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14 Jun 2024

From canvas to silk – making a 1760s sack gown

Written by Leia Caldwell, Visitor Services Assistant (Collections Care)
Two women sit at a table in a Georgian drawing room, sewing a blue silk dress that is laid out across a table.
Trust volunteers Anika and Eleanor stitching the gown in the Drawing Room
A group of Trust volunteers have made a reproduction 1760s sack gown for our Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion exhibition. Here is how they did it, in full view in the Georgian House’s Drawing Room!

In our Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion exhibition (running between 7 June–26 November 2024), we have on display an original 1760s sack gown and stomacher in cream silk damask, woven with floral sprigs in greens, reds, pinks and blues. Part of the textile collection at Newhailes House, this dress has survived the centuries because it has remained relatively untouched. To ensure the dress continues to retain its vibrant colours and remains in excellent condition, it cannot be handled by visitors to the exhibition. However, to help bring the dress to life, we decided to make a reproduction with the help of some of our National Trust for Scotland volunteers.

The making of this reproduction dress adds an interactive element to the exhibition. The public can feel the fabrics, and look closely at the stitches and construction for themselves. Between Saturday 8 and Thursday 13 June, visitors to the Georgian House were able to watch the team stitch the gown using 18th-century techniques. The inspiration for the dress was the gown worn by Katherine Anne Mure in her portrait (1766–69) by Allan Ramsay where he paints her as the epitome of style.

18th-century dressmaking workshop

It all began with a three-day crash course on making a sack back gown with dress historian Rebecca Olds in April. We learnt about the people involved in 18th-century dressmaking such as drapers, mantua makers and seamstresses. Traditionally, in the 18th century, dresses would be made in sections by mounting the fabric onto the gown bodice lining, which had already been fitted on the customer, and then stitching the sections together.

Prior to the late-1600s, fitted garments were not made at home but by tailors, who were predominantly men. In the 1670s, women in France began to set themselves up as mantua makers, and this new trade spread to Scotland by the late 1680s. They would serve an apprenticeship to learn the skills to cut and fit dresses; once they had completed their apprenticeship, they were journeywomen qualified to practice their trade independently.

Two stitches forward, one stitch back!

We had 12 volunteers, all women and all keen sewing enthusiasts. Some were more experienced in historical sewing techniques than others, but everyone was keen to learn. Working in pairs, it became clear that every maker left a unique mark. Everyone’s hands are different in size and the way they move their hands has an impact on the size, angle and spacing of the stitches. Making the pleats seemed to be the trickiest part. The volunteers used a spaced back stitch, or ‘prick stitch’, to both secure the pleats into place and to mount the pleated structure onto the fitted lining.

On the third day, we gathered to watch Rebecca demonstrate how to complete the remaining steps to finish our half-scale dresses, then we visited the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) costume store to see a selection of 18th-century garments and accessories. We learned that no dress is frozen in time but rather is the product of alterations and repairs. The NMS curators showed us how to read a dress, looking for stitches from different hands and what could be later conservation repairs.

The Georgian House reproduction dress

Cutting shapes

Now on to the real deal: the anticipated week of public engagement at the Georgian House, showing visitors the process of making an 18th-century gown using traditional methods!

When I say ‘cutting shapes’, I don’t mean dancing, although these dresses likely experienced many balls and parties. Mantua makers tended to work without patterns but instead in a way that involved cutting out shapes. This literally involved laying the lining fabric onto the customer, pinning and drawing pattern pieces directly to fit the individual’s body – here modelled by our volunteer Jenny. For this, she wore a linen shift next to the skin, a pair of stays, pocket hoops that would support the gown and provide the fashionable silhouette, plus long silk stockings and red silk garters tied in bows below the knees.

Every piece was made bespoke to suit a woman’s body. One idea I found particularly interesting was that in the 18th century, although there were beauty standards and trends, there wasn’t necessarily an ideal body type. However, there was an ideal fashionable silhouette, which could be achieved on any body with structured undergarments (especially stays and hooped petticoats) and perfectly fitting outer garments such as these gowns.

Overview of construction and assembly

Fashionable 1760s gowns were worn like an overdress open down the front, accompanied by two more pieces to fill in the middle: a petticoat (underskirt) and stomacher (a slightly triangular-shaped piece over the chest and stomach), both richly decorated to complement the gown. Sack back gowns had loose pleats down the back below the shoulders, unlike more fitted styles of gown.

If something was not quite right with the first fitting for the lining, they would not start again. Mantua makers devised ways to solve problems (even fix mistakes) as they went along, and the ladies would come back for a few fittings throughout the process. Areas such as the side seams were constructed so that they were secure but flexible and could be easily altered.

Building the front

To build the stomacher, all the raw edges are folded in and pinned to the lining layer. The fashion fabric can be basted (tacked) onto the lining, which is a way to hold the two pieces together so that you can remove the pins and not have to work around them. The basting stitch can be easily unpicked after you have finished your final stitching.

The sleeves are constructed by pinning the fashion fabric and lining together and using a spaced back stitch with silk thread. This type of stitch was used on areas of the gown which would withstand the most ‘stress’. It was neat in appearance, strong, flexible and could still be unpicked but in a controlled manner. The appearance of the front of the dress, through the pleats and ropings, helps to create the fullness and drape in the silhouette.

Watch a short clip on how we pleat the trims

The trims are cut using a traditional ‘pinking’ technique, which gives them a nice scalloped edge. A metal tool is used, hammered into the fabric to cut the desired shape.

Watch a short clip on using the metal pinking tool

Pleating the backs

The two halves of the back panel are aligned and pinned down the centre back seam. They are stitched from neck to hem with a combination running-backstitch while holding the pleats out of the way to ensure they aren’t caught in. The back lining piece is then attached with a running stitch using linen thread. During this stage, it is optional to add pocket holes so that the pocket hoops can be accessed through the dress, which is what we did here.


No measurements were used when making an 18th-century dress as modern flexible measuring tapes hadn’t yet been standardised. The first step of cutting the lining would take a professional mantua maker in the 18th century about 10 minutes to do, but the whole dress would take about 14 hours to complete without the trim. They would work seasonally, so in the summer they might take advantage of the lighter days and work longer shifts to complete projects. In our case, because we love our volunteers (!), we spent a week on it and took plenty of breaks.

Mantua making was a very respectable trade; they were simply ladies making dresses for other ladies. Multiple fittings were important throughout the process to ensure the dress was flexible and the wearer had a range of motion. Women’s lived experiences are not universal. However, these dresses had to be practical, both for women walking out and about in the streets of Edinburgh, as well as in the home doing domestics tasks like picking up a basket or a child. Having our volunteer Jenny as the model was great as she was able to talk to the public about how comfortable she felt wearing the dress.

Finished gown

Dress-making was a very sustainable business in the 18th century. Dresses were made with the ability to alter the side seams easily for pregnancy, for passing the dress down generations and to suit the changes in fashions. Working for a conservation charity, I think this is a lovely aspect explored in the exhibition through Ramsay’s portraits.

See the finished gown in motion!

The fabric gently rustles as she moves; the gown is lightweight and comfortable to wear. At the back, you can see the pleats leaving a slight train, whereas the front of the dress skims the ankles to allow the wearer to walk freely without stepping on any fabric. Unusually for us in the 21st century, these dresses would actually be pinned on, which is where the stays come in handy, providing a structured buffer to protect the wearer. They were traditionally made of whalebone which was quite mouldable – they protected the petticoat from digging in and helped to keep the desired silhouette.

I would like to personally thank every volunteer that gave up their time to attend Rebecca’s workshop, add their stitches to the final gown and engage with our visitors.

Mounting for display

We made the dress bespoke to the shape of one of our volunteers. This meant we had to do a little bit of work to the mannequin in order to achieve a similar shape. We used some conservation-grade jiffy foam, which is flexible and non-abrasive. The same pair of stays and pocket hoops were used underneath the dress.

Watch a timelapse film of mounting the dress for display

And there you have it! Come and have a look for yourself at the Ramsay and Edinburgh Fashion exhibition, which will be at the Georgian House until 26 November. The dress will then move to be displayed at Gladstone’s Land in the 1760s draper’s shop, from where merchants sold a range of fashionable fabrics.

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