A few days ago, my husband and I went for a drive in the mountains of North Carolina to visit a very special lady. She’s a master wood carver with an international reputation and a long-time instructor at the John C. Campbell Folk School. At age 11, she learned wood carving from her mother, as well as other famous folk artists.
We met several years ago, and I was excited to learn that she had also carved dolls – Hitty dolls – although she wasn’t doing them any more. She promised to let me know me if she ever did, so I was thrilled (maybe you could call it the happy version of a hissy fit!) when she called to say that while clearing out her workshop she’d found a couple, one was the first one she ever carved – and was I interested? Was I? What a question!
The original doll was only lightly sanded and faintly painted with color, while her later work was more detailed and finished. But it was the first one that stole my heart. So Mehitabel has come home with me and is awaiting her wardrobe. It was delightful to visit and see the artist’s workshop and other examples of her carving. Sadly, she suffered a stroke earlier this year, so she’s not doing as much now. I did have the pleasure of seeing one especially stunning doll (it’s for sale! contact me for her info if you’re interested) which I’ve posted below.
And here’s a glimpse of the beautiful work on a similar one waiting to be dressed.
And one last peek at a project that really took my breath away –
I’m so excited to have a new doll to dress. It’s not easy for me to sew tiny things, so I’ll have to take care that it’s one my Hitty fits!
MILLENER, or MILLINER, one who sells ribbands and dresses, particularly head dresses for women; and who makes up those dresses. Of this word different etymologies have been given. It is not derived from the French. The French cannot express the notion of milliner, otherwise than by the circumlocution marchand or marchande des modes….
Littleton, in his English and Latin Dictionary, published 1677, defines millener, “a jack of all trades;” q. d. millenarius, or mille mercium venditor; that is, “one who sells a thousand different sorts of things.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1823
It’s summer and I’m still here and still sewing a little (not quite a thousand things) although I haven’t posted for months now. Life has been really hard lately, but looking at Mélisande and dreaming of her wardrobe has brought a lot of cheer. Playing milliner (in the broader sense) for Mélisande has been more challenging, but that’s thanks to my penchant for tackling projects labeled “Do not try this at home!”
The exquisitely beautiful Mélisande was created by Kathy Patterson, a brilliant artist and doll maker (her historical dolls are perfection) who made my dream of an early 19th century wooden doll come true. She is a 19″ wooden lady, carved in the Grödnertal or Tuck Comb style of the early 1800s, and perfect for dressing in clothing from the Regency to Romantic eras. Let me qualify that: perfect for doll dressers who know what they’re doing.
As for the rest of us… well, it’s more of an adventure. I did know enough to start with a linen chemise – or shift, if you share Jane Austen’s scorn of “mock modesty.” Using a tattered and weary dresser cloth for fabric, I cut the arm gussets and sleeves in one piece, a little trick learned from looking at an original and which I think is also mentioned in The Workwoman’s Guide.
However, as I was smirking over saving a few stitches on the gussets, time was playing a sneaky trick on me. Hint: check old fabric for flaws BEFORE you sew. That tiny stain may be just a stain when you cut out the sleeve, but by the time it’s been washed and ironed it could deteriorate into a hole. Or two. Or three. And you might not find them until you’re dressing the doll for her final photo session. And you’ll have to unstitch and redo it all. Sigh.
During the years when shifts were becoming chemises, stays were morphing into corsets. There were so many fashion changes over those decades that I didn’t really know which style to go with: long, short, cording, boning, busk? I just picked a look I liked (and had a grownup pattern to go by) and made it. Pink embroidery was a nice idea but mine looked messy so I picked it out. Instead, I limited the pink accents to extra stitching in the gores and was rather pleased with the result.
Next, Meli needed a petticoat and I needed one to copy. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of extant Regency “bodiced” petticoats. But sheer cotton dresses require petticoats, so I used a couple of tiny internet images of originals and my imagination.
Finally (2 years later) it was time for the gown! One cool thing about patterns in books is that while costumers fret over enlarging them, doll dressers find them just right! Kinda sorta. I still had to rely on my old standbys, paper towels and tape, to get the fit.
To make a pretty morning or afternoon gown (I’m not sure how to tell the difference – maybe look at what you’re wearing and then look at the clock?), I used some unusual sheer lilac cotton with a silky sheen on one side. The loose weave made it a bear to sew, though.
The bodice was the hard part. I lined it with glazed linen (I doubt I’ll do that again) and extended the lining so it could fold over to close in the front with tiny pins. The bib front is gathered and then the skirt is attached all around. The puffed sleeves are unlined. I intended to do something a little more creative than a ruffle, but I need some more practice first.
Last of all were the detachable long sleeves. They were sooo easy to make compared to the rest of the wardrobe. I should probably have made them a little longer for authenticity’s sake. Maybe another time.
Next on the list are some white muslin accessories, and then I plan to trim a bonnet, something truly millinerical. I have to say the last part of the definition quoted above really resonates with me, “Jack (or Jane?) of all trades.” And, I could add, mistress of none, but oh how much fun!
I’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!
You’re never too old for dolls at Christmas! At least I’m not. I’d like to introduce Jessamine, a lovely doll made in the style of Izannah Walker, by the incomparably brilliant artist Paula Walton.
I’ve always longed for a doll like this lovely girl, and waited years before I was able to bring her home. I’ve had her for a while now, but that practice waiting has served me well – because it’s taken over a year to dress Jessamine in her first (hand sewn by me) outfit! But Christmas is here and she is ready.
The chemise came first, and I tried to make it with the same details that a real mid-19th century young lady’s might have had: gussets, gores, and binders. I know, unless you’re used to period costume terms, they sound like instruments of torture. I guess they were, actually, for me! It would have been a lot easier to make a simple doll chemise, and from now on any others will be quite plain. They’ll have to be; this one is so bulky that a dress has to be specially cut to fit over it. Live and learn.
Next came the drawers. Since Jessamine is an older girl, I decided she would have split rather than closed ones. Well, really I just wanted to make them that way. Of course that means it’s trickier for her to pose with them while retaining her modesty. But we managed. I suppose you can tell from the photo that this wasn’t taken in December? And surprise – it wasn’t this year, either!
A petticoat was essential, and this one is so full that she wouldn’t need another. It was made from the embroidered ruffle of an early 20th century, mass-produced, low quality, damaged piece. The elderly lady I purchased it from was apologetic over its condition, saying she was told that her great aunt had stood too close to the fire. While it’s sad to take apart anything, thereby tearing it from its history, some things wouldn’t survive at all otherwise. (I’m sounding rather apologetic myself, hmm?) But now this scorched phoenix has a future and a past!
Every young lady would need a corset, or if she wasn’t quite ready for that, a corded waist or stay-waist (or some other term for the same garment). Even though there are a zillion doll corsets out there for inspiration, I went exploring Cassell’s for a likely pattern.
I adapted it to Jessamine’s age (@150 or so) and used the fabric from a c1900 scrapped doll corset. What girl wouldn’t love lilac stays? There was a lapse of time between the modeling session below and the actual completion of the corset. Months, maybe? But I eventually finished the eyelets and added the straps.
After many more months (Pharaby was taking all my time) I began Jessamine’s dress. The fabric was a happy accident: an online store sent the wrong print years ago, and it’s been in my stash ever since. I made so many mistakes that I lost count. Yep, sleeves again; one went in upside down. Aaaalll the seams and gathers had to be picked out and redone. What’s so embarrassing is that I didn’t even notice it was upside down until I’d done all that unstitching for another reason – to make the gathers match the other side. Duh. Maybe that was why they weren’t even?
If you spend any time looking at 19th century portraits and daguerreotypes of children, you’ll notice that many (most?) girls wore coral necklaces. I was delighted to find a bargain to finish her ensemble. It was sold as a doll necklace but looks suspiciously like a bracelet. No matter. The graduated coral pieces make it look enough like a necklace to suit us just fine.
I wish I could claim credit for the pretty red shoes, but that goes to the her incredibly talented maker. Here’s a peek at Jessamine’s feet – too sweet! Transported back to 1860 as a child, I would have been sooo tempted to take her wading in the summer! (My dolls suffered worse.) But it’s December, I’m grown up, and there’ll be no such mischief. We wouldn’t want St. Nicholas to leave only a lump of coal, would we?
Pharaby, all 16 inches of her, is finally dressed. And contrary to my original intentions, this may be her only outfit! No Pharaby, it’s not you, it’s me.
Since I haven’t posted our progress on the gown and final accessories, I decided to say it with (mostly) pictures. For the gown, I’d purchased a red and white cotton that proved not to be colorfast. Guess who has a cute little pink spotted ironing board cover now? However, I’m so in love with the fabric that I’d choose it again. It reminds me of the dress on the Dudmaston doll, seen here.
With the gown and petticoat finished, I moved on to her apron. I wanted to use some original 1770s patterns for the embroidery. However … with my limited fancywork repertoire, I had to choose REALLY SIMPLE designs that could be done in a couple different stitches. Like chainstitch. Buttonhole. Running.
Next came her handkerchief (or fichu, or half-handkerchief). I didn’t do any lace or embroidery on it, since she planned to wear it tucked in. It’s made of the same lovely muslin as her apron. It’s different from her sleeve ruffles, which were salvaged from an antique piece. The older stuff just can’t be matched today, although this came pretty close!
Last of all were the shoes. I hadn’t a clue how to do them and I’m afraid it shows. This time I didn’t even bother reading or watching tutorials. I just jumped in with both…hands. Pharaby’s poor little feet are only an inch and a half long, and unique. I don’t mean compared to other doll feet, I mean compared to each other. So I made paper ones for patterns, and then used silk scraps and lined them with linen. They’re green because that’s what I had, and I happen to adore green shoes. They’re bound with blue ribbon because the only ribbon wide enough was some left from her cap!
So Pharaby’s finished, for now anyway. She’s very dear to me, after this long adventure. And she’ll always be a reminder of my father’s love of fun – and love for me.
In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share one of my happiest memories. I don’t have many things saved from my childhood, but I do have this beloved dress made by my mother. Barbie was the doll when I was growing up, and oh how my sister and I loved playing with ours!
We put them through the tortures and triumphs of every book or TV plot we knew – and invented even more. They pioneered across raging rivers, got lost in space, and escaped drowning in birdbaths. Once we discovered that flour paste hardened into the perfect cast for a broken limb, our poor Barbies fell out of so many trees that they looked like mummies on crutches.
But best of all was dressing them. You hadn’t really played Barbies until you’d changed their clothes at least a dozen times. One special Christmas my mother made Barbie clothes for us – and if you have two little girls close in age, you don’t make a few different ones for each child. You make two of everything, both alike.
To a seven year old, surprises just happen. I never wondered how the splendid array of doll costumes came to be under the tree. But my mother told me later that she had to sew late at night, after we were asleep. Two. Of. Everything.
Here’s the skating costume that she made out of red satin, lined with white flannel. She couldn’t have known the night she sewed this that her work would still mean so much, so many years later. I’ll be sure to tell her today.
Actually, that should be “Pharaby Sets Her Cap Aside” – for now, anyway. I haven’t completely neglected Pharaby all these months, but sometimes remembering to take photos, and then remembering where I saved them, delay my writing about her wardrobe’s progress.
This project also took longer than I thought it would. It was hard figuring out what I wanted her to wear. Most surviving Queen Anne dolls just have little bits of lace and silk gathered and stuck atop their heads, or if they’re wearing more constructed caps, the photos don’t show sufficient details for me to copy. And sometimes the surviving headwear is not original to the doll, being so obviously 19th century that even I can tell!
In the end I decided on this style, because it was easy to make a pattern and I’m familiar with the sewing techniques. The cap is formed from a simple half circle gathered at the base of the neck and the crown and trimmed with plain frills.
I did experience one of those aha moments when attaching the headpiece/band/brim to the crown. It was easy to “set in” the little gathers on the top thanks to the fact that the band was double. It worked just the same way as setting a gathered sleeve into a cuff! Maybe that’s why they so often had double brims?
My attempt at narrow hems was a flop, at least compared to what 18th century women could do. But I did manage a very nice tiny eyelet for the back drawstring. It would have been nicer if I’d also remembered to put in the strings and tack them in place before I hemmed the casing down! Did you know that you can thread a large needle and retro-fit a string into a casing?
Perhaps you’ve noticed none of these pictures show Pharaby wearing the cap? That’s due to my inadequacies as a perruquier. Every time I place something on her wig and then remove it, a few mo-hairs (groan) come loose from the carefully arranged style. In order to keep it all together until her final dressing, I had to limit the try-on’s. Pharaby won’t be modeling her cap for a while, so I let a wineglass serve as a mannequin – and then serve to celebrate one more project done!
(If you expected the Lucy Locket quote on this one, maybe I succeeded in surprising you?)
There are so many images available online that it was hard to choose a model for her pocket. I finally settled on “the look” of a sweet little doll version in the online Pockets collection at the VAD. (Click the link and then search for “doll´s pocket Nottingham.”) It resembled a couple of others, also worked in yellow thread, that were made for women rather than dolls. And it only required a backstitch!
The design I used was loosely based on an 1770s pattern from The Lady’s Magazine. I scanned the original pattern and scaled it down to Pharaby-size. Then I raided a stash of old 1890s embroidery silks. I tried using the thread as it came from the skein, but it was way too thick – using only one ply made it almost small enough. And I can tell you that it did NOT work like the illustration on the wrapper!
As you can see from the remaining yellow fuzz, it was a struggle. But once that was done, it was pretty simple to cut out the front and back, then bind them with some matching yellow silk.
To finish the pocket, I added narrow tapes on the ends. Yes, one MORE thing to go around her waist. But now she has a place to carry her handkerchief – when I make her one.
Oh! And while she was showing off her pocket, I took a picture of her wearing her marked shift. I neglected to do that in the last post, and she let me hear about it.
“The art of marking was brought to perfection many years ago, and if our great grandmothers could but see the meagre attempts made by us now-a-days, I fancy they would have some contempt for the system by which our needlework abilities are tested.”
– A. K. Smith, 1892
They would certainly have some contempt for how long it took me to mark Pharaby’s shift, regardless of the quality of my work! I should have tended to this little essential when I first made it, but better late than never. We can’t have her single shift getting lost in the laundry, can we?
First I had to do some practice stitching. Sampler collectors and makers would laugh at how astonished – and intimidated – I am by the miniscule cross-stitches made during the past 200 years. You can see from this little baby shirt (last quarter 19th C) how blithely they marked countless linens. I’m guessing at the “blithely” part, but since I have many shirts from this baby, somebody was doing a lot of marking!
Making it to Pharaby’s scale would be impossible, since barely matching ordinary period work would be the best I could hope for.
I used a pretty little c1900 linen collar to experiment on (damaged – I wouldn’t inflict my needle on it otherwise), as you can see in the picture.
Since the threads in linen are not all exactly the same size, my stitches over two threads looked a bit messy. I tried sewing over four (too big) or over however many made a perfect square (too awkward). By this time I was just about ready to use ink, like the collar owner! But hey, I’m all about plain sewing, right?
A lot of trial and error showed that to be small enough, I’d have to work over two threads, no matter how lumpy my letters looked. I found that just like many projects, things that look pretty awful as I’m working, look a little better when I’m done. Or maybe I’m just cross-eyed by then!
It’s fun how a search for one thing can lead to other quirky discoveries. That’s what happened when I looked for information on stockings for Pharaby. Who knew that clocked stockings were the subject of a racy little song in 1902? (Will F. Denny, on archive.org)
I’m sure ornamented stockings were worth a peep in the 18th century as well!And did you know that wearing silk stockings could be hazardous to your health? At least during a thunderstorm.
According to the Scots Magazine in 1773, a lady in Switzerland nearly suffered a shocking fate:
Her disease, like all others which the doctors can make nothing of, was decided to be a nervous one; but it was afterwards discovered to be owing to her wearing silk stockings, and wires in her cap. How little do our ladies imagine, when they surround their heads with wire, the most powerful of all conductors, and at the same time wear stockings, shoes, and gowns, of silk, one of the most powerful repellents, that they prepare their bodies in the same manner, and according to the same principles, as electricians prepare their Conductors for attracting the fire of lightning.
Ladies may laugh at all this, but it is too serious a matter to be made a joke of. A very amiable lady, a Mrs Douglas of Kelso, had nearly lost her life by one of those caps mounted on wire. She was standing at an open window during a thunder-storm: the lightning was attracted by the wire, and the cap was burnt to ashes. Happily her hair was in its natural state, without powder, pomatum, or pins, and prevented the fire from being conducted to her head.
A good strong head of hair, if it is kept perfectly clean, and dry, is probably one of the best preservatives against the fire of lightning. But so soon as it is stuffed full of powder and pomatum, and bound together with pins, its repellent force is lost, and it becomes a conductor.
Hmm… personally (and modern-tastefully) I find the “loaded” hairstyle more repellent!
But I digress.Pharaby most certainly wanted stockings, and I wanted to make them. Well, I wanted her to have them. To be honest, I was at a loss for how to make stockings, so first I spent some time searching for ready-made.
What would fit her? Her limbs are not exactly the same size and shape (well neither are mine), and her feet are shaped to stand flat on the ground. Or table. So off-the-rack doll stockings, unless I was willing to accept nylon tubes, were not an option.
I decided I’d have to make them after all. Knitting was out of the question since I don’t know how. The stockings would have to be cut and sewn. Pondering a source for slightly-aged stretchy silk one day, I experienced a flash of brilliant resourcefulness. Gloves! With silk lining! Ebay! I found a worn vintage pair that were just right and managed to extricate the lining from the leather.
Next I found and adapted a pattern on this lovely site and practiced fitting it, using an old t-shirt so I wouldn’t waste the silk. That took a while, but once I settled on the size, I had another idea. Why not embroider clocks on her stockings? My brilliant ideas are often followed by some real flops, and so this one proved. I made three attempts to embroider a half-inch design on thin stretchy silk. It looked horrible, no matter what thread or stitch I tried. There would be no clocks this time.
Fortunately Pharaby didn’t know I was even trying, so she suffered no disappointment; she was pleased to have any stockings at all. They may be her only pair. We have a lot of thunderstorms.
Pharaby has been following me with a reproachful gaze for a few weeks now. I promised her a petticoat (an “under” petticoat) and I’ve been awfully slow in making one.
I finally got around to it this past week. It was pretty simple really, just a length of ribbed linen stitched up the side and pleated into a band. Making the pleats match was the hardest part. No, wait – finding a band to fit the doll “scale” was the hardest part!
I only had a small assortment of cotton and linen tapes to choose from. None was the exact size and weave I wanted, but, well, that’s how it is with dolls and costuming. You have to compromise!
So now she’s got a petticoat. The next question is, does she wear it over, or under, the bum roll? We’ve tried it both ways and are hoping for some expert advice. But what really concerns me is the direction we’re headed: exactly how many ties, bands and layers of gathering can the female form support at the equatorial line?
Yes, Pharaby insisted on having this article in her wardrobe, the euphoniously termed BUM ROLL. The “cork bum” was subject to ridicule at the time, but goodness knows ridicule and fashion have always been comfortable together. Magazines of the day enjoyed satirizing high style:
“Nature appears to have been but a kind of bungler, We mortals are obliged to alter every piece of her works, before it can be fit to be seen…
And after all this being done, a Lady was supposed to be quite finished—
No such thing—
What was wanting?
What was wanting ? Blockhead! Don’t thee know?
A BUM was wanting !!
A BUM ! —
Mercy on us ! Who would have thought Nature could have made such a mistake as to create Ladies without bums.
Nothing is more certain. —
Bum-shops are opened in many parts of Westminster for the sale of cork bums, and report says they go swimmingly on.
Tall ladies, and short ladies — fat ladies and lean ladies, must have bums —
And this is what they call getting up behind.
So that in fact, a fashionable female, if she lay on her face, or creep on all fours, would exactly resemble a camel with a hunch in the middle of the back….
Let it be recorded, that in the auspicious year 1785, BUMS FOR LADIES, were made, cleaned, and repaired, so as far to exceed nature in size, or convenience.
When researching this little artifice, I was intrigued by the references to cork. Farthingales, panniers, etc. had been around for ages and were effective in supporting heavy skirts. So why cork, and what did they look like? I found a website that provided the most amazingly extensive research on the subject of skirt supports ever — with excellent images. And another site by a brilliant costumer who experimented with using cork blocks for the same purpose.
But I couldn’t find any images of extant cork “bums” to go by. So would Pharaby be happy with wool stuffing? Or would she insist on cork?
You know the answer. The next question being, what kind of cork? The advantage, like the disadvantage, of dressing dolls is the scale. I could use a cork coaster to try carving a shape and then covering it, but the tiny size required was more than I wanted to tackle.
What if I used cork “crumbs”? One period satire implied that cork pieces were used: “Money for your old corks.”Ergo, they were cut, shaved, crumbled, etc., and used like stuffing. Well ok, maybe not. Maybe “corks” was short for “cork bums” and they wanted them for resale or recycling. I’m speculating in an attempt to defend my choice. Whatever, we went with cork granules.
Now, my husband makes wonderful wine (as a hobby — woohoo!) so why not crumble some corks we already have? Or chop up that trivet? Cheap, easy, and immediate, so of course I didn’t do it that way. My life is pretty tame and I was craving a touch of the exotic, so Pharaby and I sent for a package of cork from Portugal. I figured I could use the leftovers later for stuffing some vintage toys, to give them that authentic lumpy look.
I drew a pattern (and used the first attempt, I’ll have you know). I found some grubby pink glazed cotton which I’d unsucessfully, thank goodness, tried to sell on ebay. And then I stitched and stuffed and added ties.
Let it be recorded that in the auspicious year 2014, Pharaby’s figure was enhanced.
And she did need it. Most wooden dolls arenot noted for their shapely behinds.