Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Silk Damask Sack-Back Dress, c. 1760s: Margaret Hunter Shop Milliners and Mantuamakers

Detail of silk damask
Apprentice Abby measuring 
Journeywoman Sarah taking advantage of daylight for sewing

I was very fortunate to be able to spend time recently at the Margaret Hunter Milliners and Mantuamakers at Colonial Williamsburg, watching the construction of a sack back dress (robe à la française) of gold silk damask. It is based on an original held in the Charleston Museum collections, dating from the mid to late 1760s.

To watch the skilled work of the apprentices and journeywoman, under the masterful eye of Mistress Janea, was a true education for me, as well as the dozens of onlookers who packed into the shop.  Word had spread quickly that there was a dress being made and visitors were anxious to see the how the “gown in a day” project was proceeding.
Mistress Janea offers instruction 
As the first cut was made into this rich buttery yellow gold silk damask, I actually felt a pang of fear – I could not imagine cutting into the textile with such deft certainty. Over the weekend, I observed the first cutting of the fabric, the creation of the sleeves, the extensive pleating which went into the self fabric robings, the mock up of the stomacher, and the sack back (from which the dress derives its name), falling from the neckline and trailing elegantly behind. As the dress on which it is based, it is unlined.
Sleeves and trim

Self fabric robings with trim applied
On my final day, I was able see the gown fitted for Journeywoman Sarah. Due to the bustling activity in the shop and the level of detail required for the dress, the work was not yet complete when I left Colonial Williamsburg, but I will share finished views when they are available. (For additional in-progress shots, follow the shop on FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram:

Note the deep pleats for the sack back, the play of light on the silk
Fitting the dress

A few tidbits shared by the mantuamakers: 

The estimated cost of the fabric at the time would have been about 10-12 shillings per yard; approxiamately18 yards were needed for the dress

It would take about 30-40 hours to construct, most time would be devoted to the trim

The estimated cost would have been approximately 10-11 shillings for “making up”

The dress was designed to be worn over small pocket hoops

The extras are known as snips

I spend a good deal of time reading about historic garments, but nothing compares with actually seeing the handwork involved for garnering a deeper understanding.

Many thanks everyone at the shop – Janea, Sarah, Abby and two very talented and poised interns, Fiona and Lily -- and to friend and colleague, Susan Holloway Scott of Two Nerdy History Girls ( for introducing me to this creative group. I am already planning my next trip!

For more about the shop and its activities, see

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