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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.