1860’s Evening Attire – Civil War Era Ballgown – The Progress
1860’s Evening Attire – Civil War Era Ballgown – The Progress

1860’s Evening Attire – Civil War Era Ballgown – The Progress

1860’s Evening Attire – Civil War Era Ballgown – The Progress

We were headed to a Civil War Reenactment in Jefferson, TX.  While packing up, I decided I should grab a project to fill the days of sitting under a canvas tent!

Among the many possessions of reenacting gear, we have a historic treadle sewing machine. Being from the 1880’s, it’s not completely accurate for the 1860’s.  Now, we do have another sewing machine that is actually from the 1860’s!  This amazing piece of machinery is quite similar to the machine on the treadle from the 1880’s.  With that I mind, I have no problem bringing a slightly “new” machine to the 1860’s reenactment seeing as it’s almost the same design as the one’s used during the American Civil War.

Did I mention that the treadle is in complete working order?! It sews a beautiful chain stitch!

In went the treadle, some muslin, the needed sewing supplies, the main fabric, and Janet Arnold’s “Pattern of Fashion 2.”

pattern pics-1
Click Here to Purchase the book!

From the first time I saw it, I knew this particular evening gown was exactly the style I desired for my 1860’s ballgown!  My plan wasn’t to perfectly replicate it, just to create my dress in a similar way (and use the pattern).pattern pics-2Here you can see the pattern…it would be my first time to enlarge a pattern!pattern pics-3I had picked up the perfect pink striped fabric at Hancock Fabrics during their close out sale.  Getting a killer deal, I bought the fabric at $2 per yard! Being a rayon poly blend, it’s not a historically accurate material, but the appearance of the fabric looks a lot like silk.  That’s mainly why I decided that it wouldn’t matter too much! Seeing as I hardly go to balls, I would never dream of spending $20+ per yard on a dress that hardly gets worn. It was either no 1860’s ballgown, or a ballgown that looks historically accurate using not-so-accurate fabric. I decided on the latter.pattern pics-5Once we were settled in out temporary abode, I pulled out my project and began the task of enlarging the pattern of choice from Janet’s book.

Then I realized something that would make this task go much quicker; graph paper!  Nope, I didn’t even think about it. All I had brought was some plain tracing paper…

But that wasn’t going to stop me!  Before I could enlarge the pattern, I had to create some graph paper.  Yup, that’s right; I spent many hours tracing lines on my plain paper.

Finally, I was able to enlarge the pattern.

The best part of this whole progress? I didn’t check the measurements of this enlarged pattern, I just cut the muslin in the pattern, hoping it’d be close to my size. And what-da-you-know, it fit almost perfectly! There were some very minor alterations to the draft, and it was ready.

Now, I don’t recommend this type of laziness!  But if it happens to work to your advantage, then what can I say?

civil war ballgown-1

civil war ballgown-2
The chemise I’m wearing in this photo, is not the one I’ll be wearing with the dress.  Also, don’t mind my extremely large petticoat waistband hanging off my hips…
civil war ballgown-3
It might look a bit messy, but drafts usually do!

BTW, on the way to the reenactment, I added the final touches to my 1860’s corset!civil war ballgown-53

civil war ballgown-52

Cutting out the real fabric with an old pair of scissors. Surprisingly, these sheers are quite sharp and cut the fabric nicely!  Also, my teal plastic pin magnet got a make-over.civil war ballgown-4civil war ballgown-6And there she is; the wonderful treadle machine that purrs like a kitten!civil war ballgown-12civil war ballgown-14civil war ballgown-15civil war ballgown-16civil war ballgown-55

Click the right arrow on the image to watch three videos of the machine in motion!

I don’t have many progress photos during the reenactment, but I actually finished the dress enough to be worn to the ball on Saturday! Did I mention that we arrived late Thursday?  I actually “made” a wearable dress in less than two days!  This is just the basic form of the dress; a lot of embellishments will be added later.

civil war ballgown-7civil war ballgown-8

After a wonderful night of dancing; we packed up the next day and headed back home.

Of course, a nice long drive creates an acceptable time to sew!

civil war ballgown-17
I’m hand-stitching the waistband together! During the drive, I also accomplished the hand-sewing of the hem.

Arriving back at home, the dress got put in a closet until I had the proper time to finish it up.

Enter: The Proper Time to Finish the Gown

Once that time came, the first to be made was the piping.  The piping would be placed along the neckline as well as the bottom edge of the bodice.

civil war ballgown-18
An invisible zipper foot works perfectly for this tiny piping.

civil war ballgown-63civil war ballgown-62civil war ballgown-61

civil war ballgown-20civil war ballgown-21

Here’s a couple Instagram posts that show the progress of the sleeve puffs:

For historical accuracy, I don’t prefer using lining in my garments. At the same time, I want to have a finished bodice, which always includes a neat and tidy inside.

For this bodice, I used the method shown in the video below:


Now for the bertha!  Originally, I created a ruffled bertha, but after seeing the completed look, I sent a poll to Instagram to let my many followers decide the outcome. civil war ballgown-65civil war ballgown-23civil war ballgown-24civil war ballgown-26civil war ballgown-27civil war ballgown-28civil war ballgown-66Above; the ruffled bertha.

Below; the un-finished smooth bertha.civil war ballgown-64

I gave the vote to my Insta followers….it was almost 50/50.  It actually was just a bit more for the ruffled….but by the time all the votes were in, I had feeling that the smooth was more me!


And thus, a smooth bertha was chosen. I’m SO glad that I made that decision; I’m 100% happy with this dress!

civil war ballgown-29civil war ballgown-30civil war ballgown-32civil war ballgown-33civil war ballgown-35

civil war ballgown-36
Sewing the neckline piping.

Then came the decision of trim. At first, I thought a thick band of white might do the trick. So I did a quick mock-up….

civil war ballgown-68

Nope, I couldn’t do it. It was just too simple!  So I did a little research, a bit of drawing, and a quick test:civil war ballgown-69

I liked it! I mixed a couple different trim styles I’d seen in historical photographs and created my own version of geometric trim.civil war ballgown-70

The pinning of twelve repeats took quite some time. To make it more complicated, I couldn’t bring myself to use a sewing machine. It had to be hand-sewn…what was I thinking?

Fortunately, I was on my way to Costume College (a weekend sewing conference in L.A.)

From where I live, that’s a 24 hour drive. I had plenty of time to do some hand-sewing…or so I thought!

civil war ballgown-38
First, I finished up the bodice which included hand-sewing the eyelets.

civil war ballgown-39After that, it was all about the trim! And let me tell you, was I exhausted of hand-sewing by the end of the trip.  But the worst part? After a 24hr drive, I still wasn’t finished with the trim….

civil war ballgown-40
Fortunately, the drive is quite straight. As in, through the desert, literally driving straight for hours upon hours!

civil war ballgown-41civil war ballgown-42Thus, the evenings of Costume College were spent finishing up the very time consuming trim.  (This might have included watching some movies…including Cinderella. It’s my fav!)

Finally the day came and I shared this on my Instagram story:civil war ballgown-43

Here we are; the completed gown.  Finished the same day I needed to wear it!

Completed Civil War Era BallgownCompleted Civil War Era BallgownCompleted Civil War Era BallgownCompleted Civil War Era BallgownAnd there you have it! The process of my 1860’s Ballgown; from a quick decision, to a perfect fitting pattern, to hand-sewing trim along the way to California!

Next week, I’ll be posting all the photos from the finished photoshoot!

Thanks for looking and learning with me! ~ Bella Mae

A custom version of this gown is for sale here: http://www.etsy.com/listing/664792189/1860s-historical-ballgown-victorian-era

1860’s Evening Attire – Civil War Era Ballgown – The Progress

Psst..If you happen to like the product links I shared and decide to purchase them, I’ll make a small earnings. Just FYI!


  1. Alicia Estelle

    This is so beautiful! Thank you for taking the time to post the making of this dress on your website – I really appreciate it. Even though I’m still a beginner sewer in comparison to you, I love reading your construction process! It helps me understand how I can implement new techniques even in my simple sewing projects. Do you have construction notes on how you made the undergarments for this dress? I would love to see!

    1. Thank you for this wonderful comment! It’s lovely to hear that this blog has been helpful!
      As of right now, I haven’t made any chemises or drawers (bloomers). I hope to in the future and will plan on doing a post about the process.
      I do have photos of the process of making the corset (or one like it), but I just need to find the time to write a post! Hopefully soon!
      Thanks again!
      ~ Bella Mae

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *