In this tutorial, I'll be sharing one of my favorite mid-19th century dressmaking tricks and demystifying the "curved tuck" detail as seen on many original and reproduction bodices.
Among Civil War reenactors and makers of historic clothing, there's some disagreement between whether the back of a dress' bodice should be cut with three
pieces - including a center back with concave sides and two, convex-curved side back pieces - or in one
piece. You might be wondering why
the debate, and while it's a matter of personal, sewing preference, it also serves practical and fashionable purposes.
A conventional three-piece back would be stitched together - concave to convex sides - forming a fitted "princess seam" which gave the illusion of a broader back and narrower waist (think hour-glass shaped!). Even the slightest off-set of a pattern can make a big difference to the eyes, and when achieving the fashionable silhouette, every detail counts!
Here a few extant examples that illustrate this illusion: notice how the curved back seams give shape to this solid-colored taffeta dress, doesn't it help enhance the hour-glass silhouette?
The effect works equally well with prints and plaids too. It can be a noticeable design element, or a more subtle, almost undetectable break in the pattern, but nonetheless pleasing to the eye! In this example, the curve is almost invisible thanks to the beautiful, careful pattern matching:
And here, the more noticeable off-set to the pattern adds almost a lively, decorative design element:
Having the additional seams of the three-piece back also allows for more shaping ease, especially if the wearer has a bit more curve in their spine. (However, ask anyone who sews and they'll probably agree that fitting is much easier on straight seams than on curves! In draping classes, we were always taught to add 5/8" allowance on princess seams since they were less likely to be changed, and 1" on side seams as most costume alterations could be made there.)
On the other hand, as historical dressmakers discovered, by cutting the back bodice in one piece and mimicking the curved seam of a three-piece back through a tiny, top stitched "curved tuck," the same illusion is preserved. Side seams were traditionally slightly angled, so with the little bit of bias stretch, fitting can easily happen there.
Here are a few extant examples using a tuck to create the curved effect: In this first example which comes from Katherine's of The Fashionable Past
blog, there's a single line of stitching on the lining indicating the false three-piece back, as well as the angled side seams which help with the overall illusion and fit of the bodice.
From the outside, that same bodice's false three-piece back and curved "seams" are indistinguishable from a true three-piece back:
And for comparison, here's a true three-piece back: Notice there's not much difference in the effect from the outside, aside from the actual color of the silk.
|Mid-1860s day dress, originally of violet color but mostly faded to brown|
(Image source: All the Pretty Dresses)
|A view of the interior showing a true three-piece back with generous seam allowance|
(Image source: All the Pretty Dresses)
It can be difficult to find images of the backs of dresses, and even more difficult to find pictures of the insides! But here are two more one-piece backs with the same curved tuck technique:
|Bodice interior, dress of black silk|
(Image source: Pinterest)
|Bodice interior, dress of wool challis|
(Image source: Pinterest)
Another time-saving variation to taking a tuck I've seen is applying narrow bias strips on the flat back piece, though these were on reproduction rather than original garments...So while the curved tuck technique might not work with every fabric, it's certainly a clever, period-correct sewing trick that can be used on cotton, wool, and silk dresses and avoids the hassle of dealing with those fiddly curved seams!
Recreating the Curved Tuck Detail
So we've discussed the three-piece versus one-piece bodice back, and now that you're familiar with the what and why of each style, let's jump into the how-to portion of this post:
Cut one back piece from both the lining (I used plain muslin, though polished cotton would work too) and fashion fabric, which for me is a striped, reproduction cotton. For the fashion fabric, I recommend adding a little extra fabric at the side seams so when the tuck is added, the side seams will still line up. But if they don't, no worries as it will all be hidden in the seam allowance!
Lay fashion fabric and lining together, (optional: baste at the shoulders and neckline to keep the layers from shifting
), and using a curved ruler, mark a smooth curve beginning at the armscye (a couple inches off the shoulder) and ending at the waist. Looking at original examples can help with visualizing the placement.
Repeat the same curve on the other side. Notice that each of the curves end about an inch away from the center back at the waist, creating a very narrow space between curves.
|Use a curved ruler to mark a smooth curve from the armscye to the waistline.|
Baste the fashion fabric and lining together following the marked lines. This will hold the pieces together as you create the tuck.
|Baste along the curved lines as marked,|
notice that I cut the fashion fabric slightly larger than the lining.
To create the tuck, slightly roll the fashion fabric up and over to cover the line of stitching created in step three. Pin and press the crease in place.
|Slightly roll the fabric over the basting line. Pin and press the crease.|
To secure the tuck, run a line of spaced backstitches along the edge of the crease. These will be visible, so make sure to use a matching thread!
|Stitch along the edge of the crease to secure the tuck.|
steps 3-5 for two curved tucks. Press so that the back lays flat, and now the rest of the bodice can be assembled in the usual manner.
If the fashion fabric and lining no longer meet, make sure to follow the lining edge
when seaming the sides. (Do not
trim them to be even or your garment may not fit - again, the difference should be minimal and completely hidden in the seam allowance)
|The finished back with curved tucks, outside.|
|Here's the back from the inside, notice there are two lines of stitching.|
I like to base the sides seams, following the lining edge when joining the fronts and back together.
And that's all there is too it - it's a simple, yet effective and period correct method for creating the look and illusion of a three-piece back in one, without the hassle of stitching and clipping curved seams.
Have you ever made a mid-19th century dress?
And if so, with a three-piece back or one-piece with curved tucks? As always, thank you for reading & happy sewing!