Dragonfly Designs by Alisa




1850s Beetlewing Dress

I’ve been utterly enamored with beetlewing embroidery for a long time now. When I visited the Fashion Museum in Bath, England, I requested they pull out all their beetlewing embroidered items for me to examine (as well as a bunch of 1830s dresses). They had three beetlewing items, and the most impressive was this skirt.


It was an amazing experience to pull on those white gloves and handle these historical items!





And one from the back side:


Beetle wing embroidery uses the actual wing casings from real beetles. These beetles are extremely short-lived, and after they swarm to mate, they die, and the wings can be swept up and used. They are extremely beautiful; the glint and shine of them is hard to capture in photographs! It’s not surprising the Victorians were captivated by using them on dresses.

I’m finally sewing one of my own, using sheer cotton voile as the fabric, in a light beige. The crinoline period of history has never really been my thing, but I really do want at least one proper hoopskirt gown, so after browsing Pinterest for literally weeks, I chose a basic dress design. It’s going to be roughly modeled after Queen Victoria’s 1850 dress, shown below. I also had a chance to see this one in person, so I have a particular fondness for it.


I will be changing it slightly, however. As a beginning, I’ve been embroidering the middle panel of the skirt, which will be the most heavily embroidered. Although it’s not quite finished, here’s what I have, so far:



It is going to be wearable by December 17th, for a presentation I’m doing on the stranger aspects of Victorian clothing. Hopefully, it will be completely done, but as I’m intending to put embroidery all around the bottom hem of the skirt, I’m not sure I have time to completely finish. I can always add that after the event – they people attending will be mostly looking at the front, anyway!

Update: 1/6/2020

I have now worn the dress for the first time! As I suspected, I did not finish the embroidery around the hem of the skirt.


Besides that, I need to adjust the fit of the shoulders…the straps had a tendency to want to slide off. But that’s easy enough to fix. I also want to stitch over the metal grommets with thread so they appear handsewn. I know I should probably done spiral lacing on the bodice, but I frankly dislike the appear of spiral lacing, so I never use it.





I wore it to a presentation I did at my local library: Arsenic, Corsets, and Flaming Hoopskirts, the Myths and Realities of Victorian Fashion.




1912 Champagne Dress

Wow, it’s been an age since I worked on a new costume! But my library workplace had a Downton Abbey Celebration, and I did a 20min presentation on post-Victorian undergarments called “What Did They Wear Under There?” I did make a 1912 dress before (which I completely love) but I’ve since gained a few pounds, and it doesn’t fit. Rather than go on a diet (I also love my new weight) I decided to make a new dress – especially since I’ve long had this wonderful beaded vintage sari that I wanted to repurpose.



It was also a happy accident that I had the perfect matching faile/bengaline laying around.


PLUS…it was chance to wear a tiara!



On me, the skirt is a wee bit longer, so that I have a tiny sweep of a train behind.



The thing that I love about using vintage saris in historical costuming, is because they give the whole outfit a vintage feel…as if it’s actually a real 1912 dress instead of one I made!




1830s Yellow Dress

This one is mostly done, but not quite. I’m making a blue sash to go over the shoulder, because this dress has a particular purpose. It’s going to be on the cover of my upcoming steampunk book series: The Journals of Miss Winnifred Sebastian-Veals. Set in 1839, it follows the adventures of a group of intrepid women, the Society of Queen’s Own Monster Hunters, as they travel to exotic places in service to Queen Victoria.  The first in the series, A Manifestation of Monstrosities, will be published in December.

I bought the yellow satin in the fabric district of Los Angeles last year, when I was visiting my dream dress, the also yellow “Canary Dress” from Crimson Peak.

This one turned out to be good practice for that one – if I ever get the time to devote to making it. For instance, I can’t find the right color of greenish-yellow anywhere…but I learned that if you need to flat line a yellow satin dress, and you only have black fabric, lining yellow with black actually gives it a greenish tint, and adds a whole lot of depth and texture. Totally doing that when I make the Crimson Peak dress!

If you’re interested, I am posting the first half or so of the new book series on my Goodreads page. It’s still a bit rough, as I haven’t finished the editing yet, but I’ll keep posting new chapters until the book actually comes out in print. You can find those chapters here:

Since the dress itself is mostly finished, I am turning my attention to the various props that will also be a part of this cover, and of the covers to come. A mermaid mask from Venice. A rag doll with the head of the Egyptian god Anubis. A skull. A birdcage. A mechanical heart.

Victorian 1879 Petticoat

I bought the Truly Victorian 1879 Petticoat with Detachable Train pattern.  As always with Truly Victorian patterns, it went together perfectly and sewed like a dream.  No problems whatsoever!  Whoever does the patterns for TV is a frickin’ genius.

The only thing I changed was the size of the ruffles – I made them smaller, because I didn’t have quite enough fabric to go big.  The fabric is this silky shiny pale gold faille/bengaline that I bought because 1) it was on sale, and 2) gorgeous.  Even though it ended up just sitting there because yellow/gold tones are not a good match for me.  For a petticoat, though, it’s perfect.

I especially like the detachable train, so the same petticoat can be used for daywear or evening wear.  That bottom row of ruffles at the back?  It buttons right off!

Or it will, once I put the buttons on.  For now it’s just pinned.  See?

I need to go through my buttons and see if I have something suitable.  It was quite a fun, quick project…though the rows of netting inside the petticoat got a bit tedious to sew and gather!


Bath Costumes

First up, I’ll like to share the pictures I took in Bath. I booked a session at the Study Facilities at the Fashion Museum. It’s completely free; you just book ahead, tell them what types of fashion/eras you’re interested in, and they pull out a selection for you to examine. It’s amazing, guys.  They just spread the dresses out on a table, give you white cotton gloves, and leave you to it.  I still can’t believe they let me handle all these wonderful things!

I asked for beetlewing embroidery, and 1830s dresses.

The first dress was red, and covered in the most spectacular beetlewings. There wasn’t a date on it, just a note that it was silk, and made in India.


Second was the most delicate beetlewing skirt. The notes say it was made of cotton, in India. BATMC 1.19.42

Third, a beetlewing purse. 1820-1830, silk  BATMC V1.01.269

Fourth, 1833-1837 Day Dress.  Woven wool, with printed design. BATMC 1.09.996

Fifth, a silk and net gold embroidered dress from 1830. BATMC 1.09.1400

This one wasn’t even pulled for me, but I saw the box with its printed description, and commented that it sounded lovely. She said they don’t usually show this one because of its fragility, but she brought it out anyway. Guys. I can’t believe they just let me handle these things! I mean, they know nothing whatsoever about me, other than my name!

Sixth: 1837 Day Dress. The sleeves were put in in the 1840s. Silk, woven taffeta. BATMC 1.09.1001

Seventh: 1836-1840 Evening dress, woven silk. BATMC 2005.49

Eighth: 1833-1837 Evening dress, silk, woven. BATMC 1.09.1286

Ninth: 1836-1841 dress printed cotton BATMC 1.09.2884

Tenth: 1832-1836 Dress. Wool and silk, woven. Silk brocade stripe in textile. BATMC 1.09.993

Eleventh: 1835? Cotton dress, printed. BATMC 1.09.995

I had two hours, and I took as many photos as I could. This last one was my favorite 1830s dress – it was such a pretty print, and very lovely.

Anyway, there you are, and if you’re ever in Bath, I highly recommend booking some time at the Study Facilities.

All the rest of the photos are here.


Victorian Corset

I did manage to finish a corset (finished except for the flossing on one side.)  I used the Truly Victorian pattern, and it was super easy – largely because I just made the corset to fit my waist, and then picked the size I *wanted* my hips and bust to be.  Inches bigger than my actual measurements, as it happens.  I have always wanted to be more of a curvy girl, and this is the way the actual Victorians managed it!  I’ll be making some hip and bust pads soon.

I’m very pleased with how it turned out!

It’s made out of Faille, with two layers of cotton duck on the inside, and plastic zip ties for bones.

For the present (because it was closest at hand) it’s laced with blue ribbon.  That will probably change.

One of these days, I’ll finish the flossing….


Edwardian Skirt

One of the costumes I wore to Costume Con 30 was a skirt I made from Butterick #4092.  It turned out to be a great pattern, very simple, and the only tweak I had to do was take in the seams at the hip just a squidge.

I love this pattern, and will be using it again in the future!  It’s out of print, but you can still find copies for sale on Etsy or Ebay for a decent price – I paid $5 for mine.

With friends Arte and Erin at Costume Con.  It’s a good thing someone was dressed as a responsible adult!


Corsets in Print

A couple of days ago, I picked up a book at my local used book store entitled “Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras”.    It’s a beautiful book, with lots of lovely illustrations.

But…I’m only into the first chapter, and I’m finding so many false statements!  It’s bad enough when fiction promotes the idea that corsets were torture instruments invented by men to demean and “control” women, and that women who wore corsets were unable to do anything but stand about for a short time and then faint in a decorative manner!  My friends who follow my book reviews on Goodreads know about my hissy fits whenever I read fiction with corset misinformation like that!  But when it comes to non-fiction, one expects a higher level of truth.

But take, for example, this quote from my new corset book:  “One wonders why, from the 16th to the 19th century, the corset was never challenged by the women of the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie.  The reason may have been that it served first and foremost as a sign of their superiority.  Those wearing it were barred from even the slightest useful exertion, thus reinforcing the prestige of the ruling class…..women of the aristocracy felt that to wear a corset was more vital than health itself, so imperative was the need to distinguist oneself from the common people.”

First of all, much like the battle over health vs smoking going on today, wearing a corset was once thought to be the healthy thing.  Men wore corsets.  Children wore corsets – for their health.  Just like there used to be ads saying smoking was good for your throat, there were ads telling you to wear corsets.

Corsts were never worn solely as a method for keeping those pesky poor folks in their place; they were worn by virtually everyone, for a multitude of reasons.  And they were worn while working, while riding horses, and while playing sports.  I’m sure a lot of it was pure vanity – just look at this vintage ad for male corsets:

Beats having to suck in your gut every time a pretty girl walks by!  :P  Also, if you didn’t wear a corset, you couldn’t wear any of the fashionable styles, which positively require the supporting base of a corset.  All those layers of undergarments and heavy bustled fabrics – can you wonder why women tended to pass out?  Imagine, you’re wearing one of those outfits in the heat of summer, pre-air conditioning, and you’re packed into a ballroom.  Even now, sans corset, it’s common for women to faint in places like church.  I think the fainting cannot be entirely blamed on corsets.

And how tightly were those corsets laced?  We all grew up with images like this:

That, folks, is called ‘tightlacing’, and it’s an entirely different animal than simply wearing a corset.

First off all, throughout most of corset-wearing history, the goal in wearing a corset was not a tiny waist.  You wore a corset to form your body into the right shape for your clothes, and to provide a supporting base for those clothes.

The Elizabethans wanted a nice cone shape with no breasts.  And to support the weight of those skirts, they needed a corset that would help disperse the weight evenly.  The corset didn’t give them a small waist, it gave them a smooth torso.

By the 18th century, they had discovered the appeal of breasts, but they were still using their corsets to support the weight of their skirts, and to provide shaping to the torso.  If you look at someone wearing a properly made 18th century corset, you’ll notice the waist appears smaller from the front, but it’s largely an illusion.  The torso is actually thicker through the side view – because that’s how the corset shapes it.  It doesn’t make your waist smaller, it just reshapes what you have.  Plus, ladies of all these corseted eras were big into hip and butt padding, and the Victorians and a few others were big into bust padding as well.  If you pad out your hips and bust enough, any waist will look tiny in comparison!

I will tell you, from studying extant 18th century gowns myself, that it’s somewhat rare to find a waist size smaller than about 25″.  My natural waist is 25″.  And these dress are proportionate in their size.  You can tell they aren’t tightlacing.

THIS is what tightlacing looks like:

This is a real photograph, of a real woman.  She wears a specially made corset day and night to achieve this.  This is a fetish, practiced by a small percentage of the modern day population, and this fetish is not limited to women:

Just like this fetish is only practiced by a small group of people today, I think it was simularly practiced by only a small percentage of people in the Victorian time as well.  We have a few photographs of ladies who are clearly tightlacers:

But considering how prevalent photo re-touching was during the Victorian era, many of these pictures may not even be genuine waist sizes.  In a survey of 1000 extant Victorian dresses, the smallest waist size was found to be 21 1/2″.   The average waist seems to have been againt around 25″ – 28″.  Considering the fact that women on average were a lot smaller than today, and the overall size of the dresses are very petite, I would say this shows they were almost certainly not tightlacing.  Probably, at most, they were lacing down to a couple of inches smaller than their natural waists – something easily done, without any harm.

But what about the whole Victorian frenzy over corsets and tightlacing?  If women weren’t, on average, tightlacing, then what was causing all all the excitement?

I tend to rule with author Bill Bryson on this one: “The tone of anti-corset literature for women was strikingly similar to the tone of anti-masturbation literature for men.”  Basically, the Victorian doctors had a grave concern that compressing the body so close to the reproductive organs could not only increase amorous desires, but could possibly cause involuntary “voluptuous spasms”.  One wouldn’t want one’s woman spasming, now would one?  Gradually, this fear moved on to other tight items of clothing, even tight shoes.  I don’t know about you, but when I wear tight shoes, I don’t get any voluptuous spams, involuntary or otherwise!

In any case, what does give me spasms (of a decidedly non-voluptuous kind) is when I constantly read articles and books that make claims such as “thirteen inch waists were common”.   It makes me wish it were mandatory for every writer who wishes to write about corsets, to be laced into a properly made and fitted one for a day.  I myself frequently wear corsets to various events.  I’ve worn them to work.  I can eat, I can sit, I can bend over, and I can do basically any thing I can without a corset.

Here is what I cannot do: I can’t slouch, I can’t slump, I can’t over eat (you do get full sooner while wearing corset!), and sometimes a really big sneeze is uncomfortable. I wouldn’t want to run a marathon wearing one, but I wouldn’t have to run a marathon at any time.   Basically, all wearing a corset means is that I have to carry myself like a lady, which is something our mothers always wanted us to do.   (And they do provide nice back support.  I know of one lady who got her doctor’s ok to wear her corset daily instead of the brace he was going to prescribe!)  I like wearing my corsets.  I wouldn’t want to have to wear one all the time, because I’m a blue jeans and sweats kind of girl, but one occasion…it feels really nice.  I feel special, in a corset.

So anyway, my first rant of the New Year!  I hope 2012 is filled with lots of costuming and yes…corsets!


Blue Victorian

Note: This dress is actually for sale.

In the process of making a muslin for the “Steampunk Ghost” outfit, it became very possible that I would need a ‘regular’ Victorian outfit in March.  So I decided to turn my muslin into an actual gown.  I dug through my boxes and came up with some blue and gold fabric and trim that I’d bought without definite plans for its use.

Right now, I’ve completed the vest, with attached overskirt.  It is an ice blue and pale gold brocade, and will have a double line of buttons down the front (as soon as my mail-order buttons arrive.) The skirt is lined in antique gold taffeta, and can be either bustled or left long as a train.

The gold taffeta skirt in the photo will actually be the underskirt’s lining.  I did not have *quite* enough brocade to make the underskirt, so Sunday I’ll run by JoAnn’s and pick up more.  I’m fortunate that they still have it for sale!  And it’s currently 50% off. And JoAnn’s gave me a $20 gift card for being a good customer and spending tons of money there.

The brocade overskirt is just temporarily bustled in these pictures.

Almost all the edging and finishing is hand-sewn, and the taffeta gives it *such* a lovely feel and sound.  I’m totally in love with this outfit!

I also found a piece of antique lace at the thrift store that will gather up nicely for part of the collar.

I still have much of the jacket to sew, the overskirt needs to be finished, and I think instead of sewing a blouse for underneath, I’ll just make a dickie with a fancy lace collar.

I am SO OBSESSED with this costume at present…I’ve even taken it to work to sew trim during my dinner break!  Part of it is that it was supposed to be a quick, “test” costume, just to make the pattern for the Steampunk Ghost, and make sure everything fits well. (Plus use some fabric and trim I’ve had for ages and never used.)

I have to say, I absolutely LOVE how it is turning out!  The vest and jacket are now finished.  All that’s left is to make the blouse and lace collar, and finish the skirt.  The skirt still needs hemming and a waistband.  Oh – and the “bustled” part of the skirt also needs to be sewn; right now it’s just pinned.

I need to make a hat as well….

On to the pics:

With a few scraps of dress fabric, the one solitary leftover tassel from the dress trim, and the clasp purchased originally for something different, I made a purse for my Victorian.

It still needs a chain ‘strap’, and the color of the clasp is rather more antique gold than in the this pic, but look how well it turned out!  I’m so pleased,  This is my first ever attempt at this sort of ribbon rose, and also my first dragonfly, so I’m delighted they look so pretty.

The rose instructions came from this book, and the dragonfly from

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