15 January 2018

Book review: The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking

"The American Duchess Guide to18th Century
Dressmaking", by Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox
Yay—I got "The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking" for Christmas. :) It provides a wealth of information on how to hand sew British-influenced fashion. As I'm living in a different cultural sphere, I wanted to see to what extent this book's patterns are applicable in countries that were mainly influenced by French fashion.

I'm especially interested in how women's clothes were cut in the 18th century, and as I haven't seen any reviews that have focused on that aspect, I'm also going to share my thoughts on how the book's patterns compare to patterns from extant gowns.

Over-all impression

Offering instructions for four entire outfits from different decades is a great concept. If you haven't seen this book in person, it's multi-period, women's clothes only, with scaled-down patterns for gowns and all the sewn accessories you need to complete each outfit (no shifts or stays), and step by step sewing instructions with photos. The authors even guide you on how to put on each completed outfit!

Period sewing techniques are demonstrated, and used throughout. One thing I love, is that the number of stitches per inch is given for each seam in the garments. I've read some otherwise great analyses of garments, that left me clueless in that respect!

Each of the four sections starts with a introduction on that period's fashion with hints for selecting fabrics and trims. Many great hints are included in the text, and a troubleshooting section near the back of the book addresses a wide array of fitting problems. Measurements are given in both imperial and metric throughout, and the conversions are generally correct. I'd have loved to see more source references—but I do realize that this is a sewing book, not an academic work!

Some say this is not a book for beginners. I see their point, but I also disagree... Learning a craft that people trained in for years will be a challenge, and it will take time. Still, it's always easier to succeed if you're aiming for the right target. If your long-term goal is to make 18th century clothes in a historically correct way, then it's helpful to have a book that explains what to do and how to do it. Starting with the easiest bits in the book and taking it step by step, moving on to more complex garments, is probably a good idea. If you find a sewing mentor, this book will also help that person understand what you're trying to achieve, and thus be better able to give you guidance.

Now for some French-biased thoughts on each section of the book:

English gown

The English gown is exactly that; an English style, which didn't seem to transition to France. I wouldn't use it outside Britain and the U.S. unless I found reliable evidence of that style in my region.

The cap pattern is for an English cap, but the sewing techniques and sequence of assembly would be equally useful in making a French style cap. I think the neckerchief, apron and mitts could be used straight off. (Just remember that the apron length could vary depending on place and era, and sometimes they were pleated rather than gathered. Studying period images from the right place is very helpful, as usual.)


"Portrait of a lady", Francis Cotes 1768.
Tate (non-commercial use)
This pattern is based on an extant gown in "Patterns of Fashion 1", probably the 1770‒1775 sack from Snowshill Manor on page 35 in my copy (the text says page 25 in the 1964 edition).

While the pattern indicates grain lines for the sleeve and sleeve ruffle, I would've liked to also see an explanation that as a rule the lengthwise grain should run around the arm on the sleeve as well as the sleeve ruffle. There are examples to the contrary, but they are very rare (especially for the sleeve itself; sleeve ruffles cut the wrong way are slightly easier to find). For stripes and other directional fabrics, the difference is very obvious. If there isn't enough fabric, try to piece together smaller bits (very period!) before you resort to rotating the pattern pieces.

The color scheme of the gown is inspired by this portrait of an unknown lady, painted in 1768. Above the waist, the likeness is spot-on, but below the waist there's quite a difference. The gown in the book has a lot of trim, very appropriate for French as well as English style, while the portrait's gown skirts have no trim at all—probably an English style, I think. If you prefer a less frilly look for your English sack, do take a close look at this portrait! BTW, looking closely on the portrait's petticoat I think it might have a quilted design rather than trim (or could it be made from silk damask?).

Gown, French, circa 1775.
The Met, 2005.61a, b
The sack gown emerged in France, but the cutaway front skirts detailed in the book are an English style. It features off-grain front edges, forming a large gap that reveals a lot of the petticoat. Compare this to the photo to the right (a back view of this gown is shown on page 72 in the book). The gap in the gown skirt is one third (or less) of the entire width, and the front edges are on grain. These are characteristics of French style sacks.

In France, sacks were made in a couple of different cuts, depending on the width of the skirt. Sacks worn with little or no skirt support had front bodice and front skirt cut in one, but sacks worn over large paniers seem to have had them cut separately, just like the pattern in this book. To adapt this pattern to the French style, I suggest you cut the narrow side gore from fabric scraps (instead of from the front skirt panel), stitch the gore's straight edge to the side of the back, and drape the front skirt with a rectangular panel—I'd start with a front panel mock-up from striped fabric, and refer to photos of French sacks with broad stripes to get the right look. You may have to adjust the side seam of the front panel to get a suitably sized gap at the front.

Sack accessories

The lace tucker, neck ribbon and sleeve flounces will definitely be useful in a French context too, but I'm doubtful about the apron. When a French lady is depicted wearing an apron over her sack, it seems it's always a black silk apron (often a pinner) and she's doing needlework or similar. I'm not sure about the cap either—French ladies in portraits of this era often seem to be bare-headed, or wearing a tiny little patch of lacy frills on the top/back of their head.
The side hoops look like standard pocket hoops at first, but have an unusual construction (I'm guessing they're based on the horsehair cloth hoops in "Costume in Detail"). It's a very clever solution as the pattern can easily be altered for smaller or larger hoops.

The gauze sleeve flounces are rather narrow IMHO. Many extant flounces have a circumference of circa 90‒100 cm (36‒40"), which is twice as much as in this pattern. That extra width would create fluffier flounces, that fall in nice folds instead of being virtually flat when the arm is lifted. When scaling up this pattern, you can simply use a grid that is rectangular (2.5x5 cm or 1"x2") instead of square (2.5x2.5 cm or 1"x1") to resize it. (I do have an issue with the patterning of the sack sleeve hem too, which is straight instead of the S-shape typically seen in period sacks, and that in turn gives the sleeve flounce pattern an unusually dramatic curve. They do work together as patterned in the book, though.)

Italian gown

Previously, this gown has been known as a robe à la anglaise, along with the English gown above. But apparently British sources show that it was called an Italian gown in English. That's a welcome step towards understanding how written sources correspond to extant garments.

The Italian gowns became popular in France too at the time, and were often seen in French fashion plates under the "robe à la anglaise" name. So, in countries that took their fashions from French rather than English sources, it seems appropriate to keep calling it a robe à la anglaise—unless a local name for it can be identified, of course.

The pattern is inspired by an extant gown's pattern, but I noticed that the back bodice was cut differently. In fact, I've now looked at about half a dozen other patterns from extants, but I haven't found a single one with a similar cut. There are patterns with a straight center back seam, and others with a shaped one, and with different numbers of side back pattern pieces, but I can't find any that have a curved side back seam that is purely ornamental (i.e. it doesn't create a 3-D shape) like in the book's pattern. If the seam is there, there's concave shaping in it, every time; sometimes on just one edge, sometimes on both. So, I think this may be a simplification compared to extant gowns. The book's instructions will produce a weirdly curved side back piece, which is fine when using a busy design like the floral cotton in the book, but not so good if you plan to use e.g. a striped fabric—in that case, it may be a good idea to check out patterns from extants and ponder the differences, before you decide if you want to drape your back in a different way (see Arnold's "Patterns of Fashion 1" and Waugh's "The Cut of Women's Clothes 1600-1930"; there are a few patterns in Scandinavian books too).

I haven't studied this style enough to say if there are any differences between the original English style, and the French style it inspired. There are plenty of French fashion plates from this era, which is helpful.

Round gown

An extant gown in Denmark and another one in Britain were the inspiration for this gown. Essentially the front bodice comes from the Danish gown, and the back bodice and the long sleeves from the British. The Danish gown is online on a Danish museum website (that page has pics and a link to the PDF pattern).

Comparing the book's pattern to the two extant gowns' patterns, I do find the curved seams in the back rather odd. The top fabrics of both extant gowns have straight seams or tucks radiating from the waist in the back bodice. There's just one place where you find a slightly curved seam, and that's in the lining of the Danish gown's back. The book's pattern doesn't provide shaping in the curved seam. The British gown's back has a straight seam that starts in about the same place on the waist as in the book's pattern, but it ends on the shoulder seam about 2 cm (3/4") from the armhole. Draw a straight line connecting those two points; this will be the new seamline (join the rest of the pattern piece to the side back piece). Use the same cut in both lining and top fabric (the British gown does).
A minor remark, is that the draping in the front starts further to the sides of the waist than it does in the Danish gown. It might look more flattering if it starts a few centimeters (an inch or two) closer to the center front, like in the extant.

There are instructions for a choice of accessories—two chemisettes, three pieces of headwear, two reticules, and a fur muff. Again, there's a wealth of French fashion plates from this era to consult.

Sewing techniques

"A Couturiers workshop in Arles", Antoine Raspal c. 1785.
One thing that I didn't see coming, and which really surprised me, was the peculiar ergonomics of American mantua makers' hand sewing. The work in progress rests on top of a table, and you sit in front of it and stitch along the edge facing you. In common seams like hemming, running stitch and back stitch, the needle points to the left.

I haven't seen any European evidence of this method, so far. European paintings of seamstresses tends to show them holding the work with their left hand, edge facing left. Tailors sometimes do this too, but often rotate it 90 degrees clockwise so the work is draped across their lap and they sew right to left, with the edge facing away from them or upwards. Personally, I'm grateful that European evidence supports these convenient techniques.

I assume the mantua makers of Colonial Williamsburg have good reasons to think their American predecessors worked in such a different way, but I'm curious about the evidence and would've loved if the authors had cited sources for it. Is the method based on American artwork from the period? Or on the direction of hemming stitches in American extants?


This book is too good to pass up. Its usefulness in a U.S./British context is indisputable, and in spite of the differences between French and English fashions it has a lot to offer Continental readers as well. From my European point of view, I give it four stars out of five.

If you have questions about anything I've mentioned here, please don't hesitate to ask! All opinions are my own, and I have no affiliation with the authors or publisher. My copy was bought from a Swedish online bookstore, Adlibris.


  1. Very nice overview covering the sort of things I was wondering about the book myself!
    My further particular question: do you think it would work as a sort of sewing techniques guide for someone interested in the long Regency era but primarily interested in the 1790s and early 1800s, i.e. the time when there may have been many 18th century holdovers? Or is it really too projects-focused, as others have told me?

    Reading your ponderings on placement of work as you work, I think I work most often European tailor-style. :D

    1. Thanks, I'm glad my review was helpful to you!

      It's true that the book is highly project-focused. In addition to the projects, it has three pages of general information, three pages showing various stitches, four pages on troubleshooting the fit, and for each era there are a couple of pages advising on fabric choices etc. So unless you're interested in any of the projects, or want to be walked through the construction of a 1790s gown, I think you can pass it up.

      For sewing techniques in the long Regency, I've checked a Swedish book/thesis that discusses sewing methods based on extant garments. It's "Skräddaren, sömmerskan och modet" ("The tailor, seamstress and fashion") by Pernilla Rasmussen. It has an overview of sewing techniques by era, but it's based solely on garments in Swedish museum collections, and I don't know if there were national differences in sewing techniques at that time.

      1795-1805: Rasmussen lists the same techniques as in the 1790s projects in "The American Duchess Guide" (mantua maker's seam, stroked gathers and whipped gathers).

      1805-1820: Rasmussen says it's mostly the cutting methods that changed, but she does mention felled seams, and that the stitches are generally tiny.

      1820-1830: Garments are more structured, and bodices are often lined using 18th century techniqes for stitching construction seams through lining and outer fabric at the same time (stack the outer fabrics plus one layer of lining and sew together, then open up the outer fabric layers and appliqé the remaining lining piece to the seamline to hide the seam allowances). Sewing and lining a sleeve with a single seam is another 18th century technique that reappears (also described in "The American Duchess Guide"). Rasmussen also describes other construction seams for this era - place each lining and outer fabric piece together, with seam allowances folded between the layers, and whip all four pieces together from the wrong side. Or do it like an underlining, where you treat both fabrics as one unit and fold the seam allowances so they're visible on the lining side, then whip together.

      So, some 18th century sewing techniques were used into the 1820s, but there's no need to buy a book just for that.

    2. Thank you very much for the comprehensive reply!