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The female orators/ M. Rennoldson sculp. etching & engraving on laid paper, hand-colored. 1768. Lewis Walpole Library

I’m teaching a workshop in a few weeks, and that is giving me all kinds of reason to re-examine how I do things, what I know, and how I know it. After a few years, I worry that I take the knowledge I’ve gained for granted– which is a dangerous thing to do! Even when you have the good fortune to be building on the work of notable experts (like Sharon Burnston), you have to fact-check yourself. In part, I did this to verify that the pattern I use will work for the time period in question (last half/quarter of the 18th century). The other question I had was about material and prevalence. I’ve maintained that the bedgown is the most common, cozy, and cute garment of the 18th century, but is that true?

View near the Ring in Hyde Park, looking towards Grosvenor Gate, during the Encampment, Paul Sandby, 1780. Pen and watercolour |RCIN 451581

Many of the images of women in bed-gowns seem to depict older women made deliberately unattractive, poor women with their clothes in rags, or bawdy women. All of those are great in their own way, but most of us want to look our best (even when being our worst). For me, this affects the fabric choices I make. Fabric cheers me up– the varieties of color, texture, pattern make winter bearable, job rejections tolerable, and future plans graspable. I have a predilection for pattern, particularly Indian patterns, so I’m always looking for references to prints and chintz being worn.

Maryland Journal, July 17, 1776

Well, bless Jean Shepherd’s heart for running away (with a “down look”) from York, PA in 1776. She took off in a dark calico bed-gown, a brown worsted petticoat, and a half-worn white pelong bonnet. The images of printed bed gowns I’ve found thus far have light grounds (the yellow of the orators being more light than dark, though certainly saturated).

But I can find dark ground cottons, and while what I have is not documented reproduction, I am comfortable with it. The lining will be off-white plain weave wool because it’s winter. I don’t have documentation for this combination but among the fabrics on hand in my reduced-but-accessible Strategic Fabric Reserve, the wool has the best hand and the correct yardage, so wool it is. (It feels like brushed cotton, and was meant for a shift but needs must.)

Newspaper ads for runaways show a fair range of fabrics: red baize; red calico; brown linsey; stamped linen; black and white calico. That last sounds so graphic– and, worn with a black calimanco petticoat, must have been striking. This same woman, Katey Norton, also took with her “an homespun Cotton tight bodied Wrapper” which is appealing indeed– and which I can picture. But that’s another patterning exercise.