Historic Costume, I think I can

Although I worked at sewing and patternmaking as a college student,  it would be a stretch to consider myself a pro just yet. The majority of my schooling was directed towards the industrial facet of fashion. Learning business and merchandising. They wanted us to get paying jobs after all. With mass produced, cheap clothing being the standard for the majority of Americans, becoming a custom tailor was a bad idea.

I went into retail management after college in order to pay back my student loans and purchase a home but continued to research traditional textiles and collect the tools.

My spinning wheel collection, Kromki Sonata and Symphony, Jensen Tina II, and Ashford Traveller (not pictured)

My spinning wheel collection, Kromki Sonata and Symphony, Jensen Tina II, and Ashford Traveller (not pictured)

While practicing double weave technique I was inspired to weave in the word "Freedom" as I was determined to free myself from debt at that time.

While practicing double weave technique I was inspired to weave in the word “Freedom” as I was determined to free myself from debt at that time.

My sewing tools were packed away as I got more into spinning and knitting. With this new reenacting outlet I was compelled to try sewing again.

Suddenly I had a deadline to work toward. I was invited to an 18th century reenactor Christmas party the first week in December. I had one week to create a handmade costume. Although my friend would lend me her clothes again, I was determined to make my own clothes for the event. To me it would be a symbol of my commitment to portraying my ancestors as a reenactor.

I purchased Beth Gilgun’s Tidings from the 18th Century for patterns and read the chapters on how to make working woman’s clothing on Monday. I dug out wool fabric that I had purchased at back in college during a department fundraiser and some unbleached muslin. I would make a petticoat (skirt) from the gray twill wool, another petticoat from the muslin, an apron from tea dyed muslin, and a bed jacket from the 1989 cranberry wool I had.

I drafted a simple bed jacket pattern

I drafted a simple bed jacket pattern

On Tuesday I drafted the pattern for the bed jacket and cut out the pieces. The entire outfit would be a series a rectangles to cut out.  I also trimmed the lengths of fabric for the petticoats and pressed the seam allowances for the drawstring casings and hems.

Wednesday I started sewing soon realizing the time investment it took to hand stitch clothing. Even though my stitching was rather crude compared to the craftsmanship of the past, I was still going to need a miracle to finish in time for Saturday.

Although my stitches were crude at best it was still a time consuming process

Although my stitches were crude at best it was still a time consuming process

My costume:

  • Stockings-mass produced cotton knee socks (until I can finish up a handspun pair)
  • Chemise (gown)-Sleeved shift worn as an under garment. My friend helped me make one out of natural colored muslin I had
  • Stays (corset)- none. This one will require a little more studying to create.
  • Bed Jacket-Simple jacket that I would wear over my chemise.
  • Petticoats-I was hoping to have two completed. One of muslin and one of wool.
  • Apron- fabric tied around the waste to protect my petticoat.
  • Fichu- Shawl to cover the chest. I will use an old one for now. Working on a new wool one in a natural grey color.
  • Hair covering-the (hair) do-rag, still a staple item for the working woman ( I am wearing one as I type this post). I decided to wear my hair pinned up for the special occasion.

I kept at it in between a dinner party, surprise house guests, landlord/tenant court, and a brunch fundraiser. By the time the clock ran out I had my chemise, the bed jacket, the wool petticoat and apron complete.

My first 18th century costume. Wool petticoat and bed jacket  with muslin apron and chemise.

My first 18th century costume. Wool petticoat and bed jacket with muslin apron and chemise.

Back of my first 18th century outfit

Back of my first 18th century outfit

Off I went to one of the best Christmas party I have ever attended. Everyone was all dressed up in period clothing. The location was a charming log cabin with a high vaulted ceiling and loft decorated with period furnishings. A tall freshly cut Christmas tree  set across from a wood burning stove. We ate our made-from-scratch meal by candlelight from pewter dishes.

Aside from the great company. I thoroughly enjoyed the handmade gift exchange. I brought inkle weavings that I made from handspun to share. I received an awesome gift. A handmade box with a sliding cover filled will period sewing treasures.

Inkle band woven from handspun

Inkle band woven from handspun

Inside the box was a piece of leather,  wool felt, snips, shawl pins, mini lantern, a pewter spoon, and a cow horn spoon.

I received a hand crafted box filled with 18th century treasures from the gift exchange

I received a hand crafted box filled with 18th century treasures from the gift exchange

Just when I thought it could not get any better. It did. A new friend I met is planning to relocate and was looking to pass on some of her stash. She gave me a like-new pair of stays!!  and sewing patterns.

stays

My like-new stays received at the Christmas party shown over my chemise

 I plan to make another, hopefully nicer outfit from the new patterns I received at the Christmas party.

I plan to make another, hopefully nicer outfit from the new patterns  received at the Christmas party.

I have just about finished spinning natural colored rambouillet yarn for a new fichu.

I have just about finished spinning natural colored rambouillet yarn for a new fichu.

My new goal is to create an even nicer outfit. I will do a jacket from one of the patterns. I hope to have two new fichus completed also. One from my handspun flax and another from natural grey wool.

Living History for School

I was invited to do a spinning demonstration at a Burch Farms with my new reenactor friends for the local homeschool association . What a delightful group. I showed them samples of wool, cotton, and flax fiber as well as yarn and finished textiles. They really enjoyed my demonstration of spindle and wheel spinning.

I dressed up in 18th century costume and did a spinning demonstration for local homeschoolers

I dressed up in 18th century costume and did a spinning demonstration for local homeschoolers

The enthusiasm shown by the children for traditional textiles was impressive. As long as the children are interested and want to learn the craft our traditions will live on.

Some of the children, both girls and boys wanted to try out the spinning wheel. I was excited to see them pick up spinning so quickly! Those that spun on the wheel were able to take home their own homespun. They were so proud of what they had made with their own hands. I would venture to say, way more rewarding than buying a China made toy from a retail store. The things we make ourselves have a soul.

I look forward to continuing to share this craft.

Stepping Back in Time

What better way to preserve the memory of our ancestors than to bring them back to life? Living history allows us to explore the world of the past through carrying out daily activities as people did before our time.

As a college student I would look through the pattern catalogs at the fabric store and marvel at the historic costume section. In one of my favorite courses in college, History of Costume, we studied the different articles of clothing that were worn throughout history. Up until very recently I had never seen an outfit made in a style before the 20th century in person. Nonetheless my fascination persisted.

My textbook on Historic fashion is in pieces held together by an inkle band

My textbook on Historic fashion is in pieces held together by an inkle band

I recently met a now dear friend who creates clothing from the 18th century using historically accurate techniques and materials. She loaned me some handmade, period clothing to wear to a reenactment called 5 Medals in New Paris, IN. The event recreates a village of a Native American chief 5 Medals who managed negotiations between the Potawatomi and the U.S government in the 1760s through 1813. Although the village was eventually destroyed by the government, it lives on through the annual reenactment in October.

I ended up packing one of my spinning wheels along with some fiber, dressing up and going on my own to meet  more friends at the event. I had such a great time talking to people about the clothing and demonstrating how to spin flax and wool. People were so eager to learn about what I was doing. Meeting all of the reenactors, and listening to there interpretations of history was a lot of fun and inspired me to learn more.

Wearing historic costume for the first time

Wearing historic costume for the first time

Castle Spinning Wheel with Flax

Castle Spinning Wheel with Flax

Having lost my grandparents recently I could not help but reflect upon how I got to be a third generation college graduate living a relatively comfortable middleclass lifestyle. There were no other African American reenactors at the event. I was told there are very few if any in our area that portray pre-civil war characters. I understand why, who wants to be a slave, right? Although the political status of African Americans was terrible we cannot  allow it to overshadow the undisputable truth that we were an incredibly talented population of people who played a crucial role in developing America. In short, there is a difference between being a slave and being an enslaved person. The creator does not make slaves. Slaves are the invention of greedy politicians.  I feel I can contribute to educating the public on my ancestors by portraying a “person” that people can engage with.

I decided to take a trip to historic Williamsburg, Virginia to experience more living history and learn more about America. It was a transformational experience.

I pulled off the winding mountain road through West Virginia overlooking Germany Valley

I pulled off the winding mountain road through West Virginia overlooking Germany Valley

One of most memorable moments was witnessing the recitation of the Declaration of Independence. There were two African American characters standing at there gate. The female’s reaction was hope that the words would soon apply to her and the male character was her reality check that this document had nothing to do with them. Of course we all know how it turned out.

Two African American Reenactors  observing the recitation of the Declaration of Independence at colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

Two African American Reenactors observing the recitation of the Declaration of Independence at colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

After my trip to Williamsburg I was determined to recreate my own costume so that I could portray similar characters.

More Rag Rugs Please

Last year I purchased a rag rug to use in my kitchen. I spent about $40 dollars on a colorful 5ftX4ft rug I’m guessing made in India with all the bright polyester fabrics. I love it. Now make it? Dream on sister. My fabric scraps aren’t nearly so colorful and I’m not about to go buy fabric to make a rag rug. So I put that idea away.

A few months ago in October I went to a heritage festival in New Carlisle and found a woman crocheting rag rugs. They were gorgeous. She showed me how to tear long strips from lengths of fabric. Old sheets give the best yield. Just snip and tear and the strips become the yarn.

Later that month I asked my sister if she had some old sheets she wanted to get rid of. Lucky me, she had a huge Spacebag full of old faded comforters in her basement ready to give me.

I started tearing the strips. It must have looked fun because mom started in on tearing strips too. By the end of the day we had a basketful of yarn.

Mom tearing sheets for rag rugs

Mom tearing sheets for rag rugs

I crochet a rug as I saw at the festival. I liked it okay but the crocheting was hard on the fingers. So I put the project away for a spell.

First Crocheted rag rug

First Crocheted rag rug

Fast forward to November, I took a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. In one of the gift shops I saw braided rag rugs. The strips were first braided then, zigzag stitched by machine into a finished rug. I liked them but the machine stitching turned me off.
I could do the braids then whipstitch the rug together with thread by hand and get a similar look but couldn’t it be done faster?

So the resulting experiment was a rug made by braiding the strips then using the same strips to whipstitch them together. Eureka! A nice, durable rag rug that is fast and simple to make. I have one in front of the kitchen sink and one at the patio entrance for now. We’ll see how long they hold up. So far so good.
I think I will use this technique again.

Fabric braid

Fabric braid

First whip stitched rag rug

First whip stitched rag rug