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Nellie Oleson’s Silk Polonaise Dress
Outline the story …
I started volunteering at various historical sites, including the Little House on the Prairie site in Kansas, approximately three years ago. During one drive back home to Texas a BIG idea flickered in my brain. Wouldn’t it be fun to recreate some of the clothing that Laura Ingalls Wilder so vividly described in her Little House books? I quickly pushed the thought out of my mind. I wasn’t qualified or good enough to take on such a task since I’d only been seriously sewing for a year or so. Months passed with the idea regularly rearing up and self-doubt pushing it down again. Then I started watching Cathy Hay’s videos and began to consider, “Why not me?” I was enthusiastic and willing. I pondered if any of the pioneering characters in the books possessed a doctorate in needlework. Nope, they were simply just brave. So I started with calico aprons and sunbonnets. Next were simple work dresses. But one dress above all others kept calling to me. “She wore a fawn-colored dress made with a polonaise. Deep pleated ruffles were around the bottom of the skirt, around her neck, and falling from the edges of the wide sleeves. At her throat was a full jabot of lace.”* Still I kept putting it off. It required skills I didn’t quite have. Then the theme for this year’s contest was announced and I knew it was now or never.
*Little Town on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, page 129
Outline the construction…
Nellie’s polonaise is beautifully depicted in a black and white drawing by artist Garth Williams, on page 131. The story’s timeline is approximately 1878-1880 which places the dress style in the Natural Form Era. As I am completely self-taught and have no idea how to drape I needed a pattern. The bodice from Butterick pattern B6572 was similar to the design I had in mind. After some research, I learned it was based on a dress found in Patterns of Fashion 2 by Janet Arnold. The neckline needed to be raised, which was a fairly easy task. A big challenge involved the sleeves that needed to be extended and widened at the wrist ~ a modified pagoda. My friend Dartanyan’s amazing engineering mind helped me create a new sleeve pattern. As I did not want a train I opted to use Truly Victorian 221 to construct the skirt. I decided what shade “fawn-colored” was by looking to nature and Dating Fabrics A Color Guide - 1800-1960 by Eileen Trestain. The lovely shot silk used was obtained in a trade. I had never worked with silk and quickly decided to flatline all pieces with a cotton muslin sheet using French seams to combat the fray factor. A combination of machine and hand stitching was used. All of the trim was pleated by hand. The lace jabot is based on extant pieces from the Met. It is made from three different antique lace pieces handstitched to Edwardian era netting.