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.

Mini Shirt 08

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.

Mini Shirt 07

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?

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Pin Money

Pin Money 3

PIN MONEY – money allowed by a man to his wife to spend for her own personal comforts. When pin money is given to, but not spent by the wife, on his death it belongs to his estate. ~A Law Dictionary: Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States, 1843. (You may detect some irony here.)

Pin Money 1Most of us are familiar with the important social justice issues of the 19th century, causes like abolition and child labor. But there was another one that became quite fashionable to champion: the plight of workers who fashioned fashions. Women who worked as seamstresses, dressmakers, and milliners were vulnerable to exploitation, and as the pathos and romance of their situation caught public fancy, there was a flurry of response in literature, art, “committees,” laws, private philanthropy and even investigative journalism.

The seamstress who sewed shirts was the poster-child for the cause; you can see one period image I used in a post a few years ago here. Shirt-making was tedious and poorly paid, but the pattern was simple and most of the women who could sew knew how to make one. There was also a steady market for the product, at least until the sewing machine and mass production made hand sewn shirts obsolete.

Dressmaking was different. It required greater skill and was more susceptible to the whim of the patron (and employer if a woman worked for a dressmaking establishment) and vagaries of the trade. But it retained some shreds of respectability as a way to earn a living for those women who were not born to the working class, and yet found themselves with no means of support.

The images here are from a set of stereoviews, the one above titled “Pin Money,” with the model carelessly displaying her wealth of finery. The other is called “Needle Money,” implying that the plainly dressed lady in shabby surroundings must be earning her bread with her needle.

Needle Money 3Needle Money 1

Apparently public sympathy didn’t quite translate into action – or not enough to bring about significant change. A decade or two after Thomas Hood’s famous poem The Song of the Shirt appeared, the image of the genteel but impoverished worker persisted. The poem below was by Francis Charles Weeden, c1860s. It was republished with the explanation:

* These two poems are printed, as written by the author, in juxtaposition, to make the contrast more striking.

Pin Money Poem 1

I haven’t copied the whole poem, since the point and tone are pretty obvious. Victoria was reigning, but so was sentimentality!

Many bloggers have covered the subject, so if you’re interested try a search for “song of the shirt” – it will get you started. If you prefer the old-fashioned-read-a-book way, try The Ghost in the Looking Glass, by Christina Walker – not recent, but fascinating!

Pin Money 2

Needle Money 2

Notice anything about the models?

Sadly, the days of sweatshops aren’t gone forever. If you want to help, here’s one place to start.

Helping Mama

Helping Mama 1

It’s time to jump forward a hundred years from the subject of my last post. Here’s a peek at a pleasing, albeit staged, scene of domestic happiness. I love these old stereoviews because the photographers often took such pains with the props, trying to tell a story. And if the subject is sewing or 19th century domestic life, that makes me very happy!

Helping Mama 2

The photo on the right side, because sometimes they’re slightly different.

In this picture, it looks like Mama is mending Papa’s pants. Her daughter seems barely old enough to hold a needle, but is earnestly attempting to help. Is Mama wearing an apron over her silk dress? It certainly looks like she’s sporting a fashionable chignon. (That late ’60s, early ’70s hairstyle was sometime over-the-top and subject to ridicule.)

She may be seated in a woven cane chair, and she definitely has a sewing basket beside her on the table. It looks like the kind with small pockets fixed to the sides. The little girl’s checked dress may be an apron or pinafore, though I can’t quite tell.

This card is dated 1872, but I’ve seen another version dated 1871. Mama sewing, daughter sewing: seeing double indeed!

Helping Mama 3

The stereoview card, full size.

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.

Copy That?

Christie Patent 2

1893 “Improved Stand or Holder for Sewing Requisites and the Like” by Clara Christie, London Court Dressmaker.

Copyright can be horrendously confusing. Most of us who write, sew, craft or create anything strive to be original. Of course, when we historical sewing fanatics are trying to reproduce something very old, whether it’s a pin cushion, a style of writing, or a baby gown, original takes on a whole “‘nother” meaning. We’re trying to be true to the original pin cushion, style of writing, or baby gown. The closer we get to someone else’s original, the greater the achievement!

But what about copyright and patterns? Once upon a time, I sewed things to sell. And occasionally still do. However, I’ve always been terrified of trespassing copyright. For years I’ve heard all sorts of “rules” concerning the use of patterns designed by someone else. You must buy a pattern for every item you make. You must buy a pattern for every five items. You may not sell items made from patterns. You may sell items made from patterns if you buy a license. You may copy a pattern for your own use. You may not copy a pattern for your own use. You may change a pattern X percent and consider it your original. And the list goes on….

I simply avoided the issue by making my own. Rather absurd for someone who collected patterns and squirreled them away (unopened) like acorns before a heavy winter. Or maybe not that surprising. If you’ve read some of my past blogs, you know that I read and write about making things more than I actually do it!

It seems like I may have been overly scrupulous. I recently came across a terrific article on debunking pattern myths, which you can find here, and a follow-up article here. The author makes a clear distinction between selling things made from the pattern (ok) and selling copies you made of the pattern itself (not ok). For even greater detail and Genuine Legal References, see the pages of pattern copyright info here. If you’ve been perplexed by the rules of sewing to sell, you might want to check them out.

I suppose I should follow all that with my own disclaimer: I am not qualified to give professional legal advice (not that anyone ever thought I was). But make no myth-take: do your research and I hope you’ll find you can relax and open those patterns!

Christie Patent 1Now what about the picture at the beginning of this post? Well, that’s a patent (a cousin of copyright) by Clara Christie for a “Stand or Holder for Sewing Requisites and the like,” which she designed in the 1890s.

It was meant to hold pins and needles in the weighted base, have a tape measure built in, and a spindle for spools of thread. Personally, I think the tape measure is overkill, since it would be pretty awkward to use without making a mess of the pins. But surely as a London Court Dressmaker she knew what she was doing?

As a reward for your fortitude in reading to the end of this post, if you would like to have the patent pages for your own (and live in the US), be the first to write and let me know. I’m cleaning out stuff that needs a new home and will send them to you free!

P.S. To answer a question about the copyright notice on the images on my blog – feel free to pin them, that’s what the button is there for. And to make it official, you may save them for your personal study as well. Want them for something else? Send me an email!

It Seams French

French Seam 1

Once upon a time, I thought every seam that was sewn, by hand or machine, had to be finished. By that I mean it could have no raw edges. Raveling? Horrors! Unthinkable. What would happen when the garment was worn? When it was washed? And so I zig-zagged, overcast, or French-seamed every seam so thoroughly that I might as well have used Super Glue.

I also assumed, when I first started to explore the history of hand sewing, that French seams must have been part of the basic sewing repertoire. After all, they didn’t have Super Glue back then, did they?

However, as I studied antique clothing I quickly learned that all seams weren’t finished. The only seams to match my hermetically sealed standard were felled, like those in shirts and shifts, and felling was used because underwear (or family linen, as they called it) had to withstand tortures that would have impressed Vlad the Impaler.

After scrutinizing sewing techniques in antique clothing, it also dawned on me that French seams didn’t show up in anything older than late-nineteenth century. Hmm. So when did French seams become common? I don’t know for sure, but out of all my sewing instruction books, the earliest (definite) explanation of the method I could find appears in a French dressmaking manual, circa 1860s, as shown above. Ah, French!

Perhaps it was used earlier in particular garments, by particular seamstresses, or in particular countries. My experience and resources are pretty limited, so if I come across more information on this stitch, I’ll certainly update.

But by the early 1900s, the French seam was common enough to appear in most sewing manuals. It was well-suited to the ubiquitous sewing machine, sheer waists and dresses yearned for neat seams, and it was soooo easy to do. Or teach. Or learn. And since efficiency was so very, very modern … pourquoi pas?

French Seam Sample

This sample by Miss Beulah H., early 1900s, shows a bias-cut French seam.

French Seam  Woolman 1

Instructions from Beulah’s book for making the sample…

French Seam Woolman 2

… and the conclusion.

 

Tick Tack Tocking, No Clocking on Her Stocking

Stockings

“A Lady’s Leg is a dangerous Sight in whatever Colour it appears; but shewing us your Legs in White, is next to shewing us them naked.”

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.

Met Stocking

A late 18th century stocking, metmuseum.org.

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.

Stocking Foot

I know what it’s like to have baggy socks around my ankles.

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.