Thursday, August 31, 2017

Book Review: Fanciful Utility

Cover for "Fanciful Utility" by Anna Worden Bauersmith
Fanciful Utility by Anna Worden Bauersmith

FYI: All of the author's other publications are on sale this weekend (including the limited-time "recovery" pillow pin cushion pattern, which I have purchased but not yet made-up*). If you haven't yet stocked up on From Field to Fashion, Paisley, Plaid and Purled, or fun winter hood patterns, now's your chance.

This review is long overdue--the book's been out for years, and I've made several projects from it already--but I like it, and think it's worth discussing. For anyone unaware, The Sewing Academy has bonus content, ie two more needlebook templates (see one made-up here).  Normally, this is where I'd recommend checking out the free projects to get a feel for the author's style, but in this case, the instructions are in the book, so it's not the best example.

It is, however, an excellent introduction to how the book is formatted.

The initial chapters serve as an introduction to period sewn sewing tools, including the materials used to make them, and the items used to outfit a sewing kit/housewife.  All of the techniques used in the book are also described up front, so that when you actually get to a project, it mostly gives you the templates needed, and an overview of what order to built the item in.  Everything else--plain sewing, embroidery stitches, design transfer, covering pasteboard, hinge-making methods--is dealt with earlier.  While this is certainly is expedient for the returning reader/maker (and keeps the 157-page book from ballooning with repetition), first-timers should be sure to read all the introductory materials.

All of the templates and illustrations are line drawings in black and white; the templates are all full-sized, with only a few of the largest pieces spanning two pages. I found the illustrations adequate for explaining processes and steps; there are also 4 pages of color photographs at the beginning, which show fun examples of most of the completed items.

Because the book is set up to teach methods and offer a variety of design ideas, it's hard to say just how many "projects" are included.   By my count, there were nine basic needle book shapes, five soft case/pocket designs, two structured boxes, one scissors case, and four doll-sized projects.  For each of these, different options for materials and embellishments are suggested.  At the extreme, the rectangular needle book has illustrations for fourteen different versions, plus a padded/quilted variation.

There aren't many downsides to this book, in my opinion, and I think that most Victorian sewing enthusiasts will enjoy it.  I will note that pin cushions are not included (excepting the ones built into some of the rolls/boxes); perhaps a sequel will be forthcoming at some point. I also would not mind more colored pictures of completed projects. The two main obstacles would be if you need explicit step-by-step instructions without flipping between pages, or if you tend to get paralyzed by indecision when presented with many options.  Otherwise, I expect that most people will find this book versatile and useful.

Stars: 5 stars.

Level: Very motivated beginners and up. All the needed techniques are included, and plenty of clear direction is given, but new or timid sewists may find themselves overwhelmed.

Accuracy: High. As far as I can tell, every project is taken from an original (with a few extrapolations from multiple original items), or from instructions in a period publication.

Strongest Impression: There are a lot of projects here, but I find them approachable, and fairly quick to make (sans embroidery).  The structure of the book empowers the reader to replicate period techniques and styles, while providing plenty of ideas for customization.


*Bonus review of the pillow pin cushion: The instructions appear quite thorough, and each step of the process is illustrated with a color photograph.  The reader is referred to Fanciful Utility, but unless you need to review stitching techniques, I don't think it will be necessary to consult the book.  Also included in the pdf is a page about the original pin cushion (including multiple pictures and commentary on the materials/construction), a page of period instructions for other 'segmented' pin cushions, and color photographs of three different reproduction pin cushions.  There's also a materials list, and a note from the author.  I'm looking forward to trying this project, and rather like the version with the black ribbons.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Two More Sewing Cases

Several deserving young ladies of my acquaintance being lately married, I decided period presents were in order--and that it was time to try some more designs out of Fanciful Utility. This time, I made up the other structured sewing kit design: it has a rectangular pocket instead of a scissors case, and no pincushion in the thread box.

Two Victorian-style cotton print sewing cases from "Fanciful Utility" by Anna Worden Bauersmith
Sewing cases with thread box, needle pages, and
pocket. Fitted with bone thread winders, brass thimbles,
cakes of beeswax, emery strawberries, and pins.

Sewing the box to the base/cover was a little trickier in the center (compared to the box being at one edge), but the lack of a pincushion with its extra wall made the box construction easier.  I do like the extra stability that that wall provides (the long edges of the box tend to bend in slightly without it), but it was a bit of a pain to sew.  I also appreciate the convenience of having a pincushion right in the box, but I suspect this design will have other trade-offs: the large pocket and longer box compartment have space for various larger tools (button hole scissors, seam rippers, awls, a spool of thread, etc.).

I may add a loop and button closure to the left one; the ribbon
on the right works well, but obscures the fun striped material.

Per the book, the original this design was taken from had no closure, just the two fold-over flaps. I added the ribbon to the pink-and-green case (tacked to the center bottom) for more security while transporting the case. I think a button-and-thread-loop or two small ties might make a nice closure for the other.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Pink Print Half Apron

Less pretty, but highly useful: another apron. The material is a reproduction print from the Old Sturbridge Village Anniversary collection. One-and-a-half fabric breadths (~66") in the apron, two calico buttons at the waist closure, and two small pockets concealed within.

Pink reproduction print half-apron, all hand sewn.
New apron.
The buttonholes are ok (though still not as lovely as the ones on my nightgown), but my point of pride on this piece is the run-and-fell seams.  While I still think sewing machine is faster on the long seams, the hand-sewing is nearly neat, and considerably getting less slow.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Dotted Swiss Basque, c.1855-1856

"A simple white dress of spotted muslin has been made up the skirt trimmed with three deep flounces with a border of pale blue ribbon set on in a vandyked pattern. The corsage is high with a low inside body and has a basque as well as revers or bretelles of the muslin drooping very low on the shoulders. These the basque and the three frills which form the sleeves are trimmed with ribbon to correspond with the skirt below which is a fall of Honiton or Valenciennes lace. A blue sash ribbon with bow and flowing ends." -Godey's, June 1856
Mine isn't nearly so fancy, but I like the elaborate details that went into this "simple" dress. Also, it documents the use of swiss dot in basques.

This thread at the Sewing Academy inspired me to make a sheer, white basque for summer Fort wear. For reference, the first two photogaphs on the conversation are these:

Attributed to "Albert Bisbee, OH, 1850s"
Posted at Jessica Dean By Design

"A Brazillian Woman and Her Baby, 1855"
From The Wikimedia Commons

The basques are both quite sheer, and the top one shows separate 'bodice' and 'skirt' portions on either side of a self-fabric waistband.

My white basque.

As darting the material seemed untenable, I opted for a waist-band on mine as well: it allowed me to control the bodice fullness with a series of small pleats.  The 'skirt' portion was drafted off my velvet basque, and flares a bit more when worn than it appears above. It is, however, a bit scantier than I would like. The lace along the sleeve, neck, and skirt edges is from Fine French Laces, and is based on the finishing shown in Looking for the Mail Packet. Per that painting, I left my basque unlined, and wear it over the detached lining that I use with my yellow sheer dress.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Apple Jelly

Blogging through the August project backlog. Last week, I attempted to make Mrs. Beeton's Apple Jelly (II), and also started my first batch of apple cider vinegar.

Oak barrel for cider-making, twelve apples, and cutting board.
It begins.

The cider barrel is from Oak Barrels Ltd. Basically, I peeled and pared ten of the apples, set the apple-flesh on the stove to boil down, and put the cores/peels (and two whole chopped apples) in the barrel. The peels were covered with water, and set aside to form the vinegar (with a light cloth cover in place of the cork, so pressure doesn't build up).

Two tin pans of apples boiling on a wood-burning stove.
Boiling apples on Bessie.

After an hour, I strained the apple-mush through a cloth (which took forever, as I used muslin rather than cheese cloth or a hair sieve), mixed in sugar (about 2 1/4 cups for 3 cups of liquid), and set it to boil again. After 45 minutes, I took it off the stove and bottled it.

Apple Jelly from Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861)
Apple Jelly.
The stove wasn't quite hot enough, in my opinion, particularly during the final boiling phase. Not-at-all-coincidentally, the jelly didn't set properly.  It is very viscous, but even in the refrigerator it failed to fully solidify.

To improve for next time:
  • Hotter fire
  • Smaller jelly pots
  • Cheesecloth, sieve, or (imagine it!) a jelly bag for straining
  • Different saucepans.  The tin ones resisted cleaning, rather strenuously.
I'm still waiting on the vinegar, and look forward to the results.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Blackberry Jam

Three pints of blackberry jam from an 1837 English recipe.
Blackberry Jam, from
The Magazine of Domestic Economy (1837)

Delicious seasonal food preservation: Blackberry Jam, from The Magazine of Domestic Economy (1837).  The receipt is quite simple: blackberries, sugar, and optional lemon peel or juice. Simmer for 45 minutes.

For this batch, I used 4 pounds of blackberries, 2 pounds of granulated sugar, and the peel of 1/3 of a lemon. It yielded 3.5 pints, and is quite tasty. The canning jars are, of course, modern. I opted to follow current food safety standards and process the jars for 10 minutes in boiling water.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Straw Bonnet

I'm slowly photographing and writing up up my recent projects, as there may have been a bit of a rush to get ready for English Camp last weekend.  One long-awaited wardrobe addition was a new straw bonnet.
Low spoon straw bonnet c.1859-1862, of 1/2" hemp plait, from the pattern by The Dressmaker's Shop
Straw bonnet blank, made of 1/2" hemp plait
It's from the same pattern as before (the Low Spoon Straw Bonnet from The Dressmaker's Shop), though I daresay my shaping worked better this time. Instead of hand-sewing the whole thing, I used a machine on the flat portion of the brim, then switched to hand-sewing when I joined the back and started spiraling the straw in to form the crown.  For this step, I skipped the pressing ham, and simply drew up each row of braid by sight, which I think produced a neater curve. I also took the precaution of applying full-strength fabric stiffener to the brim, which has definitely improved the bonnet's stability.

I ended up trimming the bonnet on-site (it may have lacked floral decoration at the Saturday cricket match), but will be re-working it before wearing it again.  First, because the lovely 5" wide pink silk ribbon curtain/ties started shredding as I attached it, and second because I miscalculated the lace circumference, and ended up with a lopsided pile of pleats to one side. The straw flowers work well with it, though, so I'll be keeping those in some configuration.  I'm tempted to aim for '62 on the re-trim, and wear it to Snoqualmie in September (and, likely, shift things around again for '59 wear next summer at English Camp).

Initial trim placement: wide silk ribbon bavolet and "brides",
pink, blue, and gold straw flowers under the brim and along one tab.