Sewing an 18th Century Gown – Recreating the Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown Documentary


a simple tartan gown a wedding from long
long ago a family’s history passed down from generation to generation the
Isabella MacTavish wedding gown is an iconic piece of Scottish history and
today we’ll explore its origins the woman and family it belonged to its
significance in Scottish and dress history as well as its modern
recreation clothing serves as the great connector
to generations past and by studying old clothing it helps humanize and better
understand our ancestors their daily lives their likes and dislikes and the
experiences that shaped their world we all wear clothing we all get dressed
every morning one foot at a time and while we might not all be kings queens
or even blacksmiths and sailors we all wear clothing and it’s the common thread
that ties human history together hi I’m Abby Cox lead mantua maker for the
Isabella MacTavish Fraser wedding gown project and by recreating a special
tartan gown we’re going to be able to step into the buckled shoes of the woman
who wore the gown as well as the women who helped make this dress for her as
modern dress historians by recreating this gown we’re going to be able to
uncover all of its quirks and secrets long since forgotten its triumphs and its
failures will be brought back to life during this two-day dress making event
but before we dive into the recreation process itself let’s take a moment to
learn about the history of the gown Isabella MacTavish Fraser and how it’s
become an iconic piece of Scottish history I stumbled across an image of
this incredible tartan gown while researching to design my own wedding
dress it really struck something the heart of me at about the same time that
I had just discovered I did have a Scottish line of lineage myself so it
was especially important a personal way for me as a historical dressmaker it
occurred to me quite quickly that this is something actually I could make and that
was the seed of the idea to start thinking about researching it to make a
replica in researching it I discovered that so little was known about women’s
working women’s clothing real women’s clothing in the Highlands like this
black hole realized that this dress hadn’t really been studied and brought
out and recorded and shared public and that was the seed for putting
together a project that would not just be me making a replica in my workshop
but doing it in a way that other people could see and really learn about this
dress and the more stories have poured in about how much this dress means to
people all over the world that just it just seems like the right time to share
it Isabella MacTavish grew up on a farm
a little ways out of Inverness in the Highlands in her mid-twenties she
married Malcolm Fraser who lived nearby they actually got married in the town of
Doris just a few miles away from the farm and again a few miles away from
Inverness they got married in the middle of the winter just after Christmas in
January 1785 in history of this dress after Isabella wore this for her wedding
there have been three more brides Isabella’s son Tavish when he married
Jane Fraser she wore the dress and then there was a long gap and no one wore the
dress that we know of until Isabel Beaton the current owner wore herself
for her wedding in 1978 my name is Isabel Beaton and I
am the owner of the dress which has now become known sort of as the Isabella
MacTavish Fraser dress in our family I guess it was just called the tartan
wedding dress but I’m getting used to calling it the Isabella MacTavish Fraser dress too – it belonged to my three-times great-grandmother and I think now it’s
beginning to feel a bit of a responsibility to do the right thing
about the dress it’s amazing it’s amazing the other side is it’s amazing
the fact it’s survived and gone on all the journeys where it must have gone and to
have ended up still still existing is great we generally associate tartan with
menswear and that’s what’s so great about the Isabella MacTavish Fraser dress
because not much survives relating to tartan and women’s clothing in the 18th
century we do know that women would have been wearing tartan it stands to reason
that skirts petticoats shawls or arisades as they’re called in the
Highlands these were definitely being worn there’s lots of visual evidence of
arisades in particular but this is why the MacTavish dress is so unusual because it
survives in its entirety and that doesn’t happen very often and we are
still left with this perception that tartan is more of a masculine thing and
that’s where this dress is so important because it shows that it wasn’t always
just being worn by men since clothing up until the late 19th
century was especially made for individuals by skilled tradesmen and
women by recreating their clothing we were able to become intimate with the
body that wore the gown and its maker how tall were they how short was there
an old injury that caused them to walk a certain way where they left-handed or
right-handed how old were they when this garment was made what problems the
dressmaker or tailor have when making this item how did they solve the issue
when recreating an 18th century gown whether from an original or taking
inspiration from a painting or a book one must always start with the correct
materials. In 18th century Scotland the main fabrics that you have linen wool and
towards the end of the century you start to see cotton coming in but for most of
the population most of their wardrobe would have been made from linen and wool
standard perception might be that all of this would have been made within
individual households that you make your own cloth you make your own clothing and
that would have been true to some extent possibly in the rural areas but the
Highlands of Scotland by no means cut off and we know that there was a lot of
cloth being brought in sometimes that cloth might have been
brought in from somewhere like Edinburgh up to the north or from abroad as early
as the 1720s we know that there were families in Inverness who were in buying
in silk to be able to faithfully recreate the hard tartan used in the
original dress Rebecca set out to find a weaver who equaled her passion for the
Highlands and Scottish history as well as possessing the facilities and skill
to reproduce the fabric. Tartan in the Scottish context is both a fabric and a
pattern so as a fabric it’s traditionally woollen but it can be made
from many other fibres wool and silk it could be cotton and
wool a mixture of all of them and as a pattern it’s at its most basic form it’s
a check so to create a tartan all you really need is two yarns of different
colors and the weaving pattern creates the check the more colors you have the
more complex the check can be and the more complex a tartan will be. This leads
to Prickly Thistle a tartan weaving business located in the Scottish
Highlands and owned by Clare Campbell Clare’s expertise in tartan weaving
and antique looms meant that she was able to recreate the fabric that’s not
to say reproducing the tartan was easy in fact it is impossible to create an
exact reproduction changes in loom and weaving technology breeds of sheep
becoming extinct and differences in commercial dyes all
meant that a true reproduction would never be possible. Color is obviously
very important in tartan and there are theories that there’s certain status or
meaning associated with red in particular unlike today we see a tartan
and we associate it with a clan and colors can even have meanings in the
18th century it wasn’t really like that it was more about how expensive that
dyes were that’s what gave you status so for the Isabella MacTavish Fraser tartan
that’s in the gown there’s a lot of red red was a high-status colors it was very
expensive in the 18th century you could get cochineal imported and we know that
tartan manufacturers in Scotland were importing cochineal so it wasn’t just a
cottage industry it wasn’t just something that people were using dyes
and lichens from the hills and moss to create their own tartan certainly that
was happening but it was also a commercial enterprise and you could
import expensive dyes to create these really bright vibrant colors. Choices in
construction were determined by a mix of thoughtfulness and working with the
tartan and speed mistakes were made in this gown and the fixes were done so
well that the only way we could figure out that there had even been a mistake
was recreating each section stitch by stitch and uncovering its secrets.
So before we went to Scotland we decided that it was in everyone’s best interest
for us to do a test dress version of the Isabella MacTavish Fraser wedding
gown we only actually had photographs that other people took of the original
gown we didn’t really know quite was what was going on so we looked at those
really really closely and then tried to reproduce what we were seeing in the
photographs what we found was a gown that was quickly made for a woman who
would be considered extremely average in size today which further explains how so
many of her descendants were able to wear the gown for their own weddings
with little to no alterations the hard tartan fabric unusual for a woman’s gown
in the 18th century dictated most of the design choices during the late 1780s
when this dress was thought to have been made small pleats and pieced backs were
all the rage but the bold broad tartan required broad back pleats long out of
fashion winged cuffs the only bits of decoration
on this simple gown are severely outdated by the mid 1780s but would have
been fashionable for the 1740s while there is no way to confirm whether the
start and gown worn by a girl long after the failed Jacobite rebellion was meant
to be worn as a political statement or as a romantic one it is difficult to
overlook its stylistic similarities. So we realize very quickly that this gown
is not made in a way that we like to make out it’s it’s very atypical so we
were looking at the photos we’re like oh that’s that’s an interesting
construction how fascinating and then there were other parts of it they were
like look you do make me like why why did you do it that way it’s what we get
into when we do the making is why did they do this yeah is this a mistake how
do they correct it one of the more interesting points of the construction process with this gown were actually the sleeves. Oh my favorite – I love the sleeves on this gown And something we noticed, eventually, in the making up of these sleeves is that there was a massive mistake made by the mantua maker where we
hypothesized that she actually made the sleeve too tight below the elbow
and Isabella couldn’t bend her arm to touch her nose or take a drink of
water so they made a quick fix which was they
actually got up in there and clipped into the crook of the arm so
she could bend her arm and then they covered all of that crazy business with
the cuff. Part of our challenge was actually breaking that down figuring out
what happened figuring out why that happened and then figuring out how to
fix it in a way that we were able to honor the quirk in the gown and make it
make sense in our reproduction that just looking at it, that even though I know
that’s what it is it’s throwing everything off yes I agree
and then pleat it before you put it on the arm yeah
yeah because right now like I can see the split hanging out too. (Yes it’s not in the right place.) So it needs to be pleated and it needs to have the seam
allowance folded correctly (too long then?) potentially because it’s not gonna be
down here We’re here in Nevada the gown is over there in Scotland and we’re
just looking at pictures as best as we can on Google Drive we’re trying to
figure out the back pleats of this gown I looked at the photos and I worked out
the Tartan set and about approximately based on the known quantities the width
of the individual panels how wide the pattern and the Tartan was and then I
printed it out on a piece of paper (yes) and we tried to pleat this piece of
paper this tiny like 1/32 scale piece of paper (yeah) to figure out how deep the
back pleats were because of course you can’t get your fingers in there and
measure any of that on the finished piece no so we had like hardly any
measurements to work with did three or four iterations of this back on paper
and on our plain wool fabric trying to figure out how this back went together
because we we didn’t have the whole story yet it wasn’t working.
Luckily, Rebecca ended up sending us a sample piece of the tartan that we were
going to end up using in Scotland and that’s when everything started to make a
lot more sense. The lines the the squares of the stripes on the tartan we could
see what was lining up with what from the photos and once we had that piece of
tartan it very very easily went together there were still challenges but
obviously with the back seam yeah in an English gown it the back seam
is angled and it’s what brings everything in but on the original dress
that is offset there’s a little bit of a mistake there that’s part of the
challenge is reproducing like the human nuances that are in this gown so we’re
sitting here moving the seams like thirty 1/32 of an inch we’re talking
mil, like fractions of millimeters here trying to get it to look the way that
they did it. Here though and that was just the half-inch folded over for the seam
allowance (yeah). The second time this recreation was undertaken was with a
team of seamstresses from all over the United Kingdom and in front of a live
audience at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and it was
organized by Rebecca Olds of Timesmith Dressmaking. We have eight people on our
team the dressmaking team is headed up by Abby Cox Vice President of American
Duchess. Abby has extensive experience in cutting and draping on the body with
the 18th century dress making techniques Lauren Stowell is founder and CEO of
American Duchess and Royal Vintage she’s very experienced historical
costumer and researcher and she’s co-author of the American Duchess Guide
to 18th-century Dressmaking and the American Duchess Guide to 18th
Century Beauty. Also on our team is Peryn Westerhof-Nyman from Canada she
lives here in Edinburgh is working on her PhD in Scottish dress history at the
The University of St. Andrews. Katie Stockwell is a professional historical
dressmaker and milliner specializing in Regency ladieswear. Alexander Bruce has
just completed her BA Honours degree in Costume Production from Rose Bruford
College of Theatre and Performance. Georgia Gough is our model she’s a multi
period historical dressmaker and re-enactor, and last but not least Flora
McCloud-Swietlicki is our team PA if you like Once we got to Edinburgh, before the two days
of the project we invited the team over to our little apartment to do a master
class we needed to roughly run through how this dress was going to be made some
of the quirks of it so that on the day itself
there wasn’t a mass confusion terror and chaos. Yes, we were trying to prevent that
from happening. The other thing that we did on Friday before the big event is we
ended up cutting out the bodice shapes on Georgia in the privacy of our flat we
wanted to include it as a part of the program but unfortunately with our time
restrictions within the program itself I knew from my experience that it just
wasn’t going to be a feasible option so we ended up just doing that in the
privacy of our own flat and that way it also helped us to see where any
potential quirks or issues could arise on Georgia as an individual person
because when you’re dealing with a mix of a reproduction and a recreation you
you have to find that balance within the modern human body who is completely
unique from Isabella but then trying to honor the design choices that were made
in Isabella’s original gown. Day One. Straight into the museum straight
into cutting things out the first thing that we cut out were the skirt panels
easy right (yeah) the interesting thing about hard tartan is that when it comes
off the loom there are no other process it doesn’t go through waulking it’s not
tentered and so the plaid especially when it’s a large set like the Isabella
MacTavish Fraser one it’s very noticeably a little bit off grain and it has to be
stretched back into position so this is one of the issues that Clare was facing
during the weaving of this fabric was that even though she’s using antique
looms there are still 19th-century looms they’re still mechanical looms they’re
not the hand looms of the 18th century and so they’re much more aggressive in
the weaving process that’s actually why the plaid just got ever so slightly
skewed which meant that we had to attempt to
tenter ourselves. This is one of my favorite memories the entire project the
first day there’s Peryn and there’s Katie and
they’ve got one corner each and they’re pulling and yanking on this big panel to get it back into position. Because we didn’t think about that taking up time. And it really did and
like yanking this too just to get it because otherwise nothing you lay out
none of the pattern that you lay out is going to have the landmarks that you
need. This was actually the first time we were cutting the actual tartan rather
than our test fabric which was just a plain solid wool yeah and we discovered
all kinds of interesting cutting choices that the original mantua makers made
some of them were very (oh yeah) economical and very interesting and
thoughtful we you learned a lot in the why they cut things the way they did but
it was not nearly as straightforward as what you would have thought it would
have been the sleeves in particular and also the bodice fronts. The tartan is a
very very big set it’s a big bold pattern so you don’t have a lot of room
for squidging around on making a decision where you’re gonna put things
you have to get it in the right place so you have a big blue square and you have
a big green square you have this triple stripe and you’ve got to get it on the
right place on the arm or the right place on the bodice that took so much
time! We had the iPad out looking at the photographs trying to figure out
okay what square color square and where’s the stripe on the sleeve how
does it line up this took a long time and a lot of brain power it took care it
took a lot longer than we thought we ever would have budgeted when you look
at the gowns side-by-side I am really proud of how well we did with our
pattern matching. We’ll never know why this gown was cut on the straight the
way that it was. No, at this point in time when Isabella was getting married
it’s 1785 and the stays shapes at that point in time in history are very curvy
they’re very thrusty and so cutting a gown on the straight
at the front with that kind of thrusty shape to the stays is not a good idea. It
may have been that the mantua maker was like oh nice selvages don’t mind if I do
but what happened is exactly what we thought was going to happen which is
those straight panels and a fabric that is not stretchy you know cut on straight
of grain produced a rumpled front. Yes and the lacing did not help the
situation either. I think the lacing strips were solving
one problem but then it caused another yes when we fit the gown the first
time doing in the fronts to the backs we didn’t have the lacing stress put in
we just had it pinned at center front and it looked great yeah nice and smooth
looked beautiful but the fabric is so heavy (oh God) the hard tartan with all of this bulk around the waist that it pulled the back of the gown bodice away
from the body so they use the lacing strips to pull that in yeah but that
produced this extra going on at the front. Oh man, that gown was heavy. It was
so heavy. Once we got the skirt on there I think the thing must have weighed like
20 pounds at least at least 20 pounds this thing weighed a ton
and it took more than one person to do a fitting on it like so so at one point
there’s footage that I’m trying to fit the front of the gown and you’re just
holding the skirts. When you put the skirt panels on to the back because
if this is an English style pleated back down there’s a weak point and created
when after you make the scary cut (very scary cut) and then you’ve got like 10
pounds and 10 pounds of skirt pleated ready to fit on the body and if you let
that go it could just rip the entire skirt off the back of the bodice we
replicated the back pleats exactly to the original dress but unfortunately
what that meant is that we were not going to be able to get the shoulder
straps into the exact position because our model had a different shoulder width
then Isabella originally did what we ended up doing was we opted to match the
original gown and then we dealt with the shoulder straps not matching on the
model it’s sad that we had to do that because that is one of the most
interesting parts of the gown for me is how those pleats and the show
shops intersect but unfortunately when it’s a recreation and not a replica you
have to make those difficult choices and we tried to honor the way that the
mantua maker would have solved that problem as well. All told we had about 13
14 hours across two days to do this project which puts an extra challenge on
top of an already difficult project from my previous experience working in a gown
the day gown in a weekend kind of format I had a really good understanding of
what points we had to hit at what time to be able to complete the gown.
Unfortunately, with challenges that we could not have anticipated like pattern
matching and the heat in that space. It was extraordinarily hot! Because of the time with
cutting out (yeah) that bodice and tentering, we were
basically 30 minutes behind yeah everyone was sewing at speed. But all
told we did get the gown done (yes) it was a real push at the end we did get
the gown done and we were able to dash across to Greyfriars Abbey and do the
final photoshoot and yes we did it! What started off as a dream for Rebecca Olds
quickly became a mission not so impossible for her international team
together we were able to display historically accurate dressmaking
techniques as well as tell the story of Isabella MacTavish Fraser’s wedding gown
and the women who made it for her We hope you enjoyed coming along this
journey with us as we recreated the Isabella MacTavish Fraser wedding gown
and we hope you learned as much as we did in this recreation process.

4 thoughts on “Sewing an 18th Century Gown – Recreating the Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Gown Documentary

  1. You said you were in Nevada. I looked you up and realized you guys are from Reno!

    I am from Reno. I was just wondering if you guys work with any of the young chautauquans? I know I would have loved a business like this being around when I did it as a child

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