Category Archives: sewing

The Fashion Institute of Technology Museum: A Queer History of Fashion & RetroSpective – a review

I just got back from a visit to Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, where I was able to walk through the galleries and see the two exhibits now on display, A Queer History of Fashion and RetroSpective. Both are free to the public and open until January 4, 2014 and November 16, 2013, respectively.

Photo on 2013-10-08 at 15.58 #3

Here’s the link to FIT’s museum website, below. Again, it’s ugly because I haven’t learned how to make it pretty yet.

A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk

A look at clothing both created and worn by members of the LGBTQ communities over the past 300+ years, this is an interesting and discussion-sparking exhibit.

Focusing mostly on designer clothing from 1960 to the present, this exhibit offers a lot of information. It’s also well-planned and well-lit, so that almost every piece can be easily seen. Many outfits are semi-hidden behind others, but that speaks to the sheer volume of how many things there are to see. There are clothes from a scattering of the top names of the past century – fashion designers, movie stars, artists and more.

The one thing that disappointed me was the 18th century portion of the exhibit. It includes a 1790s suit, a banyan, and a truly horrible ‘Mollie’ outfit made from a reproduction chemise, a Renaissance Fair corset made from black sparkly brocade, and original shoes, quilted petticoat and red wool cloak.

From my research on gender-bending clothing of the 18th century, I’ve found that an outfit like this was simply not worn in public by anybody other than, possibly, a prostitute. In general, 18th c. LBGTQ people had to hide their true selves almost constantly, because simply being LBGTQ was a crime in a lot of places. Wearing something like this would be to wave a red flag in the face of a bull – not that it would make people immediately think “homosexual”, but the outfit would immediately bring to mind the 18th century debate on the desired tightness and completeness of women’s clothing and how it reflected their morals. Anybody, male or female, who wore an outfit like this would be immediately marked as “morally loose”,  and in 18th century thinking, that wasn’t a far cry from homosexual.

The label did not describe any of this, and didn’t offer information such as where such an outfit would be worn (England, America, France) which could have been crucial in interpreting it. And of course, there is the added problem of the cringe-worthy reproduction clothing.

Finally, the exhibit does not mention two of the most iconic gender-bending outfits there were in the 18th century: the riding habit and the redingote. These garments were a big part of gay and lesbian issues in the late 18th century. While I can understand that the museum possibly did not have originals to put on display, perhaps a picture or discussion could have been included.

I give this exhibit a 9/10. This exhibit presents an awesome topic and illustrates it with outstanding examples of clothing (expect for the 18th century portion). I highly recommend it.


This exhibit focuses on revivals of fashion elements such as the bustle, hoop skirts and ’empire’ style gowns.

This exhibit is stunningly comprehensive. There are so many garments, accessories and textiles on display that each topic is supported by multiple examples. The exhibit is well laid out and each topic (say, ‘bustles’ or ‘panniers’) is given its own little nook, which makes comprehension of the ideas presented easy. Movies on clothing from the times adds another dimension to the exhibit, and guided tours are available as well.

Most of the clothing is presented somewhat poorly. The exhibit is quite dark where the older clothing is; too dark to see basic details like buttons, embroidery or seams. In addition to the darkness, putting the clothing in ‘nooks’ means that they can only be viewed from one angle. When I tried to lean in a little to see the garments, I set off alarms and was told off by a security guard.


I didn’t think that this exhibit was very inspired. The topic of fashion revivals is old, and the exhibit brings nothing new to the discussion except a presentation of the usual topics. There is not a lot of information offered on the labels simply because the exhibit does not stir the waters of this topic: it only skims the surface. I would have loved the exhibit to go into the deeper questions of why fashion goes into revivals, and the way these revivals reflect what’s going on in the culture at the time.

I give it a 7/10. This exhibit is great for visitors with a casual interest in fashion, and since it’s free, it’s a great way to kill half an hour. If you go, don’t expect to learn a lot from it, and don’t expect to be able to see the older garments very clearly.

I’d love to hear others’ reactions to these exhibits. Have you seen them? What did you think?

Rabid Watermelon

I’ve been working on some linen I bought at a thrift store a while ago. When I bought it, it was a color that can only be described as ‘rabid watermelon’ – not a nice 18th century shade. I didn’t take a picture of it before I began working on the color, which I kind of regret. That color was insane.

I’ve been wanting a pink linen dress for a long time, so I decided to remove some of the dye and tone it down to pink. I tried RIT dye remover, then I cautiously used bleach – neither worked. Since the hand of the linen was changing and I was worried that the chemicals were eating the fibers, I stopped.

Plan B: Dye it darker. I’ve been thinking of a brown linen dress as well, so I figured I could dye over the rabid watermelon. It might work better now that I’d used dye remover. WRONG. I used a whole bath of dark red-brown dye and it barely changed the color of the linen.

Plan C: Make a black dye bath, dye the crap out of the linen, and whatever color it comes out as, deal with it because it’ll be better than rabid watermelon. Well, I made a very dark dye bath, and the linen came out a beautiful shade of raspberry-bordeaux-wine-something.


The final color: because I’m not going to try dyeing this stuff again.

The problem is, I can’t find 18th-century linen dresses in this color. Well, let me re-phrase that. I can’t find original 18th-century linen dresses in that color. This color is popular for Halloween costumes (gag) and poor reproduction gowns (“I’ll wear it with a blue petticoat and a white apron and ‘mob’ cap and I will look SO 1776!”) (gag).

I’ve found red, red-brown and red-purple silk dresses – they’re all over the place.


Brown-red silk dress, 1740-60, England. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Miss Ramsay in a Red Dress circa 1760-65 by Allan Ramsay 1713-1784

Allan Ramsay, Miss Ramsay in a Red Dress. 1760-65, The Tate Gallery.

Robe a la Francaise, 1770-80, The Mint Museum.

Robe a la Francaise, 1770-80, The Mint Museum. What an incredible color. Actually, although it’s silk, this color is similar to my linen. And look at that hat. That is an awesome hat.

Red linen dresses seem more difficult to find than red silk. I’ve found red linen used in small things like wallet linings, and for some men’s clothing. I’m not saying they didn’t have red linen – I’ve just never found a solid red linen dress.

I spoke to an acquaintance who is a Jedi at natural dyeing, and showed her a swatch of my wonky linen. She said the color could easily have been made with plants and materials found in the colonies through the 18th century.

What happened? Were there a lot of red linen gowns that didn’t survive? Did they all fade to pink or brown?

I’m beginning to think that shades of solid red were just not very popular for linen gowns. I’m not sure why. It was probably just fashion, because you can’t say they didn’t have red linen. Maybe what I’m seeing is a difference in class fashion: solid red was okay for silk dresses for the rich, but not for lower/middle class linen gowns … ? I’m grasping at straws here.

I don’t know. I want to make a dress out of this linen, but I’m not fully confident in the color. Oyy.


Shifting for Myself


*halfhearted clap* yay …

I’m so punny.

I’ve just finished my shift-on-a-budget, based on Sharon Ann Burnston’s awesome internet tutorial.   <~ this one.

I followed the patterns taken from her 1752 Connecticut shift. I had to alter it somewhat, because I was working with very thick, loosely woven linen. It was way, way too thick and loose for a shift – but this is my shift-on-a-budget, and I didn’t put out a single penny for it, so hey. The selvages had to be wider to accommodate the ravely fabric. Not like Bolero by Ravel-y; way less cool.

Because I was making it from four old aprons, I couldn’t use the incredibly frugal cutting methods used during the 18th century. I had to piece the body down the side, and I have three pieces making up the back. One sleeve is made of three pieces, and the other from two.

I narrowed some of the dimensions; such as the wide sleeves and body, because the fabric is thicker and I didn’t want it to be tremendously bulky.

I ran out of linen thread 80% of the way through, and had to flat-fell some seams with cotton-poly ickyness. I’m thinking of pulling those stitches out and re-sewing them in linen later.

I wanted to cross-stitch my initials in the front in black silk, but I only had a dark greyish-purple. I figured that was pretty close, so I began – but I can’t cross-stitch. I know, it’s like one of the easiest stitches in the world and somehow I can’t do it.

I’m going to blame it on the linen. The weave was so loose that my stitches never looked neat. There.

I wound up just doing the initials in an amateurish backstitch. I’ll take them out if enlightenment ever reaches me and I can cross-stitch them.


I did get to do something cool when I pieced the back: two of my pieces had selvages, and I butted them as Sharon Burnston suggests in her instructions. It came out feeling nice and smooth, even with the crappy fabric and my unfortunate-colored thread.


I can’t say that I’m perfectly pleased with it. The materials I had were crappy, and it shows in the finished product. The shift fits in with the theme of my budget outfit, though. It’s pieced from older clothes and handsewn, and it’s better than the shift I had before (that thing had too many drawstrings). I’m excited to wear it, especially with the button cuffs. To finish the shift, I want to see if I can reproduce a broken 18th century cuff button in my collection.

This one. Maybe without the ship etching. I love the octagonal shape.

This one. Maybe without the ship etching. I love the octagonal shape.

Now I’m stuck. I need another sewing project, and I only have half a yard of the same linen left, and a few yards of cotton-poly crap thread.

And the idea of making this is stuck in my mind … I don’t have anything to wear it with (yet), I just love it.


A quick sketch. The cups look like eyeballs and the straps look like ears … and now that you’ve seen it, that’s all you see …

But I wouldn’t try it until I had the materials to do it justice. Maybe I’ll just work on fitting and nail down a pattern.

An 18th Century Outfit on a Budget, part one

or, How to be Broke in 2013 and Look Broke c. 1760

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Note my awesome 18th century Howard Johnson accommodations.

About a year ago, after reading about the secondhand clothing trade in the 18th century, I decided to make an outfit from recycled clothes.

That, and I’m a broke ex-college student, and it was easier to do this than buy yard goods.

I decided on portraying the 1760s-70s, but I dated my clothing between 1730-50, with remakes around 1760-70. I did this because I have read about so many clothes being remade and reworked decades after their original creation, and I extrapolated that secondhand clothing may have had a high percentage of older stuff that was then reworked. I mean, look at thrift shops – it’s all 1980s-1990s stuff, here in 2013. That’s already 2-3 decades, and we don’t usually rework the stuff like people did in the 18th century!

I’m still not sure how prevalent the secondhand clothing trade was in America. Apparently it was huge in England, but I haven’t found much information about it on my side of the puddle. At the least, I can assume that clothes were handed down through families.

I also decided that, just as thrift shop or hand-me-down clothing often doesn’t match or coordinate, that my outfit would not coordinate at all. So I have linen, silk, cotton and wool; floral, cross-barred and striped clothes, and over 11 different colors. Yay. The pieces are also tailored a little ‘off’, so they don’t fit me perfectly – as if they were originally designed for somebody else.

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The 1760 cell-phone selfie.


It’s made out of light brown wool that I salvaged from a moth-eaten wool skirt I found in a thrift shop. The lining is  three different types of linen – all different weights and colors (all natural or white, though). It’s all hand sewn with linen thread. The whole thing is pieced and tight in the shoulders because I had to really ration the fabric. The green robing and cuffs cover where I ran out of brown wool.

For the most part, I took the color scheme from early English gowns, and the front design from some later English clothes. My story is that the front was updated. It also explains the short skirts, which are actually short because I didn’t have that much wool.

I did have to stick with England on the jacket, and not America, simply because I found more information from England.

The front is made of three strips of wool, sewn on one end and closing with hooks and eyes on the other. I don’t know how accurate this is, but the end result looks like the caraco I based it on. I went with three straps because it distributed the strain a little more evenly. In the above pictures, the top strap needs to be angled a little more.

I copied the rust-and-green color scheme from a handful of 1720s-40s jackets and gowns.


One of my color scheme inspiration pieces.
William Hogarth, The Fountaine Family, detail. 1730. Image courtesy of

A later example of the same color scheme, this time from America. Anne Catherine Green, 1769, by Charles Wilson Peale. The National portrait Gallery.

A later example of the same color scheme, this time from America. Anne Catherine Green, 1769, by Charles Wilson Peale. The National Portrait Gallery.

petticoat and jacket VA

The outfit I based my jacket front construction on.
Petticoat and caraco in cotton chintz, England 1770-80. The Victoria & Albert Museum.

1760s ensemble, England. The Kyoto Costume Intstitute

A stomacher similar to the caraco above.
1760s ensemble, England. The Kyoto Costume Institute


This is an apron my mom made probably 20 years ago. It’s been remade once, darned & patched. As a sutler I dust & polish our products at events with this apron, so it gets pretty dirty.


I go back and forth on how accurate this cross-barred skirt is. It’s a very thick cotton. It’s old, probably 20+ years. I remade the waist and I re-hemmed it,  but I’m thinking of replacing it with a wool skirt.


You can’t see them in the above pictures, but I’m wearing corded jumps. I made them based on Beth Gilgun’s pattern in Tidings from the 18th Century. She dated it to c. 1740-ish, as I recall. They’re made from two layers of canvas with jute cording in the channels instead of boning.

The inspiration for these came from a newspaper advertisement from mid-century America. The owner of a shop was selling corded stays for women. Almost ten years ago, when I made these, I hadn’t learned about good research practices yet, and I forgot to note where I had found this pertinent bit of information. I don’t know where it came from anymore.

They were very supportive when new, but that was almost ten years ago now. Now they bulge and fold in awkward places and make weird horizontal creases. I’d love to replace them with leather jumps someday (there’s a pair in Colonial Williamsburg‘s DeWitt Wallace Collection).


I made these mules from a few layers of leather, a block of wood, and a little wool and linen. They don’t exist anymore because they didn’t come out so great – I decided I could make them better by taking them apart, but never got around to putting them back together.

For the one event I wore them at, however, they worked fine because they were better than nothing: my old shoes had betrayed me and fallen apart after 13 years of wear (how dare they), and my new shoes had not arrived yet.

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If I am ever able to make a better pair, I’ll blog about it. Until then, RIP Ugly Mules.


I wear an old pair of striped stockings with patched heels with this outfit.

My cap is based on a few paintings from mid-18th century America, and the patterns in Fitting and Proper by Sharon Ann Burnston. It came out pretty well – starching and ironing makes a world of difference. I decorated it with a little silk ribbon from Burnley & Trowbridge.

The kerchief was bought from Burnley & Trowbridge. Can’t say much about it other than I really like it.


It’s probably 20+ years old, cotton, full of holes, worn to tissue, and has been remade about twice. I like it because it’s thin and comfy, but the cut and construction are not accurate. I had to retire it recently when a day at the Maryland Renaissance Fair caused it to turn blue (I wore it underneath a freshly dyed gown, and got caught in a monsoon).

So … it’s now New Chemise Time. I began with Sharon Ann Burnston’s online shift how-to (check it out!).

I’m still in the process of finishing the chemise, hence the ‘part one’ of the title of this post.


The total price of this whole thing is less than $50.00, but that’s because I had a lot of the materials already, and I own a lot of hand-me-down costume pieces.

Small bits of wool and linen can be bought for cheap at thrift shops, but linen thread is more difficult to come by and usually costs $7.00 a spool. Hypothetically you could sew interior seams with any type of thread, and just do the topstitching with linen – the point is to hand sew; it makes a huge difference.

Cotton is easier to come by; it’s often cheap enough as yard goods. I’ve even used sheets as long as they’re 100% cotton. Often the weave is not perfect, and very few prints work.

Dyeing fabric can freshen it up, and will give you some more color options. Block printing, if you can get it to work, is an awesome way to make your outfit stand out – I’ve tried this before, to some degree of success.

There have been some great blogs on remaking modern shoes by covering them with 18th-century type cloth (link below brings you to Wear When Why’s post about this process). I’ve got a pair of heels that I’ll be trying this with soon.

A 1790s Redingote for Fall

So pretty!

I’ve always been in love with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art‘s Woman’s Redingote, attributed to Europe, 1790s. It’s just superb. The tailoring is impeccable – I love the high collar and the button tails down the back. The textile is, let’s face it, pretty ugly on it’s own – but made into the redingote, it’s awesome.

Yeah, the link for it is right below. I’m still learning this WordPress stuff; I can’t make it look pretty yet.

redingote LACMA2

About a year and a half ago I bought some lightweight brown wool. It drapes beautifully, and I originally wanted to make a nice, practical 1740s work dress from it. Something with pleated cuffs and a shorter skirt.

But to hell with practicality. I wanted a redingote more.

I didn’t have a pattern; I draped the back and loosely based the front on a caraco in Patterns of Fashion. Years ago, I adapted this pattern to fit me, and since then I’ve been using pretty much the same one, tweaked a little, for every gown and jacket I make. Not the best way to do things, but until I get a dress form and can drape, it’s the status quo.

Looking back, I made some mistakes. I was ‘guesstimating’ most of the construction without ever seeing the original. I cut my collar in one straight piece, which makes it wrinkle awkwardly. If I was going to do it again (which I would love to do) I’d copy a collar from a man’s suit of the time – one with a seam down the back, and the pieces angled.

Also, I only learned after I had finished mine that the original was made with a separate bodice front inside, which laces or buttons (I know this by hearsay, never saw it … 😦 ) which keeps the strain off of the buttons in front. I didn’t make mine with that, but I think I can adapt what I’ve got to accommodate it. I think the under-bodice system would also keep the redingote in place; it tends to pull up in front because of the weight of the skirt at the back. I am also thinking of putting a piece of boning or two down the center back to get that smooth curve.

My redingote

My redingote – please excuse the non-1790s hair.

I copied some details from the original redingote. Others I took from prints of the time: a trained skirt, long sleeves, the straight edge at the bottom front, and the double-breasted front. Because it’s double-breasted, I had some fitting issues around the lapels – they aren’t as wide as the original’s are, and they don’t fold as nicely.

I made the entire redingote from 100% brown wool, and it’s lined with white linen and faced with glazed peach chintz. The buttons are brass. The whole thing is hand sewn with linen thread.

My redingote, back

My redingote, back

It’s been 90% finished for a year or so. The trained skirt is unlined at the moment, so the wool picks up EVERYTHING I walk over … leaves, sticks, you name it … it’s annoying. I think if I line it it will keep it from picking things up, but I’m not sure exactly how to do it. If I line it halfway up, I’ll get an awkward seam line across the width of the skirt. If I decide to line it all the way up, I have to figure out how to attach the lining at the top. I may just cut the trained part off and level it like the original. That being said, the train is so much fun to wear!

Hat, 1790s

An original hat, 1790s – the sort of thing I wanted to wear with my redingote.

Hat Reproduction

Hat repro, half-made … and a poor attempt at frizzing my hair. I later added white and peach ribbons to the front of the hat.

Though it’s not completed, I wore it last year to the Market Fair in Dover, DE. I wore it with my horrible reproduction hat I made from wool and a few quarts of wood glue (I don’t recommend that). Even though the hat sucked, I got something awesome out of it – I had my portrait done with a camera obscura.


Well, as I say in my title, it’s for fall and fall is certainly here. I’m thinking of wearing it again for an upcoming Market Fair. The theme is more colonial at this event, but I don’t have anything warm to wear for a date before 1790. Maybe I will make something – or at least have a nicer hat for the redingote made by then … stay tuned.

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.