Marking Time

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“Marking, as the name implies, is the art of putting some distinguishing sign or mark on body and household linen, so that it may not be lost, especially in the laundry. It is therefore necessary that all washing things are clearly and distinctly marked.”

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A very early 19th century man’s square-cut shirt, marked “T W.”

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A heavier linen shirt marked “P D.”

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A lady’s cotton nightdress, c. 1830s or ’40s. Miss M.A.S. has marked it neatly below the center opening.

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A pattern from “The Instructor, or Young Man’s Best Companion,” first published in the early 1700s; this American edition is inscribed 1786. Marking was “necessary and useful for training up the younger Sort of the Femal [sic] Kind to the Needle.”

OK, let’s mark some linen. Find a chart or a sampler for a pattern (see left). Take a sheet or a towel, a shirt or a shift, and a ball of red or blue marking cotton or silk.

Make a cross-stitch, taking the first diagonal stitch over two threads of the fabric, and then another for the other side of the X. Your letters and numbers must each be finished off separately and not connected by a thread on the back. They will be about seven X’s in height.

Depending on how fine your fabric is, that means your A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 might be (gulp) 3/8 of an inch tall! Yes, seven little stacked crosses making your initials only 3/8″ high. I think good eyes and a sunny window would help.

Is it any wonder that marking was considered painfully tedious? Any wonder that any alternative method of defending your linen was highly desirable?

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Just how bad was this sewing task? Maybe this list from prison records of the City of Boston in 1861 gives a hint. Notice the numbers?

As a student of plain work, I’m in awe of the blindingly tiny stitches that were used for marking. I’ve blogged about it some here and here. But anyone who studies plain sewing will notice that during the 19th century, a new solution was the solution: indelible ink!

Here’s a recipe (one of several) from The New Family Receipt-Book, 1811:

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Apparently the new and easier way caught on quickly. By 1833, Lydia Maria Child states in The Girl’s Own Book, “Indelible ink is now so much in use, that the general habit of marking samplers is almost done away.” Letters marked with ink could be very neat and elegant, such as this example on a lady’s chemisette, dated 1860.

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Or indelible ink could be somewhat … disappointing. Unlike stitches made with thread, you can’t pick out an uh-oh. Miss Colby probably cringed when she saw how this one turned out – an untidy finish to her corded stays.

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But wait! As we move from marking with needle and thread to marking with pen and ink, we’re moving into the decades of innovation: those glorious years celebrated by Great Exhibitions and more new patents than you could shake a stick at. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your cloth held taut while you wrote? A cloth stretcher could handle that.

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Apparently this 1850s cloth stretcher worked pretty well, if its inky condition is any indication. The inner disk rests inside the outer ring; simply place the cloth you want to mark over the center and then place the ring around it – rather like an embroidery hoop.

And if the ink got too messy, well, someone had an answer for that, too. An indelible marking pencil could solve all your linen identity crises. Housekeeper, is your “brain feeling considerably bothered” by directions for using ink? An indelible marking pencil can relieve it!

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From the Franklin Institute, 1859.

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Patented in 1859, this marking pencil has a suspiciously large amount of use left in it. But with later additional patents listed, it must have met with sufficient success.

Indelible ink, cloth stretchers, and marking pencils weren’t the only advances on cross-stitch. Stencils were available from stationers or engravers, and could be had by mail order. Mr. Congdon of Worcester, Massachusetts offered such aids, as seen in his ad from 1856:

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But would stencils work with small letters and numbers on linen? Fortunately, we have surviving examples to show that they worked quite well.

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Miss Hurlbut was probably a Mrs. Hurlbut. A search turned up this bit of genealogy:
“Cena B. Barrett m. Hiram Hurlbut 3 Feb. 1862, West Hartford, CT.”

And if thread, ink, pencil, and stencil didn’t suit, along came another option: ready-made. The machine embroidered letters came on a length of tape. They even came in Traditional Turkey Red.

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The pursuit of convenience was just as fervent in the 19th century as it is in ours today, but there have always been a few voices arguing the superiority of the old ways. They certainly kept marking in the needlework curriculum until the early 1900s. While requiring more skill and more time, marking with needle and thread rendered articles “ornamental, tidy, and finished.” I suppose the tiny marking stitches are the nicest way to make your mark – for all time!

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Pointed Remarks

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You have to admire the genius of early dressmakers and needleworkers. Trims were expensive in either time or money in the 19th century, and the feminine impulse to embellish even underclothing meant that a lady needed quite a few yards of lace, crochet or tatting. Or… tape.

Years ago I found a beautifully preserved petticoat, c1860, with a meticulously “pointed” edging on the hem – all 144 inches of it. I always meant to figure out how it was done and perhaps even make some myself. So when I came across an illustrated article with directions for “Tape-work Edging” I decided to tackle this embellishment.

Here is Mrs. Weaver’s tutorial from Peterson’s Magazine, 1864 (it appeared the same year in Godey’s Lady’s Book):
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Very quickly made, she says? For four days I struggled to come to terms with a strip of paper and a vandyke point. I left little piles of crumpled scraps on every table in the house. Pointless, you say? Belaboring the point? Had I missed the point? (Awful puns and I’m worse in person.) Perhaps. But I was sure it could work because I could see the finished result! It got to the point where I was almost ready to unstitch the petticoat’s trim to see how it was done. The point of no return, as it were.

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A view of the back of the vandyke, or pointed, edging on the petticoat. This trim, like the petticoat itself, was done completely by hand and not finished with a line of machine stitching.

And that’s where I figured it out. No, I didn’t disfigure a relic. I took a straight pin and explored the folds under a bright light.

If you knit, crochet, or are otherwise gifted at following turns (Origami?), this next part will not be of interest since you have no trouble with Mrs. Weaver’s directions. But just in case there’s another soul out there who wants some extra help, here are photos!

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I printed and cut out Mrs. Weaver’s pattern, and below it is my 1/2 inch strip of lined paper with the first fold made.

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I made a second fold, with the left (beginning) end of my paper tape still in a horizontal position.

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Same 2 folds, but I repositioned the end of my tape to match the pattern. And behold! It looked like the left side of the first point!

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The next folds were trickier; I twisted the tape into a cone shape, and then flattened it to make the right half of the point.

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To begin the second point, I folded the tape toward the front.

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Then I wrapped the tape around itself, and brought it out horizontally; the left half of the second point was done.

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Again I twisted the tape into a cone and then flattened it to make the right half of the second point.

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To begin the third point, I folded the tape toward the back. The beginning of each point alternates; one folded to the front, the next one folded to the back.

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Here again I wrapped the tape around itself, bringing the long working length out horizontally.

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Then I twisted and flattened a cone to complete the right side of the point. Third point done.

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A view from the back, three and a half points.

As for what kind of tape Mrs. Weaver recommended, it was “Chinese tape No. 4.”  I can’t help with the size, but I did find this on Chinese tape:

“…tape three-eighths of an inch wide, of that kind which, at some shops, is called “twilled tape,” “India tape,” “Chinese tape;” but it is of the kind that will not curl or get hard in the washing, and is rather coarse-looking than otherwise.”

That’s according to Godey’s, 1861, although it was repeated in other periodicals for the next 15 years. This tape must have been fairly inexpensive, because it takes a lot of it to make even a few inches.

These weren’t the only references to points and clothing (circa 1860s) that I’ve read recently. Fear in North Carolina: The Civil War Journals and Letters of the Henry Family is a fascinating look at daily life in the southern Appalachians during the war years. In it, Cornelia Henry mentions pointing several times, although I don’t know if she’s referring to the same technique.

“I have been sewing on a chemise for Zona today, it is pointed.”  “I finished my pointed chemise about 3 o’clock this evening.” “I sewed some on my pantlets, pointed and tucked one.” “I sewed some on my pointed night cap.” “I cut out myself a chemise this morning, going to trim it with pointed tape trimming, some Dora gave me last summer.”

Of course there are many other ways to make pointed trim, and I’m hoping to write about one that I’ve seen on a Regency era dress. However, I was determined to figure out this particular tape version for myself, and the satisfaction of victory was worth the frustration. I’ve got a suspicion that somewhere, in a book or on the internet, is a brilliant explanation that would have saved me much anguish. If you know where to find it, please be kind and don’t point it out?

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Four points completed.

Four points aft.

Four points from the back side, underside, inside, wrong side…

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Poofy, Floofy, and Slightly Goofy

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What on earth is it? This wildly ruffly confection that conforms to no known human shape? Where would you wear it, on your person or on your lampshade? How? Why? Take a look at the photo above and see if you know.

Fashion history lovers might recognize it right away, but if you haven’t, here are some hints. It’s cotton (obviously), it’s hand sewn (of course), and it’s old (or it wouldn’t be of interest here).

It measures about 10 x 11 – in certain positions, anyway. I mean, how do you measure something shaped like that? It has one button and four loops, and it uses three basic plain sewing techniques: hemming, seaming, and whipping.

A view from the rear.

A view from the rear.

With one loop & button fastened.

With one loop fastened to the button.

With two loops fastened. Like we're doing a strip-tease in reverse here.

With two loops fastened to the button. Like we’re doing a strip-tease in reverse.

A peek at the loop.

A peek at the loop.

A peek at the insertion. Notice the embroidery was meant for an edge rather than the center of a pattern. You use what you've got, right? Or maybe she had one of those "Aarrgh!" moments once she sewed it in. I'm familiar with those.

A peek at the insertion. Can you tell that the embroidery was meant for an edge rather than the center of a design? You use what you’ve got available, I suppose. Or maybe the maker had one of those “Aarrgh!” moments once she sewed it in. I’m familiar with those.

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A peek at the gathering cord. It’s different from the tiny flat tapes used for the loops. You can also see the “seaming” (a plain sewing term) where two selvages are almost invisibly joined.

A peek at how the tie is tacked on - and by now, you know what this is.

A peek at how the tie is tacked on – and by now, you know what this is.

Yes, you’re right. It’s one of those crazy caps that were popular during the Regency (to use the term loosely) era, outré beyond belief, and probably subject to a little ridicule. I suspect they were for morning or afternoon wear.

This little cap manages to achieve its frothy excess with an ingenious pattern. There are four points, fairly simple to cut, which are then looped around a single button on the top. The result is lots of muslin bling for the stitching.

And that’s not all. It reminds me a tiny bit of one in the Workwoman’s Guide (see Pl. 9, Fig. 10). The author’s comment reveals its practicality.

This shape is particularly liked by the poor, from the ease with which it is made up and washed, as, upon undrawing the string, it opens readily at the top, and lies quite flat to be ironed.

As an Artifact Rescuer, I certainly appreciate the ease of laundering! But the most surprising thing of all? It doesn’t look so silly, but rather charming when worn. The effect is extremely flattering. So caps off to the creator of this one!

An easy pattern. And that's saying something, coming from yours truly.

An easy pattern. And that’s saying something, coming from yours truly.

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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!

 

If Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt Shrank

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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?