Ceci n’est pas une assiette


, , , , , , ,

Historic American Buildings Survey, George F.A. Palmer, Photographer, 1937 DETAIL OF PARLOR FIREPLACE. – Jeremiah Dexter House, 957 North Main Street, Providence, Providence County, RI

Last weekend, Drunk Tailor and I delivered the Giant to his new life as a college student back in New England, and paid a call on of my oldest friends, a 96-year-old former OSS agent and descendent of the Dexter family. My eldest friend had something she wanted to give me: a souvenir of the Dexter House, in recognition of the hours I’d spent working with her identifying and organizing several hundred years of family papers.

In the photo at left, the coffee pot on the mantle is now in a museum collection, as are the miniatures, the bellows, and the pipe box (which is now on display in a historic house museum). What my eldest friend gave me is not in the image of the house, but resembles the plate to the left of the fireplace: a Staffordshire transferware “Village Church” pattern plate with a wild rose border, ca 1825.

Transferware soup plate ca. 1825. Unknown maker, Staffordshire, England.

I’m a fan of blue and white china, and while I prefer earlier Canton ware, this plate is more special to me than the ones I’ve bought at auction or in New Bedford antique shops: because of course it’s not a plate, it’s memory, or an emotion, made solid.

Drunk Tailor and I spent an early Sunday afternoon on my friend’s porch listening to stories about her children, in particular about her daughter Mary, now an artist living in Mexico. Is it a comfort or an annoyance to learn that schools have been misjudging children since schools were invented, trying hard to fit round pegs into square holes? Mary, always more interested in drawing than in lectures, once left a classroom when the teacher said, “If anyone doesn’t want to hear this lesson, then they can leave now.” Out Mary went, three other girls following her out to play on a beautiful spring afternoon.

That story, and many others, aren’t apparent in the plate with its crazed face and discoloration. Only my memories (and anything I write down and keep with the plate) make the associations. But it is always the stories about the objects that make them important (even big-ticket dec arts items, like Plunkett Fleason easy chairs.)

Last night, before Drunk Tailor and I watched The Maltese Falcon, we watched Adam Savage’s TED talk on his obsession with objects. The TED talk is worth a watch for anyone interested in material culture and objects. Our human fascination with things goes beyond the shiny surface of new things (tabernacle mirrors or iPhones) as they become repositories of memory, symbols of feelings or moments.

War correspondents and personnel of the Office of Strategic Services, leaving from the Railhead, Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, enroute overseas. NARA. National Archives Identifier: 542171 Local Identifier: 336-H-17(E8671)
Creator: War Department. Army Service Forces. Office of the Chief of Transportation. 3/12/1943-6/11/1946

This: In my desk drawer, I have a buckeye Drunk Tailor picked up and handed to me in a garden in New Jersey. It’s useless: inedible, too light to be a paperweight, but it reminds me of that November afternoon, the soft green of the garden, and how shy I felt. Anyone cleaning out my desk would toss that bit of organic matter, even as I keep it as a talisman of one of our first dates: the places, the smells, and the feelings.

And this, too: My friend is 96. I may never see her again, though when I left her, she was healthy and cheerful, making plans for the fall with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren coming to visit. Given my reticence and her old-fashioned New England reserve, I may never be able to tell her how much she means to me (I try), or how interesting I think she is. (“I’m not interesting, dear, I just worked hard,” is what she says when I try to convince her to donate her personal papers to an archive.) But I have a plate that was in a house that had a great deal of meaning to her, and my best guess is that her gift of that plate to me means she knows how much I like and admire her. It reminds me of her, and reminds me of how little time there is before all that’s left is the plate and my memories.

Headspace: Where I Work


, , ,

An Ikea secretary of my own keeps most stuff organized.

I haven’t had a proper studio since I was just out of grad school and living in a three room apartment with one room dedicated to making. Since then, as I’ve taken on the baggage and responsibilities that come with two- and four-legged associates, I’ve given up a room of my own. Instead, I have have a desk of my own. And the dining table when I need it, which is most days until it’s dinner time. It works within the space we have, and best of all, the secretary can be folded closed when we go away, protecting delicious feathers and tempting beads and ribbons from marauding cats.

And the dining room table, of course.

Whatever space I have, or you have, I find the most important space is the one in my head. That’s where projects are born and die, where they’re planned and tweaked, where problems are solved. It’s the first space you have to get in order if you’re going to do your best work. Walks help. When I get stuck writing or sewing, walking usually shakes loose the next idea or solution.

A break from sewing, coming soon to the shop

To keep that headspace clear and organized, and happy working, I find music more helpful than TV, though many a Nazi Mega Weapons or screwball comedy has eased an evening of backstitching long seams. Lately, Spotify has been my go-to, thanks to these playlists. Listening to them is listening to how someone else’s brain works, which is incredibly enlightening. Whatever your art form, stepping outside your usual genre can be more inspiring than endlessly revisiting the same galleries and sources. Who better than the writer of Hamilton to show us the way?

Draping and Dreaming


, , , , , ,

Why have just one dream project when you can have more than you can possibly achieve? Here, in no particular order, are things I’d like to make or achieve but probably never will:

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978)
“Cossack”, 1952
wool; Length at CB: 46 in. (116.8 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Muriel Bultman Francis, 1966 (2009.300.402)

Charles James: American master of draping fabric. I have nowhere and no reason to make or wear this coat, but the lines and fabric appeal to me. This skill level is currently beyond me, but I recognize that I have enough historical clothing that I could get out of the 18th and 19th centuries to concentrate on learning the couture techniques of the 20th century. Many muslins went into making this, and a deep understanding of fabric. One of the best things about the Met’s Charles James collection is the large number of muslins. Costume and clothing designers’ sketches, muslins give us a good sense of how a designer thought, and what steps went into a garment.

Balenciaga is another favorite. Evening gowns, suits, and coats, all deliciously draped.

House of Balenciaga (French, founded 1937)
Rain ensemble, fall/winter 1965–66
cotton ; Length (a): 42 1/2 in. (108 cm) Length (b): 24 in. (61 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Rachel L. Mellon, 1987 (1987.134.23a, b)

Lest you think I only like coats, the “Tulip” dress is equally interesting.

House of Balenciaga (French, founded 1937)
Evening Dress, 1964
silk ;
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Baroness Philippe de Rothschild, 1973 (1973.21.8)

Thanks to the V&A, there are digital animations of the construction of the tulip dress, which has deceptively simple pattern pieces. The video was created in support of teh V&A’s Balenciaga exhibition, which I am sorry not to be able to see.

Equally out of reach is this: a remodeled silk lampas gown. The idea is to make the first gown– that is, the gown suitable for the fabric’s earliest date (which is probably not 1790, but closer to 1740-1750) and then alter that gown to the late 18th century style.

Unknown maker. Gown, 1790. French, silk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1964, (C.I.64.32.2)

This last “dream” project is more achievable, though somewhat academic. Silk lampas fabric can be found, and there’s a simpler alteration project in lampas at the V&A

Gown, Spitalfields silk, ,
1740 – 1749 (weaving) 1740 – 1749 (sewing)
1760 – 1769 (altered) 1950 – 1959 (altered)
Given by Mrs H. H. Fraser Victoria and Albert Museum, T.433-1967


Goose Me, Baby, One More Time


, , ,

Ironing en plein air: Mr Hiwell with Voldemort

Pro tip: PRESS. Press ALL the things.

Press the seams, the sleeves, the joins, the skirts. Press it good. Press it again.
Press as you go, and your clothes will fit better and go together more easily.
Press your clothes before you wear them, and they’ll look better.

I have a Rowenta iron affectionately known as “Voldemort” for its tendency to hiss and belch when waiting to be used. The iron is so noisy that my son once said, “Gesundheit” reflexively when it sat between seam pressings.

Voldemort himself

It’s a “Pro Master” model, from a clearance rack at Bed, Bath and Beyond (which is why I could afford it).  While it’s not the top of the Rowenta line, it’s heavier and steamier than my previous Rowenta, which was knocked to the floor by someone else too many times in early morning shirt-and-tie pressing sessions. That iron developed a nasty over-heating habit, and was eventually chucked into the yard where it burned a neat iron-shaped hole in the grass… don’t drop your irons, kids.

In addition to the Rowenta, I have a Sunbeam  with a retractable cord,  purchased to replace the overheating Rowenta. It, too, is heavy and steamy, and was my go-to iron until I used someone else’s better Rowenta at a sewing workshop.

The best steam iron you can afford is worth every penny for the difference it will make in the drape and finish of your garments.

Lance needles: the best I’ve used.

Bonus Pro Tip: Use the smallest, sharpest needles you can work with. Smaller needles = smaller stitches.

Frivolous Friday: Favorite Fabric


, , , , , , ,

Favorite Fabric? Are you kidding? Is it fabric? It’s my favorite.

Dat neckhandkerchief, tho’

There’s the hand-woven handkerchief made by a friend that is my absolute favorite textile accessory.

There’s silk taffeta, and the occasional silk satin, for bonnets.

And linen for shifts and linings.

But my all-time favorite fabrics are Indian block print cottons. I have multiple yards in storage, and multiple yards in the accessible Strategic Fabric Reserve. I try not to look at them in the online shops, for I cannot afford to be tempted.

My favorite three gowns are made of Indian block print cotton:

The Milliner in Red

The Bib-Front Tailoress

And the somewhat noticeable Nancy Dawson.

It was hot. And humid. That’s only water.

There’s an early red, white, and black calico based on a Philadelphia runaway ad, too, and though I’ve not had it on in a while, it may be due for a renaissance.

Once upon a time in Connecticut…

Oh, and while it requires some shoulder strap adjustments, there’s the brown Indian print I wear as a unsatisfactory Philadelphia servant and Boston sight-seer…and the red print I wore for a 1790 Providence housekeeper.

So, yes, pretty much my favorite, and of the prints? Nancy Dawson, hands down, though I was skeptical at first, for the yellow was so very bright. Made up and worn, though, I love it.

Milliner’s Shop Redux: A big, visual project


, , , , , , , ,

The complete ensemble, under supervision.

When I first moved to Providence, I lived in Fox Point, a slightly fringy-dingy neighborhood of Portuguese and Cape Verdean immigrants and their descendants that was cheap enough for students (and even today remains imperfectly gentrified: Providence, I love you dearly). As my then-boyfriend and I walked my dog, we passed a man whom I later came to know as the Block Captain, who remarked to my boyfriend, “Beeg wooman.” Any project I take on is, therefore, big, since I am nearly six feet tall.

Although I have schemes for a Big New Century Project (a complete 1585 ensemble), I’ll take a shortcut instead to my current enthusiasm and write about last weekend and the 1811 fashion plate reconstruction, which happily includes one of my favorite visual sources, early 19th century fashion plates — thanks to Scene in the Past’s albums and Ackemann’s Repository on the Internet Archive.

I’ve written about the canezou plate before, but not since I (mostly) completed it on the trip up to Salem. This 1811 plate appealed to me first because of the bonnet (checks!) and the necklace (lapis!), but then realized that the canezou and its petticoat were within my ability to complete.

The ensemble also seemed suitable for a summer day in Salem, which, while usually more humid than hot, calls for cool, lightweight, clothing that can withstand a potentially sweat-drenched day without melting.

From start to finish was three weeks: canezou, bodiced petticoat, necklace, bonnet, and shoe trims, all a vernacular rendition of a high-fashion image, adapted to the materials at hand– though I did have to order bonnet taffeta from India, which arrived just in time– much faster than I could have expected in 1811 Salem!

Setting up the shop for the fourth time was as much fun as the first time, and a little easier, given the practice I’ve had. I shared the shop with a tailor, Mr. B, of hat-making renown which made for a nice contrast interpreting men’s and women’s fashions and purchasing habits.

Packing up hat stands, bonnets, accessories, and furniture and driving them 470 miles is a kind of madness, but interpreting women in business and early shopping is one of my favorite historical enterprises.

To Name a Thing is to Know theThing: Vocabulary Exercises


, , , , , , ,

Today’s CoBloWriMo prompt is vocabulary, which in my case usually means blue, NSFW, or unprintable in the New York Times according to their Style Guide, (but now OK in the New Yorker, thank you Tina Brown).

Captain Haddock proclivities aside, I find myself trying to remember to use period-correct terms as I work, which means trying to figure out what the terms mean. It isn’t always easy, but there are number of printed and online sources.

Here, for example, is the Robe de Marcelline fashion plate I’ve been obsessed with since at least 2011, when Sabine made hers. I finally tracked down some dark green gingham fabric in Framingham, but, d’oh! It’s cotton and not marcel(l)ine.

Google Books provides many useful lookups, through dictionaries and, best of all at the moment, The Dictionary of Fashion History, which helpfully illuminates marceline as “a brilliant but slight kind of sarcenet.” That helps narrow down “lining fabric for women’s clothes,” and confirms that this is a lightweight, probably plain weave, silk.

That doesn’t solve my fabric issue, but given that I am still lack full-time work outside the house, Imma stick with my remnant table cotton. But at least I know what I *should* be using, and have expanded my vocabulary along the way.

Wrap it Up, I’ll Take it: Made for Someone Else


, , ,

Banyan, 1750-1775. T.215-1992, V&A Museum

Banyan, 1750-1775.
T.215-1992, V&A Museum

Disclaimer: This is an adaptation of an earlier post, so if you think you’ve read this before, you probably have.

Banyan or wrapping gown: both terms are used,  but the wearer and I call this a banyan for brevity’s sake. Despite its simplicity, this project took longer than I wanted, mostly because I have a tendency to take on too many things at once and promptly get sick. I like to think of this ability as a very special talent.

In any case, this simple garment was made more fun by piecing– it’s the challenge that keeps you awake, when the majority of the work is in teeny-tiny back stitches.

I took the subject’s chest, arm and back length, and bicep measurements, and made up my own pattern, using the chintz banyan in Fitting and Proper and this one at the V&A as models.


Measurements in hand, the patterning was straightforward: you know how wide to made the body, the center back length you need to achieve, how wide to cut the neck hole, and how wide and how long the sleeves need to be. Really, not that hard.

You can use a diagram like this to start you off. I did wing the bottom width, guessing at the angle to give the garment a fullness similar to the chintz at the V&A.

I didn’t have quite enough fabric to accommodate the recipient’s full height, nor could I get enough of the red print lining material; I had to piece both the stripes and the lining.  Trying to match up the stripes was remarkably satisfying, both when I succeeded and when I was  little off. Life Goal: Dizzying, please.

It contrasted well with a blue woven coverlet, making a nice bright note as I prepped rooms for What Cheer Day 2016. This was the effect I had hoped to achieve waaay back in April 2016 when I failed to finish anything I wanted for the After Dark program thanks to a bout of strep throat.

Jimmie and Billie, unwell and unable to dress themselves without Gideon’s aid. Photograph by J. D. Kay

By October, though, I was able to finish the entire item and make a matching cap, allowing Billie Bowen to recuperate in style from an evening at the Cold Meat Club. I’ve drifted away from making things for other people (except to sell) in part because the Giant, heading to college, has drifted away from living history and thus occupies far less of my sewing time.