Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Fig Leaf Patterns 214 Surplice Dress

I had the wonderful opportunity a couple of months ago to attend a workshop with Mackenzie Anderson Sholtz, the creator and owner of Fig Leaf Patterns, where we worked on her new Surplice Dress Pattern. ***

Bonnet by Lydia Fast 

 You know, the one based on this dress from the DAR Fashionable Tyrant exhibit.

Since Mackzenie was still beta testing the pattern at the time of this workshop, I don't really feel like I can give it a proper 'review' here. However here is some general advice and observations from my experience.

The pattern actually comes with two options, even though it's not shown on the front cover. The original dress appears to have been remade from an earlier 1790s style. Mackenzie has reverse engineered that original style, and included instructions to make it along with the 1815 version.

This cotton print was actually a $6/ yard Walmart find. Because yes, Virginia, you *can* find affordable fabric to do these things if you know what you are looking for.

All photos by Brian Cushing

The patterns calls for you to only gather the back skirt piece on the back piece, as is done on the original. However I extended the gathers onto the side back pieces. This is something I learned from Janea Whitaker at a Burnley & Trowbridge workshop, as a good way to accommodate those of us with wider hips.

Make sure that you calculate the length of the skirt for your height. When you get to this point, remember that the fashionable skirt lengths were very different in 1815 from 1790.


By 1815, ankle was *in*. The skirts were also becoming fuller, and being cut on an 'A-Line'.


The double cording in the bottom ruffle is great for achieving this fuller, A-Line style. The original has a tuck underneath the ruffle, which I ended up leaving out.  The tuck itself didn't seem necessary  to hold the ruffle out. Originally I was going to put one above to make mine a little different from all the other reproductions of this one running around out there, however when I tried it on the length was right as is.

Takeaways (for the 1815 surplice pattern):

  • To get the most out of the bodice ruffles, you want to use a light, sheer fabric.

  • Don't forget to adjust the length of the skirt based on your height. Remember that by 1815 the fashionable hemline was showing some serious ankle.

  • If you are curvy in the hips like I am, you may wish to use the back gather variation I have discussed above.

It is worth noting that while this dress is lovely, it is also very distinctive. If you are part of a living history ensemble group you would not want everyone to use this pattern (at Locust Grove we have limited it to 1-2 people wearing it at a time). However don't forget that you are getting a 2 for 1 here- the pattern does also come with the 1790s variation, which will give you a very flexible, customizable second option.

The last thing I will note is that Mackenzie is extremely personable and helpful. I wasn't able to attend most of the last day of this workshop, so she has answered a lot of my questions via email. So if you do get this pattern and have questions, don't hesitate to reach out to her for help! You can also ask to join the 'Friends of Fig Leaf Patterns' group on Facebook.

***The workshop was organized and underwritten by the Jane Austen Society of North America Louisville Chapter. Many thanks to Bonny Wise and JASNA for making this happen. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Mrs. Ann Gwathmey

Here's a post about a dress I made back in 2016 for my friend Janice Sidebottom. Janice is a member of the first person interpreter cast at Locust Grove, where she portrays Ann Clark Gwathmey. Ann was the oldest sister of George Rogers Clark and William Clark. She married Owen Gwathmey, who ran a mercantile business in Louisville.

Janice at the Jane Austen dinner at Historic Corydon, IN. She is wearing a cap of mine, along with a chemisette from Amazon Drygoods.
Her lovely curls came from Custom Wig Company.

We wanted to create something for Janice which would be and fashionable and appropriate for her character in 1816, the year we portray at Locust Grove

There is a miniature of Ann which was supposedly painted in 1820, just a few years later,  though I suspect it is incorrectly dated. Ann was born in 1755, so by 1820 she would have been in her mid 60's. The shock of brown hair seems surprising on a woman her age. Hair pieces were certainly available, but those would likely have been curled. Since the hair in this image is brown, but does not look purposely styled, I suspect it is Ann's real hair, and this portrait was painted earlier. **

There is a later portrait of her sister, Lucy, however, which also provided some good inspiration for Ann at this point in their lives. Lucy Clark Croghan was painted at Locust Grove in 1820, where her portrait now hangs in the dining room. She is dressed in a manner which is very dignified and fashionable, and which displays the wealth and comfort Lucy knew at this time of her life.

Both portraits show women in darker colors, with frilly lovely caps and fichou or other frilly fabric about their necks. And it just so happens that Janice's favorite color is blue....

Our model for this dress was this one from the Snowshill Collection in the National Trust, dated 1812-15

Nancy Bradfield also sketched this one out in Costume in Detail on pages 115-16. 

This was actually one of my first forays into draping on the body. Maggie Roberts, who was our outgoing ladies costume director at the time, kindly held my hand and helped me through the process. 

I likened the construction of this dress to an arch- its very simple how all the pieces hold each other together, once they ARE together. The shoulders are gathered on pieces of tape, as is the bosom in the front. Janice was very patient while I set all the bosom gathers in place on her. 

Below are the pattern pieces I traced off the pattern I had draped on Janice. There appeared to be more gathers on the front of the shoulders, so the shoulder is wider on the front bodice piece than the back. As with all crossover styles, the front is cut on the straight of grain.

The back is on a drawstring, which makes the dress adjustable. Janice has a history of weight fluctuation, so this adjustability was something she wanted. I created the channel for the string between the skirt and the bodice . The very bottom of the sleeves close with a drawstring.

The fabric came from Fashion Fabrics Club, where it was labeled as a 'dark blue lawn'. FFC can really be a great resource for low cost cottons, but it is never a guarantee exactly how what you order will show up.  Luckily, this arrived as a lovely, smooth, lightweight cotton with a nice drape. 

Janice with the other ladies at the 200th anniversary of George Roger's Clark's death and burial.
February 17, 2018
Courtesy of Wayne Tuckson 

I hope this entry has given you an idea of how we work to create character appropriate garments, based on primary source documentation as well as the taste and preferences of the wearer, at Locust Grove. 

**The image is stored along with two other miniatures, of her son and daughter in law, at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville. Those are also dated 1820, and I suspect that Ann's came with them, and got lumped into the same date.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Federal Work Clothes

It's never too late to blog, right? (Right?!) I finally got around to making a decent Federal working outfit last fall to wear in the kitchen at Locust Grove. I did all of the stitching on the short gown and petticoat by hand. 

For the short gown, I used the Fig Leaf Patterns 219. This was another bit from my Jane Austen Festival haul last summer.

Like a lot of Mackenzie's patterns, this one actually comes with a couple of variations, both of which were part of the DAR Fashionable Tyrant exhibit. Since this outfit was designed for getting really dirty and sweaty in the kitchen, I went for the simpler, unlined option (the other one is a bit fancier and more substantial with a collar). 

I did add about an inch to the bottom. The original from the DAR exhibit had a VERY short skirt, which I did not think would be flattering on me. However looking around it seems like these came in a variety of lengths. You can see one example from St. Louis by Anna Maria Von Phul here 

As well as this rather interesting Danish example here

Brian had apparently been hauling this striped cotton around for years, just looking for its purpose. And this was it! 

Brian sketched the line for the drawstring casing on me with a fabric marking pen. (The pattern does come with lines you can use if you don't want to DIY it).

 I used 1 inch twill tape to create the casing on the inside. 

The reinforcing piece on the neck will look strange when you cut it out, but when you go to put it together it actually will fit into place fine. 

**I accidentally inverted the pleat here. It worked out fine, but don't work off this image for it.

Petticoat- Past Patterns 037

For the petticoat, I relied on the research in  Past Patterns 037 High-Waisted Petticoat pattern.  This is based on an original from the period. As with all of Saundra Altman's patterns, this comes with a wonderful booklet full of her research and observations. I didn't actually need the pattern to cut it out, but just reading Sandra's research is VERY helpful.

I made this out of some wool suiting from Fashion Fabrics Club. I chose wool because it is more flame retardant than cotton, and I am often wearing this near the fire in the kitchen at Locust Grove. The weave is open enough that it breathes pretty well in cool to moderately warm weather. We will see how it does in the summer, but then again past a certain point there's not a lot that can keep you perfectly comfortable next to a fire in a Kentucky July.

For petticoat straps, I used more 1 inch twill tape from William Booth, Draper. I have found the best thing is cut them pretty long, then pin them in place to try it on. From there, you want to readjust the front and back on each side of your body. Between shoulders and bust, most women have at least some asymmetry, and you want to be sure that these are fit well so that you can move with ease, but they wont' come off your shoulders. I frequently find that they end up at an angle in the front.

All topped off with a cap I designed myself, and a pair of boots from Taylor Rose Historical Outfitters. This has been a very comfortable outfit, which allows me to move and work with ease in the kitchen!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Box

In Lark Rise to Candleford Flora Thompson describes a common scene from the hamlet in England where she grew up

"A familiar sight at Lark Rise was that of a younger girl - any young girl between ten and thirteen- pushing one of the two perambulators in the hamlet round the Rise with a smallish-sized, oak clothes box with black handles lashed to the seat..... 

She had been to the Rectory for THE BOX , which appeared almost simultaneously with every new baby, and a grueling time she would have had pushing her load the mile and a half, keeping it from slipping from its narrow perch. But, very soon, such small drawbacks would be forgotten in the pleasure of seeing it unpacked. It contained half a dozen of everything- tiny shirts, swathes, long flannel barrows, nighties and napkins, made, kept in repair, and lent for every confinement by the clergymen's daughter. In addition to the loaned clothes, it would contain, as a gift, packets of tea and sugar and a tin of patent groats for making gruel. "

The ritual which Flora Thompson describes in the 1880's was an old one, going back at least as far as the beginning of the nineteenth century. We can find evidence of it in several sewing manuals from the period. These manuals, geared towards middle and upper class women, provided advice on charitable sewing for the deserving poor in their neighborhoods.

The Ladies Economical Assistant, published in England in 1808 said that "There is not, perhaps, any act of charity more truly beneficial to the poor than the custom of lending a box of linen to lying-in women, for the month of f their confinement."  In 1838, The Workwoman's Guide continued the same tradition, stating that "Linen is often lent by ladies to the poor, at their confinements, in bags, boxes, or baskets ...." which is followed by a precise inventory of recommended items to include.

The author of this work gives more detail on the box itself, saying that "....the most convenient kind of basket for containing these articles of clothing, is a light wicker-work one, about 20 inches long, 12 inches wide, and 20 inches high...it should have two handles, sufficiently high to allow of the lid opening easily."

These boxes contained clothes for the new mothers as well. The suggested inventory from The Workwoman's Guide is specifically divided between items for mother and baby, even suggesting the addition of a few books for the mother to read during her confinement. It would be tempting to think that for these women, the period of confinement provided a rare opportunity for some rest; however Thompson remembers the mothers in her hamlet taking pride in returning to their household work as quickly as possible. In any case, the authors of these manuals attempted to think equally of the comfort and needs of these poor women and their infants.

'Poor Yet Rich' Theresa Schwartze

The loaning of 'The Box' was supposed to be an orderly, well regulated affair, at least according to the manuals. The Ladies Economical Assistant has a great deal of advice on the handling of this loan, insisting that the box must be returned at the end of a month.  "I would strongly recommend' writes the author 'that no part of the contents of the box should be parted with on any account; otherwise, before the things are replaced they are probably wanted, and thus great disappointment is occasioned to whose who look upon this help as so material a comfort."For those women who required further assistance, she provides the following advice to her readers "receiving the box, with the contents well washed, and agreeing with the inventory (which should always be sent with the things,) a present of a few articles of an infant's dress may be given to deserving families, if an extension of the charity be thought proper." 

Thompson tells us that these rules were understood in the Hamlet, at least in theory. "The boxes were supposed to be returned at the end of the month" says Thompson "with the clothes freshly laundered." But of course reality does not always correspond nicely with an advice manual, and extensions were regularly given when no one else in the hamlet had recently had a child. Thus 'THE BOX' might actually stay with a single family for six or seven weeks, allowing them to avoid ever having to lay out the time and money for clothes which their children would only wear at the very beginning of their lives. And the Rector's daughter did, in fact, also make several permanent presents of infants clothing upon the THE BOX's return.

Outline for a gown for poor infants from the Workwoman's Guide 

In the Lark Rise hamlet, this institution was so popular that the Rector's daughter actually had to maintain an auxiliary box for times when the first one was in use. She also maintained two christening gowns to be used when the time came.

The Rector's daughter, Miss Ellison, gives a picture of one of the women who was doing all this charitable sewing. Thompson says "Such a life as hers must have been is almost unimaginable now. Between playing the harmonium in church, teaching in Sunday school, ordering her father's meals and overseeing the maids, she must have spent hours doing needlework." And of course 'The Box' was not the only bit of charitable sewing she was doing 'Course, unattractive needlework, too, cross-over shawls and flannel petticoats for the old women, flannel shirts and long, thick knitted stockings for the old men, these, as well as the babies print frocks, were all made by her own hands."

"Young Woman Sewing, The Artist's Sister Anna Hammerchøi," by Vilhelm Hammerchøi,  1887

Sadly, for all of her trouble, Miss Ellison was not well loved or the recipient of much gratitude in the hamlet. "She got little credit for this." Says Thompson "The mothers, like the children, looked upon the small garments, both loaned and given, as a provision of nature. Indeed, they were rather inclined to criticize."

So far Lark Rise is the latest evidence I have seen of this tradition.  Thompson writes about her 1880's childhood as a time when a great deal of change was still coming to her hamlet, where she and her siblings were the last generation to experience many decades, or even centuries, old rhythms of life growing up. This was a tradition which made sense before inexpensive, ready-made clothing was widely available for infants. When the amount of time and effort it would take to make and maintain such clothing was much better done once by one wealthier person with leisure time, than repeated by a whole village of mothers who had little in the way of either time or money for materials.

However I would be very interested to see if and how long this tradition may have continued in other places. If you have seen any other examples of 'The Box' please let me know in the comments below! Many thanks to my friend Eleanor Rust for bringing Lark Rise to Candleford to my attention!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Home Organization with the Workwoman's Guide

Winter Break is finally here, and for this teacher that means time for a little household tidying! All of my recent projects, while delightful, have definitely left a mess in our cutting room dining room, so that was where I started. This included all kinds of small bits of fabric for potential caps and other projects.

Organizing lots of little bits of things is always difficult for me. Luckily, The Workwoman's Guide has the following suggestion

"A rag bag is a desirable thing to have hung up in some conspicuous part of the house, into which all odd bits, and even shreds, of calico, print, linen, muslin, & c should be put: as they are useful to come in when a gusset or chin stay, or other small article is wanting. Those bits too small for this purpose may still be used by school children, for practicing stitches; or, at all events, may be disposed of to the rag merchants, and thus prove of some value at last...."

Obviously I could not go any further with cleaning until I made a rag bag!

She goes on to say that

"Another family bag, for the purpose of containing stray tapes, or shoe strings, hooks, eyes, odd buttons, pieces of silk , or bits of ribbon, may be kept with advantage; especially where there is a large family of children, whose demands for these small articles are daily and constant."

Since I do, in fact, have stray ribbons and pieces of tape about the place, this seemed like a good idea as well. She also suggests a small bag to be kept in your work-box for these things, which I also want to do, since those and thread are usually what causes a mess there. 

The Guide is full of this strong desire for what the author considers 'economy' and efficiency. Today, we might think of it as 'sustainability', but whatever you call it, I think she has a few lessons to teach us about it.  I usually put bits of fabric which are big enough under the sink to use as cleaning rags. Some of these will still doubtless end up here, but this will keep them clean in case I want to use them for caps or some other small thing. And I did add some pieces which I would normally have just tossed, but which really will be good for chin stays for infants caps or other similar projects in the future. 

We have come to think of large-scale industrial production as being more efficient, but it is marvelous how the home economy described in the Guide finds a use for every last piece of material. 

Unfortunately I don't think I'm going to have a value or use for those little tiny scraps the author would have given to the rag and bone man. It's a shame, as I really hate to throw things away. It's really an excellent example of how wasteful we have become compared to our ancestors who used everything. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Workwoman's Guide - A gown for infants of the 'lower classes'

"Another Infant's Flannel Gown"

So I am sewing my way through the Workwoman's Guide. As detailed in my last post, I've been making-up some sewing which will be appropriate to send to some of my friends at the Dickens Fair to work on in character.

I had a lot of fun with the caps in my last post, but I wanted to move onto something bigger that people could really show off as part of a gig at Dickens. But I also wanted to keep it pretty simple, so anyone could easily pick it up and work on it. I found the perfect option among the various instructions for making gowns for infants:

"This shape is the one generally used by the lower classes , not only for flannels, but for print gowns and petticoats; and is preferred to others on account of the ease with which it is cut out, and also because there is much less needle-work in the making up: there is, however, some waste, which is an objection. The gown is 13 nails long , but as there should be no seam on the shoulder, the two breadths must be cut in one length of 26 nails, which is 1 yard 10 nails. Double it in two, so as to be 13 nails long, and then fold it in half very evenly down the middle, so as to make the four selvages lie exactly one upon the other, and pin them firmly down to keep the folds in place; then, after measuring three nails from the selvages at the top (see A S), to determine the length of the sleeves, cut out the part S C D, to form the neck of the gown. Observe that the part from S to C is nail deep, which should be nicely rounded off, and from C to D, the bosom is cut straight along...."

This was nice and straightforward. It does not explicitly say how wide the breadth should be, but going off the sketch, the folded over fabric is 7 Nails (3+ 4), so the full breadth  would be 14 Nails (31.5 inches). This was the smallest breadth listed among the other gown variations, and my understanding is that that was a common width of fabric in the period.

This was pretty easy and fun to sketch out. I felt a bit like the mice from Cinderlla with my chalk and pattern book! The only thing that seems a bit odd to me are the sleeves, though I followed the directions clearly. 

To me  they look a bit skinny, especially relative to the body of the gown. To be fair this was designed for poor Victorian infants, who may have been undernourished, certainly compared to modern infants. However were I to make this again I think I would add a half inch to the sleeve measurement and adjust the curve in the arm accordingly. 

Can you count the cats in this picture? 

Next up, construction!

"The gown is next shaped at the side; and to do so properly, put in a pin at S, and fold it in a regular slope down to the bottom of the gown. Measure down the slope from the top, S, the distance of 2 nails, and put in a pin as a guide; cut off from the bottom upwards to T, and rounding it off at the corner, slope along T K for the sleeve, allowing 1 1/2 nail width for the wrist . In making it up, the seams should be joined with a mantua-maker's hem and a band should be sewn on the inside of the front, to be 6 nails in length, and about 1 1/2 nail below the neck. Cut a button-hole in the gown at each end of the band, draw with a bodkin a piece of tape through one hole, and fasten it down at the other extremity of the band; do the same with the other button-hole, so that on pulling the tapes, the gown will be drawn up, and neatly fulled in the front."

I used some 5/8 inch twill tape to create this band on the inside.

I used 1/4 inch twill tape to pull it up, and did the button-holes with a waxed linen thread.

This was quite fun to 'neatly full' in the front, however it left the actual neck large and floppy. There are no instructions whatever here about finishing the neck, but there is a line in the plate which looks like a drawstring casing.

So I turned the neck under to create the casing, and made two more buttonholes in the front for a drawstring. I used more 1/4 twill tape for the string. All the tape you see here came from William Booth, Draper at the Sign of the Unicorn. 

This allows you to draw up the neck to match the middle, so I have to assume it is supposed to happen, it just somehow didn't make it into the actual written directions.

So, having gone through two of these projects now, my big takeaway is that you definitely need to compare the plate and directions, and use your best judgement. 

Now, to get it all packed up and in the mail for the final two weeks of Dickens! 

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Workwoman's Guide- Caps for Poor Infants

For those of you who are not familiar, the Workwoman's Guide was first published in England in 1838 by 'A Lady'. Geared towards Middle Class and wealthy women, the Guide includes sewing and cutting instructions for many different garments, including those which might be worn within their own home. It also lays out clear instructions for making clothes for the poor to wear.

I have long been wanting to get my hands dirty, so to speak, and recreate some of these garments. I finally found my excuse as the time rolls around once again for the Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco. Dickens is a wonderful Victorian Christmas extravaganza, where visitors will meet characters from Charles Dickens novels as well as historical characters such as Queen Victoria and Dickens himself.

Queen Victoria and her ladies 

These include ladies of quality, as well as many of what the Victorians called the 'deserving' (and 'undeserving') poor.  The perfect people to be creating and receiving some of these garments! And since I cannot attend myself this year,  I decided to put some projects together to send out to some of my friends there to work on in character.

The Guide is organized by chapter with accompanying image plates. Each chapter is broken up by garment type, and then into variations on that type. These are clearly delineated based on whether they are for wealthy or the poor. There is a whole section in Chapter three on making caps for infants and young children, which including several variations based on age of the child and income level.
For my first project, I chose to make caps for poor infants, from Plate 2 Fig 12 & 13. The description is as follows

"This is much used by the poor, and is easily made and as easily washed. Take of the material a piece 6 nails down the selvage, and 3 1/2 nails wide. Double it, letting D be the double part. Sew up the back from A to C, leaving a hole or button-hole at the top, C; make a runner all round the front and behind, at half a nail's distance from edge, which is hemmed with a very narrow hem to form a frill: also, lay in a runner from E to F: next, sew a bobbin at B, letting one end of the string hang outside, and the other, being pulled through the seam, remains inside the cap. The end is carried up and brought out through the hole at C.....when worn the tapes, at being tied together at B, draw the cap up into shape, and if neatly arranged and pulled out with the fingers, it looks very neat and pretty....some put a loop of bobbin inside at B, which, on being brought out through C, fastens to a button at B, on the outside."

According to the Guide, a 'nail' is 2 1/4 inches, so 6 nails by 3 1/2 nails is 13.5 inches by just under 8 inches.

The illustrations on the accompanying plate look as follows

There were a few things that confused me with these instructions. First of all, how to make the runner? Also, the illustration clearly has a strap (which, interestingly, is placed differently in Figure 13 than it is in Figure 12), yet the instructions include no mention of such a strap.

I made a couple of prototypes just folding the fabric and stitching in a channel, but I wasn't satisfied with the shape it gave.

But then I looked back at some of the earlier sections in the chapter. An earlier set of instructions for

"Child's Flannel Cap" contained the following instructions

"Two runners, or string cases.... are then made by hemming neatly two bits of soft tape or sarsenet inside....."

Here then was the solution! It appears that this Lady did not feel the need to repeat anything which would work generally for all variations within the same garment group. Having already defined how to make a runner for a cap once, why take up more space doing so again?

I used tape for the runners on my next attempt and was quite pleased with the results.

Next was the chin-strap issue. Another cap variation , for a "Foundling Cap", contained the following instructions

"A chin-stay is three nails long, ** and half a nail wide.....The chin-stay should be neatly sewn up the whole length, with a small button-hole at one end; they are generally sewn on at the left corner of the cap, and the button on the right." 

 This pattern also included the following option

"Some persons prefer having two buttons sewn on the cap, one at each ear, and the stay made with two button-holes, so as to be easily changed and washed, without changing the cap also, as babies are apt to wet them, which makes them hard and rough to the chin."

I have got enough experience with infants to see the wisdom in this. And anyway, when it comes to Victorian baby clothes, the more button-holes and buttons the more fun! So on this cap I added the double button holes.


Getting good shots of this without an actual Victorian infant to put it on was somewhat challenging.

Brian also gave me some lovely vintage ceramic buttons to add a nice little touch.

I'm quite pleased with this cap. However I will say that as cute as I think it is, the runner does not create nearly the amount of ruffle shown in the illustration in the plate. Having gone through several variations on how to do this, I feel confident saying that it's just going to- which is fine. I just need to keep in mind for future projects that the plate is a rough guide, may romanticize the finished product a bit.

So, big takeaways from my first foray into the Workwoman's Guide

  • Read the whole section for the type of garment, not just the variation you are making
  • It may not look exactly like the plate (and that's ok). 
I will be packing several finished caps up this week along with cut out pieces to work on new ones. I hope to make some more garments to send out as well before the run is over. Hopefully we will see some pictures of them in action soon!