The Sewing Academy

Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Merchant-Row Make-Do

One challenge that shows up every year is that of working with lovely new living history enthusiasts who’ve been conned by merchants selling loose “blouse” bodices and matching cotton print skirts… they’re made cheaply with modern techniques, are multi-size, usually based on bad modern patterns, and I say “conned” rather boldly, because if the merchant is interested in history, they *know* they’re selling bad stuff to good people. I have an ethical issue with that.

But that aside, how can we salvage the hard-earned budget that went into it for the nice newb?

Sometimes, it’s just a flat “We can’t.” The fabric is too far removed from a period print style, or the skirts are only 90″. those items just can’t be remodeled, and any efforts to do so will not result in a period garment at the end.

Sometimes, it’s a reserved “Well, possibly, IF” with a whole list of Nopes that could disqualify the garment from use in historic settings:

Is it a natural fiber?
If the answer is anything other than cotton, wool, or silk, that’s a Nope that stops the process in its tracks.

Is the fabric reasonably historically accurate?
If it’s a solid cotton: Nope. If it’s a modern busy floral: Nope.  If it’s a moderately passable print style but kind of “period boring” or monotone? Well, *maybe*.

Is the skirt at least 150″ around the hem?
If it’s skimpy, we’re back to Nope. If it’s greater than 180″, go ahead and take out a panel once you have the waist and hem deconstructed.

How is the hem handled?
We’re usually looking at modern machined waist treatments, and to fix it for period use, we’ll need extra fabric. If there’s a 3″ or greater turned-up-fabric hem, that’s good! Pick out the stitching and press it all flat for now.

How is the waist handled?
In merchant-row make-do, it’s usually machine-gathered, or pleated, and shoved raw-edge-up into a bulky fabric band. Take off the band entirely, pick out any stitching in the placket (which is hopefully on a seam!), and press the top edge smooth.

What’s going on in the bodice?
Most merchant-row-make-dos are a big shapeless “blouse” with big bishop sleeves and for some reason, a standing collar bit. (Okay, I know the reason. These unethical, non-history merchants all copy a “garibaldi” bodice pattern that doesn’t have the right shaping to begin with. Copies of copies of copies are awful.) Most just tuck in. While that stinks for the person who has been trying to wear it, it actually works in favor of a remodel, so we’ll just take our small win and run with it.

The Process

If you’ve not Noped Out the garment yet, here’s the general process of recovering the investment.

1: Make sure everything from here on out is done over a well-fitted corset, skirt supports, and petticoats made full-gathered (150-180″, hand-gathered), of decent white cloth that has some inherent body to it (Pimatex-brand white broadcloth or chain-store “Premium” white muslin bought with a good coupon).

2: Click through to the Compendium and read the articles on Petticoats and Gauging Skirts. Refer back as needed.

3: Face The Hem. Sew together full-width strips of plain white cotton, about 6-8″ deep, until you have something that matches your skirt’s circumference. Sew the strip right sides together with your hem edge, then press the allowances toward the skirt. Fold the white cotton facing up into place on the inside of the skirt and press the lower edge nicely. Hem the raw edge of the facing with a single-thread running stitch to finish your skirt hem.

4: Seek Balance. Have a helper measure you from corseted waist, over your skirt support and petticoats, to the desired finished hem. Follow the directions for balancing a skirt/petticoat found in The Dressmaker’s Guide, or in the excerpted article in the Compendium. Fold any extra fabric at the top edge of the skirt over to the inside and press.

5: Find the Bodice Waist. Put on the bodice over corset, skirt supports, and petticoats. Use a piece of narrow elastic tied around the body at the narrowest point of the waist to find your waist. Gently tug the fabric downward under the elastic, so it lays smoothly and you have fullness arranged from the center of each breast, toward the center front, and then right in the middle of the back–nothing blousing over the elastic. Have a helper chalk along that line.

6: Reuse the Extra. Take off the bodice. 1/2″ below the chalked line, cut off the rest of the fabric. Press the excess smooth. Cut the extra into 45-degree bias strips, about 1.25″ wide, and piece them together until you have a long bias strip that equals your waist measurement plus about 3″ for “wiggle room.” Fold the strip in half lengthwise, and baste in a fine cotton cord (#3 or #5 crochet cotton works pretty well) snugged into that fold to create bias piping.

7: Gather Yourself. Run some gathering stitches from the hemming line of the center front facings, toward the side seams, and across the center back. Put on the bodice, and draw up the gathering to handle the extra fullness in the bodice. It should keep smooth sides, but have gathered fullness from the central portion of each breast toward the center front, and concentrated fullness in the 1.5″ or so centered at center back. Wrap the gathering threads around a pin to keep your fullness control in place. If there’s a lot of fabric and you’re getting weird pulls from the armpit trying to get the sides smooth, take extra out of the side seams until you have a moderate amount of gathered fullness under the breasts, and a bit of ease at the center back.

8: Pipe the Waist. Lay the piping and bodice right sides together, matching up the raw edges of the piping with the raw edge of the bodice waist. Leave about 1″ of the piping projecting past the center front edges of the bodice for now. Baste the piping in place. Turn the seam allowances up toward to the bodice, and test the fit. The piping should ride right where the waistband of your petticoats ends. If it needs to move up a bit, reposition it until you’re happy with the length, then securely stitch the piping on, very close to the cord. Press the allowances up toward the bodice and secure with a bit of a whip stitch, taking only very tiny “bites” through the outer fabric fullness.

You can use some of the piping to pipe and finish the neckline if you’ve removed a band collar.

9: Set the Skirts. Follow the instructions for Gauging or Pleating in the Dressmaker’s Guide, or for Gauging in the free Compendium article noted above. The basic instructions create a “straight shot” placket, rather than an off-set opening, so be sure to use the “wrapped front” edge to make sure you don’t have a gap at the placket.

10. Get Closure. Replace wooden buttons with covered cloth buttons made from tiny bits leftover from your dress remodel. Use hooks and eyes for a new, functional closure right at the waist, and anywhere else between buttons where you need the closure security.

11: Add Basic Accessories. A tidy white cotton collar, little white cuffs… you’ll be tidy and presentable in a remade make-do dress!

All of this is admittedly a LOT of work. It is very do-able, IF the fabric and basic features will even allow for a remodel. The work, on top of the expense of a poorly-represented style in the first place, is one reason my nose gets severely out of joint on behalf of excited newbies who are taken advantage of by merchants who ought to know, and DO, much, much better!

Dressing Girls Sew-Along: Petticoat Evaluation

DressingGirlsI do have a small stack of petticoats the girls inherit from one another. Because each was made with period techniques and decent fabric, I have some evaluation to do, to see if I can recycle any of the Inheritance Stack for this season’s use.

Three that came easily to the top of the pile include:

Inheritance Petticoat #1: Waist 26″; length 17″ max (there is a single 1/2″ tuck still in place); circumference 106″.  The circumference is great for a small girl, but even with all the tucks dropped out, this petticoat will be 5″ short of the smallest length I need, and I’d need to re-set the waist to be 5″ smaller, too. Too short, too wide. This one is a good candidate for selling off to another family, or donating to the loaner closet at our local historic site.

Inheritance Petticoat #2: Waist 26-27″, depending on moving a button; length 21.5″ max; circumference 86″. Again, the circumference is good. It’s going to be a bit short and wide to work for my youngest, so my time is probably best used making her something she can wear for a few years going forward. This will be another that gets cleaned and pressed to pass along or donate.

Mend1Inheritance Petticoat #3: Waist 24″; length 22″ with a single 1″ tuck remaining, for a potential max length of 24″; circumference 84″. This petticoat has one small mend, and one larger mend (2″ long vertical rip) that will need mending.

I can re-set the waist to suit my youngest girl, who needs a 22″ band over her stays. I could also potentially just add a second buttonhole and button position, and save myself the re-setting time, as the waist difference is a meager 2″. The length will drop out to 24″ by simply taking out the remaining growth tuck; she needs skirts of 23.5″to hit her mid-calf, so I will leave the length as-is (it’s 22″ long with the tuck in place).

Just a few minutes measuring and inspecting this petticoat, and with a short 20-minute session to mend the rips, and I’ve saved myself the entire process of making one petticoat for her! I’ve also identified two potential re-sales or donations that can save other families some time and effort.

Taking stock of clothing at the end of each interpretive season, and again a few months before each interpretive season, saves time and effort. What do you have? What do you need? It’s the same process as done in the 19th century: practical, frugal, and functional!

Citizen’s Forum, Monroe MI in March!

Grab a cup of your favorite warm beverage: I’m sitting down today (via a whole stack of excitable aetheric communications) with Kristen Mrozek, one of the founding forces behind 2017’s debut living history conference in the upper mid-west, The Citizen’s Forum of the 1860s. Registration is now open for 2018, I’m going to be there speaking and teaching, I wanted to get a little behind-the-scenes info for everyone in the region!

Every educational gathering seems to develop it’s own personality, right from the start. At the Citizen’s Forum, I’d describe the focus as “history loving, everyone welcome”–there’s a feeling of lightness, enjoyment, and camaraderie amid the scholarship that strikes a nice balance for experienced and new living history enthusiasts.

As Kristin says, “We want our attendees to feel that primary sources are attainable.” The conference follows through on that this year particularly well, with a focus on how period images inform historical interpretation. The Citizen’s Forum also features original artifact displays, up close and personal, all through the weekend–yet another avenue making primary sources attainable.

I asked Kristen what aspects of the conference have her particularly excited this year? “We have an all-star cast of speakers, with topics designed to hit a range of interests, and I’m personally psyched about the workshops. Last year, we started with two workshop options, and this year attendees have nine to choose among!”

The location for the Forum, in Monroe MI, is perfectly sited for attendees in the upper mid-west, and for anyone flying in from other regions–even Canada is an easy hop. Having taught in Michigan, I can tell you that Michigander living history folks are uniformly delightful–welcoming, very family-oriented, and eager to cross-contaminate (AHEM) MEET new history friends.

The weekend of 22 March was carefully selected to avoid conflicting with other conferences, and still be early enough for everyone to head home and apply what they’ve learned to the 2018 interpretive season. I know I’ll be incorporating aspects into our interpreter training for the small local history park where the little girls and I volunteer each year!

The official host hotel is the moderately-priced, but very comfortable, Holiday Inn & Suites Express in Monroe, about a 15 minute car-ride from the Forum venue on the campus of Monroe Community College. Kristen says, “A car is useful to get around, but if you’re flying in, let us know so we can try to hook you up with a car pool!”

One of the things that most impresses me about the Citizen’s Forum is the budget-friendly aspect. With other great conferences like The Citizens of the 1860s Symposium in Gettysburg, The Citizen’s Forum is focused on making it easier to access top-quality learning, closer to home. As Kirsten put it, “We also considered the benefits of having a family-oriented conference. Sometimes we want to bring children along, but the sheer cost is overwhelming. The cost for a young person ($45) is less than half of the regular adult registration ($110).”

And, several lucky attendees have been awarded scholarships in memory of dear history family members

Sometimes, the hardest thing about a conference experience is having to pick and choose topics. The Citizen’s Forum is solving that with a combined topic track all day Saturday, and more workshops on Friday and Sunday. There’s also built-in time for shopping and visiting, without losing a single minute of program!

And one of the best things about any conference experience? The social events that help us all get to know one another! This year, we’ll enjoy a Friday night soiree at the Historic Sawyer House, where attendees and presenters will get to spend time in a 19th century home, sipping punch and catching up (or meeting for the first time!) If I remember to pack my period eyeglasses, I’ll be the grinning stout lady perched in a corner–if I forget them, I’ll be the squinting stout lady perched in a corner. Hermit Liz does come out of her shell now and then!

Does the supernatural draw you? This year will have an optional ghost tour at The Old Mill, if you’re up for some 19th Century frissons down your spine.

One thing many people worry about is having The Right Clothes for a conference experience. Kristen assured me that period dress is not required at any point during the conference–we’re in modern settings, learning through modern presentations and PowerPoints, after all!–though if anyone does wish to dress out, Friday night’s soiree is a great time to do it!

This year’s workshops are designed to get you all set with great wardrobe options, though! I’m excited to help people with hands-on fitting from patterns, and direct draping workshops, and you’ll find the collars workshop from Sara Gonzalez, and cravats class with Eric Smallwood to ideal in rounding out a great physical impression.



Last year’s debut conference weekend had quite robust attendance, with over 100 attending. This year, the organizers have expanded the conference space and raised the attendance cap, but good programs often sell out before the deadlines–so get your registration in very soon to make sure you can come out and learn.

Whether you’re returning from last year, or new this year, you can expect a warm welcome at the Citizen’s Forum. Everyone has attendee comfort as a primary goal. You might even get a quick phone call or email from Kristen herself, just to make sure your questions are answered and needs are met!

So often, living history events aren’t set up for modern socializing–we’re too busy Doing History to catch up on modern hobby chat, sharing research, and the like! Events like The Citizen’s Forum are all about learning, connecting, and socializing. As Kristen notes, “As I sat and chatted with friends, I realized that they came from all over the country, and this was one of the few times we could gather.”

With built-in shopping time as well, we don’t have to sacrifice presentation attendance or socializing to shop some great vendors, including Samantha McLoughlin, The Victorian Needle, Miller’s Millinery, Sullivan Press, James Country Mercantile, and Lucy’s Hairwork.

The Too Long; Didn’t Read summary: HIE THEE TO THE CITIZEN’S FORUM. We’re going to have a blast.


Tuck Into a New Year (Growth Tuck Tutorial!)

Growth tucks in children’s clothing are a great way to add versatility and foil the wee beasties who insist on growing nearly every single day, despite bread-and-water rations and heavy books on their heads.

And, if you’re inheriting hand-me-downs that are a bit long, a quick tuck will lift them without removing the length forever–letting out tucks is as simple as a few minute with fine scissors to get out the thread, and then a quick press.

You’ll find this tuck technique illustrated in the dolls, infants and girls patterns, as well as in The Dressmaker’s Guide, and if you’d like to learn in person, do register for any of our upcoming workshops!

Tucks for functional length control are put into a skirt after the side seams and hem are finished. Even if the skirt is already set, you can add tucks to shorten the length, though it will be a bit fiddly and you’ll need to do measuring and pressing in short sections to keep everything flat. Press everything well at each step.

To get started, determine how much length you need to take out, and give the skirt hem a good press.

Garment wrong-side-out, hem pressed

Decide On Your Tucks

Each tuck will take up twice its depth. So, if I want to remove 1.5″ from the length of a skirt, I need a tuck that is .75″ deep when finished.

The photos here use a .75″ tuck depth, and if I were to keep the tuck in the dress, it would be 1.5″ too short for my gangle-of-a-10yo when I was finished.

 Measure For the Tuck

Turn the garment wrong side out, and arrange the hem flat on the ironing board (you’ll be working around in sections.)

We’ll take our cue from original garments and the Original Cast: tucks look best if they are not jammed over the hemline or overlapping one another.


Many original garments have a tuck spacing equal to the tuck depth, meaning there’s a gap of plain fabric between the hem stitching line and the tuck edge, and between the tuck stitching line and the next tuck edge.

I like things very evenly spaced, so I’ll mark the tuck fold line 2.25″ from the hem stitching line.

This will give me .75″ gap, .75″ hidden by the tuck when finished, and .75″ for the backside of the tuck itself.

Turning the hem edge up toward the waist, I measure 2.25″ from the stitching line of the tuck to the fold I’m arranging.

Measure from hem stitching line to fold.

Press this fold neatly in sections all the way around the garment. This pressing is your key to success!

Stitch the Tuck

Measure from the pressed fold, one tuck depth. This will be the stitching line for the tuck.

Measure the tuck depth.

Don’t get too dainty with your tuck stitching.

As with a period hem, you want a single thread that will readily give way if the fabric is under too much strain. It’s far easier to tack up 6″ of tuck stitching or hem if the thread breaks, versus trying to mend a shredded fabric weave if the thread holds and the fabric doesn’t!

A simple running stitch is ideal.

I’ve used a single cotton thread in a fairly deep brown, so you can see the stitches more easily, and I’ve zoomed in a lot; the individual stitches are about 1/16″ each, just little nibbles out of the weave.

A Quick Running Stitch

At “wearing range”, these entirely disappear on the dress!

You could also sew by machine, using a plain straight stitch at about 2.5 stitch length.

These are designed to be removed at some point, so don’t make yourself crazy with super-tiny machine stitching!

I’m stitching .75″ from the fold.

Press And Done!

When you’ve gone all the way around the pressed edge, tie off and press the work flat, then turn the garment right sides out and press the tuck toward the hem edge. DONE!

Press tuck toward the hem. Repeat for more tucks!

Tips from the Original Cast

Taking note of common elements from original garments and original images of the era:

Tucks are usually decently large. The 1/32″ pin tuck era is still several decades in the future. 1/8″ in decorative tucked panels do happen, but 1/2″ to 1″ depths in functional growth tucks (and many decorative skirt elements!) are really common.

Tucks usually happen in odd numbers. If you need to lift out 6″, do it as three 1″ tucks. The human eyeball likes to find a mid-point.

You can also lift out fabric in one larger sewn fold (one 3″ tuck, for instance, will lift out 6″ of length), but you won’t have the gradual flexible extension of releasing one tuck.

Don’t worry overly much about fading lines or perma-creases along let-out tuck lines. Sure, they’re the bane of every littler sister everywhere, but the Original Cast didn’t seem to worry too much. Don’t fuss with adding trim to a utility cotton to hide a removed tuck. Just press it out as best you can, and use it as an example of the recycling/upcycling mindset so common in the 19th century. It’s not a flaw, it’s an Interpretive Feature.

Feeling Rushed? Let Us Help!

“And presents on the tree…”

While the Post Office gives us a shipping deadline of 20 December for any faint hope of Christmas delivery, can we offer a more calm service and solution?

Order any time you like using our secure gateway, and let us know it’s a gift for Christmas. We’ll ship your items right away, and email you a pretty printable “Impending Arrival” certificate (5″ x 8″) to stash in a stocking or on the tree (yes, *on*! It’s a mid-century tradition to hang small gifts right on the boughs!) for Christmas morning delights. No stress, no extra shipping costs, plenty of Christmas delight!

(And of course, you can order the new Cloth Girl via immediate download, any time day or night, and get started on a project to delight any doll-admirer in your household. And hit the Compendium for some old-fashioned coloring pages to delight young friends any time)

Christmas for Your Old-Fashioned Girls

So many have already taken advantage of our new digital-download doll pattern! It’s very exciting to see pictures posted on social media of the various unique little cloth girls everyone is making; I’ll do up an inspiration post soon!

DISCLAIMER: this post contains links. They’re either to items we publish, or to items we admire but do not sell. The outside links are non-affiliate; I share them only because I like them, with no kick-backs or considerations of any kind.

Make a Making Kit

Any doll lover or little history girl will love her own doll and wardrobe. If she’s a “maker” herself, consider gifting the finished doll, her own copy of the pattern, and a box of sewing supplies and fabric cuts.

If she’s starting from fresh, use your copy of Fanciful Utility to make her up a little sewing case, stocked with needles, a thimble, little scissors, and tiny, delightful notions to round out her supplies.

Fat-quarters of good white cotton, cotton prints, fine silks, and wool will give her plenty of drygoods options.

Stash it all in a wooden box for historic uses (I’m currently in love with re-papered cigar boxes, personally), or a nice little lidded tote for at-home use, and old-fashioned girls of all ages (but particularly those sewists ages 12-or-so and up) will be delighted to unwrap their goodies.

Doll-Scale Fun

Now, I’ll admit we fall into the Possibly Nutty categories, due to the four-story, 7.5′ tall, 150 pound dollhouse anchored to the wall studs in our Little Girls’ room. But I do adore doll-scale items, and adding a few fun things for your history-driven friends and relations can be a lot of fun. You might consider some of these fun projects for a china, cloth, or play-scale doll fan:

One of the sweetest Victorian-styled feather trees I’ve ever seen!

Historical “china” plates made with paper and glaze!

Little mini-books for a doll to read on the train!

For History Girl Readers

For those old-fashioned girls who also love to read, consider introducing some of the historic heroines that have been making readers happy for decades. (You can find copies of these books through most booksellers; I’m just a fan, so there are no affiliate links here. But I probably ought to do that affiliate thing some day!)

Back to Book Friends: for instance, have you met:

Caroline Woodhouse, the inspiration for Caddie Woodlawn, circa 1855

Caddie Woodlawn

Carol Ririe-Brink’s young heroine is hardly sedate, always compassionate, and had wonderful adventures in rural Wisconsin during the mid-19th century. Caddie and her brothers work and play with vigor, and the book does not shy away from a child’s perspective on tense inter-ethnic relations during the 1860s.

I’ve loved Caddie since I was a little girl. The best part about her? She’s not entirely fictional. Modeled after Ririe-Brink’s own grandmother’s actual life events, and the stories her grandmother told of her own childhood, the three-book series (Caddie Woodlawn and Magical Melons are by Ririe-Brink alone, with an additional volume, Caddie Woodlawn’s Family containing 14 shorter stories about, surprise, surprise, the family) has a realism and nifty material culture details that provide great inspiration for building a Caddie Set for your cloth doll.

Rose Campbell

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom follow a wonderfully pert family, as written by the ever-new Louisa May Alcott. The books follow Rose from age 13 into adulthood, and I love the details of her life, home, and family shared all the way through.  It’s a great introduction to the concept of extended girlhood; at 13, Rose is still considered a little girl, and she retains her girlish life for several more years–a refreshing change from today’s push to early adulthood! The sometimes mad-cap adventures of Rose and the whole Campbell clan are delightful!

Emily Byrd Starr

Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest are three of my favorites from LM Montgomery. Her orphan status and writing abilities are the only similarities to the more well-known Anne Shirley; Emily is her own creature, sent to live with relatives at New Moon Farm on PEI after the death of her father. Any reader will find sympathetic characters in the trilogy, along with a bit of Gothic horror shivers, and some romances both tragic and lovely.

Emily is not a mid-19th century character, but her rural and city adventures set a few decades later still recall a great deal of the earlier era. There is a film adaptation, but the books are still the best way to meet and enjoy Emily!

Laura Ingalls Wilder

We can’t skip this beloved friend! Laura is many a girl’s first introduction to historical fiction, and she remains one of my all-time favorites. Yes, the timeline is skewed from reality. Yes, there’s a whole brother left out of the series. Yes, it was probably ghost-written by Laura’s daughter Rose to help her mother out in financial difficulty. A few unhelpful bits of reality do nothing to tarnish the joy and adventure in the entire series, and make Laura a must-read for any young person. My favorite books are the ones with the Garth Williams illustrations.

Whatever your plans for projects, here’s to the last few days before Christmas, and all the flurry of Making it brings!


New Worshop Series Registration Opens!

If you’re in the Olathe, Kansas region, please join us mid-February for a great weekend of workshops! Registration is now open, click through to grab your spot!

This series includes new-to-the-lineup presentations, and loads of regionally-specific information (alongside the national context you’ll need.) Hands-on, full participation, and plenty of time for the individual questions and attention that make Sewing Academy workshops so worthwhile. Don’t miss it!

Settling In All Cozy

If I could share a sound clip of the wind wuthering through my front porch, you’d be transported to whatever lonely moor or peak you care to name… it’s a blustery start to November for us here in the Rockies! We’ve had two minor snow storms so far (both melted fairly quickly), but the season is definitely turning, and I’m reading to snuggle into it and get to work!

Here in our cottage, the start of November signals a busy window of time. We perform Christmas shows (bagpipes, drums, dancing, vocals, guitar, mandolin, upright bass, and the like) around the area all through November and well into December, and we’re preparing for our annual Burns’ Night at the end of January.

There are Christmas gifts to prepare (more on that in a moment), and this year, the arrival of our first grandchild (courtesy of our “young curmudgeon” eldest daughter and her husband) sometime near the beginning of December. Hatchlings have very little consideration for Gran’s sewing schedule. (Yes, I’m grown-up enough to be a Gran. No, I didn’t have babies in my teens. Yes, my Eldest is old enough to hatch a baby. No, I don’t yet own proper Gran Wrinkles, or any lovely silver hairs. I’m assured I still get to “level up” to Gran.)

And of course, I’m prepping workshops and classes for 2018! Hit the Workshops page to see where you’ll find me in the first quarter of the year, and get your registrations in (we’re quite limited on seats, and I don’t want you to miss yours!). (Download the PDF2018 Sewing Academy Planner and email me to select dates for a weekend in your own area!)

I promised just above to give you more on the topic of Christmas Gifts… and I could go on about this for quite some time, so perhaps we’ll break this up into a few posts?

I wanted to link everyone over to the author of Fanciful Utility, Anna Worden Bauersmith–even if you don’t have history people to make gifts for, you can use your historic skills to make some pretty keen things. For instance:

If gift cards are the thing in your circle, what about a spiffing gift card receptacle that can see second life as a spot to tuck ID or other necessities for a night out? Pocket-sized, charming, multi-use! Check out the free templates that work with your copy of Fanciful Utility to make a sweet little card case!

You’ll also find some additional free templates to use with Fanciful Utility in the Compendium; use these good historic techniques with modern fabrics for personal niceties to delight your favorite quilter or needleworker.

While it might seem a bit utilitarian to give a loved one new drawers, chemises, petticoats, or aprons for Christmas, you might find yourself on the Permanent Nice List for just such giving! (And don’t forget to make yourself a fresh set or two for the New Year.)

If you need a portable, no-sewing-required gift, what about fringing a large square of soft wool to make a cozy shawl? (You’ll find helps for all of these in the Compendium, or in our Dressmaker’s Guide and children’s patterns.

Definitely time to settle in and start to work…

Perhaps the most classic Christmas gift is a new doll, made by loving hands and dressed in the small scraps left over from the new Doll-Mother’s own wardrobe. We’ve just released the sweet new downloadable pattern for a little cloth girl, and from the responses so far, there are going to be some very happy doll-makers and Doll-Mothers this holiday season!

To round out this week of gusts and breezes, I’m working on a kilt, a wedding veil for a dear young friend, and converting the original Great Auntie Maude’s Favorite Cloth Doll pattern for PDF download, as well… it’s a proven fact I am never, ever bored!

What’s on your list to start this season?




A Sweet New Dolly

Sometimes, projects take forever.

Sometimes, it’s a worthwhile wait.

If you look at the menu header, you’ll notice a new section: Dolls!

We’re exploring some great new options in bringing patterns to you, and have added a brand new doll pattern to test the waters: Great Auntie Maude’s Little Cloth Girl, available as a downloadable PDF pattern, straight to your inbox!

She’s 13″ tall, sized to be a nice little girl of 10-13 years alongside Great Auntie Maude’s Cloth Lady Doll. Her wardrobe is girlish and sweet, from a little tulip-sleeve chemise, to comfortable little-girl drawers, a multitude of petticoat options, and beautiful mix-and-match bodice options. (Our photo shoot was done in her blue print dress with a gathered-to-fit bodice, and frilled slim sleeves.)

She also has an absolutely adorable little schoolgirl apron, a basque jacket, and a sewn bonnet in cool cottons for summer sunbonnets, or in fine wools or silks for winter use. You can also have fun with new-sew shawls!

We hope you’ll enjoy this new pattern option! If you’ve been on the wait-list for a print copy of this new doll, those are headed out this coming Monday… but if you’re up for doll sewing RIGHT NOW, click through to purchase your own copy and get sewing immediately!

Next on the slate: Great Auntie Maude’s original Lady Cloth Doll in PDF download, and then a china doll pattern just right for experimenting in miniature dress design–with her own dress-form, so you don’t have to own our china dolls to make and display all your work!

Workshop Registration Open: Natchez MS 16-18 March 2018

Are you in the region of lovely Natchez, MS? Join Elizabeth Stewart Clark the weekend of 16-18 March 2018 for a great weekend of workshops exploring the mid-19th century!

With presentations and hands-on work sessions covering everything from the functional systems of your historic wardrobe, dress fitting, construction techniques, and interpretive development, there’s something for everyone.

Registration is limited, so plan to grab your seat soon. Click Here for the Natchez registration page!

Creating a Citizen Space: Foundations

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.

Positively Positive

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.

Beyond Sewing: Designing an Impression

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.


Sensible Precautions: Event Considerations for Youth

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!


On the Care and Feeding of Your Sewing Friend

Image from Library of Congress

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.

Say Thanks

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.

Be Diligent

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!

Say Thanks

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!

Gatekeepers, “The Voice”, and Other Antiquated Notions

1860 Image of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, LoC

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

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About The Sewing Academy

With a focus on the 1840-1865 era, The Sewing Academy is your home on the (internet) range for resources to help you meet your living history goals!

Elizabeth Stewart Clark has been absorbed by the mid-19th century for over 20 years. She makes her home in the Rocky Mountains with her husband, four children (from wee to not-so-wee), far too many musical instruments, and five amusing hens.

Email Elizabeth Or call 208-523-3673 (10am to 8pm Mountain time zone, Monday through Saturday)

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