#MyrtleMondays From Page to Seam: Making the In Myrtle Peril dress

Preparations for the release of the next Myrtle Hardcastle Mystery are well underway! Book 4, In Myrtle Peril, is coming your way October 4, but there’s no reason to wait for the fun. Today we take a closer look inside—or, rather, outside the beautiful cover, and Myrtle’s fantastic new look! Fix yourself a nice cup of tea (or coffee or chocolate) and let’s dig in.

I love everything about Brett Helquist’s new cover for In Myrtle Peril–from the gloriously purple border to the ghost ship in the corners, to Myrtle in her Natural Habitat: a laboratory.

When the covers are being designed, the design team at Algonquin Young Readers sends me preliminary sketches and asks for feedback, especially regarding what Myrtle might be wearing in a particular scene (perks of being both a historical costumer *and* a historical fiction author!). For this book, Brett initially drew the hints of a chevron-shaped neckline on Myrtle’s frock:

You can see how much we all loved Brett’s initial vision for this cover–it’s hardly changed a bit!

…At which point, I did something Exceptionally Foolhardy: I might have said something about being interested in Victorian chevron-shaped necklines, and sent along a handful of period dress images to inspire him!

There were Options, Dear Reader. Just saying.

Brett, being an Exceptionally Talented and Detail-Oriented artist of the first magnitude, naturally chose… the most complicated one! And, just as naturally, it is GLORIOUS! The chevron yoke became a piped and pleated layered masterpiece of intricateness:

So. Much. Detail. (And pause to admire the beautifully-rendered laboratory equipment!)

Knowing, of course, that I would be recreating this dress in 1:3 scale miniature, I immediately set about studying those details, plotting my attack, and sourcing materials.

The inspiration image comes from a fashion plate in the April 1890 issue of Peterson’s Magazine. Text on the facing page describes the dress, notably glossing over things like the pleated upper yoke, the piping, the smocked sleeves…

Walking dress for a girl of 10 to 12 years. It is made of pin-striped woollens and surah. The sleeves, sash, and inside yoke are of the surah. The bands on sleeves, cuff, yoke, and collar are velvet to match.

Surah is a type of twill fabric (similar to the denim your bluejeans are made of), usually silk or wool, with prominent diagonal ribs. This silk surah would have been lovely:

I went, however, with a more budget-friendly (and evidently cat-friendly) pinwale corduroy:

I just ironed that.

Glad I bought enough fabric, because this dress has a LOT of pieces!

almost all the components

The trim is moleskin, a polyester suiting fabric with a slight nap, which makes a nice doll-scale velvet. Although it may appear black in the photos, the “velvet” is actually a very dark grape purple, with tiny piping in an orchid purple cotton broadcloth. The lovely pleated upper yoke section is an ivory pre-pleated chiffon, backed with white lawn for opacity and stability.

All five fabrics

I began my actual attack with the skirt and its pleats.

Although not described in the magazine, to me they appear to be organ pleats (soft pleats that hold their rounded shape thanks to being stuffed with batting), which are… complicated. 

1895 instructions from the New Zealand Press are clearly designed to put off all but the most intrepid of dressmakers. They go on. And on…

Lacking the handy gauge of a supply of cartridge wadding (and a million spare hours), I opted for soft, unpressed box pleats. We don’t often see box pleats in late 19th century women’s costume, but they were common in children’s and doll clothes.

One of my inspiration images:  c. 1905 girl’s dress with box-pleated skirt |Indiana State Museums

Several samples later, I reached a happy compromise between the typical crispness of box pleats and the soft roundness of organ pleats. I opted for a straight panel cut three times the doll’s waist circumference by twice the desired length, so it could be folded double at the bottom edge, giving a softer finish than a sewn hem would. This also served to add some extra padding to the pleats. The key was simply manipulating the pleats into place by hand, not pressing them flat with an iron.

Mockups show the evolution of all the pieces–skirt, sleeves & trim, bodice, and yoke details

My patient model celebrates skirt success!

Thereafter, I turned my attention to the sleeves and their lovely layered trim. This photo shows the “turn of cloth piping” method I devised for these tiny pieces–lining the shapes with the piping fabric cut slightly larger so that the edge shows when pressed.

Doll sleeves tend to have more ease (roominess) than their human counterparts, largely to allow for dressing by young fingers. To snug up the wrist area, one option is a cuff with a snap and a sleeve vent, like we see on Myrtle’s middy:

Another option, often seen on Victorian doll clothes, is to decorate the edge of the sleeve so that the width is not as noticeable–all you see is the lovely trim!

This time, I didn’t care for either option. I disliked the way too much sleeve ease looked, and the inspiration gown (both the original and Brett’s painting) shows nice snug cuffs adorned with elaborate trim. But the placement of that elaborate trim, combined with the location of the sleeve vents, proved more geometrically taxing than I wanted to deal with.

Fortunately, my doll has quite squishable hands (she could probably get out of handcuffs!), and I was able to reduce the amount of ease in the cuffs considerably, keeping them nice and snug but still able to get on and off without the vent. Which meant I could center the trim on the cuffs–much easier!

Trim hand-sewn onto the cuffs. Perfect!

With the sleeves and skirt sorted, there was no putting off the Hard Part: that layered yoked bodice with the sheer white neckline.

The first part of the Hard Part: drafting the shape of the trim. I puzzled through several not-quite-right iterations, and finally hit on the idea of using the guidance of princess seams:

After scouring the stash, I found a doll bodice with princess seams, and another with a sweetheart neckline, and combined those design lines to guide my trim pattern. Finally! It looks just like the painting.

Further fiddling placed the upper white yoke on the bodice so that the seam would be covered by the trim. I opted to confine all the elaborate trim to the front of the bodice only, with a solid corduroy back view. This draws attention to the detail on the front.

Bodice Triumph! All the fiddly details came together beautifully. The velvet collar is piped, with a strip of tiny ruffle added by hand afterward. A last-minute consultation with Brett’s painting revealed a pearl bead I had never noticed before! Stash to the rescue.

Then it was the relatively simple (no, really this time) matter of joining the bodice to the skirt via the waistband, which has another strip of piped velvet trim. The original illustration shows a sash, which I felt was at odds with the structure of my version. Nor can I see Myrtle putting up with such fussiness! She preferred a more tailored trim.

At last! The dress was complete, just in time for its Grand Debut at World Doll Day Kansas City!

It was Myrtle, in the laboratory, with the microscope…

With the original fashion plate


…And Page to Seam!

Until the next project,

2 Responses to “#MyrtleMondays From Page to Seam: Making the In Myrtle Peril dress”

  1. J. Hyde

    Wonderful! Love the book illustration, and your attention to detail in creating the dress. Delightful!