A Milliner for Mélisande

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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.

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Preparing to fell the seam on the sleeve and gusset cut-in-one. The first time.

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.

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See the scattering of holes in the sleeve? Maybe I should’ve ignored them and pretended it was a real antique chemise.

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.

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Finished. For the second time. Drawstrings are placed inside both front and back, since I was copying an original that was done the same way.

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Once again, fighting patterns. It takes 3 times as long as the sewing!

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.

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A closeup of the pink silk I used to accent the gores. I managed to erase all trace of the pulled out embroidery fails. I wish my stitches were more even, but shadows and highlights in photographs can hide a multitude of irregularities.

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A view of the inside. You can barely see the little buttonholed slit at the bottom for inserting a busk, if Mélisande ever decides to wear one. Personally, I think her posture is a little stiff already.

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All laced up. Maybe not authentically, but it’s too much work to fuss!

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.

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The petticoat with a bodice. I made the skirt front flat and kept the gathers in the back.

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Yes, I skipped making any fastenings. I will eventually go back and add some ties, but I was just plain tired of the petticoat by this time! I did, however, add some stitches to protect the opening from tearing. Definitely a period technique.

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The finished petticoat.

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All undies on. Ready for the gown!

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.

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Designing and fitting, here we go again. But the “The Heart of the Tree” provided inspiration!

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.

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Can you see how loose the weave is? That meant taking really tiny stitches to prevent fraying and bad-hair-day seams. Ok, the seams were still a little frizzy.

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Here’s the apron/bib front dress opened to show how it’s put together.

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.

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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!

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If only I could make trimmings as pretty as nature! Wildflowers from my yard – can’t do better for inspiration, hmm?

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Pharaby’s Photo Finish

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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.

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We started with the usual nightmare of pattern-making misery, as I tried to draw a bodice that would fit her form. Yes, I know some people can do this in 3 minutes or less.

It looks so simple. I cropped out the empty wine bottles on the table.

It looks so simple once it’s cut. It wasn’t.

You wouldn't know that I took a dressmaking workshop at Williamsburg once upon a time. The nicest memory I have of it is their relaxed attitude toward mistakes. Yaroo! as Flavia De Luce would say!

You wouldn’t know that I took a dressmaking workshop at Colonial Williamsburg a lifetime ago. I was too dazzled for much to stick. The nicest memory I have of it is their relaxed attitude toward mistakes. “Yaroo!” as Flavia de Luce would say!

When it starts to look like a teensy little gown I begin to get excited.

When it started to look like a teensy little gown I began to get excited – motivation to see it through!

Do you know what the "B" and "F" on the sleeves stands for?

Do you know what the “F” and “B” stand for?

I had to sew the skirt to a paper strip in order to get the pleats even.

I had to sew the skirt to a paper strip in order to get the pleats even sort of even.

At last! The gown is finished. Or is it? Maybe you'll notice the alteration in the final photos.

At last! The gown is finished. Or is it? Maybe you’ll notice an alteration in the final photos.

And here's the petticoat, the only really easy part to sew.

And here’s the petticoat, the only really easy part to sew.

A close-up of the the gown open, showing the linen lining, pieced just like originals could be. Theirs were probably due to a scarcity of fabric. Mine was due to inept fitting.

A close-up of the gown folded open, showing the linen lining pieced just like originals could be. Theirs were probably due to a scarcity of fabric. Mine was due to inept fitting.

Gown with matching petticoat.

Gown with matching petticoat.

A closer view from the back.

A view from the back.

I was complaining earlier about the accumulation of stuff around Pharaby's middle. At this point I decided to replace the waistband on her under petticoat to make it more to scale - and reduce her girth.

I was complaining earlier about the accumulation of stuff around Pharaby’s middle. At this point I decided to replace the waistband on her under petticoat to make it more to scale – and reduce her girth.

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.

I scanned the original pattern and then scaled it to different sizes to find one that would work. Ok, it's really still too big, but it worked for us.

I scanned the original pattern and then scaled it to different sizes to find one that would work. Ok, it’s really still too big, but we settled.

The edges are buttonholed, the leaves are simple running or darning stitches, and the sprigs are chainstitch. The leaves looked horrible when I was working them, but once they were all done it wasn't quite so bad.

The edges are buttonholed, the leaves are simple running or darning stitches, and the sprigs are chainstitch. The leaves looked horrible when I was working them, but once they were all done it wasn’t quite so bad.

The apron, modeled by Pharaby.

The apron, modeled by Pharaby.

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!

Her fichu, tucked in place.

Her fichu, tucked in place; tiny brass pins keep everything secure.

And from the back, with her falling wig curls.

From the back, with her hircine wig curls wimping out in our Georgia humidity.

Most all of my silk ribbon was for embroidery and too narrow for Pharaby's cap. So like everyone else in the colonies, we had to wait on the latest imported goods to find just the right ribbon.

Most of my silk ribbon was for embroidery and too narrow for the cap. So like everyone else in the colonies, we had to wait on the latest imported goods to find just the right ribbon.  A couple of little thread loops were required to hold the ribbon in place on the back, since I wanted it removable. And without having to pick out tacking threads!

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!

She has Cinderella tendencies. The right shoe likes to go its own way when we're not looking.

She has Cinderella tendencies. The right shoe occasionally goes its own way when we’re not looking.

The soles are made from bits off a leather apron. These shoes are probably the least well-done (excepting perhaps the wig or the face painting or...) of the whole project. But I lam so relieved to have them done that I don't really mind!

The soles are made from bits off a leather apron. I’m a little embarrassed to show them since they fall so far short of the exquisite slippers I’ve seen done by experts. But everybody needs shoes to relax in and not worry about spoiling. Right?

Pharaby gazes blankly at a wall of ivy, so you may see her from the back. She's wearing her bum roll under there somewhere!

Pharaby practices directing traffic or perhaps gazes blankly at a wall of ivy, so that you may see her from the back. She’s wearing her bum roll for a little poofiness in the petticoats.

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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.

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Pharaby Sets Her Cap

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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!

Staying Put

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Pharaby’s new old busk.

It’s been a while since I added anything to Pharaby’s wardrobe, and with heaps of projects competing for my time I decided to tackle the quickest thing: a busk for her stays. Perhaps that might keep her happy until I have a little more leisure? I figured I could take a damaged “bone” from my stash, trim it to fit, and etch her initial. No problem.

Ha! I think the Spirits of Whales Past saw to it that I paid for my callousness towards history and nature. If you are extremely sensitive to the sacredness either, you may want to skip this post. If your curiosity exceeds your delicacy, here is the process in photos.

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The doll stays, pocket sewn in the lining, awaiting a 2-inch long busk.

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The aged and injured piece of baleen I started with, shredding on one side and blistered on the other.

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Now it’s taped in place on the cutting board for a quick trim. Not! After sawing and sawing for a while, it was time for Plan B.

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Plan B: I recalled a period domestic guide advising that boning should be soaked in hot water. Here we have baleen soaking. Soaking is not enough.

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Or was that boiling water? Here we have baleen soaking in boiling water. It sufficed, barely.

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Success at last! And for the final touch, a little filing to smooth the edges. What, no etching of her initial? A verse, a heart? After a little discussion, we decided to wait until her sailor sweetheart returns from the sea and let him do it. The busk will keep her stays put for now.

 

X Marks the Spot

Pharaby's shift is now marked.

Pharaby’s shift is now marked.

“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?

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A lovely linen baby shirt marked with Turkey red cotton; note the quarter next to it for size. I’ve kept the image full size, for anyone who wants to view beautifully done original marking up close – just click the image.

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.

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A linen collar marked with ink that I used for practice. “No textiles were harmed during the making of this experiment.”

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!

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The baby shirt, Pharaby’s shift, and the practice piece, all together. The little birds I tried were from a pattern by the most knowledgeable sampler collector I’ve ever met. Maybe Pharaby will make a sampler one day….

 

Tick Tack Tocking, No Clocking on Her Stocking

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“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.

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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.

Operation Petticoat

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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!

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Just enough room for her to reach a pocket inside. When she has one, that is.

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?

Because we’re not done yet…

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Pharaby modeling her petticoat, a last photo shoot before the freeze tonight. No more flowers till spring, I fear. She may start hinting for a wool petticoat!