Sewing · Victorian

The Tale of Two Tartans

After Liane made me the Rose Wine dress I started thinking about commissioning a second so that I could alternate my outfits while down in Oamaru (if you only have one dress for four days that’s fine, by the way). I didn’t really know what I wanted and so spent an afternoon after work, scoping out options at some fabric stores in Auckland.

The Fabric Store was having an amazing sale and I ended up with a few different samples from there. One of these fabrics was a generic tartan silk marked down to $10 a metre. And as the evening progressed I started to become obsessed with it. That was the fabric I wanted. It was fabulous. All other samples were ignored and I decided to buy as many metres of it that I could the following day.

The hours dragged by as I sat at work thinking about the fabric. I started to feel like Gollum…my precious tartan…I must have it… Miraculously, 3pm finally arrived and I was out of the building in a flash. Okay, I did stop to buy a coffee on the way but I was otherwise a woman on a mission. After a brisk walk, I returned to the store and entered.

Where was it? It wasn’t where I had remembered it being. Someone else had bought it. I had imagined it. This wasn’t happening. What would I do? Trying to keep my head, I began to move about the store and then I saw it. Either I had forgotten exactly where it was or it had been moved. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter anymore as I rushed to the fabric and gripped my hands about the bolt. Then, straight to the counter.

‘Can I please buy all of this please?’ I asked, hoping that there would be enough to make most of a bustle dress from. The whole bolt? Yes, please.

The bolt was measured and the fabric came in three pieces – did that matter? No, that’s absolutely fine, thank you.

The sales assistant finished measuring the bolt. 19.2 metres. Did I still want it all? Yes. Yes, all that precious fabric would be mine… easily enough fabric for two dresses – even three if I was clever with mixing and matching. Not that I would need that many tartan garments but, I was obsessed, and if I hadn’t bought it all then I would have regretted it later.

The fabric was rolled back onto the bolt, I paid for the 19m (they gave me the last 20cm free!), and left the store, clutching at it with joy and a feeling of possessiveness. Of course, I was holding a bolt of fabric, with my method of getting home being a twenty-minute walk, followed by a train ride of slightly shorter duration. And I got looks. Lots of looks. Normally, I would have been very self-conscious about it but at that moment I was too happy because the fabric was mine, precious, and far too amused at my current predicament (and very grateful that it wasn’t raining).

Now I knew what the fabric of my new dress was I could happily start dreaming and looking for inspiration. I loved the idea of having an asymmetrical overskirt because I hadn’t seen many in Oamaru. The thought of having a dress all in tartan might have either worked or been far too busy and overwhelming so I thought about introducing a solid colour into my design.

I sketched some variations and brought them with me (along with the fabric) the next time I visited Liane. I was so excited. I had pretty much set my heart on the design that consisted of a tartan bodice, tartan underskirt and a black asymmetrical overskirt. Liane, on the other hand, didn’t think that it would look good and that it would be better to have a black underskirt and a tartan overskirt instead. Well, what did I know? Putting outfits together, even in real life, isn’t something that I’m great at. If she thought that it would look better the other way around then maybe it would.

She also half drafted the overskirt and skipped the mockup stage which, unfortunately, meant that I wasn’t able to give my opinion on it the next time I visited before it became a final garment. Honestly, I wasn’t a fan but… it had been made. It probably didn’t help that I fell sick while visiting and ran a high fever that plagued me for days afterwards, so my brain wasn’t functioning properly.

Nonetheless, I wore it in Oamaru that year…

A full-length shot of the tartan dress that Liane made me. Photo thanks to Peter.
Wearing the dress Liane made me while posing with my Mama and Papa.


Getting a shoe shine from a rather enterprising young man =)


In the end, I loved the fabric but not the dress. But, because I had gone and got so carried away and bought so much of the tartan, there was plenty left over. Enough for a whole new dress. So, when I was starting work on my Shippensburg dress, I thought that I would try to make my own version of the Tartan Dress concurrently.

I made the underskirt first and tried my best to pattern match. I’d never done it before so spent a lot of time trying to line up the patterns perfectly on the fabric before cutting. What I ended up with wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t perfectly matched, but it certainly wasn’t a big unmatched mess (which I was afraid might happen). I was pretty happy with it.

I hadn’t planned on making another bodice, I had considered trying to add faux lapels to the existing one but couldn’t figure it out, and the fabric had gone wrinkly because it hadn’t been flatlined. Because of this, I wondered how much difference there might be if it had. I guess the decision to make my own bodice was a bit of a science experiment to find out, and also to see if a black vest would improve the look (I know! More than one variable… I’m not a scientist…)

Fortunately, because I was working on my Shippensburg Bodice at roughly the same time, so I was able to work in a bit of a factory line manner, doing the same task (most of the time) for both bodices. I think that by repeating the processes it was easier to learn how the bodice went together.

The tartan bodice is a hybrid of the French Vest Bodice pattern in the front, with the curved hip version of the Cuirass Bodice. Actually, funnily enough, the Shippensburg Bodice is constructed from the opposite pattern pieces.

Pattern matching for the bodice was a lot trickier than matching the skirt. I ended up having to recut several of the pieces because the back was way off and then one side was poorly matched. It was a bit frustrating, but I kept at it and, even though it didn’t turn out perfectly, it could have been much, much worse! Another reason to be grateful for buying so much fabric.

Even though I had every intention of leaving my project there I found myself, later in the year, deciding to make a tartan overskirt as well. I used the Truly Victorian Autumn Overskirt pattern and found that it made up quite easily. The only thing that went a bit not-quite-right was my attempt to add black trim. Clearly, I didn’t know what I was doing but thought that I did and it didn’t work out how I hoped. But still, unless you try to get up close and personal, you probably won’t notice it (and I certainly won’t point it out to you!)

The finished Tartan Dress (with bonus Seamstress Cat Thor, giving his approval)

I really enjoyed wearing it in Oamaru, and making the most of the mix and match possibilities. I wore the fully tartan outfit on the Thursday to the Grand Opening (and then to the supermarket)…




…And then on Saturday, I wore it to march with my fellow suffragettes in the parade, watch the penny farthing races, and in the evening to a performance at the Opera House.


Looking rather serious here, but it’s a good full-length shot. Photo thanks to Maree.



Dad secretly snapped this one from across the street while I was talking to a lady from Australia.



With friends in Harbour Street


I still have a fair amount of tartan left over, which might mean another project in the future although I don’t even know what that might be. It might be another overskirt or another bodice, or I could turn it into trim. I don’t know. But, what I do know is that, as crazy as it might have seemed to buy nearly twenty metres of it and then to carry the bolt all the way home, I have zero regrets.

3 thoughts on “The Tale of Two Tartans

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