In the Captain’s Room

Sewing Cat

If you’re anywhere near the north Georgia mountains next weekend, please stop by the Hardman Farm State Historic Site for the Fall Celebration Festival on Saturday, October 14 from 10-4.

HardmanI’ll be sewing in Captain Nichols’ room, which will be outfitted for the 1910s with a 1914 hand crank machine, Miss Leah (a 1916 dress form), and an early garment drafting system that looks like a torture device, as well as all the hand sewing accoutrements necessary for a visiting seamstress.

I’ll be making doll clothes from patterns in the Mary Frances Sewing Book. Or at least fudgeling. I’m better at that than sewing!

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A Working Workbox

Workbox 01

When Winnie the Pooh ate all the honey from the jar he had intended for Eeyore’s birthday present, he decided to give him a Useful Pot instead. I’ve always loved that story. Everybody needs a “Useful Pot to put things in.”

Like Eeyore, I’m awfully fond of Useful Pots – and boxes, and bags, and – well, anything that will hold red balloons or other Stuff. I found this pretty little box a long time ago, and even though it was missing any contents, the workmanship was neat and the condition was wonderful – and it had a key! My plan was to make period appropriate Stuff to go inside. Stuff I could actually use instead of conserve. And like all my projects, it’s taken a whooooole lot longer than I thought.

Workbox 02

It probably dates mid- to late 19th century, although I tend to think later. I don’t know if it was professionally made and sold, but it seems to have a hint of “home-made” about it. It’s smaller than average, but everything about it is sturdy, smooth, and fits together perfectly. There was no need to refinish or even re-paper it.

Workbox 03

You can see the clever way the center compartment was crafted. The wooden support slants down so that you press the lid on that end and the other pops up to be lifted!

There are three kinds of paper lining: the orange you see above (which was a added in its youth), the blue on the underside of the tray, and traces of an original gold-stamped pattern in deep pink, just peeking out from under the orange in places, all typical of the era.

Workbox 04

The underside of the tray. It doesn’t look as shabby in person. Really.

What went in a workbox? It seems pretty obvious, but I like Useful Lists as well as boxes. The Workwoman’s Guide, c1840, devotes a paragraph to the subject.

A work-box, or basket, should be large enough to hold a moderate supply of work and all its requisites, without being of such a size as to be inconvenient to carry about, or lift with ease. There should be in it divisions or partitions, as they assist in keeping it in order; but some persons are apt to run into the extreme of over-partitioning their boxes, which defeats its own purpose and becomes troublesome; this should be carefully avoided. A work-box should contain six or eight of the useful sized white reel sewing cottons, black cotton, and silks, white, black, and coloured, both round, and for darning; a few useful tapes, bobbin, galloon, buttons of all kinds, including thread, pearl, metal, and black; also, hooks and eyes. An ample needlebook, containing a page of kerseymere for each sized needle, not omitting the darning, glove, stay, and worsted or carpet needles. There are various kinds of scissors; the most useful are, A large pair, for cutting out linen; A medium size, for common use; A small pair with rounded points; A smaller pair with sharper points, for cutting out muslin work &c.; Lace scissors with a flat knob at one of the points; Button-hole scissors. A pincushion, an emery cushion, a waxen reel for strengthening thread, a stiletto, bodkins, a thimble, a small knife, and a yard measure, made like a carpenter’s foot rule, only with nails instead of inches marked upon it….”

And in 1848, with true Victorian prolixity (but who am I to scoff?), The Seamstress advises

The materials employed in the construction of articles, which come under the denomination of plain needlework, are so various, that a mere list of them would occupy more than half our space; and they are so well known, that no necessity exists for naming them in detail. [She then proceeds to do so.] We shall therefore proceed, at once, to give plain directions, by which any lady may soon become expert in this necessary department of household uses, merely observing, that a neat work-box, well supplied with all the implements required – including knife, scissors (of at least three sizes) needles and pins in sufficient variety, bodkins, thimbles, thread and cotton, bobbins, marking silks, black lead pencils, india rubber, &c., should be provided, and be furnished with a lock and key, to prevent the contents being thrown into confusion by children [mea culpa], servants [don’t I wish], or unauthorized intruders [like a cat?].

Workbox 05

The empty thread compartments were my first challenge. Finding authentic period spools was impossible, so if I wanted a matched set of “reels” I’d have to make my own. I found a swan design that I liked, and invented “Swann’s Best Cotton” and “Swann’s Finest Silk.” I pasted them on wooden spools and can now wind any thread I like onto them. (We know how soon that’s gonna happen, right?)

Workbox 06

While the inventor’s genius was flaring within me, I decided to patent some hooks and eyes as well. A little research turned up Mary Jenkins, a widow, who actually DID patent her superior hooks and eyes in the 1840s. (Wouldn’t you love to know her story?) I have an antique box of hooks and eyes with no “brand,” so I just added her name to make my own version. A salute to female ingenuity!

Workbox 07

Now what about female persistence in the face of adversity? Idiot that I am, I also wanted some silk winders. A “homemade Victorian craft look” was what I was aiming for, not easy when you have no talent for art. I drew a pattern and my helpful husband cut them out of matboard for me. An 1840s French needlework magazine supplied the floral graphics which I scanned and tidied up. I added them to the winders and watercolored the flowers. Yes, I can color pictures! So far, so good. But then I thought they needed gold edges – mistake! It took forever to paint them all on, both sides, straight, and I will never try that again.

Workbox 08

Workbox 09

No self-respecting workbox could be useful without a needlebook. Punched paper was all the rage mid to late century, and I thought that would suit the style of the box better than something fancier in silk. The floral pattern is from the Antique Pattern Library. The interior has wool flannel for holding needles, and the letters are from a Victorian marking pattern. Ok, the letters weren’t much different, but it allowed me the illusion of historicity!

Workbox 10

One more project was on my list. I love the little walnut sewing trinkets that were popular, from fancy etuis to those made-at-home with scraps – which now sell for a small fortune as primitives! So I took a half shell and stuffed it with velvet covered wool, and then trimmed it with a green silk ribbon to complement the other colors. It kind of looks like I’ve turned a walnut into a strawberry disguised as a pincushion. Maybe I was hungry at the time.

Workbox 11

Workbox 13

A tassel for the key helps keep track of it. I’m also playing with the idea of a (removeable) label for the top and/or a card tucked inside. I’ve seen an antique with “Work-Box” on the lid which really caught my fancy but was out of my budget. The graphics I experimented with above are all authentic designs (Ackermann’s Repository, etc.). But I may not bother, since I’m debating taking it to the next heritage festival with a FOR SALE sign. This one took me so long that now I’ve got another box waiting its turn at rehab and I’m running out of room!

Workbox 12

Workbox 14In the meantime, all the buttons, wax, scissors, bodkins and other requisites for lady’s work can stay tidy in a Useful Box.

 

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In This Corner

LM Embr 5

And in this corner we have the challenger: an 18th century pattern of a floral sprig from the Lady’s Magazine, 1776!

When I read about the Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch Off a few weeks ago, I knew it was something I wanted to do. Firstly, because I love early women’s magazines; secondly, because of the Jane Austen connection; and finally, because I could suit my project to my skill level – dabbler seems fitting.

A two-inch flower on a plain muslin pocket handkerchief, worked in a simple chainstitch with some wonderful Au Ver à Soie, would be just right. And perhaps some historical touches to set the mood.

I had visions of myself sitting at my worktable to pounce the pattern, then deftly working the little sprig with an elderly tambour hook. That might occupy me for an hour or two, then I’d pop it in the mail to the Chawton House Library “Emma at 200” exhibit. How hard could it be?

LM Embr 1

Here’s my fantasy, what I wanted to happen. Note the 18th century embroidery I was looking at for inspiration – carefully folded so the damaged areas don’t spoil the effect.

Well, Fantasy was introduced to Reality fairly soon. I realized that the pouncing powder I’ve had (unopened) for 20 years required a little more research and practice to use than I wanted for such a small project. What’s so bad about using a disappearing marking pen after all?

LM Embr 2

Here’s the reality, modern day all the way. Notice anything glaringly wrong here?

So next came the tambour hook I’d been dying to try. It seems there’s more to using one than just picking it up and poking it in and out. Not to mention that the ancient point had a tendency to shred a few threads along the way. What’s wrong with using a needle?

Ok, I started with the needle and made it about halfway before I thought: ick! No two chainstitches were alike. I picked it out and decided to try a sort of running/darning stitch, also common on period pieces. Bleh. It looked worse than the first attempt, so I picked all that out and decided it would have to be chainstitch after all.

Well, I did better on the third try. But when I was almost done, I felt something didn’t look right. Maybe you spotted it already? I had put the muslin back in the hoop underside up. And there it would remain. Six hours into this two-inch project, I was not doing it over.

The hemming went better than the embroidery. I didn’t really mind that one side had a wider hem than the other three. But the flower centers looked a little plain. I thought I’d try some microscopic drawn thread work. Isn’t it amazing how fearless ignorance can be?

LM Embr 4

You can barely see the drawnwork in the flower centers. At least I hope you can barely see it!

Another six hours later I was done. Then I remembered my calling. Plain needlework! I could not send this handkerchief out into the world without marking it. A silk monogram was beyond my ability, and turkey red thread would be out of place on this mouchoir de poche. So I used blue cotton (I’ve seen real examples) and started on my initials in the opposite corner.

LM Embr 3

A mono-(in the most literal sense)-gram letter “M” worked in cotton from a period pattern. Most early marking charts I’ve seen had letters seven X’s tall.

It hurt. Not just squinting to see the threads, but to realize I’d placed the “M” too close to the corner to add my other initial. It kind of looks like I meant it to be that way, so I won’t tell anyone.
P.S. Check out the Stitch Off Facebook page too, you’ll see some gorgeous examples of embroidery by people who really know how. In color, no less! Maybe you’ll be inspired to participate?

So Pretty!

SK Pincushion

A lovely seashell pincushion, crafted by Sherry Key, from 19th century instructions.

Sherry sews seashells, too! I was tickled to hear from a reader who sent a photo of her seashell pincushion, and couldn’t resist sharing. She did have to add another layer of fabric to make the “bag” for it, since the directions (unsurprisingly) left a little to be desired.

She Sews Sea Shells

An original Victorian era pin cushion, courtesy of AmericanaAntiques.

An original Victorian era pin cushion, courtesy of AmericanaAntiques.

Summer will be coming to an end soon, although temperatures here in the south will be summery for many weeks yet. Collecting keepsakes to remind ourselves of happy places is nothing new. Victorians made it into quite an art. Literally!

I was browsing an 1860 book of toys for little girls, and came across these directions for a charming pin cushion. Hmm … a new project? Victorian shell art reached heights that defy description, but this little trinket is so simple and sweet that every workbox deserves one!

Shell Pin Cushion 1Shell Pin Cushion 2

PSPSROM

The reward of merit: a token of our appreciation.

P.S. If you make one, please share a picture? You will receive a token of gratitude (inscribed with your name) from the Plain Sewing Preservation Society!

Googling Poonah in 1907, or What’s in Your Workbox?

Theorem Painted Box 1

19th century paper box with theorem-painted velvet lid. At least I think that’s what it is, I don’t know for certain. Additional information welcome!

I’ve always had a thing for little boxes, and when I came across this one I was delighted. I’m not sure why, because it’s not especially pretty now. It probably wasn’t a whole lot better in its own day! But it’s just the sort of trinket I like to put in a workbox to add, um, character.

The painted velvet on top was intriguing, and it didn’t take a lot of searching before I began to see the term “theorem painting” pop up. Apparently it was all the rage with crafty ladies in the early to mid-nineteenth century. It was a type of stenciling that was supposed to be very easy to do, although it wasn’t held in high esteem by the Genuinely Artistic.

While browsing some ladies’ magazines of the era, I finally made the connection between theorem and Poonah painting. And I learned that it doesn’t take long for a fad to fade! What on earth was a body to do in the days before search engines?

Well, in 1907 J. A. H. Murray of Oxford went to the Google of his day, Notes & Queries, a Medium of Communication for Literary Men (cough cough), General Readers, Etc. 1907.

Poonah Painting—I want information about this. I can remember that there was something so called in vogue about 1856, but have quite forgotten what it was. I find the following references:—

1821, Examiner, p. 272: “To Ladies—The Poonah Taught in a superior style, Ladies instructed in the above Elegant Art, together with a variety of Fashionable and Ornamental Works.”

1829, ‘The Young Lady’s Book,’ 469: “A piece of tracing-paper, of a peculiar manufacture, which is sold at the stationers’ shops as Poonah-paper.”

1840, Thackeray, ‘Paris Sketch-Book’, 153: “What are called ‘mezzotints,’ pencil drawings, ‘poonah-paintings,’ and what not.”

1861, Sala, ‘Twice Round the Clock.’ 179: “An eight-day clock, two pairs of silver grape-scissors, a poonah-painted screen, a papier-mache workbox, an assortment of variegated floss-silk.”

1889, Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, II. 48: “If the plate be a large one, it may be applied by using a strong hog-hair or poonah brush charged with vermillion.”

After all this, the word does not, so far as I see, occur in any dictionary, and is even entirely missed by ‘ The Encyclopedia Britannica ’ and The Times Supplement. What were poonah painting and poonah paper? What is a poonah brush? Speedy information is desired.

J. A. H. MURRAY. Oxford.

Don’t you just love how he came up with the same kind of snippets that Google does? What on earth would he think of how fast “speedy” is now! His search wasn’t over, however. Readers speedily came to his aid with more information, just like a special interest forum today.

POONAH PAINTING- ​Two well-remembered accessories of my golden age were a tubby little copy of ‘ The Boy’s Own Book,’ inherited from an earlier generation, and a smart, red-coated, gilt-edged volume which offered itself as ‘The Girl’s Own Book,’ and was, compared with the other, “ as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine.” It was, however, of it that I thought when I saw Dr. Murray’s question, for I believed that it conveyed the mystery of Poonah painting; and, having obtained the loan of the book from a working nursery, I am glad to find that I was right. I have before me a copy of the fourteenth edition of ‘ The Girl’s Own Book,’ by Mrs. Child (author of ‘ The Mother’s Book,’ ‘ Frugal Housewife,’ ‘ Mother’s Story Book,’ 820.), which was published by William Tegg & Co., Cheapside, in 1848.

The directions for Poonah painting are set forth on pp. 208-9. I read :—

POONAH PAINTING. This style of painting requires nothing but care and neatness. The outline of whatever you wish to paint is drawn with the point of a needle on transparent paper, and then cut out with sharp scissors. No two parts of the bird, or flower, which touch each other, must be cut on the same piece of paper. Thus on one bit of transparent paper I cut the top and bottom petal of a rose; on another piece I cut the leaves at the two opposite sides, &c. Some care is required in arranging the theorems, so that no two parts touching each other shall be used at the same time.

It is a good plan to make a drawing on a piece of white paper, and mark No. 1 upon all the leaves you can cut on the first theorem, without having them meet at any point; No. 2 on all you can cut in the same way on the second theorem, and so on. After all the parts are in readiness, lay your theorem upon your drawing paper, take a stiff brush of bristles, cut like those used in velvet colours, fill it with the colour you want, and put it on as dry as you possibly can, moving the brush round and round in circles, gently, until your leaf is coloured as deep as you wish. Where you wish to shade, rub a brush filled with the dark colour you want, carefully round and round the spot you wish to shade. Petal after petal, leaf after leaf, is done in this way, until the perfect flower is formed.

No talent for drawing is necessary in this work; for the figure is traced on transparent paper, and then the colours are rubbed over the holes, in the same manner they paint canvass carpets. In the choice of colours, you must be guided by the pattern you copy. The light colour which forms the ground-work is put on first, and the darker colours shaded on after it is quite dry. Green leaves should be first made bright yellow; then done all over with bright green; then shaded with indigo. A very brilliant set of colours in powder have been prepared for this kind of painting; if these be used, they must be very faithfully ground with a bit of glass, or smooth ivory.If the colours are put on wet, they will look very badly. The transparent paper can be prepared in the following manner: cover a sheet of letter-paper with spirits of turpentine, and let it dry in the air; then varnish one side with copal varnish; when perfectly dry, turn it, and varnish the other side.

I hope the above description of Poonah-painting method may satisfy DR. MURRAY, but I should require something more lucid if I wished to practise the spurious art. The part about the paper is clear enough. I possessed some which I inherited with an old paint-box. They were round, flat ended, and perhaps from a quarter to half an inch in diameter. I think DR. MURRAY postdates the vogue of Poonah painting by about twenty years. It was not fashionable in 1856. ST. SWITHIN.

Do I detect a slightly snippy tone in the last paragraph? The comment about the date is certainly interesting. Here’s one more response:

My recollection of Poonah painting as a boy is that it was a kind of stencilling. Poonah paper was a sheet of some rather thick, semi-transparent substance. Out of this were cut the shapes of leaves, petals of flowers, &c. The Poonah paper was laid on the paper to be ornamented, and colour applied to the cut-out spaces with a stiff brush cut flat at the end. The apertures were moved about till a perfect flower had been formed. SHERBORNE.

Sherborne House, Northleach.

So concluded my search for Poonah painting. Of course I had to locate a piece of white velvet to add to my stash, and maybe one day I’ll make an attempt at it myself. After all, “no talent for drawing is necessary in this work,” although “I should require something more lucid if I wished to practise the spurious art!”

Theorem Painted Box 2

Another view with the flowers turned the other way. I’m not sure what kind they are, and I don’t know which is right side up! Maybe it doesn’t matter.