Thursday, June 30, 2016

HSM 2016 Challenge #5: Holes

Sorry, I've pretty much given up on trying to get a good background in a photo in this apartment.
The Challenge: #5, Holes - how would a corset function without the eyelets to lace it together?

Fabric/Materials: Off-white cotton twill from my corset stash and heavy white twill tape. Originally I was going to cover it with satin, but in the end I'm glad I decided to make this a wearable mockup, as the pattern needs a little tweaking.

Pattern: Based on this corset patent applied for by Mina Sebille, with some alterations and boning arrangement based on this corset at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I've been using one of your standard ungored, shaped-pieces corsets for a few years, and while it's been working well, it doesn't have enough hip spring to give me waist reduction. I figured a corset that had a separate hip piece would help me get the flare I needed. Which it does, to some extent! At least, I'm not getting much more reduction, but I am also not getting that lower back pain from the corset being too tight.

Year: The patent is dated 1863! Very specific.

Notions: A busk, of course, two-piece metal eyelets, and German plastic whalebone. And a corset lace.

How historically accurate is it? Quite. The boning is the least accurate thing about it, as it's plastic - but when in the channels, it does give a feel quite like actual baleen (and you can cut it down when you accidentally sew the channels too thin, which is excellent). I'm not quite sure about the fit - I worry I'm getting too much outward projection and uplift at the bust, but then, as long as I'm not getting that horizontal crease out from the armpit it probably does fit well enough there. I'll just have to remember to pad any bodices I make to wear with this to smooth out that area.

First to be worn: Civil War Weekend, July 30-31

Total cost: Unknown at this point, I've had some of these parts around for a long time.

It's interesting to wear a corset without side boning, and it definitely makes me see how the engineering is really about the cut of the fabric rather than the strength of the boning.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Liebster Blog Award!

I was nominated for the Liebster Blog Award back in January by Nessa of Sewing Empire, but I completely forgot about it! However, I've found it again just in time for CoBloWriMo, or Costume Blog Writing Month, which I'm attempting to participate in to at least some degree.

The rules, as you may know, are to answer the interview questions set to you, list eleven bloggers with fewer than 200 followers* to receive the award (and notify them of their nomination), and come up with eleven questions for them to answer. It's interesting, though, how memes change - when I went back in my blog to get the URL from when I uploaded the graphic years ago, I found that the interview aspect wasn't a part of it then, apparently.

* I'm treating this as a guideline, because hardly anybody seems to have follower counts anymore

Nessa's questions:

What is your favourite fabric color / pattern you enjoy working with the most?

Blue. It's my favorite color and I gravitate toward it for my regular clothing (right now I'm wearing a blue t-shirt and blue sweater, not as part of a coordinated outfit but simply because of the laws of probability), so I also tend to gravitate to it for historical sewing. Blue linen is a good bet for many eras, and if you make most of your things in the blue family they all go together, see?

What is your most favorite place / space (be it a room, building, holiday destination etc.)?

Edinburgh might be my favorite city. I did my junior spring semester there in undergrad, and it really clicked with me - the city center is very historical and very walkable, the climate is temperate, and it's humid all the time which makes my hair curly. When the air is cool and damp, the sky is overcast and low, and it feels like it's absolutely capable of raining and yet it doesn't, I call it an "Edinburgh day" and get sort of homesick for it.

Do you have a favorite TV show or movie? If yes, which?

I don't know if I have a favorite ... I really love Scandal and Game of Thrones, though. Maya & Marty has only just started, but it's wonderful.

Is there something you like to collect (fabric, ribbons, buttons, cups etc.)?

As a legitimate collection, no - I don't have the space. But there are a handful of things that I unintentionally collect:
  • antique clothing: I've mostly bought these pieces because they happened to stroll by at a very reasonable price, or I was given them. Natalie Ferguson very generously gave me her collection not long ago, and I hope to write about some of the wonderful pieces in it this month as well.
  • academic texts on the eighteenth century/colonial period/early Industrial Revolution.
  • small potted plants that can survive in my north-facing windows.
If you could travel to one of your sewing era(s), which one would you like to visit most? Is there a specific date/place you would go?

I would really like to visit the 1890s/1900s. As you know, I have a kind of nostalgia/anemoia/mono no aware feeling that currently is focusing on the turn of the century. When you read period texts, it's clear that they felt a lot like us about their world: that it was fast-paced and modern, with social customs changing and technology adding both opportunity and complexity.

(George M! uses actual turn-of-the-century George M. Cohan songs.)

At the same time, I have a fascination with the late Middle Ages/early Tudor period that I can't really explain. I'd like to visit a totally pre-industrial time as well.

What is your favorite novel / author?

My go-to comfort reads are the Pagan Chronicles, by Catherine Jinks. They follow Pagan Kidrouk, a Christian Arab in the 12th-13th century, as he becomes a squire to make some quick money, then follows his knight back to France and then into a monastery (and then one last book is centered on his daughter). I'm sure their historical accuracy is iffy - from what I've read elsewhere, the idea of a united, widespread Cathar heresy is now generally considered by historians to have been exaggerated/fabricated for political purposes - but they're tremendously entertaining stories with a well-drawn protagonist.

Do you have a favorite museum you would like to visit or go to visit time and again?

I would really like to visit the Victoria & Albert Museum. I've been to London twice in my life and never knew it was there!

Which is the absolute dream fabric or notion you would really like to work with, cost notwithstanding?

I would really love to have a bolt of good silk satin in a period-accurate weight/hand to make a replica of a particular pink satin gown and petticoat held by the New York State Historical Association. And I guess I would need another length of contrasting satin to make the trim.

Is there a new sewing or crafting skill you would like to learn this year?

It's unlikely to happen, but I would really like to improve my bobbin lace skills. I understand how it's done, but I haven't done it anywhere near enough to be able to make lace that could be used in sewing. A couple of years ago I bought an antique roller pillow at an auction in order to get better and be able to make lengths of lace, but it hasn't happened yet.

Which sewing / dressmaking task do you enjoy / eschew the most?

My least favorite sewing job is setting in zippers. It's never really that bad, but I hate doing it and always put it off for days. I might enjoy hemming the most? Because once you take out the last pin and tie off your thread, you can shake out the dress and put it on!

Where is your favorite place to sew or craft?

Although I prefer hand-sewing, I love to work at my machine.

My nominees: (If you've done it before, you can always do it again! What is this but a chance to interview each other?)

- Rowenna of Hyaline Prosaic
- L. R. Stern of Plaid Petticoats
- Bianca of Closet Historian
- Gina of Beauty from Ashes
- Amanda of A Dedicated Follower of Fashion
- Emily of Emily's Vintage Visions
- Avante Garbe
- Nora of A Baronet's Daughter Designs
- Kitty Calash
- The Pragmatic Costumer
- Gabriela of Pour la Victoire

My questions:

- What is the history mystery (including but not limited to historical fashion) that you would most like to solve?
- What is the period or area of historical dress that you first began to concentrate on?
- Do you belong to a costuming or reenacting group?
- What is an area that you fancy studying or sewing that you do not currently do?
- Is there a particular technique that you'd like to learn, but haven't had the time or a project to do it in?
- What would you make if time and budget (and event) were of no concern?
- Is there a particular museum exhibition you'd like to go back in time or travel across the world to see?
- What's your favorite reference book or fashion history text?
- If you could design your perfect historical reenactment event, what would it be like and where?
- What motivates you in your historical recreation and/or public education?
- Do you like reading historical and/or classic fiction? (For the latter, I include any old books, whether or not they're critically esteemed.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Swirl Housedress, 1950s

The housedress as we know it - a very informal garment to wear at home while lounging or working, loosely-fitted and easy to wash - seems to date to the early twentieth century. Previously, the term could be used to refer to more elaborate and structured clothing, essentially what I'd label "day dress", made of less expensive fabric for the morning and more expensive fabric for the afternoon; around 1910 a shift in usage occurred where people started to label much less formal wrappers, kimonos, and tea gowns as house dresses - although it most commonly seems to have been applied to plain wash dresses (ie, dresses that could be fully laundered). Basically, the nineteenth century housedress was something you were considered "dressed" in, and the twentieth century housedress was coming to be something that was more suitable for doing the morning housework, or just sitting around in.
From the Dry Goods Reporter, July 1915
I forget how I first found out about Swirl dresses, but I realized fairly quickly that that was exactly what I needed for throwing on after work in the summer. (This was last year. I'm a slow mover.) The clothing company L. Nachman & Son went into business in the early 20th century, and started making the "Neat'n'Tidy" pinafore apron before 1940; in 1944 they created the "Swirl" wraparound apron, which soon developed into a dress, somewhere between a housedress and an ordinary day dress in formality. You can see a number of extant Swirl dresses and advertisements from the 1940s through 1960s at FuzzieLizzie Vintage Clothing and The Vintage Traveler.

As I'm not really a fan of wearing actual vintage or antique clothing, and the point is pretty moot as my dimensions are just large enough to make finding vintage clothes in my size difficult anyway, I decided to buy a Swirl dress, pattern it, and make one of my own. (I then went out and bought a very similar wrap dress pattern in the Simplicity sale at JoAnn on Memorial Day weekend. You know, so I have it.) As the tag says "Swirl / Sanforized" it should date to the early 1950s, according to the sites linked above.

scale is 1 box = 1", as usual
(Note that the front bodice piece is the only one drawn on the cross-grain here

The construction is fairly simple. The neckline is cut to the dashed lines and folded down on the solid line to create the facing; the darts are made in the bodice pieces, and the pieces and facings are sewn together at the front and sides, leaving a small gap at the bottom of the left side seam where shown. The skirt pieces are also sewn together, also leaving a small gap on the left side, and with the pocket on the right.

The skirt is gathered where shown in four rows of ruching, then sewn to the bodice. The waistline seam allowance is pressed up toward the bodice and the seam allowances at the gap on the left side are folded back, and the bodice and seam allowances are top-stitched. (Then the folded-back edges of the side slit are top-stitched down.) The back facings are added to the backs and the front facing is folded in; the shoulders are put together right side to right side and the back facings are folded around the fronts, so when you sew the seam and turn it right side out, it envelops the seam allowances. The armscye facings are sewn into circles and then sewn to the dress. There's a self-fabric rouleau, knotted at each end, sewn in the middle to the underside of the shoulder; this ties on top of the shoulder, gathering it in.

The hem at the bottom is just turned twice and sewn with a regular straight stitch. The ties are made as tubes to the dimensions described, then turned inside out. They're sewn to the back edges below the mark: placed first along the waist seam so the raw edge is pointing out, sewn, then folded back over that seam and sewn down again. The tie on the right will come through the gap in the left side - the left side of the back is on top, and the dress ties in front. The button is on the right back and the buttonhole on the left, where shown.

For my version, I used a length of quilting cotton that I'd bought for curtains last year. I did make a token effort at pattern matching, but as you can see ... once again, total chaos. The pattern had to be sized up, as the original was for a 36" bust and 27" waist; later I took the shoulders up by about an inch. I forgot to add the neckline facing to the pattern and had to cut one out and apply it; I also did away with the armscye facings altogether and just hemmed them. Didn't bother with the shoulder ties, either, and as my sewing machine doesn't handle the changes in tension you need for gathering very well, I just did hand-gathering on the skirt, with no visible ruching. Right now there's no button, as I want to go to the store and get one that matches the stereotypical Swirl spiral style, and I have to say that the button is definitely necessary to the engineering of the dress - it tends to slide off your shoulders if you don't have it.

I'm really enjoying it so far! It's not terribly flattering on me (in part because I graded it up a bit too much), but it's very comfortable.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Vintage Lingerie (2011) by Jill Salen

As I've gotten into vintage sewing alongside my regular historical work, I decided to buy Jill Salen's book on vintage lingerie - Corsets is very good, so I was fairly sure Vintage Lingerie would be as well.

And it is! This book is an excellent resource for both vintage enthusiasts and fashion historians/collections managers who have anything to do with 20th century dress. Where Corsets overlapped with Waugh's Corsets & Crinolines (just as Patterns of Fashion and Cut of Women's Clothes overlap), Vintage Lingerie really stands alone - no other books that I'm aware of give patterns for so many pieces of lingerie, especially going so far into the 20th century.

The value of the book is in the patterns. The text itself has a tendency to editorialize about corsetry - which, as you're probably aware, is one of my big pet peeves - eg, "inconvenient, unsightly, even tormenting control," "finally achieved freedom from restrictive garments," "at a time when waist suppression was still extreme," etc. but the text is not at all the point, so it's easy to overlook. While I would have liked more detail in the descriptions, there is nothing at all lacking in the patterns themselves, which I have to admit put mine to shame. Salen even draws the garter clips!

The book includes:

Pantaloons, 1850 (I would say "Drawers, ca. 1885")
"Khiva" nursing brassiere, 1890
Corset cover, 1897-1905
Combinations, 1900
Tango knickers, 1920s
Lace and chiffon brassiere and knickers, 1920s
Patent brassiere, 1920s
Bandeau brassiere, 1920-1930
Strapless brassiere, 1930-1937
Blue silk slip, 1930s
Girdle, 1932
Maternity girdle, 1940s
Linen knickers, 1940s
Satin suspender knickers, 1969
White satin girdle, 1930s
Tea-rose suspender belt, 1940s
Satin bra, 1937, and utility brassiere, 1940s
Strapless brassiere, 1940s
Strapless brassiere and waist cincher, 1950s
Beige silk slip, 1930-1950
Dior-style brassiere, 1950s
Spirella fitting corset, 1960s
Lady Marlene long-line brassiere, 1970s
Gossard long-line brassiere, 1970s
Black brassiere, 1930s
Waist slip (petticoat), 1905

The dates are sketchier than I'd like - I'm not a fan of decade-dating, because it's rare that something appears to be appropriate from one end of a decade all the way to the other - but again, they're not really the point. What makes the book such a phenomenal resource is that you have the construction of the garment laid out in front of you, and you can do with that what you will. The historian can compare fully-finished clothing in a collection to the deconstructed patterns; the vintage enthusiast can, with patience and skill, enlarge the patterns to wearable size and make period-accurate underclothes.

Some may find it odd that Salen patterned atypical undergarments like the Spirella fitting corset and linen drawers alongside pieces that are completely stereotypical for their era. (I say "may" - in a few reviews it's clear that some people don't understand their inclusion at all.) To my mind, however, variety is really what makes a pattern book useful to a broader audience than just "the average home seamstress". While someone who just wants a few pairs of lacy knickers has no use for the Spirella corset, someone who intends to make multiple corsets for different women might appreciate it as guidance for making her own fitting garment in her business. (And the collections manager who comes across something like that in their collection would have a clue as to what it was!)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Disturbing Tale

I was searching for information in old newspapers to document the layout and tone of Canton's Miner Street when I came across this story:

From the Potsdam Commercial Advertiser, April 24, 1895
In case you can't read the scanned text, I'll excerpt the important bits.
Parents Should Do as Tom Did, and Nip Wantonness in the Bud. 
Tom Helmer, of Stovepipe avenue, does not believe in sparing the rod and spoiling the child: only, he uses his hand instead of a rod. 
On a recent evening his thirteen-year-old daughter Mabel asked permission to go to a show at the Town Hall, saying that she would accompany her aunt. To this the father assented. Along in the evening, however, he found the child on the street accompanied by the notorious Net Cameron. He ordered his girl to go home, and it appears slapped her quite soundly when she failed to comply with his commands. 
This little scene took place on Miner street and was witnessed by Mrs. Charles Bliss. She repaired to the office of Squire C. Y, Fullington and swore out a warrant against Helmer for assault in the third degree. [...] The case was ably prosecuted, but the jury evidently felt that it was better a young girl should suffer severe punishment than to come up on the streets in the company of such persons as the Cameron woman. They found Helmer not guilty.

(The Town Hall in Canton, at the corner of Main and Miner Streets, was also the post office and opera house. Fourth photo on the top row.)

The story illustrates some troubling realities of life - a young teenager possibly being tempted into prostitution, parental outrage and abuse, a legal system that condones hitting your daughter in the street - but it contains some mysteries as well, so I decided to look deeper.

Stovepipe Avenue

"Stovepipe Avenue" doesn't exist on any modern maps, although there are a lot of references to it in contemporary newspapers. These references are all negative - even when it's just given as someone's address, that someone was usually involved in public drunkenness or shooting at the rent collector.

My first thought was that it had been renamed something nicer since then, but then I noticed that other towns also had a Stovepipe Avenue mentioned in the papers, the name sometimes appears in quotation marks, and the surnames associated with Stovepipe Avenue in the 1890s and 1900s can be found on the census on a few streets clustered together at the south end of the village, by the railroad tracks. And suddenly I remembered Emily of New Moon - Perry Miller, the local boy who made good, came from "Stovepipe Town", the poorest neighborhood. It's very probable that Stovepipe Avenue was Canton's shantytown, located around Buck and Dies Streets, next to the railroad bridge over the river and literally on the wrong side of the tracks.

(In the 1900 census, Mabel Helmer was listed as still living at home with her parents on Dies St., working as a servant in the hotel. She married William H. Green of Oswegatchie in 1905.)

Disorderly Women

Prostitution was in no way a problem confined to cities - charges brought against "disorderly women" were reported in St. Lawrence County newspapers over and over.

A similar story played out with the Graham family, also of Stovepipe Avenue. In 1894, Gilbert "Weary Gib" Graham was sentenced to jail for public drunkenness, and while he was confined there his wife ran away to Syracuse with George Cameron, probably a relative of Net's. They brought young Rosa Graham with them, but she came back sometime later on her own and started "running around the streets with one of the notorious Cameron sisters" until she was arrested for being a "disorderly character". A year later, her father entered a complaint against her and had her arrested for the same reason. The charge was dropped when she married Charlie Cameron a couple of days later, who was probably related to George and Net. That's a little hair-raising itself, implying that her father didn't care about her being a prostitute as long as she was a married one. (On the same page as the second part of the story, Gib was also mentioned in connection with a street brawl. From later papers we know he lived in the county almshouse for a time and eventually drowned in the river. Here's his gravestone.)

Nettie Cameron's base of operations was apparently a lodging house on Water Street (now Riverside) run by William Henry Daniels, opposite a legitimate and reputable hotel - interestingly, he seems to have been or become a prominent member of society, as a member of the state Dairymen's Association, president of the county fair, and a player in local politics. Two other girls working there were Gertie Ward and Minnie Bush.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

HSM 2016 Challenge #4: Gender Bender

The Challenge: #4, Gender Bender. I know what you're thinking, but if we go back a few decades drawers were really controversial for women - they simply didn't wear bifurcated garments. So even though I'm not aware of the attitude that drawers were inherently gender-bending still existing in the middle of the nineteenth century, I'm counting it because I really need drawers for my presentation.

Fabric/Materials: White Pimatex cotton from Dharma Trading Co. at $6.79/yd. I'm not sure of exactly how many yards I ended up using - after making my chemise, there was only enough left for one leg, so I bought two more yards and didn't use all of that. I think it's probably about two yards in total?

Pattern: From the drafting instructions by Liz Clark on the Sewing Academy Compendium. I was going to get out a pair in the collection and pattern them and base mine off that, but then I realized that that made no sense. The instructions are very clear and simple and I recommend them.

Year: These could work for a good portion of the century, stylistically, from the 1840s (at least? I don't know much about 1820s-1830s drawers) through the 1880s and into the beginning of the 1890s, until sheerer cottons and lace and ribbons started to become a big part of lingerie. Although there are certain decorative trends you see changing through the years - cutwork in the 1850s, handmachine whitework in the 1870s, etc. - they can basically work for a broad swath of time.

Notions: They will have a button at the center front, but I really need to move on and get cracking on the corset for the current challenge.

How historically accurate is it? As usual, I'm aiming for high accuracy! The end result looks exactly like extant drawers I've handled in museum collections, although my tucks are maybe a little bigger. Next time I do any tucked underthings, I'm going to aim for 3/8" instead of 1/2", and I should have done the gathers by hand instead of by machine (both for accuracy and, because I have a Tension Problem, the fabric was really hard to gather after doing the two lines of stitching). But if I didn't have confidence that this long-legged diaper was historically accurate, would I show you how completely unflattering it is?

Hours to complete: I should just stop keeping this line in my posts, because I will never remember to keep track of my time. I think I worked on it on about five non-consecutive days.

First worn: July 30-31, 2016 - Civil War Weekend

Total cost: Roughly $13.58.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Nostalgia for the Ordinary

This past month, my director was out on medical leave and I was technically acting director, if only in my mind. (To people walking through the door, I was still "probably the receptionist".) This led to my having to write down notes to remember to ask the director about when she came back, and the writing led to more ideas. Like ideas for exhibitions!

Last month we also had a children's program on one-room schools, with a guest speaker who actually put the kids through their paces in writing and arithmetic. It was so popular! Making the past personal helps everyone connect to it. So what about an exhibition looking into the inhabitants of an ordinary street in a St. Lawrence County village?

In order to tie this to Remington for the Remington Arts Festival, the street I chose in 1900 housed both a paternal uncle's family and a maternal uncle's family. The census doesn't list street numbers, though! So I've been on a quest to both research about ten households on Miner St. and to figure out how these families were configured geographically. Using a spreadsheet, all the censuses available from 1880 to 1930, deed grantor/grantee indexes, and some fire insurance maps from 1898 and 1905, I have a pretty good idea. At least roughly.

Miner Street in 1864
What this has really brought home to me - as so many things do, working in a museum - is how many ordinary things have been lost to history. "Daily life" in a general way gets a lot of press, but specific aspects of daily life aren't usually of broad interest. I don't just want to know how people shopped in the late 19th century, I want to know where people in Canton bought groceries in 1890, and who worked the counter. I want to know how the Ellsworth shoe store was laid out. I want to know what it was like to walk along that particular main street between the American House and Hodskin House, the two hotels in town (now the site of the American Theater and the post office, and an H&R Block and a Family Dollar, respectively). And I can't! I mean, I could find out where Cantonites bought groceries, but it's impossible to understand what it was like to experience life in the past. You can do an immersion reenactment with no spectators at a contained site, but even if you could fill a larger site with progressive reenactors and close it off for a week, you'd still be a modern person, without the mindset, prejudices, and background knowledge that a person of the past would have had.

(A good example of this kind of lost background knowledge - lost to Americans, anyway - is highlighted in C.S. Lewis’ Greatest Fiction: Convincing American Kids That They Would Like Turkish Delight. There's also the pop culture references in the original lyrics of songs like "Anything Goes," and so much about the Galerie des Modes plates.)

Most people disparage nostalgia for a time that you don't actually remember. They say it can only come from romanticizing away the boring or dirty parts of the past and imagining yourself as a rich person. Midnight in Paris says that people have always had this nostalgia, even when they lived in the time you feel it for, so what's the point? And to be fair, the word "nostalgia" does imply a rosy view, as it's meant to be applied to the things you miss from home - anemoia is a neologism created to express never-been-there nostalgia - so maybe I shouldn't use it for this, but I think a lot of people would apply it to the feeling I'm struggling to describe that I had when I finally put together a workable map of Miner Street and short biographies of the families who lived on it.

Miner Street in 1900 ... probably
The people who lived on the east side of the street generally owned their homes, and lived there for decades - the Sackriders, the Champlins, the Gaineses. Their occupations and ancestors were fairly well documented by their obituaries, even if their personalities tended to be described only in clichés. (Men were upstanding, responsible citizens; women were good neighbors and gracious hostesses.) People on the west side along the river rented, and almost all were transient. They did blue collar work, and their death notices were short or non-existent. Ada Merriman rented no. 27 for a short period of time around 1900 while her daughter Lelia taught school and her son Leslie attended St. Lawrence University, but before and after that she drops from the record. She wasn't a local - she apparently came from and went back to Pennsylvania. She wasn't from one of the earliest families to settle Canton, and she didn't sit on the board of the bank. By many standards, she - and Nelson Brown the boatmaker, and Celestia Squires the servant, and Clara Bragdon the dressmaker - was not important.

But like the Doctor, I've never met anyone who wasn't important before. So I hope that with this exhibition I can bring all of these people back to life in a small way.