Shaping Sleeves and Waist, Adding Gussets and Fringe to Side Seams of Dress

After finally making the decision to shape the dress on more traditional lines as per my visit to the Chicago Field History Museum, I marked and cut the side seams to the waist, leaving about 1" extra room for getting in and out of the dress.

I cut to just above the natural line of the waist to accommodate a belt, or "girdle" as it was sometimes described by early explorers.

I then made a 1" cut towards the body of the dress, through both edges, which allowed the dress to hang free and gave me the ability to join the side seam without pucker or pull of the leather, creating an easement of the under arm.

I witnessed this "dart" on several dresses I examined and is illustrated in the third photo. Without this cut, the fabric tends to bunch and pull, one cannot effectively raise ones arms without it. 

One inch cut towards body of garment
This is a key adjustment to the proper fit of the garment, some had this, some did not, but those that did were the better garments by more experienced seamstresses and the dress hangs and moves much freer with this addition. This also creates the open armpit witnessed on many garments that is traditionally left open to the elbow or wrist, or left entirely open altogether.

You can demonstrate this to yourself by cutting out a paper dress in a T shape and trying to match the side seams. Now make a cut right at the intersection of the armpit and sleeve towards the body of the garment at a 45 degree angle. Now match you side seams and flex the sleeve. Mobility improves 100% and the paper dress hangs better.

I often used paper models to experiment with things I observe on garments, but can't get my mind around how they did it. In this case, it made such a tremendous difference, and reflected exactly what I saw on the dresses I documented.

The side seam was sewn buy putting right sides together with a "welt" in between, then after sewing with a shallow whip stitch the fabric is pulled to a flat seam and the welt trimmed flush on the right side of the garment.

Gusset triangle on right, fringe welt on left
Next, after cutting off all that glorious extra leather from each side of the dress, I trimmed two triangles off the excess leather from the side that was closest to the body of the dress from two of the widest extra strips.

I used these to create gussets which I trimmed to a more regular wedge shape and then pinned them back into the side seams of the dress. this was generally done by dressmakers to give more freedom of movement and will allow the attachment later of "Foot Flares" which I will show later on when I get to that point.

I then used the four pieces of leather from the outside of the side seams that was left over when trimming the side seam as a welt, on both sides of the gusset which will be cut into glorious fringe at a later time. (or cut down to a flush welt if I chose not to fringe).

But first, how the gusset was done...

The most important part of placing the gusset is to get the bottom where you want it then ease it in up the dress until it sits flush and unwrinkled.

Then you turn the dress inside out and place right sides of the gusset and body together with pins on both sides of the dress, checking to see that the dress has not become distorted before placing the welts between the seams and re pinning.

Then you carefully unpin one pin at a time and wedge the "Welts to be fringed" between the gusset and side seam facing each welt right side to right side with the dress body proper. So your layers are, Gusset edge, welt edge, dress side edge, in that order.

Gusset pinned in place right side out
Gusset eased into place Right side out

Inside out, gusset and welts pinned in place

Here are the seams properly faced and pinned with the dress inside out and the welts extending into the right side of the dress on the inside, (you can't see them, but they are there).

This is a good time to make a sharp critical inspection of the dress and placement of the welts by peaking under the dress and making sure they are matched and hanging straight, also I make sure the welts are right side facing right side of the dress for a "finished" look. (You can turn the dress right side out to check this, but it can upset your pinning, I do it by crawling up under the dress on the dress form and looking around, or gently turning up the edge of the skirt).

You want to make sure your welts are symmetrical from side to side, (although you can adjust this late by trimming).
Other side, gusset in place

Checking for proportion and proper hang

 Now step back and check to make sure your dress is square and true, that one side flares and drapes as nicely as the other before sewing. Measure from the floor to the bottom of your gusset, nothing is worse than having your gussets knock the entire shape of the dress off.

How the gusset meets at the top

 Here I show the top of the gusset where the two sides of the gusset meet, showing three layers on each side of the gusset, namely, left side of gusset, welt sandwiched in between and right side of gusset.

The next picture shows me sewing a whip stitch with real sinew close to the raw edge just far enough in to get a firm bite of each layer...
Here I am whip stitching the left side of gusset

Gusset sewn and pulled flat
 Here is the left side of the gusset sewn, then pulled flat. It's barley visible on the left, the raw seam still pinned and ready to sew on the right. This way of doing seams makes a flush seam allowance on the inside of the dress and a flat rounded look to the seam on the outside of the dress, the welt either being trimmed close to being invisible, or fringed. this is a strong, stable seam that will last several lifetimes without shifting of coming loose and was used on every garment I personally examined. there may be exceptions to this, but I haven't seen it yet.

Front of the dress with fringe welts showing
 After cutting off all that leather, here I have sewn it all back on again! But now the extra leather is sewn in as welts on either sides of the gussets and will be cut into tons of lacy fringe.

You may ask why I did all of this welting, gusseting  and whip stitching when I just could have sewed a running stitch down the edge of the side seam where I wanted the fringe to start and be done with it.

Because that's not how it was done on the dresses I examined, I didn't find a single example of just a running stitch side seam, although I have seen plenty of it in modern reenactment and powwow regalia.

The dresses I examined where Crow, Sioux, Ute and several other tribal representations and every single one of them was done this way. I'm sure there are exceptions to this rule and someone in this era used a running stitch seam, but it was the exception, not the rule.

Tribal Women took great pride in their sewing work and knew that by doing things this way the garment would move better and last longer. A Woman who would spend several months beading a garment also take the time to construct her dress properly also.

Back of dress with fringe welts
The advantages are clear, the seam is strong, stable and will not shift with time. It creates an almost invisible seamless line that "marries" the hides together in a way that gives conformity to the joining, you really can't tell from a short distance that there is a seam at all unless the hides are of varying color.

Leather is a different material than fabric, it has a grain that can be unpredictable, creating bulges and sways in seams where none was apparent at the time of sewing, the welt effectively cures this problem, stabilizing the seam in a flexible fixed position for the life of the garment.

The seam doesn't have a selvage that projects into the interior of the garment, so there is no abrasion of the sinew or wearer and the seam doesn't have to be forced flat because of this, like European garments.

In all the garments I examined the fringe was torn or the leather worn through in some places, but the sinew sewn, welted seams were solid and holding together, without bunching or shifting after more than a hundred years.

It takes more effort on the part of the seamstress, but there is great pride in knowing that you did something right. In fact, I plan on redoing the seams on my dress that I did differently....a great deal of work, but it would make my Grandmother smile. "Do it right, or do it again" was her credo and I Bless Her for giving me her stubborn ability to redo the wrong, even if it gives me much personal pain!

If you have a sharp eye, you will note I have completely re cut the yoke and sewn it using a welt in the top seam also, the next article will concern this new change and why I did it. I was still in the adjustment phase of getting it right so it looks a bit sloppy here, but I have since worked out the kinks and have it looking great!

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