Next Project – “Pioneer” Dress

I decided to sign up for the Dreamstress’ Historical Sew Monthly 2016 challenge.  Yes, it’s halfway through the year, but there aren’t any rules about starting late, right?  (Maybe there are; I haven’t heard back yet on Facebook.)  I’ve been bouncing all over the place, trying to decide what to do for my next project, and this seems like a good way to get organized.

For June, the challenge is “travel.”  And to this Southwest girl, there isn’t anything more quintessentially “travel” than the pioneer days.  So a pioneer outfit it is.

However, that’s a pretty big time period to cover.  The American frontier has never been a static point in spacetime; we’ve been pushing outwards since we first set foot on this continent back in the 1500s.  For the sake of sanity, I’m going to confine my pioneer period to the mid 19th century.

Doing some research, two interesting things have popped up; a) that the Mormons have historical-themed trail rides, which sound like a ton of fun, and b) the pioneer ladies of the 1830s-1860s likely wore standard “camp dresses.”  Like you’d use for a Civil War reenactment.  Makes this challenge extra practical, as it’s always good to have something like that on hand.

So what are the elements I need?


The dress is obviously the most important factor. A lot of the stuff out there that turns up for “pioneer” in a Google search are those Mormon trail rides, so I’m having some trouble sorting through that.   I would imagine that instead of making some kind of special dress, our ancestors would have worn the oldest, most worn-out calico dress they had, like how we wear old crappy t-shirts to paint and do yard work.  I’m thinking they’d have worn dresses similar to these:

The skirt width and hem length would be in keeping with “civilized” places, and made to go over a significant amount of support.  I doubt ladies traveling west would have worn hoops.  A corded petticoat is entirely possible, and while petticoats might not have been starched, they were probably still worn.  I’ll be making the skirt wide enough to fit over my 95″ hoop and/or corded petti.  Ankle length is common in this period for work dresses, both pleating and gauging are used to gather the tops of the skirt.

Since I overheat easily, 1800s pioneer me would have wanted sleeves she could roll up and down, with plenty of air movement, so I’ll be doing bishop sleeves.  I like the “infant bodice” style of the center dress, so I’ll be doing that as well.  The front closing bodice will have a side “dog-leg” closure for the skirt.


I never go anywhere without a hat and/or sunscreen in the present day, so this is definitely a must.  I’ve always wanted a proper pioneer sunbonnet, ever since my Little House on the Prairie obsessed youth, and now, I get to make one!

There are some tutorials out there, but the focus seems to be on cheap ‘n’ quick (or cute) and I’m not finding anything I like.  I do not want to do a slat bonnet, as cardboard or thin wood will warp here in the Texas humidity.  Cording seems the best way to go.  Looking at extant examples, there are a couple of important features that are repeated consistently:

The gathered poof on the crown, the cording patterns on the brim, the wide self-fabric ties and the long bavolets seem very common.  I’m sure all of these things were brutally functional, so it’ll be important to emulate that as I draft this up.


Aprons seem to be ubiquitous, made from either old scraps of calico or cheap white muslin.  I’ve got tons of muslin, so that won’t be an issue.  It seems pretty straight forward, but I’ve said that before…



Courtesy of Hancock’s, I’ve got some nice contenders in the stash.  The gray is for the sunbonnet, but I’m not sure about the dress.  The blue may not be dark enough, green dyes often had arsenic in them, so it wouldn’t be a good choice for a dress you’d be sweating in, and the plaid is heavy.  Hmm, choices, choices.



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