Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mrs Revere ruminates on reenactorisms

The 21st century got in the way of the 18th century again and I left the blog hanging far longer than I meant to!

As I alluded to in my last post, I feel that I am a rather experienced living historian and dressmaker. A challenge for me is not in making a new gown, it is in making a gown that stands out historically. I believe reenactors commit a lot of reeanactorisms (things that are done so frequently in the living history community that they are accepted as a truth by the community as a whole.) This was a more common problem when I started in this hobby than it is now. Especially in New England, we have come a long way in a short time when it comes to dismissing inaccurate interpretations. Reenactorisms occur for many reasons: lack of time, money, knowledge (or most unavoidable) correct resources. There are so many elements necessary to create the proper look that are completely lost to us. Trims, notions, and fabrics top the list of things we can not get to properly re-create the look of 18th century material culture. We do the best we can but in a throw away society little quality materials are there for the taking. When found, these ingredients for the proper look come at a steep price. For those who are truly committed to "doing it right" the cost is worth it. I used to make the comparison that in the 18th century materials were expensive and labor was cheap (thus all the piecing and creative usage) and that in the 21st century, materials are cheap and labor expensive. I realize now that to "do it right" materials and labor are both expensive in the 21st century. Sad but true.
One of the benefits of doing a lot of research and looking a the real thing over and over again is that you can recognize and be on the lookout for a close approximation at a good price.

In regards to fabric choices, most reenactor women (Not distaff! Not ladies! Thankyouverymuch tangent over) have figured out that wool was the norm in New England and that printed cottons were popular too. We have done an excellent job at getting into gowns and showing a variety of colors and mostly appropriate patterns. My challenge is to replicate something that has not to my knowledge ever been replicated for living history purposes. It goes by many names which I will share later but is basically printed wool!

I first discovered such a thing in Barbara Johnson's Album of styles. An amazing resource if you have never seen it get it through inter library loan because it is very expensive. (Mine was a wedding myself.)
Barbara was an English woman who kept a diary of the gowns she had made for her from 1746 to 1823, she includes brief descriptions and actual fabric samples. Inside, she has 2 swatches of gown fabric which must have been unremarkable fabric at the time but which I have found myself quite taken with.
The red and light bluish fabric are both "printed stuff" as named by Barbara. I have chosen to reproduce an everyday gown made from the fabric you see on the bottom left of the page shown above. I am excited about this project because this fabric was a cheap way to make an everyday fabric "pop". It's the 18th century equivalent of a knock off purse, the designer look at Target prices. Even a woman with a hefty allowance such as Barbara Johnson who, as evidenced from her diary could afford silks and chinzes chose to buy the knock off. I believe, (and my research is showing me) that this stuff (get it?) was everywhere!In my next few posts I'll share some more evidence I've found.

In regards to what I said earlier about finding the right fabrics...check out these trusted sources:
For coat wool (I used KP for my cloak too)-
For documented cotton prints (check the dates/places on these!)- Duran Textiles 
For silk, printed cotton and sometimes linen try our friends- Burnley & Trowbridge
Oh there are more too! If you wonder about a fabric choice ask a Crazy Concord Chick (or Mr. Mann) most of us have looked at lots! 

--Mrs. Revere

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Shifts, Selvages and Interpretive Tool

Dearest Friends,
As I mentioned in my last post, when it comes to making shifts it's all about the selvage! The vintage linen that I'm using for my shift is 36" wide,  so cutting out a 30" wide shift leaves a long 6" strip with a wonderful selvage.  I guess I could use the entire 36" width for my shift, but it would really be too big for me.  But what I can do, is use the 6" strip for its selvage so all my gores will have selvage on one edge, making flat felling the intersection of side seams and the top of the gores less of a mess.

So what makes a good selvage? Hard to find these days.  Here are two from vintage linens and here is one that is typical of most of the on-line linen available. As you can see, the on-line linen has holes in it and has a frayed edge.  This is pretty typical, unfortunately, and sometimes when you find a clean edge, it has a colored thread through it.  Aaargh! But don't give up, there are good sources out there, but they are not cheap.  Don't be afraid to spend a couple extra bucks on a garment that will get lots of wear. It will pay you back.
Close-up of selvage from vintage linen

Close-up of selvage from vintage linen - this one is gorgeous!

Close-up of selvage from linen purchased from a popular on-line store
Because this is an undergarment, shifts are usually not an item that reenactresses like to spend lots of time on.  Many women end up buying very coarse linen or cotton shifts with ill-fitting necks and sleeves from sutlers, and this is reasonable when you are getting started.

However, if you are serious about this hobby, I would encourage you to make your first shift. It's a wonderful practice piece for learning basic hand sewing techniques, it will fit better than anything you can buy from one of the large sutlers, but most of all, it's a great interpretive tool. Even if you don't have the confidence to talk to a tourist about a battle, for example, you can always talk to them about how you hand sewed your shift, how your stitches got better over time, how long it took, how you pulled a thread to cut your linen.  You'd be surprised how a newbie can impress just about any tourist with that information!  This is an item you will wear every time you put on your 18th century kit, so make a good shift, it will serve you well in more ways than one!

Your humble and obedient servant,
Mrs. S

P.S. At some point you will forget to pack your shift.  Don't panic, find a tee shift (that you don't mind sacrificing) cut out the neck - since it is a knit, it won't unravel and .... Voila! Emergency shift stand-in.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cyder, Perry and Punch

Dear Mr. Northbridge,
       The trees have begun to turn here and there has been some sweet cyder available for sale in the market square, so I beg your indulgence as I offer counsel on your choices of beverage for the Muster Day and Garden Party. In your letter of the 20th ultimate, you mentioned having bowls of punch as part of the offerings on the day. May I humbly suggest, sir, that you consider providing cyder to the men at the muster. They will have been standing or exercising in the hot sun for the better part of the day and will have developed a prodigious thirst. It would cost you a princely sum to slak their thirst with punch as the makings of a good punch are all imported with the exception of the water. Indeed, punch is meant to be enjoyed in small quantities over time and quaffing a large amount in a short time may render some senseless. Cyder is locally made and is the usual drink of many farmers and mechanics who start their day with a tankard of it. Indeed, you most likely keep a supply of cyder for household use yourself.

      I would recommend, sir, that you have two butts of cyder set aside for the muster day. This will reduce your expense or allow you to re-apportion your expenditures for other things necessary for the day. If your orchard is not of a size to produce the amount needed in excess of home use, I'm sure that you could obtain the quantity from neighbors who produce extra as a market crop. If you wish to offer a cyder that is different from the type locally made, I suggest the receipt from The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, to fortify and flavor the cyder.

    Perry is another choice that some of the men may enjoy. I can not obtain perry in quantity for the tavern locally but as many of the merchant ship owners from the middle provinces who are regular customers prefer perry to cyder, I purchase several hogsheads each fall. As the pears need to mature when they are picked before they are crushed and the resulting pomace needs to rest to lose some of the tannins before fermentation, perry is available in late fall. There is time for you to decide and still be able to obtain some for the event. Please remember that a hogshead of cyder or perry contains more liquid than a hogshead of beer or ale as you make your calculations.

    It is, of course, your choice, Mr. Northbridge, about what to serve your guests and I will happily abide by whatever you select. However, I would be remiss in my duty not to bring the matter to your attention especially as time is of the essence in securing cyder. You will indeed save a good deal of money using the locally produce cyder and storing it yourself. The men will enjoy a cool tankard of it on a hot day and cheer you as a considerate host. They will then be more appreciative of the fine punch you offer in all it's subtleties.  I await your instructions while remaining,

  Your humble and obedient servant,

    S. Glasse

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Tippet! or Two!

Dear Chicks, I think that I have found me a tippet!  Thanks to Mrs. Hancock who provided the trail to follow for totally different reasons! 
This image from the British Museum, of Miss Tandy dated c 1752 clearly shows an ermine tippet.

It is raining tippets, again from the British Museum.  The date range is pretty wide on this one, c 1758-82.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Locating Shifty Linen

Mrs. S was very fortunate to have in her stash a hunk of linen ready to be cut out into a shift. Most of us have to go shopping!  Finding the right linen for a shift is not that difficult.

Our regular suppliers are a great place to start.

Follow the link, this is the linen that I would choose for a shift from Burnley and Trowbridge.

The  3.7 oz linen is a good choice from Wm Booth Draper.

The main chain store remaining to us, Jo-Anns Fabrics, also carries linen, but the selection is limited.

Still and always some of the best linens come from Ireland and Ulster Linen sells many weights and varieties.  The down side is the cost, the linen is expensive, and there is a 30 yard minimum order to avoid a cutting fee.  If an entire unit or group were to do an order, that would be achievable.  

 Online the best place to shop for linen is the Fabrics Store.   Avoid the softened linen if you can, it has been processed and is not as crisp as regular linens. 

My personal preference is for the lightest finest linen that I can find, my skin is very unhappy with coarse fabrics.  The weight and quality of the linen you buy and use for your shift should reflect the persona you portray.  A poor camp follower would have coarse, sometimes even unbleached (brown) linen for her shift.  A Boston fine lady would have a much finer, lighter linen for under her silk gowns, so keep that in mind when shopping.

Mrs. Peabody

Thursday, September 15, 2011

From Zero To Overload: Miss Kristin

or, how Miss Kristin can't contain her gown excitement.

I have suddenly been walloped by a big pink rubber mallet called Inspiration!

My dearest Mrs. Peabody, who has taken it upon herself to oversee myself and Miss Wendy's appropriate attire, has found several pieces of portraiture that have my head spinning and swimming in all things "Pretty Silk Gowns!" Adding the two Copley portraits I have been studying through correspondence with Miss Wendy, I feel as if I am on 18thc. overload! (Dear readers, this is not a bad thing!)

While I may be getting ahead of myself here, picking out a gown to reproduce before talking about basic elements, I think it relieves a large chunk of research, time, and maybe stress and anxiety, especially since it's already been "approved." Plus, having a point of inspiration already chosen leaves me time and energy to devote to other research--such as a shift, stays, stockings, on and on.

Here are the portraits I have been looking at, by Copley:

On the left, Mrs. Thomas Gage (Margaret Kemble), and on the left, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Miffin (Sarah Morris). Click on the photos to be taken to their pages at the Timken Gallery of Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, respectively.

Teaching Moment! 

Miss Kristin has chosen a gown from a portrait that she likes without realizing that it is inventive costume used by the artist and is not a real gown.  This variation would be considered "Turkish", and was chosen to impart timelessness to the portrait, Copley was copying an artistic trend/fad in England.  As a newcomer, Miss Kristin doesn't  know about fantasy dress in portraits.  Mrs. Peabody

And, the two portraits Mrs. Peabody has picked out, one from the Connecticut Historical Society and the other from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Look these over, if you will my dear readers, and anticipate my next post: why these, and maybe, which one!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It's All About the Selvage

Dearest Friends,
When our 18th century foremothers cut out their shifts, they were doing so on 3/4 or 7/8 yard wide linen - in other words 27" or 31 1/2" wide material.  Today our linen fabric is 54" or 60" wide.  So isn't wider better?  Not when it comes to laying out fabric for a shift.  Why?  In one word: SELVAGE!

When making a shift, a good selvage means there's no need to finish an edge of a seam because it won't unravel during washing and wearing, so the more edges that fall along selvages the better off you are - less seams to flat fell. The linen widths sold in the 18th century allowed the maker to to maximize her selvages and not end up with that crazy mish-mash you get when you try flat felling all the seams that end up at that nexus at the top of the gores and side seam -- the bugaboo of every modern shift maker!

Here's an advertisement typical of ads for linen in the 18th century.  This one is from the Massachusetts Spy from June of 1773, advertising 3/4, 7/8 and yard wide linen.

So why can't we get linen in those widths?  Because fabric in the 18th century was woven specifically for how it was going to be used.  It's that way today too, but nowadays most people aren't using linen to make shifts -- linen is primarily used for home decoration where wider is better - think curtains, bed spreads, furniture, etc.  Plus it's more efficient to weave wider, which is another reason our linen isn't as good, but that's a discussion for another day. So if you are lucky enough to find a good piece of 3/4 or 7/8 wide linen with a decent selvage - do not pass go, do not collect $200, buy it!

Mrs. S.

N.B. Sometimes you can find vintage sheets in narrower widths.  If they are not too old and not too heavy, they will work.  However, sometimes they are just plain old and you end up with a shift that you've spent all kinds of time to make, only to end up with holes in it after a few washings, so be careful when buying vintage textiles for shifts.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mrs. Miles is Perusing Copley (In the nicest possible way)

Choosing my clothing

As I was perusing my copy of Copley (available used, at not too expensive prices, they go up and down, this book is a must-have for research!), I noticed some mistakes.   One does get used to this, eventually, but it continues to infuriate me!  On page 307, in the discussion of Mrs. Paul Richard, it says that she is wearing a plain cotton apron, and that Copley only painted women in aprons twice.   Well...that apron doesn't look like cotton to me, it looks like a not quite opaque linen, in other words, a very good every day apron, not one I'd wear to cook in!  They reference p. 314, Dorothy Quincy, in her apron, but then, on page 319 there is Mrs. Mifflin, in what is quite clearly an apron!

Dorothy Quincy in her apron (I much prefer to link to the owner of the painting, but MFA website is not cooperating.)

Mrs Mifflin in her apron

Since Mrs Skinner and Mrs Winthrop both have gowns with robings and ribbons in a typical pattern, I think I will make my new gown in their style, with ribbons on the stomacher, in a pink rather like Dorothy Quincy.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Miss Boylston - Hunting the Elusive Tippet

Anyone who knows me knows how much I like words. So small surprise that I've been itching to do some research via Google Books and Google Ngrams ever since they became available. While I'm contemplating what impression to recreate for the Muster Day 1773 event, I'm taking this opportunity to give Google Books and Google Ngrams a whirl. For my test case, I've chosen to research the word "tippet".

As part of my research on short cloaks, I've run across the word "tippet" many times. The word has at least two meanings: as a piece of ecclesiastical wear and as a part of a woman's wardrobe. I'm not interested in researching the ecclesiastical meaning. My minimal research so far had turned up a couple of citations:
August 12, 1762 The Pennsylvania Gazette
ITEM #29127
THOMAS FITZSIMONS, Who formerly lived next Door to Messieurs Franklin and Hall Printing Office, in Market street, is now removed into Chestnut street, two Doors above Strawberry Alley; where he has just opened a large assortment of the following Goods, consisting of … dove, drab and lead coloured mantuas, ducapes, figured modes for cardinals, … a rich assortment of silver spangled stomachers, bugled ditto, gauze ditto flowered, silk flowers for stomachers, silver spangled girdles, gold and silver lace, chain and twisted ditto; a large assortment of sable and ermine muffs and tippets, black and white ostrich feathers for hats and caps ...
From the Loyalist Losses and Claims, Ontario Archives 13/67, 311 from the claim of Mary Swords of Saratoga - from a list entitled "Things Plundered from me by the Rebels" ........
Long Scarlet Cloak
Velvet Muff and Tippet
One Pair of Ear Rings French paste set in Gold
But that doesn't tell us much: just that a tippet can be fur or velvet.

Here's how I continued my research:

First I went to Google Ngrams, changed the date range to 1700 to 1800, changed the smoothing to 0 (to see spikier but more accurate dates), entered the word "tippet", and searched. I found a cluster of references to tippets in the first half of the century—around 1730—and a variety of references in the second half of the century, especially after 1760. It's possible that tippets weren't much used in the first half of the century, but it's also possible that Google just hasn't digitized the right books, or that people used tippets but didn't write about them much. Either way, Google's information may be useful.

To find out, I went to Google Books. If you look at the options in the lefthand menu bar, you will see one called "Any time". I chose "Custom range...", and entered my desired range. I figured my best plan was to choose a range that would give me only a few hits, so that I could look over all the hits in one session and go on to another range later. Since there was only one set of references to tippets in the first half of the century, I chose a range from 1700 to 1750. This search resulted in 564 hits. So much for getting just a few at a time!

Just for kicks, I started skimming the hits, and quickly found a good one: The royal dictionary, French and English, and English and French: Extracted from the Writings of the Best Authors in Both Languages. Formerly Compos'd For the Use of His late Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester. By Mr. A Boyer. London. 1729. There is an entry for "tippet" that translates it to French as "une palatine". I looked up the entry for "palatine" and found this definition: "Palatine, (espéce de Mouchoir de cou pour les Femmes) a Tippet.". This French text translates as "a type of handkerchief for the neck for women". Here's the original scanned text:

How can something fur or velvet be like a handkerchief? And if it's a type of handkerchief, what specific type of handkerchief is it? Time to go back to Google Books for more searches. That means it's time to get serious about searching all the hits.

So I narrowed the range to 1700 to 1710. That got me down to just under 100 hits—manageable. (Hey, I thought the first hit was in 1730ish! Oh, turns out, if you read the documentation, that Google Ngrams leaves hits out of the graph where there are only a few.) As you may have noticed, Google displays its hits using not only titles but also "snippets" that show the search term(s) in context. That lets me scroll through hits pretty quickly. For example, the first hit is a book called "Annals of the Reformation and establishment of religion and other ... - Page 416" with a snippet "Gown, the Square Cap, and the Tippet to those that were qualified, and, in their Ministration, the Surplice. Many well meaning Men, chiefly such as had lived in die Churches abroad (where they were not used,) utterly refused these ...". That's quick and easy to skip over.

Passing over more ecclesiastical uses, I come to a book called "Culloden papers: More Culloden papers: Volume 2" with a snippet "But if you keep health, and be not too much priest ridden, its the less matter : I have sent you a gown and some gloves, suoh as you called for, tho' nothing be now wore by any people of fashion but silks, Ther are no muffs or tippets ..." (looks like the optical character recognition didn't work too well on this book). Unfortunately, the full text of this book isn't available through Google Books, so we haven't learned anything new from this hit.

Searching on, I find "Lingua tersancta, or, A most sure and compleat allegorick ... - Page 127": "hearing say he laid by a Sables Tippet for his Wife". Well, we already knew that tippets could be fur.

Searching on, I finally find that French–English dictionary again, in a 1702 edition. The definition is the same (except for some changes in typesetting).

There's a hit in Portuguese, which I'm skipping because I speak no Portuguese. There are a bunch of hits on Latin texts; not only can't I read them, but I wonder if they aren't OCR errors.

That's the end of 1700 to 1710, and between searching and writing up these results, several hours have gone by. Further searching must wait for another day. I can see that using Google Ngrams and Google Books will be time-consuming, but I'm hopeful I'll glean good information from them.

Your affectionate servant,
Miss Boylston

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Love Letter

Miss Wendy again!
I have a few hunks of fabric that really want to be gowns, one a very pretty pinky peach love birds silk damask and the other a lavender silk taffeta. I’d planned the lavender to be a sacque, so I figured it was off limits to me for the Garden Party since we’re doing very serious, very specific research for this event (it’s not enough to say “well, it’s her mother’s old gown” in this case. We want to document everything...). I’ve been having trouble finding a damask I like to copy, though, original or portrait. Then I came across this:

This is a portrait by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, “The Love Letter.” I haven’t found out who the girl in the painting is, I’m not sure that anyone knows, actually. The portrait is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is dated circa 1770, which is perfect for me! The girl is pretty young and that silk is gorgeous and depending on what image of the painting I look at I think it’s light green, light blue, grey, or even lavender, so my silk will work wonderfully!

Before I can even think about making this gown, though, I’m going to need to decide what I need under it. The only shifts I have are pretty coarse, not to mention the longer seams are machine done. I also have to figure out if I need pocket hoops or hip rolls for this.

Then there’s that cap. I think I want to copy the portrait exactly (Maybe I’ll pose for a photo recreating it! I don’t think that dog is a shih tzu like my family’s dog, but I could still use our dog for it!), so I need to work out that cap and hair. I don’t know anything about doing hair other than a plain bun, so that’ll take a lot of practice (and/or help!).

The great thing about this gown is that other than that cuff, I can’t see any of the trim. That means I get to trim it however I want! I’ll have to look at other silk gowns and get ideas. Plus, until I started thinking about this specific painting, it had never occurred to me to notice how much trim is on the sleeves versus the front of the gown. Can I have more on the front than the sleeves? Or does knowing that the cuffs are pretty simple mean the front should be too? So I’ll keep looking through books and start paying attention to trim ratios.

Now that I have a look to copy, my next step is to come up with everything I’ll need to recreate it and figure out what I have to get my hands on!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Making a List!

Miss Kristin checking in! On my other blog, I've started compiling a list of books that would be useful to me, and other newbie reenactors/sewers, and a great many of them will also be extremely helpful with this project. I've included a small selection that I feel will deal with exactly what we're doing as Crazy Concord Chicks. Take a look:
  • Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen's Dresses and Their Construction c. 1660-1860 by Janet Arnold
  • Historic Dress in America 1607-1870 by Elisabeth McClellan
  • What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America by Linda Baumgarten
  • Who Was I? Creating a Living History Persona by Cathy Johnson
  • Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Patterns 1769-1790 by Linda Baumgarten and John Watson
  • Costume in Detail: Women's Dress 1730-1930 by Nancy Bradfield
  • The Lady's Guide to Plain Sewing, Books I & II by a Lady
  • The Workman's Guide to Tailoring Stitches & Techniques by a Tailor (book 3 of the Plain Sewing series)
  • Swatches: A Guide to Choosing 21st Century Fabrics for 18th Century Clothing by Hallie Larkin
Am I missing anything? What would you add to this list?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Mrs. Hancock's Hurricane Shift

Miss Hancock models her almost completed shift.
Mrs. Hancock

Remember that hurricane last weekend? I set the goal to make a "hurricane shift", that is I tried to create a baby shift before the end of the storm. I wasn't entirely successful, but I was able to complete it fairly quickly...

I borrowed from research at and the V&A's Dictionary of Children's Clothes: 1700s to Present (p.270)I know that children's shifts were essentially the same as mommy shifts, so I didn't use a pattern.

The storm's winds started in my section of southern New England on Saturday evening and lasted about 24 hours. I lost power on Sunday morning and it wasn't restored until Monday evening so I'm counting that in my timeline here. Sew I started the project Saturday evening. (Sorry, I like bad puns.)

Saturday Evening

Miss Hancock currently wears the 12 month size in Carters brand clothes and she will transition to the 18 month size this fall. I used one of her 18 month onsie / pant outfits to approximate measurements...

I measured this slightly larger size from the shoulder to the elbow...
...and from the shoulder to the knee to guesstimate the shift's measurements.
 I cut a piece of fabric for the body and sleeves, and started flat felling the side seams so that... Saturday evening as the sun was setting,  I was well on my way with this project. 
By the time I went to bed Saturday night, I had finished the side seams and had started hemming the skirt.


Sunday: one sleeve attached, the other pinned in place
By Sunday evening I had completed the following:

  • the sleeves were sewn
  • one sleeve was attached (with the cute little gussets) 
  • and the skirt's hem was complete. 


On Monday I realized I had incorrectly sewn the first sleeve and gusset. I ripped that out and reset it, and then correctly attached the other sleeve.

I also added two drawstrings...

In the first drawstring, I simply turned down the hem at the neckline and added two eyelets. 
For the second drawstring at the sleeves, I used some fabric scraps to create a casing. As you can see above, this scrap wasn't long enough so I pieced it together. 
Later in the Week...

When Miss Hancock tried on the shift I realized that I made it waaaaay too long. This shouldn't have been a surprise since the measurements were based on the size that's larger than what she currently wears. She will be walking soon so this length just won't work.

Back to the workroom. When she was wearing the shift, I noted where her knee was. I used this length to trim several inches off the skirt and rehemmed it.

This resulted in the boxy and rather awkward looking shift pictured above. It's done. It's doable for a working class impression, though I don't think it's my best effort.

Besides taking better measurements so that my shift has the right triangle shape, areas for improvement include:

  • Primary Sources. I relied upon secondary sources because I couldn't find primary sources. I plan on making her a spring shift (which she'll wear to the summer event) and hope to find a) an extant garment to work from or b) 18th century documentation in writing (maybe something like the 1789 Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor but published two decades earlier).
  • Better fabric. I choose the softest linen from my stash but forgot that it doesn't have a tight weave. As you can see in the picture below, it pulls very easily. I had planned on embroidering her initials at the front of the neckline and "12-18 months" to represent the size at the inside back of the neck (like a modern tag) but that just wasn't feasible. (Yes I realize embroidering the size is not accurate, it would be for my future reference since I plan on making her many shifts as she grows.) 
As you can see, this linen doesn't have a tight weave and leaves little marks from the stitches. 
Lastly I was concerned that maybe I tackled this project too quickly. Shifts are garments that receive much wear and laundering. It took me months to make my shift as I tried to finely and neatly sew the stitches. But in this case, I was focused on completing the project as fast as possible. 

In the Diary of Anna Green Winslow: A Boston School Gift of 1771 (Applewood Books), she writes on December 24th, "I began a shift at home yesterday for myself, it is pretty forward" (p10). Then on December 28th she writes, "Last evening a little after 5 o'clock I finished my shift. I spent the evening at Mrs. Soley's. I began my shift at 12 o'clock last monday, have read my bible every day this week & wrote every day save one" (12). 

So (sew?) I feel justified that Miss Hancock's shift will do. 

Clever Geometry

Dearest Friends,

Problem: Fit a square peg in a round hole.  That, in essence, is what you are doing when you make a shift. You need to make a group of rectangles fit a three dimensional curvy body. Making a shift is a great example of very clever geometry!

Here's a diagram to help explain it. First you need to take a rectangle and make it shaped more like a body -- narrower on top than on bottom.  You do this by slicing off two long triangles at the top, flipping upside down them and attaching them to the bottom - creating gores.  Two rectangles become the sleeves that are made wider at the top than at the bottom by the use of two small squares that become underarm gussets. And Abracadabra! You have a garment of squares and triangles that turn into a shift.

Next post I'll show you the economical use of fabric employed when you cut it out.  Waste not want not!

Your humble & obedient servant,

Mrs. S.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Fabulous Fiber Flax

Dearest Friends,

As I was cutting out my shift, I was thinking about the first ancient people who figured out how to process flax for cloth.  It would hardly seem intuitive to take a plant, beat it, comb it, spin it and weave it into fabric, but thank goodness they did.  So today I sing the praises of "Linum usitatissimum".   From the Egyptians to it's numerous Biblical references, to the legacy of Irish linen, it is a cloth that has been held in high regard for centuries.

And what a perfect fabric for a shift - it's soft on the skin, it absorbs lots of moisture before feeling damp, it can withstand repeated washings,  and unlike some fabrics remains strong when it is wet.  It's the natural version of polypropylene -- absorbing water and wicking it away!

But one of my favorite qualities of linen is that it is so easy to cut it straight as well as to sew a straight line on it. For you readers who have not worked with linen before, it's tabby weave (simple up and down and back and forth pattern) makes it a joy to work with.  To create a guide for cutting, merely pull a thread in the direction you want to cut.

Close up view of pulled thread showing cutting line

Then cut along that line and voila -- perfectly straight!

So now I'll cut out the pieces I need for my shift, which I'll show you in my next post.  Very ingenious geometry!  But in the meantime, thank you humble flax plant for producing such a wonderfully practical fabric.
Field of flax

Mrs. S