Isabella’s dress has captivated dressmakers over time who have all wanted to make their own replicas of her dress. One such replica is on display at the West Highland Museum in Fort William.
The dress in September. It had been display with the back showing
I first saw the dress in September which is also when I met Vanessa Martin, the museum’s curator, for the first time. I think it’s fair to say that the dress was on a rather anorexic mannequin (which I have since discovered is a museum piece worthy of display in its own right) in a corner of a room and was not displayed as well as it could be. We had a chat, which resulted in me going to up Fort William for a few days this week to do some voluntary work at the museum.
I decided the first thing that I could do to help from home would be to make a bum roll and petticoat. I hadn’t made a bum roll before, but a quick Pinterest search soon threw up some images which made sense. The bum roll was drafted by me on the (linen) fabric, hand sewn with linen thread, cotton tape was used for the ties and was stuffed with some fleece I had washed but not carded.
Next on to a petticoat. I decided to go with an apron petticoat simply because I have made a fair few before and they are historically accurate. They are basically what they sound;two aprons which are sewn together, with a hem circumference of 100-120″. I chose to use Irish linen for the petticoat (Maggie Stewart on eBay, most beautiful and affordable linen available in the UK) which was 54″ wide. Sewing all those hems with little stitches (I used a small rolled hem for the bottom hem, the mantua makers’ seam for the sides, gathered whip stitch for the gathering of the top and a simple whip stitch to attach the ties).
A ‘work in progress’ photo; as you can probably see I hadn’t tackled the 108″ of hem yet
When I arrived at the museum on Thursday, this is how the Fort Augustus lady looked
I had taken a couple of pins out which had closed up the bodice, bit annoyed with myself that I didn’t think about taking a photo before.
We set up a work table for me in room 5 (which has been closed for a few days) and did a detailed examination of the dress together. I then carried out repairs.
The first repair was to the left front. Here’s a before and after
Here’s where I repaired loose stitching under the left sleeve
Unsurprisingly the skirt is very heavy and the stitching along the seam between the bodice and skirt has come loose over its 100 years, so I also reinforced the entire waistline with lots of tiny stitches. Another ‘work in progress’ photo
It was then time to dress the mannequin …
Doesn’t she look lovely?
The dress was made by two ladies about the time of the World War 1. Isabella’s dress has been on display at the museum at Fort Augustus Abbey and the monks had hoped to buy the dress off the family. I am told they offered the huge sum of £500, which thankfully was rejected. So the ladies made a replica.
It is obvious they had access to Isabella’s dress. Here’s a side by side photo of the tartan in both dresses. The major difference between the two is that the replica is made from a carded woolen yarn (which results in a softer, fluffier yarn) as opposed to the combed worsted yarn used to make hard tartan.
As you can see, the Fort Augustus dress has suffered from some light damage and is not as vibrant as it once was
What is now a greyish green was once a vibrant fir green. I have no idea which dyes Miss Fraser used to dye her woolen (not worsted) hand spun yarn for her handwoven fabric, but I suspect they might have used early chemical dyes (which are not as light fast as chemical dyes of today or natural dyes such as cochineal, indigo and old fustic).
To complete the outfit, we decided to bring an amazing arisaid out of storage.
An arisaid was basically the female version of a plaid and was typically two widths wide and about 4-5 yards long.
Here is an etching from Edmund Burt’s Letters with an image of a lady wearing an arisaid (perhaps over emphasised a bit?) at a market in the 1720s
We looked to the Alexander Carmichael collection for a suitable item and boy, did we find one!
As amazing as Carmichael was, unfortunately we don’t have very much information on the plaid except that it was from Uist
(I plan to go to his archive at Edinburgh University to see if I can find more information on this plaid and a few other amazing items I saw yesterday)
We may not have the provenance of the arisaid, but we do know it belonged to an I.C. of Uist in 1796.
It is in amazing condition for its age with hardly any damage to it. It is made of two lengths of single width hard tartan which I strongly suspect was woven from a few combed Dunface fleeces and dyed with cochineal, indigo and an unknown yellow. It feels a lot like the hard tartan used in Isabella’s dress and plaid.
The dress and plaid going into their new case in Room 5
The museum has got some beautiful luckenbooth brooches and plaid brooches which we were hoping to attach to the dress and plaid to finish off the display. However, we had no way of attaching them today without significantly damaging the dress or plaid, so this will be sewn to within the next few weeks.
I feel a real sense of pride in what Vanessa and I have done at the museum over the past few days. I hope future visitors will enjoy the new display.