Part 1: Inspiration and Research
Part 2: Pattern, Mock Up and Underpinnings
Part 3: Construction.
Inspiration and Research
On display at the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery is a tartan wedding dress from the late eighteenth century: the Isabella MacTavish Fraser wedding dress. The dress was probably made shortly before January 1785 for the wedding of Isabella MacTavish to Malcolm Fraser, who were both from Stratherrick, near Loch Ness, in the Scottish Highlands. It is significant, not only for its beauty but because it is one of the only known tartan dresses from this date.
As can be seen below, there are examples of tartan gowns in portraits from the early- to mid-eighteenth century; however, these have not survived.
Last year, the dress was subject of the Isabella MacTavish Fraser Project organised by Timesmith Dressmaking in which the gown was recreated over a weekend alongside the ‘Wild and Majestic’: Romantic visions of Scotland’ at the National Museum of Scotland, at which the original gown was on display (26 June to 10 November 2019). I followed the Isabella Project avidly and would have loved to have travelled to see it. I pored over the free pattern and construction notes by American Duchess when it came out but despaired of making my own version until I had saved enough money to afford the fabric. That was, until I found some for an excellent price on eBay.
After the Jacobite Rebellion, there had been a ban on the use of male Highland Dress under the Act of Proscription of 1746. The gown was originally believed to be made from an older tartan from this date; however, dye analysis has shown that it can be no earlier than 1775 and possibly dates to after the ban was lifted in 1778 and when there was a revival.
The tartan I found is called Ancient Hunting McCrae. Despite being called “ancient” the pattern probably dates from the twentieth century.
|It is a beautiful very fine worsted wool tartan fabric, made in Huddersfield. It is a spring weight 8 oz per metre. |
It is 62 inches wide and the pattern repeat is 6″ on the width and 6.5″ on the length.
The concept of a clan having specific tartan probably dates from George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822. However, the colours in this tartan: blue, red, green, white and black would have been possible in the eighteenth century and they echo the red, blue and green in the Isabella Fraser dress.
The tartan I bought is very fine and feels beautifully soft. It is much lighter than the original Isabella dress, which is described as a “hard tartan”. However, the dress and its recreation suffers from the weight of heavy wool, pulling the bodice and making it pucker. It is posited that the original eighteenth-century mantua-maker tried to counteract this effect of the weight of the pleats pulling the back of the dress by adding the lacing strips to the inside of the bodice. Having a lighter fabric would reduce this problem and it is still period appropriate.
Sources and References
- ‘The Isabella Mactavish Fraser Gown – Pattern & Construction’ [pdf] by American Duchess (2019). — A most excellent resouce availabe for free! It details the research, gridded pattern shapes, materials and construction for the recreation of the dress for the Isabella Project.
- ‘The Isabella MacTavish Fraser Project: A research, re-creation and educational project in three stages‘ by Timesmith Dressmaking, who led the Isabella Project.
- ‘Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Dress: A study in material culture’ by Sassenach Stitcher [Joanne Watson]. A blog detailing research for her MLitt dissertation on the dress (linked below). Her blog has a lot of research into historical Scottish dress and culture, as well as links to other published works on the subject.
- ‘Sewing an 18th Century Gown – Recreating the Isabella MacTavish Fraser Wedding Dress’ by American Duchess. YouTube (2019).
- ‘Highland Wedding Dress – #541’ [pdf] by Catherine Niven, curator at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. Northwest Territory Alliance (1997).
- Unknown artist, Helen Murrary of Ochtertyre, oil on canvas, c. 1750. Private Collection.
- William Robertson, Portrait of Flora Macdonald, oil on canvas, 1750. 655. Glasgow Museums.
- Richard Wilson, Portrait of Flora Macdonald, oil on canvas, 1747. PG 1162. National Galleries Scotland.
- ‘Is Isabella MacTavish’s wedding dress an example of traditional female Highland dress from the long eighteenth century?‘ [MLitt Dissertation] by Joanne Watson (2019).
- ‘Tartan from Isabella Fraser’s Wedding Dress 1785’ [pdf] by Peter Eslea MacDonald (2014; rev. 2018)
- ‘The Isabella Dress’ by Atelier Nostalgia [Myrthe Tielman] (2019) — A blog post covering the Isabella Project event at the National Museum of Scotland showing photos of the process of reconstruction.
- ‘Wedding Gown in a Weekend’ by Black Tulip [Elaine Rowland] (2019). — Another blog post covering the Isabella Project event at the National Museum of Scotland.
- A photo blog by sew_yesterday on Instagram covering the Isabella Project event at the National Museum of Scotland.