I needed a self-care project, so I sewed myself a witchy 18th Century riding habit

Remember that brief, shining moment of time around June of 2021 when the vaccines had opened up to everyone over the age of 18, COVID cases were on the decline, and suddenly it felt like there was a light at the end of the tunnel? Right before Delta was isolated and the CDC recommended masks, even for vaccinated people, in areas experiencing a “high” level of community transmission of COVID. I’d been plugging along okay, making franken blouses and poking at random small individual pieces and slowly making a dress for a ball that was supposed to take place in October 2021 when the high of that June all kind of came crashing down. Somewhere around Labor Day I realized I was floundering a bit (the cancellation of the October ball did not help) and that I needed something, desperately, to keep myself busy and to have something to look forward to.

I’d also been silently lamenting the fact that it was nearly Halloween season and I did not have a black, witchy gown to wear around Halloween time. So the day after Labor Day, despite the fact that Halloween was only about 7 weeks away and I work full time, I decided I needed to make a dress AND schedule a photoshoot with a photographer in order to have some witchy-vibe photos in time for Halloween.

It also helped a lot that because of my excessive need to acquire fabric and patterns, I already had a PDF pattern for a late 18th Century riding habit, as well as enough yardage of black silk taffeta that I had purchased during various sales. All I had to do was print out the pattern and start taping it together. For the first time in months I was doing something other than sitting on the couch watching YouTube after work every night. And I contacted Outdoor Chronicles, the photographer I had worked with for my previous riding habit shoot to get on their calendar and start working out ideas.

Max “helping” as I start assembling the pattern tiles.

In my stash I also luckily had a bunch of cotton printed with skeleton hands that I had bought years ago and decided not to make into a skirt, so I had a ready supply of lining material that would be more than appropriate for the project theme.

During the pandemic I had been on a handsewing binge, just because I found it meditative to focus on, but for a dress (and petticoat, and sash, and hat) that needed to be done in about six weeks, it was more important for it to be Done rather than Hand Sewn, so I planned to use the sewing machine for all of the internal seams.

I used the riding habit pattern by Black Snail Patterns which comes with a smoothly rounded cape and front lapels, but in order to give the outfit a more witchy vibe, I used the existing capes pattern pieces to draft cape pieces that came to points. Apparently I did not take photos of the drafting and mockup phase of this, because I was going so fast on the construction.

Testing placement. The quilted petticoat is for a different project, but I realized at this stage that it might look nice with the riding habit someday, too.

While I was working on the bodice I realized I also really wanted a hat that was not a straight up witch hat, but was still reminiscent, even if it wasn’t perfectly period. While looking for more buckram I stumbled across a Lynn McMasters/ Out of a Portrait pattern for a tall hat dated 1600 to early 1800 that reminded me of late-18th century fashion plates. I gratefully scooped that up so that I wouldn’t have to attempt to draft my own.

I traced the pattern and extended the length of the crown a bit to give it a slightly taller, more fantastical shape, and luckily ended up having just enough buckram left to cut out my hat.

I now simultaneously had a hat to make (which had to be done by hand) and everything left on the dress that I wanted to sew by hand because the stitches would be visible. And by this point it was October! I had to pleat the skirt and attach it to the bottom of the bodice.

And I had to attach the cuffs and plackets, sew button holes, cover buttons, and hem the skirt.

And cover the hat…

For the front closure the pattern called for one row of stationary buttons and one row of functional button holes on the front panel of the bodice. But with the rather light weight of my fabric and lining, and the fact that button holes take forever, I decided I would rather use a strip of hook and eye closures. This would put less stress on the fine fabric and save me a ton of time doing buttonholes by hand. I fitted the bodice, chose my placement and carefully attached the two strips so that the stitches would not be terribly visible in the front, and then attached my hooks and eyes to the strips.

I briefly had ambitions of making or buying deaths head buttons for the front, but I could not justify the expense of buying them and did not have time to learn how and then make all of them myself, so I covered buttons with the black taffeta and stuck with those for now.

I also made a sash out of a very dark purple taffeta and added a matching band to the hat, as well as a big buckle that is anachronistic, but very witchy.

I finished just about four days before my photoshoot!

Teeny tiny stitches.

In talking to Molly, my photographer, about the shoot I referenced vibes like “Tim Burton Sleepy Hollow,” “The VVitch” and “New England creepy.” We picked a nature preserve nearby and scheduled it for just before dawn on a Thursday morning at the end of October so we could hopefully catch some fog and the last fall leaves. I was able to use some vacation time to take the morning off to complete my “self care project.” And the results were basically exactly what I was hoping for.

I ended up liking the darker photos where you couldn’t clearly see the dress details the best. Just because they turned out with the best creepy vibe that I was going for. But we also took some silly ones too, because it is impossible to stay serious on a photoshoot.

I am super happy with my new witchy riding habit, and I’m really glad I took the six weeks to sew like crazy and get it done. It definitely got me out of my funk, at least for that few weeks, and I got a new gown out of it! The moral of the story is: just do the thing!

That’s all for now. I did end up finishing one more gown last year that I had been working on slowly for about a year, so that will be the next blog post. Hopefully not months from now.

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