Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Pink Caraco Steps Out

I had the plan to finish my pink caraco ensemble (caraco, white ruffled petticoat, and silk-covered hat) in time for our reenacting organization's biggest event this fall--a "birthday celebration" Grand Encampment.  Unfortunately, other people's mending needs (a pair of breeches with giant holes in the inseam and a completely destroyed shirt collar come to mind) precluded finishing the petticoat.  On the upside, I was able to borrow a similar white petticoat from my mother, which I had made as part of an ensemble for her years ago.

So the pink caraco stepped out for the first time on Sunday.

With all the photography that pours out of a weekend like this, I had expected that some of my friends would snap plenty of pictures of the group--and thereby of the outfit, too.  But we had barely any time to stop and take proper pictures, and so I had to content myself with waiting to see if any strangers happened to get a shot, post it to Facebook, and eventually make its way back to me via the magic of tagging (oh, technology!).

And this would be the first time I saw the full outfit--lacking a full-length mirror or any other nice homey touches in my tent (and having gotten dressed quite literally in bed as it was about 40 degrees when I woke up Sunday morning), I had no idea if the whole thing worked together.  As I'm sure you noticed from the dress form photos, it's a poor representation of what a garment will look like on a human body with proper underpinnings.

I'm lucky enough to have had two photos make their way to my viewing.  This is the first:

Ha! That's me in pink and white in the background.  The foreground are friends of mine from the artillery, lining up for opening formation.  It did give me a good enough view of the back to show me that I'm happy with the pleats in the skirts and the overall fit of the garment.

But then I found this one:

The Chicago Tribune posted some images from the event online, and of course they caught a shot of me screwing around with my fancy new walking stick and laughing my head off with a friend.  Despite the goofy expression on my face, I'm quite pleased with the overall ensemble!  The caraco fits as it should (fitted back and chest, arms aren't terribly tight and that's deliberate, full skirts over the hips and false rump).  And what a difference a false rump makes!  I can pick out exactly what needs to be fixed, too--addressing the closure and re-doing it with lacing will eliminate the bunching at the front (dressed in bed, remember?), and finishing out the trim will yield that final 18th century touch.  I also need to find a better way to tie my hat on so I don't end up with rumple-cap.

I'll add, because I think I'm allowed to brag--this was caught while I was walking to the "battle" field with the artillery, where I narrated the artillery demonstration.  I've done this before...but never for something in the neighborhood of a thousand people!  What I was proudest of, however, was that I was not at all nervous taking the microphone.  That's a pretty big accomplishment for me!

Oh, the challenges of historical clothing--actually seeing it on yourself can be difficult!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Faking 18th Century Pinking

In creating the Pink Caraco, I knew one thing for sure--I wanted pinked trim (yep, that's right--a Pinked Pink Caraco).  18th Century "pinking," like pinking today, means cutting a decorative edge into fabric.  Unlike modern seamstresses using pinking shears, however, 18th century seamstresses achieved the designs using a punch.

This makes for a look that's very different from a straight pinking-shear cut.

Detail of Robe a la Francaise from Met Museum, c 1760

Most punches are semi-circular in shape and have zig-zag shaped V's or scallops cut into the circle itself--so that the design produced by the punch is a scallop made out of mini scallops or zig-zags.

Using the punch involved a stable base and a mallet--one set the punch over the fabric and tapped the mallet on it to acheive the look.  Though I've heard that the fabric was folded to make one punch go through more than one layer of fabric, that doesn't appear to be the case for this woman, as illustrated by Diderot:

Quite the time-consuming process!

Of course, my first stop in trying to create pinked trim for myself was to try to find an antique punch.  These aren't that uncommon, and I quickly snagged one off ebay for about $12.  

Unfortunately, the piece is dull.  The edge actually appears to have been (unevenly) filed down, perhaps for leatherworking or another crafting process.  I'm still working on getting an edge put back on it, as our favorite sharpening service has been MIA at the farmer's market this month.

What to do in the meantime?

Unfortunately again, just waiting isn't an option.  The front of the caraco really does need that trim to "hide" the closure.  So I devised a stand-in that looks far closer to the original than a simple pinked edge.

You need:

Pinking Shears (SHARP ones that will cut through a few layers of fabric--paper craft scissors won't, ahem, cut it.)

Basically, use pinking shears to mimic the look of the punch by cutting even scallops.  To assist in making the scallops even, borrow a mindset from origami and fold the fabric before wielding your shears.  

I folded the fabric accordion-style to the width I wanted the scallop to be.  I only folded maybe 3-4 times so that the fabric wouldn't be too thick to cut easily, and pinned the layers into place.

I then folded the layers of folded fabric in half, and cut a gentle semi-circle using the pinking shears.


Is it perfect?  Nope, far from it.  Once my poor pinking punch is put back into tip-top shape, I plan to redo the trim on my caraco (and then go about punching All The Things, as well).  After looking at dozens and dozens of trimmed caracos and gowns, however, I concluded that anything but pinked edges on trim was highly unusual, NOT trimming a caraco would highly unusual, and modern straight pinking is a poor substitute for the scallops.  (Note: I found exactly one straight zig-zag edges, as pinking shears would produce, on 8th century clothing while looking into this, and the design was shallower than modern shears and added holes and other elements.)  So--if you're looking for a suitable stand-in until a "real" pinking punch presents itself, or you're in a costuming milieu that does not demand complete authenticity, give Faux-Pinking a try!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pink Caraco! (HSF #16)

Confession: I cheated slightly on this challenge. The guidelines indicated that one should select a term from the Historical Fashion and Textile Glossary on the Dreamstress's website.  I chose a term that was absent, but that I have been interested in, confused by, and ultimately felt deserved some vindication from terminology misuse, abuse, and un-use!  So I first dug into the term, then began working on the project itself.
Pictured with a white cotton voile petticoat and kercheif

The Challenge: #16 – Terminology
Term: Caraco (Discussed here!)
Fabric: Pink silk taffeta, white voile lining and trim
Pattern: Drafted from a mishmosh of sources, based on extants and images
Year: 1780 
Notions:  Pink silk thread, white cotton thread
How historically accurate is it?  Rather good.  I am sure there are some bloopers with how I did the pattern itself, as I didn't have the *exact* thing I wanted to recreate in a gridded or even sketched out version.  I goofed the closure, as I already discussed.  The fabric is correct to the period, and particularly correct for this garment, which is often described in plates as taffeta.  
It looks much less lumpy over stays

The trim imitates the pinked white linen or cotton trim on fashion plates, as well; I procured an antique pinking tool, but it was dull and I haven't had a chance to get it sharpened, so I faux-pinked the edges using my origami plus pinking shears method (patent pending...)

Originals and plates typically have trim like this running the entire perimeter of the garment, so once I get the real pinking in progress, I plan to re-do and complete the trim.

The back pleats create the characteristic shape and will look less flat and blah when worn over stays and a bum pad.  As is they kind of look deflated.  My dress form doesn't have enough junk in the trunk.

Finally, the caraco was completely handsewn with a combination of backstitch, running stitch, and whipstitch.  You can't see in this picture very well, but I'm very proud of the eensy, barely visible topstitching in the shoulder piece.

Another confession: I tacked a kerchief to the neckline.  My toddler loves nothing more than undressing me in public, and this will, I hope, foil her.

Hours to complete: A lot.  Twenty would be a conservative estimate.
First worn: Not worn yet!  I plan to wear it for a Ladies' Garden Stroll at a large reenactment in a couple of weeks.
Total Cost: The silk was $20 a yard, but I only used about a yard and change (I bought two I can make another pretty!)  I'll call it $25 for the silk, $15 for the cotton (which I already had, but that's roughly what it all would run you, $10 for notions (had to buy thread, and insisted on silk), so $55 at the end of the day.

Friday, August 29, 2014

How does a Caraco Close?

I had a wealth of inspiration images when beginning my caraco--fashion plates with detailed description topped the list.  I also found images of extants to examine to answer some of my questions about how the caraco was constructed.

What I couldn't find?

How the caraco closed.

It's truly unlike other garments from the period.  Most garments either utilize a stomacher, which the wearer pins or laces a gown or jacket over, or the garment simply closes at the front.  Variations include false stomachers, and items with stomachers often utilize robing to make pinning easier; closed fronts became more fashionable than stomachers, generally speaking, by the late 1770s.  Regardless.  In short, other 18th century garments very obviously close at the front, in visible ways.

But caracos just kind of....float.

Of course they must be fastened *somehow*--and descriptions in fashion plates confirmed that some were fastened "midway" and some "all the way down" (my own crappy translation, of course), varying just how "floaty" the front looks.

How they fastened, however, was a mystery to me.  I deduced that, in order to achieve the flouncey, floaty look of the front, there had to be a separate placket inside for the actual work of closing the garment.  That would let the trimmed front do its thing. But how?  Hooks and eyes?  Pinned?

As it turns out, laced.

More images and info about this piece here:

After considering this, it makes sense. This allows for the front of the garment to still be structured underneath the floaty outer layer.  

I had taken the wrong guess before finally finding this image--I had created a placket for pinning the garment.  I'll be redoing that after its first wearing, especially if the pins do not work well.  Of course, I also hesitate to assume universality from one garment--spend much time looking at extant garments and it becomes clear that sometimes there are exceptions to the rule, sometimes the rule is more of a guideline, and sometimes there is no rule.  But with nothing else to go on, I'll stick with this image's demonstration of a laced placket front closure, barring future discovery of other methods.

Friday, August 22, 2014

What is a Caraco?

When I decided I wanted to make a jacket and petticoat ensemble for myself, I had to figure out a few things.  In addition to patterning and appropriate fabric, I had to hash out exactly what to call it.

I was, at first, confused by the term "caraco." If you've been around the costume or reenacting world but haven't had a chance to dig deeper into the term, what comes to mind is very likely JP Ryan's pattern of that name--a 3/4 length garment fitted with a pieced and box-pleated back.

However, a perusal of fashion plates illustrates that this is far too narrow a definition for "caraco." (In fact, I have yet to find an image of a 3/4 length garment combined with the term "caraco" but of course my search has been less than exhaustive--has anyone found an illustration or plate matching the two?)

(I am greatly indebted to Cassidy at A Most Beguiling Accomplishment for posting and providing text for [TEXT!YES!AMEN!] these images.  All of the images and accompanying original text and dates that follow are from her excellent blog. Commentary my own.)

Many non-full-length--or, perhaps, what we could call "jacket" length--women's garments depicted in this type of primary document are called a "caraco."  Some are simply called "caracos" but other variations are very common.

Maid is wearing a "caraco of pale buras" while her mistress wears a gown:


Caraco plisse [pleated] or Caraco a la Francaise:



Caraco a la Polonaise:



Caraco a la Levite:

1778 (Interestingly, a style intended to imitate the "Creole" dress of French North America. Accuracy of imitation is debatable...)

And my personal favorite, Caraco a l'Amazone:

1788 (Caraco varieties, at least per fashion plates, seem to have exploded in the late 1780s, each with their own unique nomenclature.  I can't speak as to what is so very Amazonian about this caraco, or about affixing a giant green sunflower to one's hat.)

So, what is a "caraco?"  My interpretation is that it isn't, in fact, a single garment, but a category of garments--much like "robe."  As "robe" indicates a full-length garment, inclusive of multiple varieties with various construction techniques employed, "caraco" indicates a "jacket-length" garment inclusive of multiple variations and construction techniques.  They seem to share a lack of stomacher and a back with pleats--either sacque pleats or box pleats to shape the fullness of the skirts.

Where did the term come from?  Good question.  Etymological sources note the similarity between the French "caraco" and the Spanish "caracol."  Caracol means snail.  Now, the French were certainly no strangers to creative garment naming practices (pet-en-l'air, Pierrot...), but I can't see a tie between a short jacket and a snail.  Interestingly, however, someone did--in early Spanish-speaking North America a caracol indicated a type of short garment worn at night.  Could the caraco have taken its name from this garment?  I unfortunately cannot find any additional information about what this garment looked like--Spanish and Latin American clothing is not my forte.

The only other closely related French word I can come up with is "caracoler" which means "to prance" or to maneuver a horse as in dressage competitions (and, interestingly, in the latter usage meaning to turn about, may be related to the snail reference again--the tight spiral of a snail shell).  [And aside--say that out loud.  Ca-ra-co-lay.  Isn't it a delightfully prancey onomatopoetic word?]  Referring to clothing as "prancey" would certainly fall into French tongue-in-cheek clothing naming convention, so perhaps a caraco is a prancing jacket? Or perhaps for the similarity to a riding habit...minus the seriousness of that masculine-inspired ensemble?

Now....who used this term?  Keep in mind that these plates are French.  Did this term emigrate?  Did the garment itself emigrate?

On one hand, we can, in my view, safely assume that the style did migrate overseas.  Foreign visitors to the American colonies note that urban women dress in clothing "in the French fashion" (with some surprise for some--Dohla, a German soldier serving in auxiliary forces opposing the rebelling American colonists, is struck in each city he visits just how nice and fashionable everyone's clothes are).  Caracos would certainly qualify as "French fashion." The term "caraco" does not, however, appear in any of the "usual suspects" of North American searches, per Hallie Larkin in her blog post on the questionable appropriateness of the JP Ryan caraco incarnation for American Revolution portrayals.

My final judgment call for my own caraco?  I'll call it a caraco, putting on the airs I've earned reading French fashion magazines.  But I'll accept that most of my colonial peers would likely refer to it as a jacket, a term that appears in primary sources from colonial America.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Silk Hat: Trimmed and Dangerous

....Dangerous how pretty it is!

I added trim of pink silk taffeta to complement the silk-covered hat I made.

Simple project that would work well on a plain chip hat, too--I just stitched a tube of the taffeta and turned it inside out:

Then gathered it into a "bubble" every couple of inches, then stitched it down onto the hat.

I'm quite pleased, especially, with how the trim makes the brim appear even more gradual, a feature I've always admired in 18th century hats.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Caraco : Patterning

In beginning work on my pink caraco, step one was figuring out exactly how to pattern it.  I found inspiration in fashion plates, but had to turn to extants to discern how the garment was actually put together.

Of course, every extant I uncovered was a little different from every other extant.  Such is the way with 18th century clothing!

However, a few commonalities emerged:

Shaping through pleats:

The garments show shaping through the cut of the pieces and released into fullness with box pleats at the hip and lower back.  Over a petticoat, this would look even fuller.

Gentle curve at the front:

Caraco, entre 1770 et 1780. Musée Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris. GAL1992.177.X.

The front joins from the top to either the midsection or lower waist, and then slopes gently away at the sides.  Consider the difference between this and, say, a gown--which has skirts joined to an endpoint in the bodice, creating a sharp distinction.

Combination of pieced and pleated:

Again, the shape is achieved with both--unlike, say, a "quarter back" gown which is only pieced or an en fourreau gown which is only pleated.  It should be noted that other jackets from the period exist whose shaping is achieved through piecing only, such as this example (recreation from a "swallow-tail" jacket in Costume Close-Up):

Another lovely back view:

Caraco , 1785, probably French, silk with ribbon border, Musée Galliera
Found at

So where did this leave me?  A jacket with:

  • Two back pieces and two side/front pieces (potentially more--you can see from the second example that the back has additional piecing, and the first example that there is an additional piece for the front.  I chose to keep this first foray simple).
  • Pleats where the backs pieces join and where the sides meet the backs.
  • A closed front (no stomacher) with a gently curved opening at the front skirts.
  • Sleeves (duh) set, from all I could tell, in similar fashion to most other 18th century sleeves.  I made mind 3/4 length as this seemed common from extants and fashion plates and, frankly, I like 3/4 sleeves best.