, then it, and I, have certainly done the job.



Welcome to the Southern Belle!

You might wonder why I chose this name. To be honest, it is two fold. One, I have been accused of being a true Southern Belle; but truthfully, I am proud to be one. Second, the focus of this blog is going to be mainly about my writing, reenacting, and various history and life-related projects. I am writing this for several reasons: to be able to share what I am working on, to connect with my friends in a new way, and to do something special for my family.

If you are from the North or Midwest, my apologies. Some of this will not make sense to you initially, but I hope you will stick around and begin to understand our special (and by that, I mean wonderful) world here. Below you will find my very first blog about the event that started it all.




My First Reenactment

I’ve been in love with the Civil War since I was a child. I still remember the first reenactment I attended with my mother, grandmother, and my little sister when I was all of eight or nine years old. I sat at the edge of the field at Watson Mill State Park in the cool weather, bundled up in my navy blue coat, and sitting beside my sister in the grass and stubble which I guess had been cut for just that occasion. I saw men in gray, chestnut, and blue, face each other, each side marching through the field toward the other, orders yelled over the sounds of war, muskets firing their deafening volleys. Though the sun was up, it did not take long before the sky was filled with the smoke and haze of gunpowder gently covering everything like ash. My sister and I plugged our ears as cannon belched forth their fiery blasts of “death.” I don’t think I had seen a musket up close before that day. Now, I saw them in action, and smelled the acrid smell of black powder as it floated across the gentle breeze and clung to our clothes and hair. I was fascinated.

My parents and grandparents were all highly educated, and made everything a learning opportunity. So when my grandmother found out there was going to be a Civil War (more accurately called War Between the States) reenactment in our area, of course, we had to go. Thankfully, my mother had seen fit to give us the basic history prior to that day so we had something on which to hang the new information, which was being poured into us like fluid rushing down a funnel. I didn’t know what was happening, but I couldn’t get enough of what was going on. I sat in wide-eyed wonder, wanting to see, to touch, to ask questions, to know more.

After the battle when resurrection had been called, the troops came toward the front and fired their final salute: a musket volley punctuated by canon fire. Then these men, who seemingly had stepped out of another time and place, welcomed these two little girls into their midst to ask questions until their curiosity was satisfied. They held out their musket and told us how it worked. They let us come close and touch the barrel of the cannon (after it had cooled of course), and asked nine-year-old me to try to pick up a cannon ball they had with them for demonstration, all the while explaining how the cannon worked.  What a great way to download information about the size, material, and weight of a cannon ball to a child at her level! This day was not simply for fun, or simply for learning. It was for experiencing the past, for instilling a love of history, for beginning to understand what had happened so many years before I was born, and thus, setting the premise for understanding the founding of this nation, the Revolutionary War, and yes, the second War of Independence known as the American Civil War.

Little did I know, that something was birthed that day: a love of history, a love of understanding, and a love of the War Between the States. By the time I was able to read and research for myself, I later realized that this was a love that was not soon to leave. Twenty years later, with bookcases full of books and documents which had been devoured with glee, many days of little girls playing in momma’s hoop skirts, learning to walk and sit in them without falling or exposing one’s self, and many historic events later, I am now a reenactor and educator of the War Between the States. What started as a cool day of zipped up jackets, gunshot, canon fire, and a few patient men willing to educate two little girls has become a life-long passion I am now able to share with others. My hope is that I will inspire some other little boy or girl (and maybe some adults as well!) to begin exploring and to learn the REAL stories behind the war. If I can share my love with someone else and inspire them to have the same passion, then the “crazy gleam in your eye” as my sister so loves to put it, is well worth it.

Rachel CSA uniform-Sandersville 2015