Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fat and a Rat: How I Got 18th Century "Big Hair"

I've enjoyed reading posts and seeing pictures recently of Williamsburg's Margaret Hunter shop's interns' experiments in hair dressing (via Two Nerdy History Girls), and of the Burnley and Trowbridge hair and cap workshop (via On Living History).  I've been trying for years with limited success to achieve "big hair" to match my eighteenth century clothing, and aside from a fairly positive wig experiment, I've been unable to recreate the style I want.

The missing pieces?  The key, if you will?

Fat and a rat.

The Rat

Eighteenth century rats--formative padding to shape and support the hair--weren't called rats; they were called rollers and cushions.  I find myself using the term favored in the 20th century--I think I just find the idea of rodents as hair accessories funny.  Before discovering their correct form, I went through several incarnations:

  1. My own hair.  I have a ton of hair, so thought, perhaps, I could use my own hair as a way to add height from underneath.  And though I got the height, shaping was difficult.  The look was bumpy, not smoothed.
  2. A formed roll, like a foam roller or--yes, I tried this--a mini paint roller.  I'd seen this recommended for WWII era victory rolls.  For my purpose? Too stiff.  They held well in the hair, but my hair tended to "fall off" the sides, creating an unflattering look.
  3. A short rat.  I first attempted a short, approximately four-inch-long "roller" thrown together out of the toe of an old pair of stockings and stuffed with wool scraps.  It worked far better than stiffer rolls or my own hair, but my hair still plumed in an unflattering shape and it tended towards lumpy.
Finally, I was lucky enough to read the Two Nerdy History girls blog post with pictures of the rollers used by the ladies in the Margaret Hunter shop.  They were longer and softer than what I'd tried--and that, friends, is the secret to a workable rat.  Er, roller.

Lacking wool scraps and fleece in the house, I made mine out of a "brunette" trouser sock stuffed with the leftover third of a skein of soft yarn that I wasn't going to use for anything else.



The result?  Excellent!  The malleability of the long, soft roller was the key--I rolled my hair onto it and then could mold the hair roll to my head and pin.  

I may be working on the art of big hair, but the art of the selfie is clearly beyond me.

The Fat

My other secret weapons?  I bought orange blossom pomatum and lavender-scented hair powder from Little Bits Historical (conveniently available on Etsy.)



Christina at On Living History posted about her experiments dressing her hair with pomatum and powder.  You know how, when  you do your hair in an updo (or have it done at a salon), you rely on hairspray, dry shampoo, mousse, some kind or kinds of product to get your hair "sticky" enough to hold a style?  That's the idea with using pomatum (a blend of lard, oils, fragrance, and other good stuff) and powder.  Forget the idea that powder was only used to lighten eighteenth century hair--it provided grip.

I not only have a ton of hair, I have textured, thick hair that I wash infrequently (curly hair--you wash it every day, you get a Brillo pad).  It already has a lot of hold to it.  So I found that I used far less pomatum and powder than Christina described, but the small amount I used made a huge difference.

Aside: I also used the powder as a dry shampoo to make my most recent blow-out last longer.  Works as well as commercial dry shampoo without the extra junk--so if you're into natural/few ingredient products, I'd recommend it!

So--the concept is simple.  Work the pomatum through the hair, dust with powder, achieve a texture that will hold a smoothed, high hairstyle.  And bonus--the pomatum serves to condition hair, and the powder, as I discovered organically, mops up oils and prevents a greasy look.  When combined with regular combing and brushing, there's an everyday haircare regimen. 

The fat and powder routine is especially helpful for getting the back of the hairstyle to behave.  Hair from the period is typically either rolled into curls or rolled upwards and tucked under--either way, the hair needs to be smooth, frizz-free, and easy to mold to look decent.  Ladies didn't fashion their front hair into a high roll just to whip their back hair into a messy bun, after all.  I rolled mine up, and then tucked the ends under and pinned them.

Then I dressed the whole dealio with a simple white cap.  For more really bad selfies.



With a little more practice, I can see myself creating this style on-the-go at living history events.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Checked Apron

I knew when I saw the Dreamstress' Challenge #14: Plaid and Paisley, exactly which way I wanted to go--plaid.  Paisley didn't really enter the world of fashion fabric until post-18th century, and I'm trying to replace and improve my 18th century wardrobe.  Even plaid is a limiting requirement--though plenty of check and plaid fabrics existed, they were less commonly used than other fabrics for gowns, petticoats, jackets.  (Though they were used, even in gowns--see this fabulous collection at Isis' Wardrobe.)
Where checks were exceedingly common?  Women's aprons.  Checked aprons show up in images from early to late 18th century, across countries, in both waistband- and pinner-style aprons.
 Plucking the Turkey by Henry Walton, 1776 (English) (Sidenote: Were there political connotations to this, image, oft referenced for its fashion?  Read more...)

Plate showing clothing common to Holland

"Une Pinte, ma Fille!" Also Dutch.  Print dates to 1803

And finally, a French peasant satirized with giant shoes and crucifix, plus a checked pinner apron.  1770

So, a checked apron was an easy choice!
Fabric: 1 yard checked linen from Wm Booth, Draper.
Pattern: None, really.  It's a large rectangle, gathered to fit a tape waistband.  So...

Pretty simple, right?

Year: 18th century.  This style shows up in images from early to late 18th century.
Notions: Plain old thread and tape for waistband
How historically accurate is it?  100% handsewn, made from a linen check woven specifically from historical examples?  Pretty accurate.  I knock myself a few points for using cotton instead of linen tape, but I had a roll on hand.
Hours to complete: Maybe 3-4.
First worn: Will be worn at our next event in August.  Will probably be covered in smudges and food stains at the end of the weekend.

Total Cost:  The fabric was $16.50 for the one yard--a bit of a splurge for me.  I already had all notions on hand.

Finished photos:

It looks kinda skimpy and flat on my dress form, but I know from experience that it will cover a full petticoat very nicely.  Because you know what my messy self needs?  A big ol' apron.


Detail of gathered to waistband.  I left the tape waistband extra-long deliberately, so I could cross it over in the back and tie it in the front as this is a) seen in many prints and b) an easy way to tie your own apron in a hurry.


Detail of corner hem.  

I'm excited--my current apron is quite literally falling apart from years of hard use, and I'm happy to replace it!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Simple 18th Century Cap

Submitted under the Sew Fortnightly as hosted by The Dreamstress:
Challenge: #13 – Under $10
Fabric: 1/2 yard cotton voile, tops
Pattern: Drafted based on caps I've made before and tweaked to follow inspiration from this image:
Mrs. Carwardine, 1781

Year: 1770-1785
Notions: Linen cord for drawstring, thread   
How historically accurate is it?  Quite!  Handsewn using period stitch techniques (rolled hems, whipstitching, wheee!) and drafted to mimic common features of period examples.  Using cotton was a departure for me--I typically use linen--but the way many upper-class caps drape and fall on the head lead me to believe they are not my standard-weight linen.  I've experimented with different weights of linen and silk organza.
Hours to complete: Maybe 3 total
First worn: TBD...

Total Cost:  This was all stash fabric and notions, so, technically, $0.00.  The fabric I used goes for about $6.50 a yard, so I'll say this item was $3.25 to make.  I will likely add a wide silk ribbon the next time I can browse the draper's in person, which will run me about $4 a yard, for a yard and a half, totaling $6 to add some flourish.

The pre-sewn pieces:


The pieces, from left: Ruffles (there are two identical), half-oval back pouf, cap band (again, two identical)

For scale, the same shot with my cat, Sophie Biscuit.  Thanks for helping, Sophie Biscuit.


Finished cap, as modeled by my vacuum.  I set it down for a second and then thought...yeah, that's kinda funny.

Flat view

Detail of ruffle hem and whipstitching

Me and my radiator.   I just threw my hair up in a quick bun--I know from experience that when my hair is properly dressed, the cap will let more hair show and sit higher on my head (more like Mrs. Carwardine up top).

Final Thoughts:  I'm happy with the cap, but I'm still on the search for the perfect fabric that combines sheerness with enough crispness to hold but not too much stiffness.  See Snow Beast.  

I also want to re-experiment with narrower ruffles.

There's always something, isn't there?

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Historical Fortnightly Plans (Best Laid, of Course)

I've gazed longingly at The Dreamstress's Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge for the past year and a half.  I've wanted to jump in, but during year #1 real life intervened (baby!busy!allthethings!). Then a stack of "must finish" sewing projects precluded me from jumping in on the first half of this year.  Now that the Winter of Buttonholes is complete, I'm looking to my own wardrobe and a few other projects I'd like to work on with the remainder of 2014.  

Besides, I've gotten so used to sewing every evening that I'm not sure what to do with myself when the Husband and I watch TV or whatever.  I have the "should be sewing" itch.

So I'm jumping in on the challenge!  My plans as they stand thus far:

  • #13: Under $10 – due Tue 14 July.  Caps!  I plan to make a plain and a fancy cap (one for me, one for a friend).  I have fabric in my stash but may purchase some very nice lawn or similar if I find it.  Regardless, the final project will be of fabric value under $10.  
  • #14: Paisley & Plaid – due Fri 1 August. Checked apron.  My poor workhorse apron needs a replacement, and checks are very common to 18th century aprons.
  • #15: The Great Outdoors – due Fri 15 August.  I've owed my mother a short cloak for ages.  Time to pay up.
  • #16: Terminology – due Mon 1 September.  If I can, my caraco.  If I can't....undecided.  The term caraco is currently unrepresented in The Dreamstress' list, but pierrot is in the Terminology Encyclopedia.  And to be honest...I've been doing lotsa research on the term that I'd kinda like to share!
  • #17: Yellow - due Mon 15 September.  Yellow and I are not good friends.  I like her and keep inviting her over, and she keeps snubbing me.  TBD.
  • #18: Poetry in Motion - due Wed 1 October  Unsure...I need to dig into my song archives and poetry books for inspiration!  I do know, however, that I want to finish a linen robe a l'anglaise en foureau sometime this year.  If there's any way that one can be shoehorned in....maybe!
  • #19: HSF Inspiration - due Wed 15 October.  I've been so inspired by everything that's been done thus far that picking will be difficult!  There are plenty of gorgeous gowns.  Maybe the gown I plan would fit here.
  • #20: Alternative Universe – due Sat 1 November.  For kicks, probably a fanciful hat or simple costume to wear on Halloween.  
  • #21: Re-do – due Sat 15 November.  If I can't finish the caraco for Terminology, I'll finish it for this one--under the "Pink" challenge.
  • #22: Fort-nightliers Choice : Gentlemen – due Mon 1 December.  Sorry, hubs, but after sewing dozens of buttonholes for your new regimental?  I'm not sewing another darn thing for you this year!  TBD on a gentleman's inspired item for me-self. 
  • #23: Modern History – due Mon 15 December.  Something wearable in a modern context--if Mom's short cloak doesn't get finished for "Great Outdoors" it will fit the bill here.
  • #24: All that Glitters – due Thur 1 January.  Not sure if I'll get to this one.  Can I say that in my dream world, it would be this? 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Tips for A First Set of Stays

AKA learning from my mistakes.  I've had my fair share of pairs of stays since getting my first at sixteen years old.  And I've made my fair share of mistakes in making new pairs like the pink stays I just finished.  A few pieces of hard-earned advice:

1) The Right Size.  Of all the "duh" things to say, right?  But though very often I hear people advising to make sure that the stays are not too *small,* less is said about stays being too *big.*  If stays aren't fitted properly, they'll actually be far more uncomfortable than if they fit snugly.  They won't support, they'll encourage poor posture, and, perhaps worst of all, they'll shift and chafe.  Avoid too-loose fit and too-loose lacing for comfortable stays.

2) Mind the Gap.  I've seen more than one stay-wearer annoyed that her new stays didn't meet at the center back--that is, she thought they were too small for her because there was a gap at the center back lacing.  Not at all!  You want a bit of room to shrink, as it were--even if you aren't planning on losing weight.  In addition to normal weight fluctuations, I've found my body adjusts a bit to stays and snugger lacing is needed later in they day or on day two of wearing. (Note: This is not waist-training, just my body settling into a different--and probably better--posture).  Additionally, stays can stretch a bit over time.  Buy yourself some extra space and make yours or have them made with some space to spare.

3) Stays are Unique to You.  Remember that differences in extants represent not only differences in style and fashion, but also differences in human bodies and lifestyles.  Look at a dozen or so extant pairs of stays.  You'll find that you'll be able to point out similarities and differences between each; no two will look exactly alike.  Some of those differences are certainly due to changes in fashion over time.  Others are due to expectations for what that particular set of stays would be worn for and what they were made of (were they a high-fashion pair for a high-born lady boned with baleen, or a workaday set boned with reed?), based on socio-economic status and other factors.  Some differences even emerge as distinctive to the wearer's body shape.  Perhaps the bust is narrower or wider in relation to the waist, or the tabs placed differently, or the angles of the panels different.

So many differences, for instance, here--straps vs no straps, more purely conical shape vs a flat front; no tabs vs tabs, fully boned vs partially boned.  The list goes on!


Met Museum, c. 1780Wool with reed boning


Met Museum, no date given (I estimate c. 1770-1780), no material given (I guess silk and whalebone)


Victoria and Albert Museum, c. 1770s, silk and whalebone


A bit more discourse on this point, surrounding the pink set of stays I've made *three* versions of.   The first set was too big, no questions asked.  The second set, however, and my third and final (perfect!) pair, are nearly identical in dimensions.  The shape, however, differs.  And the first shape works brilliantly for my friend with broader shoulders and a wider chest--and the second shape works far better for me, with narrow shoulders and a narrow rib cage.

Very long story short--your body type should be taken into consideration in picking a set of stays or patterning your own.  Just as you would in selecting a pair of jeans or a fitted dress. The same things won't work for everyone.

4) Tabs are your friend.  Yeah, they're a pain.  Even plenty of extants skip them.  But I love how tabs ease the distribution of pressure and make the fit so much more comfortable.  Bite the bullet, make the stays with tabs.  You will curse them while you're binding your stays and love them ever after.

5) Be careful, they're addictive.  So I joke about making set after set of stays the past few years, but honestly?  They're a very fun project. Limited fabric so they're not an expensive endeavor, plenty of small steps so that you can make some progress with just a couple hours, and so functionally pretty when you finish.  Enjoy making a first set of stays, but watch out lest ye be bitten by the staymaking bug!

Any corset-making tips you've gained over the course of your own projects?

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pretty Pink Stays

Just in time for The Dreamstress's "Shape and Support" Historical Fortnightly Challenge, I've finished (finally!) what (I hope) will be my last pair of stays for a while.

First, the Stays Saga.

Three years ago, I made the Scarlett O'Hara stays--a prototype of the pattern I wanted to use for a "real" pair of stays (and made from leftover curtain fabric, hence Scarlett, natch).  They served me well, but they were never intended to hold up long-term.  Then, looking toward a full season of reenacting whilst quite pregnant, I made Peachy Pink Gestational Stays based on a slight modification to that pattern.  Finally divested of a large belly and with my body working its way back toward normalcy, I set about last fall to begin making my real, honest to goodness, actual stays.

This is how they turned out:



They were functional and pretty.  Unfortunately, they didn't fit me very well.  They're a bit big overall, but most of all at the bust and shoulders.  Disappointed, I announced three minutes into wearing them for the first time that I'd likely sell them and start over.  The person to whom I announced this tried on the stays and they are now hers--they look brilliant on her.  They were truly made for her, not me!

Then another round, same pattern, scaled back in a few spots.

Workable. But I'm still not thrilled--mostly, again, in the bust area, and I wanted a narrower waist front.  So I tweaked again.

And now I am pleased with the shape.









The Challenge: #12 – Shape & Support
Fabric: 1/2 yard pink linen for outer purchased as a discounted remnant from fabrics-store.com, 1/2 yard Russian drill from Wm Booth Draper, 1/2 yard white linen lining
Pattern: Based upon extants pictured in Jill Salen's Corsets, and this lovely from the Victoria and Albert museum,

I fiddled with both the Butterick commercial stays pattern and the JP Ryan stays pattern to come up with something I liked.  The final pattern ends up being much closer to the JP Ryan half-boned stays pattern than anything else.

Year: 1775-1780 ish
Notions: Wool tape for binding and pink floss for eyelets, plus boning--I used cable ties.   
How historically accurate is it?  I'll give myself a 75%.  The fabrics are spot-on (was quite thrilled with the drill, in particular), and the pattern is very similar to extants, with adjustments made for my size and body type.  The boning, however...I had to make a concession and use either reed in a garment that I was basing on extants made of whalebone, or use plastic, which better imitates whalebone.  Rock and a hard place.  I went with the plastic because I've been happy with how it holds up and molds to the body in past iterations.  I also sewed this with a mix of hand and machine sewing--hand sewing details and binding and machine sewing long seams and long boning channels.  Eyelets are hand-bound.  My biggest test, however, is the shape created, and I'm very happy with the silhouette as compares to fashion plates, portraits, and other images.
Hours to complete: Ihavenoidea.  Seriously, with a toddler, this project was a few boning channels here, an eyelet there...no good way to measure the time spent.  
First worn: For a brief fitting foray.  Very comfortable!  I promise a real first-time wearing photo soon.

Total Cost:  All told, I spent $50. ($20 for the drill, $10 for the linen, $10 for binding, $10 for pink silk twist for the eyelets.)  I used far less of either fabric than I purchased, too, so the total $30 fabric cost includes adding to the fabric stash!  (I think the leftover pink linen will make for a dandy toddler dress.)

Overall, I'm quite pleased with the fit, the form they create, and, most importantly, that I *finally* finished a pair of pretty pink stays for myself!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Plans for a Pink Caraco

With my new stays nearly finished, I've started looking ahead to my next projects.  I've decided to elevate my impression slightly, and that means a wardrobe revamp.  The more research I do on who I claim to be in the 18th century--an officer's wife from Philadelphia--the more I realize that urban, non-poor women dressed much better than I do.

I am making a linen work gown (work is unavoidable in camp) but for times I can, I plan to take things up a notch to show the full range of 18th century clothing.

I plan to make a fairly simple but well-trimmed caraco my first project.  Unlike my current caraco, I'd like to do a shorter jacket, probably hip-length, probably closing in the front.

Like this lovely fashion plate:



And like these, I'd like to make them in pink:





(Links to A Most Beguiling Accomplishment, with more information on these prints and translations.)

A couple of extants:

Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1175



KCI 1780s

I love the ruffle along the skirts of the second, and will probably work something closer to the length of the first (as the very short length in the second seems to be a bit late for my impression).

I plan on a pink taffeta for the caraco, and am undecided on the petticoats to match.  On one hand, matching seems to be common in most fashion plates.  However, I think white petticoats would look lovely and fresh--ruffled on the hems and diaphanous (and bleachable...).  I ran across a print of a maid with this kind of ensemble recently, and can't seem to find it again--if anyone has come across it, let me know! (It was one of those "The country girl after a month in Paris as a maid" kind of commentaries, but her outfit was delicious.)