Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A new term, two classes left: Material Culture and Materiality

I'm in my final term of coursework. I have two directed studies, one on the material culture of the eighteenth century, the other on materiality and my own art practice. You may not first notice, but there is a lot of overlap, especially this week. Right now I am reading about what material culture studies is, what critical fashion studies should be, and a bit of deCerteau's Practices of Everyday Life thrown in for good measure.

Why do I do what I do? Why should it matter?

Jules David Prown, thought to be the father of Material Culture Theory, wrote about why the study of material culture is so important.

“Material culture is the study through artifacts of the beliefs – values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions – of a particular community or society at a given time. The term material culture is also frequently used to refer to artifacts themselves, to the body of material available for such study. Material culture is singular as a mode of cultural investigation in its use of objects as primary data, but in its scholarly purposes it can be considered a branch of cultural history or cultural anthropology. But the material of material culture is too diverse to constitute a single field. In practice it consists of subfields investigated by specialists – cultural geographers or historians of art, architecture, decorative arts, science, and technology.

Material culture as a study is based upon the obvious fact that the existence of a man-made object is concrete evidence of the presence of a human intelligence operating at the time of fabrication” (Prown 1982, 1).

Prown gave us a classification of objects that we study under the heading of material culture. He also explained why the things left to us are often more important than the words, due to the simple fact that throughout human history, we have been predominantly illiterate. Not only does Prown remind us of how objects are viewed, their inherent value, he asks us to question those implications of value through examining why the objects have remained, either through collection or through their materiality. He tells us that by using our senses instead of our minds to examine objects (rather than words), we are able to "get into the skins of individuals who commissioned, made, used, or enjoyed these objects"(Prown 1982, 5).

Two things struck me, both made me understand better why it is that I do what I do...making historical reproduction clothing to wear and use...

“The methodology of material culture aspires to the objectivity of scientific method, afford a proceedure for overcoming the distortions, it makes visable the otherwise invisable, unconscious biases of our own cultural perspective. Awareness of what one normally takes for granted occurs only in the forced confrontation with another norm” (Prown 1982, 5).

And most importantly...

“Cultural expression is not limited to things. But the techniques of material culture should be part of the tool kit of the well-equipped cultural scholar” (Prown 1982, 5).

A more recent article, written by Michael Yonan goes back to the roots of Prown's work to give us a better understanding of where material culture studies is today. Yonan still questions why the discipline of art history fights against techniques of material culture study, holding on to old notions of 'high' art, and 'craft', or 'low' art. Many feel this dichotomy is outdated. Yonan informs us

“Today material culture studies resists simple disciplinary classification; it exists instead as an interdisciplinary space within and among multiple academic categories, transcending even the larger academic division between humanities and the social sciences.

The result is a true transdiscipline in which a great diversity of objects, paired with a wide selection of interpretive modes, results in seemingly limitless potential for understanding things and what they might mean or have meant for different communities and individuals in specific settings” (Yonan 2011, 233).

This idea has certainly informed my own practice throughout my career. I have gone from thinking very discipline centric, in that I constructed clothing for the theater, using modern techniques, to quickly understanding that I needed a background in art history as well as fashion construction/theatre studies. Little did I realize at the end of the 1980s that there were others who sought out a more interdisciplinary approach. I looked at archaeological finds, the sociology of immigration and trade, religion, and also art history, all things that Joanne Entwistle would have us examine as fashion historians. When I realized that the techniques I was using to create clothing were not ones that would have been used in other historical time periods, I wanted to learn more. Construction methods, drafting methods, and then the study of cloth production were all important to my interdisciplinary approach.

Recently, I have begun to consider the agency of the things around me. The tools in my studio, what they allow me to create, but also the reproductions themselves. Am I using these objects in the manner they would have been used in the period I am studying? How would they have been regarded? Were they simply mundane, everyday objects, or did they hold value? How much value can we ascribe to a utilitarian object...if it wasn't there, how much would I miss it? I am also considering the motions I go through, throughout my day, throughout the yearly cycle. What do I need to help me live a better, easier life? What would my historical counterpart have needed?

These are questions I hope to have an answer to by the end of the semester. I'll be posting about breeches construction, shirt construction, and the like, but I will also be writing about the materiality of my practice. I hope I don't bore you all too much.


deCerteau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Entwistle, Joanne. 2000. The Fashioned Body: Fashion, Dress and Modern Social Theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Prown, Jules David. 1982. "Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method." Winterthur Portfolio 1-19.

Yonan, Michael. 2011. "Toward a Fusion of Art History and Material Culture Studies." West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 232-248.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

breeches, day two, part the second

Here we are again, finishing up for the day, as It's getting dark, and I don't sew after dark. This first photo is me pressing under the long 'slash' edge of the quarter circles, 1/2" seam allowance. I press each edge at a time, then a final press in its flat form.

Sandwiching the slashed edge between the layers of the quarter circle, I pin everything nicely ensuring that for most of this seam, the slashed edge has 1/2" seam allowance. The quarter circle's cut edge lines up with the top edge of your breeches and will be caught in the waistband later. The bottom will hang down below the slash, that's ok, it'll hang out inside the breeches front so much better once the Fall plackets are stitched in place. With the two layers of the quarter circle, and the slashed layer all sandwiched nicely, I use that felling stitch again to sew all layers at once. YES, at once! Work from the front side, not the lining, and use the fingers on your non dominant hand to feel when the needle is going through the back side. Try. If you find you don't catch the backside, that's ok, once you get to the bottom, just go back up the backside with little stitches until everything is stitched in place.

Once the inside fall's quarter circles are stitched in place, I lay everything flat and nicely on the table and then pin the bottom points of the placket in place.  Then using small stitches, I sew around the point and finally using a running back stitch, across the bottom point, catching everything underneath, including the quarter circles a bit.  Remember you've pinned everything flat, so once you sew, everything should be nicely in place and nailed down.

You could stop here and move on to the waistband and back sections of the breeches, but I'm a glutton for punishment ;-) and am going to make dog-ear pockets on these ones.  Tomorrow. Now, it is officially too dark, and I am out of brain.

breeches, day two, part the first

I realized that I'll have to break up today's sewing into a couple of posts so that I don't overwhelm you, and so that I don't get too far ahead of myself in trying to explain things.

Today I am starting by basting the Fall lining to the Fall itself so that it doesn't move around as I'm sewing.  You could pin it in place, but I really hate being stabbed multiple times as I'm trying to sew, so, I baste. It's the tailor in me I guess. I've also stitched down the Fall plackets to the front fall edges so that I know where to slash, how deep to slash, and also how high to stitch down the lining through the crotch.
Baste down the Centre Front (CF) seam, then the outside edges.
Here you can see that I've just sewn down to the point but not through it to the end of the piece.  This will help later as I press and turn the placket.

Once that first step of stitching down the placket is done, turn your work to the inside and stitch down the Fall lining through the crotch.  I turn under a 1/4" fold, pin, and then stitch with a little felling stitch again. Use a small needle, a single thread, and make your stitches about 1/8-1/4" long, picking up just the fold of the lining when you come through to this side. You can feel with your finger on the underside how big your stitches are.  Small and even is key.

Here is the inside stitched down, and the crotch folded up so you can see the stitches on the outside.  You 'could' machine this, if you're working on a pair for theatre, but for living history, take the couple of minutes extra and do this by hand. Trust me, you'll appreciate it later when you are trying to meet dress regs for your unit.

Here is when I slash into the fronts to make the Fall actually 'Fall'. The slash is straight, following my seam line and only going as far as the end of the seam for the placket, no further.

Now is where I deal with the Placket. Turn down the top edge and press, turn up the first part of the point, nearest the seam, and press, press up the remaining point and across the bottom edge. Then press the placket away from the front Fall.

Turn your work to the inside, and press the placket in place, folding and pressing that last long edge.  Pin everything in place.  I start sewing the top edge of the placket together, then down the long inside edge, then the bottom flat edge to the point. Stop there. You don't want to sew the point to the breeches front until you get the next steps done.

Using the slash as a guide, I now cut the front flaps that hang out inside the Fall. They are sometimes quarter circles, sometimes they are highly shaped little dudes.  For our purposes, I'm just cutting quarter circles. you can see on the quarter circle above, my line for the slash. I've given myself a full inch seam allowance, which I will break up between the top and bottom edge as needed. Better to be a bit big, than too small in this instance.

Using a 1/2" seam allowance, I've sewn the outside curve of the quarter circle. Don't forget to anchor your stitching, in my case, with machine, I'm just using a backstitch.  If by hand, don't forget to knot your thread!

Once the seam is sewn, you will want to grade your seam allowances, or this curve will never lay flat. I'm NOT a fan of clipping, as it doesn't take care of the bulk, and leaves you with a whole lot of cut stress points just begging to tear open and make a mess. Grade by cutting one seam allowance at a time, the first go 1/8" from the seam, holding your scissors flat like they are in the photo...my hand isn't there because it's taking a photo, but you get the drift. The next seam allowance is cut slightly wider, and you can hold your scissors upright, like normal.

You may hate me by the end of this, but really, I am showing you some inside tricks to make things easier. Basting again...invest in some cheap white poly cotton thread, you'll use it a lot with me.
I'm turning these quarter circles now to the right side and pressing them. To get the seam to lay right on the edge, roll the seam between your thumb and forefinger until it's right on the edge and then baste. Each stitch, I roll, and baste, roll and baste, roll and baste, until the whole seam is lovely. This photo shows the quarter circles as they will sit on the body, it also gives you an idea of what the front and back of the diagonal basting stitch looks like, little horizontal stitches on the back, long diagonal on the top. Then Press!

Pressing and basting are key to making lovely clothes. I've run out of photos, so I'm back to sewing...and more coffee.  Some seamsters run on tea, I run on coffee.

Breeches, day one

This week, I have to construct a pair of breeches and a shirt for a near-by potter friend.  I'm going to be posting how I construct breeches in hopes that it may make the experience easier on others who are up for the task, but also to help people understand the lengthy process it takes to make this garment for the everyman of the eighteenth century.

I am using both machine and hand sewing and finishing in order to speed up the process a bit, and also to hopefully allow for a bit more durability, as my potter friend will be machine washing and drying the clothes after every wear. He creates historical pottery in these clothes, so if he didn't launder regularly, they would become pottery themselves.

First up, I pressed my pattern and cloth so that they were both very flat, and then I cut out the parts for making the breeches.  Here you can see from the left, pocket bags and front facings (I am making dog ear pockets at the side fronts), the Fall facings and plackets (bottom), the breeches fronts, and the waistbands. The breeches backs are just out of frame.

The front curve of both the Fall facings and the breeches fronts are the first seams to be sewn. Right sides together, a half inch seam allowance. I sewed the seam by machine, but more progressive folks will want to do that by hand, using a running back stitch. Don't forget to anchor the start and finish of your stitching, either by back stitching if by machine, or knotting your thread and backstitching if by hand. This seam will get a bit of strain, being in the crotch area.

The first picture in this bunch shows the seam sewn. You have to look carefully, I used rust coloured thread. The second pic shows the seams pressed open. Yes, you will need an iron for this project.  Your pressing tools are the most important tools in your sewing room, apart from your thimble and scissors. The third photo shows the turning down and pressing of the top edge of the Fall and Fall facing. These seams are then placed wrong sides together, with all the raw edges tucked in  and then the top edge is stitched together using a felling stitch.
I made a bit of a film of it, but it's difficult to see, Here's a video from Burnley and Trowbridge that shows exactly what I am doing.
The last photo shows the top edge stitched, with the little 'top' stitching from the felling stitch, and the inside showing that I'm just picking up the edge of the fold of the facing/lining as I sew.

Now, I would have kept going, but it was getting dark, I don't sew after dark. That and stopping to take photos and write about each step slows stuff down. Hopefully you all can now get caught up with me, and we can start again later today. First up though, I need coffee.