The Afrovictorian Bustle Ensemble

What I learned while making this ensemble, a roundup.

First, I’ve been sewing for nearly 40 years. My mom taught me on a machine her grandmother gave her. (She still has it but it needs some restoration). So take everything after this with that lens in mind.

I’ve used big 3 patterns most of my life and been frustrated. They usually didn’t fit quite right according to the measurements they put on the package, ie, if it said cut a 42 inch waist at a 16 it was inevitably too big or too small. I am an 18-22 depending on brand and 5’10.

I have made many an ill fitting costume from one of the big 3. Do not recommend anything that is supposed to hug or follow your shape from them, especially if you aren’t straight sized.

This go round I researched independent pattern companies. YouTube and Facebook were great for this. I could see how and if people were struggling, and the costube community has many makers shaped more like me that were making pieces like I wanted.

They were great about pointing out where they got the patterns they used or how to correct a fit issue. Special shout outs to The Closet Historian and Lady Rebecca Fashions for their documentation of their projects that most helped me here.

So, independent pattern makers. For this project I used Truly Victorian Patterns. They have an excellent FB group that was super responsive and helpful and their instructions were impeccable. Downside? I’m pushing the top end of their sizing and I’m not that large.

They also have pre cut boning (heh) kits for their bustles and hoops, which is way easier than trying to guess. Their patterns are available pre-printed or downloadable.

I went with the printed option because I did the calculus and I was unlikely to tape together the 12 different patterns (literally hundreds of pages) I used to make these pieces. (I know my weaknesses and attention span for tedium is one of them.)

I discovered that the rolls of kids paper from IKEA is amazing for tracing pattern pieces onto. Why did I need to trace? Excellent question. I would have hated to cut a pattern the wrong size and then need to purchase a new copy and wait for it to arrive. Momentum lost.
I also discovered I much prefer tracing the pattern onto the fabric with chalk or a heat erasable marker, then cutting it, to pinning the pattern to the fabric and cutting around it. My mom is mystified that works for me and I’m amazed myself really. Find what works for you.

Mockups, mockups, mockups. Old sheets are great for test runs before cutting your (more) expensive fabric. (Sometimes they make a great final fabric too). Work out all your fit issues on your mockups. You’ll thank yourself later.

I cannot stress the importance of pressing as you go enough. I started doing this more as I quilted more and was amazed at the difference in the results when applied to tailoring.

The perfect is the enemy of done. There are so many tiny screwups that no one but me will ever see. I was aiming for “historically adequate” as opposed to accurate so I used a machine to do the sewing, plastic boning, rotary cutters, and all sorts of modern conveniences.

Anyone who is going to judge you for that can fuck right off into the sun if you’re doing it for enjoyment. SCA and other competitions aside, there’s only so much attention span and time I have in a day. That said, I did more hand sewing on this project than any previous one.

Decide what you can and can’t live with and what shortcuts you’re okay with taking. I only had a self imposed time limit, not a real deadline. But I did the pieces I wanted to see done or that were integral first (for the most part).

Remember me mentioning momentum earlier? I started with low stakes stuff first. The chemise and petticoats and corset cover. No one is likely to see them but doing them help knock the cobwebs off and get me into the swing of things. But they’re also pretty because why not?

Document your process. Take pictures, make notes to your future self on your pattern pieces, get a notebook or a Google doc or something so if you make something like this again you know what worked and what didn’t.

And lastly, have fun. Be bold. This is a fantasy so use those colors you’d never wear in your daily life. Embrace that print that you don’t think will work on you. And wear your creation with pride.