It seems like even hobbies go through seasons, and mine has certainly been in a slow one. However, there’s nothing like a new book to start things stirring again.
Ever since seeing the online Pockets of History exhibit, I’ve been wishing for a book with more on the subject. So of course I was delighted when I learned about this one! The Pocket – A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, was published in May by Yale University Press. I’ve just started to explore it. How could I resist? It touches on all my favorite subjects, not only textiles, costume, and needlework, but fascinating little bits of material culture and stories (sadly too brief) associated with them.
Who knew that a pocket could have a “heart-bit” too? But it makes good sense because the stitching was a decorative way to reinforce an opening.
There’s also discussion of marking and learning to mark, and the importance to women of claiming ownership. The Pocket even touches on needlework education, which thrills my plain sewing pedagogical heart no end!
The book is full of beautiful photos that reveal the diversity of pockets. I even got a patchwork fix, thanks to these made with colorful prints. Other illustrations include period art, engravings, advertising, and some splendid close-ups of the textiles and embroidery. And wonder of wonders: doll pockets!
I think the most delightful part of the book is learning about the little treasures and scraps that were pocketed. Or wait – maybe it’s the stories? The authors’ research reveals fascinating bits of women’s lives, and the pocket contents added to their stories as well. The list is extensive: money, gloves, books, pencils, medicine, “characters” (an employment reference), food, jewelry, handkerchiefs, clothing, charms, combs, cosmetics, tickets, snuff boxes, cutlery, letters, and even pilfered goods. Hmm… barring the last mentioned (one would hope), it’s really the same as you might find in a handbag today. Ok, maybe not the snuffbox.
The only pocket I’ve made is a miniature one for Pharaby. I’ve never made a people-sized one. I rather like the idea of sewing a pocket for myself. No particular purpose, just fun. It would be a terrific way to practice plain sewing skills and experiment with some fancywork as well.
If you find these topics as fascinating too, I highly recommend The Pocket. It provides such a wealth of information that you won’t actually find yourself … out of pocket.
It’s wonderful when old clothing comes with a provenance and a story, but when those are lacking it requires a deerstalker, a magnifying glass, and powerful reasoning skills. OK, maybe not the hat.
These mitts caught my eye because they are so different from the 18th century linen and silk embroidered beauties that I’ve seen in books and museums. Having never seen anything like them before, I was intrigued by their plain sewing simplicity. Time to look for clues. Ready, Watson?
They were meant for working rather than fashion because they were made of an ordinary quality muslin and show a good bit of wear.
They were worn during the era of very short sleeves (early 19th century) since they are a veeeery long 22 inches from hand opening to upper arm.
The maker knew something about sewing, since she cut them on the bias for a hint (barely a hint!) of stretch.
The stains were made by the lady when she wore them, rather than acquired during their decades in a trunk, since they don’t reflect storage folds.
The owner was thrifty because she mended them.
She was left-handed, since the left mitt has the worst stains, both mends, and the heaviest wear.
The owner either 1) washed them in hot water, 2) gained weight, or 3) didn’t try them on until she finished making them because the seams have been let out.
And here I’ve reached the end of my observations. What do you think, Watson?
Ah. Well. The lady wore them to protect her long sleeves and bedclothes while wearing beauty treatments overnight. The pattern would only fit the material on the bias. The left mitt was torn in the laundry mangle and stained when dropped on the dirty floor. They were darned by the laundress because she didn’t want a scolding from her mistress. And they were a hand-me-down from a sister who had skinnier arms.
Thank you, Watson. I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.
In the last photo, we have a final view of the mitts, as if their ghostly wearer were raising her arms in surrender, palms forward. But if she read Watson’s and my deductions, she’s probably raised her arms while hooting with laughter!
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
Indeed, 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.
Oh, 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!
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:
Language is a funny thing. I suppose we’re all guilty of following fads in our choice of words, and we all have particular phrases we find irritating or amusing – in other people. I recently came across an example by Jane Austen, written in 1817, just as the polite name of a woman’s undergarment was changing.
So presumably Miss Austen was still wearing shifts, when other ladies were beginning to wear chemises. She wasn’t alone, however, in her annoyance with linguistic affectations. Pantalogia, a New Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Comprehending a Complete Series of Human Genius, Learning, and Industry, Alphabetically Arranged; with a General Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Words (1819) has this to say:
CHEMISE, the French word for that article of linen under dress which when worn by men is called a shirt, by women a shift. Some few modern English ladies, with an affected squeamishness of delicacy, restrict the term always so as to denote the article of female dress chemise de femme; but as every one knows what they mean by the expression, and we see no reason why every one should not know what they mean, we recommend the use of the old English term, and the abandonment of the corresponding French word.
Was there really any difference between a shift and a chemise? Well, yes and no. No, because they both referred to the same lady’s undergarment. Yes, because when the word “shift” was used (up until the early 19th century), the garment was usually made of linen and was simpler in cut. As the word “chemise” became standard, variations in pattern and trimming were increasing and the chemise was more often made of cotton.
So much for the term; now was there any significant difference in the French and English methods of making this garment? I haven’t found anything consistently, unmistakably, irrefutably, definitively identifiable. When I examine an old chemise, whether in a book, online, or in person, I can’t raise an eyebrow knowingly and say, Ah yes, English, 1832.
But with the interest and expertise I see popping up in blogs and books, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has – or will – come up with a list of distinguishing features.
If you are curious (or courageous) and would like to compare for yourself, below is a pattern and description, 1840, from a French periodical. (Please excuse my awkward translation. If you are fluent in French and English, I beg you to let me know and help me correct it!) English patterns and instructions of the same date are available in the Workwoman’s Guide.
No. 8 is a woman’s chemise. For ten chemises, purchase 25 meters of percale; take off a meter, and cut the rest into ten pieces; fold these pieces into two; on side No. 1, cut the gore that you add to the other side, cut by a thread as shown in No. 2; inside cut two gussets; indent around the neck; this is shown in No. 3; the sleeves are cut on the bias. Gather slightly on top of the arm and hem the bottom with backstitching. The armholes have to be a little curved under the arm. Take the remaining meter, measure a narrow band along the edge, then cut twenty pieces for double shoulder straps; these pieces are indicated by dotted lines; place a narrow piece of tape between the shoulder strap and its lining, there you insert the sleeve and backstitch, and you fold the lining over; gather the top of the chemise, as indicated, and insert a narrow tape of a meter in length; then cover this piece of tape with a band of percale; using backstitching and hemming, then fold under. Mark the chemise over the left gusset.
As much as I adore historic (and historical) costume, and as much as I loved playing dress-up when I was a child, I confess that I haven’t dressed in costume myself. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, at least a little. But I lacked Means, Motive, and Opportunity. It can cost an awful lot, I’m not much of a seamstress, and I’ve had nowhere to wear it.
Last month, however, I planned to attend a Heritage Day celebration and dinner-on-the-grounds, where everyone was invited to dress in clothing from anytime during the past 175 years. Finally – Motive and Opportunity!
I solved the Means problem by using stuff I already had: a modern skirt which looked somewhat appropriate for the 1910s, the classic “Armistice Blouse” Folkwear pattern, and a good supply of white muslin to make it.
The last ingredient I needed was persistence. And it took some, seriously. While an ordinary seamstress can sew that shirt in an afternoon, it took me a whole weekend, not counting the hand finishing. And I even put the arms in the right way, first time! Maybe I could sew faster if I sewed more often?
The fit was nice, the collar lay smoothly, and the tucked front went together easily. The cuffs were the only disappointment. I didn’t like the way they looked when buttoned and turned back, because there was no allowance for the overlap in the pattern. Removing the lace trim helped, but if I ever make another one, I’ll have to fiddle with the cuffs.
The pattern is easy to adapt to different trimmings, but I wanted to keep it simple so that I could wear a little lingerie pin set (see my Etsy store) on the vestee.
Tiny bar pins were very popular in the early 1900s, and went by many different names: baby pins, cuff, collar, waist, lace, lingerie pins, etc. I think most people now use them for dolls or christening gowns, but I’d always wanted to try them out on a shirtwaist.
With a hat, a vintage handbag (or pocketbook, as my grandmother would have said), gloves, and black oxfords, I was all set!
Of course if you noticed the blog title, you can guess where this is going. I didn’t get to wear my costume as planned. Between the weather forecast and volunteering to help with food, all this work wasn’t going to work. Too dressy. Did I let it spoil the day? No way! I transferred the accessories to a more “picnic-y” vintage-looking dress (that I didn’t sew), and had a wonderful time. I’ll save this outfit for another day. Minus the hat and gloves, it would probably pass unnoticed in a room of gray business suits and white shirts!
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.
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!
It’s summertime, as you can tell by the artfully posed hydrangea, and time for a little mystery. Every now and then I come across examples of plain sewing that are rather puzzling. This pretty pair of sleeves (or cuffs) are not like any I’ve seen before.
They certainly do look early nineteenth century. The gathered section is a very delicate white muslin with stripe pattern. The flat section is an extremely fine linen, the kind of linen used for infant clothing and men’s “shirt bosoms.”
On the muslin end of the sleeve there’s a triple row of gathered cording, a feature that was popular in the early 1800s. The linen end has a narrow hem and is divided all the way to the gathers, almost like it was meant to fold back. The sewing is neat and tiny, with an occasional clumsy stitch, just along the gathers.
And speaking of the gathers… the method used to attach them is not commonly used for joining a flat to a gathered part in most of the plain sewing I’ve seen – a type of felling? It appears the linen and muslin were half-backstitched together, then felled, with a stitch in each gather.
Well, silly me. Of course the usual method of inserting gathers into a band and then sewing them on both the inside and outside wouldn’t work here: there’s only one layer to the band!
The blue cotton marking thread is almost invisible now, but it is miniscule. The height of the letters is .4 centimeter (just over 1/8 inch), and each stitch is made over two threads. Early marking charts and samplers did not have a “J” but used the letter “I” instead. So was the owner “J R” or “I R”?
I think my favorite bit of handwork here is the mending. These sleeves were worn enough to fade the marking, but I don’t know if the repair is due to a worn spot or a tear. Either way, the fix is a work of art.
Just above the marking is a fine cotton cord, obviously meant to attach the sleeve to another garment. Both are still in place and appear original.
Well, so much for my observations and (right or wrong) interpretation. On to my questions.
Why are the sleeves so big? The circumference of the linen end is about ten inches, the muslin cording about nine inches. My scrawny wrists are less than five and a half, and so the sleeves look absurdly baggy when I slip them on. And even men’s shirts of the era don’t usually have cuffs that big, so it can’t be just me!
What were they worn with? The total length is about seven inches, so they’re really too long to fit the end of a long sleeve anyway, without some peculiar looking bunching up. Were they not intended for ladies’ apparel? Were they worn with some special type of clothing, religious or a costume?
Why is there a slit in the linen band? It’s configured so that the hems are not meant to be turned back. Why is there no way to adjust the corded gathered end? They are a fixed size.
Hmm. As I was trying them over my hand and onto my wrist, I tried slipping them up my (correspondingly scrawny) arm, past the elbow. Aha! A perfect fit! And the opening in the linen allows for movement or shifting around a bit on my arm. So is that the answer?
I’m so accustomed to seeing the underleeves that were worn in the mid-nineteenth century, or the cuffs that have been worn for centuries, that I wasn’t expecting something different like short sleeves. Were these intended for wear with the short sleeved gowns of the Regency era? I don’t know.
I’m not (always) shy about sharing my costume and sewing blunders and misunderstandings. So if you have the answer up your sleeve, please – do tell!