Time Traveling | Making My Blue Brain Hat

18th Century Brain Hat 1780

I love hats! Especially the fancy, floral, floofy numbers from bygone ears. For a large part of history, women wouldn’t leave the house without a chapeau!

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For my 1780s look, I decided to work with a straw hat I had in my stash. Once upon a time I thought I might have a go as a milliner and thus collected a lot of straw hat bodies and blocks to make new hats of my own. This base was actually a modern hat, but the size was perfect for this project. Here’s what it looked like when I started.

After removing the inter and exterior bands I started steaming the hat out. Moisture allows the straw to relax and take a new shape (which is why you may have noticed if you get a straw hat wet at the beach, it will lack the definition it had when you bought it). I wanted it to have a very shallow crown, like a bergère hat that was popular in the 18th century. I knew I’d be covering the hat with fabric, so an identical shape wasn’t necessary - just the rough form. I also found that I could flip the back brim up and it would hold nicely, which I knew would be a good place to slip in some decorations. I gave the whole thing a good steam and let it dry.

Covering straw with fabric on 18th century hat

Next I started on my fabric covering. Around the brim I created half inch pleats using a cotton sateen, a bajillion pins and a ton of patience. I first pinned the pleats to the edge of the interior brim, as you can see at the right. As I brought them to the edge of the brim, I let them spread just a bit and then brought them back in on top where the brim meets the crown. This was an easy place to become too perfectionist and fiddle! One thing I like to remind myself about historical sewing is that imperfection is historically accurate. We’ve become so accustomed to huge racks and full size runs of identical garments it’s no wonder something handmade feels a bit foreign to the eye with a little jumping stitch here or a slightly bigger pleat there. I’ve started to really love what a handmade piece looks like - one of a kind!

So anyway, when I got the brim pleats to a place I liked with pins, I hand sewed it down to the straw.

With the whole brim complete, I moved onto the brainy bit at the top. I used the same fabric but in a darker shade of blue and I love the combination of the two. For this part I turned to The American Duchess Guide to 18th Dressmaking (which I highly recommend!) and used their tutorial in the 1780s section to create the texture. Once it was all pinned in place, it also got tacked down with heavier buttonhole thread.

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Under Side 18th Century Hat

Now that the top of my little hat looked perfect, I set out to make the inside of the crown just as lovely. I made a very large and shallow tube (only a few inches deep) which I gathered at one side and created a drawstring channel at the other. The gathers were drawn in to match the circumference of the crown and sewn down. The drawstring channel was also draw up using a piece of string, tied, trimmed and tucked into the new crown covering. I also made two ties that were tacked down before the gathered interior crown bit went on. These let me to pull the hat down tightly and further emphasize the flipped up back!

Feathers on 18th century hat

Lastly was the question of feathers - how many and in what placement. After trying a bunch of different combinations, I settled on just one white feature layed horizontally in the back and tacked down.

In all I used 1 yard of light blue fabric and just a half yard of the darker blue. I had enough leftover to make a matching waist sash/belt to coordinate everything together. Because there are so many pieces to an 18th century kit (shift, stays, petticoats, bum rolls, socks, shoes, buckles, gown, fichu, apron and hat to name a few) I think I’ll keep my costumes from this era in the same general color story with this pretty blue as the common link.

I can’t decide if I should make one more gown (I do have the fabric on hand) as a birthday present to myself (it would photograph so beautifully in the snow!), do some modern sewing or start planning for the next era. I realized when I was sick for a day earlier this week that I cannot not have a project sitting around to pick up and play with. And as all of our outdoor chores are coming to an end for the season and it’s time to sit by the fire for the next few months, I do think another lap project is in order. Are you interested in progress shots or is a big reveal more fun? I’m not sure which way to take this one on. Let me know what you think!

Time Traveling | 1780s Italian Gown

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Ta da! Here’s a look at my completed 1780s Italian Gown that I’ve sewn for an event later this month. It was a complicated project - from making historical undergarments like a linen shift, stays, petticoats and bum rolls, to the finishing touches like a silk neck scarf, sheer cotton apron and hand made brain hat! And then there’s the fabric, which was an existing reproduction print that I over dyed and recolored by hand painting in with a new palette of colors. And every single stitch was a pleasure! I learned a lot about hand sewing during this project (I love using silk thread now!) as well as new-to-me techniques. This post is going to be a long one, so grab a cup of tea in your prettiest teacup and let me tell you more about this project!

Historical Background

Italian gowns were very popular during the latter part of the 18th century, replacing English gowns almost entirely. What’s the difference you ask? English gowns look similar from the front in many ways, but the key difference is how the back portion of the dress is constructed. An English gown is fitted to the body through a series of pleats tapering to the waistline and then opening up into a full skirt. The other key style of the 18th century was the Robe a la Francaise which flowed from the top of the back bodice downwards to the hem.

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By contrast, the Italian gown features four main back bodice sections that were cut pattern pieces (not pleated), a very pointed center back and a separate skirt with small (1/4 inch) pleats.

Cotton prints, imported from India (and appropriately called Indienne) were also very popular during this time period. They were predominantly on a white ground and the number of colors increased the cost of the fabric. I started out with a white chintz print, but I wanted to be a little different from the crowd so went with red instead (read more about my inspiration here).

In the end, I wanted this project to be a mix of historical reference and accuracy paired with personal design preferences. Something informed by the past but also not a carbon copy of a portrait or extant museum piece. I think I did that!

If you’d like to see some of the images I used as inspiration, here’s a link to the pinterest board I’ve been adding to for the last three months.

Now… onto the dress!

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To create this dress I used the Fig Leaf 101 pattern and cut the sleeves one size smaller. I fit the dress with a mockup after completing my stays, which give the torso a conical shape that minimizes and curve of the bust (and pushes it upwards for major cleavage!)

The fashion fabric is a reproduction cotton (see it white here) I picked up from my insta-friend Penny River Costumes (see her etsy shop here) which was dyed using Rit dye in Wine and then painted in using white gel pens and chalk paint pens. It took between 20-30 hours to complete, but was incredibly satisfying and relaxing! I’d work on it at night after my kids went to bed while drinking some red wine and listening to podcasts. Needless to say I will not be testing this dress out in the rain and plan on being very careful not to get it dirty and will only spot clean it as necessary.

The dress bodice is lined in left over natural linen from my stays. The 18th century seamstress was incredibly thrifty and did whatever she could to conserve fabric and notions. I found myself unpicking seams and reusing the thread and carefully cutting my fabric to make best use of the yardage. Speaking of, I was able to eek the gown out of just three yards of fabric and even pattern matched at the center front bodice! Another thing I love about 18th century sewing - 1/4” seam allowances!

As for the construction, I chose to reference the pattern instructions but used modern techniques. I assembled it in the way you might do a lined tailored jacket by sewing both lining and fashion bodices and then joining them via the neckline/front opening. I used my machine for these seams, as well as the sleeve lining. From there, I turned to hand sewing for attaching the outer sleeves, skirt and finishing the lining. I also made use of the selvage edges in any place possible to get more out of my fabric. The front edge and bottom hems are merely turned once and finished with a tiny running stitch.

At the last minute I pinned up my skirts a la polonaise (not a true polonaise, which has a different bodice cut and construction!), because my hem is just short of the petticoat. I can fix that for the next time I wear it, both by doing proper tapes under the skirt (to hold it up just right) or by shortening my petticoat a smidge. Each skirt is over 9 feet of hem and I have a lot to get done (i.e. the costumes for the rest of my family!) so that’ll come down the line. Hopefully before my event or I’ll continue to wear it poofed up or don my red petticoat instead.


Although they aren’t visible from these pictures, let’s talk a little about what goes on underneath the gown! First there’s the shift - a simple linen slip with a wide neckline, sleeves and knee length hem. Women of the 18th century didn’t have huge wardrobes and to help keep the outer dresses clean longer, shifts were worn. Women of all social classes would have more than one shift that could be regularly laundered. On top of that are my stays. Next is a quilted petticoat that I gave a double turned hem which really gives my skirts more width and bounce! Lastly is a split false bum which accentuates the narrow point of the bodice and fullness of the skirt at the same time.

The shift is from Simplicity by American Duchess, the petticoat was done using my measurements (the hem is 4x my waist circumference) and the false bum is from the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.

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Petticoat and Apron

I actually made two petticoats for this dress - although I didn’t begin with that plan. I began with a white cotton petticoat, made in a similar manner as the quilted petticoat and dyed it three times to try to get a deeper burgundy than the dress. My first attempt was splotchy, my second was a perfect match (but was too matchy matchy for me which says something!) and the last was a quick dip in black dye.

After my first dye I thought perhaps I had some more white cotton laying around and could do a light tea dye to see if an ivory petticoat would work. That’s when I stumbled on some white and blue striped cotton I got for a song ($2/yd and super wide!) in my stash. I pleated in all of the white stripes so it made a blue waistband and sewed that up in one night. I kept going back and forth on which petticoat to use and at the last minute thought - what about a Georgian style apron?! I had some super sheer cotton (from Burnley and Trowbridge) to spare, so using historical references, I made a simple apron with a pretty ruffle at the hem. I was so against aprons at the start of this project and now it might be my favorite accessory. The brightness of the white was something I changed by a dip in a tea bath to create a very delicate ivory.


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I’d like to do a whole post on my hat, so I’ll briefly tell you that I used an old hat I already had, removed the original interior and exterior bands, reblocked it and then covered it with cotton sateen. I used the American Duchess book as a reference for the brainy top and did pleated fabric around the brim. It was entirely hand sewn!

To coordinate, I made a simple belt using left over fabric in two shades of blue! It’s not laying as smooth and flat as I would hope, so I’ll probably take it apart and use a sturdier fabric as as a base and then cover it up again.

At my neckline, I’m wearing a silk gauze scarf tucked into the bodice of my gown. I’d like to add some sort of decoration to the center front - perhaps a bow or a corsage of little pink roses?

I also made a sheer silk cap (using the American Duchess Guide) but did not wear it for these photos. I may go with a huge hairdo and cap for my event just for something different next time I wear it) In the meantime, If you’d like to see it now, check out my instagram stories for videos!

Lastly, my shoes were a gift from my mom and are from American Duchess (as are the buckles). I was planning on thrifting or recovering something else so receiving these was just… ahh, I feel like I could cry. Thank you so much mom, not just for the shoes, but for being encouraging of my sewing my entire life and for being so enthusiastic when I text you updates of my costume. It really means a lot to me! I’m wearing over the knee socks I already had that are DvF, but the color and pattern feel like something a funky Georgian would wear! Hems were intentionally short during this era to show off those beautiful shoes, socks and sexy ankles!

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1780s Italian Gown with American Duchess Kensingtons
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Final Thoughts

You guys - I really love costuming. REALLY REALLY. If you watch my videos you can probably sense my excitement and passion for this hobby. I would say it’s a new hobby, but it reminded me of how I used to do this as a child and it’s so cool how it’s all come full circle. I love history, I love research, I love historical dress, I love using my hands, being technical and artistic in one project and I love how I feel when I wear these pieces. I love thinking of how women would express themselves through clothing 250 years ago just as they do today. I love how pieces were meant to be mixed and matched and how a smart woman would chose colors and fabrics to make the most of her wardrobe. I love the way my skirts flow as I walk, how I hold my posture wearing my stays, how I lift my chin to keep my hat from wobbling around, how my apron and feathers dance in the breeze. I feel like me wearing this ensemble. I love everything about this project and I cannot wait to wear it at an immersive historical event with my husband and children also done up in their 18th century wears! And it should also be noted that the community of women who share their expertise and passion are so inspiring! I’ve messaged so many of them with questions and they are so welcoming and knowledgable! You know who you are! Thank you!

Lastly - are there any Hoosier or Midwestern 18th Century enthusiasts out there? Please be in touch - I would love to host an event locally and have you join!

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An American Girl

Dressing up at Kirsten American Girl

EDIT: This post was original written in 2016 but I’m reposting it now to correspond with the #FallforCostume challenge I have been participating in on Instagram. Also! A lot of you have mentioned to me that your dolls’ hair was all frizzed out and these are proof mine was too! She was sent to the doll hospital for a new mane towards the end of the time I played with her!

As a little girl, I went through what I can best describe as my “pioneer” phase. I was absolutely, completely obsessed with the nineteenth century. I wore bonnets and bloomers (to school!) and relied on the American Girl and Little House on the Prairie books for guidance into my “old fashioned” life. 

It all started when I received an American Girl catalogue in the mail. My best guess was that it came in the mid-90s and it was pretty much the only way I spent my allowance for a good five years.  My neighborhood friends had their own American Girl dolls and I wanted one so badly, but my parents thought they were too expensive for an all out gift, so compromised with me. If I saved for half of the price, they’d match it and order the doll. I can’t remember how long it took me to save, but on a chilly day in October, I went into my parents bedroom and told my mom I was ready to order my Kirsten. She had me count out the dollars and coins to make sure I had the right amount.  She picked up the receiver of the telephone, paused, and hung it up. Then she reached under the bed and pulled out the burgundy box with Kirsten inside. Just recounting this memory makes me want to cry! It’s hard to put into words what that doll meant to me and how her story shaped my childhood. That October afternoon was easily one of the best memories of my young life! 

It wasn’t just the doll, but the history that went with her. For birthdays and Christmas my mom would sew me and Kirsten matching dresses. Sometimes they would be new designs and color patterns, but mostly the dresses sewn for me were made to match something from Kirsten’s series. Underneath I wore petticoats and pantaloons, thick black tights and lace up boots. Around that time my grandma gave me a box full of handmade undergarments that her neighbors had brought over from Germany in the late 1800s. Even though they were made for adult women, they were tiny and fit my tween size perfectly. I now see how learning about the fashions of the 1850s influenced my love for costume history! 

In addition to the clothing, a lot of my childhood pastimes directly corresponded with the era. At this age I took up hand sewing and quilting - mainly pillows but I also made a full sized quilt when I was ten! I wish I had photos of those pieces here, but they’re all safely stored at my parents house - I’ll grab some snaps next time I’m visiting!

Happy Birthday Kirsten

I didn’t stop with quilting - I also dyed my own fabric using locally (hyper local - mulberry trees from our backyard) berries. I crushed them into muslin fabric to create a pinkish tone and from that, I cut out and appliquéd a little heart onto a pillow - the perfect size for my pint sized doll.

In the kitchen, my dad helped me make apple raisin porridge out of the Kirsten cookbook and I churned my own butter (using a pint of cream, a marble, a Ball jar and tons of shaking!) 

I loved going to antique stores and visiting historical sites and especially my aunt and uncle’s 1885 farm house (we took our wedding photos there!) We even took a family trip to Colonial Williamsburg when I was in fifth grade. I still have dreams of working on a historical farm, even if it’s only for a week or a month. Adam and I have been very into a BBC collection of shows based on that concept - Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm… we love them all! 

Homemade Kirsten Outfits

In researching for this post, I did some googling of Kirsten books and images and the nostalgia that crept in was so heartwarming. Opening the window into this world of history has such a special place in my heart. I really really loved that doll and her story and pretending that I was a little girl in pioneer times. I loved getting dressed up in historical costumes and doing old timey things. 

Now I see how much my parents encouraged me and supported my interests - reading, sewing and cooking alongside me! I hope I can do the same for my own kids someday… maybe my little girl will play with my Kirsten doll too. 

Kirsten Saves the Day

Time Traveling | Making 18th Century Stays

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Voila! I've put the finishing touches on my 18th century stays and I could not be more excited and proud of the final result. I've made these as the foundation to complete my 1780's style costume that I'll wear this fall with my family to a Revolutionary War re-enactment. But before I go into any of those plans, let me tell you more about this project!

Historical Background

Once upon a time, stays were the foundation to every woman's daily outfit. They provide an elegant conical shape, give back support, lift and enhance the bosom (hello!) and inform one's posture. Women of all social classes wore stays, which later evolved into corsets. Normally stays would be worn with a linen shift or chemise underneath, but I haven't completed mine yet so I'm just wearing a simple white dress I already had in my closet. 


I wanted my stays to have an antique quality to them, which is why I chose natural linen as my fashion fabric. I also knew I wanted to make them a little extra special, and chose to embroidery an 18th century design. I'm not going for a super bourgeois look nor am I wanting to be a laborer/camp follower. So although this fabric does lend itself to a more modest (financially speaking) approach, I think the embroidery makes it special and a little more luxurious. All that said, no one but me and you will see this piece because it will be completely covered by my gown and petticoats!  

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The floral design I've used was actually something I found at a garage sale! The pattern was part of a Colonial Williamsburg embroidery kit for a bell pull. I used this design as a basis by scanning it into Photoshop and adjusting it to fit the center front pattern piece (which was a PDF download). Next I printed that design out to scale on adhesive embroidery paper, which dissolves in water once you have completed your design. It was really cool! I also recolored it into shades of blue, which really pop against the natural linen! 


I purchased the digital download from RedThreaded patterns online. I met the proprietress Cynthia at the Jane Austen Festival and she was great! I had a look at her stock corsets and this particular 18th century design spoke to me. I like the look of the horizontal boning and the shaping of the all in one tabs. I sewed a medium and did not make alterations to the pattern pieces. I did add some additional decorative boning channels because I love the ribbed effect it creates.

Stitching Notes

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Because I embroidered the motif directly onto the linen, I did a lot of stopping and starting with my boning channels, as I did not want to sew over/through my design (minus some small branches). The end result is so beautiful and I don't think the starts and stops will negatively effect the functionality!

I used a faux silk charmeuse (It's poly and the best I could find locally! It has a really nice hand feel for not being the real thing) for my binding and hand sewed it around the entirety of the stays, using the bias to create as smooth of an effect as possible. This was fiddly, but I actually really loved doing the hand work on this step. I then wrapped the bias around the edges and basted it into place. Finally, I stitched in the ditch oh-so-carefully to hold the binding in place.

I also really loved doing all of the eyelets BY HAND (there are 24 of them!) Using a sewing awl and button thread, these lil guys are so sturdy. And they're beautiful! 

Finally - I did end up making two orders for my boning and had to adjust the lengths (I needed longer) than the pattern notions suggested. And that's my fault because the pattern says to measure before you order (but I wanted all of the supplies at once...)

Final Thoughts

I LOVED this project. All of the handwork was really enjoyable and something I am able to do as my children play nearby or while they are napping (getting time with my sewing machine is a different story). Sewing it was a pleasure and it's fun to create something with such attention to detail, even if I'm the only one who will be able to appreciate them.

Actually lacing up and wearing these stays was even better than making them!! I love the silhouette it creates and how it really directs how you move about. Weird as it may sound, I always feel more myself when I'm dressing in costume and this foundation garment is no exception. It's remarkably comfortable and doesn't constrict my breathing as you might expect. Now I cannot wait to get started on my 1780s Italian style gown! 

Project Sources

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