There you are. Ready to start a neat new project from a period source. You’re all set to sew.
And then: someone tossed carpentry into the mix?
What does it mean when you see a number on a mid-century diagram, with a little letter N after it? Or read directions indicating “nails” as a unit of measure? What the heck, Original Cast?!?
Calm your steam engines… a “nail” is simply an antique unit of measure, equivalent to 1/16th of a yard. Here’s how it goes:
36″ = 1 yard
18″ = 1/2 yard
9″ = 1/4 yard
4.5″ = 1/8 yard
2.25″ = 1/16 yard, OR 1 nail.
(Oh, and there’s also the fabric measurement of an “ell”. For our purposes, that’s often an English ell, or 45″… or 20 nails!)
Rather than do a bunch of increasingly-tiny division when your project calls for measurements like 1.5 nails (which is 3 and 3/8″, by the way), you can make a nail measure with a bit of card or firmly-woven tape, a piece of paper cut 2.25″, and a fine permanent marking pen. Fold the paper in half, and in halves again, and transfer the quarter marks to the tape or permanent card; repeat to make multiple nail sections.
(Don’t, though, hit a “normal” or “mundane” fabric shop and ask the cutter for “2.5 nails of this cotton, please.” She will stare at you, and then she will probably hate you.)
Just a quick cool thing today!
Here’s a fantastic look at African-American clothing in the 2014 Daguerrian Annual, by Dr Karen Bohleke:
Just a quick note today, regarding the classification of every merchant or vendor catering to the living history trade as a “sutler.”
Here’s the thing: words mean things. And the word “sutler” is not a catch-all for “people who sell things.” It’s a very specific word for a very specific type of selling to a specific clientele.
Specifically: a sutler sells goods and provisions to military troops, under contract with said military. They sell, to soldiers, items that soldiers might like to have, that the military does not provide them. Here’s a great short article on types of things a sutler actually did do and sell at mid-century.
At mid-century, a sutler doesn’t sell items to the general populace. They don’t sell goods for dressmaking, or women’s bonnets, or children’s things.
A modern merchant or vendor who provides lines of historically-accurate merchandise, or supplies and aids to create the same, is a merchant or vendor or shopkeeper, or store.
Let’s make the 2015 living history season the year we stop using “sutler” for everything… or for anything outside of the historic impression of “licensed contract merchant of items for soldiers and sailors.”
Or: What a Man Needs to Know about Dressing a Woman
It is a typical scenario: a man comfortable in military impressions meets a nice woman. They fall in love, or at least deep like. He wishes to interest her in his fascinating hobby, and suggests she attend an event or two. She agrees, and he sets about finding some clothes for her to wear.
That should be pretty easy, right? After all, she just needs a dress.
That’s rather like saying a military impression just needs some sort of gun.
Any gun, really.
Squirt gun, Mauser, Jiminy Cricket rifle—a gun is a gun, isn’t it?
The reality is, creating a functional, accurate woman’s wardrobe for the mid-century is a multi-step process, and should command just as much research and attention as creating an accurate military impression. This brief article serves as an overview only, but includes the basics of what to look for, and why.
From the Skin Out
A woman’s wardrobe is a system that works from the skin out. Fully dressed for a day or work or pleasure, the average working class woman (to be paired with an average private soldier, socially) will don:
Chemise: a white cotton undergarment with a wide neckline, short sleeves, and mid-thigh to knee length hem, cut full in the body.
Stockings: knee or above-knee length, natural fibers.
Garters: knit or elastic garters to support stockings; garters may be worn below or above the knee as a matter of personal preference.
Shoes: shoe or boot style appropriate for women.
Corset: the supportive undergarment, firming the torso and supporting the breasts. This needs to be custom-fit to her figure, and should not be purchased “off the rack”.
Drawers: white cotton, mid-calf hem, split crutch seam, full in the body–and also, optional, though if she’s wearing a hoop, it’s more required than if the impression is for pre-1857.
Petticoat The First: mid-calf hem, moderately full-gathered (90” to 120” or so) on a fitted band.
Skirt support: small to moderate cage or hoop (85” to 115”), ending at mid-calf and set on a fitted waistband.
Underskirts (Or, Petticoats the Second and Third): one to two full-gathered (150” to 180”) underskirts give loft to the dress and soften any hoop lines. (These are often well-starched.)
Dress: for the working class, typically a wool or printed cotton with a fitted bodice, bishop or shaped coat sleeves, high neckline, full skirts set onto the bodice. Dresses do need customized fitting, and are difficult to purchase off the rack.
White Accessories & Protective Accessories: white collar and cuff or undersleeve basted into the dress to protect it from body oil and grime. Neckerchiefs may be used for an active working impression (such as farming, cleaning, factory-work, etc). Half-aprons ending in a band at the waist, or pinner aprons with a pinned-up bib, are vital if there is work to be done. Remember, dresses are not so easily laundered as undergarments and accessory pieces. A functional mid-century wardrobe might have a total of three dresses, but seven or more sets of undergarments and accessory items.
Headwear: a sunbonnet, fashion bonnet, or warm winter hood, depending on environmental requirements.
Wrap: a large wool shawl with fringed hems all around is a very basic outer wrap for any wardrobe.
Additional outer and undergarments may be required for cold weather.
Every garment should be made in 100% natural fibers (silk, wool, cotton, or linen.) White cotton is very common for everyday undergarments, with the addition of wool flannel for cold weather undergarments.
The wardrobe items should be acquired or made in the order listed above. Dresses come after all undergarments, as the dressmaker (whether at home or hired) needs to take measurements over all the underlayers for the most accurate fit. Indeed, reputable historic dressmakers will not usually make a bodice over an uncorseted figure.
What To Look For
Only a few highly-accurate women’s clothing makers attend events. The individualized nature of female clothing mid-century makes stocking accurate clothing fairly complex. Do Not Send Your Beloved To Merchant Row In Person or On-Line Without An Experienced Female Mentor. Doing so is a sure plan for spending a great deal of money on a great deal of useless farb, as the majority of merchants at non-juried-vendor events do not carry accurate items.
Becoming an educated customer is vital, and the best way to do that is to follow the same process you used as a military person: view as many original garments and images as possible, and look for merchants who replicate those items as closely as possible. If a merchant advertises that they replicate garments, and has pictures of originals and their goods, evaluate the two very closely for consistency; some wishing to sell to history-heavy markets tout their “based on originals” status, but fail utterly in the execution, while others do a truly superb job.
Beware any merchant using the following key words and characteristics:
- Machine gauged skirts (this is not possible, mechanically)
- Poly-cotton for easy care
- Wool blend
- Artificial silk
- “Zouave” dress or “Garibaldi” dress, particularly if done in cotton prints
- Dresses with less than 150” in the skirt circumference
- Belts in cotton
- Blouses for women
- Tuck-in white bodices that are not see-through/sheer.
- Low-cost items with lace—it is sure to be polyester/nylon
- Colored lace
- Skirts sold un-hemmed
- Only bust and waist measurements are requested
- Cotton print bodices separate from cotton print skirts
- Solid-color cotton garments
- Zippers, Velcro, or snaps at any point
- Tent-grommets at back lacing closures
- Images of the makers that look like “reenactors” rather than The Original Cast.
What To Budget
Women’s clothing requires a good amount of time. If you are buying ready-made or custom-sewn clothing, you can expect to pay for skilled labor rates on every item. If budget is a large concern, you or your beloved need to consider learning a few basic sewing skills, and making at least a portion of the wardrobe at home—undergarments such as chemise, drawers, and petticoats are an ideal way to learn historic sewing.
The average prices listed here are taken from the current listings of merchants whom I consider to have a high degree of accuracy and quality, with good-value pricing. Home sewing prices include a national-average cost for fabric allowances and patterns. See the Resource list at the end of the article for pattern companies.
Chemises: $50-$80 each. Need not be custom cut in most cases and generally safe to purchase ready-made. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first chemise, and $5 each after that.
Drawers: $50-$70 each. Some degree of customization is necessary to accommodate individual body depth and inseam length. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first pair of drawers, and $5 each after that.
Corset: $100-$200. This is a highly individual garment, and needs to be custom cut and fit. It is very possible to learn to fit and construct a corset at home if you and your beloved are so inclined; see the Resource section for educational helps.
Petticoats and Underskirts: $50-$100 each. These may need some slight customization, mostly in a fitted waistband measurements and length adjustment to suit her figure, but they can generally be safely purchase ready-made. Keep in mind that a full outfit needs one petticoat and one or more underskirts. Petticoats and underskirts do not require a purchased pattern (see the Resource section for free pattern options), and can be made at home for under $10 each.
Skirt Support: cage crinolines and hoops, ready-made, run between $85 and $300. Along with the corset, this is another investment piece. Kits are available in the $70-$200 range, and patterns plus supplies will generally run around $60-$80.
Dress: $150-$300 in labor, depending on the complexity of fitting and style demands, plus additional fabric costs. A really good historic cotton print can average $11-$15 per yard; a dress takes 7.5 to 8 yards generally.
Accessories: $20-$30 for collars, cuffs, and undersleeves (each piece; most dressmakers give a small discount on matched sets); aprons in the $30-$50 range. Made at home, allow $20 for the first set of white accessories, $6 thereafter; $15 for the first apron, $5 thereafter.
Headwear: $40-$60 sunbonnets; $110-$200 completed fashion bonnets; $60-$120fashion bonnet blanks and semi-finished bonnets; $100-$200 winter hoods. Sunbonnets and winter hoods can be made very inexpensively ($5-$30) at home with purchased patterns or free on-line instructional materials.
Home sewing costs vary, of course. Here’s a quick breakdown of supplies for a winter hood, for instance, compiled by Anna Worden-Bauersmith: 1/2 yard silk ($7.50 – $10.00 est); 1/2 yard period cotton print or polished cotton ($5-$7.50); wool wadding – $2-$4); thread ($1 on a good sale, $3-$4 regularly); silk ties 1 yard ($4+).
Wraps: a simple shawl can be made by those without sewing experience for the cost of two yards of wool fabric.
Shoes: accurate repro shoes run between $80 and $150.
Stockings: $6-$10 per pair
Garters: $8-$20 per pair
All told, if you are purchasing every garment from a highly-accurate merchant or seamstress, you’ll spend between $1070 and $1750 on a wardrobe for a weekend-long event (three sets chemise/drawers, one set petticoats, skirt support, corset, accessories, dress, outerwear).
Blending specific purchases and homemade items, you’ll spend between $400 and $650.
The more home-sewn items you’re willing to undertake, the lower the total can go—as low as $180 with careful planning.
What If She Hates It?
Yes, there is that possibility. Not every woman finds living history fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with having a separate hobby from your significant other—just be prepared for her to take up something with equal time and budget factors to your chosen obsession/hobby. If you have children, and wish this to be a family hobby, plan to adopt a citizen’s impression for at least a portion of your event weekends; otherwise, many women find their portion of the hobby to be Regular Life, Less Convenient, and you may encounter vast resistance.
If there is any doubt in your mind that she will love the hobby, it is best to wait on acquiring a wardrobe. Instead, find a citizen-oriented group to take her under wing, and fit her out for an event or two from the loaner wardrobe box. (Be sure the citizen’s group is as focused on accuracy as your own group! After the work and expense of putting together an accurate military impression, don’t spoil it by stepping out with someone dressed in borrowed farbery.) Loaner clothing will not fit so well as her own wardrobe, but it’s a great way to get started, allowing her the fun of dressing out and getting to know people, with a much smaller budget outlay right at the first.
Most citizen’s groups are happy to provide mentoring, and many have between-event sewing days and other activities designed to help your beloved create many of her own wardrobe items, even if she has no background in sewing.
Women’s Wardrobe Resources
Pattern Lines for Home or Hired Sewing
Discussion Forums & Educational Opportunities
- The Sewing Academy Discussion Forum
- Sewing Academy Workshops
- Genteel Arts Academy
- Atlantic Guard Soldier’s Aid Society
Additionally, some dressmakers will teach sewing classes.
And yes, this is the short, glossy overview. Women’s clothing encompasses a huge range and variety (we have no “uniform” to speak of!). There is something accurate for every personality and personal budget, but the undertaking is not a small one. Your beloved deserves as much consideration in her own things as you do in yours.
Don’t fail her with farb.
That was a bit of a groaner for a title.
This little article is excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide–if you don’t have your copy, you can find it here.
Darts are a way to mold fabric to fit a 3-D body (and most of us have one of those, don’t we?) The cool thing about darts in a bodice is that, so long as two darts both point to the same body bump, we can magically “move” the fabric controlled by one dart, into the other dart forever, and banish the first bit of excess to another dimension (it’s the one where all your socks go from the dryer. Also, hairpins.)
This means that, if we have some extra fabric hanging out in the hollow of the bust, or some loose wobbles after we cut down a neckline for a new fashion style, we can “swing” that dart control into the waist-to-bust darts, and handle everything from there.
Caveat: this is a process that can ONLY be done at the muslin test stage!
To swing a dart, pin your muslin test, basted at the shoulder and sides, smooth to your figure. Don’t pull overly tight, but make everything smooth and sleek, with all the pointy ends of the darts you’re pinning headed toward the same body prominence (usually the bust point.)
The dart you’re wanting to eliminate will be pinned out forever. It is banished. Never shall the pins be removed. The fabric taken up in it no longer exists on this plane of reality (remember? Socks. Hairpins.)
Remove the test bodice, and remove the basting at shoulder and side seam so you have the front bodice pieces back to themselves alone. You’ll notice right away that even when you take out the pins from the dart you’re keeping, the bodice won’t lay flat.
That’s because we have just a few more steps before our swinging is complete!
Carefully cut from the waist edge, right up the middle of the darts you’re keeping, to the point of the bust.
See how the bodice darts just opened wide up? If you trace the new, altered shape, and use the original dart-sewing lines with the new, expanded dart areas, you’ll get the same fit through the torso and waist, with zero excess fabric above the bust, and you’ve not changed anything at all with the armscye (even though it has a new, pretty funky curve, it still works, I promise!), neckline, or bust circumference. That former annoying excess is banished forever and ever, and you have a great shape to play with from here on out.
Many of us sew in living history situations, and thus have need of an accurately fitted-out set of tools and supplies; others of us simply find the historic tools and styles charming, and wish to have something like them for our own modern use. Certainly, the ingenuity of past kits surpasses the modern plastic-and-sadness models available in most chain stores!
As a starting place for fitting out a sewing set, please visit Mrs Mescher’s excellent article, The Case of the Lost Thimble. In particular, note the illustrations of common styles of scissors… not a single pair of Chinese gardening snips to be found! It’s telling that the classic shape of scissors and shears and their mechanisms has scarcely been improved in a century and a half. For instance, all-metal Gingher 8″ dressmaker’s shears, and basic all-metal 4″ embroidery scissors are both virtually identical to diagrams in Mrs Mescher’s article. Modern nickel-plated brass straight pins (these are a size 20, and 1.25″ long) and period pins are visually very similar, ditto needles. It’s possible to outfit oneself with items that are fully functional for modern and historic sewing, historically accurate, and not hideously expensive.
Two new articles from author Anna Worden Bauersmith give some additional ideas on fitting out your own tools and supplies. What Is In Your Sewing Box links the reader to images of mid-century sewing, and well-reproduced sewing sets from modern living history enthusiasts. Sewing On The Go shows very portable sets that tuck efficiently into both historic luggage and modern messenger bags, for the mobile sewist.
Of course, one of the first questions to ask is: why am I a mobile sewist? In what circumstances did people at mid-century go mobile with their sewing tools, and what did they use to make that happen?
Sometimes, we may be trying to make settled sewing more portable for our own modern ease, such as portraying a mid-century sewing professional who would normally operate in a workroom or shop, but out of a tent or coming into a village for short-term portrayals. We need to be careful to not impose our own desire for portability over the actual historic practices of our sort of sewist. Investigating the actual practices of the past lets us find a good historic option, or a careful blend of several options, that give us the best solutions.
Going back to the Progressive Questions (What did the Original Cast actually do and use? Can I replicate that? If not, what other things did they actually do and use? Which historic option fits my needs and impression best?) is always the best way to start in the past, and explore a wide range of options for the modern living history impression, including the mobile sewist!
The full price is a great deal, but the Early Bird has extra dollars to spend in the Merchant Hall, and that’s a lot better than worms, don’t you think?
Registration information is at the Genteel Arts website. Click through to visit, or click on the image to be delivered by that route!
Every March, something cool happens. It’s January right now, but you still have a month to get in on the cool March something, so I wanted to take some time and share it with you! And we all know I break blogging rules on a very consistent basis, so this is a looooooong bit of happiness. Grab a snack. Nothing sticky or too crumbly.
One of my all-time favorite mentors in living history research is Carolann Schmitt, who took a pretty scattered, very young Liz under her kind wing, and has remained a constant encouragement for all of my adult life… nearly two decades at this point! (Seriously, her willingness to hold up her own mid-century undergarments in public–not while wearing them–was the first moment I knew I was going to adore her. I was right.)
For a great lot of that time, she and a team of very dedicated volunteers have put on an amazing educational experience each year. You may have heard of “The Harrisburg Conference” or “that big thing back East.”
Last March, I was delighted to present two topics to the good people attending Back East, and now I’m delighted to have a chance to sit down (virtually) with one of my favorite people, and grill her (gently, in a Period Approved Manner) about the gathering upcoming this March. You’re going to want to be there. You’ll find the registration information right here on the Genteel Arts Academy website. Go ahead and download the registration form. She and I will wait right here.
A 2015 Name Change
This is the 21st year of the gathering, but moving into the third decade of existence, it’s been reclassified as a Symposium, rather than a conference. Previously, the topics have all focused on citizen life, experiences, and material culture, with each presenter sharing their own research on diverse aspects of mid-19th century life. Will anything change with the types or breadth of citizen-focus topics going forward?
We haven’t begun to cover all the possible topics on mid-19th century life. We’ll continue to see out new topics and new information.
We’d also like to increase our hands-on learning opportunities and are working on how some of the suggested topics can be adapted to a hotel-conference center setting. Harnessing oxen in the hotel lobby is problematic.
Learning for the Eclectic Mind
This year’s topics range from the science of pre-plastics, to jokes and humor, to the lives of army wives, to fine details in clothing, to the common working of the postal service, and medical practices of enslaved people. Other years are similarly diverse. How do you settle on such an interesting mix?
A lot of shuffling, dithering and switching is involved.
We spend a significant amount of time reviewing proposals, considering which presentations will complement the other presentations on the program, which topics will be more appealing to the participants, does a topic contain new research and information, does it relate to an upcoming event or anniversary, is it a topic that everyone needs to learn or be reminded about; will it fit best in this year’s program or should we hold it until next year?
We then make appropriate sacrifices to the gods, read the cards, say a few prayers, and hope we’ve found the right mix.
One thing I’ve noticed, looking back over topic ranges from the past decade, is a decidedly universal appeal. This is definitely not a women’s-only or clothing-only gathering. The focus is on mid-century citizen/civilian life. The earliest gatherings, before Genteel Arts took the helm, were not so broad. What led you to make the experience more inclusive to men and women both?
We noticed a change in the hobby. Many veteran military reenactors were looking for events with new opportunities for more in-depth participation. Others still wanted to participate in living history but were facing physical limitations.
At the same time we began to see an increase in high quality, small scale events with a stronger or solely-civilian emphasis. These events offered opportunities for men, women and children, but there was a decided lack of information on what roles may be available for them or how the roles could be executed. Expanding the Conference/Symposium to include everyone was a logical change that has proven to be very popular.
Is this a Symposium open only to those who “do” living history?
Heavens, no. Our participants include staff and volunteers from local, state and national parks, docents and interpreters from historic sites, costume and textile enthusiasts, doll collectors, collectors and enthusiasts interested in non-clothing “stuff”, antique dealers, professionals and tradesmen who are interested in the history of their profession or craft, historians, and living history participants.
This diversity is one of the things that makes the Symposium what it is – the opportunity to exchanging ideas and information with like-minded people from all over the country and around the world.
Looking at presenter bios, I notice one common theme: regardless of professional or academic credentials, everyone seems to be very passionate in their particular topics and fields of research, and the overall level of scholarship tends toward the highest levels. Sometimes, that would lead to some really dry, esoteric lectures.
But, the speakers at the Symposium present in such accessible tones–it’s like really high-grade show-and-tell from passionate, engaged friends. Have you found that the presenters you select just naturally tend toward that blend of great research and accessible language, or do you have to coach as well as organize and do your own presentations?
We do consider speaking ability and experience when reviewing presentations. We don’t coach, but we do offer some tips and suggestions on organizing their presentation, on speaking to a large group, and stress the importance of staying on schedule. Fortunately, the majority of our speakers can transmit their research and enthusiasm in an informative, interesting and entertaining presentation.
Are there particular parts of this year’s Symposium that you’re the most excited to attend?
All of them? Unfortunately, as sponsor and organizer I don’t get to hear all of the presentations in their entirety.
The Philanthropic Bits
The Civilian Symposium has a long tradition of donating the registration fees from select pre-event tours to historic preservation. In the last eight years, nearly $11,000 has been donated. What inspired you to use a fun pre-event excursion to help fund these historic needs? Which excursion is the preservation jaunt this year?
I know how hard historic sites work to obtain funding, and artifact preservation is often at the bottom of the budget.
The staff at the sites we visit have willingly developed special presentations and tours for our participants, frequently giving them access to areas that are normally off-limits to the general public. Donating the registration fees to these institutions was a way of showing our appreciation and supporting their efforts.
The Shippensburg University Fashion Archives & Museum, the National Civil War Museum and the John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion, both in Harrisburg, will host workshop/tours this year and will benefit from the donation of the registration fees.
Another big tradition with the Civilian Symposium is the yearly “Angel Project,” where attendees provide volunteer labor to a specific historic preservation or education project. This year, it’s helping in whatever ways the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives & Museum needs to settle into their brand new home. That kind of historic community outreach is unique. What led you to incorporate it, and what has been the response from those who go to serve, and those being served?
We ‘borrowed’ the concept from the Costume Society of America, which has conducted Angels Projects during their annual symposium for many years.
The program is designed to assist museums with smaller projects for which they have neither staff nor funding. It is very much a “work day”. The projects vary widely, can require physical effort, and may or may not be related to the mid-19th century. The participants love it and work very hard, and the sites are very appreciative of the donated time and effort.
The Financial Bits
These days it seems like everything just costs more. But, registration for the Symposium, including the reception, the Fancy Dress ball, all the workshops and rotating clothing displays, breakfasts and lunches and snacks, and all the presentation handouts, is actually *lower* this year, under $200 for adults, and as low as $165 for full-time students if registrations are in by 1 February. What inspired or enabled you to make that change?
We work hard to provide a great value for each participant. We realize the Symposium is not an inexpensive weekend, and we want to include as many participants as we can. That means keeping costs as reasonable as possible and making participation in some of the associated activities optional. A good working relationship with our facility, applying standard business practices, and a sharp pencil help make it possible.
Also, I know the registration packet says you do not accept a first-born child in lieu of payment, but my first-born is of age, and highly useful in class settings and “presenter-minding”. Are you sure I can’t do a swap there?
It’s a possibility… (insert big grin here!)
The Symposium has limited attendance, and tends to sell out… the official deadline is 15 February, but will there actually be seats available by then? Is there a reason attendance is capped?
Attendance is capped due to the available meeting space. The main meeting room is 7,500 square feet, and we use every inch of it for displays and seating. We can comfortably accommodate 225-230 people for the sessions, and 265-270 for dinner. We have been at 90%-100% capacity many years.
Most readers will be seeing this 15 January–get those registrations in ASAP!
The Physical Bits
The hotel and meeting space is quite convenient; I flew in, and got a free shuttle to and from the airport without a problem. Staff was lovely. I had a few odd requests, and they didn’t even blink. There’s a business center right off the lobby that I used to print out shipping labels and avoid having to put everything in my suitcase! (Seriously, plan to ship a box home. Because: juried vendors. Awesome.)
The special rate on the rooms means that if you bunk in with three other sympatico souls, you’ll spend under $30 a night each. And the hotel honors the special rate for a full ten days surrounding the Symposium, if you want to come early or stay late. The majority of your meals are included in the registration costs (the divine supper Saturday night is extra and optional and worth it); there’s a convenient restaurant right in the hotel that serves a great variety of tasty things, as well as some good local eateries a short drive away.
One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll be doing some walking from your room to the various presentations and classes. Bring comfortable shoes, and give yourself time to stroll! With all the good food and the time you’ll spend seated, some exercise is a very, very good thing. You’ll be strolling in good company.
Also, drink plenty of liquids. Yes, you’ll need to “skip to the loo, my darling,” but the loo is lovely (just outside the session rooms!), you’ll be doing a lot of eager chatting with fellow passionate people, and the better hydrated you are, the less your vocal chords will suffer. There are plentifully-tended water stations in the presentation rooms, so there’s no excuse. Drink your water! That way you can get all the visiting in.
Shopping With Confidence. Seriously.
How many times have you been frustrated with not knowing what it’s “okay” to buy from merchants? The Symposium has been solving that for a long time, with a juried vendor area coordinated by Debbie McBeth. Everyone there is vetted, and not everyone gets in every year! This ensures a wide variety of period-appropriate offerings (the general push is to never duplicate product lines from multiple vendors, so it’s a wider range of unique items than you’ll find at most events), and makes the merchant rooms some of the best concentrated historic coolness you’ve ever seen.
Vendor selection is unbiased, too; symposium sponsors aren’t involved in the jury process. Each merchant needs to apply each year, so the mix has a freshness and natural turn-over that serves the living history community very well.
The Marketplace is just down the hall from the session rooms, and there’s ample shopping time all day Friday, as well as during breaks and lunch while the sessions are running. Even if you’re not able to come to the Symposium workshops, the Marketplace is open to the public during business hours.
Here’s my tip list for visiting the Marketplace:
- Make a wish-list before you go in
- Take one tour through just to get your bearings
- Go through again to ask questions and make your selections.
I was able to find just the right ribbons to finish off my Saturday outfit, a gorgeous little lapis brooch, a great deal on corset coutil, a whole new set of corset bones to allow me to finally retire FrankenCorset (some of my bones could vote AND drink!), and very cool historically accurate toys for each of my kids, too. My son, then nearly 15, had jokingly said, “I want a pony, Mama!”, so I brought him home a pair of inch-high carved wooden ponies from the Mescher’s Ragged Soldier tables. The look on his face when he opened them was so funny! (They live next to his laptop, and his little sisters aren’t allowed to play with them.)
I got to see some of the most gorgeous and accurate carpetbags available today, some amazing leather bags, beautiful bonnets and fabrics… so much glorious stuff in a compact, visually astonishing space!
Each year, there’s a needlework competition, just for fun. Last year, it was dolls; previous years have included knitted items, sewing cases, and other interesting small material culture items. This year, it’s a little different, as there will be voting on the individual participants’ Fancy Dress for Saturday night’s party. Why Fancy Dress this year? Is there any overall theme for the Fancy Dress? Will participants be talking about their “character” or symbolism beforehand, or is it meant to be a surprise that night? Do you have your costume chosen already?
We had a Fancy Dress ball a few years ago that was very popular and very successful, with many requests to repeat the experience. It will be a Fancy Dress party this year, with a costume parade, contests, games, and a few surprises. There’s no overall theme; costumes can be historical, allegorical, fantasy, fictional, famous persons, a role or job, an artifact, or funny. The costumes will be a surprise that evening, with descriptions provided by the Mistress of Ceremonies.
Several prizes will be awarded, including the best costume in each of the categories listed above, best couple, best group, and outstanding achievement in sewing and needlework.
I usually consider myself fortunate if my conference dress is finished, but I just may have a costume for the evening.
Speaking of awards, in 2014, I got the Official Last Finisher of a Conference Dress Accolade, as I sat down to reset my sleeves and add closures *after* the Conference Dress presentation Saturday morning. The Conference Dress has been a pretty big deal for a long time with this event. Each presenter is given a length of identical fabric and told “Make a Mid-Century Garment.” With that as the only rule, everyone ends up doing something radically different, and I’ve never seen two dresses come out the same, nor two male presenters opt for the same style either. Will this treat of material proportions continue in the 21st year of the Symposium? Any hints on what we might see this year?
The Conference/Symposium fabric has been a tradition since the first event. It has become increasingly challenging to find 120+ yards of an appropriate fabric, but we’ll continue the tradition as long as we can.
And sorry, no hints. You’ll have to wait until breakfast Saturday morning.
Dang it. (Mentally insert another big smile!)
Original Eye Candy!
Each year, there are sizable original clothing and artifact displays that change daily. Can attendees take pictures and notes for personal research and use? What General Artifact Etiquette Tips do you suggest?
Attendees can view the displays at close range and take all the photographs and notes they wish. The owners of the displays are in attendance and are more than willing to show the inside of a garment or the back of an artifact. Some of the garments will be displayed inside out on the following day. Feel free to ask questions; we like to talk about our stuff!
Proper etiquette includes:
1: No touching without permission
2: Keep all food and beverages well away from the displays
3: No ink pens or markers in the vicinity of the displays
4: Obtain permission from the owner before posting images online, and give credit to the owner when you do.
I know that Mr Schmitt is pretty much a wizard with technology; does he have any suggestions for getting great pictures in the indoor Symposium settings?
Don suggests becoming familiar with all the features of your camera before the event. Most cameras today offer an indoor or dim-light setting; learn how to use it if yours has that feature. Keep your arms against your body and hold the camera as still as possible. Flash photography is permitted.
Bring extra batteries and lots of memory cards.
Any odd or unusual things to keep an eye out for this year?
The Welcome Reception and Fancy Dress party will have some new features. And there’s always something odd or unusual during the weekend – officially or unofficially.
What are your top three tips for having a great Symposium experience?
Meet someone new; they’ll likely become a life-long friend.
Take time to view the displays; opportunities to view original garments at this close range are unusual.
Savor every moment and share the information you’ve learned with friends and colleagues at home.
That’s technically more than three, but it’s Very Difficult to limit oneself at the Symposium, so there will be no ceremonial beatings with the Dampened Rayon Snood of Shame, I promise.
We jokingly call these “trading cards”, but no one ever wants to trade away image in their set! So, “Study Cards” they are: cleaned up and enhanced original historic images on one side, and Elizabeth Stewart Clark’s dressmaking notes on the reverse! If you’re wanting to learn to “read” historic images more deeply, these are just the place to start!
Each set contains at least 12 images plus notes, with a focus on conservatively fashionable ensembles suited to professional, middle, and “better” working class historic impressions. Where biographical notes are available on the sitters, we share them, too!
Previously, these were available only in-person at Sewing Academy workshops. But, we’ve had participants asking for additional sets later, so… why not share with everyone?
We have sets for:
- Hoop-Era (1858-1865) Women
- Hoop-Era (1858-1865) Children (infants to teens, boys and girls)
- 1840s-1850s Women
- 1840s-1850s Children (infants to teens, boys and girls)
We’re quite sure you’re going to fall in love with these examples of The Original Cast. Visit The Shop to add them to your collection!
(PS: if you’re feeling a little last minute for Christmas giving, go ahead and order! Just let us know who it’s for, and place your order before 4pm Christmas Eve. We’ll send a customized printable 8×11 gift certificate directly to your email. Print it up, add a pretty bow, and you’ll have a lovely something to give at your gift exchange!)
When you open your copy of The Dressmaker’s Guide, you may notice something missing:
Somehow, that one vital creature was left out! But, due to the miracles of digital sharing, we are now very happy to offer you a free, downloadable PDF with an actual index for your Dressmaker’s Guide!
Click through for your Free Dressmaker’s Guide Index
Print this PDF double-sided (it will come out all landscaped and lovely), and fold it in half; the lined note page will be at the back of your index insert. You can tuck it into your book, tip it in with glue, or tape it to the inside back cover, as you prefer.
We now return to our regularly scheduled Giving of Thanks…
Many of you are already familiar with the lovely things you can make using Anna Worden Bauersmith’s Fanciful Utility. If you’ve been in workshops with Liz, you’ll know that the fun drawings she does for prizes include needle books, sewing rolls, and scissor-and-case sets she makes from Fanciful Utility techniques, and just how charming they are!
Just for fun, Anna is running a great give-away for the next twelve days, and you can win lovely things made by the author herself, with multiple ways to add your name to the hat each and every day!
Find all the details on her personal blog, If I Had My Own Blue Box (and all the Whovians do a little fist-bump), for the
If you already have your copy, don’t forget to check out the Compendium for some great free projects you can make with techniques in Fanciful Utility! And for some more inspiration from original items, hit up our Sewing Academy Pinterest Board!
But first: Head on over to Anna’s blog and find out how you can enter to win the gorgeous things! (We won’t even look at you cross-eyed if you don’t happen to pass them along as gifts, and they mysteriously end up living in your own sewing basket…) (Promise.) (Because we understand entirely.)
It’s a topic that comes up quite frequently in living history circles: how much does a good repro dress cost? Or bonnet? Or corset?
And then there’s usually a pretty good ruckus of people saying it’s highway robbery, or skin-flint cheap, or loads of variations on that theme. And since I wear a few different bonnets in the mid-century world, I have Opinions. Several. And since I own this site, I’m able to share them in permanent form. So, read on, MacDuff!
What Makes it “Good”?
There’s a certain amount of work that goes into any project, regardless of its accuracy. Since I’m not really keen on wasting time, money, or materials, my definition of “Good” is “looks as much like originals as possible, with the same geometry, materials, techniques, and finishing.” If the item is at a lesser standard than that, it’s just not worth my time, effort, or money.
Particularly where budgets are slim, it’s too expensive to waste time buying or making Make Do. Better to go for a simple, accurate item that will last.
But It’s a Hobby!
Yes, it is. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Most folks, though, claim to be doing living history to preserve it, to educate the public, to introduce the community or kids or whomever to our foundational roots as a society. And once we lay the “educational” moniker on things, we also take up a burden of academic honesty and ethics that mean we need to kick it up a notch or five, with solid research and application, so what the public sees is actually history, not pleasant fantasy or flat-out fiction.
If you’re only making historically-inspired styles for your own use in your home, then go for whatever you want. If you’re in public, or attempting to educate others, that’s a different goal, and the effort and baseline go commensurately up. It’s a hobby AND it’s a thing worth doing Just Like They Did It. Our baseline is that Original Cast, not “other reenactors.” Anything less is just not worth it.
(There are other opinions on this matter. You’ll find those opinions elsewhere.)
Why Do Makers Charge So High?
Not to be unkind, but: they willingly devoted hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of hours to acquire and master skills you’re not willing to learn for yourself. So, they deserve to make more than they would flipping burgers and asking if you want fries with that. A good historic maker is using antique skills that you do have to work to acquire. The workman is indeed worthy of his hire. There’s nothing unethical in charging $15, $30, or even $50 an hour for skilled work, particularly if it’s rare skills. If you don’t want to pay that, then you’ll need to work independently and acquire those skills for yourself.
Private professionals also have to cover all their business costs in order to take commission work from their clients. They have to be able to keep the lights and heat on, feed a family, pay both the employee and employer portion of all city, county, state, and federal taxes (and hooooo boy are some of those amounts high, such as private medical insurance costs!), maintain and repair and upgrade all their equipment, spend time on marketing and bookkeeping and communications. Whatever they charge per hour, consider that they *might* net half that amount, after their business costs. Sometimes. Not always.
Individual makers have to set their own rates. If you feel they’re too high, there are options (see below). If you feel they’re too low, give them a healthy cash bonus at the end of the project to let them know you appreciate their work, even if they say they’re doing it out of love, or just to pay for their own hobby fun. I guarantee you, I’ve never met a maker who was rolling in the lucre from supplying the historic community. Ever.
Is It Really Worth It?
Yes, sometimes. A quality item from a skilled professional can be very much worth a higher-than-average cost. Of course, a high price does not guarantee a good finished project! It really does pay to do your own research, so you know what you’re looking for in your repro items, and know what a red flag looks like if you see one. A maker who charges $800 for a cotton print “ball gown”, and touts how wonderful the machined gauging is? Oh, Red Flag.
It’s Just Too Much. What Can I Do?
Here’s the happy thing: you have so many, many options!
If you are willing and determined to learn to do a running stitch by hand and a whip stitch by hand, you can make your undergarments, a dress, and quite a few bits of outerwear. If you’re willing to learn to do a straight stitch on a machine, you can get many parts done very quickly. Anyone with determination and willingness can learn to sew well enough to make good, serviceable, accurate historic clothing for themselves and their household.
And I do mean it: anyone. I’ve had people who were legally blind in my workshops. If they can do it, you can. I promise.
With running stitch by hand, you can do seams, install piping, create waistbands, and prep gathering and gauging. You can put up a hem, add hem tape, and baste on collars. Add a whip stitch and you can set skirts of all kinds, add a seam “finish” to your cut edges, attach hooks and eyes, and finish off piping seam allowances for a very tidy inside look.
Yes, there are a lot of pieces to a woman’s wardrobe. You’ll find most of them covered in The Dressmaker’s Guide. And quite a few elements are available as free patterns in the Compendium, excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide. We’re excited to get to add to that stack over the winter, too, with some great new sunbonnet styles from private collections and museums (it’s so cool when we ask to share something, and the owners say Yes, do!)
Aside from the undergarments, aprons, shawls, and headwear found here on the Sewing Academy, there are some great bits of documented usefulness around the internet. Need garters, for instance?
If you’re not feeling confident now, take some workshops from The Sewing Academy (click the tab up yonder), or the Genteel Arts Academy; both instructors are portable. Check your local area for workshops through historic sites, or ask them to sponsor a series. Get involved with a group that does sewing days, and has members willing to mentor you in highly-accurate practices.
I’m Not Keen on Full DIY. I Need Help!
That’s fine, too, and totally historically accurate! Most skilled historic dressmakers, for instance, will let you hire them to do just a bodice fitting, or do the bodice construction for you while you to the skirts, or just do the sleeves for you because you hate drafting and setting them.
Many excellent historic milliners will provide you with a totally finished and trimmed bonnet, a ready-to-trim bonnet, a partially finished bonnet, or just a bonnet kit and supplies. You have options.
Using a professional for just part of the work is very normal for most skilled makers, and it can be a very budget-friendly way to go for you, too.
But I Want Spendy Gorgeousness. Can’t They Just Charge Me Less?
Well, no. That’s a great way for the professional to burn out or go bankrupt. If you’d like their spendy gorgeousness, save up. It’s okay to wait on a splurge. Longing and anticipation are two very valid mid-century activities. Once you have a basic wardrobe with undergarments, skirt support, a corset, and a dress, you really don’t need 40 more dresses. Take your time, and research and save to add perhaps one piece a year, or every other year, as things wear out. Just like they did in the period. Odd, how that works out so nicely!
But Shouldn’t They Be Charging Less, Really? I Mean, It’s For Education (And Stuff)!
Well, no. They probably ought to be charging more, given the hundreds of hours of effort behind every project they take on. Charging adequate prices on skilled labor means they get to do things like putting money in savings so they can retire someday, or take a family vacation, or even take the odd sick-day. Those are not high-falutin’, snobby goals. Promise.
You’ve hear the old adage: Fast, Good, or Cheap: Pick Two.
It applies to historic wardrobes as well.
You can have Fast and Cheap, but it’s not going to be Good, and then you’ve wasted everything that went into it.
You can have Fast(ish) and Good, but it’s not going to be Cheap, because you’ll be paying fair skilled-labor rates to a professional, and if they’re sensible, they’re going to charge you extra for the Fast part. This stuff takes time, whether it’s a $3/yard cotton print dress or a silk ballgown.
You can definitely have Good and Cheap, but you’ll need to invest time in your own basic sewing skills, and work at it in tiny increments, making time for it in your schedule. It is 100% do-able, though it may take awhile! Clothing does not have to be perfectly stitched in order to be perfectly historically-accurate and very serviceable. (You can also buy used good items from others, and remodel them… that’s another mid-century norm we can use to our advantage, and it’s a whole ‘nother set of postings.)
Nearly 1700 words is straining the limits of tasteful blogging, so I’ll wrap up with this:
Doing it well is worth the effort (yours) and money (yours and that paid to select makers). Don’t denigrate it. Or, if you feel like denigrating it, just hush for awhile. Other people are working hard to do a good job, and it’s rude to bother them.
If anyone would like to add comments, please do link up your very favorite, very accurate resources for either a skilled historic maker, or a great DIY option!
Or, How To Be Awesome, In 17 Simple Steps.
Many, many moons ago, a wonderful historic researcher and living history enthusiast named Mrs Susan Lyons Hughes wrote this simple point-by-point description of a very useful attitude for any living history enthusiast. It is shared here, word for word, with her permission. Upon reading it through again, I am struck by the applicability of it now–no need for updates, even a decade-and-a-half later! The attitude described in this list works beautifully for any living history enthusiast. Substitute your favorite region or era for “Civil War,” as needed.
As November is a month for thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for:
THE AUTHENTIC CIVILIAN’S MANIFESTO
© Susan Lyons Hughes
1. I am committed to developing and practicing the most historically accurate portrayal of a civilian during the American Civil War now possible, independent of my husband/spouse/significant other.
2. The only limitations I place upon the accuracy of my impression are due to a prudent concern for maintaining modern standards of health and safety, and those limitations naturally enforced by lack of information resulting from the passage of time since the Civil War.
3. I obtain the most historically accurate clothing, equipment, and other relevant items available to me. I insist upon the use of proper materials and construction techniques in all reproduction items. I handle my finances in a manner that will prevent financial considerations from limiting the accuracy of my impression.
4. I recognize that many vital aspects of Civil War civilian life – terror and wounds on a battlefield near my home, the sights of death on the battlefield or in the hospital, diseases, and much else – cannot be re-created effectively in a living history context. I do not see this failing as an excuse to be lax about other aspects of my impression, but as a challenge to insure that all I can portray is presented as accurately as possible.
5. My impression is based upon serious research into and careful analysis of reliable sources of information about the experiences of civilians during the mid-19th Century. I recognize the need to employ the historian’s skills, including the ability to evaluate possible sources of information. I place considerable reliance upon documented research conducted by others, but I do not base my impression upon the claims of those who manufacture goods for the reenacting market, reenacting traditions and customs, superficial or outdated publications, entertainment media, or other suspect sources.
6. I am prepared to change my impression to incorporate improvements dictated by new historical information as it becomes available to me. I recognize that our understanding of the details of history changes over time. I welcome constructive discussion of such matters, and I share information freely.
7. I portray the Civil War civilian as my knowledge of history leads me to believe is accurate for a particular scenario. This may include altering my impression, depending upon the event scenario, and I am willing to do the research to create an impression that is accurate for the time and place being portrayed. My impression may reflect regional variations in clothing and equipment and changes over time during the war. I can vary my personal impression to suit differing locations and dates of depicted events.
8. I recognize that for the vast majority of civilians during the Civil War, the impact of the war was felt “at home,” and that to re-create civilian life accurately, opportunities for civilian activities at traditional battle reenactments will often be limited. I am committed to developing living history opportunities at venues besides traditional battle reenactments in order to more accurately portray the lives of civilians. This does not mean that I cannot or will not attend battle reenactments, but that I will not try to impose an inaccurate civilian presence at a military scenario when it is not appropriate.
9. I recognize that a successful impression cannot be superficial. My objective is not to conceal modern items but to re-create a historic time and place in detail. Therefore, my impression is as accurate and complete as I can make it on every level – including all of my clothing and the contents of my pockets, carpetbags, &c. Further, I am familiar with the material culture of the mid-19th United States in general, and not just with objects related directly to the military, or to objects related to civilians who may have been associated with the military.
10. While portraying a Civil War civilian I eat food that simulates as closely as possible the food available to the people in the situation being depicted, which includes food which might have been in season as well as available in the region. However, I do not endanger my health by consuming food known to be dangerous. I dispose of human waste in a safe manner.
11. In pursuit of the complete Civil War civilian experience, I am willing to take part in accurately staged scenarios that accurately reflect activities of the period. I learn as much as I can about the details of these activities so that I can portray them realistically. If called upon to do so, I am willing to continue the living history experience around the clock during events.
12. I am committed to learning about antebellum and wartime civilian life to better understand the historical context of the mid-19th century, and to engage in realistic interaction with serious military reenactors that are appropriate to the time and place. I will not live in the military camps, and I will enter the military camps only with an escort, and only with a period-appropriate reason for doing so. I will base my interaction with military reenactors upon historic research appropriate to the scenario time and place being depicted.
13. I employ first-person living history techniques whenever appropriate. I take great care to avoid behavior, language, and comments that might disrupt accurate living history activities. I strive to attain a mental attitude appropriate to the person I portray when in character.
14. I do not “hide my candle under a bushel.” I take advantage of situations that allow me to share my knowledge of the realities of Civil War civilian life with fellow living history enthusiasts and with the public. I participate in living history activities, especially at smaller events, and in educational programs.
15. I see “mainstream” reenactors as potential converts to living history at higher levels of historical accuracy, and I avoid conflict with them. I conduct my relations with them in a manner consistent with the behavior expected from mid-19th century gentlemen and ladies. However, I do maintain my own high standards of excellence for portraying Civil War civilian life.
16. I limit my discussion of and participation in politics at events to that appropriate to the event historical scenario. I leave my views on current events and modern-day reenacting politics at home.
17. The greatest pleasure I derive from Civil War living history comes from the knowledge that I am re-creating the experiences of the civilians who lived during the Civil War with the greatest fidelity to history I can manage.
Thank you, Mrs Hughes! This document has been an inspiration and a guide for many years, and I hope it will continue to guide others for decades to come!
Here in the foothills of the Rockies, the weather is changing; most of the leaves are down from the trees (and our hens are enjoying the addition to their cozy bedding!), and mornings are often glittered with frost.
For those anticipating some cool-weather history opportunities, consider adding one of the most basic mid-century outerwear pieces to your own collection. A simple self-fringed shawl is appropriate to men, women, children, and infants of all stations in life, and can be made either single (a width of fabric, squared) or double (twice as long as it is wide, folded to a square and then a triangle for use.)
Look for lightweight (4-8 ounce per square yard, or “tropical/summer” weight) to mid-weight (8-12 ounce) wools in gorgeous solids, plaids, or stripes (that don’t holler business suit) for shawls. The fabric need not be overly thick or stiff; you want it to mold and drape around the body easily, and thick, stiff wools won’t do that. The multiple layers created when a square or rectangular shawl is folded for use insulate very nicely, even when the weather is damp.
Worsted wools will have the smoothest feel, as they are made from longer-staple wool fibers, carded in one direction and then spun and woven. The better qualities of worsted wool have a silky finish that many who’ve only known wool as a scratchy, bulky torture device won’t even recognize as wool!
Sheer wools are an option for those of us who run warm, but want a little something (the two layers of sheer wool when my favorite shawl is folded are delightfully and deceptively cozy!)
For size, 54″ or 60″ widths are the most flexible in use, but if you’re making one for a little girl, go with 45″ x 45″; 36″ x 36″ for tiny toddler folks who won’t be snuggled up “in arms” (for those infants, the adult-sized shawls are easiest.)
Click through to the project titled Make a Fringed Shawl in the Compendium (you’ll need a PDF reader installed on your device in order to access any of our free projects).
One tip on the fringing: carefully snip from the edge toward the center of the shawl, every 3-4 inches or so, and you’ll have very short segments that fringe quickly and easily. Also, use a chopstick, skewer, stiletto, or seam ripper to get between the threads and pull them toward the edge.
These make an excellent gifts or items for a loaner trunk. The monetary investment is very small compared to the usefulness of the shawl, in the short and long-term. The best “make-do” pieces are those that are fully historically accurate, and inexpensive, and easy to accomplish!
I’ve had several requests from folks who need a bit more time to arrange for their workshop attendance, so we’re leaving the registration links for Sacramento CA workshops mid-November open until Halloween!
The fitting and draping workshops do have limited seating, and we’re getting very close to full on those; the interpretive workshops have more flexible seating, so there are options open! Click the Workshops tab to register, or CLICK HERE.