The historical costuming/living history/reenacting hobby can be a daunting one to pick up. When I started, I was fortunate to have a background making things, including sewing my own clothes, as well as a career that taught me research skills, and gave me easy access to primary sources. Those factors made skill building relatively easy, though I definitely had a learning curve specific to what I was doing. As the season opens and people start to ease into new units, I thought about things I found that made this hobby a little easier to manage, and skills easier to acquire.
Know who (and when) you are. When you step into the past, who are you? Where are you from? What year are you representing? With answers to these questions, you can begin to sort out what you need to know, and where you need to look for answers. What you’ll wear in North Carolina is not what you will wear in coastal New England. The styles of 1750 are not the same as those of 1780– and fashion information traveled quickly from England to America. American colonists were as stylish (or more so) than their English counterparts. Wearing a gown 20 years out of date without alterations is only going to work well if that gown really shows its age (and you do, too).
Learn to do research. If you are going to strike out totally on your own, you need to be able to do research and sift through the sources you find to understand and interpret them appropriately for your situation. What is right for Costume College may well not be right for a camp follower, no matter how accurate the fabrics or construction. It seems so obvious (and in the case of a silk sacque back gown, it really is) but in other ways it’s not. Jackets aren’t going to be right in New England, and calicos are more common in Philadelphia and Rhode Island than they are in Boston.
Buy good tools. Really: tools matter. Sharp shears, sharp thread snips, good, sharp needles, sturdy pins, a pin cushion, a cutting grid, a steam iron, a sleeve board, a sturdy ironing board: all of these things make my sewing life so much better. (I actually own three ironing boards: a full size board, a table top board, and a sleeve board and use them all.) Tailor’s hams are also useful– that’s what I steam my caps on.
Use good materials. Good fabric is expensive, but what’s your time worth? If you calculate the per-wearing cost of a garment, you’ll find that the “cost” decreases over time. One of my favorite gowns is made of $2.99/yard fabric from a mill store in Rhode Island. (I was very lucky to find a woven check that matched one in a RI sample book.) I bought five yards, so $15. I’ve worn that gown more times than I can count, and it is perfectly filthy. If we calculate $450 for hand sewing, the total cost is $465. Since April 2014, I have worn that gown 12 times (that I recall), making the per-wearing cost $38.75. I’d call that a good value. If we count just the yardage, it’s $1.25 a wearing and honestly, you cannot do better that that.
When it comes to shifts, the ultimate per-wearing cost is even less. My most recent shift of hand-woven linen with vintage linen sleeves would have been $450 in materials, and $425 in hand-sewing. $875 seems crazy, right? Consider the shift I made in 2011, worn to almost every 18th century event I’ve attended (I had two); I’ve worn that shift….45 times that I can recall. That’s $20.83 per wearing, a better value over time than the $2.99/yard gown. If a soldier’s coat can cost $800, and you are going to every event your soldier goes to, an $800 shift is as good a value as the coat, and possibly more essential.
Cost aside, the value of good materials is in the time they save in making. Well-woven linen is easier to sew and will need less mending over time. Sharp shears cut cleaner. Sharp needles sew better, and smaller needles give you finer stitches.
Learn to sew with a thimble. Your fingers will thank you. I use a leather thimble with a metal tip (from the quilting notions section) and it helps. Thimbles are essential when sewing heavier fabrics like broadcloth and indispensable if you make your own stays (and you can expect bleeding even with a thimble).
Practice patience. Learning a new skill, or refining one you already have, takes time. It isn’t always fun. I get sick of sewing, and have to switch to something else (like cutting out, or research, or patterning) or take a break. Recognize that frustration is often the moment before you master something new, but also know when frustration means it’s time to stop. Just as we build muscle on rest days, our brains process skills when we stop. Then, the next time we pick something up, we’ll be stronger, or more skillful, than if we hadn’t stopped. (This New York Times article was helpful, and inspired this post.)
Buy what you cannot make. I thought I needed to make everything myself (with the exception of men’s hats and buttons) but that’s just not true. If you can’t manage fine sewing, buy a cap! If you hate assembling tricky things, buy mitts or a bonnet. I bought caps when I couldn’t make them as well as I wanted, and it saved me hours of frustration. I love flamestitch pinballs, but I can’t manage that needlework yet; lucky for me, I know someone who excels at it, so I can buy from her. Other people have skills, and buying things from them will save you time and frustration, so you can focus on what you really want to do.