Tag Archives: living history

An Edwardian bib-front … skirt?

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I got this piece over the past weekend, and I’m not 100% sure about it.

I’m 80% sure it’s from between 1900-1910. There are no tags or marks of a tag, which would be helpful in dating it. I can tell it was sewn with a treadle sewing machine. It’s made with the correct techniques and materials, but it’s sooooo new-looking. Like, made-yesterday new. Was it?

I’m most puzzled about the bib front. It’s made without hooks or any remnants of straps or suspenders for the bib, and though there are no pin-strain marks I’m guessing it was pinned (I looped a piece of black thread over the shoulders of my dress form so I wouldn’t have to pin into my 1890s silk shirtwaist). The bib is cut as one with the front of the skirt and the lace insets, so it’s not added on in any way.

Has anybody ever seen a petticoat/skirt like this before?


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15 Hours = eh ….

It’s taken me a while to get a picture of myself in my 15-hour gown, but here it is, at the Bedford PA Historical Society’s new 18th/19th century artisan’s show & conference, America’s Past Preserved.


Cranberry linen overload!

While a 15-hour, $5 dress is pretty great, there are so many obvious problems …

1) I went for a late 18th century round gown / apron front setup. I kept the waistline low because I’ve seen other American dresses with this sort of configuration. On me, I think it’s very unflattering and doesn’t lend itself to much flexibility. I couldn’t get the apron front to stay in place, either – you can see my stays showing at the waistline where the apron front has sagged. No matter how tightly I tied it, it kept sagging. I’m just going to give up on it now …

2) The front of the bodice overlaps more on the bottom than on the top. When I pin it together, it doesn’t line up straight. That, and the front seems to come down too low, so it creases where the apron front sits and looks icky.

3) The sleeves turned out huge! They’re puffy in the back and too wide everywhere else. I added way too much selvage when I cut them, and I cut them over my awful 1740s chemise which has huge bulky sleeves – a bad move, but it’s the only chemise I have right now, save my 1790-1820 chemise. Soooo … a new chemise needs to be in the works for the next event …

4) When I made this gown, I also made a 1780s/90s cap to wear with it, but as soon as I put it on, it screamed Amish. I have absolutely nothing against the Amish, how they live or or what they wear, but whenever I dress in 18th century clothing, I get called Amish. In all honesty I’m tired of having to explain myself to 50% of the people I come in contact with, so avoiding all triggers sounded like a good idea. Oh well. I’m saving the cap to wear with something more obviously Empire/Regency, so maybe I won’t get so many “oooh look at the Amish girl!” stage-whispered comments.

This brings me to a thought I’ve been having for a while. When I make 18th century clothing, I have to find a middle ground – I have to come up with something as accurate as my skills and research can produce, but also something that the general public interprets as 18th century. The general public is always a mixed bag. There will be knowledgeable people out there who understand my issues with my red dress, and know that it’s probably not super accurate in its current state. Then, there will be people who think I’m Amish, or from the Renaissance, or a Civil War reenactor, or some just weirdo (the latter is probably the most truthful statement). Often I’m the only woman in 18th century clothing at these events, so I can’t fall back on other reenactors bolstering the 18th century theme. I have to come up with something super evocative of “ye olde coloniale period”, while staying as period correct as I can. It limits my wardrobe, but it helps the public – you don’t want confused guests. People get embarrassed enough when I explain that I’m wearing stays.

Okay, sidetrack’s over.


Skirt: remove the apron front and make it an open-front gown. Wider time period, more wardrobe options  … and this alteration is very easy. Also, since my shoes are Burnley & Trowbridge’s women’s red walking shoes, making the gown an open front will result in less than 98% red, which was kind of overkill. I mean, red’s awesome, but really.

Bodice: re-sew the front and take it in a little. Another simple fix.

Sleeves: I am going to take them off completely, trim them down, and put them back on. A little more complicated, but it’s going to be worth it. Then I’ll see about making a late 18th century chemise.


I got to wear my new Goose Bay Workshops chatelaine to this event. I wore it with a large ivory notebook and a bodkin, also from Goose Bay Workshops, and a pair of scissors without a case … yeah, another upcoming project. They’re razor sharp and pointy so it was really kind of stupid to wear them without a case, but they’re so useful to have I just went with it. It was better carrying them on the chatelaine than throwing them in my pocket, which I have done before, and which was very stupid.

I also wore my new brass sleeve buttons with my chemise. I got those from Goose Bay Workshops as well. I have a pair in oval and octagonal, and though I love the octagonal ones, the ovals fit in the chemise buttonholes so that’s what I went with. They were really nice, much nicer than the old tape ties I had worn before. I want to see if I can get a pattern scratched or engraved into them, I just have to think of a design.

And yeah, I do work for Goose Bay Workshops. I’m the webmaster/helper extraordinaire. That would explain why I have so many of GBW’s items, and why the GBW table is behind me in the first picture. That being said, this blog isn’t the place for me to sell or advertise GBW items, and I won’t. I will be pointing out if I’m wearing a GBW piece, though, just as I’ll point out my Burnley & Trowbridge items, or the awesome, beautiful chatelaine I wore the second day of the Bedford show, made by the super talented David Hughes. Pictures to come. Eventually. You know me.

Eight Hours = Half A Gown!

I’ve begun work on my new linen gown. I’m making it out of a $5 linen tablecloth I picked up from Goodwill a while back. I had re-dyed it to get rid of the crazy neon watermelon color, and it turned out a sort of burgundy. After a lot of soul-searching (red is not an easy color to wear, when it’s a whole gown and I only have red shoes to go with it) I decided to go for it.

I’ve spoken with a self-taught expert in 18th century dyes, and I showed her a swatch of my burgundy linen. I asked her if this color was an easy thing to achieve with natural dyes, and she looked at me kind of funny, as if I had asked if we were living on Earth. So yeah, this color is something that would have been around. Whether it was commonly made into everyday clothing is another story – I still can’t answer that question.

This dress will be a 1780s everyday sort of thing. I’m making it in my super-simplified pattern, all handsewn with linen thread. I’m also timing myself for fun. Here’s what I got done in 8 hours.

* Everything got ironed (I think two hours went to this … oh the joys of ironing huge pieces of linen …)

* The mock-up is fitted. I actually made a real throwaway mock-up this time, but not intentionally. I meant to use some leftover white linen for my lining, but after I had cut my lining and tried it on, it fit horribly – so badly that I wouldn’t be able to reuse the linen. So I scrapped that (haha) and used my beautiful checked linen for the lining – not what I had wanted, but that fabric has such a nice feel, it made a perfect lining. Whatever.

* The exterior fabric pieces are all cut and most of them finished: sleeves are done but not set yet, and the front skirt is cut.

* The back pleats are laid and sewn down, and the back half of the skirt pleated to the body.

* Of course, I had to watch Scarlett O’Hara wear a dress made out of a curtain while I sewed a dress out of a tablecloth.


My favorite part of sewing a gown. Before these pleats are laid, it looks like a jumble of scraps. After these are pleated and sewn, the dress is suddenly right there and I can almost see it finished. Also, these pleats have got to be the prettiest part of 18th century gowns. I love how they fall – so graceful. 


Hideous lighting, photography, etc. … but hey look, half a dress. You can see my huge mistake of cutting the neckline too low in the back.

What I have left to do:

* set the sleeves and finish the cuff (that will take a few fittings, but only a few minutes of actual sewing)

*Attach the front skirt and hem/flat fell all that crap (I believe a Godfather marathon is planned for those hours)

* fix something for the back of the neckline – I cut it too low accidentally, and wasn’t planning on putting a very large binding there, but it looks like I will have to now. That will take some putzing.

In sewing this gown, I figured out a cool way to do sleeves. I’m not sure if it’s correct as far as 18th century gown construction goes, but it does save time and uses very little thread, two things that seem to factor into 18th century sewing. Here’s my method.


Cut sleeve and lining together. Fold under and iron/press the cuff edges and one of the edges for the seam that will run up the inside of the arm. For this sleeve I turned under and pressed the right vertical edge.


Tack the cuff edges, starting at the corner of the two turned-in edges (shown).


Roll the sleeve up as it will be when finished, and sandwich the un-pressed edges in between the pressed ones. You can leave your needle on the thread used to tack the cuff, and sew this whole thing with one piece of thread.


Sew up the inside of the arm with running stitches or a back stitch, catching each piece of lining and exterior fabric with one row of stitches. All the selvedges will be facing the same direction inside the sleeve.


Well, my camera isn’t good in the low light I have, so you’ll have to take my word for it: here’s the semi- finished sleeve! The front of the cuff will get tacked up to shape the elbow later. Somehow these sleeves look too wide at the lower end. Going to tackle that issue later, I guess …






Kinda Excited …

I’ve been working a lot on my clothing collection lately. Not the collection of stuff I’m making; my collection of vintage/antique clothes. I’ve been cataloging every piece on my other WordPress blog, which I’m kinda sorta proud of … it’s got over 80 posts now! With a few notable exceptions, most of the women’s clothing I have in that collection isn’t really reproduce-able, like jeans and constructed purses.

But that’s going to change in a week or so. Coming up, I have two women’s dresses and a girl’s dress, all dating from between about 1900-late twenties. Yeah, excitement. I’ll be adding them to my blog with tons of pictures, patterns, and construction tips. Eventually I want to reproduce the two women’s dresses, which will be a lot of fun.

That, and I’ve decided to finally get to work on my new 18th century dress. I’m going to make it from some linen I bought a while back that I had to re-dye over it’s original rabid watermelon color. I have a deadline; early April – my next event, but I also want to see how quickly I can sew a dress by hand. I want to break my old record of two days.

That, and I’m thinking really hard about picking up a dress form so I can actually see some of this clothing worn, and (gasp!) maybe be able to drape dresses, finally!

So I’m going to go get my costume movies in line (I’ve gotta watch something while I sew!) and get to work!

18th c. American Clothing Resources

Sometimes it’s difficult to find books that focus on American clothing from the 18th century, instead of France and England.  Here’s a list of my go-to research books that take a look at American clothing. It’s certainly not complete, but it’s the basis of most of my research.

The Mirror of Antiquity

The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition

Caroline Winterer

Cornell University Press 2007

ISBN 978-0-8014-4163-9

An utterly fascinating in-depth look at how classical ideas and ideals shaped American dress and culture. Recommended for those looking for a deeper understanding of 18th century women’s clothing & early American culture. A detailed, well-researched book. It covers the 18th century and much of the 19th. Illustrated, B&W.

Fitting and Proper

Fitting & Proper: 18th Century Clothing from the Collection of the Chester County Historical Society

Sharon Ann Burnston

Scurlock Publishing Co., Texarkana TX1998

ISBN 1-880655-08-X

A basic book looking at a few great pieces of clothing from the Chester County Historical Society. Mainly Quaker pieces, these are well-documented and the author shows how they were created. Men’s and women’s clothing is included – the book covers basic pieces of clothing worn during the 18th century. Graphed patterns included, illustrated, B&W.

What Clothes Reveal

What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America

Linda Baumgarten

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Yale University Press, New Haven CT, 2002

ISBN 0-300-09580-5

An in-depth look at clothing and culture in America during the 18th century – this book looks into the answer to “why did they do/wear that?” Highly recommended as a place to start a deeper knowledge of American life in the 18th century. Detailed research, fun read – an enlightening book covering all aspects of clothing. Well illustrated in full color – you’ve got to get excited about that.

Costume Close-Up

Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern 1750-1790

Linda Baumgarten, John Watson, Florine Carr

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Quite Specific Media Group LTD NY 1999

ISBN 0-89676-226-2

In essence, this book is a more detailed version of Fitting & Proper. A fascinating look at a handful of American clothes, showing how they were cut, put together, and how they aged over time. It’s great because it focuses on both men’s and women’s clothing. A good place to start costuming – this and Fitting & Proper are my go-to books for when I begin a piece of clothing, because they show the construction very well. Not a heavy read; many illustrations. Graphed patterns and color/B&W illustrations.

Tidings from the 18th Century

Tidings From the 18th Century

Beth Gilgun

Rebel Publishing Co., Texarkana, TX 1993

ISBN 1-880655-04-7

The most down-to-earth and practical costuming book that exists, to my knowledge. A fabulous book to begin re-enacting with. It covers more than clothing, too – the biggest themes of living history and re-enacting are included. An easy, fun read – many of the chapters are in letter format, like an 18th century novel. Some patterns, well illustrated, B&W.

Cloth and Costume

Cloth and Costume 1750 to 1800, Cumberland County, PA

Tandy and Charles Hersh

The Cumberland County Historical Society 1995

ISBN 0-9638923-2-0

I haven’t finished reading this book, but it looks pretty good so far. The biggest drawback are the pictures – the printing and photography are very poor in some instances. The book covers both clothing and its production in Cumberland County PA. Illustrated, B&W.

Have I missed any great reads you know of? Comment below and I’ll add them to my list!

A New Pair of Stays for Market Fair

Well, I wasn’t able to sew a whole bunch of things for the Market Fair on November 2, but I was able to squeeze out two wearable items. First, I made a new set of pockets which I’m pleased with.

New pockets made in linen diaper weave. The cloth was trimmed from a waistcoat that was updated from c. 1720 to c. 1760.

New pockets made in linen diaper weave. The cloth was trimmed from a waistcoat that was updated from c. 1720 to c. 1760.

I also started on a huge undertaking that I’ve been dreaming of for years – a new pair of stays, handsewn with metal (not plastic!!!) boning. I’ve always wanted pink stays, so I scraped together all the leftover bits from the frump dress / pinner apron project and got peachy-colored ones.

Close enough.

I only had two short sleeves and a bit of the bodice of the dress left, so I pieced the crap out of it and I actually finished the stays with that tiny amount of cloth. Here’s the pieciest piece:

This was half a day's careful work. I have about an ounce of scrap cloth left from this project, and it's all thready bits trimmed off the edges.

This was half a day’s careful work – ten pieced of scraps to form one pattern piece. I have about an ounce of scrap cloth left from this project, and it’s all thready bits trimmed off the edges. Everything else was used.

These are my old corded jumps that I based my new stays on.

I based the stays on two American originals from the 1740s-60s. I found that stays from this time are differentiated from earlier and later ones by two factors: the height of the stays in the front (higher than later stays, lower than earlier ones) and that most of the boning is more vertical than later, angled boning.

All the pieces in line, before all of them were boned.

All the pieces in line, before all of them were boned. I eventually shaped the top line differently.

The front four pieces from the inside, sewn together. I meant to make the front lace up originally, but I threw that idea out - too many eyelets.

The front four pieces from the inside, sewn together. I meant to make the front lace up originally, but I threw that idea out – too many eyelets.

The progress on my stays had to be interrupted because of work, so on the day before the Market Fair, they were in three pieces and none of the edges were bound. They also needed to be re-fitted because I had forgotten that those old corded stays stretched when I laced them up, and fresh new metal-boned stays weren’t going to stretch all that much. So I worked all day, and got enough done to wear them. I wasn’t able to bind the entire lower part of them, but I did get the upper edges done, and the eyelets in, and the whole thing pretty much fitted. The lining had to wait.

The stays from the front - the upper chest fits a little funny, but otherwise they are so much more comfortable than my corded jumps.

The stays from the front – the upper chest fits a little funny, but otherwise they are so much more comfortable than my corded jumps. It’s because of the tabs on the bottom – no more bones digging into my waist, yay! That being said, these stays don’t give me a lot of waist anyway. I’m kind of tubular.


The side. I see now that the boning directly under my arm is too vertical; it makes the waist of the stays stand out from the body. Lessons for next time.

Final analysis: I’m not as pleased with the stays as I thought I would be. They still fit a little funny around the upper bust and waist. I think it’s because of the direction of the boning, and because they come up a little higher in the front than I’m used to. I’ll take a closer look at that later.

In the end, I went to the Market Fair with some stuff to demonstrate with, and I was able to dress two of my sisters, myself and my dad. It was a perfect sunny fall day. I had a table full of repro clothing and my sewing kit out, and I worked on a new stomacher for an early gown that I haven’t made yet (…). I spoke about what people wore, how clothes were made, who made them, and the issues facing re-enactors and living historians in reproducing 18th century clothes. I scared a bunch of little boys when I taught them that 18th century boys their age wore gowns like girls. I met some great people who were doing wonderful work creating their own clothing. I had such a good time that I forgot to get a picture of my table or any of us! Oh well, next time. : D

Documenting Female Names in America, 1640-1820

After attending a play in which I noticed the characters’ names didn’t sound too 18th century-ish, I went home and Googled common 18th century names. I was a little surprised when I didn’t find anything.

So I decided to do some research myself. I began to document the birth year, location of birth, name, and class of women born in America from 1640 to 1820, just to see what names it would turn up.

The current result is a database of 1,676 women, mostly from Virginia or Delaware, from 1750-1820. The information was mainly collected from cemetery records and runaway advertisements. I listed women from all walks of life. If I could not find a specific year of birth, I estimated to a decade based on other information (children, average life span for that class and time). Given that, there’s a chance that a little of this data is about 10 years off the mark. I tried to collect enough names to average these discrepancies out.

The eventual goal of this research is to create a database for each colony/state, showing the most popular names for the area, and for each decade. Because most of my data is from Virginia, however, it currently drowns out whatever the other areas produced. Hopefully in the future I will be able to collect data from other colonies/states and even things out.

So for a few posts I’ll share some facts I discovered from my data.

This project has documented some names that I didn’t really expect to be so old, such as Emmeline, Cecily, Ellen, Edith, Deborah, Daphne, Cynthia, Courtney, Candace, Ariana, Amey, Laura, Mayble, Natalie, and Rhoda.

Here are the thirteen most common names for the 180 years I studied. I grouped similar names together for this, but once I get more data, I may separate them and see which versions were popular for what years.

1)  Mary – 181 counts, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

2)  Elizabeth/Elisabeth – 133, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

3)  Sarah/Sara – 122, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

4) Anne/Ann/Annie/Anna – 120, most popular in the 1770s.

5) Hannah/Hanna – 59, most popular between 1750 – 1759.

6) Margaret/Margareta/Margaretta – 58, most popular between 1810 – 1819.

7) Jane – 44, most popular between 1800 – 1809.

8) Betsey/Betsy – 37, most popular in the 1750s.

9) Rebecca/Rebeckah and Martha are tied at 35 each, the former most popular between 1800 – 1809, the latter in the 1770s.

10) Lucy and Catherine/Catharine are both tied at 28 counts, the former most popular in the 1750s, the latter between 1800 – 1809.

11) Nancy – 22, most popular between 1760 – 1779.

My apologies, that’s a whole bunch of very dry statistics! The funny thing is, some names that seem iconic for the 18th century don’t seem so common. For instance, I counted only four Abigails, no Georgiannas, and only nine Charlottes out of almost 1,700 women. Names that sound very 17th century (Margaret, Margareta and Margaretta) seem to have been popular in the early 19th century, and that seems to be a trend: names that were popular around 1680-1720 were used again between 1780 and 1820.

I’ll have some more breakdowns of this research in future posts – I’m still trying to wrangle these numbers into Excel to make some charts! Enjoy!

A Late 18th – Early 19th c. Stock Buckle

The front of a late 18th - early 19th century stock buckle, made of brass and cut steel.

The front of a late 18th – early 19th century stock buckle, made of brass and cut steel.

The back of a late 18th - early 19th century stock buckle, made of brass and cut steel.

The back of the buckle. You can see the labor that went into cutting each hole for setting the faceted steel pieces.

I found this little buckle when digging around in an old sewing kit in the top of our barn. It’s a stock buckle that dates from 1780 onward, perhaps to 1820 but possibly later.

The body is a yellow alloy, probably brass, and the ‘gems’ are cut steel. The pronged bar turns on an axle that’s attached inside tiny U-shaped pieces of metal, which are soldered to the back.The bar was made from very thin flat stock, as opposed to the body of the buckle, which was cut from much thicker stuff.The little prongs appear to be made from wire. The axle is steel. The buckle is about 2 3/8 inches long, and exactly one inch wide.

This buckle has been broken somewhere along the line. A second bar is missing completely, and the axle is unattached at one side on the back. I could have it repaired with a little dab of solder, but I’m too worried about something else falling off when the metal is heated … so I haven’t had it fixed yet.

Cut steel buckles seem to have grown in popularity during the 1780s, and the technique is still used today. Check these links out for more cut steel:



Scroll down a little on this next link – a very similar cut steel buckle is in the first picture down:


A pair of cut steel shoe buckles:


And finally, an almost identical buckle, for sale. It’s on the fifth row down.


The Wild Goose Chase That is “100%” Historical Accuracy

What is 100% historical accuracy? To me, it’s a hypothetical state of being in which no re-enactor, historian, or hobbyist is able to dispute your persona or prove you wrong on something. It’s my firm belief that 100% historical accuracy can never be achieved. Here’s a few of my reasons why.

a)    There’s always something else to discover. Tomorrow we could find out that what we believed as fact yesterday is inaccurate. Our perception of accuracy is always changing.

b)   What’s generally understood as correct for March 1782, England, might not be accurate for March 1782, Virginia. We might find out what is, but we also might not. Accuracy is always our best educated guess.

c)    As far as clothing is concerned, there’s a suggestion that 18th century human bodies were shaped a little differently – whether due to the clothing they wore, or the way they deported themselves. While I believe not everybody would have been shaped differently, there’s a chance that some were. So according to this idea, even if I strolled into a museum collection and put on the 18th century clothing there (not a good idea – it’s something I would never do!) it wouldn’t fit. By that logic, no matter what we do – whether it’s using 18th century patterns, techniques, and materials, we’ll never look the same as they did.

To further complicate things, how many people have you seen wearing clothes that went out of style ten, twenty years ago? Any point in time is, and was, occupied by variations in style. Here’s an example. Perhaps in one town in colonial America, there was a family from Germany and a family from Ireland, and a family from England. Maybe the English family is up-to-date with fashion. Maybe the German family is wearing regional costume that looks very different from the English clothes. Maybe the patriarch of the German family is wearing clothes that are 20+ years old, as well as being regional. Maybe the Irish family hasn’t been able to afford new clothes for years, and is wearing patched rags and second-hand pieces that don’t fit well. If a re-enactor is interpreting this town, the up-to-the-minute French-dictated fashion that many people follow isn’t going to be very accurate.

As re-enactors, we can wear these clothes that are not the French-dictated ‘standard’ – sure, dress as a 1765 German-American patriarch that stopped updating his wardrobe in 1732. Just tell people that. Make that your persona. Give your audience a reason for your sartorial choices. By giving a reason for dressing in a certain way, you fill out your character and you’ll have more to talk to people about. Think of it as a teaching moment!

In the end, we’ll never know what’s 100% accurate – and by that logic, we’ll never know if we are perfectly accurate or not. There’s a chance we are ‘doing it’ exactly as ‘they’ did. As I’ve heard history authors say, at some point you’re just going to have to go with what you know and publish. You could put off making your new reenacting shoes, hat, pack or tent until you knew exactly how it ‘should’ be made – but that might take you years.

Keep reading, talking with others, and looking at museum collections. Research and our understanding of history is a constantly evolving phenomenon, and I believe that all we can do is stay up to date with current research. Evolve with the field, give your persona reasons and a story behind your gear, and you’ll be as close to accurate as anybody can be.