Part 1 : Sewing back in time.
At the start of the year I came across a wonderful project at Kent University’s English department being led by Dr. Jennie Batchelor. The Lady’s Magazine (pub 1770-1818) Project, funded for two years by The Leverhulme Trust , seeks to index and understand the genre of early women’s periodicals
From this The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off was born ; a project I found irresistible to take part in given my passion for women’s history (I read Humanities with the OU and am a ‘MA wannabe’!) and have a personal assortment of historic domestic journals and magazines on subjects from birth control and smoking to letter writing and housekeeping.
Jennie Presented five patterns from 1796 and another three from 1775 were kindly shared by Radio 3 presenter, Penny Gore all ranging from gown and cravat designs to waistcoat, handkerchief and shoe patterns, giving modern day embroiderers the unique opportunity to interpret them as they wished.
Although I wanted to work in traditional materials , rather than actually replicating the 18th Century using a large trestle frame, wearing a corset or working in natural light, I wanted to compare myself sewing under modern day domestic circumstances. Given I can’t time travel, and I am not a proper historian I can only make rough guesses as to the differences I observed and hope that those more qualified than me will see more obvious analysis that my limited academic knowledge has missed! More than anything this is a needlework blog, and in order to keep things light, I may not be as detailed in my facts or assumptions, so do forgive me if you are one of the interested academics reading this and please do feel free to place your thoughts in the comments below for all to read that I may be redeemed! I will refer to The Lady’s Magazine throughout as ‘TLM’ for speed!
Where to start?
I chose the shoe patterns and after much chopping and changing, settled on their shapes being perfect to translate into a ‘Kissing Ball’*, having designed and made a similar fabric globe last Christmas.
That TLM was a magazine for women is obvious however in a pre-industrial age when paper was expensive, transport links limited and literacy only partial, we may correctly assume that it was a publication for the educated, wealthy and cosmopolitan lady with leisure and cultivation to dawdle at the piano or take up her needle. Many original patterns from TLM sadly do not survive and neither can we know how many were actually sewn, or perhaps, given their means, handed over to the professional embroiderer given these patterns were probably disseminated as the fashionable ‘must have’ designs of the moment.
We take it for granted that we are bombarded with print, and our portable hand held devices are jammed with wi-fi printable images every second of the day! One of the very reasons so few patterns from TLM have not lasted was from the limitation of their ability to be traced or replicated. They were offered as ‘Pull Outs’ which if not easily traceable upon through fine muslin or gauze, were rendered fragile by using the ‘Prick & Pounce’ method, whereby tiny holes were pricked over the outline of the pattern and dried ink, wine or ground Cuttle fish were rubbed into the holes using a roll if felt or soft cloth resulting in the reproduction of the pattern through the holes. By comparison, I printed the patterns from my computer, enlarged them, traced them onto clear acetate with my indelible pen, scanned the patterns on the acetate onto my computer, resized them and printed them off onto tracing paper ready to iron onto my silk! This process took all of 30 minutes and has made the individual trade of pattern copier which existed in the 18th Century long redundant.
Tools of the Trade
Next come the materials. These have changed very little but remember at the time of TLM we are talking pre-Industrial Revolution ; Needles have not strayed in shape but rather than being the prized handmade objects, often given as gifts are now massed produced and cheap to purchase. So too with then precious fabrics such as silk. Although still a luxury fabric, mine was just a couple of pieces screwed up with a pile in a box, totally taken for granted! Mass produced silk from India and China make it an affordable surface upon which to embroider as well as wear.
For the purposes of research I tried to find silk threads locally but not one was to be had! So it was that a hop on my computer, a few clicks in and out of my favourite on-line sewing shop, and a day’s wait secured me some silks although the colour shades on my screen were not as precise the ones which turned up and occasioned a moments disappointment! Silk threads however, though can be very cheap if purchased from India, are still quite a luxury and only a few places still sell a large range. These days we have dazzling, cheap Stranded Cottons and amazing silk substitutes which make the use of silk in needlework much scarcer. Together with my French silks I used Pearsall’s silk which started here in the UK in 1795, about midway through TLM publication but sadly no longer with us today.
Rather than working sedately at a large embroidery floor standing frame or Tambour Hoop (round from ‘Tambourine’) on a frame, usual at the time of our publication, I used a frame of four interlocking bars and I attached my silk with drawing pins which sat in my hand. Here I mention an interesting point about ladylike posture. Large skirts and corsets made feminine manoeuvrability pretty limited and to be honest, given I find floor frames quite uncomfortable to get my arm over the top, I wince at the effort whilst wearing a laced corset. Ladies of course had to sit nicely to look like models of virtuous modesty and no doubt any ambitious mama of the time would be utterly appalled at me sprawled out on a bed sporting leggings, a saggy jumper and my partners socks let alone my pajamas at 5pm on a Sunday! However, this is the 21st Century and that is how I roll!....as they say these days…..
Part 2 : Next Wednesday……..
For more details and to have a go yourself, visit the following link or find the lady's Magazine Project on Twitter and Facebook