Bad, Mad Skillz: An Origin Story

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Aragorn: one of many modified patterns

I’ve been sewing clothes off and on for while, and sewing pretty constantly since the 1990s—baby quilts, piped slipcovers for vintage chairs, knitting needle cases, costumes for the Giant, and sundry other items. Making calms me, and since I tend to operate at a pretty high RPM, I make a lot of things.

Historical clothing took off for me after the Giant decided he wanted in on the living history thing. Hunting frocks, overalls, and shirts gave way to stays, petticoats and gowns. I’m largely self-taught, and although workshops with Sharon Burnston and Henry Cooke helped immensely, much of what I learned about fitting and draping I learned by reading (books and tutorials, especially Koshka and Sabine) and by making mistakes.

The best way to succeed is to fail, and I am an accomplished failure —you have only to look through the archives here, and you will find waistcoats sewn by drunken, crack-addled monkeys , upside-down Spencer collars, and stays gone wrong. I’m okay with those mistakes, because they helped me (and, I hope, some of my readers) make progress towards better sewing.

Really, I’m not sure how this happened. But there it is: upside down.

I’ve made things of late of which I am proud, or at least pleased with; I have taught myself new skills over the years from pad stitching (still working on that) to hand knotting (getting better) . I’ve gained patience (which is a skill itself) as I’ve learned new techniques, and that counts for a lot.

Hand-knotted lapis bead necklace: a new, slightly frustrating skill

Way back when (for the true origins), struggling through a design studio, I realized that the greatest frustration typically comes just before a breakthrough. That understanding is really the origin of my historical sewing: getting frustrated means you’re making progress. And what’s more frustrating that replicating a historical garment?

Fave Friday: Full-On Federal

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Favorite Era? Easy-peasy! Federal, of course. Whether furniture or fashion, the early Republic is my thing. I spend a fair amount of time in the 18th century, since there are so many events in that time period, and while I loved the story of the American Revolution as a child, the early Federal* period intrigues me more. Furniture, porcelain, wallpaper, and clothing from 1790-1820 all appeal to me, as well as the notion that women’s roles were in flux in the earliest decades of the United States.

“American Women and French Fashion,” from The Age of Napoleon

I love the idea of women in mercantile businesses and trade, and the way that milliners provided access to fashion (and you can read more about that in The Age of Napoleon).

Merrymaking at a Wayside Inn, watercolor on paper by John Lewis Krimmel. 1811-1813. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 42.95.12

I also love the way that American women (and men) translated European high style into a vernacular, as seen in John Lewis Krimmel’s watercolors of Philadelphia and surrounding areas.

This is a time period I’m comfortable in (yes, the stays are part of that comfort) but aside from comfort and aesthetics, I think it’s also because for a brief time, women had slightly more freedom than they had previously.

It was short-lived, and Republican motherhood was confining in its own way before the “cult of womanhood” blossomed fully. But ideals of freedom and fashion very briefly aligned, and for that, I love the Federal– and vain creature that I am, I think it suits me.

*pre-Andy Jackson, amirite?

I Fall to Pieces: Extant Garment Fragments

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Bodice, painted Indian cotton, 1780-1795 RIHS 1990.36.27

Bodice, painted Indian cotton, 1780-1795
RIHS 1990.36.27

Once upon a time, not very long ago, when I worked in a historic house museum, I was asked to present at a conference in Worcester. I chose to talk about these fragments, and I still like to think about them. The delicate fabric was saved as a pair of sleeves, a bodice with a tiny peplum, a skirt.

Sleeves, removed from bodice 1990.36.27. RIHS 1990.36.25A-B

Sleeves, removed from bodice 1990.36.27.
RIHS 1990.36.25A-B

The pieces appear to have been part of a pieced-back closed-front gown with a matching petticoat circa 1785. I think someone decided (quite rightly) that the style was too passé for 1795, and altered the gown significantly.

Not only is there evidence of new sleeves being fitted into the gown’s armscyes, we have the sleeves-that-used-to-be. And my dear! No one is wearing sleeves like that this season!

I find these garments in limbo really fascinating. Was that bodice finished and worn with a matching petticoat? (Yes, there’s a panel of that left, too; what a lovely hem!)

Skirt panel, painted Indian cotton. RIHS 1990.36.33

Skirt panel, painted Indian cotton.
RIHS 1990.36.33

Who wore the gown? Was it Sally Brown, born in 1773? And did she alter it, or did her sister’s mantua maker, Nancy Smith? We can only guess at this point, as so many documents remain in private hands. The alterations are not as finely done as the original gown, so I think there are two hands at work here– whose were those hands? There’s always more to think about and learn.

In case you’re wondering, thanks to the Met, we can see what the gown probably looked like in its first incarnation, and then what the alterations were meant to achieve. (Link to the gown on the left; link to the gown on the right.)

Au courant? Un canezou

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Collier de Lapis. Canezou a Manche[?]

This.

Because, August (or Aôut). The Salem Maritime Festival is nearly upon us, so there’s a flurry of bonnet and accessory and other making happening chez Calash as there usually is in summer. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and this year I was asked if the millinery setup could be more of a demonstration.

That’s a kind of relief, actually, as it allows me to bring bonnets from multiple years in a variety of levels of completion, which allows me the luxury of talking about evolving styles and a variety of construction methods. Whether or not I’ll manage a drawn bonnet is still up in the air; it’s a lot of hand sewing for someone with carpal tunnel.*

Because any trip to Salem affords me the opportunity to join the mercantile class, I like to take the opportunity to make something new and non-working class when I go up there. This year, I was taken with the canezou. What’s a milliner to do, but stay as up-to-date as possible? What the heck is a canezou?

Well….roughly, from the French and English costume history books, the canezou is a short, Spencer-like garment, often in white, lightweight cotton, worn over another garment. The canezou seen here clearly has sleeves, and the plate is dated 1811, giving the lie to the wikipedia’s assertion that it’s circa 1835. (The later evolutions have become more scarf or fichu-like, but are again worn over other gowns- though apparently it enjoys a brief time as the cambric blouse worn with a riding habit. And then there’s another definition, by another fashion historian, in which the canezou is described as being like a man’s shirt.

Well, that’s all cleared up then….

With this information in hand, and the fashion plate before me, I perused the contents of the Strategic Fabric Reserve, and lit upon those popular Ikea curtains which have appeared here before as a gown and as a petticoat and now as a canezou.

I modified a Spencer pattern for the base lining of white cotton, and then draped, stroke gathered, and stitched the curtain fabric to form the floofy bodice. The lace on the cap sleeves is reclaimed from a late 19th century negligee lurking in Drunk Tailor’s collection of usable old fabrics, while the lace at the bottom was reclaimed from an antique petticoat before I picked it up in Sturbridge, MA a few years ago.

To complete this, a bodiced petticoat with an embroidered hem (machine embroidered, of fabric I may have picked up from a remnant table in Pawtucket, RI), a pair of trimmed shoes, a necklace (here of sapphire blue stones, unless I can teach myself hand-knotting by Friday), and a bonnet of blue and white check silk that arrived just in time from India. Five new items in two or three weeks: the price of fashion is slightly mad.

*Hand-sewing everything has, at last, caught up with me. I find soaking my hands in cold water helpful, as well as sleeping in those super attractive hand braces. Imma need some surgery, but for now, braces, Aspercreme, and ice water must do.

An Introduction, or Re-Introduction, of Sorts

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No, I won’t say how many cups I’ve had.

What is this thing, and who am I?

It’s Costume Blog Writing Month (inspired by NaNoWriMo), and I’m Kitty Calash. I used to post much more frequently, but life caught up: I moved, which meant I didn’t sew at all for over a month* and thus didn’t have much to write about, since this isn’t a packing and moving blog.

But even before that, posting had slowed as I began to wonder why I wrote, and why I sewed. Costume Blog Writing Month, with its 31 flavors of posts, is a chance to reacquire the writing habit, and to think again about what I do, and why– and thus proved irresistible.

I’m a curator in search of a collection, a fugitive from architecture school, a compulsive editor, and a cat wrangler. I started sewing as a child with help from my mother and grandmother** who made clothes for me and my favorite doll, Moira. Although I graduated from two art schools, my interest in history is deep: I craved china dolls, collected antique quilts and tools, and insisted my bicentennial Samuel Adams costume have functioning knee bands– and yet, it’s taken me years to admit I’m “detail oriented.”


Some days Drunk Tailor asks me if I really enjoy sewing– my face betrays my frustration, and I do not play poker–but I get both distraction and satisfaction from it. Most of what I make I wear at living history events, so I hand-sew everything I can. I fall into the “progressive” reenactor/enactor/costumed interpreter camp, and strive for authenticity and accuracy in what I make, how I wear it, and what I do.

I’ve come to realize that I’m chasing art: my thesis work looked at what it means to be an American. What does “America” look like, what does the myth of America and our founding story mean? How do we portray it? Yes: I costume and organize events in pursuit of an experience for myself and participants that helps explain this nation, and how it came to be the way it is.

Not every post gets into this kind of theorizing— really, most don’t– but at core, my costume pursuits do chase the myth of an American Dream as I try to understand the people of the past, how they thought, what they made and wore, and how the past continues to inform the present.***

*During this time, I lost the distinctive callouses that will help a detective identify me as a seamstress when my murdered corpse is found in a Paris hotel doorway in the Georges Simenon novel I write in my head. I watch a lot of murder mysteries while I sew.

**Elsa turns up here from time to time; she was a style maven, the doyenne of design in a small Southern Tier town, who, for 50 years, ran the shop that dressed the maidens and matrons of the nearly best classes in a community of striving Swedes aching to assimilate.

*** And that, friends, is what working in history museums for two and half decades will get you: your own personal mission and an empty bank account.

Style Council

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National Gallery of Art furniture gallery, May 2017

One of the critiques leveled at historic house museums is that they’re often “frozen in time,” specifically a particular moment, rather than reflecting the changes that happened over time. This charge is sometimes leveled at period room installations as well, when all the furniture in a room is from a tight time span– a year, maybe five– when for most of us, the furnishings in our homes and the clothes in our closets reflect a number of years, rather than a tight twelve or eighteen months.

So, when we go out “into the field” (or the house or the milliner’s shop or the tavern), shouldn’t our belongings reflect the multiplicity of years of objects? If I’m a woman Of A Certain Age, won’t I have possessions, from jewelry to ceramics to clothing, from multiple decades? Well…. yes and no.

It’s true that as far as we can tell, John Brown moved his 1760 furniture into his 1788 mansion, but we also know he bought new furnishings, including a large (188+ piece) set of Chinese Export Porcelain (see above).

Up-to-date, stylish, expensive: table settings signaled wealth and sophistication as much as clothing and manners, so whatever JB had before 1788, he wasn’t setting his new table with it. What might he (or Mrs B) have done with it? Consigned it to use by grandchildren and servants? Given it to less fortunate relations? Possibly. And if they had creamware, it would not have been singularly out of place in 1788 or 1800 on any table– it was only 40 years old, and heaven knows my “best” china is from the 1930s– but would they have used earlier pottery, even in the kitchen?

All pottery is not the same: North Devon pottery, while imported to North America in the late 17th and early 18th century, is not what you would expect to find in a late-18th century farm kitchen. It’s here, sure, into the mid-18th century, but in 1799, it’s not the form you would expect to see. So what does that mean for living history folks? Does it matter what you use?

You know what I think: there ain’t nothing like the real thing and that means paying careful attention to details. If you’re portraying a camp follower in 1778, or tenant farmer in 1799, you are not likely to have, say, a Jackfield-type figured tea pot, just as you are not likely to have a salt-glazed squirrel-relief cream jug, no matter how much you adore it.

Time and style matter. The people of the past read each other the same way we read each other. Remember Clarice Starling, with her “good bag and her cheap shoes”? Get on a train anywhere, and you can read your fellow travelers: you can guess income and education levels, marital status, and sometimes interests and hobbies if you look closely. You make assumptions about people based on their appearance, whether you’re conscious of it or not– and so did the people of the past. To portray them accurately, and to help the public learn to read the past, the details matter.

Everything Old is New Again

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I could be making bonnets. I could be applying for moar jobz. I could be finishing the soup that’s on the stove. But instead, I’m annoyed by a museum’s social media posting. For the sake of all that’s holy in history, is there nothing more to an 18th century soldier’s life than his weapon? Now, to the museum’s credit, only 50% of the posted images could truly be said to focus on the musket or some musket-related tool.

But what’s so damned annoying is that the organization in question, all brand-spanking new and on everybody’s “must-see” list, falls back on the same old tropes on social media, which makes me want to know more about their educational mission. If the social media message continues to reinforce the same messages (guns are important) instead of expanding to include a soldier’s daily life, or even his inner life, the public has trouble moving past that simple message to ask more questions.

Museums and their representatives cue the questions visitors ask by framing objects, writing labels, even aiming the lights, to focus on what the museum believes is important. Put guns front and center, that’s what the questions will be about instead of about hygiene, clothing, literacy, or diet.

This image got me really excited, until I read the caption.

“Brick dust for polishing the brass elements on his weapon.” Dammit! It’s not tooth powder!

I understand full well that the museum’s interpretation of our national founding is far more inclusive than many museum visitors have previously encountered. I understand that the educational program currently lacks a permanent director, and is not yet fully fleshed out.

Museums are among the most trusted sources for information. Presentation matters. What museums emphasize matters. If museums — in their exhibits, programs, or marketing– continue to “give the people what they want,” the people will not know that they can want something different, or even that there is something different to want. Inclusivity is constant: in the galleries, in the labels, in the programming, in the staff, and in the marketing (which this museum did, in fact, do, masterfully, at a major train station).

But I’m picking on them for this post because they are the top of the game right now, and if they can do better in the galleries and in the train station, they can do better on social media. They’ve had some of the best female interpreters around working this month and the end of last, and yet the first social media post on that program is of a soldier, and focuses on his weapon. The past– and the present– deserve better.

Flipping a Lid

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In a continuing effort to simultaneously destroy my hands and make all the bonnets, I set out recently to recreate a bonnet in the Met’s collection.

Silk Bonnet, British, ca. 1815. Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Designated Purchase Fund, 1983 2009.300.1613

It’s a curious thing, isn’t it, with that flipped-up brim? It looks more 1915 than 1815. But a little looking turned up this fashion plate:

Items 2 and 6, while not of silk, show the turned-up brim seen in this example. (To be fair, the original black and white photo suggests some confusion about the bonnet’s orientation.)

My version is admittedly imperfect, but a home-made interpretation that gets as close as I can (for now). I started with a lightweight buckram frame, to which I stitched slim round caning.

The brim is covered in two layers of the copper silk, and edged on the bottom side with the contrasting silk trim. the crown, or caul, is a simple tube gathered to a silk-covered buckram circle. In the absence of matching (or even sort-of-close) ribbon, my choices are to trim what’s left of the fabric and piece it together…. or start an online-ribbon hunt. At least the extant example has ribbon that’s close but not a match, giving me some leeway if I decide to save my hands for other projects and click instead of stitch.