Rambling Rouleaux

I’ve been a bit slow about publishing recently, and there’s a good reason for that! This project has been taking up my whole life! I think it was worth it, though.

This project is the culmination of a couple of things I’ve been thinking about trying for a while. First: I wanted to make a spencer and petticoat set that hooks together at the waist, like this one circa 1815.

You can see more details of this set on LACMA’s website.

In the soggy heat of a Kentucky summer, a little trick like this can save me a layer on my upper body, plus it’s a fun little teaching moment at events, as most people don’t realize that women wore separates like this during this period.

Second: I wanted to make an outer garment trimmed with rouleaux (thin tubes of fabric). Rouleaux trim was a little journey of discovery for me, and you can read my tutorial on how I did it here.

This is a selection of the inspiration for my spencer. I copied much of the rouleaux pattern from the spencer at bottom right because there are lovely clear pictures of it, and it had a similar feel to the fashion plate at the top left, which I particularly liked. I went with back details from another spencer, combined with the same motifs as the front and my shoulder caps were inspired by the fashion plate on the upper right. My spencer will someday soon have a tasseled belt as in the center fashion plate, but I haven’t had a chance to finish it!

I started the process with the Period Impressions 1809 spencer pattern, which I have long since modified until I have a basic spencer that fits me nicely. It’s a great base pattern for making Regency outerwear.

I used a minty green lightweight cotton twill. The crochet thread is for the tassel details which will be added to the spencer later!
Reduce, reuse, recycle! The spencer is lined with fabric from an old pink linen duster of my mom’s, which had a big coffee stain down the front.
I made an extra copy of the front of the spencer and drew the pattern on it so that I could work out the proportions.
And transferred the pattern to the fabric using tracing paper.
There is one dart in each front piece.

The pieces are put together using a technique I love, where the lining and fashion fabric are sewn together simultaneously. You put the two lining pieces you want to sew together right side to right side, and the two fabric pieces right side to right side, and then put them all together so that one matching pair of fabric and lining pieces are together, and the other matching pair are on the outsides. Then you sew all four pieces together, and when you open up the fabric and the lining, the seam allowances are sandwiched between.

You can find lots of pictures and information on how the rouleaux were made and applied in my tutorial, so here is a little gallery of the process.

And here are a few of the back rouleaux details.

Just in case there weren’t enough little tubes of fabric involved in this project already, there is also quite a bit of piping: on the edge of the color, on the center front edges, and between the bodice and the waistband.

I didn’t get a lot of chances to work on this particular project during events, but here I am working on the collar rouleaux at Locust Grove!
I just love the textural richness that the overlapping pieces have!
Finishing the lining at the neck.

I will often leave sleeve seams unfinished since period examples usually are, but in this case the fabric shredded a bit too easily for my comfort, so I flat-felled them.

The shoulder decorations are just petal shapes with piping around the edges, which are appliquéed onto the top of the sleeve. There is a rouleaux bow at the bottom, and I’m planning to add some little tassels hanging from it when I get the chance!

Some of the trickiest bits of decoration were the rouleaux designs on the cuffs. It took a while of staring at a photo to realize that every other loop is made while laying out the pattern in one direction, and then the gaps are filled in as you work your way back up, so that both ends of the piece end up at the top. This also got topped with a rouleaux bow, and like the shoulders will one day have some dangling tassels. I had to lay out the design in kitchen twine first (first photo) so I would know exactly how to proportion it and how long each rouleaux piece needed to be.

The waistband has a row of piping along the seam.

To finish the front edges, I sewed on a piece of piping with an extra long seam allowance, and used that allowance to encase all the other raw edges on the inside.

Finally–closures! The front of the spencer closes with hooks and eyes. There are also 9 hooks inside the waistband for attaching the separate petticoat.

Petticoats are a nice, quick little project–if you’re deperate for an extra outfit for an event, but don’t think you have time for a new dress, try adding hooks to a spencer and whipping up one of these! I plan to make a couple of these, and put waistband hooks in all my spencers, because it’s just such a nice little trick to have a walking outfit without any added heat or bulk.

The petticoat is made the way I make most of my 1816 skirts–the back piece is a rectangle the width of my fabric, and the front piece is narrow at the top to fit my front underbust measurement, and as wide at the hem as I can make it. The front waist edge is slightly shaped to help the skirt stand out in a nice bell shape without too much pulling at the sides or awkward clinging.

The long side seams are sewn with mantua maker’s seams.

I finished the slit in the back with as narrow a hem as I could manage, with buttonhole stitch to reinforce the bottom so that it (hopefully) won’t tear.

The whole thing is gathered onto a matching waistband.

I worked eyelets in the waistband to correspond to the hooks on the spencer. There are two at center front, one in each side front, one at each side, one in each side back, and two at the center back. These two overlap on a single hook at the center back of the spencer, which keeps the petticoat closed without the need for any additional closures.

I wore this outfit during the day at Christmastide, and just about died of happiness. I’ve been working on the spencer since August, and it took so much longer than I anticipated. I gave up on a couple of other things I wanted to do in order to get it done, and I have no regrets! I am totally, completely in love with this outfit!

Sorry I won’t have a separate post about the bonnet–I started it ages ago and didn’t take any photos of that part of the process, and then it languished for a long time because I wasn’t happy with the brim. I finally pulled the brim off and drafted a new one, which I love! All the decorations came out of my stash, too, which made me happy! The veil is a scrap of lace left over from my wedding dress!

Here are a few progress photos of covering the bonnet.

And here are photos of the full ensemble at Christmastide at Locust Grove!

And here’s a little video that Brandon took, which shows everything really nicely! I’ve never felt more like I stepped out of a period movie! (In case I haven’t made it clear, I’m REALLY excited about this outfit!) I can’t wait to wear it again!

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope your 2019 is full of things that bring you as much joy as this project has brought me!

How to Make Rouleaux Trim

Due to an overwhelming amount of demand on my social media as I’ve been posting process photos of my new green Spencer, I went ahead and put together a little tutorial on the style of trim I’m using.

Rouleaux are, quite simply, thin, bias-cut strips of fabric sewn into tubes. You probably have quite a few bits of rouleaux in your wardrobe without even realizing it in the form of spaghetti straps, coat hanging loops, and other utilitarian elements. However, these tubes aren’t just useful, they can also be beautiful.

Rouleaux trim is simply taking a rouleaux tube and stitching it down to a garment in the shape of a design, creating a beautiful, wearable piece of 3-dimensional art. While it is relatively uncommon (though not unheard of) today, rouleaux trim is was very popular in the early 19th century, particularly in the 18-teens and ’20s. I would not be at all surprised to see it crop up throughout the 19th century, but until I have examples of that, I will withhold a verdict. Similar techniques, however, were certainly employed though the 1800s and early 1900s using soutache braid, cord, or other thin, flexible items to create a design. If you want your pattern to match your fabric however, rouleaux is truly the way to go. All the early 19th century examples of rouleaux I have seen have been made with matching fabric to the main garment. They have also all been outer garments like spencers and pelisses, rather than gowns. That doesn’t mean those aren’t out there, just that I haven’t seen them–always keep an eye out for examples, don’t just take my word for it!

Pink Rouleaux Spencer
Spencer with Rouleaux Trim, ca 1820, Met Museum
Blue Rouleaux Pelisse
Pelisse with Rouleaux Trim, ca 1823, Museum of London
Rouleaux Fashion Plate BA Jan 1815
Walking Dress, La Belle Assemble, January 1815

I’m going to show you how I do this technique. It’s the sort of thing that there are probably many ways to do, but this is the one that works for me.

You can read all about the spencer featured in the tutorial photos here.

Preparing the Bias Strips

Before you can make beautiful, rouleaux-trimmed garments, you’ll need to start with a whole lot of thin, bias-cut strips of fabric. It’s possible that some in the 19th century were done with strips cut on the straight grain as well, since it is a more efficient use of expensive fabric. I haven’t had a chance to examine any of these garments up close enough to be able to see the grain of the fabric, but based on how neatly the extant examples of rouleaux trim go around curves and tight corners, I would guess that many, if not all, are cut on the bias.

Note: What is the bias, you may be asking yourself? Bias cut pieces are cut diagonally across the grain of the fabric, rather than parallel to the selvedge edge (the finished, uncut edge of a length of fabric).

You can find the bias of a fabric using a marked cutting mat, a set square, or any other device that will show you a 45° angle to the selvedge of the fabric.

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I used my handy-dandy cutting mat. You can see I’ve lined the selvedge up with a straight line, and used the angled line on the cutting mat to cut the fabric at a 45° angle. 

From there, you can simply cut parallel strips based on your first angled cut. The width that you cut your strips is entirely up to you (within reason), depending on how thick you would like your rouleaux to be. If you’re unsure, do a test piece a few inches long first, just to get an idea of what size you’ll get. I ended up going with half-inch strips, which got me a nice tube about 1/8″ wide out of my lightweight cotton twill fabric. Your mileage may vary depending on the thickness of your fabric.

I used a rotary cutter along my ruler to get strips. You can also use your ruler to draw lines and cut with scissors, whatever floats your boat and gets your some bias strips.

Next, you’ll need to sew your lovely bias strips into one very long bias strip. (Of course this depends on exactly what you are doing. If one bias strip is enough to do your entire design, obviously feel free to skip this part.

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In order to keep your bias flexible, and your tube thin, you will need to sew the pieces together with the grain of the fabric, rather than across the bias. To do this, line up your two strips, right side to right side, at a right angle. At this point, you may have edges that line up nicely because they were the selvedge edges of your fabric, and are therefore already little 45° angles. If not, you will need to trim the ends to 45° angles so that they line up as in the photo above.

You will notice that the corners of each piece hang over the edges. This is exactly what you want. Stitch from one inner corner to the other. You want a nice, small seam allowance for this. This angled seam with keep the bulk of the seam allowance distributed along the strip, rather than all piled up in one place.

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When you have finished sewing all your pieces together, press the seams open very well. You want the extra fabric from the seam allowance to be distributed as much as possible, so the last thing you want is for it to fold up on itself.

Sewing the Rouleaux

If you like, and if your fabric is light enough, you can bypass this entire method by sewing a narrow seam allowance on your machine, and turning the strip right-side out using a rouleaux turner (these little tools look like a thin piece of wire with a loop at one end, and a little latch hook on the other, and can be found at most fabric/craft stores).

HOWEVER, there are several reasons why you may want to/be forced to make your rouleaux by hand. First of all, you may prefer to hand sew for the sake of historical accuracy. Second, your fabric (like mine), may be a bit too thick to turn right-side out once you’ve sewn your desired size of tube, even with the seam allowance trimmed very tiny. I nearly cried when I realized the several yards of rouleaux I had sewn wouldn’t turn the right way out, no matter how hard I tried. I had already trimmed the seam allowance down to 1/16″, and every effort to turn the tube shredded the seam allowance until the piece was useless. If I wanted to use this technique, I would have needed to make my rouleaux much wider, which would have completely destroyed the delicate finished look I was going for.

Luckily, I put on my thinking cap, and came up with this technique inspired by the rolled hem in order to keep all of you from pulling your hair out the same way I did.

Start yourself off by pressing the edges of the very end of your strip into the center on the wrong side of the fabric, like so:

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This is not absolutely required, but it will make it easier to get started.
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Insert your needle up through the top fold.
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Take your next stitch from back to front through a few threads of the bottom fold.
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Pull the thread though, but do not pull the stitch tight yet. It should look like this.
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Now, insert the needle through a few threads of the top fold, about 1/8-3/16″ away from your original stitch.

At this point, I like to hand the end of my strip to my sewing bird in order to take some of the tension out of my left hand. Using a sewing bird or clamp to hold your fabric in place is a great way to help yourself if you experience pain while hand sewing, or if you want to avoid pain in the future, or just generally want to make your life easier. If you don’t have a sewing bird or clamp, don’t worry. You can put the end under something heavy, use a regular old clamp to clamp in to the table, pin it to the knee of your pants, pin it to the arm of a chair or couch. Basically you have lots of options, but I do recommend that you find a way to hold one end still while you work. It will allow your to work much faster.

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This is the stitch pattern you will follow from here on out. Pick up a few threads from the bottom fold, then a few threads from the top fold, and pull your needle through, but don’t pull the thread completely tight.
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Once you get past the place where you have ironed, you will need to keep bending the fabric down. I use the side of my needle to fold the fabric over, than hold in in place with the thumb of my off-hand.
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Once you have a few stitches made (anywhere from 4-10 depending on the thickness of your fabric), go ahead and pull the thread tight. This will pull the two folds together to form a tube.

Here is a video illustrating the whole process of holding the folds in place, stitching, and pulling tight:

 Attaching the Rouleaux

Before you can attach your rouleaux, you will need to draw or trace a design on your fabric. You can draw it out with a pencil or water-soluble marker, trace it with tracing paper and a wheel, prick and pounce, or use whatever other transfer method may strike your fancy. I based my design on the pink spencer shown above.

Note: I stitched my rouleaux to both the fabric and lining. Since the fabric is a light twill and therefore has a slight stretch, I wanted to make sure it had the structure of the linen lining to support the heavy trim. Your fabric may be sturdy enough to hold the trim by itself.

Note: these instructions are for a pattern that allows the ends of the rouleaux to disappear into a seam allowance. If your design is in the middle of a piece, far from a seam allowance, you will need to begin making your rouleaux by folding up the short end of the bias strip so that your tube has a finished end, and doing the same at the other end of the tube.

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Begin by bringing your needle up inside the seam allowance of your garment piece, near where your design begins. Make sure that it is within the part of the seam allowance that will remain once you have sewn and trimmed the seam.
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Put your needle through your rouleaux, near one end. Make sure your stitch is very close to the seam, so that it will not show once your rouleaux is attached.
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Take a small stitch (about 1/8″-3/16″) along the line of your design and pull tight so that the end of the rouleaux sits against the fabric.

From now on, your stitch pattern will be as follows:

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With the rouleaux sitting just above your stitching line, put your needle through the base of the rouleaux.
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Use the thumb of your off hand to move the rouleaux below the stitching line. Take a stitch along the stitching line. 

This process of moving the rouleaux above and below the stitching line as your sew will help keep tension even along the rouleaux, and ensure that it sits directly on top of the line, rather than leaning to one side or the other. Be careful not to pull your stitches too tight, or you could end up puckering and shrinking your entire garment piece!

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As you stitch, make sure your keep your rouleaux smooth along the stitching line by ensuring that your stitch goes into the rouleaux right where the thread comes out of the fabric, and into the fabric right where it comes out of the rouleaux. If you accidentally put your needle in too far ahead or back, you could end up puckering the fabric or rouleaux.

Continue to stitch in this pattern. Here is a video to help you:

Now that you have the basic process down, here are a couple more tips to help you at tricky parts of your design.

Tip #1: Tight curves

When going around tight curves, take smaller stitches through the fabric to help the rouleaux follow the pattern smoothly.

Tip #2: Sharp corners

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When making sharp corners, make sure your last stitch in the fabric before the corner comes up precisely at the point of the corner in your design.

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Pull your thread through, and move your rouleaux above the thread so that when it turns the corner, it will wrap around the thread.
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Rotate your piece so that you are now following the next part of the line. Pull the rouleaux so that it is over top of the corner thread. 
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And then pull your thread straight up away from the fabric so that it forces your rouleaux to bend exactly where your want the corner to go. Pinch the corner of the rouleaux between your fingers to help it hold the crease.
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Insert your needle through the rouleaux from the inside of the corner crease to the outside.
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And put it down through the fabric right on top of your original corner stitch.
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Bring your needle back up along the stitching line, and continue stitching as normal.

Tip #3: Close parallel lines

When sewing rouleaux designs, you will often find yourself travelling back along a line to create a double thickness of rouleaux. When this happens, it can become tricky to maintain the stitching pattern we’ve established above.

In this case, use the thumb of your off hand to press the working rouleaux up against the first line of rouleaux. Stitch down into the fabric, and then up through the rouleaux like so:

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The first rouleaux will help support the second and keep it standing upright. Once the two lines diverge again, continue in the usual stitch pattern.

Once you have completed your design finish off your rouleaux and thread just inside the seam allowance of your garment piece.

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Ok! You’re all ready to go and create beautiful designs using rouleaux trim!

As always, if your have any questions, or if your would like to request a future tutorial, feel free to comment below.

Happy stitching!