Friday, 11 December 2015

A Day in the Life of MY Dream Job - Margaret Hunter shop at Colonial Williamsburg

This Morning's Interview is with Abigail Cox

1.      Can you describe your working space.  Be as detailed as you like.

Ok, where to begin, first is that our larger overall working environment is on Duke of Gloucester St in the heart of the Historic Area of Colonial Williamsburg. We’re on the side of the city close to the Capitol and other trades sites, which results in an active part of town. The building itself is an original building dating from around the late 1730s. Though the building is original the interior had to be redone in the 1950s to look like an 18th century millinery shop. They did a nice job, though the interior is based off of French millinery shops and not English millineries. We also question how much the shop would have looked like an apothecary inside as it was an apothecary shop in the 18thcentury before it became a millinery shop.

The largest room is the front room which is our workspace and where the public visits. We are one of the few shops with one door for the public’s entry and exit, which gives us more privacy in the back of the shop, but can result in the front room being quite crowded at times. There are 5 full time employees in the shop, with two volunteers as of this moment. The number of volunteers fluctuates with the season. We split the shop down the middle with the tailors on one side of the shop and the milliners/mantua-makers on the other. Our work tables are situated right up against the very large south facing windows which is our source of light for the work that we do. We are dependent upon natural light to be able to work; so on very dark and dreary winter days sewing productivity can be minimal.

The tailors sit atop the work board, as was the practice during the 18th century, and we as milliners and mantua-makers sit at our work board on backless stools or cozied into the window seat. Our work board is a bit higher than the rest of the counter that surrounds the rest of the shop, and part of this is so that way we are closer to eye contact level of the guests when they come in. This allows us, at times, to continue working while speaking with visitors without an uncomfortable height difference.

The walls of the shop are covered in shelves, boxes, drawers, and pegs to store and display our items and materials. The guests are able to get an idea of what a millinery shop would look like at that time, and get a taste of period shopping experiences (they stay on the public side of the U-shaped counter while we interpret, work, and display items from the private or employee side of the counter).

As for the back rooms, there is a storage/display room and an office on the first floor. The storage room has to be kept fairly tidy and historically accurate since it can be seen by the public. It also is where our fireplace is located, which we use on occasion, but not as regularly as other trade shops. The smaller office is where the tailors have their modern office space, books, fabric, clothing, and tool storage. It’s a tight squeeze to say the least.

Above stairs are more offices and our modern restroom. Both offices double as storage of fabric, clothing, tools, and storage. The larger office also holds the larger work table for cutting out of larger projects, meetings, and staff lunches. We also have a refrigerator, microwave, coffee maker, and toaster oven in the larger office, 2 desks, computer, and ironing board. To be frank, it feels like we’re busting out at the seams (pun intended) more often than not.

2.      What are the practices of your daily life?

We are open to the public between 9am-5pm 7 days a week, with Fri/Sat being only the 3 milliners/mantua-makers and Sun/Mon the tailors’ days. We show up before 9 am, some of us arrived dressed in our 18th century clothing, while others come in modern wear and change at the shop. We write up an interpretive schedule for the day based off of who is working that day, what meetings are occurring, etc. We keep the schedule as even and balanced as possible. With the interpretive schedule set, we are able to configure the rest of our day around our speaking time. Usually we have sewing projects that are demanding our attention, but we are still a modern museum with modern day responsibilities, so there are always emails to write and meetings to schedule. We also fit in our research when we can amongst our other responsibilities and lunch too. Usually we head home between 5 and 5:30 every night.
3. What do you 'do'?
                We are a par to the Department of Historic Trades and Skills at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Our responsibility is to research, rediscover, practice, preserve, and educated the public on our respective trades. All but one of the shops in the department have an apprenticeship program where we have created an educational based employment opportunity where after a series of projects and research, the apprentices are able to graduate to journey(wo)men. Apprenticeships usually last between 4-7 years, and you are encouraged to stay on as a journey(wo)man after completing your apprenticeship.
I currently am about half way through my apprenticeship, which specifically means I have completed the millinery portion of my and am into mantua-making (dressmaking). My sewing projects revolve around my apprenticeship demands and the demands of the various projects and programs that the shop is involved in. Researching my trade and the objects of my trade is done through almost exclusively primary documentation, ranging from newspapers, magazines, books, original images, and garments. Occasionally, we will reference a Janet Arnold or Norah Waugh book to see how they have patterned original garments or skim their primary research that they’ve published in their secondary source.  We practice what many call “Reverse Archeology” or “Experimental Archeology” where the practice of making an object is the point of the study. We recreate items to better understand what they are, why they existed, who used them, and how they were made. Sometimes this means that we are producing some unusual pieces that spark a lot of questions, but the experimentation is what makes our shop so great and helps us understand the past in a much more comprehensive way. We are not here to make reproductions; we are here to understand two 18th century trades that were extraordinarily popular as they were diverse.
Though our museum focuses on telling the story of Williamsburg, Virginia through the American Revolution, the trades department is a bit different. Our shop, in particular ranges in projects from the early 18th century through the 1840s, but we do try and keep the 19th century sewing above stairs and out of the public eye if we can help it, and it doesn’t happen very often. We interpret western fashion from roughly 1774 – 1782 in the shop, and the pieces on display all help tell that story. The clothing we make is not limited to Virginian dress either, as with the lack of primary resources that highlight Virginian women’s dress, we wouldn’t have that much to make. So we have a broader reach in our production, looking at clothing in the USA, England, France, and I’ve even taken a study trip to Sweden.  The variety of skills and techniques that we’ve seen from Western Women’s clothing in the 18th century has raised a lot of questions for us, and by reaching out beyond our borders we are hoping to find the answers to better understand the women who practiced our trade, what they did the same and what they did differently.
4. What is the knowledge produced?
                To continue what I stated above, our goal is to better understand the trades of 18th century millinery and mantua-making, and through the study of these trades gain a grounded and well-rounded understanding of 18th century society and culture as a whole.  From a practical perspective, we also figure out how to make the variety of objects that were worn by our ancestors to such a degree that we are able to educate the public through our interpretation and hands-on workshops.
                De-bunking mythology is another goal of our shop. My personal research has been focused in 18th century hairdressing and hair care, and a lot of mythology around hair hygiene I’ve been able to debunk through the careful study of primary documentation and experimental archeology. For example, the pomades and powders that were used in hair dressing did not ‘stink’ of bacon or mutton, but instead were cleaned of all animal scent and then heavily scented with essences and essential oils which results in clean smelling and fragrant hair.
5. How does it take shape in material form?
                It takes shape by the objects we make and the clothing we wear. All the objects that are displayed in our shop (that are textile/fashion related) we have made, by hand, in the same manner and techniques that were done in the period. We make the clothing we wear in the shop, and we are able to help others create their own 18th century clothing through hands-on workshops where we teach the skills and techniques of the milliner and mantua-maker.
6. Are there problems with your space?
                Probably only that which can be expected; it’s too small at times for all of us, the public, and all of our things. With that being said though, there is nothing better than sitting at that work board on a brisk cold sunny morning with a warm cup of coffee looking out onto Duke of Gloucester St.

7. How does this affect your work/knowledge production?
                It’s the struggle of the trades person, regardless, I believe, of what shop you are in. Customer service comes first, and if that means putting down our project to answer a question, regardless of that project’s deadline, that is what you do as a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter. 18th century milliners and mantua-makers could, and did, work in more private and quiet settings. So their productivity was no doubt larger than ours, but it’s just how the job is. Another issue is the ability to research as a result of staffing shortages or project demands. There is a lot of juggling that comes with this job, and one of the biggest challenges for a new apprentice to face is figuring out how to handle all the different demands and responsibilities of working in a trade shop. Though, I have to say, I am never, ever, bored.

8. What lead you to do the work you do?
                All of us who work in this shop will answer this question differently, but I am only going to speak in regards to myself in this case, so please keep that in mind when reading this. I qualify myself as a Dress Historian who makes the clothing she studies. I’m not a re-enactor nor am I a costumer. As an undergraduate studying Art History, History, and Theatre, I was and always had been very interested in historic clothing and fashion. Between my junior and senior years of undergrad I spent a summer working in the Margaret Hunter Millinery shop 4 days a week and 1 day a week with Linda Baumgarten the Head Curator of Dress and Textiles at Colonial Williamsburg. The hands-on and sort of trifecta approach (studying, making, wearing) to studying 18th century dress in the millinery shop had a very strong draw for me as an academic. The practice of being able to make and wear the clothing I study has given me a deeply intimate knowledge of the clothing and a better understanding of the culture and its people. Working for Colonial Williamsburg, in my opinion, is the best place to study 18th century women’s dress in the way I wanted to study it.

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