Paper Flowers

Paper Flowers 1

Mrs. Delany & Her Circle, edited by Mark Laird and Alicia Weisberg-Roberts.

How have I missed this for so long? It’s been reviewed elsewhere – when it was new – but I just can’t resist sharing, even belatedly, whenever I find a gorgeous book.

Published in 2009 to accompany an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, it was my Christmas present last month and all I want to do is rave about how brilliant, beautiful, and beguiling Mrs. Delaney & Her Circle is. And not just the book, I think Mrs. Delany herself must have been an astonishing woman.

She can’t be considered a polymath, or even an opsimath (don’t you love that one?), but in an 18th century upper-class lady’s world of art, learning, and taste, it seems like she dabbled in it all – at least, all my favorites! From craftwork to costume, needlework to natural philosophy, her interests included everything beautiful.

The image on the front cover and first words of the jacket blurb were enough to get my attention. “At the age of seventy-two, Mary Delany, née Mary Granville (1700-1788), embarked upon a series of nearly a thousand botanical collages” – what, she only started her paper flowers at that age? I can still hope?

Paper Flowers 3Indeed, the book is packed with illustrations of her stunning “mosaicks” of botanical beauty. There is a wealth of information on her floral collages. From an experiment in reproducing them, to an explanation of period paper-making techniques, the text answers all questions that come to mind.

But that’s not all. She had many more interests which are covered in detail in the 12 essays, all written by experts in their fields. She was a member of the Bluestocking circle and lived a rich life in a fascinating era, counting as friends some of the most notable figures in art, science, society.

Paper FLowers 4Oh, did I mention The Dress? Mary Delany lavished her black satin court dress with the most exquisite, scrumptious, dazzlingly beautiful floral embroidery I’ve ever seen. There’s a whole essay devoted to it. Other illustrations include workboxes, tools, patterns, fashion plates, cartoons, etchings, prints, shells and shell art…. In all, enough to keep me fascinated for a long time.

The bad news is that the book is out of print. The good news is that the museum bookstore has (or had before Christmas) copies in stock. Whether you find it in a library, or track down this treasure for your own, I think you’ll fall in love. Opsimathematically, I did!

"Convallaria Majalis (Hexandria Monogynia), from an album (Vol.III, 23); Lilly of the Valley. 1776 Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, on black ink background," British Museum, 1897,0505.224

“Convallaria Majalis (Hexandria Monogynia), from an album (Vol.III, 23); Lilly of the Valley. 1776 Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, on black ink background,” 1776,  ©Trustees of the British Museum, 1897,0505.224

 

"Passiflora Laurifolia (Gynandria Pentandria), formerly in an album (Vol.VII, 54); Bay Leaved. 1777 Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, on black ink background," 1777, British Museum, 1897,0505.654

“Passiflora Laurifolia (Gynandria Pentandria), formerly in an album (Vol.VII, 54); Bay Leaved. 1777 Collage of coloured papers, with bodycolour and watercolour, on black ink background,” 1777, ©Trustees of the British Museum, 1897,0505.654

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Featherweight Champion

Featherweight

I suspect I’ve got just as many ancestors as anyone else, but mine weren’t notable for leaving closets and attics full of heirlooms. The oldest thing I’ve got is my DNA. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some treasures! One of my dearest is my grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine. Yes, me. The hand sewing monomaniac loves a machine.

My grandmother, an amazing seamstress!

My grandmother, an amazing seamstress.

She (the machine) was born Christmas of 1948. My grandfather bought it as a present for my grandmother that year. I don’t suppose anyone knew that the featherweights would become classics.

She (the machine) had already earned retirement by the time I welcomed her into my home, but nope, I kept her going. She only does straight stitch, can you imagine? Why would anyone, some quilters excepted, want a machine that doesn’t do fancy stitches? Not even zigzag?

Weeell, just ask a featherweight fanatic. Simple, small, light, reliable, long-lived. What more could you ask? I wish the same could be said about me – well, maybe not the simple. If you have time, take a look at Singer Instructions for Art Embroidery & Lace. The possibilities using an older machine, even treadle, are dazzling. It’s hard to believe anyone could do such elaborate work without today’s technology. It was published (1911) and republished, and can be downloaded free  in a variety of formats. So don’t underestimate their potential, between the attachments and techniques, a seamstress could really do just about anything with an old Singer.

Notice I said “a seamstress”in that vague and distant not-me sort of way. Because just about all I’ve done is use the basic set up and a couple of attachments. Even the buttonhole kit remains in its sarcophagus, waiting for the day I’m brave enough to resurrect it. Although I do have Grandma’s buttonhole samples resting under the presser foot, like they always did.

For my birthday last year, I had the machine restored to her original condition. I found an expert who did a superb job and a talented friend who did the table. My little champion sewed beautifully before, but now she’s a dream to use. Even if only for plain (machine) sewing!

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.