Mystery of the Misfit Mitts

Misfit Mitts 01

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.

Misfit Mitts 07

The right mitt, palm side up, showing the light gathers of easing for the thumb.

Misfit Mitts 04

The inside stitching on the thumb.

Misfit Mitts 08

Marks where stitches were removed to make the arm wider.

Misfit Mitts 02

Interior view showing the seamed piecing that was added to give sufficient length, identical on both mitts.

Misfit Mitts 03

Close-up of the above; you can see the silk thread used for seaming and overcasting. Those are actually the same stitch; the seaming is shallow and close over two layers of cloth, and the overcasting is deeper and wider over the single layer to prevent raveling. The long side seams were backstitched and their edges left raw.

Misfit Mitts 05

Inside view of the the one-inch opening at the top of a mitt.

Misfit Mitts 09

Small mend or darn on the palm of the left mitt, seen from the right side.

Misfit Mitts 10

Darn at the base of the thumb on the left mitt, seen from the right side.

Misfit Mitts 11

Close-up of the darn at the thumb, seen from the inside – very neat and tidy. The close focus makes the fabric look coarse, but it’s not. It may not be fine, but it is fairly light, tight, and smooth to the touch.

Misfit Mitts 12 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!

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Pointed Remarks

pointed-02

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.

Here is Mrs. Weaver’s tutorial from Peterson’s Magazine, 1864 (it appeared the same year in Godey’s Lady’s Book):
pointed-01

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.

pointed-03

A view of the back of the vandyke, or pointed, edging on the petticoat. This trim, like the petticoat itself, was done completely by hand and not finished with a line of machine stitching.

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!

pointed-no01

I printed and cut out Mrs. Weaver’s pattern, and below it is my 1/2 inch strip of lined paper with the first fold made.

pointed-no02a

I made a second fold, with the left (beginning) end of my paper tape still in a horizontal position.

pointed-no02b

Same 2 folds, but I repositioned the end of my tape to match the pattern. And behold! It looked like the left side of the first point!

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The next folds were trickier; I twisted the tape into a cone shape, and then flattened it to make the right half of the point.

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To begin the second point, I folded the tape toward the front.

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Then I wrapped the tape around itself, and brought it out horizontally; the left half of the second point was done.

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Again I twisted the tape into a cone and then flattened it to make the right half of the second point.

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To begin the third point, I folded the tape toward the back. The beginning of each point alternates; one folded to the front, the next one folded to the back.

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Here again I wrapped the tape around itself, bringing the long working length out horizontally.

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Then I twisted and flattened a cone to complete the right side of the point. Third point done.

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A view from the back, three and a half points.

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.

These weren’t the only references to points and clothing (circa 1860s) that I’ve read recently. Fear in North Carolina: The Civil War Journals and Letters of the Henry Family is a fascinating look at daily life in the southern Appalachians during the war years. In it, Cornelia Henry mentions pointing several times, although I don’t know if she’s referring to the same technique.

“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?

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Four points completed.

Four points aft.

Four points from the back side, underside, inside, wrong side…

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Deconstruction

Skirt Hook

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.

Skirt Damage

Silk damaged beyond repair.

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.

Skirt Seam

Side seam of skirt, running stitches with a few backstitches piled on for good measure.

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.

Skirt Linings

The extra lining along the lower part of the skirt is neatly hemmed down.

Skirt Pocket

A view of the pocket from inside. Maybe added later?

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.

Skirt Overcast

The only seam finishing, overcasting, was done where the lining edge was raw. I don’t think the maker was too worried about raveling.

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.

Skirt Gauge Out

The skirt back was tightly gathered using the gauging technique.

Skirt Gauge In

Here’s a view of the gathers from the inside.

Skirt Ruffle Out

The ruffle was hemmed by machine, but gathering stitches were made by hand.

Skirt Ruffle In

And it looks like they were done at high speed!

Skirt Selvedge Finish

The seamstress took extra pains when hemming down the inside of the placket opening with a finer weight thread.

Skirt Velvet Out

It was common in the 19th century to finish skirt hems with a sturdy braid, wool or velvet, to protect them from wear. It could be purchased ready-made, but this velvet strip appeared homemade.

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.

Skirt Velvet In

I tried to offer a peek inside the velvet, but it’s too dark to see. I couldn’t hold the crease open with one hand and take a picture with the other!

 

If Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt Shrank

Mini Shirt 01

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.

Mini Shirt 02

The back – notice the “binders” which line the armscyes inside the shirt.

Mini Shirt 03

Here you can see the tiny collar gusset, over which the “shoulder strap” lies.

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A view of the shoulder strap which is backstitched on both edges.

Mini Shirt 05

Mini Shirt 09

The sleeves are set into the body with gathering and stroking.

Mini Shirt 04

You can barely see the diminutive gusset at the end of the sleeve opening. Its purpose was to allow ease, so the shirt would be less likely to tear at that joined seam.

Mini Shirt 10

This cuff has come unstitched, and you can see how tiny the sewn gathers are.

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Here is a view of the gusset for the side flaps of the shirt, also meant to reduce tearing and the seam.

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?

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

Alas and Alack, I Take It Back

Alas and Alack

A cotton chemise, unlike either the French or English styles below. I’m going out on a limb here and guessing… American, 1853.

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:

Chemise Francaise

Chemise Francaise. Of course it looks more complicated – they have a reputation to uphold.

Chemise Anglaise

Chemise Anglaise. No nonsense, for skinny persons.

The Shift to Chemise

Shift to Chemise 1

Shifting from shifts to chemises.

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.

Your Anne is dreadful – . But nothing offends me so much as the absurdity of not being able to pronounce the word Shift. I could forgive her any follies in English, rather than the Mock Modesty of that french word…’

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.

Shift to Chemise 2

A pattern for a lady’s chemise, 1840.

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.