Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review: The Dressmaker's Guide by Elizabeth Stewart Clark

A good seven/eight years after I started reading at her website, I finally got a copy of Mrs. Clark's "The Dressmaker's Guide".  I hadn't done so at first, as I was 1) at college, with little spending money, and thus 2) on hiatus from the hobby.  By time I got back into the swing of things, I felt confident on the basics, and didn't think I'd have much to learn from this particular source.

This turned out to be--very much--not true.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, detailing how to drape or draft and then make up each of the layers* which goes into women's wardrobes c. 1840-65.  The first three chapters cover preparation for sewing and context for one's living history: a year-by-year timeline of events, approaches to progressive reenactment and documentation of research, a timeline of dress styles, and a 50-page tutorial of stitches and fabric terms.  Chapters 4-11 go through each garment or element, discussing how to fit it, what materials to use, and how to make it.  Chapter 12 is a quick-reference appendix, with three "croquis" in different body types (instructions are given in chapter 2 for using these paper dolls to plan your outfits and play with styles).

For a preview of style and content, the free women's patterns found at the Compendium are mostly taken from the book (except for the sunbonnet, shawl, and apron).  The chemise chapter, for instance, includes the personally-drafted banded chemise found at the Compendium, as well as instructions for a gored chemise, and a discussions of the different fabric choices.  Similarly, the basic drawers and petticoat are given free on-line, but the book offers additional design choices, including decorative tucks and whitework insertions, and instructions for corded and quilted/wadded petticoats.  If you can follow the directions given on-line, you'll have no trouble with the book's instructions.  Additional book content includes a whole chapter on draping a personal corset pattern, cage crinoline instructions, a self-drafted sleeve pattern with 8 different variations, and a chapter on personal accessories.

What I found most valuable were the bodice and sleeve drafting instructions.  Several variants were included for each, with the time period when each is popular, and instructions for personalized fitting. To get an idea of the breadth of the bodice chapter, take the "Having a Fit" article, then add sketches of each step for the draping, advice for fitting commercial patterns, and instructions for creating 6 different bodice variations from the basic pattern (high or low, gathered or darted, V-necks or rounded, and some beautiful pleated/shirred "fan fronts").  The sleeve portion follows, and I'm excited to experiment with some of the variations shown.

I expect this book will prove valuable to sewing enthusiasts of all skill levels.  Despite extensive reading on the subject, I was surprised by new elements like the diagonal tucks.  At the same time, all the basics are present.  A person with no experience in mid-19th century women's clothing could go through every step from selecting an impression to finishing a completed ensemble with the instructions given here.  It may take a while, by the information is all given in a clear manner which should be accessible for beginners.  Additional help is available through the author's website, or at the attached forum.

Looking for downsides, the main things which come to mind are the overall size: there are 100 pages of information before any garment instructions show up.  This is possibly overwhelming, but also provides interesting background information and useful techniques.  The instructions can at times 'run-on' in my opinion (separate tables for calculating yardage for each type of petticoat, for instance, instead of just adding or subtracting from the basic plan), but this may be useful to those not mathematically-inclined or who need to take some things in 'baby-steps'.  Erring on the side of more information and simpler explanations isn't a bad thing.  For those that need visual instructions, there are nice sketches included with most of the techniques, but no photographic images of garments or steps.  I liked the drawings as given; your mileage may vary. The table of contents give page numbers for the chapters, but the one thing I would change about this book is adding a topical index, so you can look up "coat sleeve" or "petticoat: whitework" and go directly to the page.

Score: 5 Stars
Difficulty: Absolute beginner & up.  Basic sewing skills are useful, but not strictly necessary.
Accuracy: No original garments are presented, but the variations and techniques are all very accurate as far as I can tell.  Read Janet Arnold if you want details of original garments, this is more a summary of the the period and its aesthetics.
Strongest Impressions: This is a book to reference.  It's not meant to be the end of your research, but the beginning.  Find an original for inspiration, then use the sketches and instructions in here to reproduce the elements you like.  The introductions and instructions in chapters 1-3 are a good basis for making one's first forays into historic clothing--and will put you miles ahead of the non-fitted, ready-mades found at most reenactments.  Should I even become an eccentric millionaire (half-way there!), I would be giving these out like Bibles.

*On further reflection, stockings & garters, shoes, gloves, and millinery are not included as topics.  All trunk garments from the chemise outward are covered, however.**
**Ok, not aprons.  But you should be able to figure one out from the all the techniques given.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Historical Food Fortnightly Challenge #4: Foreign Food

The Challenge: A Foreign Dish
Date/Year and Region: 1861, British interpretation of a "German" dish
How Did You Make It: Slice potatoes into long wedges.  Brown butter and flour in the a saucepan; add vinegar and broth to make a 'gravy'.  Boil potato wedges until soft and then serve hot.
Time to Complete: About half an hour (no clock in historic kitchen); prep time approximately 10 minutes, 15-20 minutes to cook.
Total Cost: Uncertain.  Ingredients on hand.
How Successful Was It: Very well-received.  The potatoes have a rich buttery taste, with a bit of kick from the vinegar.  Several people compared it (justly) to German potato salad.
How Accurate Was It:  Fairly.  I eyeballed the ingredients, instead of measuring them carefully.  As golden potatoes were used, I decided not to peel them before cooking.

Photos forthcoming, once I figure out how to get them off my phone (forgot the camera, alas).

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Historic Food Fortnightly, Challenge #3: Today in History

The Challenge: Today in History--make a dish associated with a particular date in history.  I took the lazy route, and decided to try a mid-19th century cherry pie recipe for the 4th of July (celebrating,  a la mode, 1860).
The Recipe: Cherry Pie from Practical American Cookery (1860)--I used the "puff paste" on page 150, since the pie receipt didn't specify which paste to use, and I didn't particularly want to use suet.
The Date/Year and Region: 1860, American (San Francisco)
How Did You Make It:  For the paste, cut 1/4 lb. butter into 1 lb flour, work in water until a paste is formed. Allow paste to relax, then roll it out, layer on thinly sliced butter, fold paste over butter, and roll out again.  Repeat until 1 lb butter has been incorporated.  Line pie plate with paste, add pitted cherries, cover with molasses, and sprinkle with flour.  Place top crust, and bake.
Time to Complete:  Under 90 minutes, including baking
Total Cost:  Uncertain (most ingredients were on hand)
How Successful Was It: Not successful.  I liked the paste crust, but the filling was far too liquid--I probably should have added less molasses and much more flour.  No quantities were given in the receipt, but I thought I was erring on the low side... The taste of the molasses overwhelmed the cherries, and when I tried to move the pie, it tended to leak thin cherry-molasses liquid everywhere.
How Accurate Was It:  Receipt followed to a nicety.  I used 3 3/4 c. flour for 1 lb (based on the serving size information on the flour bag).  Baked at 350 F for 40 minutes, as baking directions were vague ("more than half an hour"), but a slightly longer time or hotter oven would probably have been better.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Historic Food Fortnightly, Challenge #2: Soups & Sauces

Apple Sauce from Elizabeth M. Hall's Practical American Cookery and Domestic Economy (1860).

Pare, quarter, and core a quarter of a peck of rich, tart apples; put them in a stewpan, with a teacup of water; add some finely chopped lemon peel, and a large cup of sugar; grate half a nutmeg over, and cover the stewpan; let them stew gently for half an hour, then mash them fine; add a teacup of butter, and serve with boiled rice or boiled batter pudding 
The Challenge: A Soup or Sauce
The Recipe: Apple Sauce, from Practical American Cookery
The Date/Year and Region: 1860, American (San Francisco)
How Did You Make It: Peeled, sliced & stewed 2 lbs apples with 1/4 c. water and 1/4 c. sugar, a little minced lemon peel (fresh) and a dash of nutmeg.  After 30 minutes the apples were soft; added 1 Tbsp butter and mashed apples.  Added more nutmeg for flavor.   
Time to Complete: about 45 min
Total Cost: $4.00 for 1 lemon and 2 lbs apples; small quantities of sugar and nutmeg to hand
How Successful Was It?: It tasted like apples (and nutmeg always goes well with apples!).  The texture was different from commercial applesauce--it reminded me of mashed squashed, which was a little weird.  I also don't normally eat applesauce warm, but the recipe said nothing about letting it cool before serving.
How Accurate Is It?: Scaled it down by 1/3 or so, treating "1 peck" of apples as 12-ish pounds--at the internet's suggestion--and 1 "tea-cup" of the water/sugar/butter as 4-6 oz, according to Civil War Recipes. "Golden delicious" apples are also dated to 1905, says Wikipedia, so that's post-date for this recipe.  I also ate it alone instead of serving with a pudding or ham.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Carpet Bag

 I've been meaning to make a carpet bag for sometime--it's an accurate (even iconic) piece of luggage for the mid-century, and can hold a scary amount of items.

1 yard of reproduction period carpet
1+ yard of lining material, depending on width (I used linen scraps; I've also heard of canvas and silk linings, and seen some reproductions lined in cotton prints)
1 frame (I used a 16" tubular purse frame, some people use dowels)
5 purse feet
Leather scraps, for bottom, welts, buckle straps, and handles
2 small buckles
A bottom board (I used a double thickness of pasteboard, a thin wood may be preferable).

Materials Sources: 
I got the 16" frame from Bits and Purses on etsy.  The fabric was from a friend who has sources.  I found the feet at Weaving Works (75% off clearance during the moving sale!); the leather and linen were in my stash (previously from S.R. Harris Our Fabric Stash, IIRC), and the pasteboard was from Blick.

The closest thing I could find to an original pattern on-line were these instructions from Scientific American (apparently from 1881).  Also useful were the original carpetbag pictures at The Graceful Lady (scroll to the bottom of the page), and these Sewing Academy threads: carpetbag part suggestions, carpetbag bottom.

The process:
Extrapolating from the size chart in the Sci. Am. instructions (which gave piece sizes for a 15" or 18" frame), I cut out the bag sides and gussets in scrap fabric.  I sewed these together, and pinned the edges over the (open) frame to check the fit.  I tried opening and closing the frame, and--being satisfied with the fit--used the scrap fabric as a pattern for cutting the lining and carpet pieces (two side pieces and two gusset pieces in each material).  If I'd thought ahead, I would have cut the lining sides and bottom together as one long rectangle for easier assembly (this was the recommended procedure from the 19th century instructions).

I wanted a pocket inside the bag, to help keep track of small items, so I put one on one of the side lining pieces before going further.

Next, I sewed the carpet pieces together in a square: side to gusset to side to gusset (to the first side); for reinforcement, a leather 'welt' was stitched over each of the side/gusset seams.  While the weight/structure they provide is nice, the process was tricky, and the extra seam bulk complicated later steps--I'd be tempted to skip this leather next time.  The lining was prepared in the same way, sans welts.  Measuring the opening gave me the bottom dimensions; I cut one piece of leather to this bottom measurement, and one piece of linen to make up the bottom inside lining.  The leather was sewn to the carpet (right to right, on machine), and turned right-side-out.  At this point, the bag was starting to take shape.  The bottom lining was attached to the side/gusset lining in the same manner.

I cut a piece of pasteboard for the bottom foundation, using the dimensions of the leather bottom (shorter by 1/4" on each side). It ended up too big, anyway, so I trimmed it until it fit snugly, and then marked on it the positions for the 5 feet--one in the center, and one in each corner.  I punched small holes on those points, and then glued the pasteboard onto the leather bottom.  When dry, I used an awl to make small holes in the leather at the foot-points, and attached a foot through each (the feet have two prong on them, like brads, which are spread apart to secure the foot).  I tapped each with a mallet, per the instructions, and that seemed to secure it nicely.

Being unsatisfied with the rigidity of the bottom portion, I cut a second piece of pasteboard and glued it over the first.  The double-layer is more satisfactory, but next time I'd like to try a thin piece of wood.

Next, I pinned the bag upper to the open frame, lining up the corners and centering each piece.  I folded the top of each side/gusset over the frame (measuring from the bottom to top along each side, so that the bag is uniform length), and stitched it down by hand.  By using white thread and taking small outside stitches (through the white portion of the weave), the seam is nearly invisible on the outside.

To make the handles, I cut 2 strips of leather 11 1/8" x 1", rounded the edges, then folded in half (lengthwise, right sides out) and stitched along the edge, leaving 1.5" at either end.  I dampened these with water, bent them into half-circle shapes, and let them dry.

To attach each handle, I placed is at the desired location near the top of the bag, and--using a leather needle with black silk thread--topstitched along the rounded end of the handle, through the carpetbag beneath.  I should have done the buckles at this time as well, so that the wrong side of the sewing is hidden by the lining.

The lining was placed inside the bag (right side out), and the top excess folded down between the carpet and the lining material.  This was pined in place, and handsewn close to the frame.

Frame and pieces
Leather bottom with feet
Shaping the handles
Bag interior, with frame, sans lining
Bag exterior, before adding handles
Interior, showing bottom board

Finished carpetbag, exterior
Finished carpetbag, interior

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

New Berlin Work Project-- A Flag Needlebook (Research Post)

First, from the New Hampshire Historical Society (c. 1861-1863)

Worked in tent stitch (the Lady's Self-Instructor in Millinery and Mantua-making... (1853), states that Berlin patterns are always given in tent stitch, but may be worked in cross stitch).

Stitching dimensions: 39 sts tall, approximately 46 sts wide, blue square is 21 x 23 sts.  According to the LS-I, Berlinwork should be done on either 18-count or 10-count canvas--which would give the total dimensions 3.9" x 4.6" when done in the latter, or about 2.2" x  2.6" in the former. The museum gives the case dimensions as 3" x 3.9", which indicates a canvas size of 12-13 stitches per inch.  Apparently, the LS-I isn't definitive for 19th century canvas sizes...

13 "stars" in a grid pattern 3/2/3/2/3, with solid blue border of 2 sts on the sides and 3 rows top & bottom; stars made up of 5 sts in a + shape.

Inside cover appears to be a white silk with woven design.  Red, white and blue 'pages' have a matte finish, and are likely (wool) flannel--the recommended material for needlebook pages in both The American Girl's Book and The Girl's Own Book.  The pages are different sizes and have pinked edges.  The museum gives the material as "textile, wool, silk".

Ribbons in red white and blue adorn the spine.  These will be silk; the upper white loops appear to be the same width as 6 stitched rows, making the ribbon about 1/2" wide (varies with canvas size); the red ribbon at the lower bow looks even narrower.  

The large leaf of blue flannel forms the the back cover, which would explain why it's larger than the other two leaves (same size as the front cover), and why there's a strip of blue along the left-hand edge in the top picture.  A red decoration (embroidery? applied trim?) follows the top and bottom edges of the back.

It is not clear whether the canvas in the front cover has a solid support underneath it.  Looking at the worn places, it seems like the white silk backing is visible through the canvas, though it could be a white paper/paste board in between the two.  From my reading, it seems more typical to make the covers of needlebooks out of pasteboard, with a decorative fabric covering rather than just using the fabric alone.  That being said, my berlinwork cardcase does very well with only silk-backed canvas.     

Second: 35-star needle book (c.1863-1865)

Total size: 26 sts x 50 sts; blue section 14 sts x 20 sts.  Possibly worked in tent or cross stitch (hard to tell).  Stars worked as single cross-stitches in five rows of seven (one-stitch blue boundary between stars; two rows/columns solid blue border).  Each stripe is two rows of stitching.  Dark blue ribbon on binding.  No view of pages or back cover (if present).

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pattern Review: Kayfig Wrapper (KF611)

I just made up this pattern, and thought I'd toss out a few thoughts on it.

KF611 is a wrapper/morning dress pattern c. 1855-65.  Wrappers are (relatively) loose garments for 'undress'--the sort of thing you'd wear to breakfast, or around the house.

First, pictures:

This is made up in a reproduction cotton print, with a solid lining in two colors; in the first picture, the lining has deliberately been turned out to show off the colors.  The sleeves above are not from the wrapper pattern, but instead are the "modified pagoda" sleeves (open coat sleeves) from Past Patterns #702.  The wrapper pattern includes bishop sleeves, but I made this up for a friend who preferred the open sleeves.   

What you get in the pattern:
Book of Instructions
2 pages of pattern pieces 

The pattern is printed on printer-weight paper, not tissue-paper.  The pieces are multi-sized, and the sizing is apparently based on custom slopers rather than being larger or smaller versions of a single garment (according to the information given).  All I can say is that in making it up, surprisingly little alteration was needed to be made for a good fit in the back and front lining.  The wrapper is fitted in back just like a normal c. 1855-65 dress, as is the front lining of the bodice (darted to fit).  The front fashion fabric, obviously, is very loose, being pleated only at the shoulder, and then contained with ties at the waist.  Do not panic about the lack of skirt pattern pieces--being large rectangles, instructions are given for cutting a custom size rather than printing large sheets of rectangular paper.

The booklet can be intimidating--it's 38 pages long.  It's also full of helpful information, including 6 pages of period references & pictures of antique garments, 14 pages of technical information (including pattern terminology, fitting advice, and period sewing techniques), and 15 pages of detailed cutting and construction instructions, often with a choice of techniques.  For example, three different methods of finishing the hem are presented; it also has two different styles of sleeve cuff, and so on.  The remaining pages have attributions and a bibliography for the research.  Illustrations accompany each step of the instructions.

I'm of a mixed mind on recommending this pattern for beginners.  On the one hand, I've heard of others being stymied by the instructions--either overwhelmed by the length, or confused by the construction of the front panel.  On the other, I found it a really comprehensive walk-through of period dressmaking techniques.  The technique pages, in my opinion, would be very valuable to someone who's starting out on mid-Victorian dress-making, even if the sheer amount of information is intimidating.  If you already know how to gauge a skirt, make piping, and so on, you won't need this information as much.  For what it's worth, I made my first dress 9 years ago, and I still found a new piping technique in the instructions (which I am so using on my next dress).  

There were one or two tricky moments in making up this pattern: I couldn't tell at first how the front piece would fit in over the bodice lining, but the second I laid it out according to the instructions, it all 'fell into place'.  If I were making it up again, I think I'd play with where exactly the front panel is attached to the front bodice, in order to change the fall of the pleats.  Attaching the piping/binding around the neckline also had some difficult moments around the shoulder seam, as that's where the two different front pieces met the back and one of those pieces needed to be separate, the other bound.  I ended up whipping the edge down by hand, and was still sort of winging it.

On area where I found the instructions very valuable was in giving the order in which things needed to be done.  Since I've usually worked with "big 3" patterns, I'm used to taking the pieces, tossing the instructions, and then making things up to fit based on my own reasoning and what I've read about period dressmaking techniques. Here, it's very important that the bodice, back skirt, front panels, etc. get attached in a very specific order, so that you're hemming it all the way around at one time, and getting the pleats in the shoulders set properly.  With that in mind, it's very easy to see how and why the instructions are arranged, even if, at first, you're wondering about setting aside a half-sewn bodice to start gauging a skirt.   

Most of the wrapper is machine-amenable.  While hand-sewing is suggested for easing the armhole sewing (piping and sleeves), it's only really required on the skirt gauging.  Additionally, I did it along the hem facing, and to whip-stitch the raw edge of the waist and neck piping.  The rest is easily sewn on machine, though an ambitious person could sew it by hand.  Sewing machines were available to the public by this time-period, so both methods can be authentic.

Mention is made of different trimming options for wrappers, but no specific methods/styles are given in the instructions themselves.  The research pages, however, show many variants including contrasting front panels, decorative bows, and self-fabric ruffle accents.  I think this is an interesting compromise for avoiding the dreaded 'cookie cutter' look, while making it easy for those-so-inclined to add their own authentic touches.

Pattern Score: 4.5-5 stars
Difficulty: Intermediate or ambitious beginner (there's lots of good information for beginners, but it's not an easy garment exactly)
Accuracy: Very high.  Based on original garments, and fully documented with information on making and wearing.
Strongest Impressions:  It went together well, and I appreciated all the research that was presented.  The many little variants make it easy to customize, though most of them aren't dramatic enough to change the look of the dress/wrapper.  The couple of tricky spots and the large size of the instruction book may intimidate newer sewers, but neither of those is insurmountable.  Beginning sewers should be ready for a challenge and not working on a tight deadline; those with experience constructing dresses of the period should find it very familiar.