Deconstruction

Skirt Hook

No, I’m not delving into postmodernism here, I’m talking about sewing – and unsewing! I was sitting on my porch last week, relishing the warm spring breezes and taking advantage of the bright afternoon light to salvage a sad old black silk skirt. As I worked, I realized that most of the sewing had been done by hand, and that I might pay tribute to those hands by sharing pictures before it was gone forever.

Skirt Damage

Silk damaged beyond repair.

Lest you think I cannibalize antique textiles lightly, let me assure you there was no saving this piece. It was a silk faille gored skirt – of such a generic cut that I hesitate even to date it – which had begun to shred and shatter all over. The lining was in excellent condition though, so I wanted to preserve that for reuse.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture of the whole skirt before I began. Although it might not have added much to this post since solid shiny black is notoriously hard to photograph! The cut was smooth and somewhat fitted across the front, tapering slightly toward an “A-line” silhouette, with tight gathers in the back. It had a narrow waistband, and two tiers of ruffles trimmed the hem.

Skirt Seam

Side seam of skirt, running stitches with a few backstitches piled on for good measure.

The silk fabric was about 21″ wide with white stripes along each selvage. The skirt was completely lined with the standard brown cotton, and then an extra piece of darker glazed cotton was added to the bottom ten inches. A velvet binding strip protected the edge of the hem. There was one deep pocket which looked like a later, rather clumsy, addition.

Skirt Linings

The extra lining along the lower part of the skirt is neatly hemmed down.

Skirt Pocket

A view of the pocket from inside. Maybe added later?

I hadn’t expected to find hand sewing in this piece, so I was intrigued to note the different types of stitching and thread. The long side seams used a basic running stitch made with a heavy brown cotton thread. Although the finished skirt was nice and sturdy, some of the stitches weren’t particularly neat or even.

Skirt Overcast

The only seam finishing, overcasting, was done where the lining edge was raw. I don’t think the maker was too worried about raveling.

Raw edges of lining were roughly overcast with a light colored thread. The waist was “gauged” in the back. Machine work was limited to the top stitching of the waistband and the hems of the bias-cut ruffles. The only careful handwork was the finishing in some places on the lining. A brass hook and eye were the only fastening, and two loops were attached inside for hanging.

Skirt Gauge Out

The skirt back was tightly gathered using the gauging technique.

Skirt Gauge In

Here’s a view of the gathers from the inside.

Skirt Ruffle Out

The ruffle was hemmed by machine, but gathering stitches were made by hand.

Skirt Ruffle In

And it looks like they were done at high speed!

Skirt Selvedge Finish

The seamstress took extra pains when hemming down the inside of the placket opening with a finer weight thread.

Skirt Velvet Out

It was common in the 19th century to finish skirt hems with a sturdy braid, wool or velvet, to protect them from wear. It could be purchased ready-made, but this velvet strip appeared homemade.

The deconstruction process was predictably tedious, but there was one moment that’s hard to describe. I was working on the old velvet at the hem when out spilled sand and bits of twigs. The debris had obviously been locked inside for a more than a century. It was as if a shadow passed by while I worked. Who was the woman who wore this skirt? Where was she walking, what was she doing, what was she thinking on the day when her shoes kicked up that sand? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. But I hope her afternoon was as lovely as the one I enjoyed.

Skirt Velvet In

I tried to offer a peek inside the velvet, but it’s too dark to see. I couldn’t hold the crease open with one hand and take a picture with the other!

 

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If Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt Shrank

Mini Shirt 01

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to the most exciting news I’ve seen all year. Mr. Darcy’s Shirt is coming to the U.S.! Yes, you can forget Tutankhamun’s treasures or the Beauty of Xiaohe. Mr. Darcy’s shirt outranks them all.

Who can forget the (totally not in the book) scene from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice film where Mr. Darcy rises from the lake at Pemberley after his swim, only to run into the startled and stunned Miss Elizabeth Bennett? Be still my heart.

Unfortunately I won’t get to see the celebrity shirt on display, so I’ll have to content myself with a miniature version. This is a tiny “sampler” shirt dated 1838, very much like the square-cut linen one that embarrassed the soggy Colin Firth and melted the rest of us.

It measures 7 inches from the top of the tall collar to the hem. The cuff is 1 and 3/8  by 1/2 inch. The backstitches per inch are so small that I cannot count them. There are microscopic gussets on the collar, the sleeve openings at the wrists, and the side flaps. Oh, and of course there are the underarm gussets that are a whopping 1 inch long.

Mini Shirt 02

The back – notice the “binders” which line the armscyes inside the shirt.

Mini Shirt 03

Here you can see the tiny collar gusset, over which the “shoulder strap” lies.

Mini Shirt 08

A view of the shoulder strap which is backstitched on both edges.

Mini Shirt 05

Mini Shirt 09

The sleeves are set into the body with gathering and stroking.

Mini Shirt 04

You can barely see the diminutive gusset at the end of the sleeve opening. Its purpose was to allow ease, so the shirt would be less likely to tear at that joined seam.

Mini Shirt 10

This cuff has come unstitched, and you can see how tiny the sewn gathers are.

Mini Shirt 07

Here is a view of the gusset for the side flaps of the shirt, also meant to reduce tearing and the seam.

Colin Firth in a wet linen shirt, or a sampler made by tiny fingers in days long gone? I don’t know which one makes my heart beat faster: the man-sized or the miniature. But who would shrink from a closer examination of either?

Alas and Alack, I Take It Back

Alas and Alack

A cotton chemise, unlike either the French or English styles below. I’m going out on a limb here and guessing… American, 1853.

Wouldn’t you know it? Maybe there’s a Murphy’s Law of blogging. Just after proclaiming in my last post that there were no noteworthy distinctions in French and English chemises, I came across the illustrations you see below.

The only difference mentioned in the accompanying text is that the English style is for “skinny persons.” There may be more clues in the cutting directions, but with no knowledge of French, I’ll have to let that pass. The book was published in 1847, and is surprisingly primitive, at least compared to the detailed and beautifully illustrated French magazines of the same period.

However, I still can’t determine that English-made shifts were of one particular pattern, and the French used another. It seems more likely that a lady cut her shift and its gores according to the size of her fabric – and herself! But in the interest of Truth in Blogging, I submit the following:

Chemise Francaise

Chemise Francaise. Of course it looks more complicated – they have a reputation to uphold.

Chemise Anglaise

Chemise Anglaise. No nonsense, for skinny persons.

The Shift to Chemise

Shift to Chemise 1

Shifting from shifts to chemises.

Language is a funny thing. I suppose we’re all guilty of following fads in our choice of words, and we all have particular phrases we find irritating or amusing – in other people.  I recently came across an example by Jane Austen, written in 1817, just as the polite name of a woman’s undergarment was changing.

Your Anne is dreadful – . But nothing offends me so much as the absurdity of not being able to pronounce the word Shift. I could forgive her any follies in English, rather than the Mock Modesty of that french word…’

So presumably Miss Austen was still wearing shifts, when other ladies were beginning to wear chemises. She wasn’t alone, however, in her annoyance with linguistic affectations. Pantalogia, a New Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Comprehending a Complete Series of Human Genius, Learning, and Industry, Alphabetically Arranged; with a General Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Words (1819) has this to say:

CHEMISE, the French word for that article of linen under dress which when worn by men is called a shirt, by women a shift. Some few modern English ladies, with an affected squeamishness of delicacy, restrict the term always so as to denote the article of female dress chemise de femme; but as every one knows what they mean by the expression, and we see no reason why every one should not know what they mean, we recommend the use of the old English term, and the abandonment of the corresponding French word.

Was there really any difference between a shift and a chemise? Well, yes and no. No, because they both referred to the same lady’s undergarment. Yes, because when the word “shift” was used (up until the early 19th century), the garment was usually made of linen and was simpler in cut.  As the word “chemise” became standard, variations in pattern and trimming were increasing and the chemise was more often made of cotton.

So much for the term; now was there any significant difference in the French and English methods of making this garment? I haven’t found anything consistently, unmistakably,  irrefutably, definitively identifiable. When I examine an old chemise, whether in a book, online, or in person, I can’t raise an eyebrow knowingly and say, Ah yes, English, 1832.

But with the interest and expertise I see popping up in blogs and books, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has – or will – come up with a list of distinguishing features.

If you are curious (or courageous) and would like to compare for yourself, below is a pattern and description, 1840, from a French periodical. (Please excuse my awkward translation. If you are fluent in French and English, I beg you to let me know and help me correct it!) English patterns and instructions of the same date are available in the Workwoman’s Guide.

Shift to Chemise 2

A pattern for a lady’s chemise, 1840.

No. 8 is a woman’s chemise. For ten chemises, purchase 25 meters of percale; take off a meter, and cut the rest into ten pieces; fold these pieces into two; on side No. 1, cut the gore that you add to the other side, cut by a thread as shown in No. 2; inside cut two gussets; indent around the neck; this is shown in No. 3; the sleeves are cut on the bias. Gather slightly on top of the arm and hem the bottom with backstitching. The armholes have to be a little curved under the arm. Take the remaining meter, measure a narrow band along the edge, then cut twenty pieces for double shoulder straps; these pieces are indicated by dotted lines; place a narrow piece of tape between the shoulder strap and its lining, there you insert the sleeve and backstitch, and you fold the lining over; gather the top of the chemise, as indicated, and insert a narrow tape of a meter in length; then cover this piece of tape with a band of percale; using backstitching and hemming, then fold under. Mark the chemise over the left gusset.

Up Her Sleeve

Shift 1 Sleeve

Here is the sleeve slipped into the first shift.

As a follow-up to the previous post – and a helpful comment, thank you! – I’ve tried slipping the sleeve (cuff, undersleeve, engageante?) into the sleeve of a linen shift. Well, three different shifts. Above is the first. Very nice fit!

The next one, below, is an even better fit.

Shift 2 Sleeve

Just about perfect! You’ll notice the sleeve length on this shift, unlike the first one above, extends past the gusset.

The last one I tried just for comparison. It’s obviously a wider sleeve, and I have a feeling that the shift was perhaps of an earlier date, and the sleeve was cut off to fit later fashions. And after looking at a few over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was rather common. Although a shift didn’t require as much work as man’s shirt, the tiny stitches worked on fine linen were very tedious to do, and clothing was valuable!

Shift 3 Sleeve

Sorry Cinderella, it’s not quite right. This last shift is in the original “attic find” condition. Can you tell?

Cuff Links – to the Past

The Mystery! Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did She wear them with?

The Mystery. Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did she wear them with?

It’s summertime, as you can tell by the artfully posed hydrangea, and time for a little mystery. Every now and then I come across examples of plain sewing that are rather puzzling. This pretty pair of sleeves (or cuffs) are not like any I’ve seen before.

They certainly do look early nineteenth century. The gathered section is a very delicate white muslin with stripe pattern. The flat section is an extremely fine linen, the kind of linen used for infant clothing and men’s “shirt bosoms.”

On the muslin end of the sleeve there’s a triple row of gathered cording, a feature that was popular in the early 1800s. The linen end has a narrow hem and is divided all the way to the gathers, almost like it was meant to fold back. The sewing is neat and tiny, with an occasional clumsy stitch, just along the gathers.

Sleeve Cuff 7

Gathers from the inside.

And speaking of the gathers… the method used to attach them is not commonly used for joining a flat to a gathered part in most of the plain sewing I’ve seen – a type of felling? It appears the linen and muslin were half-backstitched together, then felled, with a stitch in each gather.

Gathers from the outside.

Gathers from the outside.

Well, silly me. Of course the usual method of inserting gathers into a band and then sewing them on both the inside and outside wouldn’t work here: there’s only one layer to the band!

The blue cotton marking thread is almost invisible now, but it is miniscule. The height of the letters is .4 centimeter (just over 1/8 inch), and each stitch is made over two threads. Early marking charts and samplers did not have a “J” but used the letter “I” instead. So was the owner “J R” or “I R”?

Sleeve Cuff 2

Blue cotton marking, “I R” – who was she?

Sleeve Cuff 8

It’s easier to see when held against the light.

I think my favorite bit of handwork here is the mending. These sleeves were worn enough to fade the marking, but I don’t know if the repair is due to a worn spot or a tear. Either way, the fix is a work of art.

Sleeve Cuff 5

The mend from the inside.

Sleeve Cuff 4

The mend from the outside.

Sleeve Cuff 9

A cord to tie.

Just above the marking is a fine cotton cord, obviously meant to attach the sleeve to another garment. Both are still in place and appear original.

Well, so much for my observations and (right or wrong) interpretation. On to my questions.

Why are the sleeves so big? The circumference of the linen end is about ten inches, the muslin cording about nine inches. My scrawny wrists are less than five and a half, and so the sleeves look absurdly baggy when I slip them on. And even men’s shirts of the era don’t usually have cuffs that big, so it can’t be just me!

What were they worn with? The total length is about seven inches, so they’re really too long to fit the end of a long sleeve anyway, without some peculiar looking bunching up. Were they not intended for ladies’ apparel? Were they worn with some special type of  clothing, religious or a costume?

Sleeve Cuff 3

Open slit in the upper band.

Why is there a slit in the linen band? It’s configured so that the hems are not meant to be turned back. Why is there no way to adjust the corded gathered end? They are a fixed size.

Hmm. As I was trying them over my hand and onto my wrist, I tried slipping them up my (correspondingly scrawny) arm, past the elbow. Aha! A perfect fit! And the opening in the linen allows for movement or shifting around a bit on my arm. So is that the answer?

I’m so accustomed to seeing the underleeves that were worn in the mid-nineteenth century, or the cuffs that have been worn for centuries, that I wasn’t expecting something different like short sleeves. Were these intended for wear with the short sleeved gowns of the Regency era? I don’t know.

I’m not (always) shy about sharing my costume and sewing blunders and misunderstandings. So if you have the answer up your sleeve, please – do tell!

Nourishing Juices

Diaper 1

Diaper cover, late 19th century. Plain sewing in flannel! Could those red cotton stitches be laundry marks?

There is an odd Notion enough entertained about Change, and the keeping of Children clean. Some imagine that clean Linnen and fresh Cloaths draw, and rob them of their nourishing Juices. I cannot see that they do any thing more than imbibe a little of that Moisture which their Bodies exhale. Were it as is supposed, it would be of service to them; since they are always too abundantly supplied, and therefore I think they cannot be changed too often, and would have them clean every Day; as it would free them from Stinks and Sournesses, which are not only offensive, but very prejudicial to the tender State of Infancy. – Dr. William Cadogan, 18th century author of An Essay upon Nursing

Plain sewing examples are usually cotton or linen, but here’s one of wool flannel:  a baby’s diaper (or napkin) cover. Maybe this one is similar to what Mrs. Bakewell meant in her 1836 Mother’s Practical Guide. “I cannot too strongly recommend the use of a flannel napkin over the diaper for the very young babes, when they are carried out. The chest, too, should be guarded with flannel, especially if there be any constitutional or hereditary predisposition to inflammation.” Wool, the cure for what ails you!

Instead of the herringbone stitch, this has been bound with a cotton facing and trimmed with a blanket stitch in neat scallops. Herringboning, the stitch recommended in period manuals for anchoring seams on heavy material, wouldn’t have been sufficient to secure the edges, considering the laundering required.

Diaper 2

Cotton facings, hemmed with tiny stitches.

In the days before modern heating, wool flannel was often part of a baby’s wardrobe. Although warm, it seems like wool would be awfully heavy and itchy if worn close to the skin. Maybe that’s just my modern-day sensibilities? But at least the wearer of this diaper enjoyed the relative comfort of buttons for fastening, rather than pins. And I don’t mean safety pins! Babies in earlier times weren’t always as fortunate as the owner of this diaper. Advice books often warned against pins and the possibility of terrible consequences when they pinned the baby instead of the clothing! William Buchan, writing in 1808:

It would be safer to fix on the clothes of an infant with strings than pins, as these often gall and irritate their tender skins, and occasion convulsions. Instances have been known, where pins were found sticking above half an inch into the body of a child after it had died of convulsion-fits, which, in all probability proceeded from that cause.

Diaper 3

Closeup of the button and scalloped trim. Better than straight pins, any day!

Unless the fits resulted from trying to scratch the wooly itches!