Tuesday, 28 February 2017

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. http://makinghistorynow.com/2016/01/musings-from-the-millinery-revealing-the-truth-about-18th-century-womens-necklines/.

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. https://www.facebook.com/groups/618389418346204/permalink/618611394990673/.

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.

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