Introducing Linda Learn, guest columnist this month, while Joan is working on a project. If the name rings a bell, Linda was a contributor to the Profiles in Collecting column. To repeat her bio in her own inimitable style — she a fabriholic, re-enactor consultant, costumer, fabric store owner and an inveterate teacher of everything from art to nuclear, biological and chemical warfare for all ages.
If you are in the Tunhannock PA [Scranton] area, look her up. Now on to a costumer’s plight. Fudging It…It’s All in How You Look at It. What the observer sees: a splendiferous, flowing gown with bands of sparkling jewels. What the costumer sees: 7 yds. (minimum) of velvet (preferably cotton, patterned if lucky or rich) with wide metallic gold (imported or dime store) braid with pearls (faux or fresh water) and gemstones (glass or semiprecious cut stones or beads) attached (set or sewn by hand, or glued).
What the observer sees: an impressive and dignified hourglass shape with arms gracefully curved away from the body and hands resting lightly on the flowing skirt. What the costumer sees: a hoop skirt (with 16 yds of spring steel to maintain the cone shape), a full petticoat to keep the hooplines from showing, a corset (with 3 ½ lbs of steel corset stays) so tight that you can’t bend anywhere but the hips and can’t put your arms to your sides if you want to breathe. What the observer (read quilter or home sewer) sees: a gigantic ocean of color and design….all the colors of the rainbow flowing, contrasting, swirling with possibilities of patterns and quilt tops… each new idea more wonderful than the last until the senses are nearly overwhelmed.
What the costumer (read “I/Linda”) sees: a large conference room full of tables-full of colorful cottons… and one tiny card table in the back, for the Exotic Silks representative, that stands out like a glowing, shimmering beacon of luscious, seductive decadence. It’s all in how you look at it. Recreating the costumes and clothing of the past can cost more than it did in the past. Just try buying enough handwoven linen for a simple shirt or chemise! Luckily, we have “historical precedence” of “fudging it” so we can, with a clear conscience, say that we are following historical role models when we “fake it”, cut corners and substitute.
Some examples of garb “faking it” in history: Around 1500, Hispanic costume (jerkins) had loose roll-like pleats that we call cartridge pleating. These were caught and held in place by being sewn to fabric tapes on the inside of the garment. A wonderful book Hispanic Costume 1480-1530 by Ruth Anderson, ISBN 87535-126-3, 1979 is a treasure trove of clothing information for that time period.
In Venice, around the beginning of the 1500s, there was a traditional long gown worn by “well-placed” Italians. It was closed up the front and fastened at the throat with a very small and unobtrusive tie. You can see a narrow line of white standing collar on paintings. Some surviving gowns have an almost invisible opening at the back of the neck so the front opening wouldn’t have to be used and would stay rigidly neat.
Dress of the Venetians, 1495-1525 by Stella Mary Newton, ISBN 0-85967-735-4, 1988. In England in the mid 1500s, many fashionable women’s gowns had a front opening in the skirt to show an ornate underskirt; however, the ornate underskirt was only a triangular panel that was fastened to a plain (cheaper) underskirt. Patterns of Fashion, 1560-1620” by Janet Arnold, ISBN 0333-38284-6, 1985.
In the early 1600s, beautiful blackwork embroidery “chemises” peeked out from slits in oversleeves and necklines. They were usually panels that were pinned in place … not totally embroidered chemises. There were totally embroidered chemises in some extremely wealthy wardrobes but not many. See English Embroidered Costume, Elizabeth and James I”, by J. L. Nevinson, in The Connoisseur Magazine, Vol. 97, no. 413, January 1936.
There were block printed fabrics in period, that mimicked brocaded patterns and designs, too. We won’t even get into the garments used to change/mold body shape! Back then, fabrics and sewing were labor intensive and expensive! And appearances were politically very important. Nowadays we have more options. However, if you are part of some “pure” re-enactment groups, you are not allowed to “fudge”.
Construction techniques, as well as the fabric fiber and weave, must be like those of the period the “pure” re-enactment group is recreating Costuming and looser re-enactment/recreation groups have much more freedom. It’s like an art project most of the time. Get it to look like it should any way you can. Some of them are really good with a glue gun.
Stretch velvet mounted on canvas to give a stiff fabric.. Jewels sewn to gold braid and sewn on to create patterned fabric.. Wool crepe with fine gold lurex line, treasure fabric – all MINE!… So how do we fudge in the present? Well, we have great upholstery fabrics that sometimes come really close to a period brocade. And about 8 years ago VIP fabrics had a glorious gold-printed cotton at Christmas that was perfect for 1200s wear and another that worked for 1400s, too! Some of the newer “burn-out” velvets are fabulous substitutes for the cut and uncut pile velvets.
And a piece of stretch “burn-out” velvet with the right design can be mounted on plain canvas and be perfect for your needs! If the design is not quite right, then embellish it with beads, pearls and/or metallic braid in a period manner and you won’t see the design. Can’t find patterned velvet? Make the trim do your design….strips of braids or lace….bead the or pearl the trim and blow some minds.
Can’t find bobbin lace? Use a Cluny lace and cut the straight edge from it. Sew it onto a ribbon and no one will notice! Want to “pink” (put small cuts in) your satin or velvet but don’t want it fraying? Apply beeswax to the backside before slicing with a sharp blade. That’s what the Elizabethan garb makers did. Want to cord and pearl an edge on black velvet? Do it first on fine black netting and it will make your life much easier and be removable for cleaning as well.
Want a fancy chemise ‘relatively’ easily? Make a ‘chemisette’ by only doing the fancy sleeves attached to a fancy short chemise bodice-top. Pin it in place to your corset or a sleeveless, low-necked ‘shift’. Have a problem with “weight fluctuations”? Sew the front pleats in your over gown skirt and put drawstrings in the back half. Make a very big placket for under your laced bodice back. Sew the tops of your bodice straps individually and pin or baste the front and back together to fit.
Need hoop wire and can’t find it? Find some steel strapping tape from shipping cartons (appliances, etc.). No time to make a bum roll? Cut off and stuff one leg of old panty hose and tie it around your waist. Some of the fashion patterns today have some of the “lines” you need for a particular period outfit. A princess seamed dress can be modified for 1230s cotehardies. But now with the major pattern companies coming out with costuming, all you need to do is chose the best one, modify to better period style, and fit it.
There are lots of ways to cut corners and make-do and get away with it. But I don’t cut corners with fabric quality. If I can’t afford hand loomed handkerchief linen, I go with a good bleached 100% cotton muslin. I don’t use a poly blend in anything but an upholstery fabric…it doesn’t look right, doesn’t lay right and is hotter to wear.
I rejoice in the fact that “wrinkles are period!” Cotton velveteen works as well or almost as well as velvet. Printed drapery fabric sometimes can mock great brocade. Rayon and cotton upholstery brocades can be perfect. And I now have some of that “burn-out” chemical that works on plant fibers, I know how to do silk screening and block printing and I can do my own “cut velvet” for less than $200/yd. All I need is the gumption. A Costumer’s Fudging Treasures My year-round task is finding the treasures that my jobber gets as “couture fashion fabric”. A lot of the natural fiber fabrics from the top fashion houses are very much like a period fabric.
One fine shirt-weight linen with a thread count of 22/17 (this means 22 warp threads and 17 weft threads per cm), duplicates that of a child’s smock found in the Jorvik excavations. That one came from Ralph Lauren. Once I found an historical weave called “broken lozenge twill” in a yellow linen. One lady bought the whole bolt! I’ve been praying to find more for the past ten years! The stretch velvet that I mentioned has a “Moorish” feel to the design….
It was imported from Italy. I absconded with 10 yards of extra fine, black merino crepe wool with fine gold lurex stripes for my own Elizabethan gown. That was another designer name house fabric. But finding the treasures is hard… a full year or two may go by without another gem like the ones above. Most of the time I have to be satisfied with just plain fine merino and cashmere or a pure silk brocade. Sigh. Oh well. It’s all in how you look at it.
(Click on the picture for a larger view) You can view lovely period-appropriate and other irresistable fabrics on Linda’s website http://www.classactfabrics.com , which also contains historical information and links to other neat stuff. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.