What a Shame

To have to sew your own punishment! Although I suppose to some people sewing is punishment.

Above is my attempt at making a 19th century punishment badge. These were meant to be worn around the head of a schoolchild who was guilty of the named crime, probably made by another pupil. I copied the lettering exactly and have to confess I was torn between the pathos and humor. Inattention?

Mea culpa. Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

Public humiliation as a form of discipline is as old as history, but it takes on a particular poignancy when you think of little children wearing a label proclaiming their crime, for all their small world to see.

Remember Jane Eyre?

On reaching the bedroom, we heard the voice of Miss Scatcherd: she was examining drawers; she had just pulled out Helen Burns’s, and when we entered Helen was greeted with a sharp reprimand, and told that to-morrow she should have half-a-dozen of untidily folded articles pinned to her shoulder.

“My things were indeed in shameful disorder,” murmured Helen to me, in a low voice: “I intended to have arranged them, but I forgot.”

Next morning, Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word “Slattern,” and bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment. The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.

Helen wore a paper sign, but it seems some children were made to spell out the crimes by stitching their own badges. The next excerpt is from The Sunday School Teacher’s Magazine and Journal of Education, 1855. The author recalled attending a free school as a small girl. It was taught by Miss Middleton, a lady of independent means who had devoted her life, rather ineffectually it seems, to good works.

Our governess considered it needful to govern by at least a mixture of severity with kindness. Her modes of punishment were various. A rather formidable one was binding a label with a specific crime marked upon it around the forehead, and placing the culprit on a form as an object for the deliberate gaze of the whole school. Most likely these expressive tokens of guilt were originally manufactured by the children’s own hands, and remind one of a murderer erecting his own gibbet.

Once a long row of delinquents was ranged on a form, who had committed some kind of treason during our mistress’s absence; and absent she frequently was from her post. We had then a scholar who was notorious for her unconquerable love of fun… She being amongst the mounted ones, contrived to overbalance the form, and bring all to the ground, producing a scene which very naturally excited the mirth of all who beheld it, and turned our punishment into a frolic.

That must have been a sight! I wonder if they were all wearing their labels when they tumbled to the floor? The author goes on to describe what happened when she was falsely accused of tearing a pinafore and made to “wear her crime.”

Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

But the question with my governess was, ” Who rent [tore] the pinafore?” Somebody must have; though having been perpetrated in the dark, it was probably rather difficult to determine the author. Now I was one of the least, and therefore as likely to be guilty as any one. I suppose by this reasoning Ann brought her mind to the conviction that I was the guilty party, and she unhesitatingly accused me of the crime. I very naturally denied the charge. But I was compelled to wear the most detestable of all the bandages, and mount the form with the word LIAR branded on my brow. Can I ever forget that moment? No! the scar of that wound will not be effaced by time, however long a space be allotted me; and though I have long ceased to bear malice, the memory of this painful circumstance will be for ever connected with the name of Ann W. Surely nothing chafes the soul of a child so much as an unjust accusation, and unmerited punishment. – Maidstone. Christiana Elizabeth.

If you’ve read the Plain Needlework page on this blog, you know about Joseph Lancaster’s contribution to needlework education. However, some of his early comments on class discipline are rather hard to take – at least for modern sensibilities, even when allowing for the times in which he wrote. He also used labels to shame children who offended. From his 1807 manual,

When a boy is disobedient to his parents, profane in his language, or has committed any offence against morality, or is remarkable for slovenliness, it is usual for him to be dressed up with labels, describing his offence, and a tin or paper Crown on his head. In that manner he walks round the school, two boys preceding him, and proclaiming his fault; varying the proclamation according to the different offences.

And another reference,

Labels of Disgrace. When boys are in habits of talking, or being idle in school time, it is common in the free schools under my direction, as variety in punishment, to make an offender stand up and suck his fingers, with the label ‘Idle’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘suck-finger baby.”

Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

These methods were mild compared to others he recommended. Although to be fair, I can’t imagine the task of managing – much less teaching – a single class of over a hundred unruly street children.

What sort of offenses warranted this fate? Thanks to generous help from Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, we can see some of the unacceptable behaviors marked on bands from their museum collection.

“Punishments for moral offences, which consist in branding the offender as a thief, a liar, or some other odious appellation, by making him wear a label with any such inscription round his neck, should be indignantly repudiated by the teacher,” -1872 Handbook on the Teaching and Management of Elementary Schools. Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

1866 Report, “There are, it seems, teachers in Boston who do not make much use of the rod, but resort to other modes of punishment which are quite as objectionable, such as shutting up children in closets — though absolutely forbidden, plastering up their mouths — unusual if not cruel, decorating their heads with the dunce’s cap, or placing upon them some badge of disgrace.” Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

Note how the ties are attached differently in this one. Perhaps it was meant to be worn around the neck. A Sunday School Guide from 1806 states, “The standing on a stool, or form, in a corner, for a certain time, and in some cases with a label hung round their neck, specifying why they stand there… may be tried before the extremity of expulsion be used.” Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

From The Christian Observer, 1805: “If the child asks pardon and behaves properly, she is soon restored to her place; if not, she passes to the form entitled Disobedience; and for immoral offences they are sent to the form of Disgrace, with a label, declaring the offence, fastened to them.” Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

This one is hemmed rather than backed, and has what is likely the class or form marked on the side. Photo Courtesy Christ’s Hospital

I’m probably guilty of all, but the one that caught my attention was INATTENTIOn. That had my name written all over it (ha) so that’s the one I wanted to make. Although from respect – and exhaustion – I left out ‘DURING PRAYERS.’

The bands reminded me of the tiny sewing samples made for needlework lessons, illustrating plain sewing techniques.

Tiny marking sampler from teaching manual, 1833.

The first one needed was marking. Cross-stitch is the basic marking stitch, but these are marked with “oylet” or “eye-let-hole” stitch, which is

quite a fancy stitch, and rarely employed. The oylet holes are formed by working in small stitches round each square, about four stitches in the four corners, and four intermediate stitches between, are necessary to form each oylet hole. -Workwoman’s Guide, 1838

or as directed here, in 1853:

Eye-let-hole Marking is done by making a stitch across two threads from the centre as a fixed point, above, below, on each side, and at each of the four angles.

Well OK, no problem, I could do that. Or so I thought until I tried it on a scrap of old linen. Enter 5 diopter magnification with 60 little LEDs, and voila! Of course my eyes were crossed and my head tilted sideways for a week.

I hadn’t even done the first letter before I realized that the stitches that resembled little stars on the original looked like lumpy knots on mine. Even worse at reading distance than in the close-up photo. Hint: use the right thread. Finer silk worked much better. I also learned that it takes twice as long to unpick an “oy-let” as it does to stitch it!

Finishing the badge was a little easier. I folded the linen back onto itself, and then “seamed” the other three sides. Seaming (also called sewing, oversewing, overhanding in the 19th century) is my favorite stitch to do, and you can see a beautiful example of it around the edges of this tiny specimen from 1820.

The label needed ties, too. I’m amazed that nineteenth century classes even included a “proper” way to do something as simple as sewing on ties or tapes. In the illustration below, the tape has the raw end tucked under and three sides are hemmed to the fabric. Then the tape is folded back against the fabric and the fourth edge is seamed to the fabric. Neat, sturdy, and strong as super glue. Well, theirs were anyway.

I don’t have a purpose for the band I made; I’m not even sure why I felt compelled to make one. Perhaps it was just a way to almost touch the past. It would be a shame to lose its lessons.

Sins and Pins

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If you have a nose for rabbit trails, even the simplest search can make you lose your way – if not your head! I was trying to pinpoint a date for the common use of machine-made pins, but ended up following the trail from factories to inventories to short stories. The stories were the most fun, and I thought I’d share this (edited for length!) one.

THE HISTORY OF A PIN.

 (The Portland Transcript, 1863)

BY EDWARD P. WILSON.

“Est natura hominum novitalis avida.” [People crave new stuff.]

While walking down the street other day, something bright, embedded in the dirt between the bricks, attracted my attention; and stooping I extracted from the sand an old headless pin. It was not one of the family of pins with which we are now familiar – pins never lose their heads now a days – but one of the old style, whose head was originally formed of fine coiled brass wire; but now it was headless, crooked, rusty and worn: one of those sort of pins which in my school-boy days we were wont to call “old maids’ pins,” and which every single lady felt in duty bound, on the penalty of endless celibacy, to throw over her left shoulder.

As I sat in my arm-chair after dinner enjoying my cigar, I drew it leisurely from the lapel of my coat – a bachelor’s invariable pin cushion – and examined it more minutely. What would I give to hear the history of this old pin!

As I continued to smoke, the pin seemed to grow strangely bright, as seen through the incense which curled around me; and then it seemed to increase in size until it resembled some old, sallow man, whose back was bent by the cares and sorrows of three-score years, who stood twinkling at me through the smoky vapor; and at length I became so accustomed to regard it as human, that I was not surprised when it addressed me as follows:

“Many years have passed away since I was young and bright. I remember the day, when by a clip of a huge pair of shears, I first received a distinctive existence. Pins were worth something in those days, and were not turned out upon the world by machinery, as they are now in Connecticut, at the rate of ten tons per week. We were all made elaborately by hand, going through fourteen different processes in our construction. It was in the old Greenwich Prison, New York, where the first pins were made on this continent. We were all nicely arranged by hand in our papers, like files of soldiers. Fortunately for me, I occupied the position of captain in the first row of my paper, and stood the best chance of being soonest called into the active duties of life. After being duly packed, we were removed to a little store on Broadway, near Castle Garden. I well remember the looks of my first master. He was a little wizen-faced man, who kept a small variety store in those days.

Many long months I laid upon his dark shelves, fearing that I should spend my days in rest and inaction. But at length my days of imprisonment were over. One day a young woman came into my master’s store and made several small purchases of ribbon and edging, and just as she had started to go out, she turned back and asked for a paper of pins. How I thrilled with joy as my master placed the paper in which I had been so long imprisoned in her hand.

My young mistress took me to her home on one of the short streets in the vicinity of the East River. I had scarcely entered the house, which was a neat tenement of the Dutch style, before I became convinced that preparations were being made for some great event in the household. Judge of my surprise when I ascertained by the gossip of the servants that it was the marriage of my young mistress.

All day the household was in commotion, in baking, dusting, and arranging for the happy occasion; and when in the evening my mistress came to her room where I had been lying upon her dressing table, to put on her wedding dress, I was made happy by being called into service. Having otherwise completed her attire, which was elaborate for those days, although it might provoke the mirth of the fashionable belle of the present day, she took from her drawer a beautiful silk zone or belt, which she clasped around her waist, and fastened it with me.

As she stood before her glass to adjust her dress before making her appearance in the drawing room below, I could not help feeling a silent pride in her beauty. I had not thought her pretty when I had first seen her, but as she stood there, I could not but pronounce her beautiful. When the guests had all retired, and my master and mistress were left alone, I listened, as I stuck in a pin-cushion upon her dressing-table, to all their plans of life and happiness.

It was indeed a bright and beautiful scheme; but I am sorry to say that I lived to see many of their pretty plans fade away, and smiles give place to tears. I remained in this family nearly twenty years, occupying various places in the attire of the different members of the family; sometimes idly dropped upon the floor, and then again picked up to fasten some article of clothing.

When at length there were little ones around the hearth, I fastened their tiny garments, and sometimes, unwillingly, scratched their little chubby bodies [!!!], causing many a kick and scream, which were attributed either to colic or anger, according to the disposition of the person who had them in keeping.

One day as their eldest daughter was out shopping, I fell noiselessly from the bosom of her dress, where I had been carelessly stuck, upon the sidewalk of Broadway. It may be thought that a pin is incapable of feeling, but I felt the deepest regret when by this unlucky accident, I was severed from this family in whose service I had spent so many days; and I could not but feel a silent resentment against my mistress for fastening me so carelessly, as I had been a faithful and uncomplaining servant of hers from the very day of her birth.

I remained many weary days lying upon the sidewalk unseen, although thousands of people walked over me daily; and I sadly feared that I should 
be trodden into the dirt, and thus remain entombed the remainder of my days. But my fears proved groundless.

One day, after I had almost given up hope of being discovered, a little, short, dried up old man came along with his eyes upon the sidewalk, as though in search of pins, and deliberately picked me up and placed me in the lapel of his rusty coat.

I soon discovered that my new master was an old bachelor, of most eccentric manners and mode of living, who lodged in an attic on the Bowery. Once I heard him say mournfully, that he should not have been there alone, aimless in life, if it had not been for her, from which I inferred that some unhappy attachment in early life had made him misanthropic.

I remained in his service many years, sometimes fastening ugly rents in his garments; and at length he removed to Boston, where he naturally enough became more morose than ever. [!!!]

One day as he was walking upon the Common, he attempted to fasten his collar, which had an ugly habit of creeping up over his ears, when he pricked his finger with me, and threw me spitefully upon the ground, where I remained about one week.

One day a little girl on her way to school, came along and picked me up, repeating to herself the childish couplet—

‘Tis a sin to steal a pin
But ‘tis a greater to steal a tater



and took me to her home where I remained several years, being used principally to fasten the clothing of her doll.

One day in summer, her brother was sent off on a vacation to a little town in the State of Maine, and I was brought into requisition to fasten his collar. I remained in his service but a few weeks, but this was the most trying period of my life. Sometimes I soared to enormous heights in the tail of his kite, sometimes I was used to pierce flies and other innocent insects, and at length he used me to fish for minnows in a beautiful bay which indents the town where he was stopping.

There I received that ugly bend which you see in my back, being bent to resemble a fish-hook. After he had thus cruelly treated me, my young master threw me carelessly upon the beach, with a piece of cotton thread which he had used as a fishing line, tied around my throat. Here I lay in the sun many long days, and as the place was not frequented, I well-nigh despaired of ever attracting the attention of any living being. But I was not doomed to spend the remainder of my days in inactivity.

One moonlight night in autumn, a lady and gentleman came upon the beach to court the cool breeze, engaged in earnest conversation, over the sand where I was lying. The lady was young and pretty, and dressed in weeds which betokened widowhood. Her drapery was long and flowing, and at length as she passed over me, I, being bent, caught in some point-lace on her skirt, and was taken along with her. Her companion was a large, well-formed man, whom she called Judge Jones.

They walked together a long time, arm in arm, but at length the Judge, very much to my surprise, withdrew his arm, and placed it around the widow’s waist, who very properly remonstrated against such a proceeding; but I observed that she made no effort to remove it, although she stated very emphatically that it should not remain there. Just then the couple approached a large rock embedded in the sand, and the widow complaining of being fatigued, they sat down there to rest.

Here the Judge not only retained his arm in the position which was so offensive to his companion, but even ventured to kiss her, an impropriety which I cannot but condemn, although I must confess that I have been an unwilling spectator to many such a scene.

At this moment his companion grew very indignant, shedding tears and declaring that she was certain that the Judge meant to offend her, which imputation he very warmly denied, although I observed that he repeated the offense.

At this, my mistress grew still more indignant, and dropping her head upon her companion’s shoulder, emphatically demanded the meaning of such conduct. Here the Judge drew her still more closely to him, and said in a subdued and tremulous voice, “My dear madame I have long wished for an opportunity to tell you that —

”

Here the writer’s head fell heavily upon an adjoining table, and gathering himself up he found that his cigar had gone out, and that he himself had been idly napping, with the old rusty pin between his fingers.

It has ever since been a question of great interest to him, what it really was that the Judge was going to tell to his companion, and how the old pin lost its head—and finally came to be lying in the streets of Cambridge, but he has vainly striven to solve them, as the old pin has ever since maintained a most unbroken silence.

Should these facts ever come to the knowledge of the writer, however, they will be duly 
chronicled in the columns of the Transcript.

What an original idea: a story written by a pin! Well … not exactly. See this snippet from an 1835 English composition manual on suggested topics.

“A list of subjects for Themes, simple and complex, Essays, Descriptions, Narrations, &c.”

As for pinning down a date for the common use of machine-made pins, there is good information out there – if you want to stick to the subject and not wander around. Here is a good place to start for a more serious approach.

John Howe’s patented pin making machine. Smithsonian Institution, NMAH-JN2015-5114, Jaclyn Nash

So when might I have found machine-made pins in a sewing basket or on a dressing table? It seems that by the late 1830s technology and economics combined to phase out skilled labor in favor of automation. Pins were no longer likely to lose their heads. And if I could just stay focused, I might not either. But where’s the fun in that?

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Posthumous Cowper, from “The Literary Magazine, and American Register,” 1803

Stuck in Time

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Tiny pin cushions have a special charm, particularly the disk shape, with pins inserted around the perimeter. I always considered it an impractical design though, for sewing. Then one day I came across Mrs. Child’s comment in The Girl’s Own Book (1833) and my dim light bulb clicked on:

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What are called “bachelor’s pin-cushions” are made very thin so that gentlemen can carry them in their pockets…. Two round pieces of paste-board are covered with silk, and neatly sewed together, with one or two thin pieces of flannel between them. Of course only one circle of pins can be put in.

Well, of course! They were meant to be portable and keep pins securely tucked away, likely for use in one’s toilette, and not necessarily handy for needlework.

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Pin cushion in the shape of a watch, courtesy of Julie Hollick.

 

Maybe I fixated on this design because it’s extremely pretty, or maybe because it’s unusual to find that many of the same homemade craft surviving. However, according to a knowledgeable source, this particular one is not uncommon. Even a rare mutation – pink beaded! – has been sighted.

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Elegant antique watch pin cushion, with a beautiful bead pattern on the reverse, courtesy of Genevieve Cummins.

Hmm. Were they made by a single crafty lady? Several crafty sisters? A craft class? Who knows. But I did feel like there was probably a pattern that they all followed; the resemblance was quite striking. So I did what any good researcher does these days and hit Googlebooks.

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A project offered to the readers of Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1863.

Aha! It looked like Godey’s Lady’s Book could have been the source. But wait. As you know if you read the history of this sewing machine ad (or maybe you knew it anyway), if it was published once, it was quite likely “borrowed”  by – or from – someone else, too.

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From Peterson’s Magazine, 1862

Sure enough, it seems that Mrs. Jane Weaver of Peterson’s Magazine provided the same pattern the year before! Yep, word for word. Did Sarah borrow from Jane? Or did they both copy another pattern?

Even though I’d found American patterns for the pin cushions, it was unlikely that they were the source for the antique ones. Notice the numbers? Roman vs. Arabic numerals. The antique pin cushions I saw had Arabic; the published American patterns used Roman.

Perhaps they thought a little change would deflect any accusation of plagiarism. With almost everything in print copied by somebody, somewhere, who would even notice? The surviving examples were English – I think – so perhaps the original pattern was also.

Back to Googlebooks for an English source. And indeed, I located another pattern published earlier, in England. The Boys’ and Girls’ Companion featured the watch pin cushion, this time credited to Madame Eugenie, in 1857. And that’s where I met a dead end.

Madame Eugenie? I haven’t been able to locate a needlework author by that name, so maybe it was a pseudonym. There were quite a few frantically creative women trying to survive by publishing needlework books and magazines during those years, so she may remain anonymous.

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The preceding text reads “As the figures ought to be very neatly put in, some young ladies may like to ask an elder brother, or even a papa at leisure…” Right.

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“Maize” colored silk, turquoise & gold beads, and experimental trim.

For now anyway, the pattern for the antique “watches” with numbers and star design remains unidentified. Well then, back to creating my own (economy) version. Since I couldn’t find materials exactly like the originals, I had to do some contriving.

  • Silk satin > silk taffeta
  • India ink and pen > Micron 005 pen
  • Tiny gold and turquoise beads > the smallest Hobby Lobby carried
  • Card-board > cardboard (yay!)
  • Wool flannel > wool flannel (yay again!)
  • Compasses for drawing circles > washers from my husband’s toolbox
  • Gold cord > embroidery floss + threads pulled from the fabric + upholstery braid unwound
  • Silk ribbon > a strip of fabric
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Work in progress.

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Front and back all finished but for the single black bead.

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“Fastened on with stitches at the back all round, from one side to the other”

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A “few thicknesses of flannel” sandwiched between, as instructed.

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I did have silk ribbon. But it was so thin there’s noooo way it could have worked!

As per usual, the whole project turned out to be an excruciating exercise in “making things up as you go along.” What I learned:

  1. Compromise when it comes to materials.
  2. Make a pattern first. MAKE A PATTERN FIRST.
  3. Line the silk.
  4. Practice writing on paper. Then on fabric. Then give up and use a font on the computer and trace it.
  5. Press gathers flat.
  6. Use tinier stitches than seem necessary.
  7. Beads unpick faster than expected.
  8. The result will be bigger than expected.
  9. Beads roll over no matter how carefully anchored. It’s their nature.
  10. Did I mention make a pattern FIRST?

It was actually a lot of fun doing everything but the pen work since I’m not good with handwriting, and I couldn’t “ask an older brother or a papa.” Even unpicking beads (when they didn’t fit because I didn’t draw a pattern FIRST) was rather enjoyable; hearing the tiny taps when they fell off and hit the tray was ridiculously entertaining.

And just about the time I was finishing the little ring on the top, I chanced upon an even earlier pattern – and I wasn’t even looking for it!

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The Wreath, or Ornamental Artist, by A Lady, 1835.

Sadly, there were no pictures. And it was for the needle-book/pin cushion version. But it gives me hope that another pattern is out there, just waiting to be discovered. I’ll keep a watch.

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Anna’s Dress

Anna’s graduation photograph, 1934. Isn’t she lovely?

It’s a delight to follow the evolution of hand sewing instruction from its earliest days up to more modern times – at least if you consider the 1930s modern!

Thanks to a friend who wanted to share her mother’s dress, I’ve had another chance to peek into a Domestic Economy class, this time in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. The teacher was Miss Gimbel, and she must have been a wonderful sewing teacher –  she was certainly very good at understanding what kind of project would please a girl of 13. Fluffy ruffles in dainty white, in a lesson she could wear to her graduation!

The dress needed a little TLC before it could show off. Although in excellent condition for its age, a bath was in order.

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A good soak works wonders.

I’ve laundered a lot of cotton and linen over the years, and was hopeful that Anna’s dress could be restored. It was made of embroidered organdy and (of course) had been starched. Starch does not age well, in case you haven’t noticed! But a few days of soaking and a lot of water changes, and the frilly frock was refreshed.

Anna 01

Restored to glory!

Once again I was surprised to see how simple it could be to sew a garment by hand. I’m so accustomed to modern clothing with all the double-stitched and felled seams, finished inside and out, that anything else is startling. I’ve got sportswear so heavily reinforced that the stitches could stand alone if all the fabric were to melt away!

But not here. Anna used very simple basting, running, hemming, and gathering on plain and French seams. The ruffle edge was overcast.

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You can see the neatly turned hem, and where she took greater pains with the collar binding than the much longer narrow hem, which I’ve folded up to show.

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The armholes have a self-fabric binding, and the  dress closes on one side with snaps. The basting thread is still present, perhaps serving to hold the placket in place.

Weekly sewing lessons from the first through the eighth grade were part of a public school education for Anna. Her work was neat and elegant, a skill to be proud of. I think she learned well and wore her reward for a very special occasion!

P.S. A special thank you to I.I.!

What’s in Your Pocket?

Pocket Book 01

It seems like even hobbies go through seasons, and mine has certainly been in a slow one. However, there’s nothing like a new book to start things stirring again.

Ever since seeing the online Pockets of History exhibit, I’ve been wishing for a book with more on the subject. So of course I was delighted when I learned about this one! The Pocket – A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, was published in May by Yale University Press. I’ve just started to explore it. How could I resist? It touches on all my favorite subjects, not only textiles, costume, and needlework, but fascinating little bits of material culture and stories (sadly too brief) associated with them.

Who knew that a pocket could have a “heart-bit” too? But it makes good sense because the stitching was a decorative way to reinforce an opening.

The book offers a great close-up of a heart-bit on a pocket, which looks much like the one on this muslin child’s gown, circa early nineteenth century.

There’s also discussion of marking and learning to mark, and the importance to women of claiming ownership. The Pocket even touches on needlework education, which thrills my plain sewing pedagogical heart no end!

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Pockets show the same style of marking as other plain sewing items, like this schoolgirl’s practice marking piece (c1850) with an unfinished “H.” The ruler shows how small the marking could be.

The book is full of beautiful photos that reveal the diversity of pockets. I even got a patchwork fix, thanks to these made with colorful prints. Other illustrations include period art, engravings, advertising, and some splendid close-ups of the textiles and embroidery.  And wonder of wonders: doll pockets!

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A section of paper piecing (you might recognize a few from the Flower Patch posts) laid across some of the gorgeous illustrations. I’m always hoping for a pattern match, yet always disappointed.

I think the most delightful part of the book is learning about the little treasures and scraps that were pocketed. Or wait – maybe it’s the stories? The authors’ research reveals fascinating bits of women’s lives, and the pocket contents added to their stories as well. The list is extensive: money, gloves, books, pencils, medicine, “characters” (an employment reference), food, jewelry, handkerchiefs, clothing, charms, combs, cosmetics, tickets, snuff boxes, cutlery, letters, and even pilfered goods. Hmm… barring the last mentioned (one would hope), it’s really the same as you might find in a handbag today. Ok, maybe not the snuffbox.

The only pocket I’ve made is a miniature one for Pharaby. I’ve never made a people-sized one. I rather like the idea of sewing a pocket for myself. No particular purpose, just fun. It would be a terrific way to practice plain sewing skills and experiment with some fancywork as well.

If you find these topics as fascinating too, I highly recommend The Pocket. It provides such a wealth of information that you won’t actually find yourself … out of pocket.

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Too tempting! I gave in and created a collection for a pocket-to-be: scissors, thimble, whist counters, love poem, ribbon, pattern, love token (look closer, it’s really NOT Billy Bones’ black spot!) and a broken coral necklace awaiting repair. Still. Waiting.

 

Wrapping It Up, or, French Ladies Do It In Their Sleep

Knotting was indispensable to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman…and kept her fair self out of mischief….

“Heyday! cousin, ” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”

I don’t know what Lord Castlemaine thought about French ladies, but he obviously had issues with knotting – and so do I! All right, he was talking about a different kind of knotting, but I do think thread should behave with propriety, always willing and able to oblige. However, in my search for how thread was “packaged” in the early 19th century, it was behaving knottily.

A few years ago I was trying to assemble a collection of sewing supplies c.1820 for an exhibit, and it occurred to me that the ordinary wooden spools (reels) in my basket were an anachronism. Would a lady of that era have popped into a haberdashery shop for a spool of thread to hem a gown? Or would she have bought a skein? A ball? A length wrapped in paper or wound around a card?

Messrs Harding Howell & Co., 89 Pall Mall © The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

How should I store my thread? It ought to be simple to settle, just ask around or try Google to learn how sewing thread was packaged, sold, and stored in the early 1800s. Nope. It was a knotty problem and I was baffled.

Period merchant accounts mentioned skeins, weights, and quantities of sewing thread, but that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. What would the thread actually look like when Some Lady brought it home from shopping or stuffed it in her workbag at the end of the day? (No, don’t say tangled!) After years of drooling over images of antique sewing boxes, you’d think I’d have spotted quite a few that still had the undoubtedly original working thread stashed inside. But I didn’t. A little more fruitless searching, and I decided to shelve the question.

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Thread papers made from old copy-book pages.

Until recently. I once saw some lovely antique painted “thread papers” for sale which I always regretted not buying (although I’d have had to sell a body part to do it). These long strips of paper with delicate watercolor floral designs were obviously homemade, perhaps meant for a gift. They contained embroidery silks, not plain sewing thread, but I never forgot their charm. So when I came across some very old, although homelier, thread papers for sale, I couldn’t resist – and that revitalized my quest for thread packaging!

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Here you can see the date “August 15th 1803” at the bottom of the page.

The first mention I came across (in my admittedly limited resources) was in connection with the tragic and mysterious poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Not only was he a literary prodigy, but apparently quite a clever forger as well. He invented a 15th century monk and wrote poetry in his name, then claimed to have discovered these writings on his mother’s parchment thread papers.

…one day his eye was caught by one of these thread papers; that he found not only the writing to be very old and the character very different from common characters; but the subject therein treated was different from common subjects; – that he began to question his mother what these thread papers were; how she got them; and from whence they came; and upon further enquiry was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained. [The rest, according to him, unfortunately having been used by his father to cover students’ books.]

There were other references to thread papers as well.

A witty bit from 1769:

A waggish correspondant informs us, that the Mile-End P—n is to be cut into slips to make thread-papers for the maids-of-honor.

Some self-deprecation from 1775:

…a small number of young ladies do me the inexpressible honour to smooth their tuckers and their ribbands in my book; to make thread papers of it; or to tear it into pieces, or papillots [curl papers], or to make their thimbles fit.

In 1795, a scathing rejection for Miss Sparkes from the Monthly Mirror:

“A Tale of Times past,” would never be read in times present. Would not Letitia Sparkes (who says she works for the shops) have been much better employed in making a dozen shirts, and getting the money for them, than in groping her way through “long galleries and dismal vaults;” and listening to “tales prophetic, from shadowy forms.” However, Letitia, you may send for your “forty leaves:” they’ll make excellent thread-papers.

Court testimony from 1804:

What was in the drawer in which he appeared to expect to find it? There were Five or Six Hens Eggs, Thread Papers, and Things of that Sort Belonging to his Wife.

From Sir Walter Scott in 1815:

…my uncle, the alderman, proposed to me the only daughter of old Sloethorn, the great wine-merchant, rich enough to play at spancounter [old English game] with moidores [Portugese coins], and make threadpapers of bank notes.

A bit of satire in 1815:

Woe unto literature in these days of degeneracy! woe unto the Nine Muses and their suitors! how many epics have stood between the candle and candlestick? how many histories have been employed in twist tobacco? and how many philosophers have been made into thread papers, their arguments into paper kites, and their conclusions into three-penny crackers on a birthday?

A lament from 1838:

Cooks and sedentary ladies addicted to needlework have been Thalabas in this kind of destroying. Your thread-papers have been the very devil! If our old friend Mr. Brunel had invented his pretty little process of putting sewing-thread up in reels and balls a hundred years ago, many a family manuscript, many an interesting scrap, might have escaped the pitiless shears. But it is vain to regret the past! [Ain’t it though?]

Humorous fiction in 1844:

Lady Betty was mightily pleased to see Lord Castlemaine so soon back again, and glanced at Barbara, who was knotting fringe, a species of work about as useless as the tatting, tapetrimming, herring-boning, and, with respect be it hinted, lambs-wooling, which from time to time have employed civilised society with almost as much regularity as the spinning jennies do the poorer classes. (And when we talk of the labours of factory girls, how we overlook those of modern ladies under the banners of Miss Lambert¹!) And knotting was indispensible to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman, who, when not tambouring, knotting, or embroidering, amused her leisure, and kept her fair self out of mischief, by drawing a bandalore [yo-yo] up and down.

“Heyday! cousin,” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”

“‘Tis the ton, surely, or Bab would not do it,” said Lady Betty, wishing to set off the dowdy Barbara; “and see the thread papers she paints,” added the old lady, showing up a volume of those useful, discarded, ever to be lamented article, with a bird with a scarlet beak and a blue breast at one end, and a flower, orange, red and purple, at the other, all varnished with a glaze of gum arabic.

Lord Castlemaine praised the  as very neat, and saw some sense in those – the knotting he condemned as an extravagant waste of time. But he was so complimentary to the thread papers, that Barbara, with a little persuasion, was induced to show her cousin her collection of…” [of…? If you’re curious, you can always look it up!]

More specifics on these papers from fiction, 1868:

She is able to divert herself most days with her thread-papers, as Madam, her mother, will be mighty glad to hear, for the head and the heart ain’t none of them over-bad when a miss can settle to make thread-papers…. Milly was in the act of making her thread-papers – cutting down strips of gaudy card-board, painted with staring flowers, birds, butterflies, and pasting them together in the requisite shape.

Well, enough of thread papers. They were around before, during, and after my period of interest; whether artsy or functional, they were probably used most often for embroidery threads, although I could certainly add some to my workbox display. What about sewing thread for plain work or dressmaking?

An Encyclopædia of Domestic Econcomy, 1815, states, “Cotton sewing thread, usually called sewing cotton, has of late been made so beautiful by machinery, and its utility and cheapness are so well known, that it has, in a measure, superseded the use of linen thread formerly used. It is used in every house, and in the making of almost every kind of clothing.”

That was helpful in affirming what textile historians tell us, that the change from linen to cotton for sewing thread happened in the late 18th-early 19th century. But how would you find it in a shop?

Now let’s see whether you were just skimming the quotes to be a polite blog reader, or were paying attention. Did you catch the reference to Brunel²?

Can you see the little cotton ball? It’s there, really! Science Museum Group. Model of Brunel’s cotton winding machine.. 1858-20. Science Museum Group Collection CC BY-NC-SA Online.https://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co44937.

His biography informs us that, “A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The Machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness.”

They must have been awfully pretty, those little balls of thread, to merit so much acclaim. Rees’s 1819 Cyclopædia agreed, “cotton thread for sewing, mending, and domestic use, is wound into balls of a figure resembling a cask, and the many intersection of the thread are so managed as to produce a very beautiful appearance.”

If the illustration below is an example, I do think they’re lovely! Illustrated ads for sewing cotton wound in a fancier lattice design appeared in periodicals from 1819 to 1827. Here’s one from La Belle Assemblée, 1819. The inventor was Edmund Naish, Quaker, who patented his method in 1818.

I didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing one of these lacy little balls, so maybe you can understand my delight when I saw these!

Are they the same “Diamond Sewing Cotton”? I guess I’ll never know. But there is certainly a resemblance!

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You can see there is no paper or cardboard center for these. And it does look like this style of wrapping hasn’t survived the years quite as well as an ordinary ball would have. But they were pretty!

So it appears that sewing thread, long sold in skeins (or hand-wound balls), was available for purchase as machine-wound balls sometime after 1802, and the fancy patterns in the next decade. But what about wooden spools?

In The Paisley Thread Industry (1907), the author says, “The year 1812 may be taken as the earliest date upon which Clark’s sewing thread was placed upon the market.” He goes on to state

The James Clark of Messrs. J. & J. Clark was the first to introduce spool cotton sewing thread. We are indebted to his son, Mr. James Clark, of Chapel House, for an explanation of the circumstances of this very important and interesting development. Mr. Clark says: – “Originally the cotton thread was sold in hanks or skeins, and then ladies had to wind it into little balls, as they generally wind a cut of wool yarn at the present day. Wishing to convenience his fair customers, James would, on selling a skein of cotton thread, sit down at a weaver’s pirn wheel, and wind the thread upon a spool, for which he charged a half-penny, but that half-penny he refunded when the empty spool was returned to him.

“The spools cost sixpence a dozen, and were ordered by James, to the extent of half a gross at a time, from a wood turner name Robert Paul, which he carried home in his coat pocket, to wind thread thereon by his own hand, if desired, after the sale of a skein had been effected by him.”

So I suppose you could have retail-wound wooden spools shortly after 1812 – if you lived in Paisley, Scotland! However, writing in 1861, William Weild gives a slightly different history.

Previous to the present century, sewing thread was made up for sale in hanks, and it was not till about 1814, that the plan of winding thread on spools or reels, technically called “spooling” was introduced by Mr. James Carlile, of Paisley….The spools commonly used are made of wood, more or less ornamented, and some also of metal, bone, ivory, and other materials. Wood spools were first turned by hand; but the immense demand for them called attention to the necessity for self-acting machinery for producing them in a rapid manner, and this was invented in 1846 by Mr. John Clark of Glasgow.

wrapping hand spools

Here is another (mind-boggling) account of how was thread was made into balls and spools, the greatest problem being constantly breaking thread. From an 1846 SPCK publication:

The writer visited a sewing thread factory at Manchester…. The process of forming the thread into balls or reels is, performed by young women with an almost magical celerity. Each young woman is seated at a kind of turning-lathe; she seizes the end of the thread, and attaches it to a rod of steel, sets this spinning, and in an instant a ball of cotton appears at the end of the rod; the rotation is stopped, a blue ticket is inserted at the end, a further quantity of thread wound to secure the ticket, and the ball is finished. The size of the ball is regulated with extreme accuracy by the eye. The number of balls to the pound varies from 16 to 600; and the young woman being told to produce a certain number to the pound, makes a few, weighs them until she has got the exact size by weight; after this she relies entirely upon her eye, and so accurate is her judgement, that the variation of the balls in weight is very trifling. The cotton is wound on reels with the same surprising celerity…. Reeling is not such rapid work as balling.

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Can you imagine what that must have been like, eye-balling 600 balls of thread? All. Day. Long. Perhaps they could also do it in their sleep. God bless them.

And now, if you’ve made it this far into an excruciatingly arcane subject, I will share my last two discoveries. If I had found them earlier, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all the rest.

The first is an excerpt from Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford.

Everything in the one store which it boasts, kept by Martha Deane, linen-draper and haberdasher, is dear and good, as things were wont to be. You may actually get there thread made of flax, from the gouty, uneven, clumsy, shiny fabric, yclept whited-brown, to the delicate commodity of Lisle, used for darning muslin. I think I was never more astonished than when, on asking, from the mere force of habit, for thread, I was presented, instead of the pretty lattice-wound balls or snowy reels of cotton, with which that demand is usually answered, with a whole drawerful of skeins, peeping from their blue papers – such skeins  as in my youth a thrifty maiden would draw into the nicely-stitched compartments of that silken repository, a housewife, or fold into a congeries of graduated thread-papers, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.”

Well, well. She covered it all: paper-wrapped skeins, balls, reels, thread papers, and one I didn’t explore (since they are so well-known already), the silken repository, or housewife (hussif). See Sarah’s charming “repository” of blue and cream below, with matching blue threads all ready for use!

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And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:

What exquisite work, and how beautifully preserved! Special thanks to “diggerlee” on eBay for use of the photos!

But the last is an image, c.1810-1815. From the V&A, it’s the picture I’d always hoped to find: a thread-stocked workbox. The little “tickets” are pink, with the thread size stamped on them.

Where have you been all my life? A workbox tray filled with balls of thread that look like they’ve been there since they were purchased 200 years ago. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

To wrap it all up, I now have a better idea of how to keep thread in my workbox or basket if I want to stay true (sort of) to the times. It’s a relief to untangle the knotty problem – and know that I can sleep peacefully at night.


¹ Miss Lambert was a prolific and popular author of needlework books such as this one.

² For some stranger-than-fiction history, read about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the gold sovereign magic trick – and how it could have killed him!

A Milliner for Mélisande

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MILLENER, or MILLINER, one who sells ribbands and dresses, particularly head dresses for women; and who makes up those dresses. Of this word different etymologies have been given. It is not derived from the French. The French cannot express the notion of milliner, otherwise than by the circumlocution marchand or marchande des modes….

Littleton, in his English and Latin Dictionary, published 1677, defines millener, “a jack of all trades;” q. d. millenarius, or mille mercium venditor; that is, “one who sells a thousand different sorts of things.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1823

It’s summer and I’m still here and still sewing a little (not quite a thousand things) although I haven’t posted for months now. Life has been really hard lately, but looking at Mélisande and dreaming of her wardrobe has brought a lot of cheer. Playing milliner (in the broader sense) for Mélisande has been more challenging, but that’s thanks to my penchant for tackling projects labeled “Do not try this at home!”

The exquisitely beautiful Mélisande was created by Kathy Patterson, a brilliant artist and doll maker (her historical dolls are perfection) who made my dream of an early 19th century wooden doll come true.  She is a 19″ wooden lady, carved in the Grödnertal or Tuck Comb style of the early 1800s, and perfect for dressing in clothing from the Regency to Romantic eras. Let me qualify that: perfect for doll dressers who know what they’re doing.

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Preparing to fell the seam on the sleeve and gusset cut-in-one. The first time.

As for the rest of us… well, it’s more of an adventure. I did know enough to start with a linen chemise – or shift, if you share Jane Austen’s scorn of “mock modesty.” Using a tattered and weary dresser cloth for fabric, I cut the arm gussets and sleeves in one piece, a little trick learned from looking at an original and which I think is also mentioned in The Workwoman’s Guide.

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See the scattering of holes in the sleeve? Maybe I should’ve ignored them and pretended it was a real antique chemise.

However, as I was smirking over saving a few stitches on the gussets, time was playing a sneaky trick on me. Hint: check old fabric for flaws BEFORE you sew. That tiny stain may be just a stain when you cut out the sleeve, but by the time it’s been washed and ironed it could deteriorate into a hole. Or two. Or three. And you might not find them until you’re dressing the doll for her final photo session. And you’ll have to unstitch and redo it all. Sigh.

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Finished. For the second time. Drawstrings are placed inside both front and back, since I was copying an original that was done the same way.

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Once again, fighting patterns. It takes 3 times as long as the sewing!

During the years when shifts were becoming chemises, stays were morphing into corsets. There were so many fashion changes over those decades that I didn’t really know which style to go with: long, short, cording, boning, busk? I just picked a look I liked (and had a grownup pattern to go by) and made it. Pink embroidery was a nice idea but mine looked messy so I picked it out. Instead, I limited the pink accents to extra stitching in the gores and was rather pleased with the result.

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A closeup of the pink silk I used to accent the gores. I managed to erase all trace of the pulled out embroidery fails. I wish my stitches were more even, but shadows and highlights in photographs can hide a multitude of irregularities.

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A view of the inside. You can barely see the little buttonholed slit at the bottom for inserting a busk, if Mélisande ever decides to wear one. Personally, I think her posture is a little stiff already.

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All laced up. Maybe not authentically, but it’s too much work to fuss!

Next, Meli needed a petticoat and I needed one to copy. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of extant Regency “bodiced” petticoats. But sheer cotton dresses require petticoats, so I used a couple of tiny internet images of originals and my imagination.

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The petticoat with a bodice. I made the skirt front flat and kept the gathers in the back.

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Yes, I skipped making any fastenings. I will eventually go back and add some ties, but I was just plain tired of the petticoat by this time! I did, however, add some stitches to protect the opening from tearing. Definitely a period technique.

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The finished petticoat.

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All undies on. Ready for the gown!

Finally (2 years later) it was time for the gown! One cool thing about patterns in books is that while costumers fret over enlarging them, doll dressers find them just right! Kinda sorta. I still had to rely on my old standbys, paper towels and tape, to get the fit.

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Designing and fitting, here we go again. But the “The Heart of the Tree” provided inspiration!

To make a pretty morning or afternoon gown (I’m not sure how to tell the difference –  maybe look at what you’re wearing and then look at the clock?), I used some unusual sheer lilac cotton with a silky sheen on one side. The loose weave made it a bear to sew, though.

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Can you see how loose the weave is? That meant taking really tiny stitches to prevent fraying and bad-hair-day seams. Ok, the seams were still a little frizzy.

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Here’s the apron/bib front dress opened to show how it’s put together.

The bodice was the hard part. I lined it with glazed linen (I doubt I’ll do that again) and extended the lining so it could fold over to close in the front with tiny pins. The bib front is gathered and then the skirt is attached all around. The puffed sleeves are unlined. I intended to do something a little more creative than a ruffle, but I need some more practice first.

Last of all were the detachable long sleeves. They were sooo easy to make compared to the rest of the wardrobe. I should probably have made them a little longer for authenticity’s sake. Maybe another time.

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Next on the list are some white muslin accessories, and then I plan to trim a bonnet, something truly millinerical. I have to say the last part of the definition quoted above really resonates with me, “Jack (or Jane?) of all trades.” And, I could add, mistress of none, but oh how much fun!

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If only I could make trimmings as pretty as nature! Wildflowers from my yard – can’t do better for inspiration, hmm?