Thursday, September 6, 2012

Historic sewing

Every once in a great while in my life I have a big 'hmmmm'  moment.

You know... the kind where you pause and reflect and wonder.

This is one.

Recently, I have become gainfully engaged at an historic site where periodically, we need to wear historically accurate garments.  The date of the time period at this beautiful site is 1765.

Back country South Carolina at the beginning of it's recorded history...

Colonial land grants from the British crown to settlers who were willing to pack their lives into a wagon and head into the unknown with only their families and the possessions which seemed prudent to carry.  Finding their way along a wagon road south, living in the 'rough' until they reached their new home.  When I think of the courage that this would require, I can hardly breathe.  To places unknown, to settle a wilderness... to meet wild animals and native Americans and carve out a home with little more than your family and your hands and the knowledge that you had... it simply blows my mind. 

Back to historical sewing.

First, there is research.... lots and lots of research. 
Time and place, station in life, age and tasks all play into what you make.
It really was  a simpler time.  No stores of any kind, months to wait for anything you ordered and then traversed the whole of the state to get to Charleston to take possession.  Very little in the way of choices... wool or linen.  Textiles made of wool and linen were both produced in South Carolina and just the simple textile skills that I possess and much time and patience would produce fabric yardage to make into clothing and household textiles.

Simply protecting your body from the elements and modesty as was required by social mores at the time meant that you needed upwards of 10 yards of fabric for garments for a single outfit for an average size person.
I began closest to skin.  The basic undergarment for women was called a shift.  Widely documented, the shift of the period covered you from elbows to neck and almost to the ankle.  Made of linen, it stood in as your nightgown and  your underwear day and night.  After a good bit of research, I chose Kanniks Korners Last Half of the 18th century shift pattern, a mid weight white linen and commenced.

Now, in my sewing room sits several amazingly wonderful modern machines, and more antiques than I care to explain.  And none of these machines were available at the time period that I need to portray, hence I needed to polish up my hand sewing skills.

At first, it took me back to the earliest days of my taking needle in hand...  Summer afternoons spent making doll clothes from scraps and tentative stabs at creating patterns until my great aunts took pity (or possibly realized budding seamstress potential) and began to take my sewing education in hand. Somewhere in there, someone produced a 1940's commercial upholstery machine.  It smoked... it really, really sent up streams of smoke from it's motor and sparked and rocked wildly back and forth sideways while I, in my childish excitement, put pedal to the floor with a vengeance.  Yeah...

Then,  as work began on this most recent project, I began to realize that I looked forward to the quiet hours with needle and thread and sumptuous linen.  Simple lines might make the job easier but period technique and width of fabric meant extended, careful tiny stitches.  Felling seams, in order to prevent the linen from fraying and to make the shift withstand the test of hand washing and wear time, added more hours of fine tuned stitching.

Often this stitching took place in the confines of the historical structure, while waiting for tours to start.  The day that I finished the shift, I was sitting in an historic building build about 1822.  The final stitches meant that I need to move on to another part of the 'kit but just reveling in the beauty of a garment, made entirely by hand, was pretty nice.  Turned inside out the garment is as beautiful as it is right side out.  I love the technique and the end  result.

Then.... oh, my goodness... I put it on.

And I slept in it.

Deep and peaceful slumber.  When I wakened, the luxury of the linen, the impeccably perfect fit, the comfort of the simple, simple garment.
In the past world, fraught with hardship and danger, to have form and function collide in the form of the undermost layer of clothing had to have made the day ever so slightly easier.
I will confess to eccentrically wearing it quite a lot.  I look forward to shedding my modern confinements and pulling it over my head, simple comfort after a long day.  I also confess to spending a day off in it... doing barnyard chores and traipsing happily about tending flowers and animals in it, in all it's glory... historic underwear on the lam...

I accessorize this garment, when no one is watching, with my flip flops...
tres chic... I expect to start a trend any day now.

Work progresses, apron and bonnets and petticoats and jackets... the very challenging set of stays.  I look forward to making a second shift... I suspect it may be my 'go to' comfort wear at home now,when noone is looking.  The weird, weird connected feeling that one gets while making an historically accurate garment, in an historically accurate place, for the purpose of education and then discovering how wonderful it feels to sew every small stitch yourself.

If it's been a while since you applied needle and thread to fabric, let me recommend it.

Ironically, I am writing this sitting on the circa 1765 porch, watching a tufted titmouse  and blue birds and humming birds flit about the grounds.  Sharing the story here with travelers and people out for the day is a very nice job.  With the sounds of major highways in the distance to remind me that it is, indeed the 21st century, I can think of far worse things to do on a Friday morning. 

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