Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Two Trimmed Edwardian 1909 "Beatrix" Skirts: Dress Diary, Part 1

I am making two Beatrix skirts (a Sense and Sensibility pattern) as gifts for friends for a 
picnic at the end of May. While the original pattern is for an untrimmed skirt, each of these will be trimmed in a fashion appropriate to the era. I am planning to set insertion lace in two rows into Rebecca's skirt around the hem, and Polly's skirt will receive a circular flounce headed by a row of ruching. Both ladies loved the idea of trained skirts, too, so both will have their heart's desire.

Having promised to document the process for our tea society, herewith the first report!

Rebecca's Willow Green Trained Skirt with Lace Insertion

On a sunny spring morning, with the crabapple blooming outside the window, I cut out the skirt pieces.

Ladybug helped. This was her first week with us, and she delighted me with her interest in sewing. Zip Zip used to love to help me, and I missed her company.

Now each panel is sewn together. I used 3/8" French seams. French seams are a delight when you have fabric of light enough weight to use them, because a French seam encloses the fabric edges neatly and sturdily, so there will be no loose threads, unraveling, and no further seam finishing!

Fully pieced together, the last seam that draws the skirt up from a two-dimensional bunch of panels into a three-dimensional garment, is ready to be sewn. In the background you can see my circa 1911 Willcox and Gibbs chainstitch treadle sewing machine. It makes sewing linen so straightforward, and it's so quiet that I can sew in the evening while the twins sleep in rooms nearby. Willcox and Gibbs advertised their machines as being silent stitchers, and oh, what a blessing, when you have light-sleeping children!

In fact, here is a little video of the machine at work:

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Under the crabapple tree, our boys celebrate springtime

Last year I stood under our crabapple tree, weeks before it bloomed, wearing maternity clothing.

This spring, what gift laughs under our tree in full bloom but twin boys, chuckling with their cousin Jane on the porch swing?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Home! In 1883...

Ithaca! "Forest City", they called it back then. Where Rome had seven hills, "Ithaca makes her boast of seven streams, concerning which she challenges the world". Then there's the lake, "that with its framing of bright, foliage-covered hills and the inlet at its head, might be likened unto a large and beautiful hand mirror." Cornell! The town. The 150 waterfalls. The deep glens and gorges.

Look! This view of Fall Creek emptying into the lake -- it's hardly different now.

D. Morris Kurtz wrote about them all in Ithaca and Its Resources, in 1881. By a wonderful miracle, I ran into it on Google Books, where it's there for the reading. As the title page says,

Ithaca and Its Resources
Being an Historical and a Descriptive Sketch of the "Forest City" and Its Magnificent Scenery
Glens - Falls - Ravines
Cornell University
and the principal

Manufacturing and Commercial Interests

by D. Morris Kurtz

Fully Illustrated

Come and see >

19th Century Women's Fashion Mix and Match Games at the McCord Museum Website

Canada's McCord Museum has two games about women's fashion that test your ability to recognize fashion silhouettes. One of them is tough!

First, try the High Fashion of the Nineteenth Century game, at

Second, try the harder Women's Fashion game at I found myself making mistakes right off the bat!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Waving Doughnuts with Excitement

...not me, the boys. I only wish I had a nice fresh old-fashioned doughnut to wave, and then nibble!

Anyhow, back to our story. Last Thursday afternoon was warm and breezy, and before the rain set in, Mom and I set out to garden. We set Noah and Christopher on a quilt, dressed in wide-brimmed hats, and gave them their favorite stacking toy, with rings we call doughnuts, to play with. Well, Christopher handily stacked a doughnut on the stacker, and celebrated to the world.

Curte says that a boy walked by sometime later, and Christopher watched him pass, and then waved a doughnut madly at his back.

Here's Noah in "My Hat"; dig, dig, dig, dig it!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ornate Mid-Nineteenth-Century Chemise with Front Flap

A month or two ago, when winter still gripped us hard, for solace I browsed a favorite antique shop that sometimes carries vintage and antique clothing. I hadn't looked about for more than a minute when this garment caught my eye. It was listed as a pinafore, and very reasonably priced.

Right: chemise front

It's hardly a pinafore: to my middling understanding those usually fastened at the back and at this length, were worn by children. This garment is clearly sized for an adult.

It is actually a woman's chemise, but of a variant type because it features a front flap. Until very late in the Edwardian era, fashion historians generally write that chemises were worn, along with drawers, as the undermost garments. The chemise absorbed body oils and perspiration and protected the corset, which was worn over it. Over the corset a woman would often add a corset cover/camisole. This protected the dress and corset from each other and might also keep the corset from view if the main dress or waist (blouse) was at all sheer. At times, I have read that the chemise and corset cover were made in one: the chemise would feature a flap that could be pulled out and over the top of the corset. That that is how this garment is meant to be worn.

Very curious as to what I had, and wanting to share pictures of it with others who love antique clothing, I posted information and questions about it on my beloved Sense and Sensibility board. To my delight, other members enjoyed seeing it, and were curious about it or had information to share about it. The garment description that follows is immeasurably improved by their contributions.


The garment is made of an opaque, tightly woven, mid-weight fabric that hasn't any sheen at all. I thought it to be cotton, then wondered if it might be linen. It's of a plain weave, with occasional very, very small slubs in the thread. The fabric as a whole is the color of high-quality cream from the top of the milk bottle. Not dead white. On the inside of the garment there is a little yellowing , but very little, and there are a few pinpoint rust stains and one or two droplet size stains.

Suzi Clarke, costumier in London (, wrote in a post of the fabric: "It is possible that it was made from "Horrocks's Longcloth", a firm washable cotton made and sold in England by, of course, Horrocks. This was a suitable fabric for underclothes, and was used for, and can be seen in, many still surviving garments."

Carolann Schmitt of the Genteel Arts Academy ( thought it longcloth too, and described the fabric thus: "
a tightly-woven cotton with a smooth "hard" finish. The fabric was produced in England and the US and is very common for this period."

Longcloth has an interesting history, and while my antique sewing manuals and fashion history books mention it with frequency, none of them expound on either its nature or its roots. Finally, here is its story, courtesy Carolann:

The name "longcloth" derives from how it was manufactured. Prior to the industrial revolution, weavers would produce fabric in lengths just sufficient to make a particular garment. Why weave more fabric than you need? It's why so many early 19th century garments (and before) have a "squares and rectangles" cut - virtually no waste. If you look at some of the cutting diagrams for chemises in The Workwoman's Guide (published in 1838) you can see how careful planning uses virtually every inch of fabric.

When commerical textile production is established, it's no longer cost effective to weave short lengths of fabric. A cotton fabric made from tightly-spun fibers woven with a tight weave suitable for undergarments and shirts was one of the first textiles woven in long pieces, hence the name "longcloth". A "piece" of longcloth averaged 62-67 yards; even today, textile production is measured in "pieces" - each averaging 62-65 yards.

One of my primary sources, in an "advice to young wives" article, advises purchasing two full pieces of longcloth when the new wife establishes her household. The first piece will provide enough fabric to make the minimum number of undergarments they should have on hand, including a dozen chemises, 4-6 petticoats, 2-3 underskirts, 2 nightdresses and 2 robes. (Notice they don't mention drawers!). Then, as these garments wear out, they should be replaced with new items cut from the second piece of longcloth. A very practical recommendation.

Right: chemise back

Construction and Measurements

The neckline is wide and shallow, and it is trimmed with a single ruffle edged with tatting. The neckline is shaped by the yoke, which gives the entire garment its shape. The yoke is quite narrow, measuring only an inch wide over each shoulder, and is identical front and back. It is trimmed with a band of broderie anglaise.

The front and back pieces
are lightly gored: they are of trapezoidal shape, in the fashion that goes back centuries. Very similar to the pattern shape Elizabeth Stewart Clark uses in her chemise pattern on her site. The top of each panelis lightly gathered and stroked into place. In spots you can see the tiny gathering stitches.

The sleeves are short, plain pieces, carefully gathered and stroked into the armscyes, and trimmed like the neckline.

This chemise has a gusset inset under each arm; they are surrounded by a double layer of fabric, presumably to take strains. I understand that gussets under the arms were less and less used as the nineteenth century went on.

The seams and trim inside and out are exquisitely, precisely, almost invisibly sewn. The tatting, for instance, is made of single threads, and the thread used to whip it to the edge of the neckline and sleeves is so fine that it can hardly be seen. I do not know if I could find thread that fine now. The broderie anglaise trim is similarly fine. The main seams and bottom hem are machine sewn with a lockstitch machine, using similar or the same fine thread. These main seams are flat felled and the stitch count is very high, some 16 stitches to the inch. The ruffles are hand whipped to the neckline, and the reinforcement fabric at the underarm gussets is so finely hand-hemmed that it took awhile to find any stitching.

Measurements were taken on a dress form, but loosely:
  • front and back neckline, shoulder to shoulder: 19 1/2 inches
  • yoke width at shoulder: 1 inch
  • sleeve diameter: 5 1/2 inches
  • front flap width: 12 1/2 inches at top, 7 1/4 inches at bottom
  • front flap length: 7 inches
  • front and back panel width measured at arm gusset bottom, each: 27 inches
  • front and back panel width measured at garment hem: 34 inches
  • garment length, shoulder to hem: 32 inches
Its Date and Context in Fashion History

Much of the posting back and forth today concerned the chemise date. Portions of the posts are included here, and offer not only a date for this garment, but give a sense for how a decision was arrived at.

  • Emma Ruth: You're right, it is a chemise. I would date it to the 1850s or 1860s because of the horizontal band yoke. That was the style of chemise worn while dropped shoulder seams were used on dresses. Once shoulder seams moved up to a more modern position by the early 1870s chemises with straight horizontal yokes could no longer be worn and chemises with shaped yokes came into fashion instead.
  • Elizabeth Stewart Clark: "I'd ditto a mid-century date, due to the shape and "set" of the yoke. How are the seams in the chemise body handled? Is the body gored, or straight panels?"
  • Acacia: "Perhaps more of us will join in here: I've done "surface study" of mid century but certainly not in depth. My first impulse was 1840's. I suspect it's the style of the white work that will help date it. It looks to be entirely hand sewn - is that right? It possibly could go one decade earlier into the 1830's - as you say the wide neckline hints at that, but this style neckline was still worn later - especially for ball gowns, which retained that style of open, wide neck. (After this, I detail its construction as a mix of machine and handsewing.)
  • Suzi Clarke: "If it is machine sewn, it is highly unlikely to have been sewn before the 1850's when sewing machines were first commercially available for domestic sewing. Also, I can't remember the date when lock stitch, as opposed to chain stitch became the regular stitch, but chain stitch was the earlier."
  • Carolann Schmitt: Mid-19th century chemises are one of my "specialties". I have 25+ in my collection.

    I'd date this chemise c.1855-early 1860s.
    - The neckline is starting to transition from the straight band of the early-mid1850s to the deeper shaped yokes c.1860-1865.
    - It still has the square cut sleeves, gussets and reinforcements typical of this period, before the transition to sleeves cut with a bias seam and no gussets.
    - This is the same period when the cut of the body of the chemise transitions from the full width of the fabric with inset triangular gores to add width at the lower edge (look carefully - the seams can be almos invisible!) to a body cut with gored seams. In the mid1860s this cut will transition again to one with some slight shaping at the waist.
    - The fabric does appear to be longcloth - a tightly-woven cotton with a smooth "hard" finish. The fabric was produced in England and the US and is very common for this period. Cotton had pretty much replaced linen for undergarments in the late 1840s-1850s.
    - Chemises from the 1840s are square cut, with a wide 'scoop' neckline, longer and fuller sleeves, and are much longer in length. The length of this one indicates it could have been worn tucked or untucked.
    - The flap protects the inside of the dress from wear and crocking from the corset. It's a characteristic feature of late 1850s chemises. I have two chemises with a flap in the front and the back. You'll also find flaps on nursing chemises - covering the slits in the fabric.
    - The trimming at the neckline - corded tucks, whitework band, tatted edging - is very common. I have two or three chemises with almost identical trim.

    Chemises like this were available ready-made at very affordable prices from merchants across the country in towns and cities of any size.

    It's a lovely piece, Natalie.
Additional Pictures

Side view

Yoke and neckline detail showing tatting, piping, broderie anglaise trim and stroked gathers on sleeves. Note: if you view the large version of this image by clicking on it, please be aware that I used telephoto to approximately twice the actual size: it blurred the image a little but also made the tatting look coarse. In actuality, the tatting threads are fine as sewing thread. Each picot is an eighth of an inch tall. The yoke is but one inch wide at the shoulder, and the ruffle but 3/8 of an inch wide.

Detail showing gusset with reinforcement fabric under arm

Thursday, April 03, 2008

In Memoriam: Inkspot Ferguson, 1990-April 3, 2008

This evening sometime after 5:00 p.m. Inkspot, our wonderful, happy-spirited kitty passed away. She had been our dancing cat with the lightest paws -- they hardly touched the ground when she'd see us and come to meet us. She spent her days with Curte, sitting on his desk while he worked, our dear friend and companion. I will write more very soon. Tonight, just hours after she has gone to be with Zip Zip, my heart is too broken. Someday we will see you again, darling. For now, you're with your kittens in a happy place.

100_0156 inkspot on window sill 2

Inkspot sometime in 2004.

Days Later, the House Is So Empty

It's been five days since Inkspot has left us, and the shock has hardly worn off. Curte tidied up in the evening and had an armload of things to bring upstairs. "Must leave room to carry Spot," he thought, and then it hit him that she no longer would stand in his arms as he brought her upstairs for the night. I pass the yellow barrel-back chair that she favored in the living room: its seat is a thick down cushion and it's close to a skirted table she could leap onto that gave onto a great view of the front yard. Usually I have a little startled moment as I realize that she no longer naps there. Yesterday something close by sounded like a cat retching after she has eaten grass, and I thought, "Oh boy, better check on her", but the sound came from outdoors.

On winter morning in late 1991 or early 1992 as I was struggling with my master's thesis and very bored, I glanced out of the dining room window, and saw a small black and white cat emerge from under a parked car in the lot below. It was such a thin little being, and I'd not seen it before.

So I went to investigate and found a bony young kitty with a big stomach and spots of engine oil down her back from having rubbed the underside of a car. She was terribly skittish. It took time, perhaps a day or two, and tuna fish and dry cat food to lure her to our second-floor landing, and from thence into our house. At first I said she'd stay on our porch at the back of the apartment, but that lasted a few hours and then she was wandering our rooms, sniffing and tentatively happy. I recall she found and ate the wrapper from a stick of butter. Clearly she had been on her own and trash-picking for some time.

We named her Inkspot for her tuxedo patterning -- not that engine oil on her fur -- and when I opened the door to the outside some days later, where it was warm and sunny, she stood near the threshold, but would go no further, and she looked at me and meowed. She did not want to leave us. So that was that. She was part of the family.

Her thin-thick self proved not to have a worm infestation but to be bearing kittens, and when the time came to deliver them, she wanted my sister's affection and help, unusual in cats, who often like privacy. She asked for help in caring for the five little ones, too: as the kittens grew she couldn't easily lift the biggest of them, fuzzy blue-gray boy Woolly Bear, and on the way from an old den to a new one, dropped him in the hallway, meowing for us to pick him up and carry him for her. We helped her carry each kitten. When the kittens used us as jungle gyms, she rested nearby.

Her Spotness, International Cat of Mystery, our Miss Silly, sweet tater purrpaw, Little Spot, she was svelte and when she purred, if you listened closely she might favor you with a breathy, elegant sound intermixed with the deep inner vibration. As the years passed, she discovered the joys of lap sitting and sleep on the bed, and took to Curte, so much so that in pictures we have of him at breakfast, there's Inkspot next to him on a chair, paws tucked under has he reads the paper; there's Inkspot next to his rocking chair on the front porch, there's a quiet moment for man and cat on the back deck in the sunshine, there she is sprawled as he works on house renovations in Atlanta. There she is perched on just three inches of chair arm in his office as he works, or on his desk next to the mouse pad, so he has to circle his arm around it to get to the mouse. There they are out in the back yard, touring the grounds together, cat in front a few steps, sometimes starting up for no reason and tearing pell-mell to a tree to climb it halfway in the joy of being alive.

My sister also wrote about Inkspot: see her post.

You were about 18, we guess, when you left us, but you graced us with sixteen delightful years. We miss you, sweet Spot.