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Christmas Tree Gown by Denise Severson, Wisconsin

12/03/2016 4:40 PM | Cisa Kubley

In mid-August, the local county historical society hosted an open house off-site of its main campus, during which they announced an opportunity to ‘adopt-a-tree’ for decoration and display during the up-coming holiday season at the society’s main historical home, The Tallman House, a beautiful 2-story built in the mid-1850’s.  The theme had to be family friendly and appropriate for the setting.  With almost two dozen trees available for adoption, I immediately signed up for a tree, selecting the master bedroom for the location. A proposed design, a ball gown from June 1860 Godey’s Lady’s Book, was approved and the hunt was on for the necessary supplies. With tree installation scheduled for the first week of November, the majority of the tree needed to have the ‘dress rehearsal’ completed before leaving for conference in Vancouver.

Dress inspiration

The tree gown is built with a dress form as the base, so the society let me pick the form I wanted from their storeroom. Even though the chosen, undressed form has a silhouette from a later era, it was selected because it was the sturdiest, heaviest form.  The S-shape meant draping a muslin for the bodice.  The 2016 Threads ‘Quilted Garment’ Challenge came in handy: pliable evergreen garland was quilted to the muslin base.  The back closes with a two-inch wide Velcro over/under lap. The unusual busk is a scavenged section from a discarded silverware basket from my dishwasher.


The skirt frame needed enough heft to support the weight of tree branches and was built from 4-foot wide chicken wire. Hint #1: make sure your tetanus is up to date, as you may get a lot of deep scratches while working with this wire. Hint #2: get a friend to help you with this step! While you will be able to snip the wire into panels, it will be nearly impossible to ‘sew’ a shaped chicken wire seam by yourself.  The skirt was shaped by folding the wire back about 1 foot below the waist, and the then the seams of the four sections ‘stitched’ by using zip-ties at CF, and each SS. The CB ’seam’ was left open.


A pleated burlap ‘petticoat’ covers the frame; it is also left free at the CB.  The burlap hides the wire, helps fill in some of the shaping for the skirt, and provides easy anchoring spots for the some of the smaller branches.


The skirt used 2-1/2 artificial 6-foot trees.  (Real trees could not be used as they are a fire hazard) This was the hardest item to track down!    After several weeks of looking, I gave up on scoring trees from consignment or estate sales and bought trees from Big Lots.  If you want to try this for next year, hit the after-holiday sales! Just remember, the branches should probably look like they all came from the same tree.  Hint #3: if you do not have one, GET A BOLT CUTTER if your trees have the branches permanently attached to the trunk.  My trees needed to have the pre-strung lights removed before removing the individual branches.  After cutting the branches off, use pliers to bend a hook into the tip. Begin at the ‘hem’ of the tree, and hook the branches through the burlap, catching the wire, spreading and shaping the branches as need. Continue told up from the bottom, filling in with the smaller branches as you near the waist.  The single tips can be used to fill in as needed. Add lights if desired.  Note: historical settings will probably require LED lights, but best to check with the site for any restrictions they may have.


The trim on the dress was built from tulle.  Seven dozen silk yellow roses replaced the bows on the original, because they were the favorite flower of the original owner of the Tallman House.  The sash was from my stash.



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