Monday, May 25, 2015

Flower Frenzy

Back to blogging and hope that everyone has enjoyed the posts on Stroke Gathers by Steph.  A lovely technique to use on your shifts and shirts.  We will be condensing and putting the sequence on our website as well for future reference.

While the strokes were gathering, fires were stoked around a topic that still has people talking including myself with this blog post.  The ban on "flowers on hats" is part of the re-enactor clothing guidelines for reenactors attending the events surrounding the arrival of the Hermione to the East Coast.

Welcoming events are planned as it arrives in port and reenactors are encouraged to attend and greet the ship.   The clothing guidelines for those attending have fired up many a thread and comment on the aforementioned and yes, banned in Boston, flowers.

Full disclosure, I know the event organizer and have great respect for the work that was entailed in creating the guidelines in question.  For those unfamiliar with the topic, you can read them here.

What is it about clothing standards that make people lose their minds? I don't know.

Why did the "flowers" create such a flurry?  I don't know.

What I do know is that in 1780 America was still at war.  Imports had slowed to a trickle, advertisements of goods had dwindled and were very limited in the newspapers.   Battles were still being fought in the south, husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, uncles etc were still at risk.  Was fashion top of mind?  I don't know.

I don't know how fashion information was being disseminated.  If at all?  The source of many English fashion prints were the Almanacks imported from England and the Ladies Magazine.  During the war the Almanacks were supplanted by American versions.  Was the Ladies Magazine made available during the war?   I don't know.

I do know that the tradition in England of decorating hats with ribbons was still flourishing in their versions of fashion prints in 1779.

Detail from "Two Ladies in the Dress of 1779", England

I do know flowers on hats began to be seen regularly in the French "Gallerie des Mode" fashion prints.  This print also from 1779 shows flowers blooming all over, right out of the top of her head!  Were these prints coming in to our ports?  I don't know.

Gallerie des Modes, 1779, France

But notice in the English print above, the shape of the hat's decorations is reflective of the French version, but the English left off the flowers.

I have actually made the hat in the French print above.   It looks awesome and in the right context can be a terrific piece of fashion history when worn with a gown and accessories of the same time period and level of fashionability.  (not sure if that is a word!)

Is my hat appropriate for Boston, in 1780,  to commemorate a particular historical event?  It is documented with the French fashion plate.  It is the right time period.  The flowers are even vintage!

 Maybe yes, but also more likely no.   This is Boston, we were conservative.  Still are.

Is it better to err on the side of conservative choices, when the I don't knows far outweigh the knows?  When you have many other fashion choices?   Especially when asked to do so?

If you want to go high fashion what is wrong with using the English version of that hat?

We can all find things to criticize in any set of standards or guidelines.  They are created to set up left and right boundaries.  Staying between the lines so to speak and in a specific historic context limit individual expression to some extent.  Not a bad thing when you have no idea or control of who is coming to your event and their understanding of the 18th century and how to represent it.

I do know what I am wearing to this event.  My ultra conservative pre-war brown silk damask gown, a fine cap and a lovely silk hat with nary a flower blooming on the brim.  

My thanks to the event organizers and standard writers for putting in all the time and effort you have done already and will be doing in the near future  to bring this event to Boston and the other port cities.

Vive la France!


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Stroke Gathers -- Finishing

Stephanie Smith of Larkin & Smith

Your gathers have been prepared, now it’s time to sew them to your cuff (or shoulder – whatever piece you are working on). In the images below we are working on a cuff. 

The top of each of your gathers will be secured to the edge of your cuff with a whip stitch.  Catch a thread or two at the top of your pleat, run your needle diagonally to catch a a thread or two at the very edge of the cuff.  As you go to the next pleat make sure the distance between your pleats is consistent.  Continue until you have attached each pleat in your section. 

When you are finished with one side, fold your cuff over and do the same on the backside of your cuff.  This will secure the pleats and let you fine tune the distance between the pleats as well as to make sure that the pleats are perfectly perpendicular to your cuff.

Note: If you are working in sections, finish the front side of your piece first.  When you have sewn all the pleats on the front of your sleeve cuff, turn the cuff over and attach the back side of the pleats to the back side of the cuff.  If you are attaching the gathers at the top of the sleeve of a shift or shirt, the back side of your pleats will be secured when you sew on your shoulder reinforcement piece.

And Voila!  Stoke gathers.

So how do 1/8” and 1/16” gathers done with the marked tape compare to those done counting four threads?  You be the judge. 
Counted threads on the left. 1/16" using tape in the middle. 1/8" using tape on the right.

This is what counting 3 threads looks like on the sleeve of a man’s shirt.

The bottom line is that you can do nicely done stroke gathers.  Practice the technique, try the different tricks described here and do what works for you.  Some people prefer doing all the gathering stiches first, then attaching the pieces.  There is no right or wrong here.   After trying a multitude of methods, this is what I do.  As they say, “Your mileage may vary”.  

But I challenge you to give it a try.  It will be worth it -- especially when someone looks at the cuff of your shirt or shift and says, "Wow -- awesome stroke gathers!"

Hopefully we have inspired your to get started on a new shift or shirt!

Friday, May 22, 2015

To Stroke or Not to Stroke

Stephanie Smith of Larkin & Smith

After you have done your first section of gathering stitches; pull your thread tightly enough to crease your fabric.  At this point most instructions advise you to “stroke your gathers”.  In Mme. Dillmont’s illustrations she shows her wonderful lined up gathers, all uniform, lying quite flat.  I suspect artistic license here.  In reality, well......

Stroking the space between the gathers does help to create the little valleys between the pleats.  I know this might sound blasphemous, but this method doesn't work really well for me.  Maybe it's our modern fabrics, who knows?  I use my thumbnails to pinch the pleats.  If you just go from pleat to pleat you can press them nicely so they stack side by side.  You can even finger press along the top of the pleat after they are pinched -- that also helps.  Hey - do what works for you.  I'm just sharing my experience.

Pinching the pleats
At this point, it’s time for the second row of stitches, which serve to hold the gathers vertically.  Starting about ¼” from your first row of gathering stitches, catch the top pleat of each gather from one to the next. 

Second row of stitches after your pleats have been pinched

After the second gathering stitch is done, you can stroke your gathers to make them more uniform.  My tool of choice for this is a bamboo skewer.  It works well to even out the pleat without stretching out the weave of the fabric, which a needle can sometimes do.
Using a bamboo skewer to stroke the gathers
When your pleats look the way you want them, lay your wristband piece, with the seam allowance turned under, over the edge of your gathers – the ¼” turn under - over your ¼” seam allowance.  Now you need to spread out your gathers to the size of your first section (the side of your wristband –with seam allowance turned under over to your first basting stitch).  When you have your gathers the same width as the first section, wrap your thread around your needle several times then put your needle through your fabric next to the last stitch to maintain the widths of the gathers.   You can also use your Kelly clamp to hold them as well.

(These are 1/8" gathers, which used the tape method)

Using your bamboo skewer (or your needle if you prefer) spread the gathers out evenly across the section.  Get them as even as you can. Don't obsess -- because as you sew them you can focus on getting them uber-even.

Next – attaching your gathered pieces.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Stroke Gathers: Gathering Stitch

Stephanie Smith of Larkin & Smith

Before you start your gathering stitches you need to mark off the sections of your pieces.  I mark the center and quarter points of both things I am attaching. For our example, I'm going to be attaching a sleeve to a cuff, so I am going to baste in a thread dividing both my sleeve and the cuff into quarters.  This way I can make sure my gathers are even across the entire cuff.  Working in small sections makes it easier to produce consistent gathers.

End of a sleeve and cuffs showing basting line

The Workwoman's Guide suggests starting 12 threads from the edge.  Oddly enough, on our linen that turns out to be roughly 1/4", which is the size of your seam allowance.  By the way, we are assuming that you have cut your linen by pulling threads to ensure the pieces you are working with have straight edges.

For our purposes, I'm going to show you a "good, better, best" approach.  Each will produce a good result - pick your poison based on your ability, fabric, and the time you want to spend doing this.

The best approach is to count threads.  To do this, you need patience, time, lots of light, and good eyesight.  The good and better methods use some modern tricks but make the process approachable for just about anyone.

In either case, pull a thread 1/4" from the edge of your work. This will give you a straight line to work from and make it easier to count the threads.

If you are attaching a cuff, now is the time to hem both sides of the wrist opening.

Counting threads: 4 threads
Now it's time for your gathering stitches. Knot the end of your thread and run your needle under four threads then over four threads. If you work in sections, which I recommend, continue your running stitch until you reach your first basting thread. This is time consuming and requires concentration but will produce tiny, even gathers.

For those of you who want a good result but don't want to feel like they are taking an eye exam, I recommend the following trick.  Buy some quarter inch quilters tape.  Cut off a piece and mark off 1/8" sections along the tape.  For a "better" result, use 1/16" inch sections.  The smaller the sections, the finer the gathers, and as you will see, this method produces nearly the same results as counting threads.

Lay the tape along the edge of your piece, lining up the tape with the void left when you pulled your thread.  Sew a running stitch using the tick marks on your tape, going over and under and over and under until you reach the end of your tape.  Then remove the tape and relocate it to the next section and sew until you reach your basting thread. Using the tick marks as your guide you will get consistently sized stitches without having to concentrate on counting threads.  The good news for those with attention deficits, this method goes pretty fast!

Now draw up your thread tightly to create tiny pleats.  Now comes the challenging part.

Next up: Stroking your gathers....or not.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Stroke Gathers: Helpful Tools

As I mentioned in my last post, when it comes to stroke gathers, it looks really easy in the instruction manuals, but in reality it's not quite as simple.  Primarily their linen was different, but that's a blog post for another day. We need to work with what we have, so I'm going to share my experience with making stroke gathers you can be proud of.

First, you will need to right tools for the job. Get yourself some good needles.  One size does not fit all when it comes to hand sewing.  Tiny work needs tiny needles. When you are doing fine work with linen, you need the right needle.  My choice is a number 8 or 10 quilters needle.  For most people, this seems really small at first, but you will get used to it.  Try several sizes and find what works best for you. (Needles -- a future blog post)

An example of a needle to try for your fine work

When doing gathers, I prefer using a glazed quilting thread.  It's strong, doesn't have slubs and will tend not to break while working your gathers. All of the big thread companies carry a version of glazed cotton thread, including Americana, Coats and Clark and Gutterman's.

Another very helpful tool is a kelly clamp, hemostat, thread puller, whatever you want to call it.  No, this is not a period item, but is a very helpful tool when hand sewing. I use it to to hold the gathering thread when I've pulled my gathers.  It also works like a "sewing bird".  I can clamp the fabric to my pants and create tension when sewing.  Note: if you are sewing in a period context as a living history demonstration, please leave the modern tools at home.

Example of a clamp
Oh yeah, one more thing, learn how to use a thimble. Your fingertips will thank you.

Okay, now armed with the right tools, let's get to work!

Next: The Gathering Stitches

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Stroke Gathers-First Steps

Stephanie Smith of Larkin and Smith

Step 1: Look at originals.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, children's shirts exhibit the most mind-boggling stroke gathers. These masterworks are generally done with linen that is gossamer thin and beautifully woven, no doubt by 18th century angels.  You'd be hard pressed to find anything like it now.  The gathers of extant shirts and shifts are done with a similar consistency though are not as fine.

Baby shirt cuff (from a private collection)
You can see a great example of stroke gathers on the most famous 18th century shirt out there -- the one worn in the Copley portrait of Paul Revere from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.  You can visibly see the gathers at both the cuff and the shoulder.

Step 2 -- Read the Directions.  There are a fair amount of needlework guides out there.  The directions on how to do stroke gathers are pretty consistent.  My go-to is the Therese de Dillmont's Encyclopedia of Needlework.  Mme de Dillmont's book is a 19th century guide to every kind of needlework imaginable.  The good news is that it is online and free through and google books.

 "Gathers are made with running-stitches of perfectly equal length; take up and leave three or four threads, alternately, and instead of holding the stuff fast with your thumb, push it on to the needle as you go, and draw up your thread after every four or five stitches."

Ok, three or four threads? Are you kidding me?  I forgot, they had better eyesight in the olden days.    Mme de Dillmont, I've got my magnifiers, I'm ready!

What I've found is that staying along the grain is very important, so if you pull a thread first, you not only are guaranteed a straight line, it is infinitely easier to count your threads.  

Another source for the modern seamstress is  "The Workwoman's Guide" published in 1789, this guide is for cutting out and sewing clothing for the poor.  It is very detailed and has sections on stitches and sewing techniques.  For stroke gathers:  

I've tried taking up three and missing four -- frankly I didn't see much difference.  I'm sticking with Therese and recommending the same number of threads on both sides of the gather. The key here is consistency. These diagrams are from Therese de Dillmont's Encyclopedia of Needlework.

Now, what Therese doesn't mention, but the Workwoman's Guide does, is to section off your work.  I recommend marking the middle and quarters of your fabric with a line of basting stitches in a contrasting thread, so you know where you are with your gathers.  And do the same sectioning for the piece the gathers will be attached to such as a shirt or shift cuff.

At this point, Mme Dillont adds another line of stitching to secure the gathers.  This technique deviates from my old high school home ec instructions of sewing two lines of gathering stitches.  Having tried both ways, again I'm going with Therese.  It is so much easier and faster to grab the gathers after the you have stroked them.

Finally, we attach the gathers by whipping each gather in place, one at a time from both sides -- and Voila!

Well, as you have probably guessed, my friends, it's not quite as easy as it looks in these pictures.

Next: The right tools for the job, modern gadgets can sometimes make the techniques of the past a little easier to accomplish.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Caring About Cuffs -- Shirts & Shifts

Stephanie Smith of Larkin & Smith

When it comes to shirts and shifts, many reenactors start out with a hand-me-down or a ready made product from a sutler and wear it till it quite literally falls apart.  At a recent gown workshop we asked our participants to show us their shifts.  Ouch!  Of the shifts we examined, most had drawstring necks, only one had cuffs, and that was the only one that actually had gathers at the cuff and top of the shoulder.  Not to mention that many of the sleeves were too long and the fabrics they were made of were less than ideal.

In addition, the men's shirts I've looked at recently were just as bad.  Pleated shoulders, no reinforcement pieces (as a result most these shirts were worn out at the shoulders), short collars, buttoned cuffs, etc., and once again -- awful fabric.

Okay, so who cares, no one sees these garments, they are covered by our clothes.  Au contraire my dear ones!  Roll the documentation.....

1775 - Lewis Walpole Library
 A cornucopia of shirt sleeves showing cuffs and ruffles.

A detail from a portrait of Thomas Wood 1774 - Lewis Walpole Library

Dr Erasmus Darwin by Joseph Wright 1770 - Derby Museum & Art Gallery

And it's not just the men....

Sarah Whitehead Hubbard by John Durand 1768 (Encore Editions)
A close up of Sarah's shift cuffs also provides a view of the fine pleating of her shift sleeves, which is achieved by fanatical ironing skills. 

Ok - you get the idea.  Just look at period pictures and portraits and you'll see how the ends of sleeves were part of the whole ensemble.  I've written about this before on the Crazy Concord Chicks blog.

So for whatever reason, 18th century fashion involved cuffs, so it would stand to reason that you would want them to look good.  

Next time we'll start to look at the steps of how these pretty little gathers are done.  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Your Next Project: Spectacular 18th Century Shifts and Shirts

From Stephanie Smith of Larkin and Smith

The fine stitching of 18th century shirts and shirts (what we would call underwear), is down right impressive to our modern eyes.  Tiny stitches, evenly executed, with fine consistent gathers at the cuff and tops of the sleeves are the hallmarks of the accomplished needlewomen.  The finest examples are found on baby shirts and caps, with their work is so tiny and perfect, it will make you cry.

Detail from an original baby shirt -- This is a close-up of less than an inch of the cuff
To the average reenactor, spending 30 – 40 hours to create a hand sewn masterpiece that is worn under clothing is just not a priority. Better to spend time on that coat or pair of breeches that everyone sees.  I understand, and would argue that making a shirt or shift should be a project to consider after your basic kit has been cobbled together.  It is at this point when you can relax and enjoy the process.

When you are not in a hurry to complete that must-have item, you can then take the time to do it right, without the pressure to finish. And if you do, you will be rewarded with a greater proficiency of sewing skills and an item in your kit that will give you years of service while in its own right being a thing of beauty.  Trust me, it will be admired even though most people will only see a small part of it.  And the part they will see will be your lovely stroke gathers. 
From Encyclopedia of Needlework by Therese de Dillmont

 In high school home economics class (Yes, I know home ec and  cursive writing have gone the way of the dodo bird) we learned how to gather cuffs on the sewing machine.  You made two rows of basting stitches, pulled the threads to make the gathers and your trusty Singer would sew the sleeve to the cuff.  And that is how most ready made reenactor shirts and shifts are made.  However, when you look at the handmade version and compare, you will quickly see that though both methods attach a sleeve to a cuff, but the handmade method creates something special. 
Examples handmade stroke gathers
Over the next few blog posts, we will take you through the steps of how to create these handmade stroke gathers.  We will demonstrate a range of methods -- from one just about anyone with a needle and thread can do to the teeny weeny gathers made by counting threads. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you are considering making a new shirt of shift, visit our website.  We’ve recently found more of the fantastic vintage linen we use for our shirts and shifts and are now selling it in 2 ¾ yard lengths.  It is evenly woven has a smooth finish and awesome selvages. Showcase your handsewing with great fabric,  you won’t regret it!  And don’t miss your chance, when this fabric is gone it’s gone!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

18th c Ribbons

Ribbon, ribbon who's got the ribbon?  Well right now there is plain silk satin or silk taffeta. Perfect for the 18th century but uniform across the hobby.  And I do mean uniform, but what were the choices of ribbons in the 18th century?

First they did have both single and double sided silk satin ribbon in a variety of different widths and the same with silk taffeta.

BUT.. there is an entire category of ribbons that we don't represent at all.  EVER.  Figured ribbons, gauzy ribbons, striped, polka dotted (yes), grosgrain, moire and picot edged.  The reason we don't is that they are hard to find, but more because we as a collective group of reenactors have not studied ribbons or taken much notice at all.

I am determined to bring a more diverse choice of ribbons to all of us, first by blogging the research, then by selling high quality, carefully chosen not run of the mill ribbons.  Everybody needs a goal!

Where to look for 18th c ribbons?  Available to all is the French Gallicia Bibliotheque.

Also available to all are portraits of women wearing caps tied with ribbons and ribbons decorating extant gowns and gowns in portraits.

Another more limited source is the Foundling Hospital tokens, many of which were ribbons.

Who among us would bless off a ribbon such as this?

or this?

or this?

These ribbons are all from the online French Gallica source.  I am in the process of studying the ribbons in this collection along with the ribbons I have photographed from the Foundling Billet Books.    More to come.  Lots more.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Auction Day

Today is the online sale of the latest Whitacker Auction.  Quite a few deaccessions from the Met Museum are featured, some of them familiar to many of us who stalk the Met!

I will be bidding on a few items with the firm notion of not acquiring them, unless the price is significantly reasonable, nay cheap.  There is something amiss with just about every item, from condition to remodeling to just plain tired.

At first glance this painted silk is awesome.  Fantastic colors, the orange flowers are particularly striking.  But.. oh dear.. the Victorians hacked this poor baby.  Price Realized.. Really… 1300

Notice the waistline with the addition of piping at the waist seam.  The robings are gone, kaput!

The back shows the biggest hack, with the drawing in of the waist, but the fabric is still pretty amazing.

Another sacque, with trim that really needs to be seen.  Price Realized…5000..not kidding

  It looks like metallic gauze with bunches of flowers and faux pearls.  There is a gown in the collection of Wintertur with similar fake pearls.  This trim does look aftermarket but could be the real deal.   

A lavishly trimmed petticoat.  Tons of that gauze.  But does it look right?  I am not sure. 

The back looks good.  No signs of hacking that jump out at you.  But the front does look altered.  

At first look, not bad.  The sleeve flounces are properly trimmed in keeping with the rest of the gown.  But the front, ugh.  No robings, no trim in place of robings (sometimes that happens), the stomacher looks like an afterthought.  Not in keeping with the rest of the gown at all.   According to the description, the stomacher has metal stays, not something one sees very often.  The condition of the silk is poor.  Splits in the silk would require major conservation money.  So these two pieces are thumbs down.  Will be interested to see how much they go for. 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Big Hair Needs A Big Bonnet

Not only does big hair need a big cap and a big butt, it also needs a big bonnet.  Not any bonnet will do  the trick.   So here is my version of a big bonnet.

This bonnet is based on a portrait by Joshua Reynolds, "Miss Palmer" c 1780 and the black bonnet in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg.