One absolutely fantastic aspect of 19th century living history is that it tends to have a fairly consistent turnover rate, as people enter and exit the hobby over time (it seems like it’s about a five-year cycle). The turnover keeps fresh perspectives in the mix, and can push us to continually upgrade the experiences we create for ourselves and our visitors.
And one truly dreadful aspect is that same turnover rate: sometimes we’re stuck reinventing wheels, or retrenching after a group falls into negative patterns and habits.
But, let’s focus on the positive: how do we go about creating a “Citizen Space”, where those interested in history can live out what they’ve researched, and those visiting can experience portions of the past they might never have contemplated before, or may be longing to see?
One key is to lay a nice foundation for the sort of experiences you and your friends want to have, and communicate that clearly to others who may want to associate with you. Conflicting goals and expectations are primary sources of conflict in any situation, and even more so in living history endeavors. A postively-phrased group philosophy and baseline standard for material culture and impressions goes a long way toward clarifying your group or event expectations, and allows others to choose to associate with you, or not, according to their own history goals.
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Keep It Brief
This is not the time for your dissertation on every aspect of the 19th century. If you cannot state the group goal in 100 words or less, it needs further clarification. Keep the standards compact, as well, with phrasing that allows flexibility for evolving impression development and additional research expansion.
The impression standards or material culture guideline doesn’t have to go into every jot and tittle of 19th century living. Again, positive phrasing (we encourage, we expect, please, do, etc) and clear expectations of using current research and documentation go a long way to creating solid, yet flexible, standards.
Here’s one example of a clear goal statement, in a compact, positive style:
We present impressions of working-class citizens, from hands-on laboring people to professionals plying white-collar trades, with an emphasis on This Geographic Area for 18XX to 18XX. Our typical events rely heavily on public interaction in multiple “voices”, but non-speaking impressions are also available. We encourage participation from all ages, and work hard to keep a positive, family-friendly atmosphere.
(That’s 70 words, by the way.)
A basic formula of Who We Portray, Where We Are, When We Focus, and How We Interact helps you keep things very compact, but informative. Anyone reading a statement like the one above could easily determine that this group will not be a great place to portray a Russian nobleman, for instance, because that’s clearly outside the scope of the group’s stated goal.
25 years ago, many group guidelines were a laundry list of Thou Shalt Not, which can be daunting and even a little insulting if you’re a newbie. Instead of the Thou Shalt Not list, simply share the Thou Shalts: the Do half of the list, phrased politely.
Compare the following:
DO NOT use nail polish or makeup, no “snoods”, no bridal hoops, no ballgowns, no “Zouave” sets, no bandanas, no flip-flops, no ponytails, no cigarettes, and absolutely NO sunglasses!
To increase everyone’s safety, please use 100% natural fibers (cotton prints, lightweight wool, some silk) for your clothing; Miss Johnson and Mr Howell are happy to mentor with fabric selection. Our portrayal is largely working-class, which encompasses a wide range of style options. We encourage everyone to start with well-drafted, high-quality historic clothing patterns (see the resource section for our recommendations), and assemble a strong wardrobe of basics from the skin out, to allow maximum impression flexibility. High-fashion items, like ballgowns and “Zouave” combinations, will be less useful for our normal range of events, and should not be first-round wardrobe choices. Having a period hairstyle is a great finishing touch to your impression. Please refer to the resource section for some accurate hairstyle options; Mrs Baloo and Miss Cutworth are both available to help you with a style that suits you well.
(Alright, the positively-phrased version is definitely more wordy than the Thou Shalt Nots, but be honest: which makes you feel more welcomed, supported, and encouraged that you can do a good job?)
Cover The Bases
Your group guideline is a good place to note behavioral and liability issues, as well as “impression non grata” details and safety expectations. Put these in their own section, perhaps titled Safety Expectations. It’s fine to expand the definition of “safety” to “things that will get our group sued if something goes wrong” and “things our group finds inappropriate to present”; after all, the purpose of the document is to help accumulate others who share your idea of “fun”. Being clear on the delicate aspects helps others decide if the group culture is going to be a good fit for them, and also gives clarity if the group needs to invite someone to disengage at a later point.
Create Some Space
I still find myself shocked when citizen groups report they are camping in with military encampments, or begging for a few square meters of dedicated citizen space. Citizen impressions require citizenry space. Carve out a separate impression area for citizen living history; if it must be close to the military due to space constraints at the event site, or lack of cooperation from event organizers, distinguish the area with signage, so visitors know they are entering a non-military area.
Depending on the event setting, there’s still the issue of mid-century citizens living in tents, but it’s easier to mutually agree to suspend disbelief over the tent situation, versus the highly uncommon situation of everyday citizens camping with the military.
Remember, too, that living history exists outside the military plane. Gather a core of interested people, and design some citizen-focus events that have no military component. These do not need to be complex or mega-events! Getting together for a period picnic in the park, or working together to do gardening work at a historic house in historic ways, can be highly informative and fun, without requiring a large infrastructure, budget, or committee.
Evaluate & Upgrade
Be willing and able to stop, evaluate, and upgrade as needed. We are never stuck with the status quo! When you become aware of a challenge, see if your citizen living history arrangements can accommodate it as-is. If not, what is the minimum you must put in place to solve the challenge? Is there a further step that could be a positive upgrade for everyone? As with writing group guidelines, keeping a positive mindset is extremely helpful.
Back to Clarity
Communicate expectations for your living history scenario and space clearly, positively, and as often as needed. Helping both newbies and “oldbies” decide if your idea of fun is their idea of fun helps overcome a lot of problems and tension.
I think in some ways, despite my actual years, I’m about a great-grandma in living history years. This may be one of those articles where you just sit back and enjoy the Granny Rant. But, hopefully it may be useful!
One of the frequent discussions that comes up is whether or not an individual needs a highly detailed persona (with associated worksheets, family trees, and character notes that would put any world-building novelist to shame).
There’s a certain amount of impression context and background you do need, just to make sure your material culture details (wardrobe, tools, etc) are consistent with what you’re trying to communicate.
But, you may not need a full backstory, ever.
Here’s what I mean:
When I first got really serious about matching my impressions to documented information, we were looking at Western Immigration as our most available event scenarios. We’re here in the West, most branches of my family had come out before Oregon Statehood. (David’s family is half Gulf South, one-quarter pre-Rev New England, one-quarter 20th century emigration from South Africa and Scotland.)
So I started with the most obvious resources: Trails era (1843-1865 for my interest era) diaries and letter compilations, advice to emigrants available in republished volumes like The Prairie Traveler, and family history documents.
With all of that, and being a Very Indoor Cat, myself, the people who most spoke to me from the past were Reluctant Immigrants: those who were going West under duress, for a variety of reasons. My first impression or person with full documentation was just that:
West Under Duress: A Woman Abroad and Quite Cranky About It, Thanks.
I didn’t need a name. I didn’t have to know my religion, generally, save for the times I was doing really early stuff and needed to be Methodist for the mission set-ups. I didn’t have a birthdate. I was crabby about being pulled away from family, but I didn’t do backstory for any of them, either. My conversations with visitors concerned our preparations, my annoyance with my Very Cheerful Emigrant Husband, and at least one Cheerful Emigrant female companion, my worries and fears, my desires for what I’d have in Oregon,
And even without any detailed backstory, because I had the words and lives of actual emigrants in my brain, I was fine.
Over time, with more research, I began to appreciate the notes and opinions of more Cheerful Emigrants, and began to develop an additional impressions:
West With Some Tolerance: A Woman Doing Her Best.
For this impression, I still talked about fears and worries, preparations, hopes for the future. I drew in more about the conditions Back Home that motivated the move. I was cautiously optimistic.
Now, 24 years in, I can be Reluctant, Tolerant, Enthusiastic, Tired, Broke-Down, Mormon, Methodist, Merchant, or Entertaining Emigrant. I can also share any of that information in second or third person, as well as first.
I still don’t have a name, birthdate, or Emotionally Scarring Backstory. My husband is usually off “finding better grazing for the stock.” He doesn’t have a name, either.
If I need a new persona to suit a new event scenario, I just research some, add those details and notes, and off we go. I *can* add a name if needed, but it’s usually (shocker) Elizabeth or some variant thereof. All of my surnames are bog-common in the 19th century, so I can pick any of those at will. I typically stick with a range of working class roles, and have never owned a ballgown (though I’ve been known to participate in a waltz, two-step, or polka. Oh, how I love a polka! Oh, how my knees do NOT love a polka!)
So that’s one way to go… Documented Generic, with Added Specifics As Needed. It’s highly flexible, suits first, second, or third person equally well, and grows and adapts as I grow and learn.
If you’re a young person engaged in Living History, there may be times you attend an event without a parent. How can you make it a great experience? The tips and comments here are compiled from an older discussion on the Sewing Academy @ Home forum; have you considered everything?
Some things of which to be aware:
Most public events will require youth to have an over-18 responsible party on-site at all times. This protects the event a bit, and is very reasonable (legally and insurance-wise).
Public events involve the public… strangers. Most are lovely. However, be aware that you’re surrounded by people you don’t know, and you should not give your trust easily.
You have the best chance of a great experience if you are attending an event with other like-minded people of all ages (including those responsible adults!).
Always have an exit strategy: who do you need to notify, and how will you exit if, at any point, the event feels less-than-safe to you, personally?
It goes without saying to not leave your personal things unattended, but take just as much care with your own self: don’t go walking out alone, don’t hang out in a secluded area alone. It’s possible to have personal quiet and space, even when surrounded by your history friends. Don’t risk your personal safety.
It may be prudent to take day-trips to events while you’re getting your feet wet. Many events are arranged to accommodate day visits and evening departures, and you’ll be saved from needing camping equipment right away.
No matter your age, events are much more fun when you have a purpose! Work with your chosen group to choose some activities and roles to undertake, so you have realistic tasks to accomplish and things to share with the public. You don’t need to be an expert or know everything in order to visit with visitors. It’s okay to say, “I’m quite new to this, and I don’t know… let’s ask Miss So-And-So…” Just make sure your activities and roles are actually historical.
You can also do your best to make sure you’re not a burden on friends and companions. Ask your companions what personal items you should provide, such as plate-cup-utensils, or a period-appropriate chair (you can always sit on the ground; don’t take someone else’s chair, though).
Have a modest-but-sufficient amount of personal cash for food or small purchases at the event. Expect and offer to chip in on transportation, fuel, and food costs. Behave nicely (this is “being a credit to your family”). Let your companions know where you are; be where you say you’re going to be. Be as flexible and accommodating as you can be, while keeping firm and healthy personal boundaries.
Here’s to safe and fun historical adventures!
We all of us have a Sewing Friend at some point in our sewing days… that Kind Friend with more experience that we have at the moment, who has a broader grasp on the intricacies of historic sewing techniques and research application. The Sewing Friend who talks us out of bad purchasing choices, and encourages us to grow, expand, and try new things.
Here’s a short list of thoughtful things you can do to ensure your Sewing Friend loves hearing from you, and remains eager to be on your resource list for year to come… a Care and Feeding tipsheet, if you will!
(We’re using “Her” as the generic target pronoun, but substitute your Sewing Friend’s appropriate pronoun as needed. The concepts are universal.)
Be Considerate of Her Time
Your Sewing Friend has a Real Life, much as she might prefer to be immersed in historic pursuits full time. Being considerate of her time includes planning your projects with substantial lead-time, so your questions are not asked in crisis deadline mode, and she can plan pockets of time that fit around her real life responsibilities.
Phrasing your requests in considerate ways helps a lot, too. “Is there a good time in the next three weeks to come over for about half an hour and have you show me that thing you mentioned about fitting the waist? Or is it something we could do on video-chat at your convenience? Is there already a tutorial on-line you could recommend?” tends to be more favorably received than “I’ll be over tonight at 9:30 for you to fit my bodice for me.”
Be Willing To Work Beforehand
Ask her what portions of the project you should have prepped before you meet. Then prep those. Ask for tutorial recommendations or resource recommendations, then give them a whack yourself, even if the results are imperfect. In fact, give everything a whack, on scrap fabric! It’s far easier to give suggestions for improvement, corrections to refine the technique, or ideas on alterations when your Sewing Friend can see where you’re at with skills and applications. And, you might surprise yourself at what you figure out solo!
Working beforehand includes doing some research. It’s not your Sewing Friend’s job to do research into what’s most appropriate for your interpretive needs. You’ll want to have a firm grasp on the context of your impressions and activities, and a list of What I Need Clothing-wise To Make It Work. Doing your own research into textiles and prints, then bringing images of three choices you think could work, is far more useful than expecting her to spend hours of time researching options for you to pick among.
Be Willing To Work During
Unless you’re paying your Sewing Friend skilled-labor rates to do your project as a commissioned job, you should be the primary hands on your work. During a sewing-together session, be prepared and willing to patiently work through each step of your project, asking for help as needed. You may end up needing to pick out and re-do something; that’s normal, and part of the learning process. Asking for a confirming opinion before going ahead with a construction step is a far more useful thing than sitting on your Sewing Friend’s couch, expecting her to do the work of sewing for you.
Be Willing To Work After
Your Sewing Friend will reasonably ask you to do some work independently after your session. Give it a whack! If you’ve learned to sew a plain seam during your sewing session, you can independently sew all the plain seams before your next session. If you’ve learned to put a hem in during your session, plan to put in all your hems before the next session. Carving out time to make progress between your sessions together shows your Sewing Friend that you take her efforts to help you seriously, even if it’s in 10-minute segments each day!
Provide Your Own Stuff
It’s not reasonable to expect your Sewing Friend to provide notions, fabrics, or machines for your use. If you do not own a machine, you’ll need to expect a slower pace via hand-sewing, or else save up for a good basic machine and lessons (from the seller or user manual) in how to thread and use that machine. Ask your Sewing Friend for suggestions on where to buy good notions, then follow those suggestions. Pop your supplies into a nice tote, and bring them every time. Don’t expect your Sewing Friend to give up her own project time or machines for your use, or to loan them out to you.
If your Sewing Friend offers up a bit of fabric from her stash, be prepared and willing to reimburse her monetarily. She cannot replace the fabric using her own good looks or sparkling wit. She will probably offer you a bargain deal on it. It’s a kindness to not dicker with her over price. Your Sewing Friend’s textile expertise is not Haggle-palooza time. If the textile on offer is not in your budget right this minute, thank her kindly, and say, “No, I cannot”—or ask if you can save up over time, and take it home or cut it up when you’ve bought it fully.
Provide Some Good Stuff For Her, Too
If you’ll be working together for an afternoon, or even for an hour, it’s a considerate thing to bring along something pleasant to share, like a bouquet of fresh flowers from your garden (or a $4 bouquet from the grocery store), a box of tea you think she’ll like, some homemade (or bought!) cookies, fresh bread, a contribution toward lunch or supper, a library DVD to watch while you work, a great music playlist to listen to while you work. It doesn’t have to be expensive—free is awesome—but it’s a nice way to thank your Sewing Friend for devoting time to your needs, and enhances the companionable time you spend together.
Pro Tip: Don’t toss bags of castoff stuff at her, though. While your neighbor’s mother-in-law’s cousin’s stash of 1970s crochet lace might have some value somewhere, your Sewing Friend doesn’t usually need or want it. Ask, with photos attached, before hauling anything over to her house for “sharing.” Be aware that when she says, “Oh, that’s cool, but it doesn’t really suit my current needs,” that’s a firm NOPE NO WAY, and find somewhere else to fob the stuff. And home dec “faux silk” is not even suited for burning, due to the off-gassing. Just don’t even ask about that.
In addition to doing considerate things, use your words! It’s amazing what simple expressions of genuine thanks can do. “Thanks for being willing to help!” “Thanks for setting aside time for me!” “Thanks for opening your home to me!” “Thanks for encouraging me through this step!” More than just a generic “Thanks, bye!” tossed over your departing shoulder, these specific and focused Thank You Words let your Sewing Friend know you recognize the value of her efforts. You don’t have to be excessive or effusive. Sewing Friends do want to help, and don’t expect trophies or press conferences in reward. Just remember to add a pleasant, sincere “Thank you for this!” when you’ve worked together, and at any point you feel grateful during a working session. .
Look for Reciprocity
Do you have a historic skill your Sewing Friend might like to learn? Offer reciprocal lessons or guidance! Do you have a Real Life Skill (versus historic life skill) that would enhance her Real Life? Offer it up! If your Sewing Friend is spending a chunk of time away from her Real Life Responsibilities in order to help you, look for ways you could help restore her time.
No one is required to become an Expert Historic Sewist. And truthfully, you don’t need to be expert to do some really solid mid-century sewing for yourself, sewing that holds up under the demands of interpretive use, is consistent with history, and highly functional. With some diligent effort on your part, and the kind assistance of your Sewing Friend, you can do good, useful work, without ever needing to put in the thousands of hours your Sewing Friend has in pursuit of mastery. It’s okay if you don’t hit that point. Diligent effort over time is perfectly useful!
This is not an unwitting duplicate. Really. Express gratitude verbally, in actions, and in body language. Most of us who are Sewing Friends get a really deep and satisfying kick out of seeing others meet their goals, and the expressions of gratitude are the delicious gooey chocolate ganache on the dense fudge cake of accomplishment.
The frequent and judicious application of a sincere thank you prevents burnout, enhances friendship, and is the life-blood of Sewing Friends everywhere!
Recent events have me thinking a lot about the nature of collaborative historical research and application, living in the 21st century (Hello, George Jetson!), and a whole lot of other tangled stuff that may or may not be useful to readers.
But when has that ever stopped me sharing an opinion? Or this, a loving and loquacious look back at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could go. (Oh, what a nicely-paved road! Why are we in this handbasket?)
Pre-reading Apology To Those Reading On Mobile Devices: this, like so many of my posts, will be an endlessly-scrolling Wall O’ Text that every coherent internet writer is told to Never Ever Do. I added capricious line breaks. But its still Many Words. So I put up a pretty and historic image of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, so the Lords of the Internet won’t show up at my cottage doorstep and beat me with ethernet cables.
Let us Proceed With The Novella, after the jump. Continue reading
A response from the editor of Citizen’s Companion:
I appreciate your message, and am sorry you feel as if we have done something egregiously wrong. We have our lawyers looking at the issue now. As I’m sure you know, the material re-published was submitted to The Citizens’ Companion prior to the year 2000 when Lakeway Publishers legally purchased the publication and all its content. It is my understanding that agreement stated all purchased content fell under the copyright of the former TCC publishers and therefore, we can reproduce as we see fit. Out of respect for you, and also Carolann Schmitt (a graduate student contacted me about her content), I will not reprint your articles without permission. Your legal issue, I believe is with the entity that sold the publications to us with the rights to republish all material previously submitted to and used by them. We would appreciate no further libel, public or private, concerning our company. Again, I apologize for the misunderstanding and hope you can appreciate our position. Thank You, Jessie Greene
So, there’s that.
Here’s the thing about libel: statements have to be untrue. And at no point have I made untrue statements.
I’m glad the editor is going to not continue to trample my legal rights in the future.
The article is still up on their website, however.
Basic upshot from my perspective: research moves forward. Why anyone would want to republish un-updated information from nearly TWO DECADES ago is beyond me–even with permission!
If you want the most updated information I can share, check here. We’ll update for free.
If you are pleased with the historical accuracy of your overall silhouette and foundation, please consider being part of a Modeling Project for The Sewing Academy.
Models can be male or female, of any age and build! Your foundational impression may be from anywhere on the economic spectrum, from any portion of the focus era (1835-1865).
To participate, please email me directly with some details of your target years, accompanied by digital images of yourself in your period clothing (taken as straight-on as possible against a high-contrast background) from the front, side, and back, as well as in a “period fashionable” pose if desired.
Your participation will make the Modeling Project possible–and the Modeling Project has the potential to be of great utility to living history enthusiasts, educators, artists, writers, and more, all over the globe!
Thanks to all who came out for the Old Sacramento Sewing Academy series this last weekend! We had a total of 32 people for the three days, got a lot of good work done, and shared the excitement of living history in the West with friends old and new. Sponsored by the Sacramento History Museum and Old Sacramento Living History program, we were in a great space in the heart of Old Sacramento, with lovely staff and volunteers who made sure arrangements and all were easy, and as comfortable as can be.
I really do think that history people are just the *best* people. Thanks, all, for making it possible to associate with you, and to share with you!
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be updating the Sewing Academy Planner for 2017—if you know you’d like to have workshops in your local area, look for that update, get a wishlist together with your interested core, and let’s make it happen!
Watch the site as we work through November… we have some *very* exciting things going on right now, and will have nifty announcements as we reach Thanksgiving!
My, oh, my! What a great weekend! Just got back from the Hunt Hill Sewing Academy Retreat, hosted by the Living History Society of Minnesota, and already looking for a future date to do it all again!
Do you remember watching Hailey Mills in “The Parent Trap”, and feeling a bit more than pea-green with envy over that classic sleep-away camp? Hunt Hill was full of Hailey Moments for me. And when I have Hailey Moments, I get parenthetical, so be fore-warned…
We were lodged comfortably in Long Dorm–which was far better than any dorm I’ve slept in! Rooms with two twin beds (cute-and-sturdy vintage metal bedsteads, comfy modern mattress), desk and chair, dresser and mirror, and plentiful closet space… real hardwood floors throughout, charming tongue-and-groove ceilings, and the style of window that made me dredge up my How To Wind Rope On A Cleat training, from back when I was The Worst Campfire Girl in the History of Ever. (Seriously. I was very bad at it. But I remember the ropes thing!)
Shared modern cold-water bathrooms inside the dorm, plus a spacious shower house (with great hot water! Midnight cell-phone-“candle”-lit shower bliss!), verdant green spaces outdoors (ten miles of hiking trails! botany! wildlife!), a gorgeous lake, classic camp dining hall (cloth napkin cubbies! endless lemonade! oilcloth on the tables! real chairs!), fantastic meals catered in (just… unnph… good), and loads of time to work and visit… it was a grand weekend.
In among telling scandalous stories and terrible jokes and some pretty high-quality harmonized singing to our working soundtrack (seriously, we were very good!) and full-moon canoe tours and late night campfires (with s’mores, of course!) we also got a lot of work done:
- SEVEN corsets fitted, cut, and constructed, plus boning schemes plotted and grommets set, and almost all by ladies with no previous corset-making experiences
- SIX bodice drapings and testing, plus sleeve style testing–and the difference between a made-for-you pattern and a generic pattern is simply delightful!
- TWO sets slippers patterned, tested, and started (choosing the embellishments was the hard part!)
- TWO chemises drafted, cut, and constructed
- ONE pair drawers ditto
- ONE ballgown bertha designed, draped, and constructed (gorgeous bias pleats in silk… yum!)
- Multiple small UFOs finished up and checked off the project list (with accompanying applause!)
- Copious belly-rubs and ear-scritches for the resident Canine Sewing Academy Mascot, Idgie (who is a sweetie, and had nice things to say about everyone there).
The opportunity to brainstorm with so many like-minded living history enthusiasts was a delight, and with a few newbies in the mix, too, off to a grand start in their history adventures.
As one who was indeed The Worst Campfire Girl in the History of Ever, I have to say it was my best camp experience of my life, so far… to be topped only by the next Retreat at Hunt Hill!
We’ll be back to the stays posts in the Sew-Along shortly, but today, I wanted to share with you a lovely review of our Great Auntie Maude’s Favorite Cloth Doll pattern, from a delightful history enthusiast and blogger, Elizabeth K (I do have a fondness for fellow Elizabeths…)
Click through to read her thoughts on the pattern, see her lovely doll, and then read her other great posts!
Don’t forget to subscribe to site updates; once the girls are all dressed, I’d say it’s time for some doll projects, wouldn’t you?
In the midst of kitting up with chemises, drawers, petticoats, dresses, and all the other pretty things of a functional living history wardrobe, one element often overlooked or skipped “in the interests of time” is a stay or corset for a dress-wearing child.
That category of person-to-be-clothed includes tiny toddlers, through middle childhood, through the tween years, and into the teens, so it’s a significant population, and there are some good reasons to add stays or corsets to a child’s wardrobe.
First, though: definitions and functions.
A child’s corset (or stays; the two terms are used quite interchangeably in primary sources, and there doesn’t seem to be any differentiation as to one being stabilized with cording, the other with steel, etc) is designed for support, light control, and a platform. By that, I mean this: children are quite often “Eggs on Legs” (to borrow from Karen Crocker), and a child’s stay or corset provides some firming up to the squidgy torso, a way to move support of garments to the shoulder (through the use of straps) rather than trying to find a waist point, and also gives a spot upon which to button skirt supports and fullness.
Beyond those aspects, a stay also provides bust support for developing figures, and functions in the same way as an adult corset, distributing the wearing stress and weight of increasingly-full skirts around the entire body, rather than hanging from pinchy points on the back hip.
For my own two girls, stays do this:
1: For the younger one, age 8, who is build like a very thin noodle, and has some very mild sensory challenges: we’ll get a place to tack clothing onto her body, and prevent her skirts always sliding down to her knees in front, without having a narrow band of pressure from waistbands that will drive her to tears. She does very well with all-over pressure, so the stays not only function well from a historic-dressing standpoint, they ameliorate some modern challenges in a period-appropriate way! She also likes complex dress-up, so it’s satisfying all the way around.
2: For the older one, who is getting her early-teen curves at 11, the stays will simply firm up her torso for a tidy look in period clothing that matches what she’s seeing in original images. It doesn’t take much to notice that those 40s and 50s images of girls are showing some well-stabilized torsos, and she has a deep desire to present an identical look. Her stays will also accommodate her bust development, while giving her another layer between her own self and the world (which helps the very body-modest girl a great deal.)
What About Growth?
I’m not actually too worried about growth measures in either stay, and here’s why:
1: Noodly-girl has, at 8, a waist that is more slender than her own waist at age 2. Her waist has been a constant 21″ since she was about 4 years old. She’s healthy, but very reedy, and tends to do quick jumps up in height, without getting much wider at all. I need her to get the summer out of these stays—I anticipate two interpretive seasons at the very most before she’s 3″ taller and needs a new shape—, and then I can pass them along to other families. So, I’m fitting them to her needs now, with a slight bit of overlap for her buttons in the back, and about 1″ extra length in the straps for some growth room. She won’t be happy if they’re not comfortably snug.
2: My older girl is on the petite end of things, but is hitting her growth, and for her, that tends to be very little upward, and we’ve been seeing a refinement of curves in the last year. Her waist is lengthening a bit, and narrowing a lot; her hips are getting a little width, and her bust is developing. I can accommodate all of her needs by adding a lacing placket at the back, and keeping buttons in the front to aid self-dressing. Having dressed girls through their teens before, I’m comfortable with the idea that new stays are going to be an item every single year from now to about 18 or 19, when her figure starts to stabilize. Because she already has a good hip-to-waist ratio, I can make her stays without straps; she has enough hip to move to adult-style support without a problem.
As for adult supportive undergarments, I need 100% natural fabrics that are firmly woven, with good body and stability, but without being heavy or bulky. I’ll be using a combination of cotton twill and cotton sateen (a satin-weave cotton) for the corded stays my youngest will use. It’s a light-weight, low-bulk combination that does very well stabilized with close cording, and because she will not have a lacing adjustment, there’s no problem with the corded areas trying to squash to the waist.
My older daughter gets a more stabilized garment, suited to her support needs. I’ll be using a layer of coutil with some steel stays and German artificial whalebone (a high-grade product harvested from artificial whales of the inland lakes in Germany) in casings, to keep the garment as light and breathable as possible for a child who turns pink in the heat like her Mother. She’ll still have a buttoning front, but we’ll have a lacing placket in back, with metal grommets (not eyelets–size 00 two-piece metal grommets for durability).
I’m using the stays pattern from our Girl’s Linens pattern for each; it’s a simple one to cut for different lengths and circumferences, and I’ll be customizing the fit at the side seams for the younger one, and by creating some curving seamlines at the bust as well, for the older one. As she gets a bit older, I’ll switch to doing custom-draped corsets for her, following the methods in The Dressmaker’s Guide. Since the pattern accommodates her largest body measurement (bust), I can simply adjust things for now.
Remember, we’re doing the sewing sessions in 20-minute increments, to show how progress can be made even when time is tight for a modern family.
My first work session is actually just pre-washing my fabrics; there’s about 20 minutes of labor involved, with tossing it into the wash and hanging on the line later. We don’t have to stare at the cloth while it dries.
The majority of chemises with fullness at mid-century seem to be handled with gathering to fit a yoke or band. Since that seems to be the most common, that’s how I’ll be handling the fullness at the neckline.
In reproducing chemises, you could opt to machine sew gathering stitches. Keep your machine’s settings at a regular straight stitch, rather than a longer basting stitch. Run one row of stitches about 1/8″ away from the edge of the fabric, and another about 1/4″ away from that, stopping and starting to avoid the run-and-fell seams. They will be a bit bulky to try and pull gathers through, otherwise.
When dealing with the relative minimal fullness involved for a chemise neckline that I’ve already scaled down to suit my girls, machined gathers will work well enough, and they will be a bit faster than the option I’m choosing: hand gathering.
Sessions Nine thru Fourteen
Gathering by hand, using two rows of fairly small running stitch, is one of the most low-bulk ways to control fullness. I actually like the rhythm of the stitching, and I really like the fine results, so it’s satisfying and worthwhile to me to gather all four neckline edges by hand.
I do “hop the seam” with a longer stitch on the outside of the chemise at each of the run-and-fell seams. I’ll be positioning them flat when I sew the bands, and don’t want to have to drag thread through them when I gather. My smirched purple thumbnail is hovering over a “hop.”
The gathering takes me about 30 minute per chemise, which means I do need to be willing to sit down for six 20-minute sessions of work. In reality, this translated to snuggling into the corner of the couch, grabbing my needle and thread and watching three episodes of one of my favorite shows on Netflix (Supernatural, in case you wondered. It’s what I consider the modern equivalent of reading Bronte, or Shelley–Gothic horror/romance ideals in a modern setting. The nature of Man, redemption, brotherhood, all that lot.) I don’t consider that a hardship.
I’ll wait until I get everything pinned to the neck bands to decide if I’ll be sewing a regular seam, or finishing the necklines with stroked gathering; if the gathering density is sufficient, I may well choose stroked gathers, because I do like the way they look. (Spoiler Alert: I decided to do regular seams to attach the bands, and I did them by machine, too!)
Session Fifteen & Sixteen: Straight Bands
There are several ways to handle a straight, non-placketed band. I could choose to make each band a two-piece band, seamed at the bottom to the chemise, and to the band facing at the top. This is very stable, and allows me to sandwich in some nice whitework edging if I’m so inclined.
However, the particular miss I’m making these two chemises for has some mild sensory-processing quirks, and she is very likely to declare all of that “too stiff” to be worn.
Instead, I’m making the band double the width I want, seaming it to the chemise, and making a simple folded-and-stitch finish. A bit of topstitching along the upper fold gives it stability, without “stiffness” that might antagonize my particular young lady.
The basic construction process:
Seam the band at the short ends. Match quarter marks to the chemise and draw up the gathers to fit. Stitch a 1/4″ seam to join them. (This is my personal preference; you can make a deeper seam allowance if you prefer, and then trim the extra to reduce a bit of bulk inside the band.)
Press all the seam allowances toward the band, then fold the band into place on the inside, covering all the raw edges. Topstitch very close to the seam “ditch”, and again about 1/16″ to 1/8″ away from the fold at the top of the band. Done!
Session Seventeen & Eighteen: Placketed Bands
For the placketed bands, I chose to round off the upper edge of the bands. This is a lot easier to sew if each band is in two sections: the outer band, and the band facing/lining. I follow the same process for matching quarter points, drawing up the gathers, and sewing with a 1/4″ seam allowance to attach the band. However, I make sure the band extends about 1/4″ beyond the edge of the plackets, so I can attach the facing/lining easily, and have everything mate up smoothly.
Once the band is on, I can press all the allowances toward the band, then pin the band facing/lining right sides together with the outer band, and stitch from one curve, across the top edge, to the other curve.
A bit of trimming and notching to make sure the curve turns nicely, and I can press the whole facing/lining into place on the inside of the band. Again, topstitch to finish all the way around the band.
With the last bit of my final sewing session, I worked a buttonhole in the overlap end of each placketed chemise, and sewed on a neat little 4-hole white porcelain button (these are very common on undergarments at mid-century.)
Chemises: The Final Tally
Including the three side-bar sessions I spent on tucks and hemmed plackets, I’ve used twenty-one 20-minute sewing sessions to take purchased yardage to four finished chemises for my girls, using a mix of period-appropriate hand and machined construction techniques. That’s averaging out at 105 minutes per chemise… a bit more than an hour and a half each. Not too bad!
If I were only able to sew 20 minute a day, I would be done with all four chemises in 21 days. If I can carve out an hour a day, my time to complete four quite nice chemises drops to about one week of 1-hour sewing sessions. Or, I could choose to fall down a Black Hole of Making, and blitz out four chemises in one day, if I plan some meals ahead. From yardage on the laundry, to four chemises finished!
With the tucks in place, it’s time to create a center front placket in the chemise. This is an option outside of the Girls Linens pattern, so we’ll walk through step-by-step here. You can also use this technique on adult chemises, as it’s a common feature!
Side-Bar Session Three
There are several historical ways I could handle a center front placket on these chemises.
This chemise, from the MET collection, has an embellished, shaped yoke, and the placket below the yoke is a simple narrow-hemmed slit.
This one, with an interesting faggoted double band, appears to have the placket with one faced edge, and one narrow-hemmed edge.
Here is another with a faced-and-overlapped placket, where the placket forms a bit of a pleat at the base. This is the style of placket I’m leaning toward, as it will take a bit more abuse than a simple hemmed slit, and gives a functional spot for additional buttons and buttonholes if desired, if you plan the center gap wider than I did!
One thing I’ve noticed when looking at chemises with a faced placket is that the placket is often installed, and then the neck band attached and finished. This two-step process is fairly easy to replicate.
I’ll zip through the steps, and let you view the images as a slide-show again.
I measured down about 6″ (this is fairly arbitrary, but it will expand the neckline edge a whole foot for donning/doffing, and my 11yo is not a very large person), and cut a slit in the center front. Then, perpendicular cuts at the base, half-way across the gap in the middle (about 5/8″, in this case.)
Press each flap back, tuck the raw edge under, and press well.
Remove to the machine, or hand-stitch a hem on each pressed edge. Then it’s a quick “stack-em-up”; I folded the extra fabric in the base into two layered pleats, and pinned everything neatly. One pass of stitching just at the base of the folded placket, and another about 1/4″ below that, across the folded extras, and we have a tidy little placket all done!
(Well, actually TWO little plackets, all finished in one 20-minute sewing session!)
Gathered chemises are perfectly lovely, but sometimes it’s fun to do something that’s both period-correct, and a little fun! Fine tucking across the front of a chemise is one option. It takes no more fabric than a gathered chemise, and only a bit of time.
Generally, tucks at mid-century are not the ultra-fine “pin tucks” of the later 19th century or early 20th century. When used decoratively, they’re still fine, ranging from about 1/8″ to a scant 1/4″ or so, and typically have a gap that’s about equal to the width of the finished tuck between each folded-and-sewn tuck.
I’ve yet to handle an extant tucked chemise that has visible machine back-tacking (that “reverse stitch” we have on modern machines.) Because I like to mimic originals as much as possible, I chose to skip machined back-tacking. At the end of each tuck, I simply left a bit of a thread tail, drew both threads to what would be the underside of the pressed tuck, and tied a little doubled square knot to secure the threads before trimming off the tail. The upper end of the tucks will be secured inside the neck band, so I don’t have to back-tack there, either.
The other interesting thing I’ve noted on originals is how very often the tucks are pressed to face center front! This is opposite of our modern notions of arranging vertical tucks. Pressing to the center is one of those fine details that really takes a modern repro garment back in time, and it’s no trouble at all.
Side-Bar Sessions One & Two: Tucks!
It’s easiest to make tucks if you have the aid of a hem-gauge. If you don’t have a metal one, you can mark your desired intervals or measurements on a bit of cardstock, or just use a ruler or tape measure.
Because I’m making a placket at the center front, I want to leave some room to install and overlap that area. I placed the first folding line for the tucks 1-1/2″ away from the center front line.
After that, it’s a simple repeated process of stitching, pressing to center front, measuring and pressing the next line (3/4″ distances from one stitching line to the next fold line will give me 1/4″ tucks with 1/4″ between them) and repeated that until I have the whole front of the chemise tucked down to a measurement about 4″ wider than my daughter’s finished front chest width, measured from armpit crease to armpit crease.
Two 20-minute sessions have all the tucks in, and I’m quite pleased!