A Bee in my Bonnet


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Since 2014, I’ve been thinking about whale-bone and caned bonnets, trying the occasional prototype but not making much progress. Not too long ago, a friend and I were kicking around the idea of what the descriptions in ads and inventories actually meant. Becky’s research is always detailed and thorough, and I am grateful for all she shares with me.

We were specifically thinking about “beehive” bonnets, which also appear as “Sattin hives” and “women’s hives.” What on earth could those look like? In Philadelphia, “beehives” were described as being made of straw, which makes sense when you think of bee keeps. But wait, that’s not what the inventories and ads describe. A 1762 ad from South Carolina illustrates the distinction. (Hooper & Swallow advertisement, page 2, South-Carolina Gazette, 10 July 1762).

Searching ads, you start see more of these, especially between 1754 and 1768. They appear from Georgia to Massachusetts, usually called “hives,” but sometimes appearing as “beehives,” or “satin hives.”

Boston Evening Post, June 30, 1755

detail, A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina. British Museum 2010,7081.3247

But what did they look like? An illustration held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania shows a woman in a poke-like bonnet of a style we might call a sunbonnet. The shape is more in line with how I imagine the “Conestoga bonnet” might look. John Fanning Watson published his Annals of Philadelphia in 1830, and while his drawings are charming and illuminating, one wonders if they are fully accurate, since Watson was born in 1779. The preponderance of “hives” seemed to be in the southern colonies, and at last, while enjoying the British Museum’s colored version of “A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina,” I thought I had a glimpse of a “sattin hive.”

There is much to love in this print, and I have thought about it for six years since I made the first “whale-safe bonnet.” How would you make that shape? One approach might be to use techniques not unlike those used for calashes: canes in channels.

Over the past few days, I have been playing with shapes and cane, trying to get this right. After three drafts, I’m closing in, so I decided to make one up in the last of some pale grey silk to see how it behaved. Reader, the canes are annoying, and there are changes I need to make, but as Seussical as this headwear may be, I think I’m getting closer to “women’s hives.”

A Ruffled Apron


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Last summer, in the midst of revisiting my vintage obsessions, I bought a pretty vintage apron online. It wasn’t quite large enough for me (some vintage things are, most are not), but it seemed like a pretty easy task to pattern and resize it for myself. Some months later, after working on other patterns and projects, I finally finished this one.

It seemed like the perfect time, now that I am home and wearing an apron much more often than I used to. For one thing, there’s more time to do housework and more need since we are always here; and, for another, I am definitely cooking more now that three of us are eating every meal at home (and one of us is a college boy, so the milk disappears at an alarming rate). I haven’t worn an apron this often since I was in college and Exene Cervenka was my style icon.

I’m pretty pleased with my vintage-not-historic project and have enjoyed wearing it. The fabric (just a hair over a yard) came from Hart’s Fabric, and while I would have preferred black bias tape, I had to use what I had on hand. Another decorative option would be a folded hem edge backed with rick-rack.

I thought about my Aunt Fran a lot making up the apron and drafting the pattern. While she ran a gift shop and tea room with my Uncle Ned in western New York State, they lived on a farm with a decrepit barn and enormous garden and, when I first knew them, a refrigerator some twenty or thirty years behind the times.

It might have been this one

The kitchen seemed cavernous, and I enjoyed helping make salad for the big dinners we had on August evenings, when all the cousins assembled from Colorado, North Dakota, and Illinois. I remember picking vegetables in my uncle’s extensive garden and my grandmother’s aluminum salad bowl more clearly than I remember Aunt Fran’s aprons, but making do, planning ahead, and being prepared were traits she (and the rest of my family) embodied, but with style.

That’s how I think of this apron: practical, but stylish, for when you have to work but also want to have some fun (I am all about finding ways to enjoy work.)

In that spirit, I made up the apron and made a pattern now available for download on Etsy. (I’m still shipping, but the paper version won’t be available for a day or so.) Maybe you’ll enjoy making a quick project that’s practical and pretty.

Got to Get By: Resources for a Quarantine


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How are you going to Get By these days? For some of us, Self-Isolation or Quarantine or Artist-in-Residence or whatever you are calling the past four to six weeks has been not much different from everyday life. We work from home, and while our income may have decreased because people have less disposable income, we still have plenty to do. There are patterns to write, things to make, food to cook, gardens to weed and plant, files to organize. Other folks lack inclination or access: not everyone likes the same thing, some people are always tidy. For most of us, though, reading is a tolerable past time, and one you can indulge in safely

Organizing research files gave me a sense of control and made my workspace nicer.

But what about now, when you’ve read all your library books and the library is closed? If you have a library card, chances are you have access to free ebooks through OverDrive or Libby. You can synch OverDrive to your library account and check out ebooks for free. I don’t love reading on a screen, but needs must. 

The University of Chicago Press offers a free ebook every month, and thanks to that offer, I have been exposed to books I would not have encountered otherwise. (They have also lowered the epub and PDF prices of some of their books this month.) Other publishers (Random House/Penguin, for example) have done the same. 

If you, like me and many others, are missing the luxury and solace of art, the Met can help you. For years they’ve had their publications online, many downloadable as PDFs. There are a *lot* of publications. On the other coast of this continent, the Getty offers their publications online, to, and you can find LACMA catalogs online, too.

Need other distractions? Want to remind those around you to social distance? Frog & Toad of Providence has the shirt for you, based on the RI Governor’s now-famous (ok, in small circles) order to Knock it Off. (I think it’s the perfect Mother’s Day present, but we run to odd.) 

Want to hold a print book in your hand? Your local indie bookstore may well be shipping. I ended up ordering from both Symposium Books and Books on the Square in Providence because they had what I wanted at the price I could afford. 

There are free sewing patterns online, too, at a range of places from Mood Fabrics to Fabric-Store.com if you want a new garment. You can also still get patterns, fabrics, and (some) notions from your local independent fabric stores. In addition to the favorites I use for historical costuming (in the sidebar under “Sutlers”), I buy from Harts in San Jose (really like their pattern and cotton print fabric selection). It’s far away but shipping, service, and selection are all excellent. Fabric.com is still shipping (more slowly) but they have a wide selection, as does Fabric Mart, who helpfully notes shipping delays and news on their website.

Burnley & Trowbridge linen, Assembly Line apron dress.

Notions, like interfacing and thread, are harder to come by than you might think, but I was able to get interfacing and needles from my local shop in Alexandria. Bored with the usual selections? I find new places from the “Stockists” or “Retailers” section of pattern companies I like. This is helpful when the patterns I like are made by Scandinavian companies (I am currently obsessed with The Assembly Line.)


What Being in History Teaches Us


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It took four weeks, but I finally lost it.

I’m sitting in my kitchen with a Reverse Manhattan and the New Yorker, weeping after reading the Wheaton College newsletter. Four weeks ago, I was desperate to get my son home to Virginia from college in New England, afraid travel restrictions might strand him on a closed campus in a state with a higher rate of infection. Now, I’m terrifically nostalgic for before, when my friends had jobs, I could go to the fabric store, and had an overbooked calendar.

Rebecca Young at the Museum of the American Revolution. Always a good experience.

That calendar included portraying Rebecca Flower Young, a military contractor in Philadelphia ca. 1780, and, eventually (still?) in the fall, Elizabeth Weed, a pharmacist in occupied Philadelphia, 1777. I think about those women when I get frustrated, tired of being home and just craving normal. More than anything, I want the absence of fear. It’s not something I think about consciously, this fear of the RNA strand, it’s something I experience after I’ve been to the grocery store or the pharmacy. Most of my life has shifted online, but t’s not a huge change. I worked from home already two to four days a week, and lots of my commerce was online.

It’s scary because I know not everyone is behaving the way I am: wearing a mask when I run errands, for example. Because my friends are getting laid off in increasingly large numbers (the last straw came today when a friend posted about joining the 17 million unemployed). I’m frustrated by my lack of control, lack of agency, inability to protect or really help the people I care about beyond my tiny circle of two at home. I can’t even do much for my mother in PA or my father in FL except keep myself safe. And while that impotence could fill me with rage and tears, I am practiced enough at sublimation to recognize an opportunity to understand.

A moment of calm for Elizabeth Weed

How did Elizabeth Weed feel in 1777? She had a son to care for, who was often unwell. She needed to sell remedies to keep paying for food, firewood, and other necessities. She would have had no choice but to stay put and trade with the enemy. Did she feel trapped? Did she walk down the street wondering about each person she saw? What could she get at the market? Where *did* the neighbor get that butter? Those onions?

I sat at my table trying to schedule a grocery delivery or pickup in the next two weeks and thought about how the miserable onions and contraband butter of 1777 are today’s last bag of flour and package of toilet paper. It’s funny, in a way, but it’s also a pointed reminder of what the people we portray felt.

Right now, that’s the best meaning I can offer you: insight into how you might have behaved under British Occupation in 1777 Philadelphia, or in rationed 1944 upstate New York. What creative solutions might you have found? How would you have flexed? How would you have comforted your children when they caught you crying in the kitchen?

An Evening In with Emma


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Journal des dames et des modes, (1812)

Just three weeks ago Drunk Tailor and I went to see the new Emma. We made an evening of it, aware that it would likely be our last excursion for some time.

Dressed in our early 19th-century attire, we had dinner out before we went to the theatre. I don’t know if this is my favorite Emma— the BBC adaptation with Romola Garai is one of my comfort movie go-tos– but it is by far the funniest, meanest, most satirical version of Emma I’ve encountered.We laughed a lot– more than most viewers, though I know the Regency Society of Virginia folks did too, behind us– and that was an interesting way to take in Austen.

There are some interesting pieces on the visual and material culture of Autumn de Wilde’s version, including one on color and class, and I’ve enjoyed seeing these pieces become part of the popular discourse around the movie and the novel. (I find I have to ignore the comments by Anya Taylor-Joy on corsets, which make zero sense to me as a wearer of 18th and early 19th century stays.)

I don’t know if we’ll stream the new Emma— the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice is a favorite of mine so that might be this weekend’s chocie– but today I started coloring in some paper doll dresses. A year or more ago, I made my own Emma doll, and, over time, drew several sheets of dresses. They’re here for you to download and fill in as you please. While for now these are a way for me to have all the clothes in La Belle Assemblee and Ackermann’s Repository, I also see these as potential croquis, a way to map out what I want to make. I do, after all, have a Strategic Fabric Reserve. I’ve uploaded my drawings in case you might enjoy them too (it’s an idiosyncratic style, I admit) as we all find ways to occupy ourselves indoors.

Emma and her dresses for download