Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Myth of "For Beginners"

Note: Throughout this post, I am speaking about and to those whose goal is historical accuracy.  If that's not you, no guilt, no judgment.  Not your goal, not your problem!

There's a weird myth I've noticed floating out there recently.

It's that historical authenticity isn't for beginners.

Nope, beginners, apparently, are supposed to stick to mainstream/commercial patterns, make "costumes" before they try historical clothing, and should avoid any fabric or fiber save cotton broadcloth at all costs.

I recently encountered this when I suggested, on a clothing forum, that instead of attempting to use a Big Three pattern, that someone looking for HA clothing use the Larkin and Smith gown pattern to achieve the garment she wanted to make.  (In context, I had assumed she wanted historical accuracy in the final product.)

"But I'm a beginner!" came the reply.  "Those patterns are only for experienced seamstresses.  This is better for beginners."

What? Historically accurate methods and patterns are only for people who have already slogged through making incorrect stuff?

Where did this myth come from?

Now, I empathize completely with newcomers to the hobby of historical reenacting or historically accurate costuming of any kind.  For one, it's all new.  The learning curve in terms of knowledge is steep,and to complicate matters, there's plenty of bad information out there.  Further, there are new skill sets to be acquired.  Is this why accuracy is considered for-advanced-seamstresses-only?

Further, plenty of people come to historically accurate (I'm going to use the annoying abbreviation HA from here on out for brevity) clothing construction via less accurate avenues--many first dip a sartorial toe into the waters of cosplay, RenFair, rendezvous, or costume parties.  So many newcomers to HA clothing have, in fact, had "beginner" experiences making non-HA clothing.  Is this where the idea that you *have* to go through the inaccurate before you can start making HA garments comes from?

In either case, it doesn't have to be this way.

First, yes.  Making HA clothing involves having access to the correct information--but you don't have to do all the legwork yourself!  It cannot be emphasized enough that, when starting out, getting yourself with a group that is not only HA but helpful is necessary.  Information is not to be hoarded, but shared!  Online groups exist, but caveat emptor--not all are giving HA advice.  Regardless, the information is there--you do not have to write a dissertation on colonial American bedgowns or shifts because, guaranteed, someone has already done that for you.

Beyond this, though, the idea that HA methods or patterns are harder boggles my mind.  Here's the deal: Accurate methods are not more difficult, they are simply different.  You are hand-sewing instead of machine sewing.  You are constructing garments differently than in modern stitchery.  You are using different fabrics than is typical in modern sewing.  However, none of these is inherently harder.

Take hand-sewing.  Hand-sewing is not, I repeat, truly, NOT more difficult than machine sewing.  In fact, I know many people who prefer hand-sewing.  Is it more time-consuming? Sure.  But the learning curve is just as steep.  I have a friend who recently taught a historical clothing sewing workshop, and allowed the use of sewing machines to keep the process moving more quickly (100% HA was not a goal here--that's ok!).  She ended up teaching everyone how to use their sewing machine.  And had she insisted on hand-sewing, she would have ended up teaching that, no doubt.  Regardless--a machine doesn't help a complete beginner, but it does teach a modern methodology instead of an HA one.

So, if you have to learn a new skill set in order to create clothing, and you want to  ultimately have an HA wardrobe--why learn the inaccurate skill set?  Why spend time wrestling with a machine instead of fighting with a hand-sewing needle?  This is the most obvious difference, probably, but the methods of clothing construction differ, too.  Why learn to sew a lined gown using an inaccurate "bag lining" method when it's no harder to use an HA method?  And ultimately--why make a throwaway garment that you won't be able to wear to the living history events you want to when you could invest your time and money in a piece that will serve both your goals of learning and using? (NB: I am not talking about muslins there, but about completed garments.)

Thing is, if we learn skills in an incorrect way first, we have to unlearn them later.  You can use a Big Three pattern to make a first gown--but when you later make an HA gown, many of the skills you picked up in your first gown will not be used in the new project.  You will still be learning new skills when you make your HA gown, no matter how many costume pieces you make before it.  And if my own experience is any indication, you will trip yourself up *thinking* you know how it's done when, in fact, you do not.

When I unpack from vacation (or an event!) I keep the motto "handle it once." It comes out of the suitcase and right into the closet or hamper or dresser.  If you apply the same outlook here, you notice how you save a lot of time with skill building.  Handle it once.  Learn it once.  If you're not trying to learn modern method but historical ones, then, instead of learning it the wrong way first, why not built a repertoire of HA skills?

Now, not every project is the best first project for a newcomer to sewing at all, let alone HA garments.  Maybe a gown isn't best (and it's definitely not--in no small part because you absolutely positively need stays first). But a bedgown? Oh, yeah.  You can learn handsewing technique, 18th century construction norms, get used to the hand of linen or wool...In fact, you can built a full "first wardrobe" with a few basic stitches, a pattern or two, and some cutting diagrams (and a bazillion yards of linen, give or take a couple yards).  I watched a group of mostly newbie sewists craft completely handsewn shifts in a weekend recently--some went from zero skills to almost complete garment.  If they can do it--and now have nearly all the skills they need to make an HA wardrobe--anyone can.

So let's put this one to rest.  Beginners can learn HA technique.  Beginners do not have to stick to machine sewing, modern technique, or incorrect patterns.  Beginners can make HA garments.

Rock on, beginners.

4 comments:

Isis said...

Great post! My first forays into 18th Century costuming were stays, chemise and polonaise gown. They were horrible- the stays fit was so bad it gave me bruises, the cotton in the chemise was too heavy and the polonaise was made of polyester, because I was broke and had to sew something of what I already had.

But they were all constructed after original patterns and I had read up on accurate construction tecniques. I don't think I would have been helped in any way in NOT having tried to make the most accuarte, even if the result wasn't very good. (But it wouldn't have been very good anyway.)

Rowenna said...

SO true, Isis! Sometimes budget does limit us, but fortunately learning a skill doesn't cost much aside from pricked fingers!

Cassidy said...

Late response, but this is so true. HA methods aren't more difficult for a total beginner than modern ones. I've learned this from personal experience! It's hard to convince people when they "know" that the machine/cotton broadcloth is better and everyone else in the conversation is discouraging them from trying to do it another way, though.

What you lose in actual sewing speed by hand sewing you gain in not having to unpick and redo.

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