Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Beetlewing Ballgown and the Bath Victorian Ball

Well, it's been a week since we got back to Glasgow after the Victorian Ball in Bath, and it's high time I post some photos. I'll begin, as usual, with a photo of the finished ensemble:

Photo taken by the most obliging Lucas Pitcher of TimeLight Photographic
And here's one of the dancing (I should note that you can only see two thirds of the full height of the Assembly Rooms here - they're incredible!):

It's a little blurry because we're all in the midst of spinning round.
My bling - a pair of modern reproduction scarab earrings, and a real scarab ring from the 1880s!
First things first - the gown is made of ivory cotton muslin, which is what most of the original beetlewing-embroidered gowns I found were made of. It's trimmed in a gold figured silk organza, the bodice is lined in cotton, and it's embroidered with gold silk and the elytra or wing shell casings of jewel beetles. Everything is stitched and embroidered by hand.

This particular type of embroidery is traditional to India, where the beetles are found, and beetle-related embroidery has been used in cultures around the world for thousands of years. The jewel beetle elytra were first used in Europe in the late eighteenth century, as far as I can tell, and gained in popularity throughout the nineteenth. Indian artisans made gowns and textiles for the Western market, but home embroiderers are also known to have picked up the technique.

There are a couple of little tweaks I'd like to make before I wear it again - the main thing will be to add some more hooks into the waistband to connect the bodice and skirt, or maybe just sew the two together, because it kept riding up when I lifted my little T-rex arms. But overall it came out really well - the hem was just the right length (thanks, Emma!), the bodice still fit (thanks, corset!), no beetlewings broke, came off, got snagged on things, or otherwise caused issues, and - best of all - I was not up late sewing the night before!!!

For those who follow me on instagram (@peryn.wn), you'll already have seen a lot of these photos, but I'll compile them all here to show the creation of the skirt. For the bodice, see this post.

The skirt hem is around 200" long, and is embroidered all the way around with a continuous vine of gold silk and jewel beetle elytra.

Here are the wings laid out on the muslin. At this point I thought I only had 500 wings to work with and was being very careful about spreading them out, but then I realised that past-me had anticipated this problem, and purchased 1000 wings instead of 500. Yay! I think I've used about 700-800 so far, but it's really hard to tell.

The first step in the process is the gold silk embroidery. It took a while, but I got into a rhythm pretty quickly. I took it with me to a bunch of events and classes and just stitched away at it. The only consideration was being really careful with the ivory muslin - I've never worked with a fabric I've been so worried about dirtying before!

Here's an up-close photo showing how the beetle wings get attached. The first step is to steam each wing for 5 minutes (I put around 20 at a time in a paper towel in a veggie steamer over a pot of boiling water), and then trim it (this I did with nail clippers) and poke holes with a sewing or leather-working awl. I poked one hole in the top and one in the base of each wing. My friend Emma, who was going to the ball with me and helped with all my fittings, sat with me for three nights and just assembly-lined the beetle wings, for which I will be forever grateful.

The wings get basted down with one pass of regular thread, and then I stitch the gold silk thread down to hold them in place.

Here's the front panel of the gown in progress. I'd like to add more to it - the little flying beetles you can see on the sketch above, for instance - but I'm pretty happy with how it came out and it was all I could do before the ball. 

The photo to the right was taken in the Newark Airport on my way home from Glasgow to Toronto just after easter. I had a 5-hour layover and their internet wasn't working, so I got a fair bit done on my gown. 

If you look closely, you'll see that I was being quite careful about where I used the small wings and where I used the larger ones, and also that all the wings are directional - right or left-leaning - to increase the flow and symmetry of the overall image.

Removing the basting thread turned out to be the most dangerous part of the process, because it had been sewn through in a lot of places by the silk thread that went in on top of it. At this stage I broke two wings, which had to be replaced, and cracked two or three others, which seemed to be stitched in well enough that they were secure. Otherwise, the wings are incredibly strong and hardy little things.

Emma endured an hour-long fitting to pleat the skirt into the waistband (so long because I wasn't feeling well and had to keep going to sit down, and also because there was a massive amount of yardage involved). Because the hem was already in place, with the embroidery around it, we had to be careful to pleat it in with the hem sitting exactly at the height from the floor that we wanted it. We knife-pleated it from either side of centre-front, with the pleats starting out wide and getting smaller and smaller towards the back. When they had reached about 1/8" at the side-back seams, Emma marked the proper height of the skirt and I cartridge-pleated the rest into place. This is seen on quite a number of 1840s gowns to deal with the volume at the back.

Under my gown I wore: 
- cotton pintucked chemise
- blue silk corset
- quilted rump
- corded organdy petticoat
- cotton organdy ruffled petticoat
- plain muslin petticoat (very kindly made for me by Emma - I would *not* have had time to make one!)
- white silk stockings
- black leather dancing slippers.

I would really like to make a pair of green silk dancing slippers before next time. I have the perfect shot emerald-and-black taffeta for them...

Here's the organdy petticoat over the corded petti and rump. Please excuse the complete lack of chemise; I was getting really lazy in fittings by that point. (This was in the middle of end of term, and I had papers due, so I was basically just tossing on my corset every couple of evenings, doing as quick a fitting as we could, and working away.)

Then Emma and I wandered off to Bath with two ball gowns in a suitcase and a couple of bars of chocolate, and had a ball. =)

Accessories worn with the gown:
- dead beetles of various descriptions
...okay, okay.
- antique 1880s scarab ring (real scarab!)
- modern reproduction scarab earrings (not real scarabs)
- rose hairpiece
- white gloves
- brass bracelet

Made this rose headpiece the night before the ball.
Emma's magical hair-wrangling powers at work.

And the back of my hair, before we dressed for the ball
So there you have it! It took a good few months, but I'm extremely happy with the result. 

I'll leave you with a photo of the original gowns I was inspired by, and a few more photos from the ball. My thanks to Emma (@elpforrest on instagram) for all her help on the gown and for going on adventures with me, and to Izabela and Lucas Pitcher (Prior Attire and TimeLight Photographic) for organizing the ball and making it such an awesome night. Here's to next year!

The dress on the left is at the Kyoto Costume Institute; I'm not sure where the one on the right ended up. 
The photo is from the Cora Ginsburg LLC catalogue, 2000, p. 23.
Another two-handed turn, apparently.
You can see almost the full height
of the Assembly Rooms here...
Couldn't resist a bit of filter magic.
And to close out, here's one of Emma and I at the end of the night, exhausted but happy. And then we walked home in the rain, with two ball gowns in a suitcase. And it was wonderful.

Adventurers, Sewing Magicians, and T-Rex Princesses


  1. Very impressive! I never knew about the beetle wings! Lovely photographs and a lovely evening for you! Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Stunning! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Stunning! I adore beetle-wing dresses, but I seriously doubt my ability to be dedicated to a project for that kind of time, so I'll just admire yours. ;)

    And the 'T-rex arms' made me giggle. It's so true!

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