Mercy Hartigan, "The Next Doctor" - Build Diary

Overall Summary of the Costume

There are two pieces to the ensemble: the bodice and the skirt. According to the designer - Louise Page - both were made from silk taffeta.

The bodice features a pleated detail in the front and back. I put my money on those being box pleats, but feel free to think differently. The neckline is trimmed with a pleated silk chiffon that has been deliberately frayed at the edges.

The dress bodice features a full-length, free-hanging inner sleeve of embellished chiffon. The outer sleeve is cut shorter than would be usual, and is trimmed with red fur and pleated chiffon to match the neckline. Both sleeves are "pagoda" style.

The skirts are worn over multiple petticoats. Multiple-multiple petticoats and not a cage crinoline, according to Ms. Page.

My Thoughts

The inspiration for this dress is clearly the mid-19th century / US Civil War era. Skirts were extremely full and supported first by petticoats, then steel cage crinolines, as a cage crinoline is lighter and less stifling than four or five huge petticoats. Because serious foofiness was the fashion at one point, a lady might wear several petticoats - at least one ruffled - over the cage crinoline to get maximum POOF and, by contrast, a more slender looking waist. This saved her from having to tight-lace her corset.

With the inspiration period in mind, I decided to sacrifice screen accuracy in favor of keeping the costume closer to "period legal" so that I could wear it at other costume events – my local Dickens Faire has a limit on how large the ladies' skirts can be. I like a costume that can multi-task! Going forward, I'll make a point of mentioning where I vary from screen accuracy, in case it matters to you.

First Things First: Fabric Options

The original costume was made from silk taffeta. Taffeta is crisp and takes a crease beautifully – more about why that's important, later. Furthermore, silk taffeta looks just fantastic. But it's not very cheap - about $25/yard, typically. You're going to need around seven yards of 54" wide fabric for this costume - more if you're tall and/or plus-sized and/or your hoops are large. For 45" wide fabric, I'd make it 8.5 yards. That's a significant chunk of change. I happened to be a bit flush with cash when I started this costume, so I opted for silk taffeta from Silk Baron. But that's not a solution for everyone.

Let's take a look at alternatives.

Satin. Satin is….challenging. There's a huge variety in quality out there and it can range from having a semi-matte finish – such as with crepe-back satin – to way too shiny even for a prom dress. (I'm looking at you, "Casa" collection at Joann's.) The affordable satins are made from polyester or other artificial fiber. The expensive satins are made from silk and if you've got that kind of money, get the silk taffeta. It's cheaper than silk satin.

The challenge with satin is that you're going to have to pleat some of it to create the bodice. Artificial fibers are not famous for their conduciveness to pleating.

Does this mean you can't use satin? No, but it does mean you should swatch like crazy – and not just tiny little pieces, either. Pinch the stuff when it's on the bolt for a quick idea of if it'll take a crease. If you like what you see, buy a third of a yard so you can try putting long pleats into the stuff and see how they take. Some artificial fibers will take a crease, given enough help from a spray bottle of water and a lot of pressure with the iron. Unfortunately, you have to skimp on the third factor that helps make a good pleat, which is heat. Scraping melted polyester off your iron is a real chore – trust me. Use a press cloth while experimenting.

Resist the temptation to go with something super-shiny. Mercy's dress is not super-shiny. Don't underestimate the possibility of using the back side of a satin. Depending on the weave, you might see a finish you prefer on the "wrong" side. Crepe satin is great for this.

For the sake of your sanity, do NOT use anything labelled charmeuse. I love charmeuse. It's a gorgeous fabric. But it's all wrong for this project and it'll be too difficult to work with.

In theory, you could also consider a high quality cotton – NOT a quilter's cotton. Quilter's cotton is distinctly soft and fuzzy. You want something with a tight, crisp weave in mercerized cotton. It'll have a very smooth hand.

Although the shiny finish might tempt you, do NOT use chintz. That shiny finish is chemical in nature and goes away the minute you iron it and you WILL be ironing it. Indeed, some "polished" cottons have a similar chemical treatment as chintzes do, so be sure to swatch and press-test any such cotton before you commit to yardage. But cotton will pleat beautifully which is why I suggest it.

If you choose a light-weight fabric, flat-line your pieces to give it some weight. I flat-lined the bodice, but decided that it wasn't necessary for the skirt – but I was ready to do it.

Whatever you use, read up on the vinegar trick for setting pleats. It's awesome.

Building the Bodice

I decided to base my bodice on Truly Victorian's Pagoda Sleeve Bodice pattern. I've made the pattern before and it wasn't terribly difficult and it's got about 90% of what Mercy's bodice has going on. Excellent!

About Truly Victorian: I love this company. Their patterns are as historically accurate as you can get without resorting to actual vintage patterns, which would be very expensive, assuming you could even find the patterns you needed. Furthermore, the TV staff are very generous with their advice in their online forums. Don't hesitate to post queries about construction and fitting – you'll find the help you need.

I cannot emphasize this enough: if you use a Truly Victorian pattern, pay attention to the directions re: selecting a size. It's very different from modern garment construction. And have someone take your measurements for you. I'm usually pretty good at measuring myself but, whoa, I could NOT get it right for this pattern until I got a friend to measure me, instead.

The BIG differences between this pattern and Mercy's costume are in the shoulders at the sleeves. Mercy's sleeves have a slightly raised sleeve cap (there's a small but noticeable pouf at the shoulders) and the sleeve is set it at the top of the arm, very much like a modern garment. The historical fashion at the time the pagoda sleeve bodice was a thing was for a dropped shoulder, with the shoulder seam further down the arm than modern garments. Because I wanted to keep my garment closer-to-period, I decided not to alter how the shoulders and sleeves were drafted in the Truly Victorian pattern.

This pattern also features four darts in the front, which Mercy's bodice does not have. Two of those darts – the ones closest to the center - are easily removed when you alter the pattern to separate the single front into two front pieces. The other darts, you can try moving to the side seam or leave it in place, depending on how brave you are and how concerned you might be about screen accuracy. I didn't have the guts to move the dart, as dart manipulation in a Victorian bodice is not the same as doing it in a contemporary garment.

Don't forget to remove the seam allowance for the center-front closure from the original front piece of the pattern, as you're moving the closure around to the back.

I seriously recommend that you make an initial mockup that exactly matches the pattern and then draw on it, marking where you want to make changes. Be prepared to make several mockups, in fact, as fitting over a corset can be tricky.

Corset? Who said anything about a corset? I did, as did the entire 19th century.

FOUNDATION GARMENTS MATTER. You won't get the 19th century profile with modern undergarments, nor will any historically-accurate patterns fit you nearly as well as they could if you wear the wrong underwear. If you use any Truly Victorian bodice pattern, it assumes you're wearing a corset underneath

If you're willing to tackle making this costume, you probably have the skills to make an overbust corset to wear, too – if you don't already have one. For beginners, I cheerfully recommend the Laughing Moon Late Victorian Corset pattern, as it has excellent directions for the first-timer – right down to the step where the instructions explicitly state "You'll be tempted to skip this step. Don't."

Personally, I prefer the lines on Truly Victorian's late-era corset pattern, as it just seems to have more flattering shape than the LM pattern. If you're reluctant to make a corset, ask around for one to borrow from a chum – you might get lucky.

I don't recommend buying any corset off the rack. The fit is usually unreliable, you'll have no idea if the "bones" are steel or plastic (oh sure, everyone SAYS they use steel...) and besides, most off the rack corsets are designed as outerwear and priced accordingly. An underwear corset doesn't need fancy fashion fabric or sophisticated closures. It shouldn't cost you more than $30 in materials.

My only exception to the "don't buy" rule is if you happen to know of a reputable corsetiere – or have a sewing chum who still owes you from that time you helped them move house. A made-to-measure item by an experienced seamster is the ideal choice. And practice wearing it until you get used to it. I love corsets, and wear them often, but I sure felt weird the first time I put one on!

Do you remember what I said about not having to tight-lace with these gianormous skirts? It's true! Ladies opted for bigger skirts to make their waists seem smaller and, with a sigh of relief, they were able to loosen their corsets for a decade or so. If you enjoy tight-lacing to one degree or another, then do so, but don't feel obliged to do it for the sake of this costume.

Since we're on the topic of foundation garments, let's talk about the lower half of the costume. That skirt has a lot going on underneath it. Depending on how much *poof* you want, you could wear several THICK petticoats, as ladies did when this style first manifested, but that will be very warm on anything other than a cool day. Ask anyone who's worked a Renaissance Faire during the summer how that feels. Or you can go whole hog with a steel cage crinoline. Again, there are kits and directions on how to make them – it'll cost you about $100 in materials and take an afternoon to construct. Or, if you have chums who are into this period, it's probable they've got an item they could loan you. Ask nicely. Bring flowers. I like roses.

But a steel cage alone won't do the trick. Nothing makes me wince like seeing visible hoop lines under a gorgeous skirt. Simple petticoats are incredibly easy to make. Buy a couple of cotton sheets from the thrift store, cut them into gored panels – to reduce bulk at the waist - and pleat them on to a waistband (or run a channel for a cord if pleating isn't your thing). If you go this route, you will need several petticoats to ensure your hoops don't show through. Or you can be like me and make the RUFFLED PETTICOAT OF DOOM.

I will admit, I went overboard with this one – mostly because I made it up as I went along regarding how much fabric I should include on each tier. It's constructed from two bedsheets (one of them was king-size!) and I overcast the edges of the ruffles because I was too lazy to turn and hem them properly. (And when you have a serger, you overcast EVERYTHING.)

Depending on how thin your chosen skirt fabric is, you might want to put a smooth petticoat on top of that, least your ruffles show through.

(Don't mind the cat, he likes to get into everything.)

Now that the matter of foundation garments is settled, let's get back to the construction.

Some alterations to the pattern are necessary. They're all pretty simple.

Initially, I cut the outer sleeves full size until I realized they should have been shorter. Oops!

The outer sleeve stops halfway between elbow and wrist and I adjusted the opening so it comes to more of a "vee" at the seam on the underside, per the screen original. The undersleeves I cut to match the pattern, just shortening them a bit as I have short arms. (Alas, that's why there's not much of a "vee" on the sleeve, either. The distance between my mid-wrist and forearm is very small)

The bodice: I moved the opened from the front to the back. Simply cut the back in half and add a half inch seam allowance (if you're going to use an invisible zipper) or a little more if you plan to use hooks and eyes.

I changed the neckline to a vee in front and brought it down a bit in the back to more closely match the screen. Note: do be careful when adjusting the neckline. Because the shoulders aren't quite where you'd expect them to be on a modern garment, you can easily cut the neckline TOO wide (ask me how I know this, sigh. And that's why we make mockups, kids!).

I used the dart closest to the center front as a guide for where to cut the front of the bodice into two piece: the pleated center-front panel and the unpleated side-front.

For closer-to-screen accuracy, you should move the dart that remains from there to the side seam, but if that prospect worries you, it's not the end of the world if you don't. As mentioned earlier, I just didn't have the guts to do it.

Pleating The Bodice Front and Back

This is where everything came to a screeching halt for about three days while I figured everything out. I should mention that I'm terrible with geometr. I picked a great hobby, didn't I?

The center front and back sections of the bodice are pleated. The pleats meet in the center front in a vee at roughly 60 degrees in the front and 45 degrees in the back. My husband didn't know what to say when he caught me standing at the TV with a protractor in hand, but that's cosplay for you.

Notee that the pleats on the front of the bodice do NOT run parallel to the neckline. The neckline is at a steeper angle.

I'll be dead honest. If I was going to do this project again, I would take a length of my fabric to a professional pleating service and pay WHATEVER THEY ASKED to put inverted box pleats into the fabric with their experienced fingers and steam-chuffing presses. Indeed, if you're using a polyester satin, I would emphasize the use of a pleating service even more. Those guys have the equipment to put a crease into anything.

If you're going to pleat at home, prepare to spend a lot of time fiddling with paper to get things right. I settled on inverted box pleats half an inch wide – so the pickups were a quarter inch each, spaced one and a half inches from each other. Final spacing and size will vary according to the wearer, of course, because your torso might be longer or shorter than mine.

In my case, the fabric piece for the center front had to be X inches longer than the original paper piece, with X equaling the number of pleats. So the front bodice fabric piece was seven inches longer (seven pleats) and the back was nine inches longer (nine pleats).

Here's what I did. I acknowledge that it was slow but it worked for me.

I copied off the bodice pattern pieces on to some paper and drew lines to represent the pleats at the angle and spacing I wanted, so I had an idea of what I wanted and the angle at which the pleats needed to run. Then, I drew the pleating pattern on to a big piece tracing paper (I buy it by the roll). I folded the paper up and lightly taped the pleats down to hold them in place. I drew the grain line on the folded paper to keep a reminder of that in place, too. Then I put the bodice pattern on top of the pleated tracing paper, cut it out and unfolded it to get an idea of what the final shape will be.

Paper, pleated but before I cut the pattern piece out. I forgot to get a picture of that, d'oh!

Notice that nowhere in those sentences did I mention the fabric. This is all paper only, to judge how the pleats would look without committing a ton of time and my precious taffeta.

(To "lightly tape" something, take a piece of regular sticky tape and put it on the underside of your forearm. Then peel it off. The stickiness will be greatly reduced, which allows easier removal down the line, but it's still sticky enough to hold paper together. I learned that trick during a pattern-making class and, indeed, when I'm pattern-drafting, I usually keep half a dozen pieces stuck to my arm as I go along, for quick access. Make sure you're not allergic to the adhesive in your tape, though – some brands make me come up in a rash!)

Then I drew out the pleating lines AGAIN, on a fresh piece of tracing paper – with a quilting ruler and a sharp pencil it's very quick to do. NOW I reached for the quilter's basting spray (great stuff) , sprayed the paper and lay it down on my fabric, making sure it was nice and smooth. (Be sure to keep your paper pencil-side UP so you don't get pencil-lead all over your fabric.) Then I folded in the pleats, following the drawn guidelines and using a bone presser to help things along. I also used pieces of not very sticky tape to hold things in place as I went.

Once the pleats were folded in, I pressed the fabric on both sides, using a press cloth I'd dampened with some water from a spray bottle. If you're pressing silk, always use a press cloth – damp or dry. Then I went off and had a cup of tea while the fabric cooled down – an important step in setting pleats. After that, I peeled the tape off the pleats and peeled the paper off the fabric. Then I very carefully fiddled with the fabric AGAIN, putting the pleats back into place and pressing them one more time – again with a dampened press cloth and pausing for more tea while the fabric cooled. After that was done, my silk taffeta was as flat as a pancake and nothing was going to shift those creases – as I discovered when I tried to reuse a test piece. Wow.

Then, and only then, did I lay my pattern paper on top of the pleated fabric and cut it out – making sure the pleats were running at the angle (relative to the center front and the neckline) that I wanted. And I wrote down if I was cutting the left half or the right half because I know how forgetful I can be.

Now, here's the thing. I rushed off and did the second piece using the same technique and a new template and you know what happened? This happened.

(Click for larger if it's not clear, here)

A lot of bad language ALSO happened. I think I scorched the ceiling.

So, for the second half of the bodice front, I drew the pleat template onto some fresh paper BUT, I actually went very slowly putting in one pleat at a time and stopping to check how it matched to each pleat on the first piece. If the pattern said one thing, but the pleat didn't match up with the first piece, then I ignored the pattern. And this is where having the piece of pattern paper with the pleats sketched in was really helpful, otherwise who knows what angle those pleats would have met up at, at the end? I got so caught up in spacing the pleats that I almost totally forgot about the angle I wanted them to meet each other at – and yes, that affects how the pleats meet. Don't believe me? Pleat up a couple of pieces of paper and bring them together at an angle. Now change the angle, and you'll see what I mean.

...and then I did it all over again for the back. In hindsight, I should have done the back first, but I thought it would be more difficult, given the greater width. But the mistakes would have been less noticeable!

Yes, it took ages. Yes, I'm sure there's probably a better way to do it. And yes, yes, YES, I would pay a pleating service, next time. Even if it meant having to use three as much fabric than originally planned (most pleating places have a minimum) and even if it cost me a hundred dollars. I spent easily 16 hours or so of my time frowning at pieces of paper, cutting them out, frowning some more, etc, etc. Like I said, I'm bad with geometry. 16 hours of my time is totally worth $100.

Quick tangent: Some folks love the "freezer paper" trick for making pleats. I've used it myself on other projects. I tried it on the silk taffeta and I guess I didn't turn the iron up enough as the paper came away from the silk when I was about halfway through folding the pleats. I didn't dare turn the iron up any higher, lest I scorch the silk. In all, it was a right PITA and I'm really glad I remembered about the basting spray in my stash. Plus the tracing paper was thinner than freezer paper and I felt like that made the pleating easier to do.

Neckline trim basted into place before sewing. Yes, I had to sew down every single pleat... Click through for MUCH larger picture.

For the pleated chiffon trim on both the sleeve and the neckline, I threw my sanity out of the window and pleated approximately 12 feet of silk chiffon by hand. I made the pleats ¼" deep, set 1/8" apart. The basting spray and the tracing paper made it possible.

Unfortunately, this is where I learned that if you're a bit heavy-handed with the basting spray and then hit it with a warm iron, the paper will stick to your fabric rather more than is desirable. In a couple of spots, I simply couldn't get the shreds off the fabric, so I let them stay. Fortunately, they're invisible on the final product. So be careful!

I tried pleating a length of fabric with a friend's "pleating foot" on their sewing machine but I didn't like the result. If you want crisp, defined pleats running the full width of anything more than about half an inch, skip the pleating foot.

For the fur trim on the sleeves, I used some anonymous "minky" fur I found at the store. I was shopping in late spring for that and it was all I could find. I wanted something with a short pile, not muppet-skin "shag" fur. I traced off the end of my sleeve to make a pattern for the fur piece and that made life a little bit easier – as did a rotary cutter with a fresh blade. If all you have is a straight piece of fur, expect some easing along the way to conform it to the shape of the sleeve opening.

The original undersleeve is made from an embroidered chiffon. I was fortunate enough to be given a scrap of the original fabric by the costume designer.

Click for larger version.

I found something pretty-damn-similar at JoAnn's, of all places – and promptly lost it in my stash. As I'd already spent far too much money on this project, I looked for something else in my stash and settled on a red lace I had kicking around. No doubt I will now find the other stuff and if I do, that's okay. I can replace that inner sleeve pretty easily, especially as it's only catch-stitched into the sleeve lining, near the sleeve head – I sewed the sleeves with replacing them in mind.

Closures

The original costume uses an invisible zipper in back, beautifully set in and, I suspect, set in "upside down". I had the zipper in right side up in my mockup and I couldn't' step into it – and even pulling it over my head was a bother. Without a separating zipper – "invisible" zippers don't' separate - the bodice was only as large as the waist measurement and even in a corset - well, let's just say my shoulders are broader than my waist and leave it at that. I had the idea of putting the zipper in the other way up, so the bodice opened at the bottom and, lo, I could pull it over my head with no difficulty at all. I'm going to use that trick again, in future!

However zippers aren't period so, for the final version, I used hooks and eyes. Hook and eye tape is worth every penny, by the way.

The Skirt

If you've made a Victorian-era skirt before, you can skip all this as it's old hat.

After all that, all I had left was the skirt. Oh gods, the temptation to just stitch together four widths of my remaining yardage and gather in into a waistband was pretty huge BUT… that would be 216 inches gathered into a 29" waistband. There was no way that wasn't going to look ugly in the end, assuming it was even possible. AND the original is clearly – you can see this coming, right? – pleated into the waist.

Sigh. Fortunately, figuring out the pleating for the skirt was much easier. Just a matter of making some measurements and doing a little math. I ended up with a ratio of 7:1 being necessary to fit all that fabric into the available space, so the pleats were 3.5" deep, set one inch apart. They "radiated" from the center front (ie, the very front was, technically, a box pleat) and rather nice it looks, indeed.

(It still needed hemming and pressing as of this photo. Click through for larger.)

I'm told a rule of thumb for calculating yardage for hoopskirts is that the finished circumference of your skirt should be equal to double the circumference of your hoops, plus a yard. I think that's a bit much, and it would have necessitated EIGHT YARDS of fabric in my skirt. Um, no. I used a hair under five yards, in the end. I could have easily bumped that to six and a bit with another panel, but I was out of fabric.

For heavens sake, drape your fabric over your crinoline and petticoats to determine how long your skirt panels need to be AND allow for the height of your shoes when determining the length necessary for your skirt. I'm forever cutting my skirts too short because I forget about my heeled boots. Still, at least I don't have to worry about it dragging on the ground – but I DO have to worry about the petticoats showing!

And finally, nearly six years to the day since the fabric landed on my doorstep, here it is:

I'll wear the "crown" just as soon as I can find someone to make it for me! (And, of course, I couldn't find the jewelry I'd had made to go with the costume three years prior until a week AFTER the convention!)

Other Costumes I've Made

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