The Sewing Academy

Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company

Happy Third Birthday to Fanciful Utility!

So, three years ago, author Anna Worden Bauersmith and I “birthed” a project that we affectionately nicknamed FanU… or, Fanciful Utility, a fantastic technique and project book that teaches you how to make a huge variety of Victorian sewing cases, sewing rolls, and needlebooks.

This lovely book is packed with illustrations and pictures to help you “de-code” originals and engravings from historic magazines, and replicate them for use today.

So far, we’ve sent out copies of FanU to nearly every state in the US, as well as to places like England, Belgium, France, Austria, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. FanU’s fans live everywhere!

To celebrate, Anna has a whole week of great posts and neat ready-to-use items (made by her own hands, and listed for sale in her Etsy shop!)… you’re going to want to click through, and sign up for updates, so you don’t miss a thing.

For instance, later this week Anna will be discussing the most popular period sewing tools, and she has some amazing free printables coming out! Eliza Leslie’s sewing introduction notes in a booklet form, and two mini-booklets that fold down to a miniscule size and are ideal for your own reference or to tuck into a gift case.

She’ll even have some printable needle packet designs–print, load with needles, and pass them out to convert all your friends to the benefits of period sewing!

Evaluating Published Patterns, Or…

… How To Tell If Your Resources Pretty Much Suck Eggs.

So, this post comes from a kind of crabby place. Normally, I am not a crabby person. I do, however, get frustrated when people, in good faith, get hold of resources that are not only less-than-helpful, but put them in a really cruddy spot with wasted fabric and effort and time.


Can you spot all the Red Flags in this image?

Here’s a short list of things that set of my Red Flags with regards to a woman’s mid-19th century dress pattern:

Scanty Yardage: With 45″ fabric, and bishop sleeves, a fabric yardage note of 4.5 yards for an adult dress is Not Much. That’s a skimpy skirt (not gauge-able), and while some very petite ladies may be able to get a lower working class “skimpy” dress from it, the average-build woman cannot, if she wants to look like someone from the mid-19th century, and not like an extra from The Beverly Hillbillies.

Over-Yardage: The pattern includes bishop sleeves, which don’t require a lining. But three yards of lining is quite a lot for lining a basic bodice. More Red Flags that this dress pattern may have some oddness.

Yardage Why? The note calling for a half-yard of 45″ wide white cloth and interfacing leaves a lot of questions: no notes on whether that’s a half-yard of white cloth that will be used as interfacing, or if you need a half-yard of each, and if so, what kind of interfacing, and if interfacing, why? Mid-century dresses didn’t use modern interfacing. I’m about to the point that I can start a fancy drill team with all these Red Flags.

No Yardage At All? Apparently, if you use 60″ wide cloth, you magically need zero fabric for lining?

Sizing It Up: Another Red Flag shows up bright and clear on this sizing chart, in the neckline circumference. Women do not get larger on a photocopy scale. As sizing goes up, necks do not get progressively larger by another inch and a half each size. This tells me the drafter/grader doesn’t really get human anatomy or growth or fatness, and that signals the potential for vast sizing re-do work.

Bad Notions: Things like buttons need to be customized to suit the purposes of the dress. While a high-fashion gown might use larger buttons (often silk-covered or the really sexy complicated ones woven over a mold), a “work dress” for an average-height woman tends to need more than 8 huge buttons down the front. Eight buttons can work for my 10yo, who is 4.5 feet tall, if I’m using period spacing and sizing, so right off the bat, I know that the pattern recommendations are not going to look well on me: I’m over a foot taller! The pattern doesn’t upgrade the button total for the taller/longer bodices. That means, the larger the size, the more I’m going to look like a Borrower, not a denizen of the 19th century.

And no period dress needs huge hooks and eyes to fasten the skirt and bodice together. That’s not how the Original Cast did it, and recommending it in a pattern belies a basic lack of research into actual garments of the era. There are going to be Problems with the way the bodice and skirt are finished at the waist, and how the fullness is handled, guaranteed; lack of research in one area transmits to many areas.

And piping: Your dress pattern should recommend it, but if they have “two packages piping” on the list, run away post-haste and buy a different pattern, because again: basic lack of research into actual garments of the era. Mid-century piping is self-fabric, and about 1/4 the size of purchased poly-cotton bias piping. If the list tells you to plan an extra yard to make self-piping, run away post-haste; this displays a lack of understanding regarding layout, fabric usage, and scrap piecing so very basic to mid-century dressmaking.

And fat thread: No, you don’t need heavy quilting or button or upholstery thread to sew a 19th century dress. The originals used regular sewing cotton. We can, too. No need for overkill. And designers that recommend overkill either haven’t looked at enough originals, or have had their designs monkeyed with by modern publishers (as is the case of the work of two designers I know… they turned in good stuff, and then it got messed with. Growl. Not the designers’ fault in that case.)

This bit of crabbiness is all based on just the back of a pattern envelope. I’m expecting further travesty on the inside–on-line reviews note that the pattern doesn’t include any illustrations. The person trying to use this pattern is reasonably frustrated, and rightly so.

In a few weeks, we’ll be sharing some independent resource reviews of items for mid-century, and I’ll have more to say on the matter, I’m sure. For the meantime, keep this in mind: sometimes, when you’re struggling to make a project work, it isn’t your fault.

I’m going to slap in some Sousa, and march around waving this pile of Red Flags for a bit…

Hand Sewn Buttonholes

Hooks and eyes (or eyelets) can be a great way to fasten a lot of mid-century clothing, but for some applications, you just can’t beat a button and buttonhole. Chemises, drawers, petticoats, nightgowns, dresses for all ages, men’s shirts–these articles have buttonholes, and they look nothing at all like a modern machined hole.

Learning to make a serviceable buttonhole takes determination and some patience. Learning to make a really gorgeous buttonhole takes practice. Loads of it. About your fiftieth or hundredth hole, you’ll look at it and say, “Gosh, this is really looking nice!”

But even if your finished hole is not a work of art, you can get a nice mid-century result by going for Stable, Serviceable, and Smooth. And this tutorial will help you get there!

This process can also be found in The Dressmaker’s Guide, just in case you were wondering. And yes, please do share this tutorial! Just link back to it here, and don’t go courting karmic retribution by re-hosting images or anything inconsiderate like that.

You’re going to want to make some practice holes, so grab some fabric scraps at least 6×6″, and we can get started.

HowToButtonholeYou Will Need:

Thread that is color-matched fairly well to the ground color of your fabric. Buttonhole thread is the ideal; it has a gentle ply that spreads out nicely for excellent coverage with fewer stitches. However, most of us are making do with our normal 50wt sewing thread, and you can get a nice result with this, too! Use good-quality 100% cotton thread. A close blend for color is fine.

Beeswax to strengthen and smooth your thread. It will help reduce tangles and cussing, too.

A Needle. I like a #9 or #10 Crewel needle, as it is slender but durable, and the longer crewel eye is easier to thread.

Small, sharp Scissors are useful for cutting your threads (don’t use your teeth!) and opening your buttonholes.

Now, you may ask, “What about a chisel?” A buttonhole chisel is a fine thing–with one tap, the hole is sliced open very precisely. It’s a tool I see come up frequently in tailoring manuals (where button sizes used are often delightfully regular)–but not in dressmaking manuals. And this tutorial covers dressmaking buttonholes, and dressmaking notes from the period more often indicate the use of fine sharp scissors, and thus: scissors. (You can use a chisel if you want. It’s your buttonhole, and I’m not going to yell. If you need to open a hole smaller than your chisel, arrange the hold half-over your block, so the chisel is not over your block for its full length, and open half the hole at a time.)

You will also probably want a bit of chalk or a fine pencil to mark your hole positions at first. Over time, you may find you don’t need so many marking tools. Please don’t use air-soluble marking tools. These have a bad habit of zombification with later pressing, and you really don’t need zombie markings besmirching your garments.

For this tutorial, I’ve used plain cotton and contrasting thread, to make it a bit easier to see what’s going on.


Mark the position and length of your buttonhole-to-be (you’ll see that as a dotted line above.) Use a doubled thread, lightly waxed, and no knots; simply secure your threads at the far end (away from the wearing stress of the hole) with two small back stitches, then continue with a short running stitch through all the layers of your garment, around the hole position. A doubled length of thread about 24″ to 30″ long is generally plenty to outline and work a buttonhole that admits buttons up to 5/8″ wide.

Grab those fine scissors! It’s time to open the hole. (You can speed up your work by marking all the holes at once, but work them start-to-finish one at a time for the best results.)



In this very magnified view of the opened hole, you can see how the outline stitching serves to hold the layers all together, and help stabilize the raw edges. This, plus a bit of attention to how you place the stitches, means you’ll get a straight hole, rather than an open egg-shaped one.


Hand position counts. Most people find it easiest to lay the work across the index or middle finger of their left hand. Try not to wad the work up, or crumple in your palm. You may need to reposition your work a few times as you go around the hole. Above, you can see the outline stitching done, and the hole opened and ready to work.

Your thread should be coming up to the right side of your work a bit away from the raw edge of the hole. Put the needle point down into the hole, and bring it back to the right side of your work just to the outside of your outline stitching.

It is here we see the big difference between a blanket stitch, and a buttonhole stitch: we need to make sure the length of the thread is laying under both the needle’s eye, and the needle’s point, like this:


You can use your left index finger and thumb to manipulate the thread and make this “wrap” a little easier.


Continue stitching: drop the point through the open hole, emerging just outside the foundation stitching and just a few threads to the left of the last stitch. Be sure the working thread is under both the eye and point of the needle. Draw the stitch firmly and smoothly, pulling the thread away from you and toward the open hole. This helps place the purl of the buttonhole stitch right on the edge of the hole, and keeps that edge straight and firm, rather than scooping back into the fabric in that weird egg-shaped mess that makes everyone cry.

We don’t want that. Crying leaves splotches on the clothing.

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Keep stitching down the first “leg” of the buttonhole. As you reach the end, fan out your stitches just a bit to create a rounded end. Remember to keep drawing your thread away from you, toward the open hole, to place those purls right along the edge of the hole.


Do the same thing as you reach the far end of the hole: fan and work around the end, then spike your needle through the purl of the first stitch you made. You’re almost done!


Flip your work over to the wrong side, and run the needle under several stitches to secure it. No slobbery, lumpy knots for your buttonholes!


Notice, this test hole is not perfect on the back! Those little wibbly bits won’t compromise the function or utility of the hole, and on a coarse weave cotton like this Kona, the wibbles do tend to show up on the back.

Let’s take a look at the finished hole from the front:


This is not a perfect buttonhole. There are bits that are very pleasing, however! Had I taken time to do at least three practice holes before this example hole, I’d notice distinct improvements in my stitch placement, coverage, and uniformity–and that’s after years and years of hand-sewing buttonholes. It takes one or two warm-ups to get the muscle memory working smoothly, and it’s worth the few minutes of “wasted” stitching on scrap to get very nice buttonholes on the finished garment.

Keep in mind, too, that when you move to blending thread on a printed ground, or white-on-white, a lot of the small imperfections vanish.


See? Functional, quite smooth and lovely, well-supported edges… a good hand-sewn dressmaker’s buttonhole is a useful skill for all mid-19th century home sewing!

Nailed It

There you are. Ready to start a neat new project from a period source. You’re all set to sew.

And then: someone tossed carpentry into the mix?

What does it mean when you see a number on a mid-century diagram, with a little letter N after it? Or read directions indicating “nails” as a unit of measure? What the heck, Original Cast?!?

Calm your steam engines… a “nail” is simply an antique unit of measure, equivalent to 1/16th of a yard. Here’s how it goes:

36″ = 1 yard

18″ = 1/2 yard

9″ = 1/4 yard

4.5″ = 1/8 yard

2.25″ = 1/16 yard, OR 1 nail.

(Oh, and there’s also the fabric measurement of an “ell”. For our purposes, that’s often an English ell, or 45″… or 20 nails!)

Rather than do a bunch of increasingly-tiny division when your project calls for measurements like 1.5 nails (which is 3 and 3/8″, by the way), you can make a nail measure with a bit of card or firmly-woven tape, a piece of paper cut 2.25″, and a fine permanent marking pen. Fold the paper in half, and in halves again, and transfer the quarter marks to the tape or permanent card; repeat to make multiple nail sections.

(Don’t, though, hit a “normal” or “mundane” fabric shop and ask the cutter for “2.5 nails of this cotton, please.” She will stare at you, and then she will probably hate you.)

No, You’re Not.

Just a quick note today, regarding the classification of every merchant or vendor catering to the living history trade as a “sutler.”

Here’s the thing: words mean things. And the word “sutler” is not a catch-all for “people who sell things.” It’s a very specific word for a very specific type of selling to a specific clientele.

Specifically: a sutler sells goods and provisions to military troops, under contract with said military. They sell, to soldiers, items that soldiers might like to have, that the military does not provide them. Here’s a great short article on types of things a sutler actually did do and sell at mid-century.

At mid-century, a sutler doesn’t sell items to the general populace. They don’t sell goods for dressmaking, or women’s bonnets, or children’s things.

A modern merchant or vendor who provides lines of historically-accurate merchandise, or supplies and aids to create the same, is a merchant or vendor or shopkeeper, or store.

Let’s make the 2015 living history season the year we stop using “sutler” for everything… or for anything outside of the historic impression of “licensed contract merchant of items for soldiers and sailors.”


Adventures In Women’s Underwear

Or: What a Man Needs to Know about Dressing a Woman

It is a typical scenario: a man comfortable in military impressions meets a nice woman. They fall in love, or at least deep like. He wishes to interest her in his fascinating hobby, and suggests she attend an event or two. She agrees, and he sets about finding some clothes for her to wear.

That should be pretty easy, right? After all, she just needs a dress.

That’s rather like saying a military impression just needs some sort of gun.

Any gun, really.

Squirt gun, Mauser, Jiminy Cricket rifle—a gun is a gun, isn’t it?

The reality is, creating a functional, accurate woman’s wardrobe for the mid-century is a multi-step process, and should command just as much research and attention as creating an accurate military impression. This brief article serves as an overview only, but includes the basics of what to look for, and why.

From the Skin Out
A woman’s wardrobe is a system that works from the skin out. Fully dressed for a day or work or pleasure, the average working class woman (to be paired with an average private soldier, socially) will don:

Chemise: a white cotton undergarment with a wide neckline, short sleeves, and mid-thigh to knee length hem, cut full in the body.

Stockings: knee or above-knee length, natural fibers.

Garters: knit or elastic garters to support stockings; garters may be worn below or above the knee as a matter of personal preference.

Shoes: shoe or boot style appropriate for women.

Corset: the supportive undergarment, firming the torso and supporting the breasts. This needs to be custom-fit to her figure, and should not be purchased “off the rack”.

Drawers: white cotton, mid-calf hem, split crutch seam, full in the body–and also, optional, though if she’s wearing a hoop, it’s more required than if the impression is for pre-1857.

Petticoat The First: mid-calf hem, moderately full-gathered (90” to 120” or so) on a fitted band.

Skirt support: small to moderate cage or hoop (85” to 115”), ending at mid-calf and set on a fitted waistband.

Underskirts (Or, Petticoats the Second and Third): one to two full-gathered (150” to 180”) underskirts give loft to the dress and soften any hoop lines. (These are often well-starched.)

Dress: for the working class, typically a wool or printed cotton with a fitted bodice, bishop or shaped coat sleeves, high neckline, full skirts set onto the bodice. Dresses do need customized fitting, and are difficult to purchase off the rack.

White Accessories & Protective Accessories: white collar and cuff or undersleeve basted into the dress to protect it from body oil and grime. Neckerchiefs may be used for an active working impression (such as farming, cleaning, factory-work, etc). Half-aprons ending in a band at the waist, or pinner aprons with a pinned-up bib, are vital if there is work to be done. Remember, dresses are not so easily laundered as undergarments and accessory pieces. A functional mid-century wardrobe might have a total of three dresses, but seven or more sets of undergarments and accessory items.

Headwear: a sunbonnet, fashion bonnet, or warm winter hood, depending on environmental requirements.

Wrap: a large wool shawl with fringed hems all around is a very basic outer wrap for any wardrobe.

Additional outer and undergarments may be required for cold weather.

Every garment should be made in 100% natural fibers (silk, wool, cotton, or linen.) White cotton is very common for everyday undergarments, with the addition of wool flannel for cold weather undergarments.

The wardrobe items should be acquired or made in the order listed above. Dresses come after all undergarments, as the dressmaker (whether at home or hired) needs to take measurements over all the underlayers for the most accurate fit. Indeed, reputable historic dressmakers will not usually make a bodice over an uncorseted figure.

What To Look For
Only a few highly-accurate women’s clothing makers attend events. The individualized nature of female clothing mid-century makes stocking accurate clothing fairly complex. Do Not Send Your Beloved To Merchant Row In Person or On-Line Without An Experienced Female Mentor. Doing so is a sure plan for spending a great deal of money on a great deal of useless farb, as the majority of merchants at non-juried-vendor events do not carry accurate items.

Becoming an educated customer is vital, and the best way to do that is to follow the same process you used as a military person: view as many original garments and images as possible, and look for merchants who replicate those items as closely as possible. If a merchant advertises that they replicate garments, and has pictures of originals and their goods, evaluate the two very closely for consistency; some wishing to sell to history-heavy markets tout their “based on originals” status, but fail utterly in the execution, while others do a truly superb job.

Beware any merchant using the following key words and characteristics:

  • Machine gauged skirts (this is not possible, mechanically)
  • Poly-cotton for easy care
  • Wool blend
  • Artificial silk
  • “Zouave” dress or “Garibaldi” dress, particularly if done in cotton prints
  • Dresses with less than 150” in the skirt circumference
  • Belts in cotton
  • Blouses for women
  • Tuck-in white bodices that are not see-through/sheer.
  • Low-cost items with lace—it is sure to be polyester/nylon
  • Colored lace
  • Skirts sold un-hemmed
  • Only bust and waist measurements are requested
  • Drawstrings
  • Cotton print bodices separate from cotton print skirts
  • Solid-color cotton garments
  • Zippers, Velcro, or snaps at any point
  • Tent-grommets at back lacing closures
  • Images of the makers that look like “reenactors” rather than The Original Cast.

What To Budget
Women’s clothing requires a good amount of time. If you are buying ready-made or custom-sewn clothing, you can expect to pay for skilled labor rates on every item. If budget is a large concern, you or your beloved need to consider learning a few basic sewing skills, and making at least a portion of the wardrobe at home—undergarments such as chemise, drawers, and petticoats are an ideal way to learn historic sewing.

The average prices listed here are taken from the current listings of merchants whom I consider to have a high degree of accuracy and quality, with good-value pricing. Home sewing prices include a national-average cost for fabric allowances and patterns. See the Resource list at the end of the article for pattern companies.

Chemises: $50-$80 each. Need not be custom cut in most cases and generally safe to purchase ready-made. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first chemise, and $5 ($15 for Pimatex broadcloth) each after that.

Drawers: $50-$70 each. Some degree of customization is necessary to accommodate individual body depth and inseam length. If made at home with a purchased historic pattern, allow $25 for the first pair of drawers, and $5 ($15 for Pimatex broadcloth) each after that.

Corset: $100-$200 labor. This is a highly individual garment, and needs to be custom cut and fit. It is very possible to learn to fit and construct a corset at home if you and your beloved are so inclined; see the Resource section for educational helps.

Petticoats and Underskirts: $50-$100 each. These may need some slight customization, mostly in a fitted waistband measurements and length adjustment to suit her figure, but they can generally be safely purchase ready-made. Keep in mind that a full outfit needs one petticoat and one or more underskirts. Petticoats and underskirts do not require a purchased pattern (see the Resource section for free pattern options), and can be made at home for under $10 each ($40 if using Pimatex broadcloth).

Skirt Support: cage crinolines and hoops, ready-made, run between $85 and $300. Along with the corset, this is another investment piece. Kits are available in the $70-$200 range, and patterns plus supplies will generally run around $60-$80.

Dress: $150-$300 in labor, depending on the complexity of fitting and style demands, plus additional fabric costs. A really good historic cotton print can average $11-$15 per yard; a dress takes 7.5 to 8 yards generally.

Accessories: $20-$30 for collars, cuffs, and undersleeves (each piece; most dressmakers give a small discount on matched sets); aprons in the $30-$50 range. Made at home, allow $20 for the first set of white accessories, $6 thereafter; $15 for the first apron, $5 thereafter.

Headwear: $40-$60 sunbonnets; $110-$200 completed fashion bonnets; $60-$120fashion bonnet blanks and semi-finished bonnets; $100-$200 winter hoods. Sunbonnets and winter hoods can be made very inexpensively ($5-$30) at home with purchased patterns or free on-line instructional materials.

Home sewing costs vary, of course. Here’s a quick breakdown of supplies for a winter hood, for instance, compiled by Anna Worden-Bauersmith: 1/2 yard silk ($7.50 – $10.00 est); 1/2 yard period cotton print or polished cotton ($5-$7.50); wool wadding – $2-$4); thread ($1 on a good sale, $3-$4 regularly); silk ties 1 yard ($4+).

Wraps: a simple shawl can be made by those without sewing experience for the cost of two yards of wool fabric.

Shoes: accurate repro shoes run between $80 and $150.

Stockings: $6-$10 per pair

Garters: $8-$20 per pair

All told, if you are purchasing every garment from a highly-accurate merchant or seamstress, you’ll spend between $1070 and $1750 on a wardrobe for a weekend-long event (three sets chemise/drawers, one set petticoats, skirt support, corset, accessories, dress, outerwear).

Blending specific purchases and homemade items, you’ll spend between $400 and $650.

The more home-sewn items you’re willing to undertake, the lower the total can go—as low as $180 with careful planning.

What If She Hates It?
Yes, there is that possibility. Not every woman finds living history fascinating. There’s nothing wrong with having a separate hobby from your significant other—just be prepared for her to take up something with equal time and budget factors to your chosen obsession/hobby. If you have children, and wish this to be a family hobby, plan to adopt a citizen’s impression for at least a portion of your event weekends; otherwise, many women find their portion of the hobby to be Regular Life, Less Convenient, and you may encounter vast resistance.

If there is any doubt in your mind that she will love the hobby, it is best to wait on acquiring a wardrobe. Instead, find a citizen-oriented group to take her under wing, and fit her out for an event or two from the loaner wardrobe box. (Be sure the citizen’s group is as focused on accuracy as your own group! After the work and expense of putting together an accurate military impression, don’t spoil it by stepping out with someone dressed in borrowed farbery.) Loaner clothing will not fit so well as her own wardrobe, but it’s a great way to get started, allowing her the fun of dressing out and getting to know people, with a much smaller budget outlay right at the first.

Most citizen’s groups are happy to provide mentoring, and many have between-event sewing days and other activities designed to help your beloved create many of her own wardrobe items, even if she has no background in sewing.

Women’s Wardrobe Resources

Pattern Lines for Home or Hired Sewing

Discussion Forums & Educational Opportunities

Additionally, some dressmakers will teach sewing classes.

And yes, this is the short, glossy overview. Women’s clothing encompasses a huge range and variety (we have no “uniform” to speak of!). There is something accurate for every personality and personal budget, but the undertaking is not a small one. Your beloved deserves as much consideration in her own things as you do in yours.

Don’t fail her with farb.

Swing Yer Dartner!


I know.

That was a bit of a groaner for a title.

This little article is excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide–if you don’t have your copy, you can find it here.

Darts are a way to mold fabric to fit a 3-D body (and most of us have one of those, don’t we?) The cool thing about darts in a bodice is that, so long as two darts both point to the same body bump, we can magically “move” the fabric controlled by one dart, into the other dart forever, and banish the first bit of excess to another dimension (it’s the one where all your socks go from the dryer. Also, hairpins.)

This means that, if we have some extra fabric hanging out in the hollow of the bust, or some loose wobbles after we cut down a neckline for a new fashion style, we can “swing” that dart control into the waist-to-bust darts, and handle everything from there.

Caveat: this is a process that can ONLY be done at the muslin test stage!

To swing a dart, pin your muslin test, basted at the shoulder and sides, smooth to your figure. Don’t pull overly tight, but make everything smooth and sleek, with all the pointy ends of the darts you’re pinning headed toward the same body prominence (usually the bust point.)

The dart you’re wanting to eliminate will be pinned out forever. It is banished. Never shall the pins be removed. The fabric taken up in it no longer exists on this plane of reality (remember? Socks. Hairpins.)

Remove the test bodice, and remove the basting at shoulder and side seam so you have the front bodice pieces back to themselves alone.  You’ll notice right away that even when you take out the pins from the dart you’re keeping, the bodice won’t lay flat.

That’s because we have just a few more steps before our swinging is complete!

Carefully cut from the waist edge, right up the middle of the darts you’re keeping, to the point of the bust.

See how the bodice darts just opened wide up? If you trace the new, altered shape, and use the original dart-sewing lines with the new, expanded dart areas, you’ll get the same fit through the torso and waist, with zero excess fabric above the bust, and you’ve not changed anything at all with the armscye (even though it has a new, pretty funky curve, it still works, I promise!), neckline, or bust circumference. That former annoying excess is banished forever and ever, and you have a great shape to play with from here on out.

Fitting Out A Sewing Box

Many of us sew in living history situations, and thus have need of an accurately fitted-out set of tools and supplies; others of us simply find the historic tools and styles charming, and wish to have something like them for our own modern use. Certainly, the ingenuity of past kits surpasses the modern plastic-and-sadness models available in most chain stores!

As a starting place for fitting out a sewing set, please visit Mrs Mescher’s excellent article, The Case of the Lost Thimble. In particular, note the illustrations of common styles of scissors… not a single pair of Chinese gardening snips to be found! It’s telling that the classic shape of scissors and shears and their mechanisms has scarcely been improved in a century and a half. For instance, all-metal Gingher 8″ dressmaker’s shears, and basic all-metal 4″ embroidery scissors are both virtually identical to diagrams in Mrs Mescher’s article. Modern nickel-plated brass straight pins (these are a size 20, and 1.25″ long) and period pins are visually very similar, ditto needles. It’s possible to outfit oneself with items that are fully functional for modern and historic sewing, historically accurate, and not hideously expensive.

Two new articles from author Anna Worden Bauersmith give some additional ideas on fitting out your own tools and supplies. What Is In Your Sewing Box links the reader to images of mid-century sewing, and well-reproduced sewing sets from modern living history enthusiasts. Sewing On The Go shows very portable sets that tuck efficiently into both historic luggage and modern messenger bags, for the mobile sewist.

Of course, one of the first questions to ask is: why am I a mobile sewist? In what circumstances did people at mid-century go mobile with their sewing tools, and what did they use to make that happen?

Sometimes, we may be trying to make settled sewing more portable for our own modern ease, such as portraying a mid-century sewing professional who would normally operate in a workroom or shop, but out of a tent or coming into a village for short-term portrayals. We need to be careful to not impose our own desire for portability over the actual historic practices of our sort of sewist. Investigating the actual practices of the past lets us find a good historic option, or a careful blend of several options, that give us the best solutions.

Going back to the Progressive Questions (What did the Original Cast actually do and use? Can I replicate that? If not, what other things did they actually do and use? Which historic option fits my needs and impression best?) is always the best way to start in the past, and explore a wide range of options for the modern living history impression, including the mobile sewist!

A Quick Note

CivSym2015WebJust a quick reminder: you still have time to get “Early Bird” registration discounts for the Harrisburg Symposium, but only for a few more days.

The full price is a great deal, but the Early Bird has extra dollars to spend in the Merchant Hall, and that’s a lot better than worms, don’t you think?

Registration information is at the Genteel Arts website. Click through to visit, or click on the image to be delivered by that route!

Get Thee To The Symposium!

CivSym2015WebEvery March, something cool happens. It’s January right now, but you still have a month to get in on the cool March something, so I wanted to take some time and share it with you! And we all know I break blogging rules on a very consistent basis, so this is a looooooong bit of happiness. Grab a snack. Nothing sticky or too crumbly.

One of my all-time favorite mentors in living history research is Carolann Schmitt, who took a pretty scattered, very young Liz under her kind wing, and has remained a constant encouragement for  all of my adult life… nearly two decades at this point! (Seriously, her willingness to hold up her own mid-century undergarments in public–not while wearing them–was the first moment I knew I was going to adore her. I was right.)

For a great lot of that time, she and a team of very dedicated volunteers have put on an amazing educational experience each year. You may have heard of “The Harrisburg Conference” or “that big thing back East.”

Last March, I was delighted to present two topics to the good people attending Back East, and now I’m delighted to have a chance to sit down (virtually) with one of my favorite people, and grill her (gently, in a Period Approved Manner) about the gathering upcoming this March. You’re going to want to be there. You’ll find the registration information right here on the Genteel Arts Academy website. Go ahead and download the registration form. She and I will wait right here.

A 2015 Name Change

This is the 21st year of the gathering, but moving into the third decade of existence, it’s been reclassified as a Symposium, rather than a conference. Previously, the topics have all focused on citizen life, experiences, and material culture, with each presenter sharing their own research on diverse aspects of mid-19th century life. Will anything change with the types or breadth of citizen-focus topics going forward?

We haven’t begun to cover all the possible topics on mid-19th century life.  We’ll continue to see out new topics and new information.

We’d also like to increase our hands-on learning opportunities and are working on how some of the suggested topics can be adapted to a hotel-conference center setting. Harnessing oxen in the hotel lobby is problematic.

 Learning for the Eclectic Mind

This year’s topics range from the science of pre-plastics, to jokes and humor, to the lives of army wives, to fine details in clothing, to the common working of the postal service, and medical practices of enslaved people. Other years are similarly diverse. How do you settle on such an interesting mix?

A lot of shuffling, dithering and switching is involved.

We spend a significant amount of time reviewing proposals, considering which presentations will complement the other presentations on the program, which topics will be more appealing to the participants, does a topic contain new research and information, does it relate to an upcoming event or anniversary, is it a topic that everyone needs to learn or be reminded about; will it fit best in this year’s program or should we hold it until next year?

We then make appropriate sacrifices to the gods, read the cards, say a few prayers, and hope we’ve found the right mix.

One thing I’ve noticed, looking back over topic ranges from the past decade, is a decidedly universal appeal. This is definitely not a women’s-only or clothing-only gathering. The focus is on mid-century citizen/civilian life. The earliest gatherings, before Genteel Arts took the helm, were not so broad. What led you to make the experience more inclusive to men and women both?

We noticed a change in the hobby. Many veteran military reenactors were looking for events with new opportunities for more in-depth participation. Others still wanted to participate in living history but were facing physical limitations. 

At the same time we began to see an increase in high quality, small scale events with a stronger or solely-civilian emphasis. These events offered opportunities for men, women and children, but there was a decided lack of information on what roles may be available for them or how the roles could be executed. Expanding the Conference/Symposium to include everyone was a logical change that has proven to be very popular. 

Is this a Symposium open only to those who “do” living history?

Heavens, no.  Our participants include staff and volunteers from local, state and national parks, docents and interpreters from historic sites, costume and textile enthusiasts, doll collectors, collectors and enthusiasts interested in non-clothing “stuff”, antique dealers, professionals and tradesmen who are interested in the history of their profession or craft, historians, and living history participants.

This diversity is one of the things that makes the Symposium what it is – the opportunity to exchanging ideas and information with like-minded people from all over the country and around the world.

Looking at presenter bios, I notice one common theme: regardless of professional or academic credentials, everyone seems to be very passionate in their particular topics and fields of research, and the overall level of scholarship tends toward the highest levels. Sometimes, that would lead to some really dry, esoteric lectures.

But, the speakers at the Symposium present in such accessible tones–it’s like really high-grade show-and-tell from passionate, engaged friends. Have you found that the presenters you select just naturally tend toward that blend of great research and accessible language, or do you have to coach as well as organize and do your own presentations?

We do consider speaking ability and experience when reviewing presentations. We don’t coach, but we do offer some tips and suggestions on organizing their presentation, on speaking to a large group, and stress the importance of staying on schedule. Fortunately, the majority of our speakers can transmit their research and enthusiasm in an informative, interesting and entertaining presentation.

Are there particular parts of this year’s Symposium that you’re the most excited to attend?

All of them?  Unfortunately, as sponsor and organizer I don’t get to hear all of the presentations in their entirety.

The Philanthropic Bits

The Civilian Symposium has a long tradition of donating the registration fees from select pre-event tours to historic preservation. In the last eight years, nearly $11,000 has been donated. What inspired you to use a fun pre-event excursion to help fund these historic needs? Which excursion is the preservation jaunt this year?

I know how hard historic sites work to obtain funding, and artifact preservation is often at the bottom of the budget.

The staff at the sites we visit have willingly developed special presentations and tours for our participants, frequently giving them access to areas that are normally off-limits to the general public. Donating the registration fees to these institutions was a way of showing our appreciation and supporting their efforts.

 The Shippensburg University Fashion Archives & Museum, the National Civil War Museum and the John Harris-Simon Cameron Mansion, both in Harrisburg, will host workshop/tours this year and will benefit from the donation of the registration fees.

Another big tradition with the Civilian Symposium is the yearly “Angel Project,” where attendees provide volunteer labor to a specific historic preservation or education project. This year, it’s helping in whatever ways the Shippensburg University Fashion Archives & Museum needs to settle into their brand new home. That kind of historic community outreach is unique. What led you to incorporate it, and what has been the response from those who go to serve, and those being served?

We ‘borrowed’ the concept from the Costume Society of America, which has conducted Angels Projects during their annual symposium for many years.

The program is designed to assist museums with smaller projects for which they have neither staff nor funding.  It  is very much a “work day”. The projects vary widely, can require physical effort, and may or may not be related to the mid-19th century. The participants love it and work very hard, and the sites are very appreciative of the donated time and effort.

The Financial Bits

These days it seems like everything just costs more. But, registration for the Symposium, including the reception, the Fancy Dress ball, all the workshops and rotating clothing displays, breakfasts and lunches and snacks, and all the presentation handouts, is actually *lower* this year, under $200 for adults, and as low as $165 for full-time students if registrations are in by 1 February. What inspired or enabled you to make that change?

We work hard to provide a great value for each participant. We realize the Symposium is not an inexpensive weekend, and we want to include as many participants as we can. That means keeping costs as reasonable as possible and making participation in some of the associated activities optional. A good working relationship with our facility, applying standard business practices, and a sharp pencil help make it possible.

Also, I know the registration packet says you do not accept a first-born child in lieu of payment, but my first-born is of age, and highly useful in class settings and “presenter-minding”. Are you sure I can’t do a swap there?

It’s a possibility… (insert big grin here!)

The Symposium has limited attendance, and tends to sell out… the official deadline is 15 February, but will there actually be seats available by then? Is there a reason attendance is capped?

Attendance is capped due to the available meeting space. The main meeting room is 7,500 square feet, and we use every inch of it for displays and seating.  We can comfortably accommodate 225-230 people for the sessions, and 265-270 for dinner.  We have been at 90%-100% capacity many years.

Most readers will be seeing this 15 January–get those registrations in ASAP!

 The Physical Bits

The hotel and meeting space is quite convenient; I flew in, and got a free shuttle to and from the airport without a problem. Staff was lovely. I had a few odd requests, and they didn’t even blink. There’s a business center right off the lobby that I used to print out shipping labels and avoid having to put everything in my suitcase! (Seriously, plan to ship a box home. Because: juried vendors. Awesome.)

The special rate on the rooms means that if you bunk in with three other sympatico souls, you’ll spend under $30 a night each. And the hotel honors the special rate for a full ten days surrounding the Symposium, if you want to come early or stay late. The majority of your meals are included in the registration costs (the divine supper Saturday night is extra and optional and worth it); there’s a convenient restaurant right in the hotel that serves a great variety of tasty things, as well as some good local eateries a short drive away.

One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll be doing some walking from your room to the various presentations and classes. Bring comfortable shoes, and give yourself time to stroll! With all the good food and the time you’ll spend seated, some exercise is a very, very good thing. You’ll be strolling in good company.

Also, drink plenty of liquids. Yes, you’ll need to “skip to the loo, my darling,” but the loo is lovely (just outside the session rooms!), you’ll be doing a lot of eager chatting with fellow passionate people, and the better hydrated you are, the less your vocal chords will suffer. There are plentifully-tended water stations in the presentation rooms, so there’s no excuse. Drink your water! That way you can get all the visiting in.

Shopping With Confidence. Seriously.

How many times have you been frustrated with not knowing what it’s “okay” to buy from merchants? The Symposium has been solving that for a long time, with a juried vendor area coordinated by Debbie McBeth. Everyone there is vetted, and not everyone gets in every year! This ensures a wide variety of period-appropriate offerings (the general push is to never duplicate product lines from multiple vendors, so it’s a wider range of unique items than you’ll find at most events), and makes the merchant rooms some of the best concentrated historic coolness you’ve ever seen.

Vendor selection is unbiased, too; symposium sponsors aren’t involved in the jury process. Each merchant needs to apply each year, so the mix has a freshness and natural turn-over that serves the living history community very well.

The Marketplace is just down the hall from the session rooms, and there’s ample shopping time all day Friday, as well as during breaks and lunch while the sessions are running. Even if you’re not able to come to the Symposium workshops, the Marketplace is open to the public during business hours.

Here’s my tip list for visiting the Marketplace:

  1. Make a wish-list before you go in
  2. Take one tour through just to get your bearings
  3. Go through again to ask questions and make your selections.

I was able to find just the right ribbons to finish off my Saturday outfit, a gorgeous little lapis brooch, a great deal on corset coutil, a whole new set of corset bones to allow me to finally retire FrankenCorset (some of my bones could vote AND drink!), and very cool historically accurate toys for each of my kids, too. My son, then nearly 15, had jokingly said, “I want a pony, Mama!”, so I brought him home a pair of inch-high carved wooden ponies from the Mescher’s Ragged Soldier tables. The look on his face when he opened them was so funny! (They live next to his laptop, and his little sisters aren’t allowed to play with them.)

I got to see some of the most gorgeous and accurate carpetbags available today, some amazing leather bags, beautiful bonnets and fabrics… so much glorious stuff in a compact, visually astonishing space!


Each year, there’s a needlework competition, just for fun. Last year, it was dolls; previous years have included knitted items, sewing cases, and other interesting small material culture items. This year, it’s a little different, as there will be voting on the individual participants’ Fancy Dress for Saturday night’s party. Why Fancy Dress this year? Is there any overall theme for the Fancy Dress? Will participants be talking about their “character” or symbolism beforehand, or is it meant to be a surprise that night? Do you have your costume chosen already?

 We had a Fancy Dress ball a few years ago that was very popular and very successful, with many requests to repeat the experience. It will be a Fancy Dress party this year, with a costume parade, contests, games, and a few surprises. There’s no overall theme; costumes can be historical, allegorical, fantasy, fictional, famous persons, a role or job, an artifact, or funny.  The costumes will be a surprise that evening, with descriptions provided by the Mistress of Ceremonies. 

Several prizes will be awarded, including the best costume in each of the categories listed above, best couple, best group, and outstanding achievement in sewing and needlework.  

I usually consider myself fortunate if my conference dress is finished, but I just may have a costume for the evening.

Speaking of awards, in 2014, I got the Official Last Finisher of a Conference Dress Accolade, as I sat down to reset my sleeves and add closures *after* the Conference Dress presentation Saturday morning. The Conference Dress has been a pretty big deal for a long time with this event. Each presenter is given a length of identical fabric and told “Make a Mid-Century Garment.” With that as the only rule, everyone ends up doing something radically different, and I’ve never seen two dresses come out the same, nor two male presenters opt for the same style either. Will this treat of material proportions continue in the 21st year of the Symposium? Any hints on what we might see this year?

The Conference/Symposium fabric has been a tradition since the first event.  It has become increasingly challenging to find 120+ yards of an appropriate fabric, but we’ll continue the tradition as long as we can. 

And sorry, no hints. You’ll have to wait until breakfast Saturday morning.

Dang it. (Mentally insert another big smile!)

Original Eye Candy!

Each year, there are sizable original clothing and artifact displays that change daily. Can attendees take pictures and notes for personal research and use? What General Artifact Etiquette Tips do you suggest?

Attendees can view the displays at close range and take all the photographs and notes they wish.  The owners of the displays are in attendance and are more than willing to show the inside of a garment or the back of an artifact. Some of the garments will be displayed inside out on the following day. Feel free to ask questions; we like to talk about our stuff! 

Proper etiquette includes:

1: No touching without permission

2: Keep all food and beverages well away from the displays

3: No ink pens or markers in the vicinity of the displays

4: Obtain permission from the owner before posting images online, and give credit to the owner when you do.

I know that Mr Schmitt is pretty much a wizard with technology; does he have any suggestions for getting great pictures in the indoor Symposium settings?

Don suggests becoming familiar with all the features of your camera before the event. Most cameras today offer an indoor or dim-light setting; learn how to use it if yours has that feature. Keep your arms against your body and hold the camera as still as possible. Flash photography is permitted.

Bring extra batteries and lots of memory cards.

Any odd or unusual things to keep an eye out for this year?

The Welcome Reception and Fancy Dress party will have some new features.  And there’s always something odd or unusual during the weekend – officially or unofficially.

What are your top three tips for having a great Symposium experience?

Meet someone new; they’ll likely become a life-long friend.  

Take time to view the displays; opportunities to view original garments at this close range are unusual.

Savor every moment and share the information you’ve learned with friends and colleagues at home.  

Have fun!

That’s technically more than three, but it’s Very Difficult to limit oneself at the Symposium, so there will be no ceremonial beatings with the Dampened Rayon Snood of Shame, I promise.

So, there you have it… just over THREE THOUSAND words on Why You Want To Attend The Harrisburg Symposium in March 2015! Please do click through the link below, and get your registration in! It’s an amazing weekend, just perfect for pulling you out of a Late Winter Ennui, getting you excited and informed to expand and enrich your historic endeavors this year! Go! Click! Why are you still here???

Register for the Harrisburg Symposium Here


Brand New: Fashion Study Cards!

Fashion Study Cards from Elizabeth Stewart Clark

Fashion Study Cards from Elizabeth Stewart Clark

We jokingly call these “trading cards”, but no one ever wants to trade away image in their set! So, “Study Cards” they are: cleaned up and enhanced original historic images on one side, and Elizabeth Stewart Clark’s dressmaking notes on the reverse! If you’re wanting to learn to “read” historic images more deeply, these are just the place to start!

Each set contains at least 12 images plus notes, with a focus on conservatively fashionable ensembles suited to professional, middle, and “better” working class historic impressions. Where biographical notes are available on the sitters, we share them, too!

Previously, these were available only in-person at Sewing Academy workshops. But, we’ve had participants asking for additional sets later, so… why not share with everyone?

We have sets for:

  • Hoop-Era (1858-1865) Women
  • Hoop-Era (1858-1865) Children (infants to teens, boys and girls)
  • 1840s-1850s Women
  • 1840s-1850s Children (infants to teens, boys and girls)

We’re quite sure you’re going to fall in love with these examples of The Original Cast. Visit The Shop to add them to your collection!

(PS: if you’re feeling a little last minute for Christmas giving, go ahead and order! Just let us know who it’s for, and place your order before 4pm Christmas Eve. We’ll send a customized printable 8×11 gift certificate directly to your email. Print it up, add a pretty bow, and you’ll have a lovely something to give at your gift exchange!)

An Index! Free Download

When you open your copy of The Dressmaker’s Guide, you may notice something missing:

An Index.

Somehow, that one vital creature was left out! But, due to the miracles of digital sharing, we are now very happy to offer you a free, downloadable PDF with an actual index for your Dressmaker’s Guide!

Click through for your Free Dressmaker’s Guide Index

Print this PDF double-sided (it will come out all landscaped and lovely), and fold it in half; the lined note page will be at the back of your index insert. You can tuck it into your book, tip it in with glue, or tape it to the inside back cover, as you prefer.

We now return to our regularly scheduled Giving of Thanks…

Yes, you can now own a free index for your Dressmaker's Guide!

Yes, you can now own a Free Index for your Dressmaker’s Guide!

How Much?

How much does good historic clothing cost, really?

“My Dear, it was HOW much?” (Southworth and Hawes. Editorial liberties taken with all captioning.)

It’s a topic that comes up quite frequently in living history circles: how much does a good repro dress cost? Or bonnet? Or corset?

And then there’s usually a pretty good ruckus of people saying it’s highway robbery, or skin-flint cheap, or loads of variations on that theme. And since I wear a few different bonnets in the mid-century world, I have Opinions. Several. And since I own this site, I’m able to share them in permanent form. So, read on, MacDuff!

What Makes it “Good”?

There’s a certain amount of work that goes into any project, regardless of its accuracy. Since I’m not really keen on wasting time, money, or materials, my definition of “Good” is “looks as much like originals as possible, with the same geometry, materials, techniques, and finishing.” If the item is at a lesser standard than that, it’s just not worth my time, effort, or money.

Particularly where budgets are slim, it’s too expensive to waste time buying or making Make Do. Better to go for a simple, accurate item that will last.

But It’s a Hobby!

Yes, it is. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. Most folks, though, claim to be doing living history to preserve it, to educate the public, to introduce the community or kids or whomever to our foundational roots as a society. And once we lay the “educational” moniker on things, we also take up a burden of academic honesty and ethics that mean we need to kick it up a notch or five, with solid research and application, so what the public sees is actually history, not pleasant fantasy or flat-out fiction.

If you’re only making historically-inspired styles for your own use in your home, then go for whatever you want. If you’re in public, or attempting to educate others, that’s a different goal, and the effort and baseline go commensurately up. It’s a hobby AND it’s a thing worth doing Just Like They Did It. Our baseline is that Original Cast, not “other reenactors.” Anything less is just not worth it.

(There are other opinions on this matter. You’ll find those opinions elsewhere.)

Why Do Makers Charge So High?

Not to be unkind, but: they willingly devoted hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of hours to acquire and master skills you’re not willing to learn for yourself. So, they deserve to make more than they would flipping burgers and asking if you want fries with that. A good historic maker is using antique skills that you do have to work to acquire. The workman is indeed worthy of his hire. There’s nothing unethical in charging $15, $30, or even $50 an hour for skilled work, particularly if it’s rare skills. If you don’t want to pay that, then you’ll need to work independently and acquire those skills for yourself.

Private professionals also have to cover all their business costs in order to take commission work from their clients. They have to be able to keep the lights and heat on, feed a family, pay both the employee and employer portion of all city, county, state, and federal taxes (and hooooo boy are some of those amounts high, such as private medical insurance costs!), maintain and repair and upgrade all their equipment, spend time on marketing and bookkeeping and communications. Whatever they charge per hour, consider that they *might* net half that amount, after their business costs. Sometimes. Not always.

Individual makers have to set their own rates. If you feel they’re too high, there are options (see below). If you feel they’re too low, give them a healthy cash bonus at the end of the project to let them know you appreciate their work, even if they say they’re doing it out of love, or just to pay for their own hobby fun. I guarantee you, I’ve never met a maker who was rolling in the lucre from supplying the historic community. Ever.

Is It Really Worth It?

Yes, sometimes. A quality item from a skilled professional can be very much worth a higher-than-average cost. Of course, a high price does not guarantee a good finished project! It really does pay to do your own research, so you know what you’re looking for in your repro items, and know what a red flag looks like if you see one. A maker who charges $800 for a cotton print “ball gown”, and touts how wonderful the machined gauging is? Oh, Red Flag.

It’s Just Too Much. What Can I Do?

Here’s the happy thing: you have so many, many options!

If you are willing and determined to learn to do a running stitch by hand and a whip stitch by hand, you can make your undergarments, a dress, and quite a few bits of outerwear. If you’re willing to learn to do a straight stitch on a machine, you can get many parts done very quickly. Anyone with determination and willingness can learn to sew well enough to make good, serviceable, accurate historic clothing for themselves and their household.

And I do mean it: anyone. I’ve had people who were legally blind in my workshops. If they can do it, you can. I promise.

With running stitch by hand, you can do seams, install piping, create waistbands, and prep gathering and gauging. You can put up a hem, add hem tape, and baste on collars. Add a whip stitch and you can set skirts of all kinds, add a seam “finish” to your cut edges, attach hooks and eyes, and finish off piping seam allowances for a very tidy inside look.

Yes, there are a lot of pieces to a woman’s wardrobe. You’ll find most of them covered in The Dressmaker’s Guide. And quite a few elements are available as free patterns in the Compendium, excerpted from The Dressmaker’s Guide. We’re excited to get to add to that stack over the winter, too, with some great new sunbonnet styles from private collections and museums (it’s so cool when we ask to share something, and the owners say Yes, do!)

Aside from the undergarments, aprons, shawls, and headwear found here on the Sewing Academy, there are some great bits of documented usefulness around the internet. Need garters, for instance?

If you’re not feeling confident now, take some workshops from The Sewing Academy (click the tab up yonder), or the Genteel Arts Academy; both instructors are portable. Check your local area for workshops through historic sites, or ask them to sponsor a series. Get involved with a group that does sewing days, and has members willing to mentor you in highly-accurate practices.

I’m Not Keen on Full DIY. I Need Help!

That’s fine, too, and totally historically accurate! Most skilled historic dressmakers, for instance, will let you hire them to do just a bodice fitting, or do the bodice construction for you while you to the skirts, or just do the sleeves for you because you hate drafting and setting them.

Many excellent historic milliners will provide you with a totally finished and trimmed bonnet, a ready-to-trim bonnet, a partially finished bonnet, or just a bonnet kit and supplies. You have options.

Using a professional for just part of the work is very normal for most skilled makers, and it can be a very budget-friendly way to go for you, too.

But I Want Spendy Gorgeousness. Can’t They Just Charge Me Less?

Well, no. That’s a great way for the professional to burn out or go bankrupt. If you’d like their spendy gorgeousness, save up. It’s okay to wait on a splurge. Longing and anticipation are two very valid mid-century activities. Once you have a basic wardrobe with undergarments, skirt support, a corset, and a dress, you really don’t need 40 more dresses. Take your time, and research and save to add perhaps one piece a year, or every other year, as things wear out. Just like they did in the period. Odd, how that works out so nicely!

But Shouldn’t They Be Charging Less, Really? I Mean, It’s For Education (And Stuff)!

Well, no. They probably ought to be charging more, given the hundreds of hours of effort behind every project they take on. Charging adequate prices on skilled labor means they get to do things like putting money in savings so they can retire someday, or take a family vacation, or even take the odd sick-day. Those are not high-falutin’, snobby goals. Promise.

Summing Up

You’ve hear the old adage: Fast, Good, or Cheap: Pick Two.

It applies to historic wardrobes as well.

You can have Fast and Cheap, but it’s not going to be Good, and then you’ve wasted everything that went into it.

You can have Fast(ish) and Good, but it’s not going to be Cheap, because you’ll be paying fair skilled-labor rates to a professional, and if they’re sensible, they’re going to charge you extra for the Fast part. This stuff takes time, whether it’s a $3/yard cotton print dress or a silk ballgown.

You can definitely have Good and Cheap, but you’ll need to invest time in your own basic sewing skills, and work at it in tiny increments, making time for it in your schedule. It is 100% do-able, though it may take awhile! Clothing does not have to be perfectly stitched in order to be perfectly historically-accurate and very serviceable. (You can also buy used good items from others, and remodel them… that’s another mid-century norm we can use to our advantage, and it’s a whole ‘nother set of postings.)

Nearly 1700 words is straining the limits of tasteful blogging, so I’ll wrap up with this:

Doing it well is worth the effort (yours) and money (yours and that paid to select makers). Don’t denigrate it. Or, if you feel like denigrating it, just hush for awhile. Other people are working hard to do a good job, and it’s rude to bother them.

If anyone would like to add comments, please do link up your very favorite, very accurate resources for either a skilled historic maker, or a great DIY option!

The Authentic Civilian Manifesto

Or, How To Be Awesome, In 17 Simple Steps.

Many, many moons ago, a wonderful historic researcher and living history enthusiast named Mrs Susan Lyons Hughes wrote this simple point-by-point description of a very useful attitude for any living  history enthusiast. It is shared here, word for word, with her permission. Upon reading it through again, I am struck by the applicability of it now–no need for updates, even a decade-and-a-half later! The attitude described in this list works beautifully for any living history enthusiast. Substitute your favorite region or era for “Civil War,” as needed.

As November is a month for thanksgiving, let’s give thanks for:

© Susan Lyons Hughes

1. I am committed to developing and practicing the most historically accurate portrayal of a civilian during the American Civil War now possible, independent of my husband/spouse/significant other.

2. The only limitations I place upon the accuracy of my impression are due to a prudent concern for maintaining modern standards of health and safety, and those limitations naturally enforced by lack of information resulting from the passage of time since the Civil War.

3. I obtain the most historically accurate clothing, equipment, and other relevant items available to me. I insist upon the use of proper materials and construction techniques in all reproduction items. I handle my finances in a manner that will prevent financial considerations from limiting the accuracy of my impression.

4. I recognize that many vital aspects of Civil War civilian life – terror and wounds on a battlefield near my home, the sights of death on the battlefield or in the hospital, diseases, and much else – cannot be re-created effectively in a living history context. I do not see this failing as an excuse to be lax about other aspects of my impression, but as a challenge to insure that all I can portray is presented as accurately as possible.

5. My impression is based upon serious research into and careful analysis of reliable sources of information about the experiences of civilians during the mid-19th Century. I recognize the need to employ the historian’s skills, including the ability to evaluate possible sources of information. I place considerable reliance upon documented research conducted by others, but I do not base my impression upon the claims of those who manufacture goods for the reenacting market, reenacting traditions and customs, superficial or outdated publications, entertainment media, or other suspect sources.

6. I am prepared to change my impression to incorporate improvements dictated by new historical information as it becomes available to me. I recognize that our understanding of the details of history changes over time. I welcome constructive discussion of such matters, and I share information freely.

7. I portray the Civil War civilian as my knowledge of history leads me to believe is accurate for a particular scenario. This may include altering my impression, depending upon the event scenario, and I am willing to do the research to create an impression that is accurate for the time and place being portrayed. My impression may reflect regional variations in clothing and equipment and changes over time during the war. I can vary my personal impression to suit differing locations and dates of depicted events.

8. I recognize that for the vast majority of civilians during the Civil War, the impact of the war was felt “at home,” and that to re-create civilian life accurately, opportunities for civilian activities at traditional battle reenactments will often be limited. I am committed to developing living history opportunities at venues besides traditional battle reenactments in order to more accurately portray the lives of civilians. This does not mean that I cannot or will not attend battle reenactments, but that I will not try to impose an inaccurate civilian presence at a military scenario when it is not appropriate.

9. I recognize that a successful impression cannot be superficial. My objective is not to conceal modern items but to re-create a historic time and place in detail. Therefore, my impression is as accurate and complete as I can make it on every level – including all of my clothing and the contents of my pockets, carpetbags, &c. Further, I am familiar with the material culture of the mid-19th United States in general, and not just with objects related directly to the military, or to objects related to civilians who may have been associated with the military.

10. While portraying a Civil War civilian I eat food that simulates as closely as possible the food available to the people in the situation being depicted, which includes food which might have been in season as well as available in the region. However, I do not endanger my health by consuming food known to be dangerous. I dispose of human waste in a safe manner.

11. In pursuit of the complete Civil War civilian experience, I am willing to take part in accurately staged scenarios that accurately reflect activities of the period. I learn as much as I can about the details of these activities so that I can portray them realistically. If called upon to do so, I am willing to continue the living history experience around the clock during events.

12. I am committed to learning about antebellum and wartime civilian life to better understand the historical context of the mid-19th century, and to engage in realistic interaction with serious military reenactors that are appropriate to the time and place. I will not live in the military camps, and I will enter the military camps only with an escort, and only with a period-appropriate reason for doing so. I will base my interaction with military reenactors upon historic research appropriate to the scenario time and place being depicted.

13. I employ first-person living history techniques whenever appropriate. I take great care to avoid behavior, language, and comments that might disrupt accurate living history activities. I strive to attain a mental attitude appropriate to the person I portray when in character.

14. I do not “hide my candle under a bushel.” I take advantage of situations that allow me to share my knowledge of the realities of Civil War civilian life with fellow living history enthusiasts and with the public. I participate in living history activities, especially at smaller events, and in educational programs.

15. I see “mainstream” reenactors as potential converts to living history at higher levels of historical accuracy, and I avoid conflict with them. I conduct my relations with them in a manner consistent with the behavior expected from mid-19th century gentlemen and ladies. However, I do maintain my own high standards of excellence for portraying Civil War civilian life.

16. I limit my discussion of and participation in politics at events to that appropriate to the event historical scenario. I leave my views on current events and modern-day reenacting politics at home.

17. The greatest pleasure I derive from Civil War living history comes from the knowledge that I am re-creating the experiences of the civilians who lived during the Civil War with the greatest fidelity to history I can manage.

Thank you, Mrs Hughes! This document has been an inspiration and a guide for many years, and I hope it will continue to guide others for decades to come!


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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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