Tuning Frocks

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You’ve washed, mended, ironed, darned, and sorted.

Now what? Now, my friend, the hard truths: the assessments and upgrades.

The hard stuff. Winter is a good time to frankly assess what you have, what you need, and what you already have needs. Could that sleeve be re-set? Stroke gathers re-done on an apron waistband? When you’re finally not planning and packing every few weeks, you have the time to really think about what you have and what you want.

There are two primary areas to assess, fit and appropriateness.

Fit:

How well do your clothes fit you? Are your skirts long enough? Short enough? Are your breeches tight enough? Cut correctly? Waistcoats long enough? Getting dressed and taking a good look at your clothes can be enlightening. I find that photographs help me figure out issues with fit. As Drunk Tailor and I work, we take photos (especially of backs) so that whoever is being fitted can see what the fitter sees. This has proven more useful than attempting to turn around to see one’s own back like a cat chasing its tail. I’ve also used mirrors and selfies to achieve similar results, but even a non-sewing friend can take a picture of your back.

Period-correct clothes fit differently than modern off-the-rack clothes (you know this), so looking at period images will help you figure out what you need to change. Typically, I find that sleeves are too loose, backs too wide, or bodices too long. Making the changes you need to make can be intimidating, but even 20th-century guides can help you get where you need to go. (The Bishop Method book is super useful if you want to sew vintage clothes, or just get better at sewing clothes in general.) More online sources for 18th-century techniques include the Early Modern Dress & Textiles Research Network , and Burnley and Trowbridge’s videos.

Appropriateness:

Do you have the right gear for your impression? Are the fabrics correct? Do you have the accessories you need? You know I’m not going to tell you what you need: that’s for you to figure out, but there are some good methods for figuring how what to wear and carry. (Soldiers have it easier: the sergeant tells them, and there are manuals.) For the rest of us in the 18th century, runaway ads are helpful and can be a good source of inspiration for ensembles.

For other centuries, fashion plates and portraits can provide guidance and inspiration, and eventually, there are even pattern books and sewing guides. Small upgrades can make a big difference: in the course of a year, I improved my shoes, upgraded the scarf, and made both a cap a new and better bonnet. It took two more years, but eventually, I really upgraded everything. Sometimes it takes a while to get things right, and that’s okay.

It takes research, and there are some pitfalls (like confirmation bias) but Drunk Tailor lays out some avenues to pursue.  What you choose depends on who you are, so that’s always the place to start: who are you, where do you live, and what do you do? With those questions in mind, you can embark on making the changes to perfect your impressions.

Winter Chores

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Here we are, on the cusp of winter: the season is (mostly) over for living history events, the days are short, and what is there to do but pine until the season starts again? Chores, gentle reader: chores.

Before you pack your kit away for the season, or even if you never do, there are some tasks you can undertake to make it better. You don’t need a major overhaul to improve your experience, just some simple maintenance. (These tips are applicable in pretty much every time period.)

Nasty, right? This is why you wash your apron!

Wash your body linen. Please. Shirts, shifts, neck handkerchiefs, rollers: wash them. And your caps! They washed them, and so can you. I prefer to wash before I mend, but I hand wash my linens. We have a large kitchen sink that I can plug, so I fill it with hot water and wash my aprons, shifts, and stockings with lye soap. (I like that it does not smell like modern detergents; Drunk Tailor bought a lot of it for making white ball so we might as well use it.) Whenever possible, I hang my clothes to dry outside, preferably on a sunny day. You may also choose to spread your things out on the grass (if you have it); this helps whiten linens. We lack grass, or a clothesline, in our yard so it’s hangers in the trees or on the shower curtain rod for me. There’s no shame in that– it’s just not as picturesque. If you want to know more about laundry, Madam Johnson obliges.

Wash your stockings. Your feet will thank you. These are another handwash item; if you have wool stockings (I recommend Sally Pointer if you can get in the order window), handwashing is essential. Again, I use the kitchen sink, lukewarm water, and lye soap. Madam Johnson does not recommend using soap on worsted stockings, and she has a point: too much soap, heat, and agitation will felt your stockings. To dry, put down a towel, and reshape the stockings in the center of the towel. You may need to make sure the back seam is centered, and the feet correctly shaped. Fold in the edges of the towel and roll it. This will safely squeeze out the water. Dry flat (again, I like to put mine outdoors, but the guest bed will do in a pinch, or anyplace I can keep cat-free).

Patches that match are preferable.

Mend your linens. Underarms, collars, cuffs: they all get worn. Aprons get burned. Once you’ve gone over the garment to note the areas that need work, you can assemble your mending supplies: needle, thread, beeswax, and linen as close to the original as possible. Patch the holes neatly from the underside, making a small turned hem from the front. (This is not unlike needle-turned applique, but there are tutorials and guides. Turn or replace collars and cuffs. This is work I need to do on one of my shifts, along with restitching a neckline hem. It has taken several years to reach this point, but no matter the age of your clothes, it’s worth checking seams and hems and making repairs now.

Mend your stockings. These are often too expensive not to mend, plus, it’s period correct. There are tutorials for this, but the tools are simple: wool in weight similar to your stocking, a yarn needle, a darning egg, and patience. (Just use smaller yarn than shown here!) If you haven’t got a darning egg (and they’re pretty affordable, so…) a smooth, oval object will do (kitchen timer, small stone, a lime if you don’t poke it).

shifts and petticoats on a line

Living history laundry

Brush your outer garments. I have only laundered one of my gowns, and that was because it got very ashy and greasy. For the rest of my clothes, I brush off the dirt before I hang them up or pack them away. Greatcoats, regimentals, frock coats, breeches. Gowns, petticoats: all of them can benefit from a brushing. (This applies to your modern wool clothes, too.) There are a range of options, from brushes made in Sweden by the visually impaired to classic English options and German brushes for everything. Brush your hats, too! They get dirty, too. For all of these, if your garment is napped, brush with the nap, not against it.

Drunk Tailor cleaning shoes

Clean, grease, and reshape your shoes. You may covet one of these shoe brush kits, or you may have some standard brushes already– they were available even at the grocery store in my long-past childhood. Redecker brushes– and there is a brush for everything shoe-related on these seven pages— take a little finding but last. First, brush off the mud and dirt. Then, wipe the shoes down with a damp washcloth or towel. Let them air dry. Never put your leather shoes directly on a heat source! Then treat the leather. (Tutorial here.) You may want to use black ball, or a colorless polish, depending on your shoes. Drunk Tailor has made it, though not blogged about it, but you can start here if you really want to dive into this. When I’m done, I put shoe trees in my shoes, or stuff them with acid-free tissue paper so they keep their shape.

Lost Colonist

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I still have a copy (or two) somewhere in storage.

In which we experience a return to the costuming portion of this blog

When I was six, I had the coloring book paper dolls of Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII and His Wives. I probably requested (demanded) these after watching the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII on Masterpiece Theatre. I recall being curling up in a chair under a quilt with my favorite stuffed dog as the drama played out on the television my grandmother had given us. Perhaps I had a fever: some of what I recall is a little hallucinatory, but I was thoroughly entranced. I have waited a long time to construct my own Tudor/Elizabethan wardrobe.

The annual Fort Dobbs Military TImeline event has recently featured a soldier of the second Roanoke expedition in his armor and helmet. In 2017, I thought hard about joining this enterprise and even bought wool for the effort–in fact, I got as far as cutting out a smock–but life intervened, and I taught workshops instead. This year, I had my chance: a free weekend, and just enough time (five weeks) to pull it all together. Reader: this is madness.

One source of inspiration: Color sketch of three London gentlewomen and a countrywoman come to market, from the manuscript Corte Beschryuinghe van Engheland, Schotland, ende Irland, c.1574. British Library

I flirted with long Tudor dresses. I flirted with a doublet. I knew that no matter what, I was building this on the foundation of a smock and kirtle (bodied petticoat) worn with stockings and shoes. Thanks to the Couture Courtesan and the Tudor Tailor, I knew bodies were not required for the class level and time period I was representing. (The fleshy cargo may have other needs, containment-wise). I knew I needed a partlet and ruff, and a coif, and I wanted a hat. All of this seemed achievable in five weeks. Mind you, in this same period, I also: started a business, started a short-term contract forensic collections management project, attended a workshop, draped and fitted clients, and dealt with a couple chronic health issues. It’s not a surprise, then, that I fell a little short of my goals.

Forthwith, the parts:

Smock

Two kinds of linen, and quite a different shape from an 18th century shift (though related)

I used the Elizabethan smock generator and, in 2017, pulled threads to get most of the shapes I needed. The very top of the smock is made of vintage linen that was lingering in Drunk Tailor’s stash, and I no longer recall where the body and sleeve linen came from. The instructions were just general enough that I was glad to have made several shifts and shirts already. It held up well, though Smock 2.0, should it occur, will likely be the one in the Tudor Tailor, just for varieties’ sake (and I now work with someone who does blackwork, so, you know, I could upgrade.)

Kirtle

The kirtle needs some additional engineering to accommodate my corporeal presence in a way I like and that holds a more correct shape. I used buckram, pad stitching, and boning on the front but not only is the fit just enough off, I think that front-lacing is the way to madness for me. Off the fronts will come at some point in 2020, to be replaced with a new system. I’m very happy with the salmon-pink wool I found at Osgood’s in 2017, and luckily bought enough to be able to re-engineer the bodice in the same fabric.

The comforts of the colony and home, combined.

I was reasonably pleased working with the Tudor Tailor pattern, but despite previously fitting bodices and stays, there are things I would do differently. For one, I’d mock up the bodice in pasteboard instead of muslin to get a better sense of how the buckram and boning might behave. For another, I’d solicit much more assistance from another human to ensure my “handedness” didn’t alter fit, as I think it may have. More time and tweaks will definitely help.

Petticoat

This is almost “don’t ask” territory. I borrowed the notion of making and wearing a separate petticoat from the late Elizabethan woman’s doublet entry in The Tudor Tailor. I had this notion of a doublet and petticoat in black that I couldn’t quite shake, but I did not manage the doublet. The petticoat is made of plain weave black wool from the remnant table at Fabric Place Basement and probably set me back all of $12.

Basic. Gets the job done.

Drunk Tailor and I kicked the notion of authenticity versus warmth back and forth quite a bit until I convinced him that he did not want to hear me complaining of cold in Statesville. The waistband is shaped, but because these skirts are longer than my 18th-century petticoats, my yardage calculations were slightly off, and the front waistband is plain weave brown wool. You’ll never see it, so it really doesn’t matter.

And yes: it was a two-petticoat weekend.

Waistcoat

Dat wool tho…. I bought a yard each of the olive and madder plush wool from Burnley and Trowbridge after falling in love with both color and hand. I started with the madder, knowing it would contrast well with black wool tape.

Cutting out was a challenge, but after looking at period manuals and spending some time with pieces and fabric, I managed a layout that got me all the pieces without piecing, and small bits of cabbage leftover: judiciously laid out, you can use $30/yard wool for your projects. The results justify the investment of money and time.

I had to tweak the fit on the muslin twice, and I think it would benefit from another round of fitting, as the back is a little looser than I care for. The front fits well enough, though the gap was smaller on the first day before the kirtle had stretched. The struggle is real when you are containing a curvaceous figure. Boning is likely the answer (or at least it is when your mind is tuned to 18th-century aesthetics and means).

At the 18th century winter cabin, with the ersatz ruff and repurposed apron. Needs must.

That Crazy Coif

Scaled up from the Tudor Tailor, I know this pattern needs to be scaled down for my tiny skull. Will I make another? I might try another shape instead, this being exceedingly fiddly. By Sunday, I was pinning the two pieces to each other and the whole to my hair (which is how I keep 18th century caps in place).

Accessories

The absolutely swoony hat is by M. Brenckle, Hatter. I don’t know that I have fully figured out how to wear it with my questionable coif and hair, but it is without a doubt the jauntiest-yet-sober item I’ve ever worn on my head. That will help inspire me to re-do the coif and figure out what to do with my hair.

This view of the theoretical jacket reminds me of Lautrec.

Standing in for a ruff and partlet is a 19th-century chemisette made ages ago by Mimic of Modes. Desperate times call for desperate measures: Drunk Tailor tried to order me one but the Etsy seller went to ground, and his own project needed finishing so he couldn’t take on a ruff. With thorough instructions readily available and vintage linen to hand, a ruff seems like an achievable item, in time. (Yes, he finally got a new version of the document-based Carolina jacket finished!)

A Very Short List of Sources and Inspiration

Arnold, Janet. 1984. Patterns of fashion.

Arnold, Janet. 2014. Patterns of fashion 3, 3. Patterns of Fashion.

Mikhaila, Ninya, and Jane Malcolm-Davies. 2015. The Tudor tailor: reconstructing 16th-century dress. Hollywood, Calif: Costume and Fashion Press.

Couture Courtesan: Late 16th-Early 17th Century Waistcoat

Wasted Weeds

Starting Over, Again

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Autumn is my favorite time of year, a time for fresh starts and new beginnings. Surely for many, that season would be spring, but for me, after summer’s dreary end, when the world seems stale, flat, and unprofitable, autumn is something else again.

This year, it was the time when my Kickstarter campaign succeeded, I quit a job I hated and stumbled into another that paid twice as much for fewer hours and was situated completely within my competencies. All of that was unexpected and probably hinged almost completely on taking the leap to quit a thing I hated doing.* The most successful moments– the most satisfying ones– come when I start something entirely new that scares me completely and for which I have no script. Those are dramatic and risky: big gestures, where failing will be public and painful.

There are other ways to change, smaller, incremental, but still meaningful, and sometimes still painful. Failure is always an option.** So this fall, in addition to the big changes, I took on some small ones.

I signed up for a Burnley & Trowbridge workshop, An Introduction to Mantua-making. When I signed up, I knew I would need to quit the job I had in order to take the workshop– and I had zero regrets. (There was no way to take three days off that included non-negotiable Sundays). I also knew I would be making a dress in miniature rather than a full-size gown, and I was thrilled: I do not need another gown.

What I wanted from the workshop was a skills reboot. I’ve been sewing and fitting clothing off-and-on since I was in middle school, and after a few years making my own clothes, toys and quilts for my son, and exhibition props for work, I took up historical costuming. Along the way, I took some workshops, did a lot of research, and developed habits both good and bad. What I wanted from the workshop was to unlearn my bad habits and acquire new skills, and Brooke Welborn delivered. I understand construction in ways I didn’t before, and now that I’m back home, my sewing is fast again (thank goodness!).

The joy of taking a basic workshop when you’re experienced is that you have a higher likelihood of completing the project, and you get to see a technique laid bare, broken down, and simplified. Sometimes we forget how important a regular, fast, backstitch can be– and how lovely it can be.

Ballet dancers take classes at all levels: they are always working on technique. Apollo or Coppelia: both are built on basic steps repeated endlessly unless perfect and apparently effortless. There’s always something to refine, perfect, polish, re-examine, or an old habit to break. Dancers also take classes in different genres: jazz, modern, ballroom, hip-hop: these require movement and gestures very different from classical ballet, but help expand a dancer’s abilities and understanding. And to that end, I took up something new as well.

I signed up for a new-to-me event at Fort Dobbs, the military timeline. Muskets and guns really aren’t my thing anymore, but the possibility of embarking on a new time period, and a character full of laments, appealed: the Lost Colony of Roanoke. This requires a new realm of research and new garments to make.***

Attributed to Abel Grimmer, The Marketplace in Bergen op Zoom, Flemish, c. 1570 – 1618/1619, probably 1590 and 1597, oil on panel, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Earl H. Look

Working in the 16th-century aesthetic is pretty different from my usual comfort zone of the last half of the 18th century. Bodied petticoats or kirtles instead of stays; smocks with square neck openings or even collars instead of the more open shift neck; transitioning silhouettes; waistcoats and doublets as well as gowns; coifs and forehead cloths instead of caps: all pretty different. But all helpful in thinking about how fashion evolves, how we get from loose gowns to bodies to mantuas to open robed gowns to chemise gowns. Looking back can help us see the present more clearly, and so it is with fashion.

Detail, Attributed to Abel Grimmer, The Marketplace in Bergen op Zoom, Flemish, c. 1570 – 1618/1619, probably 1590 and 1597, oil on panel, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Earl H. Look

It has also been an interesting look at the effect of climate on economy, society, and dress. In addition to reading about Roanoke and the archaeology of early English settlements in North Carolina and Virginia, I picked up Nature’s Mutiny from the Library. All the wool and layers make more sense in a period when temperatures were 2℃ colder than they are now. Blom’s arguments began to tire for me (the Times review is fair), but overall, thinking about the push of lower harvests on European exploration of the “new” world was a helpful angle to consider.

Riverside, Jan Brueghel (I) (copy after), 1600-1650.oil on copper. SK-A-68, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Finishing all the pieces I need to be a sad shopkeepers wife who wishes she’d never set foot on the Lion is a challenge, but the effort has definitely been worth it for all the things I’ve learned along the way.

*Retail was hard the first time I did it of necessity, and several decades in public service made it only slightly easier.

**I am a big Adam Savage fan, and if you’re a maker or just enjoy my blog, I recommend Every Tool’s a Hammer. It was a birthday present this year, but you can likely find it at your local library. Short version? Keep learning, be adaptable, and put your tools away.

***Yes, an entire 1585 wardrobe at the same time I am working on patterns, researching the Lost Colony, finishing commissions, starting commissions, and starting a new short-term contract untangling collections. This kind of load is not new and is a habit that needs unlearning.

The Charm of the Third Time

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One must keep up with the news (and the competition)

I’d call it “three times a lady,” but truly, I’ve only been a lady in Occupied Philadelphia twice. Last year and this year, I portrayed Elizabeth Weed, a widowed pharmacist living on Front Street in 1777 with her son, George. We don’t know why Elizabeth Weed didn’t leave the city along with nearly half the population. Was she a loyalist? Was her son too ill to travel? Or did she choose to stay to protect her property from the British– or the son of her late husband’s first marriage, who withheld a portion of the estate? Whatever the reason, remain she did, advertising her wares in the October 23 edition of the Pennsylvania Evening Post.

New remedies, new box, new ingredients: refining an idea

Last year, with Drunk Tailor’s assistance, I made a number of remedies using 18th century receipts, with some interesting and sometimes successful results. This year, we improved one– the yellow basilicum ointment– and added some new concoctions. The sulphur ointment for the itch (possibly scabies) worked well on the insect bites I got in the Carpenters Hall forecourt. A charcoal-oyster shell-cinchona bark-benzoin tooth powder was a new addition. I used the clove oil-scented pomatum to achieve the highest hair I’ve managed yet, but the truly satisfying work was recreating multiple recipes actually used by Elizabeth Weed.

As Drunk Tailor notes in his entry on this year’s event, we can never truly enter the 18th century mindset. Recreating the clothes, food, daily rhythms, and medicines help us experience the feel of the past, but we can never truly be those people. If you regularly cook 18th century meals, you’ll experience the palate of the past: aromatic, relying heavily on cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice. This same range informs the aroma and flavor of the remedies from cough syrup to tooth powder.

Almost undoubtedly one of the ‘smells like Christmas, tastes like death’ tooth powders. Courtesy Jason R. Wickersty/Museum of the American Revolution

It’s a toss up which is less pleasant to the modern tongue, the Syrup of Balsam or the Syrup for the Flux. Both use the “paregoric elixir,” which some of you may recall from the medicine cabinets of old. Camphorated tincture of opium or anhydrous morphine has been used to treat diarrhea for centuries, and the ingredients for the modern version (anhydrous morphine) is remarkably similar to that for Weed’s paregoric elixir:

Weed’s Paregoric Elixir Anhydrous Morphine (Paregoric)
8 ounces opium Anhydrous Morphine, 2 mg
4 gallons spirits of wine, rectified Alcohol, 45%
1 ounce oil of anise seeds Anise oil
2 ounces Flor. Benzoin Benzoic acid
8 ounces camphor Glycerin
Purified water

There are some differences– most of us don’t want to ingest camphor, and “purified water” isn’t quite a thing in 1777– but the active ingredient makes these essentially the same compound. It’s an essential component of both Syrup of Balsam and Syrup for the Flux, so it had to be made first. Over the course of ten days, the elixir cleared from a yellow-orange slightly opaque liquid to a clear yellow liquid, with white sediment at the bottom of the jar (probably the benzoin).

With that in hand, I was ready to tackle Weed’s most famous (and well-protected) remedy. It appears more than once in the daybook, but both listings use the same ingredients and proportions.

One of the original receipts for the syrup for the (Bloody) Flux. UPenn Ms. Codex 1049

Syrup for the Bloody Flux
1.5 pints, simple syrup or molasses
.5 pint, elixir paregoricum
1 drachm each:
Essence of peppermint
Essence of pennyroyal
Essence of anise seed
Essence of fennel seed
tincture aromatic

“Mix them all together, and stop them up in a bottle for life.” (Or, as the other receipt says, “Mix and Digest.”

The resulting mixture is probably meant to soothe the intestinal cramps (with anise, fennel, and peppermint) while the paregoric relieves the endless diarrhea. Licorice-flavored molasses with a peppermint tingle isn’t unpleasant so much as odd to the modern palate.

Syrup of Balsam defied expectations.

On the right: Syrup of Balsam: -10/10 would not taste again.

Syrup of Balsam
1 pint, simple syrup or molasses
.5 print, elixir parigoric
1 ounce each:
Essence of fennel
Essence of anise seed
Royal Balsam
Tincture of Balsam of Tolu

“These must be mixed together, and then put up for use.”

If I attempt this again– to be fair, I have enough ingredients and more knowledge– I’ll try to get the Balsam of Tolu to dissolve more fully into the main mixture, though I doubt the separation is why the taste is so unforgettable. While it did mellow after several days, the basic flavor remained licorice cough drops dissolved in corn liquor with an afterburn of turpentine. Fortunately, the dosage is not by the spoonful, but rather ten or more drops in a wine glass of water, depending on the constitution of the patient. As a “cure for the whooping cough,” the syrup with fennel and anise was probably intended to soothe the throat, and paregoric might have helped the pain of damaged lungs. Living in the post-DTaP era, I’ve never had whooping cough, or been around anyone who did, so it’s much harder for me to imagine treating it without antibiotics (or simply not getting it).

“No, really, no antibiotics!” Photo by Jason R. Wickersty/Museum of the American Revolution

That was really illuminating to some people: antibiotics weren’t invented until 1928 (in the case of penicillin) and were not available for civilian use until March, 1945. Until then, diseases like strep throat could be fatal. Often, the best medicine in the 18th century was to help a patient be comfortable, and ease their symptoms.