A Dorset Knot – I mean Knob – Button

Dorset Knob 1
Dorset Knob Buttons, c1800

The Dorset Button! Not the more common flat disk with thread spokes, but a “high top,” a tiny sphere wrapped in a spider’s web of thread. I mentioned in the Love Shirt post that I would explain how I made the buttons for the shirt – a non-documented, unauthenticated version for the directionally challenged: me. Believe me, before I finished the trial button, it did look more like a Dorset Knot. But I persevered.

The originals I wanted to copy are pictured above. They seemed to be stuffed with a kind of fiber, but the base was a black substance with a greenish-yellow cast and waxy look. It had puzzled me for years. Then after reading about Dorset Knobs in 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make (you want this book!), I realized they must be made of horn.

Dorset Knob 3
You can see the horn button base on the original.

I didn’t have horn buttons, so I used shell instead, about 1 cm in diameter. I cut a little square of linen, about 3.5 cm, and on that I traced and cut out a circle larger than the button. The scraps served as stuffing for the knob. Waste not, want not. (Although you might get a smoother result with cotton or wool batting.)

Next I ran a gathering stitch around the circle, put the scraps in the center with the flat button on top, pulled the gathers tight, and stitched them closed. Voilà! The mold!

Then I wrapped thread around the button in a compass rose pattern and anchored it. Beginning at the top, I circumnavigated the button, taking a backstitch around each “spoke” and moving on to the next. It was a bit fiddly, having to smush the lumpiness of the mold and realign the spokes as I worked toward the base.

Once I had made a final pass around the base, I took a few stitches to anchor it all. And then I had to make four more.

For those who like pictures better, see below. For those who want a more authentic method, see the book mentioned above. And for everyone else… well, there’s always velcro.

Dorset Knob Supplies
All you need to make a Dorset Knob Button. That’s a Bohin needle by the way, my new most fave!
Stuffed and gathered.
Stuffed and gathered.
Thread laced in spokes around the mold.
Thread laced in spokes around the mold.

this next

Dorset Knob Weaving
Circumnavigating the globe: backstitching around each spoke before going on to the next. Or back one, forward two.
Dorset Knob Done!
Dorset Knob Done!

A One Stitch Wonder

Calico Full

I’ve always loved order and simplicity. That sounds awfully smug, but I shouldn’t commend myself since it’s probably because my brain can’t handle very much at one time. This craving for minimalism is getting worse as I get older. Try googling the minimalist lifestyle and maybe you’ll see the attraction! Or not.

A conversation the other day started me thinking about simplicity in plain sewing. Hmm. What was the most basic stitch? Well, anyone who uses old sewing machines knows you can do just about anything with a straight stitch, which is closest to a backstitch in hand sewing.

But backstitching wasn’t the primary stitch in 19th century sewing manuals, nor was running, as I learned when I studied plain needlework instruction. It was hemming. That’s the little slanted stitch that you would use to (surprise!) hem something. Once your hemming was neat enough, you could learn to work other stitches.

Hemming
“Simple hemming is the first step on the road to proficiency in needlework.”

By the way, I’ve noticed that most costume historians, or at least ones I’ve heard and read, call this same stitch “whip” instead of “hem.” For example, “the edge is folded back and whip stitched in place.” But then, why shouldn’t they? I understand perfectly what they mean. If you’ve seen my post on muslin you’ll know I’ve come to terms with terms!

Getting back to simplicity. I decided to go closet diving for something that used only that one stitch, hemming, to construct a garment. And I found it! A Regency era calico baby dress. Granted, it didn’t have enough pattern pieces to warrant many stitches. But the whole gown was made by hemming!

Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.
Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.

Or was it? Well, in my eagerness to find what I was looking for, I didn’t look close enough, and I didn’t think it through.

The skirt was made of one piece and hemmed, check. The casings for the strings were hemmed, check. The tiny ruffles on the sleeves were hemmed, check.

Calico Hem
Hem.
Calico Sleeve
Casings for drawstrings.
Sleeve ruffles.
Sleeve ruffles.
Calico Back
Back opening.

The bodice was hemmed to the skirt – whoa! Wait a minute. That wasn’t right. Things were unraveling. I mean my clever discovery, not the little frock.

Yes, the stitches looked the same at first glance, but any experience (or a practical mind) would tell you that you have to hold those two pieces face to face and sew them together. That makes it seaming, as they would have said, or overcasting, as we’d say today. Same thing for the ruffles attached to the sleeves.

And there was more. The tiny bodice sides, all three-quarter inch of them, were running stitch. As were the sleeves to the body – and then overcast!

So much for that, no single stitch here. I confess it doesn’t really bother me too much that it’s not pure minimalist stitching. I’m learning to slow down and look closer. And it’s still a wonder of simplicity!

The Love Shirt

Love Shirt Cuff
The Love Shirt, a replica by Yours Truly

Ta da! After ten grueling years (ok, I don’t really know how long, but it has been years) I finally finished a 19th century gentleman’s square-cut shirt of fine linen. Complete with all twenty parts, including the frill. And Dorset knob buttons.

Where did the name come from? Well, a long time ago a friend and I (I miss you, Janet!) were studying one of these shirts, one that had a heart-bit (see that blog). We reached frantically for our vinaigrettes, trying not to swoon on the artifact, as visions of Mr. Darcy flitted around the room. Somehow we started calling that handsome relic The Love Shirt. So it has been to me, ever since. And I wanted to make one myself.

That type of linen is impossible to find nowadays. However, a dear friend (thanks, Dianne!) provided the closest thing possible, and with a pattern from an 1820 book, I commenced.

Darned little gussets, all the work I did backstitching was mostly hidden when assembled.
Darned little gussets, all the work I did backstitching was mostly hidden when assembled.

Unfortunately I have a memory like Dory, so every time I put away the project for a spell, I’d have to practically learn how to do the next step all over. A 19th century seamstress would have been appalled to see me.

Love Shirt FullUm, do I sew both ends of XYZ before I ABC? Do I cut or fold first? Did I sew the sleeve on backwards? Oops. Front and back are the same before the collar goes on, right? Not if you hemmed them first. Oh right, I was supposed to check that I was putting the slit in the front. Well… I’ll just cut the back shorter and make it be the front. And my g-g-g-g-great-grandmother could make one of these in a day or so? How embarrassing.

I did learn a lot. I learned how hard it is to backstitch over two threads without going blind. I learned that there is NO not-shiny sewing thread available today. I learned that linen thread breaks, other people’s buttonholes always look nicer than mine, knots are usually unnecessary, even poor work looks better when ironed, and a drawn thread is no guarantee you’ll sew a straight line. I learned that you had to love your man, or love survival to make one of these. And I learned how to make Dorset knob buttons, my own way! Maybe I’ll write about that next time.

Love Shirt Cuff
You can see the backstitching that nearly blinded me. And you can see the gauging thread I used to hold the stroked gathers in place. I’m going to leave it there a loooong time.

A Heart-bit for St. Valentine’s Day

Heart-bit? No, I don’t mean smitten with love, phrased in a folksy sort of way. I mean a little bit, or piece, in the shape of a heart! Worn right over the heart.

Heart Bit Shirt
Heart-bit with decorative knots on an early 19th century man’s fine linen shirt. The shirt was rescued from captivity where it had been altered and abused with scissors, sewing machines, and synthetic trim!

That perfect specimen of plain sewing, The Shirt, has a romantic soul. Back in days when shirts were only slit down the front, and not buttoned closed the full length, that end of the opening was vulnerable to tearing. There were various ways to prevent it, and I came across references to this lovely way when researching early sewing instructions. For example, Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, 1789, gives a description of cutting linen for shirts:

This half overplus being a quarter of a yard in length, serves to cut out hearts for the bosoms.

 Or a sewing manual from 1833:

 HEART-BIT

Before commencing the shirt, small pieces of muslin are given to each girl, for the purpose of learning to settle in, and work the breast-gusset.

Of course not all shirts had them. Some had a triangular gussets, or a buttonholed reinforcement, or a tiny rectangular piece to prevent a tear, and some had nothing at all. But you have to love linen with a heart!

Heart Bit Shirt 2
Another early 19th century man’s fine linen shirt, with a beautifully worked heart-bit. Unlike the shirt above, this lucky gentleman spent his retirement carefully packed away.
Heart Bit Chemise
An early 19th century woman’s chemise made of muslin, showing she had a heart, too.
Heart Bit Manual
A girl’s sewing manual from the mid-19th century displays an alternative shape for the gusset, but still called in the instructions a Heart-piece.

Plain Meets Fancy

Infant Sacque
An infant’s sacque: a miniature version of Mother’s.

If I kept my attention only on plain work, I suppose I would be very limited indeed. And truly, the impulse to add ornamentation seems timeless and universal. Often the pretty pieces I study reveal high standards in the basic plain stitches, but also have considerable fancywork on them.

Infant Sacque, left
The profile reflects women’s styles of the same era.

Here is one example which just seems to shout Baby Version of Mommy’s 1870 Upholstered Look! Notice the dropped shoulders, two-piece sleeves and sort of tabbed lower edge, with its allowance for a wee bustle? I doubt baby wore one, but the cut of the sacque would have suited it! The pattern is a match for women’s garments of the late 1860s and early 1870s.

The Look, c1870
Pretty fussy back! But I love it.
The Look, c1870
The Look, c1870

It’s made of a very fine muslin – a previous owner must have bleached it white again – and uses basic hemming, running, and stitching (called backstitching today).  It shows some of the earliest use of (what we call today) a french seam on the sides and shoulders. The sleeve seams are overcast.

Infant sacque, right
I’d love to see this with a poofy baby bustle! Not likely, sigh.

The sacque has a high collar with hand-embroidered trim and fastens with a single mother of pearl button and thread loop. There’s a buttonhole hiding under the trim on the collar, but Mother must have decided it was too tight or difficult to fasten. The same trim edges the front, hem, and cuffs. There’s even a bit of piping.

Infant sacque collar
Close up of the collar & fastening.

The cuffs were taken up with a hidden tuck to fit shorter arms, and they also have tiny thread tassels. I thought at first the threads were drawstrings for the cuffs, but closer examination shows them to be attached separately and knotted around… a bit of wool? …held with glue? I can’t see it well enough to tell, but it has yellowed over time.

Infant sacque, cuffs
Close-up of the little cuffs – you can just see the tassels.
Infant sacque, back view
A view of the back, showing the pattern.

The trim down the front is turned toward the center, the opening.  This is typical of 19th century clothing, although my modern expectation is to see tucks or trims folded or facing outward (toward the arms).

In all, it’s plain made fancy. And enough to make me swoon over the tiny confection!

All’s Fair

S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860
S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860

Once upon a time, folks from all over would gather, bringing their best work to show off, to compete for prizes, and to sell. These were the agricultural fairs, a tradition whose roots go back many centuries and places. Nineteenth century America saw their development as a way to encourage innovation. By mid-century, agricultural societies were flourishing.

Today their records are a rich source of information on agricultural and domestic history of the era.  The premiums, which ranged from a few cents (female enterprise) to substantial sums (men’s categories!) must have been the source of great pride, outrage, bickering and boasting – oh to have been there to hear the drama! I spent a happy afternoon several years ago in a university library poring over the books full of juicy details. Yes, that was before google books.

“An embroidered map of Savannah… best collection of fall peaches … beautiful specimens of sewing silk … second best profane landscape … woolen counterpane, maker’s name unknown … from the crowded state of the room, and the great number of articles present, several paintings could not be found …  second best cow “Eloise” … the committee exhibited a marked partiality for apple pies, and awarded with singular unanimity fifty cents each to Mrs. … a basket of superb wax flowers, which the chairman of the committee on flowers pronounced superior to any in his department of natural ones … S. D., 7 years of age, worsted work executed while lying on his back with a broken thigh, .50 … worsted quilt, said to contain 9765 pieces; ingenuity and labor … lemons of enormous size, preserved in alcohol…” – the list fills volumes.

Crackers, lightning rods, stoves, plows, false teeth, butter, Muscovy ducks, headstones, cologne, down tippets, dog’s hair socks, essays, fishing boots, parsnips, daguerreotypes, golden pippins, rocking chairs, canaries, grain bags, gold pens, baby-tender. Was there anything they didn’t show?

To paraphrase one report, I am greatly embarrassed on account of the limited means placed at my disposal to mention such a large number of exhibits, and I wish to say, that I doubt not there are many articles not noticed which are as well worthy of premium or gratuity as some which have been thus honored. I am reluctantly compelled to pass them over.

Fair Chemise 2
Hand Sewn Chemise

One category is especially interesting to me: plain sewing (surprise!). Here are some examples from the Sandy Creek, Richland, Orwell, & Boylston Agricultural Society of New York, c1860.

The chemises are exquisite, and it’s easy to see why their maker entered them in competition. I regret to say that I don’t know if they won a prize or not. There was no record of one with them. Nonetheless, they are fine work and perhaps the maker would be even more pleased if she knew how much, and how long, they would be admired!

By the way, check the calendar and visit your own state or local fair. If you’ve never toured the exhibits before, you’ll be amazed!

A Grief Preserved

Because most plain sewing items (at least those I study and collect) are white, I confess I sometimes get weary of plain white! I love the variety of early cotton prints, the charming patterns and colors. Children’s dresses from the early 1800s are a good example of garments that could be very simple to make with only plain sewing skills. In fact, there is a very early book called Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor; Principally Intended for the Assistance of Patronesses of Sunday Schools and Other Charitable Institutions, but Useful in All Families that describes the process.

For those who would like more detail and patterns that they can easily use today, there is another book, The Lady’s Economical Assistant, which has been reproduced after the 1808 edition, available from Kannick’s Korner.

I came across this one day while surfing for children’s print dresses.

John Marsden Dress

It is a simple child’s gown dating to 1803 that has a story, one I could never imagine. Made of a shabby, sweet calico print, it is typical for its day: simple in cut, with a little frill around the high collar. The tragedy lies in the last day it was worn. John Marsden was two years old when he died after being scalded in an accident at home.

The Marsden family were among the earliest to arrive from England to live in New South Wales and the Powerhouse Museum website has more information on the family and this collection.

I don’t need to create imaginary stories for this dress, since his mother said enough, “The loss of those I have parted from weighs so much on my mind that at times I am as miserable as it is possible to be – outwardly I may appear cheerful but I am very far from being happy – indeed happiness and me seem long since to have parted and I have a presentiment that peace will never more be an inhabitant of my bosom.”

Mulling it Over

Ah, the quest to identify the delicate fabric! So many surviving caps, collars, aprons, and gowns. Mull, book, or clear muslin; longcloth, cambric, nainsook, lawn, batiste. Not to mention spotted, sprigged, flowered, figured, checked, worked, striped, and embroidered!

Cross-barred Muslin
Gossamer-thin collar of cross-barred muslin with a sheer muslin frill.

Because so many of the textiles that fascinate me are white cotton or linen, my inquiring mind wanted to know what to call that pretty little antique baby gown – mull? Cambric or jaconet? Swiss, Indian, or Scottish manufacture? Surely something more than white cotton!

Muslin Pink Spotted
Infant gown of pink spotted muslin.
Spotted Muslin
Cap of spotted muslin with edging of plain muslin embroidered with scallops and eyelets.
Muslin Cap
Three different types of cotton in one piece: airy frill, ribbed body, and a sturdier foundation for the embroidered insertion.
Muslin Apron
Apron of thin cotton, Dresden embroidery.

So many names show up in period writing. Some of the adjectives are unambiguous: spots are spots, then and now. But for years I puzzled over terms and asked any textile historian I came across (ok, there weren’t many) to explain how to identify each kind. Silly me.

I searched novels and dictionaries, magazines and swatch books, sewing textbooks and inventories galore. And guess what? Even more confusion. My eyes became as “glazed muslin.”  There was no consistency or authoritative answer to what was what. Or at least not enough for me to astonish my friends with my blindfold fabric naming tricks.

Yes, lawn and cambric were once only linen, names denoting origin; voile came rather late for my area of interest. And  often the context of the term (especially when it was attached to a dated sample!) was extremely useful. But I was looking for an answer that wasn’t. I mean, there isn’t one definitive answer, consistent for all times and places. The evolution of the stuff, as well as language, has seen to that!

After all, a maker who calls a fabric by one name, the wearer half a world away who calls it something else, and the lucky one who finds it in an attic 200 years later and doesn’t know what to call it – may all refer to the same thing. It all depends on Who, Where, and When. So I guess I’ll just call it all muslin!

Muslin
Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore,
image courtesy V&A

Speaking of books and muslin … the V&A published a book last year, Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore, and it’s my latest chair-side companion. Superb research, gorgeous photos – a must-have for any historic costume/textile enthusiast.

And anyone who wants more information on period textiles will find Florence Montgomery’s Textiles in America, 1650-1870, Sally Queen’s Textiles for Colonial Clothing, Textiles for Clothing of the Early Republic by Lynne Basset (the whole series, actually), and All About Cotton by Julie Parker to be excellent resources – and all but the first have samples!

Oh! And then there’s A Lady of Fashion, Dating Fabrics, Clues in the Calico

Post scriptum (ancora imparo and all that):

From The New Encyclopaedia, 1807, a hint of how muslin compared,
Cotton Goods are divided into different classes, each proportionally lighter than the other. The heaviest of these are, 1st. Shirtings, 2d. Cambrics, 3d. Cossias, 4th. Jaconetts, 5th. Lawn grounds, 6th. Mulls, 7th. Books.

Roasted Gussets

Baby Shirt Original
Baby shirt of linen, early 19th century, with the tiniest of stitches – and gussets!

Is there anything more trying than trying to remember how to insert a gusset? So many ways! The fabric and the placement of this little triangle may incline us toward one method or another, but for someone as construction-challenged as I am, it means once again pulling out a sample to go by – or some instructions.

We’ve all heard the story of the roast that was cut before roasting because “Mother always did it that way.”  Perhaps the point (no pun intended) may be applied to gussets in this case as well. We know that some garments required gussets for fit and ease of movement, particularly those of a “square-cut” pattern. They were very effective and often quite beautifully executed.

Gusset Tiny
This gusset is so tiny it could almost sit on the dime and swing its legs!

Well here is an example of roasted gussets: have you ever seen anything so tiny, so exquisitely worked – and so unnecessary?  I ask you, what use were these lovely little bits of linen to the baby’s comfort? None at all, I daresay. But shirts and shifts had gussets, so there they are. Oh my goodness, what inspiration for a clumsy novice like me! And as you can see below, I was willing to try. Unfortunately my efforts didn’t quite measure up. At least the baby will never notice!

Baby Shirt Copy
Baby shirt of muslin, early 21st century by yours truly, with an attempt at the tiniest of stitches – and gussets!
Gusset Copy
I didn’t even have the courage to use the same style gusset. Maybe next time….