Thursday, 7 December 2017

Who Am I? Persona development and research in Living History

I have always thought this was an important and very loaded question. Important, because it shapes who we portray when 'in the field' at events. Loaded, because we can address tricky aspects of our shared history, or, make such a mess of them that we can be thought of as racist.

Ask yourself who are you.

If you're a soldier, that's easy, you wear what you are told to wear by your unit, you do what you're told to do...

Easy, right? If you answered yes, then this article may not be for you at this juncture in your living history career. Tuck it away for another date.

For the rest of us, being told what to do and how to dress just isn't an option. If our bodies prevent us from being a line soldier, either through extreme gender shapes, or any other reasons, we might have to look at other options. If we live nowhere near a military installation or unit, being a soldier might not be an option. If we are getting a bit too old for that sort of profession, it may be a good time to look at other options.
So who are you?

I've often said that the easiest personas to portray are ones that are close to our own modern lives.  When you break down who we are to the basic ideas, we are business people, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, children, our ethnicity comes into play in a huge way for most of us. Are we religious? If so, what sort? Are we alone, raising a family through death or divorce?

These are all easy questions to answer and give a good groundwork for persona development.

So I will give you my persona as a case study so that you may use it as a guide to help you in yours. First off, my body is overtly feminine, so I dress as a woman. I would look like a very silly shaped man, and I am really femme, so this wasn't something that entered into my thought process. I am feminine. I am also a wife, a mother whose children are grown. I am a military wife too. This all speaks to my social standing in the world, how much money or class level I'd be in, what social roles I portray. I am an artist and craftsman, I am intellectual and work with my hands. I also come from a very Catholic upbringing, and still hold to many of the tenants of that religion. I come from the Gaelic culture.

Ok, if you know me, you can picture me in your mind's eye.

Now picture me in eighteenth-century clothes.

I am a soldiers (sailor's) wife of a certain age. I dress in middling class clothing, wool, linen. I wear many petticoats, stays, a gown, maybe a shortgown (jacket), and I dress modestly. I make clothing for people, and am often seen making or repairing the clothing of the clothes of the people in my group, or military units near me. My clothes may be old, but are in good repair.
And something you might not know about the Gaelic culture if you didn't grow up in it, we all tend to appear stand-offish, but love to be around people. We don't make eye contact, or like to be touched, but love to let loose with our friends with music and good cheer.

So who is my persona? I've just told you. I may change it up a tiny bit, to accommodate the event we are attending. At Louisbourg, I am fresh off the boat, waiting on a land grant so that I can set up house before the next sailing season, I might run a tavern to make a little bit extra money. At Ticonderoga, I am a Loyalist woman, walking to Canada, depending on the event...if the Americans are in power at the Fort, I am a spy, down from Canada with my Mohawk husband. If in later years of the war, we may be straight up Americans looking to supply the Fort with provisions. If I am in Annapolis Royal, I am a Loyalist again, travelling with the military from New York or Charlestown, waiting on a land grant in the Valley, I hear there's good farmland to be had.
I am always a Gaelic woman of a certain age, with a husband who may have seen military service. I am middle class, no higher. My clothes may get dirty, but will always be in decent repair.

Now that I have given you my case study, my persona, ask those questions of yourself. And then start doing some research. What would you wear, what would you own. Create a research binder to help you keep track of all these ideas in your head. Please don't fall into the trap of copying another, fellow re-enactor. Doing that results in a badly played game of telephone, and causes 'fashion trends' in the profession that may not have actually been fashionable in the period.

Look at a lot of art! If you are lower or middling sorts, look at Hogarth, Sandby, avoid oil paintings featuring ladies and gents in fancy silks or velvets unless you are of the upper sorts. Hogarth and Sandby tend to be genre painters, every day folk in morality lessons. Portraiture holds a whole other layer of semiotics that you have to be aware of. It's a good place to start developing your eye though, telling your mind what you should look like...that can be vastly different from what your modern eye thinks you should look like.
Read books, not just the history of the period, but also the material culture and clothes. Read newspapers of the period, what was available at the shops? What were the runaways wearing and stole?

It tends to be far less expensive and much less frustrating, if we all start with who we are and work from there. Then we can make or buy only what we need, and not make costly and frustrating mistakes along the way...I'm not the only one with a closet full of silk gowns I'll never wear again in their current state. They will eventually get repurposed into modern garments, because I get dressed up for the Mess once a month, something my 18thC persona would never do. That's a lot of $40/metre silk I really didn't need to buy.  It's pretty, but really...

As I begin to develop my own research binder to present for my comprehensive exam in research/creation, I hope you'll all start one too.

Start by asking the question, who am I?

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Maker vs. Craftsman: Why the Material in Materiality Should Matter

I'm not sure why, exactly, the tech industry has co-opted the term 'maker'. Maybe it's because they are finally realizing that Western society is growing weary of the unsustainable, throw-away culture of the late 80s through 2000s. Maybe they realize they can't easily pawn the newest IPhone scam so readily...
Those long line-up days are dwindling.
I'm still not entirely sure tech understands craftsmanship though, given a few conversations I've listened in on the past few weeks. Sure they understand making, but not the heartbreak that comes with honing one's craft, for years at a time, making mistakes, understanding the benefits of quality materials that can make a quality end product.

If it doesn't work, they'll fix 'it' in the next update.

And that has me wondering if many regular folk understand the need for quality materials.

Two summers ago, I embroidered a stomacher for a friend's wedding. A stomacher is the triangular shaped part of the bodice of an 18thC gown that covers the breast and belly. Her gown was silk, it called for an embroidered stomacher, and she was feeling in over her head.

She sent me the kit she bought...

When I sat down to begin, I read over the instructions to see if there were any differences between them and what I had planned to do. Ok, there were a few, but nothing major. But when I pulled out the thread to begin stitching, I realized that what had been enclosed with the kit was nothing like what the instructions called for. I'm pretty sure my friend bought the kit as a whole, threads included, as she is not an embroiderer, and would have asked me what I wanted to stitch with. When I looked at the kit again, I was glad she didn't attempt it, as she would have been spectacularly frustrated. The kit instructions called for stranded floss, what was included was silk sewing thread.

Now, I know what I'm doing with embroidery and could make it work. The stomacher was embroidered, built, and sent down to her with enough tome for it to sit with her gown for a couple of weeks before the wedding. I'm happy with it, I think I did a good job.

But not having stranded floss meant that there's not a lot of shading to the flowers. Sewing thread cannot be divided into smaller strands, to be blended with other colours like stranded floss can. So the flowers are a bit blocky.
Am I making sense?
My current embroidery project is entirely my own devising. I'm using linen as the ground, and silk floss for the embroidery. I designed the pattern based on extant pieces. The embroidery itself has shading, because of the stranded floss I have. I'm really enjoying the project and can't wait to see it finished, I'm really proud of it, and will include the process in my studio exam coming up in the Spring.

Currently my reading has been about how we can use the creation process in our research. It's a bit like preaching to the choir, as that is how I work out how things were made in history, by making them. But it's really nice to see philosophy to back up what I have done my whole career. Making samples, full sized projects, writing about what I've done, looking at how my reproduction differs from the extant, make another, test the theory, and then watch the thing as someone wears or uses it.
A Forbes article from last year describes this process as 'Learning through doing', "this learning technique was used heavily by craftsmen to train their apprentices. It was a perfect fusion of do-it-yourself wherewithal and immersion learning"(Craig, 2015). The author laments that this form of education has been transitioned into a method that is more formalized in the way we learn in mainstream academia. I'm wondering if the tech world is simply laying out their trial and error process, with the culture of updates and patches to fix the tech they sell, for all to see. Something that craftsmen of the past kept hidden from the public through the apprenticeship process.

And maybe that's really a good thing.

Why yes, I can roughly draft out garment shaped directly to cloth, it comes from my years of training. I know the shape of the pieces almost by heart, I know where the measurements need to be laid out. I'm sure that many of your grandmothers could do this too, having had a similar experience of time, and learning from mistakes that you never saw. This does not mean that what I do it 'easy' or less valuable. There are things that you do that I struggle, tech.

So maybe what I'm really getting around to is, try that thing that you want to make, but don't expect it to be perfect that first try. And maybe, just maybe, think about how much your time is worth before trying to undersell that craftsman you want to buy that product from. Could you really afford to spend your time perfecting that craft enough to make that beautiful thing?

Think about the actual time spent in learning that skill.

We all deserve to live comfortable lives, to be able to pay our bills, to buy groceries. Everyone's craftsmanship has time behind it.


Chachra, Debbie. 2015. "Why I am Not a Maker: When Tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others." The Atlantic, January 23: 6.

Craig, William. 2015. "What is 'Maker Culture,' And How Can You Put It To Work?" Forbes: Entrepreneurs, February 27: 4.

Friday, 13 October 2017

the material culture of pickled beets

The last couple of years, I have been canning in a bigger way than much of my adult life.  A lot of this is due to me not having a full time job. When I was working, this would be a very busy time for me, as I took in all the historical costumes that had been issued out for the year. I would be basting kilts, mending dresses, more laundry than I could shake a stick at.

I'd come home in the evenings exhausted.

When I was working full time, we ate a lot of quickly cooked meals, usually while snarfing a loaf of bread due to our 'very busy lives' and not eating well during the day. I've noticed that since I've been home, more or less full time, between classes and such, we've begun to eat far more healthily. And I've begun to can my own preserves.
This was something my mum taught me how to do when I was a kid. It was always cheaper to buy things in bulk and make our own, and we grew up poor. Our freezer and can cupboard got a work out. Spaghetti sauce, chili, this thing with ground beef, tomatoes, spices and rice, and canned goods were mostly of the fruit and vegetable kind. As I got older, and we were able to visit the farmer's market, I just made more and more. Moving here, with the market less than a kilometre's walk, I can a lot.

I understand how privileged I am to live in a place where the hundred mile diet is a reality, and it's actually far cheaper to can my own stuff than to buy from the grocery store. There's no such thing as a food desert in the Montreal region.

Today, as I processed 15lbs of beets for the winter, I was thinking about how privileged I am to be able to can goods in this century as opposed to the eighteenth century. Things that I take for granted today are many. So I thought I'd write about my morning, and compare it to the daily chores of my eighteenth-century counterpart.
I started the laundry, in a machine, where I could control the heat of the water, and whether is was given an extra wash cycle or not. I could also just pour in the detergent, not having to make my own. I buy that in bulk too, and thanks to very modern ideas on skin sensitivities, that detergent is dye, scent, and many 'p' words free. I sorted the darks first, because Pierre is getting short on undershorts. These happily went on their washing way while I went back upstairs. My work on that task done for the moment.
I then set my beets on to boil. There was no drawing of water from the well, I simply poured water in from the tap to cover. I'm also on 'city water' so there's no worry about my well running dry at the moment. There was also no lighting a fire under the pot either, I simply turned a knob to the desired temperature. While the beets boiled, and the laundry churned, I drank coffee and knit, and listened to a podcast of a lecture from Yale university.

Think about that for a moment...

My coffee came from a machine that automatically turns itself on in the morning, and makes the exact same pot of coffee every morning. In the Montreal region, I was able to listen to a lecture on the American Revolution from Yale University, several hundred kilometres away. I was able to sit and knit while all of this was going on around me. Chores that each would have taken days to do by hand.

Then as I was processing my beets, I realized that a simple thing like the jars and snap lids I use are different from those used in the eighteenth century. Snap Lids! That one invention alone has made home canning so much safer than even 150 years ago! Probably even just 75 years ago. My grandmother still would fill the top half inch of her jars with wax before sealing with the lid, and there was no boiling the product after it was canned to further seal it in the pressure canner. It was more like do the best you can, and then hope for the best. In the eighteenth century, things were processed differently, and a pickle, like my beets would have been stored in a crock with a wax seal. But more to the point, most of my processing work is peeling the little beets. I don't have to make the sugar, I don't even have to scrape it from a cone. I pour it from a bag into the saucepan. I pour my vinegar from a big jug I also bought at the store. No making my own vinegar or verjuice either.
In between, I wipe down the kitchen periodically with clean, white paper towel to keep the dust and condensation down. I change the laundry over to the dryer, start a new load. And I continue to listen to the next lecture from Yale in the que on my iPad.

All in all, I've had a busy day. But my morning's work would have taken a week to do in the eighteenth century. I also can because we like the taste and texture of my beets over those bought in the grocery. It's cheaper, tastier, and gives me a sense of accomplishment. I'm not canning to preserve the harvest, worrying about whether we will have enough to eat in March and April...though it is a running joke in our house whether we will run out before next fall and have to resort to eating store bought.
And I can look in the cupboard and think that if we are posted and move before the end of the winter, I can take everything with me. Unlike many Loyalist women, I don't have to leave my hard work to someone else to find.

Yale lectures on the American Revolution: 'Who were the Loyalists

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

striving for the common, Authenticity? or Historical Accuracy? Which term is best used?

I have done my time making pretty dresses to wear to make me feel pretty. I think many young women go through that phase. I have a closet full of silk gowns that I will never wear again, that will become evening wear eventually, to be worn at the mess. Right now, I'm far more focused on the common woman, what she wore, how she worked.

Why? Mostly because standing around looking pretty in a silk gown bores the life out of me. At an event, even more so. I can't even knit in a silk gown. Standing around looking pretty is all you can do, and that smacks of patriarchy to me.

Our historical personas achieve far more accuracy when we don't fall far from our actual lives. The white lie we tell while in historic dress is far more easy to keep track of when it's our actual life, but in a historical setting. My persona is a loyalist woman, married to a man who may have once been in the military, he certainly has that aire about him, he may have been a sailor at one's best not to ask him, just let him sit by the fire and make coffee. After a drink or two at the evening tavern, he may open up a bit more about his past. Me? I watch people and knit socks, or repair clothing items brought to me. I dress in fairly common clothing, I'm not afraid to get them dirty. I sit on the ground, or a tree stump, or a box. I drink beer.

This is my actual life, as well as my historical life. Not that difficult to keep track of.

In my modern life, I am watching how people move about their days because I was taught to be a people watcher. I'm also writing a PhD in the humanities, which is a department that is all watching how people interact, with society and with each other. My focus is on the living history community, on living history programs at museums and historic sites, and the clothes we wear while performing those programs. I enjoy looking at the why behind the clothes we wear, who we are and what our influences are play a large role in what we wear.

So where am I going with this?

Well, there's also a huge debate over how problematic the term 'authenticity' is, especially with regards to how it is used in regard to living history. I struggle with it, because we are not, could never be 'authentic' eighteenth-century people, we live in the post-post-modern age. We are influenced by things that were unheard of in the eighteenth century, and we cannot possibly know what it would feel like to be those people, as we have not lived those experiences. Even the current refuges crossing the border into Canada at the same point as their eighteenth-century counterparts have had different experiences. They drive to the point of crossing, they carry tiny computers in their pockets that allow them to stay in contact with the world, and there's nobody currently shooting at them, or hunting them through the 'frontier' of New York state. Once they arrive here, they are treated with a semblance of respect as they are 'processed'. A far bit different than the eighteenth-century loyalist following the same route. I can study the two situations, using one to help me to better understand the other. But that's as far as it can go, really. Hoping for a better understanding.

And it's that hope for a better understanding that sets many 'progressive' living historians apart from the run of the mill re-enactor. Artur Hazelius (1833-1901), who founded one of the very first living history programs in the world, Skansen open air museum, Sweden, "believed that material culture could be understood only in terms of its cultural environment" (Anderson, 1986, p19). As progressive living historians, we strive for better understanding through the use of material culture within the context of it's cultural environment. We aren't in search of simple 'fun', rather, we find the fun in understanding our forebears more through the making and use of that material culture in those environments. We are passionate about it. Recently, on a Facebook conversation, it was noted, "if any event deserves to be portrayed with respect shown to historical accuracy, with participants showing up dressed and equipped correctly and no liberties taken, surely this should be one of them" (name withheld to protect the conversation participants*). I believe that each and every event held at a museum or historic site deserves this level of attention. Our understanding of the lives lived, and possibly lost, deserves that kind of respect.

To think otherwise, shows a complete lack of respect, honestly. If ignorance of the law is frowned upon in modern society, ignorance of history within the living history community should be frowned upon as well, especially if you are invited to attend a living history event by a museum or historic site. Don't get me wrong, an event announcement 'is' an invitation to participate, and so, should be considered with respect. When you walk on site, you represent the museum or historic site, and so should strive to put your best foot forward with regards to the material culture you wear and bring with you. Everything. If it is not historically accurate, to the very best of your ability, leave it at home, or maybe find a private event to bring it to.

We have collectively learned so much about historical material culture in the past 30 years, there really is no excuse.

*There have been quite a few Facebook conversations over the past week with regards to levels of historical accuracy of kit being seen at living history events this year. Each and every event deserves the same level of accuracy as the one considered with this quote. The person speaking, summed up my thoughts on all the conversations I was privy to. It's been a frustrating week in my head, as I formulate my thoughts into a cohesive argument. We will never be authentic eighteenth century people, but we can, and should, strive for historical accuracy so that we can better understand those people who came before us.


Anderson, Jay; Time Machines: The World of Living History; American Association for State and Local History, Nashville 1986

Monday, 2 October 2017

Not simply going for a walk

This summer, I have been desperate to get on with some living history.  Pierre and I day tripped over to Prescott Ontario for the event there, and met some great folks, but it wasn’t enough. I’ve had too much thinking going on in my head and needed to make some sense of it. Back in August, I thought about making a trek, from Saint Jean to Fort Chambly. I mentioned it to Pierre and then started planning.

The route we would take followed the mighty Richelieu River, the same path that the Loyalists would take during the American Revolution. This, coincidently, is a similar path taken today, by displaced Haitians coming into Canada looking for safety from the current administration in the US. All of these folks are coming up the Champlain valley to the Richelieu. In 1777, those Loyalist refugees were then marched up to Sorel on the Saint Lawrence, and then shipped east and west and out of Quebec.

We are being much nicer to the current refugees.

Pierre talked us out of doing a full 20kms walk, and instead we began our trek at the north end of Ilse Fryer, where there is a lock bridge on the canal. Friends from Nova Scotia and Ontario joined us in our little excursion, Joy and Ted McSwain, and Lynn Griffiths, respectively. We all spent the month and a bit thinking about what we, as Loyalists fleeing from the lower colonies, would bring with us. I set up a Facebook group to plot our thoughts and to include those who couldn’t join us in the endeavour. With friend Kate Waller joining us in the research from her library in New Brunswick, we spent a lot of time thinking about the material culture brought to Canada by Loyalist settlers. As we would be walking, without a cart or wagon, we needed to determine what we could carry on our backs.
The day of the trek got closer, and my main concerns were shoes, and the heat, as we were in the midst of a late summer heat wave. But I was excited.
Our friends arrived on Friday afternoon and we started packing our gear. In total, it took us about an hour to find things we wanted to take with us from various hiding holes around the house, and pack it up for the journey the next day. It was important for me to time this part of the exercise as well, as many people in the period, left their homes in a hurry, some with only the clothes on their backs, others with a bit more warning. Pierre and I each carried a blanket, rolled up like a soldier would carry. Then, in our pack basket and snap sack, we packed my china tea set, two changes of body linens and socks, my sewing kit, my knitting bag, two small copper boilers which held our redware mugs, food and water. My plan to use the wooden cask didn’t work because it didn’t swell enough to be water tight. Instead, I filled a plastic water bottle and we packed it in the snap sack surrounded by Pierre’s extra shirts so you couldn’t see the outline. Pierre carried the basket, which weighed 28lbs, I carried the snap sack which weighed 12lbs. With gear on though, he weighed close to 38lbs and I tucked in just shy of 30lbs extra from our modern clothing. Lynn carried a similar weight to Pierre, she had with her a set of pewter spoons, her most valuable possession. Joy and Ted had smaller bundles tied up in market wallets and their bed rolls. Ted carried a non-functioning musket, borrowed for the day from a gentleman in New Brunswick, to represent the type of weapon he would have carried in the era. Pierre’s weapons of choice were his sailor’s walking stick, boarding axe, and a knife.
starting off, 20kms/hour, HA!

We set off, following the canal path about 10am. I was trying to regulate my breathing, as I was tightly laced in my stays. Joy wore her lightly boned jumps, which are similar to her stays, but with very little boning. Lynn wore stays as well, but was a ‘loose woman’, meaning, she didn’t lace them very tightly at all. My gown won’t fit me unless I am tightly laced. Joy’s gown has a bit more flexibility. Lynn wore a bedgown, which is a very loose garment, cut in a T shape and worn as ‘undress’ for working in, similar to our modern sweats. Pierre and Ted both wore breeches, waistcoats, and work jackets. Pierre had on his 18thC shoes and stockings, Ted wore modern boots with knee high gaiters to disguise them, as his historical shoes are really painful to wear. Joy and Lynn both had on their historical 1.5” heeled shoes, where-as mine were common flat shoes of the period with just a half inch heel.
We were all able to keep up a good pace of walking. Here are Pierre’s stats for the day:
Total distance walked 9.71km.
Walking time, excluding breaks 2h 23min.
Total time 3h 35min.
Average speed 4km/hour.
The last kilometre was the toughest, as I had developed blisters on the balls of my feet, and Joy was having issues keeping her ankles straight as she was getting tired. Pierre and Lynn walked on ahead so that they could then drive back and get our other vehicle at the starting point. Ted stayed with us as we made our way slowly into Fort Chambly.

walking into Chambly

Things that we learned along the way…
We could, and will do this again, possibly next year. The Loyalists would have probably also walked about 10kms a day as well, as gleaned from various snippets of sources, though if pressed, they would have walked longer. They were in a ‘walk or die’ situation at times, we were not. They may have been hunted by rebel gangs, indigenous warriors, and quite possibly militia groups as well, as the corridor along the Champlain valley was hotly contested during the war. Those Loyalists would have had a further 5-6 days walk on to Sorel, after a more than 10 day walk from their original starting point.
We stopped for breaks, but not long. We sipped water, but didn’t drink the whole 4 litres I brought, possibly only about a litre between the five of us. We only ate an apple each, and didn’t touch any of the food we brought until we got home afterwards. That’s what we had for supper that night.

a quick break

a quick rest

We were tired and sore, but not overwhelmingly so. This surprised me, given the age of our group. I was the youngest at 46, Joy, Ted, and Lynn are all old enough to be my parents. I’ve also been sitting in a chair for the last two years, and not exercising much at all.
The snap sack was great for carrying the water jug, but through my body out of alignment, so my hips have been sore. I doubt I would have felt the weight, had I been carrying it on my back in a pack basket instead of on my side. We will be looking at different ways of carrying water over the next few months, and switching out to more period appropriate water containers to each carry, instead of one person carrying all the water. What we had worked in a pinch though, and we didn’t have to remove the jug from the sack to pour water, so that didn’t ruin the vibe.
Pierre and Ted will be getting new shoes soon. Pierre was walking on the ends of his heel nails by the mid-point of the day. We discovered that he’s worn off one complete layer of the heel. He was surprised his feet didn’t hurt more though, as he was without his modern orthotic insoles as well. Joy may look into a shoe with a wider heel. She was wearing American Duchess shoes, and was doing quite well, but more stability is required.
I need to properly dress my hair to give my silk bonnet something to purchase on. My hair was fairly flat to my head, and the bonnet slipped forward a lot of the day and was annoying. I’d also like to line my bedgown in cotton or linen, so that I can wear it as an extra layer for warmth. I had it with me, but didn’t use it. Lynn brought her short cloak, but was trying to figure out how she could wear it with her pack basket and still have it as a usable garment. She decided to pack it as well, and went without. It was only about 15C during our trek, and a bit chilly when we stopped moving. I ended up putting on and taking off my knitted mitts several times through the day.
So, for winter projects, we will be looking into shoes, finishing off some unfinished kit, like my bedgown, Pierre’s new frock coat, building water containers. We will also be getting Pierre’s new prescription put into his glasses, so that he can wear them for a full day without giving himself a migraine. I’m also interested in buying my own copper kettle, as the ones we brought with us were borrowed from our friends Jenny and Jayar Milligan. I will also be thinking about weaving proper, historically accurate wool blankets, and building a second pack basket, possibly from the grape vines in the back yard.

And getting into shape for next year, where-ever that may be.
South bound view of North bound Pierre and Kelly

Pierre sticking a bundled up sock under the strap of our snap sack

Kelly, Lynn, Joy, and Ted

The view we had of Pierre most of the day

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Are you a Maker?

Ah, material culture, isn't it wonderful? Look around your chair right now and examine how much material culture really clutters up our lives. I'm currently sitting at my computer in my office, the piles of material culture, books about material culture, samples of material culture, ugh, it overwhelms!
Now, look around yourself and think about how much of that material culture you have made, yourself. Me? There are four knitting samples, that's it. Sitting in my office, facing my computer, I can see just four little knitting samples that I have made myself. Behind me there's more, in the closet, but of ALL the material culture sitting in front of me, my hand has made just four little samples.

Think on that for a bit, go grab a coffee if you need to. Contemplate your coffee mug, where the beans came from to make your coffee.


I'm asking you these things because within the profession of Living History, there is an overwhelming feeling that we must make every piece of material culture we use. Every. Last Piece. And in the 'progressive' side of things, for many, we feel that every piece we make must be as perfect as we know how to make.

To this, I say hogwash!

I've been faced with overwhelming feelings of not being good enough of late. For various stupid reasons, I'm sure. I don't think I am alone in these feelings though, as I see random snippets of inadequacy (feelings, not founded in any factual thing) from time to time in my friends feeds on the book of faces. I'm writing this post to remind myself, but also to let you all know that you are not alone.

I have a theory that this 'can do EVERYTHING' attitude comes out of the whole 'homespun' propaganda put out during the American War for Independence, and then the early 19th century. I'm reading a book on the history of Pictou County Nova Scotia at the moment, written in the 19th century. In this book, the author goes on at length about how the Scots who settled there were completely self reliant, making all their own clothes from flax and wool produced on the farm. He informs us that most folk went without shoes, going barefoot in summer months and wearing moccasin-type footwear in winter months. Since the author hasn't cited any sources at all, it is an interesting read, but I have to wonder how much is being made up, 'tradition', if you will? How much of this narrative is actual fact? I have read enough newspaper ads from the period to know that in many small ports and communities in Nova Scotia, many types of goods and material culture were available for purchase, including cloth and shoes.
There are interesting snippets in this book though, worth following up through primary sources. And maybe, people were self reliant in some things. In the meantime though, I'm going to pish-noosh that little devil from my shoulder that's telling me that I have to make every last item of material culture I own, and that those items all need to be absolutely perfect. I'm going to drink my store-bought coffee from the mug that my friend Hugo made, that I paid for by making him a pair of breeches. I look forward to the flame-stitch piece from my friend Laura that I will stitch into a wallet for myself, knowing full well that I absolutely suck at counted work embroidery. I will probably make Laura a pair of stockings in return. I sold a pair of shoes to another friend, which the proceeds were then turned around to buy another pair of shoes from Burnley and Trowbridge. And while I am a weaver, I'm looking forward to buying the linen cloth to make Pierre a new shirt.
Even in the 18th century there was an economy of goods being traded and purchased. To think otherwise is foolhardy and crazy-making.

a snippet to follow up on...
January 1775 at Pictou
population: 23 men, 14 women, 21 boys, 20 girls (78 total)
produce raised: 269 bushels wheat, 13 rye, 56 peas, 36 barley, 100 oats, and 840lbs of flax
livestock: 13 oxen, 13 cows, 15 young neat cattle, 25 sheep, and 1 swine
manufactured: 17,000 feet of boards
Not all of that was to be used within the county, much of that lumber was for export. One wonders what sorts of goods the people of Pictou county imported?


"History of the County of Pictou, N.S.";

Sunday, 30 July 2017

an emersion day

We are planning a trek, from Fort Saint John at Saint-Jean sur Richelieu to Fort Chambly, about 20kms north on the river. We will be wearing our eighteenth-century clothes and packing what a Loyalist would have packed on a trip north to the Canadas.

Currently I am preparing my kit for the trip. This was something I had started doing for the possibility of going to Williamsburg this summer, but now with a focus of walking instead of town living. My shoes have been a long standing issue for me. Firstly, I want something that is historically correct. I wore ladies military oxfords for years, mostly because that was all you could get. I then bought Fugawees, and hated them, not for their look, but for the way they made my feet and legs hurt so much. That's the second issue I have been having with shoes, pain. I've now gone through two pair of Fugawee shoes, different styles, and can't say I've liked either pair. I won't be throwing more good money down that drain.

A couple of years ago I bought a pair from Loyalist Arms that have been great shoes. No pain at all really, and they are lovely to look at too. Unfortunately, my feet have spread again, and they've become too tight. Getting older sucks, but the alternative sucks more, so I will deal with the arthritis that comes with aging. It doesn't help much that I wear high heels almost exclusively.

So I'm now again on the hunt for shoes. Yesterday, we met a local shoemaker that could make me a pair of shoes in time for our hike at the end of September. We are going to drive up to his studio in a couple of weeks to meet him again, have him measure my foot, and pick out some leather for new shoes.

I'm excited!

Monday, 24 July 2017

A lot has happened in the past two months

That old adage, when one door closes, turn around and look for another door opening. I did not get to go to Williamsburg this summer, and that was for the best. Shortly after my last post, my mum ended up in hospital where they found her cancer had moved to the brain. She passed away on the 4th of July. I got one good month with her old personality before the cancer really took hold. She slipped away quickly, and I am very glad that I was home with her instead of 12 hours drive away.

I am slowly getting back on track with life, as you do after looking after someone for so long (she was sick for a year and a bit). This past week we have been going through our house in a sort of Spring cleaning, that we didn't get around to doing in the actual springtime.

One of those jobs was re-organizing the pantry.

I may not be an real farm wife, but I come from a long line of them. We live three blocks away from a farm stand that sells vegetables from about a 50kms radius, and the fruits and veg are incredibly inexpensive. At this time of year, I would normally be putting up my preserved foods. I was in hard working mode this time last year, starting with strawberries, then peaches, then the Fall fruits and vegetables. When I am feeling a bit stressed, the thing that will help calm my nerves is putting up groceries for the winter months. The year before, 2015-16, we ran out of a few things mid winter and I resorted to buying industrialized jams and pickled beets. These did not go over well with the family, so I made sure that last year, I put up enough.

My re-organizing of the pantry proved to me that I might have put up too much food last year! Now that there's just Pierre and I, there's a bit too much jam, and three flats of beets left. Since we may have another posting message this year, I will not be putting up and preserves so that what we have gets eaten up before we have to pack the house up again and move. I made a small batch of green tomato chow to use up my tomatoes from the dead plant we returned home to after the week in Nova Scotia, but that has to be it.

I have to be careful to not buy any produce that we won't eat up in a few days.

What I will be doing this year is making Christmas puddings and fruitcake. My recipes come from my grandmother Grant's "Wilman's" cookbook, printed in 1938. I would like one of each for Pierre and I here, but I also send some home to my brother Dane every year. This summer Dane also requested I send home a few more, so that his friend could have some for his table as well. That bit of work will keep me from wanting to preserve everything in sight.

And I have started back to knitting again, something I also haven't touched since my last post here. Life gets on.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Stockings, and an epiphany

A while back I wrote about how we should all be knitting. I have been focusing on knitting stockings mostly, because the stockings that are available commercially are really not great. I have been working on developing a pattern for knitted stockings that more closely resembles what was worn in the eighteenth century so that we can start to have our legs covered in something better than Jas. Townsend’s cotton tube socks with the modern, ribbed tops.  I wrote about the differences between modern stockings and the extant, historical stockings in museums. Two questions have been nagging me though, how do I knit that long, thin, very sexy gusset at the ankle, and how do I knit one in a contrasting colour to the body of the sock? These are two things that pop up in historical stockings, especially fine ones in silk. I have also been looking for a finer wool thread in order to knit a finer, dressier stocking, one that will also fit better in my lady’s shoe. This term, many of my classmates have been asking what I have been up to, what sort of art I have been making? And while I put on a mad rush to create the clothing that I would need if I was able to participate in Colonial Williamsburg summer internship program, my main focus has been knitting stockings. My general response when asked what I’ve been up to, is that I knit a lot of socks. I have gotten to the point that I can knit a pair of men’s work socks without a pattern, remembering where I am in the production just by looking at what I am knitting. So those questions above have been nagging me a bit.
After Christmas, Mum bought me several skeins of new yarn to play with. I Then bought Mathew Gnagy’s stocking pattern for a 16th-17th century stocking (Gnagy 2017). Those of you following along on my Facebook page have read about my trials over how to add a contrasting gusset using Mr. Gnagy’s method of knitting the gusset in a downwards method, adding stitches to increase the width as you knit, and shaping the foot through short rows under the instep. It was not pretty, so I ended up ‘frogging’, or ripping the knitting back and re-knitting the foot several times before I was happy with the stockings. They ended up being a solid colour, with just the clock decoration above the gusset being a different colour. They also ended up being too heavy a weight for my shoes, but not all was lost! I learned from knitting that pattern up, how to work a fancier ‘seam stitch’ up the back of the leg, and thought heavily about how to make that contrasting coloured gusset, knowing that this wasn’t the method. The stockings ended up being gifted to a good friend of ours who will wear them with an appropriate Tudor era outfit, and the red matches his shoes!

In the meantime, I knit up another pair of working stockings for Pierre in my favourite NSCAD yarn that my friend Lexie Arnott dyed for me using marigolds. I later over dyed them with onion skins as they proved to be a bit too 'glow in the dark', and I thought some more.

The third pair of stockings I started this term, I referenced from Sharon Burnston’s stocking pattern in Fitting and Proper (Burnston 2000, 100). The body of the stocking through to the gusset knit up beautifully in the fingerling yarn that mum had bought. I got to the gusset section though, and problems began. I thought that knitting up the heel flap, closing the heel, picking up the stitches for the gusset and then knitting in the round was the way to go. What I ended up with was a seriously misshapen foot and gusset. I put the stocking on, and realized that the leg was also far too large for me. Without a word to Pierre, who was sitting there next to me as we watched TV that evening, I frogged the entire stocking back to ball stage. He simply asked ‘Not happy?’ I nodded, I started over again the next day.

Casting on again the next day, I ended up putting on 135 stitches over 3 needles, 45/needle. I worked six rows of garter band, purling one row, knitting the next. I then knit for about an inch before starting to decrease for the leg. Following my own pattern, I decreased five times for the top of the leg before knitting in pattern again for the meaty part of the calf. I had just started decreasing again for the calf, when I stopped for a bit and knit up a couple of samples to work things out in my brain.

The first sample I knit up in leftover yarn from Pierre’s cammo socks, and it's not pretty, but it wasn't meant to be. I cast on enough stitches to closely resemble an ankle. After knitting in the round for several rows, I began knitting the heel flap. With this sample, I followed Sharon Burnston’s graph, knitting a row, then on the purl row, knitting the first two and last two stitches of the row to form the little ribbing down the edges of the heel flap. At the six inch mark, I began decreasing for the heel, knitting two stitches together on either side, about 10 stitches in from the edge. I finished the heel in a three needle bind off, but I’m not entirely happy with the little ridge this method causes. I may decrease for the heel, but leave the final stitches to be caught up in the gusset knitting.

Once the heel flap was complete, I picked up the stitches along the edges to knit the gusset. This proved problematic, as my edges are usually fairly tight, so picking up a stitch at every row was difficult (I fixed this in the second sample). I began knitting back and forth along the gusset from the top of the heel flap divide, to the other. This is called short row knitting, because you end up not knitting all the way to the end of each row, stopping and turning the work at the five stitch mark, then ten stitches from the end, then fifteen, and so on. My first sample is a bit nasty looking because I messed about with the number of decrease stitches, but also not having a proper edge to pick up stitches from the heel flap at every row.

Looking closely at the photos included in Burnston’s pattern (Burnston 2000, 101), you can see a nice firm edge to the heel flap as well, something I did not achieve with the first sample. I knit the vamp up to finish the sample to some extent, but I was already thinking of the second sample.

On the second sample, I worked a smaller heel flap, as I was more concerned with the edge between the gusset, heel flap, and front vamp.

The heel flap is knit up thusly,
First row: Slip one stitch knitwise, knit across.
Second row: Slip one stitch purlwise, knit two, purl to last three stitches, knit two, and purl one.
Repeating these two rows, the heel flap should be eight inches total, beginning the decrease for the heel at the six inch mark. I decreased for the heel on the knit rows only, the purl rows were just plain. Knitting the heel flap in this method gives you a stitch along the side of the heel flap to pick up at each row, and provides the nice little hard edge to the gusset that is noticed on the original.

Knit the gusset in short rows back and forth, keeping all the stitches on your needles, do not cast off at any point. Knit the gusset stitches back and forth from the top of the divide to the other. Begin to decrease at five stitch intervals, first row is five, then ten, then fifteen stitches from the edge. When you get to the end of each row, bring the yarn forward, slip the next stitch on to the working needle, bring the yarn back, and slip that stitch back on to the original needle, turn. Purl across, then do the yarn back, slip, yarn forward, slip back method, turn, and then knit. On the last row, I then knit up the side of the heel with the narrower gusset than the other side, so that I could start knitting the vamp.

The vamp is knit much like a heel flap, back and forth. On each knit row, I would pick up a stitch from the gusset on either side, and knit that stitch together with one from the vamp. The process went like this,
First row: slip first gusset stitch on to end of vamp needle, knit two together, knit to other side, slip stitch from other side of gusset on to end of vamp needle, then knitting those last two stitches together.
Second row: Purl one, knit two, purl to last three stitches, knit two, purl one. On this row, no stitches are picked up from the gusset.
The vamp is knit so that you are picking up gusset stitches from the knit rows only. This keeps from ‘gathering’ up the gusset as you knit and makes for a much smoother transition. The vamp is knit in this manner for 5 1/2”, then I went back to knitting in the round for the foot.

It is my belief that this is the method used to knit a contrasting gusset as seen in artwork (Styles 2008, 75) and some extant stockings from the period. In the first sample, I used scrap yarns, not really caring if they matched in weight or type of yarn. The second sample, I used one yarn throughout and knit up a much better sample. I think that if I were to dye a contrasting colour and use the same yarn type throughout the stocking, I will achieve the desired look I am after. I have returned to my stocking now, and will keep you abreast of future experimentation. So far, the stocking is working up nicely, and is looking like it will fit my leg much better than the first attempt.


Burnston, Sharon. 2000. Fitting and Proper, 18th century clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society. Scurlock Publishing Company.

Gnagy, Mathew. 2017. Seventeenth-Century Stocking with Brocaded Top. pdf, New York: self published.

Styles, John. 2008. Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

When the socks from Jas Townsend just won’t do anymore: Learning to knit period stockings

I learned to knit as a child. After about twenty rows of just the knit stitch I was bored, told my mum, “I know how to knit!” and left the unfinished object in a pile at the bottom of her knitting basket. I didn’t ask to learn again until I was an adult. When Mum taught me to crochet as a teenager, she handed me a hook, a ball of yarn, and a book of crochet patterns. She showed me how to get started and then told me to “figure it out”. I made pillows for my grandmothers that year for Christmas from the patterns and the giant ball of cotton yarn.

When I started working for historic sites, there were knitted projects that I wanted to do. I was not content to farm out the much needed items to knitters and risk being seen by my bosses as not working hard enough. So mum once again showed me how to cast on, how to purl, how to knit, and then left me to figure things out. That winter I started with the Victorian working woman’s shawl, the Sontag. I made five that year. Since then I have moved on to other projects, figuring things out as I go along. I have found that I learn better this way.

Since beginning this degree I have been knitting stockings. I started thinking things through a couple of years before this in my desire to have a better, more historically accurate stocking than what is currently available commercially. Especially for Pierre, since people see his socks more than mine, being hidden by petticoats. I started with a sock pattern from the 1940s to learn how to knit in the round, how much to cast on, and how to shape the sock. I frogged that sock a few times before I figured out how to do a proper eighteenth-century garter band instead of the ribbed top to modern socks. A modern sock top has a knit one, purl one stitch for ten or twelve rows to give an elastic top to the sock, an eighteenth-century sock top has alternating rows, usually about six, of knit and purl to form a non-elastic top that acts as a ridge to hold the sock garter from slipping off the top of the stocking. I knew the heel pattern was modern, but at that point, I was happy with the outcome. Pierre received two pair of white worsted stockings that year, he saved them for wearing with his historical midshipman’s uniform.

With mum’s diagnoses I have been pumping out stockings as fast as the needles will allow. I have developed that sock pattern to give me a stocking that I like the look of and that I can basically knit in my sleep. I have also changed the heel flap for a plain stocking-knit heel instead of the 1940s double knit. Pierre now has enough stockings to do about a week, and I have begun knitting socks for the other men in my extended re-enacting family. I have just recently found finer yarn and am attempting to knit finer socks for myself, finally. My pattern is good, but I am still not entirely happy with it. They are still far better than what is available at Jas Townsend or other commercial retailers. The heel on my pattern is still modern, in that I ‘turn’ it back and forth to knit the little pouch for the heel to sit in, and historical stockings don’t have those ‘turning’ stitches. The instep gusset is also different on historical stockings. A friend in New York has been working through seventeenth-century clothing in much the same way I have been working through the eighteenth-century. He has developed a stocking pattern that has the correct heel and instep gusset, albeit much more fancy than what I would need. So, a few weeks ago, I bought the pattern from him. I finished off the new pair of stockings I had on the needles for Pierre and pulled out some lovely merino stocking yarn mum had bought me for Christmas. I am not following Mathew Gnagy’s pattern perfectly. I used his casting on numbers, but have been knitting my own pattern up until the ankle point. His garter band was a brocaded band, whereas mine is plain. His back seam stitches are also far fancier than mine. At the last decrease, I returned to Mathew’s pattern.

At the same time, I have been reading about stockings, the materials used, colours, fashionable vs. plebeian stockings. John Styles Dress of the People (Styles 2008) is a lot to digest! On page 75 is a painting that I have looked at for years, John Collet’s Modern Love – The Elopement (Styles 2008, 75). I love the old woman’s ragged and patched petticoat, but Styles would have us also look at the ‘old hag’s stockings, grey with red clocks and gussets! O. M. G! In recent weeks friends have been discussing stockings, most especially their colours. A valued peer of mine is of the opinion that all stockings should be white, and while I agree that the majority of stockings I have seen are white, they are also made of ‘thread’, which could be linen or cotton. The stockings that I am reconstructing are in wool, and throughout Styles book he mentions that worsted stockings were also knit in colours, grey, brown, and other earth tones predominantly. Styles is also talking about common people, who scholars refer to as ‘plebeian’. My peer also lives in what was considered a big city in the eighteenth century, a fashion capitol so to speak. My theory is that stockings would have been predominantly white, but that other colours would have been seen on working men and women of the period. And then we have these fancy, two coloured stockings on a very common woman in the Elopement painting.

My new stockings are grey, I have a bucket of yarn downstairs, surely there is a good red in it somewhere. This week, not only am I learning a new style of heel and instep gusset, I am also learning how to knit with two colours, carrying threads, working a clock, and setting the second colour into the instep gusset ‘just right’. Figuring things out. This has been a stressful couple of weeks. Preparing for a trip to Colonial Williamsburg for the summer, the birth of a new grandchild almost a month early, Pierre travelling to Newfoundland to visit our daughter and me staying at home to hold down the fort, alongside my usual routine of reading all of the things and looking after mum. I knit to help deal with the stress. The challenge I have set out for my brain allows me to focus more. By the end of this experiment, not only will I have a new pair of stockings, I also hope to have a new pattern written up for historically accurate, plebeian stockings, maybe even with contrasting clocks and gussets.

My reading this week

Baumgarten, Linda. 1999. Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Burnston, Sharon. 2000. Fitting and Proper. Scurlock Publishing Company.

Gnagy, Mathew. 2017. Seventeenth-Century Stocking with Brocaded Top. New York, February 15.

Styles, John. 2008. Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. Yale University Press.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Images of the new gowns

 My 'old brown sacque', still looking fabulous after several years of use.

 The new pink gown that was in pieces and managed to stay together through the move to Montreal.

 Side view of the new pink gown, under construction at this point.

 Finished new pink gown.

 The back of the brand new grey striped gown.

 Full view of the grey striped gown, still under construction.

 A beautiful floral print, that I may someday be able to afford for a gown, sunday best.

Your ‘reading’ week was my ‘stitching’ week

Many students look at reading week as a week to get caught up on sleep, go on vacation with friends or family, or, if they are smart, get caught up on their reading for the term, maybe start the paper that’s due at the end of term. My reading week was spent making art. An important part of my academic process, for sure, but also a required part of my future plans. As I mentioned in my last post, I had planned on reading the theory this term, and then spending my spring creating the garments that I will need for my summer internship program. The ‘pre-approval’ requirement of each and every item I plan on taking to use and wear at Williamsburg put the kibosh to that plan. I cannot send photographs of folded yardage of cloth and tell them what I plan to do with the piece. I need to send them images of the garments, even if they are still under construction, firstly so they know that I am serious, but also, so they know that I know what I am doing.

Keeping this in mind, I began what will become the research binder on the first weekend of reading week. At the same time, I also cleaned up my studio, unpacking and repacking the boxes to go into storage. My studio is now finally a spare room, all my equipment is in storage. Anything that I will be making in the near future will be entirely hand sewn, so I don’t need a space for machines, and, we need the spare bedroom more. I managed to find all the bits that are part of my existing wardrobe, and all the pieces of a new gown that I started two years ago, but with the move to Montreal, didn’t finish. This is a feat, as the packers who moved our belongings to Montreal made a real mess of things, using my fabric as packing material. I thought that gown was a pipedream. Fortunately, I had folded all the bits together into a bundle, and they were all still together.

I began by sorting my clothing into piles. First, the pile of items that are good to wear as-is, those items went into one of my two camp baskets. In a second basket, I put the items that required mending or alteration to make them wearable. In this second basket, I also packed the bits of my newly found gown, under construction, a yardage of cotton, extra bits of linen lining, and a new yardage I picked up at the fabric store the weekend before. My plan was to finish all the mending and alterations, finish the half completed gown and possibly get the last gown started. My goal is to have three gowns and all the required underthings and accessories required to live week by week in Virginia with only having to do laundry once a week. A friend would be joining me for much of reading week, as she too needed a new gown. Lynn has sewn modern clothing for herself, but was intimidated by the process of sewing a historical gown by herself. Sewing together was good for both of us, as I had to keep us on track every day so that we would get the most amount of work accomplished, but also because I had to articulate to her, how to do each step of the process. We have different brain processes, so I was forced to show as well as explain to her what I was doing. I also needed to allow her to do the majority of the work on her own gown so that she would feel accomplished and understand what she was doing for the next time. By having Lynn work with me, we were able to work regular business hours, and managed to get most of the three gowns finished before she had to head back to work in Ottawa. My half-finished gown is now completely finished, my new gown is one full day’s work away from completion, and Lynn’s is about two days away from competition (at her work pace). Monday 27th February, I went back to my reading.

My plan now is to continue reading, finish the last bits of work I need to finish for my wardrobe on the weekends, and then have a copy of the research binder for both Williamsburg and to turn in to my fibres and materiality professor for a final term project. Questions that the Costume Approval Committee ask range from giving a brief description of the item and its intended use, primary source documentation, adaptations I have made from the original extant garments and why, and listing the textiles, notions, colours and construction techniques used (Foundation 2003). It will be a substantial piece of work when I am finished.

There are things that I have had to consider before and alongside simply creating clothing to wear. The main thought/question I have is how do I know what I know about the period I am recreating? In a recent facebook group discussion on clothing re-creation, I warned against copying fellow living historians (Gordon 2017). I told the new person that sometimes folks who have been doing this a while will make ‘something pretty’ because they want something pretty to wear. It is not based on primary source documentation, more that what they are doing comes from a more emotional side of things. It may, to the untrained eye, look like a perfect recreation of the period, but those who are in the know, will know, that the item is not ‘from the period’, but more a modern ‘fashion’ of the current era, inspired by the period. Confusing, right? So how do I know what I know, and how do I know if what I am doing is historically correct? This project is good for me, in that it will force me to document each and every decision I have made. There will be no ‘reverse documenting’, hoping that I can find sources for the decisions.  I will have to do the research and back up every choice before I begin the construction process.

My ‘old brown sacque’ is the first gown that I made entirely by hand for the 18th century. I used a brown linen twill that has a remarkable resemblance to a fine summer weight wool. A burn test was how I determined that it was not actually wool. I made the gown using a draped pattern of my body wearing stays, based on an extant sacque backed gown. I also looked at numerous paintings to see if a sacque would be worn by a common woman, or if it was a fashion reserved for those women who wear silk all day long. I took an educated guess to say yes, and went ahead and made the gown. I have been exceptionally pleased with how it turned out, and how it is wearing. For the past several years, it is the only gown I have worn, wearing it for days at a time at events, changing just my body linens daily. It is aired out on the line following the event and then hung back up until the next time it is needed. No, I have yet to wash the gown, and don’t plan to. As it is entirely constructed from natural fibres, it really doesn’t smell. When I began the ‘half finished’ gown, I wanted something a bit more ‘fashionable’ than a sacque, and so chose to construct an English backed gown, also known as en fourreau. The progression of the back of gowns transitions from the sacque, with the pleats hanging from the shoulders, to the en fourreau where those pleats are stitched down to just below the waistline, and spring out from the hips in a continuous piece from shoulder to hem. In my eye, being an older woman, this seemed to be a natural progression to something more fashionable. In the third quarter of the 18th century, younger women are wearing this more fitted back with a full front, pinned at centre front, and with a fully circular skirt, called a round gown. The transitional gown is fitted in the back, but open in the front and worn over a stomacher and matching or contrasting petticoat. The stomacher is a triangular stiffened piece that is pinned to the bodice front, over which the gown is pinned. This style of gown offers more flexibility in fit if your weight fluctuates, as mine does. The round gown is as it fits, so if you lose weight, you have overlap, which is not pretty, or the fronts don’t meet if you’ve gained weight, which is also not pretty. I am quite happy being a little old fashioned if it means the lines of my gown look nice. For me it is all about the cut, never about the decoration. And so, my second gown is cut en fourreau, more fashionable than the sacque, but still a bit old fashioned for 1780. I chose to make the gown from a striped pink and grey, cotton/linen blend. It will be a nice, serviceable gown. I will wear it with a matching stomacher, over a contrasting, solid grey linen petticoat.

The third gown, still under construction, is even more of a transition piece. It is based on an extant round gown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, accession number 1959-113-1. I have made some considered changes to my own inspired gown in both fabric and in a slight style difference. The original gown is in a grey striped cotton. My gown is in a grey striped, 100% linen fabric, the stripes being slightly smaller in scale. The original is a round gown, in that the centre fronts meet edge to edge, but the original gown also has the robings found on older, open, stomacher front gowns. The original’s construction makes it look like a stomacher gown with the full skirt of a round gown. As I mentioned above, my weight fluctuates, and will, living in Virginia summer heat, and so I have made my gown as a stomacher front, round gown.

I have chosen linen or linen blends for all of my gowns as linen is the most comfortable fibre to wear in the heat. Also, as all of these gowns are meant to be working gowns, I need something that will be hard wearing and simple. I could have chosen a floral cotton print as one of my gown materials, but I still feel that florals are more for special occasions, suited for my social class, but more in keeping for the Sunday best dress. I am also trying to keep my wardrobe within a tight budget. Linens and cotton/linen blends can be found at my local fabric store for under $20/metre, buying a cotton floral in an appropriate print could run upwards of $40/yard before duty and shipping to Canada. I can afford a $100 dress, not a $300 dress, and certainly will feel more comfortable if ‘heritage’ happens and I spill something on them or tear them through wearing.

My wardrobe will be rounded out with enough white linen shifts (the body linen layer) to do me a week, twill linen, half boned stays, a striped linen petticoat, a mustard linen petticoat, a brown stuff (to match my sacque) petticoat, a grey linen twill petticoat with a frill at the hem, edged in goose-turd green cotton tape, stomachers to match each gown, dainty linen caps, a straw flat bonnet, a black silk bonnet, stockings, pockets, neck handkerchiefs, sewing huswife, spectacles, and a bargello worked wallet. Also black leather shoes, and if there is enough time, a linen bedgown to wear as a ‘coat’ over my gowns if it rains, or as an upper body garment, worn with petticoats if I am going to be doing dirty work and want to keep my gowns clean. I will also have with me a couple of market wallets, one to fit my clothing in, and another to carry my accessories. I am also trying to decide whether to bring my very French coffee mug made of red clay dipped in green glaze, or buy a Virginian white clay mug while I’m there and try to blend in a bit more with the people around me. Trying to blend in with society was a big thing in this period.

My current reading list:

Cox, Abby. 2016. "Musings from the Millinery: Revealing the Truth About 18th-Century Women's Necklines." Colonial Williamsburg Historic Trades Blog - Making History Now. January 29. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Eacott, Jonathan P. 2012. "Making an Imperial Compromise: The Calico Acts, the Atlantic Colonies, and the Structure of the British Empire." The William and Mary Quarterly 731-762.

Foundation, Colonial Williamsburg. 2003. Costume Approval Form. proceedural and approval forms, Williamsburg Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Gordon, Tracy. 2017. "18th c sewing." Facebook. February 23. Accessed February 23, 2017.

Hagist, Don. N. 2016. Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls: Advertisements for Female Runaways in American Newspapers 1770-1780. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing.

Styles, John. 2007. The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Shit just got real: when your OCD scares the living tar out of you at the thought of ‘pre-approval’ of your clothing

This morning I received a note from Jay Howlett at Colonial Williamsburg, the gentleman I will be undertaking an internship with this summer. He was asking for photographs of my historical clothing so that he can have it pre-approved through their wardrobe before I arrive on site. This will allow for a smooth transition when my internship begins, and I can start right away in the program. I knew that I would need approval before being allowed to wear anything I brought with me, it is what I would expect if I was running the wardrobe department. After all, my clothing will be a reflection on their department, the site itself, as well as on my shoulders.

It was my plan to ‘read all the things’ this term, getting the theory of why I do what I do under my belt before embarking on a major art project of overhauling my wardrobe. That plan was tossed out with this morning’s bathwater as I replied to the request, “sure, I can get on that this week!”

“Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is a hallmark for many Americans with a hankering to experience the past. ‘When we were down there last January,’ writes Alicia Newcomb, ‘we were able to speak to some of the actors one on one. Most of them are actually historians or certified in some other way…I’ve been going there since I was a little girl” (cited in Weeks 2016, 5).

Williamsburg is such a hallmark, that professors in my very first undergraduate program held it up as the pinacle of interpretation. Students from the Costume Studies program at Dalhousie university have been sent there on interships for decades. It is finally my turn. Why is it that I am so freaked out about the notion of my clothing being ‘pre-approved’? A lot of it stems from the fact that my own clothing needs have often taken a back burner to those who are working the front lines of interpretation at the historic sites I have worked for. My job is to be behind the scenes, not to be seen by the public. When I am, it is often because I am filling in for another interpreter. This isn’t to say that my clothes are bad, they aren’t. It’s more that you don’t get to see the underlayers of my clothes, so shortcuts have been taken over the years in order to ‘be dressed’. My outermost layer is completely acceptable in my mind’s eye. The other layers I had wanted to spend the Spring months finessing in order for them to be acceptable as well. I also wanted to make a new, more fashionable dress than my older, slightly out of fashion sacque-backed gown. This week’s readings have allowed me to really think about what I wanted to do with my clothes, and what I feel needs fixing.

Frank Trentmann’s article, Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics (Trentmann 2009), informs us “The status of things has sparked a good deal of soul-searching that oscillates between fears that life is becoming dematerialized and a celebration of objects as ‘thought companions, as life companions”, he goes on to explain that “things today are shaking our fundamental understanding of subjectivity, agency, emotions, and the relations between humans and nonhumans” (Trentmann 2009, 284). Ideas that Trentmann wanted to explore considered materiality on three dimensions, the “essence of things, choice and practice, and material politics” (Trentmann 2009, 286). If I consider thes ideas with regards to my own materiality, and the things that I will bring with me to Virginia, it is, first of all, very important that I have ‘my own things’. What does this mean? Well, for my own comfort level, wearing my own clothing, articles of dress that I have chosen for myself, created for myself, will make me feel far more confident than if I am wearing ‘stock costume number 5’. I will not have to worry about whether I get it dirty, or how it fits and how I can move in it. They will be my clothes, made for my body. Unique to me. They will no longer be a costume, in essence, but are my clothes. I have chosen the fabrics to create the garments, and I am also chosing which garments I will create for my wardrobe. My art practice is the creation of historic dress for interpreters, I should look like I might know what I am doing. Then there is the political negotiating I will have to do to justify my reasons for creating the clothes I made, but also the accessories, the other things I will bring with me to do my job this summer as an interpretation intern.

When we start a new job, we choose what clothes we will wear, sometimes buying a new outfit for the first day, to make a good impression. We pack our briefcase with the items we will need from home to get us through the day comfortably, our favourite pens, a coffee mug, lunch bag, comfortable ‘indoor’ shoes, family photos to personalize our desks. I am having to consider all those things too, but with an eye to the historical. Will my favourite coffee mug, made by a local artisan based on archeaological finds here in Quebec, be acceptable for use in the Revolutionary city? Or is it completely out of cultural context? I will need an appropriate carrying bag to bring my things to and from work, my academic’s leather briefcase is modern, and not appropriate. Should I make a market wallet, or find an appropriate basket to bring? Which of these items will make packing and crossing an international border easier? But also, which one would be appropriate for my historical economic class? I will need to clean all the modern from my sewing housewife and re-spin my threads from their modern, plastic spools on to historically appropriate thread winders. I have sent my historical glasses frames off to be fixed and new lenses installed so that I will be able to see, but I now have to get on with the project of making a new case for them, as at the moment, they are carried to events in a very modern clamshell case, I pull them out of the case under the cover of a petticoat edge. If I have to justify every item of historical kit to Williamsburg’s material culture staff, the modernity I usually get away with just won’t fly. Trentmann reminds us that “Practices thus look beyond possessions. Instead of taking either object or individual as it’s starting point, research on practices focuses on how users, things, tools, competence, and desires are coordinated. This means that value is not based in a product or its meanings but in how it is put to use” (Trentmann 2009, 297). Trentmann tells us that both Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty saw the world as “woven into people’s bodies, identities, and actions. Things recruit us as much as we recruit them. And, in addition to highly visible objects, these include the hidden material networks, technologies, and relationships that shape everyday life” (Trentmann 2009, 300). I am having to really examine the minutae of my everyday life to see if I have all of the things I will need in my historical kit to just get through the day. It is far more than simply getting the outer layers of my costume correct, I have to embody the material culture of my eighteenth-century self.

In a recent online discussion over my eyeglass frames, we discussed how easy it is to fall into the living history trap that we are all expected to become ensnared in. As a progressive living historian, I cannot simply give Jas. Townsend, a walmart type merchant known for carrying all the material goods you might need, my credit card and buy the goods I need. As a progressive, my material culture needs are expected to be a higher caliber than what Townsend carries. So I am expected to make my own material culture. That idea is great in theory, but not what would have been expected of my historical counterpart any more than it is of my modern self. I bought my glasses frames. They aren’t perfect, but I am terrified to try to fix them on my own, that and my local optomitrist broke them while trying to insert new lenses. The way they will need fixing will require the skills of a jewler, a soldiering iron, and buffing tools. My mum may have been able to fix them for me, but she is not well enough, so off they were sent to an optrician in Halifax willing to do the job, as he has ‘fixed’ other historical frames for other progressive living historians. Hopefully, when they return in two months, the bridge piece will have more curve, the new lenses will be installed, and the tacky, modern ‘finish’ will be buffed off, leaving the look of the plain steel to weather through wearing. The piece of material culture that I can work on (the glasses case) to complete this important part of my kit has been researched and patterned, I just have to find the time to carry out the bargello embroidery and sew the piece together.

Shoes are another item that I cannot make myself. At Williamsburg, in a lot of the interiors, the interpretation staff wear slippers instead of their outside shoes. It helps cut down on the dust and dirt being carried inside. I completely wore out my slippers a few years ago, and have been ‘getting by’ with a pair of black canvas slip on shoes from somewhere in the Orient. They are modern, but most people don’t see them, as I only wear them in the evenings when the public is out of camp. This week I also sent home a tracing of my foot and the measurements needed to have a new pair of mules made by a shoemaker I have a great relationship with in Halifax. We have worked together making shoes for some of the historic sites over the years, and I know she will make a pair of mules that will live up to the progressive standards. In America, many progressives send away to the UK for shoes to be made by Sarah Juniper, but the American dollar is much closer to the Euro or the Pound. I just cannot justify close to $1000 for a pair of shoes, no matter how beautiful they are. That, and I’d rather give my business to someone more local to me, one of my peers in supplying historic sites with clothing and accoutrements.

These musings are to question whether I am engaging with ‘commodity fetishism’? Martha Rosler writes in Notes From the Field: Materiality, that this notion set forth by Marx “shapes our responses to much of the object world, and has its origins in the mode of production” (Rosler 2013, 11). We certainly are engaged in commodity fetishism if we are expected, as progressives, to recreate everything in our material culture baskets. It shouldn’t be expected of us as artists, or as consumers. I left that online conversation griping that I should be able to buy a historically correct pair of eyeglass frames, that require no tweaking, and that I should be able to take them to my local optomitrist to have lenses installed. Period. That I should not have to face the long noses of folks who would consider me ‘farb’ for not knowing how to do ‘all the things’ myself.

I will leave you with ideas I have also been facing with the concept of the gaze. Having also read Kate Haulman’s article Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia, I am also considering, as women in the period would have, how my clothes will speak for me as a person in society. Haulman states that, “Fashion could not only visually establish but also undermine social hierarchy in colonial cities” (Haulman 2005, 626). The article explains how different fashion choices, from clothing to hairstyles were adopted by both men and women in Revolutionary Philadelphia, and how people did not so readily give up those styles once the city was abandoned by the British to Colonial governance. Haulman suggests that fashion has far more to do with class hierarchy than with political leanings, and that fashion helped to establish hegemonic gender expressions as well as social standing and romantic entanglements. This article help reaffirm my own ideas on how we dressed in the eighteenth century had little to do with political or cultural leanings (French or British), and more to do with what people saw as ‘fashionable’, and wanting to be on top of that ‘fashionable’ game. I mentioned my ‘old brown sacque-backed gown’ above and in prior writings. I have always thought that an older fashion is more appropriate for an older woman, certainly in a more country setting, but I will be in a ‘big city’ in eighteenth-century standards, very near to Philadelphia the centre of the revolution, even by eighteenth-century standards of distance. I will not be on the ‘frontier’ of Canada, or even in ‘backwater’ Nova Scotia. I’m certain that even a woman of my age would have wanted a new, more fashionable dress if travelling to a new city, to start a new job…

So that is where my head is this week. In a blind panic thinking about all the things I need to have made, photographed, and approved. And I realize that I am running out of time.


Farb - is a derogatory term used in the hobby of historical re-enacting (living history) in reference to participants who are perceived to exhibit indifference to historical authenticity, either from a material-cultural standpoint or in action. It can also refer to the inauthentic materials used by those reenactors. (Wikipedia)


Haulman, Kate. 2005. "Fashion and the Culture Wars of Revolutionary Philadelphia." William and Mary Quarterly 625-662.

Rosler, Martha. 2013. "Notes From the Field: Materiality." The Art Bulletin 10-12.

Trentmann, Frank. 2009. "Materiality in the Future of History: Things, Practices, and Politics." Journal of British Studies 283-307.

Weeks, Linton. 2016. "NPR History Dept." January 21. Accessed February 3, 2017.