Monthly Archives: July 2013

Restoring a Singer Model 27: rust, treasure and a guinea pig.

I’ve never had much luck with sewing machines. They loop stitches, they bunch cloth, they act erratically … they frustrate the heck out of me. I’ve developed a good distaste for machines with more than two buttons, and don’t even mention computerized machines.

I figured I should try a treadle machine, just to see if I liked it better than a modern one. A year ago I bought a 1902 Singer model 27 with Sphinx decals to play around with and see if I could get to work. There was so much rust that the wheel wouldn’t spin more than an inch or two before it made a truly horrible crunching noise. At the least, I loved how it looked, even if it was destroyed. That’s the steampunk part of me talking. The steampunk part of me also named it Nigel.

The Singer, before I began cleaning.

The machine in its cabinet, before I began cleaning a year ago. Rust, rust, and more rust.

Well, it took a good 30 days, a quart of mineral oil (I used that because it’s nontoxic), ten packs of steel wool, and a lot of frustrated putzing, but now it works. I credit the genius of how the machine was made: the individual parts are very simple and if they’re not bent or cracked, and if they’re oiled, they should always work. This machine is still 50% rust (no really, it looks like the wreck of the Titanic inside, except no fish) and it works perfectly. For broken pieces, this model uses some parts that fit modern machines, like the foot and many screws and nuts. For the rest you can find either modern reproduction parts or scrap pieces online, so replacing pieces isn’t crazy difficult.

The 1902, looking a little shinier. The bobbin winder is taken off.

The machine today, looking a little shinier. I think a previous owner was a smoker; it was covered in grime. The bobbin winder is taken off here.

The technology in this thing is kind of astounding. The bobbin is oblong and fits into a complex little shuttle, which sits in a chassis that swings back and forth. It swings against a horizontal concavity shaped like a half-moon. The needle comes down through a hole in the middle of that half-moon, and this is where the magic happens. The needle ‘hiccups’, or makes a little down-up-down-up movement, and the thread (if it’s the right weight) loops around the moving shuttle. It slips in between the shuttle and the chassis, which swing right through the loop. This makes a twist that tightens and becomes the stitch.

The bobbin and the shuttle.

The bobbin and the shuttle.

The bobbin, in the shuttle, in the chassis, in the machine …

Another incredible thing: it’s almost silent, it just makes a snickety-snickety noise. I can listen to music, I can have a conversation while I sew. I don’t need electricity so I could literally sew anywhere I have a square foot of table. I just pick it up by the arm and haul it where I need.

Speaking of which, this thing is SOLID cast iron. If you drop it on your toe … oh boy.

I haven’t restored it fully, so it’s still missing pieces and I haven’t attached it into its cabinet or used it with the treadle yet. I use it by spinning the wheel by hand. When it’s oiled, I can spin the wheel once and just the weight of the machine itself makes it take 5-8 stitches before it looses inertia.

The hugely complicated system for regulating thread tension. It's a mess of screws and springs that, once put together correctly, uses a nut to squeeze two metal donuts together. the thread runs between the donuts and the pressure of the donuts controls tension. The thread also runs through an annoying little wire loop that gets caught on stuff way too easily.

The ridiculously complicated system for regulating needle thread tension. It’s a mess of screws and springs that, if put together correctly, uses a nut to squeeze two metal donuts together. The thread runs between the donuts and their pressure controls its tension. The thread also runs through that annoying little wire loop that gets caught on stuff way too easily.

Some of the awesome Art Noveau decals. The machine's so rusty that I was originally tempted to take all the paint off and repaint it, but then I cleaned off the cigarette scale and these beauties popped up. I'm leaving it the way it is!

Some of the awesome Art Nouveau decals. The machine’s so rusty that I was originally tempted to take all the paint off and repaint it, but then I cleaned off the cigarette scale and these beauties popped up. I’m leaving it the way it is!

For more on the model 27, check out the The Franklin Institute if you’re in the Philly area. Their entire exhibit on simple machines (“Amazing Machines”) uses a Singer model 27 as an example of almost every simple machine they cover. They also have an 1890 Singer toy sewing machine which is adorable. There’s not much info online, though.

Because the Internet can never have too many pictures of animals being cute, here is a guinea pig on a sewing machine. Her name is Zubi, and she thought it smelled funny.


Buttons!

I’d always wanted to combine two of my favorite professions – archeology and the study of clothing – until I had a ‘duh’ moment, and realized there’s not a lot of clothing left down there.

Erm … yeah.

So I kind of dropped that idea. It’s always nice to return to it when I can, though. I love metal stuff, and metal usually survives pretty well underground. I call these O.R.Os – Old Rusty Objects. Here are a few O.R.Os (buttons) from the UK, all metal detector finds.

Some early buttons, and what is possibly a mount (top left picture, on left). The smallest buttons is like a doublet button, and is possibly lead. The oblong piece is a lead acorn-shaped button. The large button with a chip from the edge is a gorgeous medieval piece, with a fletched design in the center.

Three early buttons, and what is either a button or a mount (top left picture, on left). The smallest button is like a doublet button, and is possibly lead. The oblong piece is a lead acorn-shaped button, the loop at the top is broken off. The large button with a chip from the edge is a gorgeous medieval piece, with a design that reminds me of arrow fletching in the center.

Tudor doublet buttons and what might be an early sleeve button - if it's not early, it's 18th century. The doublet buttons always remind me of those Dots candies. The sleeve button here has a Tudor rose on it: my photography is bad and the button's corroded, so you may have to take my word for it.

Tudor doublet buttons and what might be a 15th c. sleeve button – if it’s not that early, it’s 17th – 18th century. The sleeve button here has a Tudor rose on it: my photography is bad and the button’s corroded, so you may have to take my word for it. The doublet buttons always remind me of those Dots candies. I like the one that’s ribbed. They are probably made of lead; they’re solid and pretty hefty.

Some tombac buttons from the 16th - 18th century, with one 18th century broken brass button. Tombac is an alloy of brass and copper, with possibly a little zinc, tin, or lead thrown in. Tombac is silvery-gold and seems somewhat stable - these buttons haven't corroded too badly.

Some tombac buttons from the 16th – 18th century, with a broken 18th century  brass button. Tombac is an alloy of brass and copper, with possibly a little zinc, tin, or lead thrown in. Tombac is silvery-gold and seems somewhat stable – these buttons haven’t corroded too badly. It was used for cheap buttons and jewelry.

One of my favorites: an 18th century sleeve button. It has a beautiful design of a ship under full sail.

One of my favorites: an 18th century sleeve button. It has a beautiful design of a ship under full sail. Like the earlier Tudor rose sleeve button, the link is neatly soldered so it wouldn’t stretch and fall apart. It’s a little ironic that on both examples, the second button itself broke off, instead of the link.

Another naval-themed 18th century button: a naval uniform button with a fouled anchor, haphazardly cut down to a smaller size.

Finally, another naval-themed 18th century button: a naval uniform button with a fouled anchor, haphazardly cut down to a smaller size. I guess it was easier to trim the button than enlarge the buttonhole – or maybe it wasn’t being used as a button any longer? Who knows.


18th Century Revivals and Remakes

The styles and aesthetics of the classic 18th century have been revived, revised, re-imagined and rehashed multiple times after the century ended. Many times, these revivals included remaking original clothing, and/or the creation of costumes and art in the 18th century style. These pieces of art are now in museums, personal collections, and on the Internet. These pieces of art are sometimes used without dates, authors or any attributing information. Many times, without this information, we might mistake this item for the Real Deal. I’ve done it more often than I’d like to admit!

In my research I’ve come across, or come up with, some tips for telling the real from the remakes.Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

1) Dress Style

It sounds simple, and it is: dresses that lace up the back, have princess seaming in the bodice, or have a fitted waist with a slightly dropped waist seam are almost always 19th or 20th century remakes. Sometimes these are real 18th century gowns that had been altered for the centennial revival, 1870-80s. Where do we draw the line here – are these 18th or 19th century gowns? I would argue for a new classification: they are both, since they were worn in both centuries and retain characteristics of each time.

Dress of Elizabeth Kortright Munroe, from The Dresses of the First Ladies of the White House, 1952.

Dress of Elizabeth Kortright Munroe, from The Dresses of the First Ladies of the White House, 1952.

Above: a vague remake of an 18th century gown. Apparently, the robings and stomacher have been replaced with wide brocade bands and a loose, gathered piece, respectively. This dress is featured in Margaret W. Brown’s 1952 book, The Dresses of the First Ladies of the White House (The Smithsonian Institution). It is attributed to Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, who (according to the book) wore it between 1817 and 1825. Personally, I don’t believe any of it. I think this is yet again a centennial remake of an 18th century gown, which somehow became attributed to a woman who probably never wore it. I can’t find any other information on this piece.

2) Body Shape

A detail of Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty - the central image is the 'ideal', while the ones to the left and right are the extremes to be avoided.

A detail of Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty – the central image is the ‘ideal’, while the ones to the left and right are the extremes to be avoided. Even at the extreme on the right, there’s no convex bulge for the breasts – a ubiquitous feature in 19th century clothing.

Body shape flows directly from dress construction. The 18th century was a century of gently curved lines in the Rococo aesthetic, until it came to women’s bodies, specifically the torso. The stays that many women wore kept them rigidly straight, and that was the ideal look. I’m not saying all 18th century women looked like this, but as far as portraits of respectable women go, it was the norm.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Honorable Mrs. Graham, 1775-7. Image courtesy of CGFA.

Thomas Gainsborough, The Honorable Mrs. Graham, 1775-7. Image courtesy of CGFA.

Above, an original Thomas Gainsborough piece from the mid-1770s. Even though she is wearing a fancy costume, Mrs. Graham retains crucial elements of 18th century fashion: she is wearing stays that give her a conical shape with a rigid vertical mark down the center front – the shape of fashionable 1770s and 80s stays.

Clarissa, by John Everett Millias, 1887.

Clarissa, by John Everett Millais, 1887

Above, “Clarissa”, by John Everett Millais. This 1887 painting is a beautiful and brilliant take on Gainsborough – it looks more Gainsborough-y than many original Gainsboroughs, in my mind. That being said, it’s clearly not an 18th century piece. Her shape is one that doesn’t occur in the 18th century – smooth curves and that nipped-and-dropped waistline described earlier – almost the ‘cuirass’ bodice of the 1880s. Her dress also has more prominent shoulder seams (arms’ eyes) than her 18th century counterpart. This alludes to the foundation garments: 18th century stays drew the wearer’s shoulders backs with shoulder straps, while 19th century corsets tended to create rounded shoulders that were further forward.

3) Faces, Hair, and Makeup

When body shape and gown construction don’t give you enough clues, look at the face. Faces, hair and makeup are always the last things to change: whether it’s a remake of an older painting, or costume design in a movie.

Vanessa, 1868 by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of Liverpool Museums.

Vanessa, 1868 by John Everett Millais. Image courtesy of Liverpool Museums. I’m not trying to pick on Millais. He just has such great examples of 18th century revival stuff.

Above, another beautiful John Everett Millias creation of 1868: a woman in a brocade saque. Looking closely, even with this poor digital reproduction (I couldn’t find a better image of it) you can see she’s not wearing 18th century stays. Look at her large dark eyes and the shape of her face: both are not 18th century ideals. (Another red flag: the name “Vanessa”. Check out my earlier posts on 18th century female names).

A detail from a 1916 Baker's Chocolate recipe booklet. The Chocolate Girl, after Jean-Etienne Liotard.

A detail from a 1916 Baker’s Chocolate recipe booklet. The Chocolate Girl, after Jean-Etienne Liotard. Private Collection.

A clearer example, this one from a 1916 Baker’s Chocolate recipe booklet. You can see her face has been altered from the original by Jean-Etienne Liotard (below) – her eyes are wider and darker, and her face is rounder.

La Belle Chocolatiere, 1740s, by Jean-Etienne Liotard. Image detail courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

La Belle Chocolatiere, 1740s, by Jean-Etienne Liotard. Image detail courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Finally, the following image ties most of my points together: supposedly this is a reproduction of a Thomas Sully portrait in the U.S. National Museum (1952). It is Martha Jefferson Randolph. Or is it?

Portrait of Martha Jefferson Randolph, from The Dresses of the First ladies of the White House, by Margaret W. Brown. Smithsonian Institution, 1952.

Portrait of Martha Jefferson Randolph, from The Dresses of the First ladies of the White House, by Margaret W. Brown. Smithsonian Institution, 1952.


Some of the less common female names in America, 1640-1820

I’m still punching numbers into Excel for my female names research. I decided that because it’s taking so long to type it all up, I’ll write a post on the different, less common names I found. A lot of these names belonged to African-American slaves, who seem to have had the most different names. Some of them are from Swedish women who settled in Delaware. All of the names would have been floating around the colonies to some extent. They are preserved with their original spelling. Enjoy!

Almira

Amarilla

Aminta

Anarchy

Anika / Annikey

Annas

Ariana

Beata (Swedish)

Beck

Betheland

Beulah

Calley

Charity

Ciceley

Ciss

Clementina

Comfort

Cora (Last of The Mohicans fans: I found this name once, and it was given in 1820)

Cresey

Critty

Cudy

Cuthie

Decima

Dorcas

Dumbo (poor woman)

Ebeneezer, “Ebe” (Named after her father who died before her birth. Poor woman)

Effe

Elender

Elma Ann

Experience

Fiby

Grissel

Hagai

Hann Amer

Huldah

Ingstrom (Swedish)

Jennet / Jennette

Juliet

Lavinia

Letitia

Lettice

Lovey

Manger, “Nan”

Marde

Mayble

Mercy

Miama

Milcah

Milla

Mourning

Oney

Patheny

Persilla

Pesta

Pleasant

Providence

Prudence

Render

Rhoda

Scisley

Sebra

Secordia

Sela

Selfy

Septimia

Sidney

Sillar

Sinah

Stena

Suckey / Sukey

Tempe

Temperance

Theny

Triphene

Ursula

Winneford

Zeny

Zepporah


1770s, 80s and 90s Shoe Buckles

I have a handful of old buckles dug in Virginia, and for a while now I’ve been trying to fix a date on them. Yesterday, I found a little more information.

Here’s one of the buckles from my collection. It’s probably made of brass, but I could be wrong; I haven’t looked too closely yet. The steel mechanism is rusted away, leaving some rust marks and the holes where the axle of the buckle rotated. It’s got a very pretty cast design of lines and little floral scrolls, very Rococo.

Buckle, dug in VA

Detail of buckle face

Detail of buckle

Here’s the buckle I found that looks something like mine. It has the same decoration of curving lines and floral motifs. Talk about Rococo: the only thing missing are the cherubim!

This buckle is from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s from 1770-80, and made from stamped gold on brass. The mechanism is steel.

I know I’ll probably never find a buckle that’s exactly the same as mine, but I think this one is surprisingly close. At the least, I can probably figure that my buckle is from the same decades, give or take a little.

That being said, mine might be from a little later due to its square shape, as opposed to the V&A’s rectangular example. From the little I know about buckles, it seems that square-bodied ones were more popular in the 1780s and 90s, with large, geometric buckles popular in the 90s.

1780-90 Buckle Piece

Broken Shoe Buckle, VA

Geometric buckles like this guy on the right. This is another buckle from my collection. it was dug in VA as well. I’m assuming that it’s made from pinchbeck or some other silvery alloy, but again, I haven’t tested it. It’s very geometric and boxy, and it was probably about 3″ wide when it was whole. And look at the decoration: it’s the antithesis of the previous buckle and of Rococo aesthetics – no curves, no floral sprays.

Buckle Piece, 1780-90

Broken Shoe Buckle, VA

Or this on the left: another VA artifact, probably brass, and probably the same size as the last one before it was broken.

I found a few buckles that look very much like the two above, on this awesome website: 18th Century Material Culture on Scribd at http://www.scribd.com/doc/151633611/Male-Clothing-Stockings-Shoes. The men’s shoes and stockings slideshow has a picture of some of the buckles recovered from the wreck of a British ship, the General Carleton, that went down in Polish waters in 1785. The General Carleton was excavated in 1995 and the artifacts are now in the Polish Maritime Museum. If you want to check their website out, it’s at http://www.en.cmm.pl/maritime-culture-centre. Don’t get excited about awesome pictures of the wreck or their collections, through; I couldn’t find very many, and I really don’t know where the picture below came from.

Anyway, below, a few of the General Carleton’s artifacts from an image on the aforementioned Scribd site. The bottom right buckle is closest to mine, but really, all four on the bottom are pretty close. The width of the buckles is similar, but it’s the decoration that makes me say that my buckles are from the same decade or so: it’s all composed of lines and dots; very neoclassical.

So I’ve nailed down a few vague dates for three of my buckles: 1770s-80s for the curvy floral one, and 1780-90s for my two squarish geometric buckle bits. It’s a start!