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.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Bibs, or Weird Plain Stomacher Things

I started noticing a weird clothing item while collecting images of women working.

It's kinda like a stomacher.

Except it's not one of the gorgeous, embroidered, gilt, bow-bedecked stomachers we usually see displayed in museum collections and photographed for books.

It's plain.  Zilch on it.  In fact, it doesn't even match the gown it's being worn with.

What the heck, I thought, *is* this thing?

A few examples:



Henry Robert Morland (London circa 1719-1797) The Butter Churner 



Henry Robert Morland, The Laundry Maid, Engraving by Philip Dawe, 1774



1765 Henry Robert Morland (British artist, 1716-1797) A Lady's Maid Soaping Linen


Henry Robert Morland, Domestic Employment: Ironing National Museums Liverpool


Miss White Clear Starcher to the Queen, Unknown British artist


So, what can we say about this curious garment? First, in each case, the wearer is a maid doing manual work--laundry-related manual work.  The gown she is wearing is nice-ish--nothing over the top fancy, but, from the look of the fabric in each image, either a cotton print, a painted silk, a plain silk, or some other "upmarket" fabric--not workaday linen or wool.  The gowns (aside from the last, which is unclear) are all of the robing-and-stomacher front closure style, and most are clearly open, with robings unpinned.

Then, how it's worn:


In each case, the piece appears undyed, either bleached or unbleached, and of a fabric that, from sheen and texture, I would guess to be linen.  In an interesting twist, most appear to be tucked into the top of the stays rather than pinned into place.  The remainder of the cut is similar to a "normal" stomacher, as the edges are visible.

As you might have guessed, I found this interesting.

I found this *particularly* interesting as the vast majority of English aprons and images of English women wearing aprons depict an apron that only covers the skirts--not the "pinner," "pinafore" or "bib" apron that we see more commonly in French and Dutch images.  I had wondered--WHY not wear something that protects the front of one's clothing from stains, too?

Well, looks like they did.

And then I got to wondering about a term I'd seen floating around some textual sources--Bib:


Elizabeth Banks , was indicted, for that she, in a certain field, or open place, near the King's highway, on Frances Mercer , spinster, did make an assault, putting her in corporal fear, &c. one stay, value 1 s. one pair of stockings, one linen bib and apron, the goods of the said Frances, did steal, take and carry away .


Arthur Hambleton was indicted for stealing one worked linen handkerchief, called Dresden, three linen gowns, one-linen bib, one linen apron, two other gowns,

And others...and I wondered. Bib? What's a bib? Though some of the references specifically speak to children, most did not, so my modern understanding of the term "bib" as "drool catcher and mealtime poncho" was certainly incorrect here.

I had heard it suggested that "bib" might mean kerchief, but as the thefts often list bibs AND kerchiefs as stolen items, this didn't seem plausible, either.  

Then there's the fact that a pinned-front apron is termed a "bibbed" apron--and the piece that pins on the front, is, apparently, a "bib":


[I] saw the prisoner at the bar putting my handkerchief as fast as he could between the bib of his apron and his waistcoat.

Well, hmmm.  Is the weird stomacher thing called a bib?  That's my best guess at the moment

For fun, I decided to make one of my own as a bit of "experimental archaeology" and use it while performing kitchen duties this spring.

I tucked it into the front of my stays, as the images seem to do--but found that the top was a bit wide and I had extra fabric that bunched at the sides.  Good to know--make the top a bit narrower than my "normal" stomacher.  I also pinned my robings back down as I was wearing this for a while, like the "Maid Soaping Linen" seems to have done.  


And it worked quite well! I saved my normal stomacher from the blood from a stab wound to my finger, so I can say the piece is useful.  It was easy to swap the "bib" in for my normal, matching stomacher, so I can safely say that a maid--or housewife--who wanted protection for her gown but wanted to switch  back quickly could certainly do so.  A good addition to my working wardrobe, I think--and I'm going to keep looking into bibs!

Monday, June 6, 2016

One Gown, Two Ways

I hadn't really intended to make a new gown this spring.

But then I got some sort of Congested Sinus Yak that lasted forever and a half, and the only thing I wanted to to do was sit on the couch and sew.  So I sewed.  And sewed and sewed and made a gown and two stomachers and a petticoat.

I had been wanting to try the Larkin and Smith pattern--I'll write a full post later about using the pattern and the sewing techniques used and how it's REALLY FUN I PROMISE, because I definitely want to make another one of these.  For now, I'm struck by how awesome this gown is at playing high-low.

I used a cotton print, which is a nicer fabric for 18th century, but if you spend some time playing in 18th century images and runaway ads (and if you want to, Don Hagist's excellent Wives, Slaves, and Servant Girls is now available), you find that cotton prints do show up among poorer people, too.  Second hand clothing plays a part in this, as does the fact that people were not either magnificently wealthy or rolling in mud in the period--people with lesser means could still afford some niceties.

Still, seeing the striking difference that a different set of accessories makes--it's pretty nifty.

Dressed down, the gown with a plain linen petticoat, a checked apron, a very battered straw hat, and with the tails rucked up out of the way (retrousse, as it were, dans les poches).   No jewelry, no extras. (Adorable tiny human not included in ensemble, sold separately.)


And, for a full 180, with matching petticoat, silk-covered hat, paste jewelry, and an organdy kerchief. (Dashing officer not included in ensemble, sold separately.)  For what it's worth, the cap is the same in both images.




I wasn't sure if it would work, honestly, to pull it off both ways, but I really enjoyed how I was able to play quick-swap and have not only two different outfits, but really, two different personas for the weekend.  

As a just for fun, I also made a plain stomacher, which takes the look even more firmly into the "I'm here to work" category.  (More on that plain stomacher another time!)



Long story short--this has been a great addition to my 18th century wardrobe on many levels.  Happy squeaks.