Failure is Always an Option


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Or, if not failure, at least screwing up.

The big cold box….

In my more exhausted moments, I make interesting mistakes and choices. Once, I engaged in an argument at work in which I repeatedly used “orange” when I meant “blue.” Another time, I lost the word “refrigerator” and had to coin the phrase “big cold box where we keep the food.” My brain is an interesting place.

When I sat down to start on a commission for some officers’ white linen sheets to be 60” x 85” I was tired. I chose not to do the math on paper as I measured, but in my head. And using a 60” tape measure, I measured and marked 60” and then added 16” to make up 85” plus seam allowance. Yes, I measured 60 + 16 = 85 finished inches.

Obviously not.

Round two of thread pulling to cut the second sheet correctly.

But it was not obvious to me until I held the fabric up, ready to iron, and realized it was just a little bit longer than I am tall. Since I am not 7’ tall, something was clearly wrong. I dropped the fabric to the ironing board, messaged Drunk Tailor, and took to bed in mortification and hope of a nap.

I tell you this story not just to make you laugh, bring you a modicum of schadenfreude, or to make plain that we all screw up sometimes, but to remind you that mockups are good, and so is math on paper.

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

Starting a project without laying down some ideas on paper or making a muslin is a quick trip to madness, or at least dismay. Creative problem solving will undoubtedly result, but that’s energy you could put into planning your next project instead of salvaging your current one (as I have salvaged my sheet).

Here are some measures I’ve learned to take to prevent repeating hilarious mistakes:

  • After hemming skirt fronts that put pocket slits upside down, I now pin notes to the panels so I know which make up the left, and which the right sides of the gown skirts.
  • I have been known to mark linings extensively in pencil or chalk; I sometimes pin notes to sleeves to denote left and right, front and back, especially if I cut pieces long before I will get around to sewing them.
  • I make lists of which pattern pieces I need and must cut, and then tick them off as I go, to make sure I have all the pieces I need.
  • To make sure I’ll have enough fabric and can minimize piecing, I will do a rough layout of all the pieces before I do actually cut anything.

It is by no means an extensive list, but once you know the types of mistakes you are most likely to make, you can take measures to prevent them. You know, like measuring twice and cutting once, or doing math on paper to double check your work.

Kitty Calash Clothing Company Launch

This isn’t easy, and not because I learned Premiere Rush in a half day, or because failure is painful, but because I never like to ask for help. But I need your help to to take Kitty Calash where I want to go. To that end, I’ve launched a Kickstarter project to help me finish and publish a quilted waistcoat pattern, design more patterns, and prototype more bonnets, reticules, and accessories.

Maybe Kickstarter isn’t your thing: maybe you prefer swag. Well, there’s a Teespring store in case you feel like letting people you’re a Known Bonnet Wearer, or that All Your Fantasies are Documented, or that you, too, Will Humiliate Self for History.

I know not everyone can contribute financially, but word of mouth counts in this business– it’s how I get a lot of my work– so even if you can’t make a pledge, please share.

A Little Black Bonnet


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Practically everyone needs one, and like the Little Black Dress, the little black bonnet flatters practically everyone, too. In finishing up some inventory projects, I went back to basics and made up a black silk taffeta bonnet with trimming inspired by “The Rival Milleners.”

The Rival Milleners.

Really, it’s a look that’s hard to resist, the black bonnet with poufs and bows. I’ve always loved my black bonnets, but now I might need to trim another one up for myself– if I can only make the time. Up on Etsy if you want one for yourself (along with some other colors, too).

Living the History Life


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man in historical clothing smoking a pipe

Pre-event PR photoshoot. Photo by J. D. Kay

The recent BBC video making the rounds on social media got me thinking about how we live our lives, and what commitments we make to being our true selves, how we follow our bliss, if you will. It takes a lot of courage, willpower, and hard work to achieve one’s deepest inner dreams and although I have taken some steps towards mine, I have not let go all the way (as one does not when one is putting a child through college). 

I think about this desire to be true to one’s own internal vision, and I think about my friend Justin, who found a place and fell in love with what he saw, past and future. It’s hard work to run a farm and a business, but Justin does it beautifully, with grace and integrity. What he achieves makes me ache with want, not for the house, or the frozen cat’s water dish, or the work, but for the courage. 

Working with Justin pushed me into places where I found, if not fear, at least discomfort. As we said, It isn’t history till it hurts. The first What Cheer Day we ran, I remember standing behind the door on the second floor landing of the servants’ quarters, knowing it was show time. I looked at Justin and said, “What the hell have we done?” terrified to go out and “be” John Brown’s housekeeper. But, out we went, and it was amazing. That work inspired me to push myself harder, to try the things that scared me and made me uncomfortable. That’s where the meat is, and the truth: where things hurt.

woman and man in historical clothing looking at a book

The housekeeper was caught reading naughty novels. Photo by J. D. Kay.

As with all things I tackle, I could push myself harder, not to sew better or more authentically (that’s the easy part, really) but to live the way I want to, authentically. To decide what matters and what doesn’t, and stick to it. That’s the real lesson of these men, and why they’re inspiring. I just happen to prefer the one with mud. 

Check’d Bonnets


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Here’s a question: what about those linen bonnets? Am I making that up?

As it happens, nope.

Linen bonnets appear in ads from the 1760s to the 1780s, sometimes described as white, and sometimes as check. There’s even a white diaper bonnet! The thing to remember is that so far I haven’t found these in New England, but that’s because I’m using runaway ads, and those are far less common in New England. There’s plenty of check linen fabric in New England– but if there were bonnets, those references may be in inventories I haven’t had a chance to dig into.

Maryland Gazette, (Annapolis)June 4, 1772

Another possibility in the regionalism of linen (checked or white) is climate. A friend and fellow blogger sees the linen bonnets in coastal North Carolina, which makes sense in terms of weather. It’s warmer and even more humid on the North Carolina coast than it is on the Rhode Island coast, and I’ve found linen to be much cooler than silk. This same regionalism may apply to what we see from Philadelphia to Frederick, Maryland.

Maryland Journal, August 21, 1776. I love this one because Rosannah is as tall as I am!

As I tabulate data, trends will emerge; as it happens, I’ve already seen that half the bonnets I’ve entered are linen and half are silk. Those references are from the Mid Atlantic and coastal South, with only one from Rhode lsland (and that a “blue cloth” bonnet), so there’s lots more data entry to come. For the moment, though, it’s safe to say that a checked, white, diaper, or dimity linen bonnet is documentable from 1758 to 1780 from Philadelphia south to Wilmington, North Carolina. The fiber persists, but shapes will change.