Friday, October 28, 2011

Spenceration: The Hive Mind Speaks and We Have a Rough Plan

Start with lapels
and sleeves.

Thank you all for considering the spencer issue...with your help, we have a solution.

Here it is:
  • lapels, from the blue wool spencer, because they look so good, but a little smaller than the 1794 example, so they won't look silly for evening wear
  • sleeveless base, to take care of Kentucky summertime ridiculous heat
  • optional add-in sleeves, from the blue wool spencer, to take care of the cooler seasons
  • optional add-in epaulettes in gold braid to hold up the sleeves
  • trimmed at the cuffs and around the collar with chenille embroidery in a Neoclassic design, to complement the add-in epaulettes, in a faintly military style -- a takeoff on your Museum of London pelisse trimming, Mrs. C :}
  • made of my existing 1.5 yards of periwinkle silk, so that I don't have to spend for fabric
  • Add the "body".
  • sewn with yellow silk sewing thread to add some pop to the seams (see Nineteenth Century Fashion in Detail for an example)
All I have to spend any money on is for chenille embroidery "thread", and some braid, and yellow silk sewing thread, to add some pop to the seams.

Next, Planning the Project Execution

Let's do this right, and have a proper plan:
  1. Examine extant garments, and check written sources in diaries and magazines. This refines understanding of how the garment is worn, constructed, and trimmed.
  2. Search for extant chenille trimmings. I already have a pretty decent idea but want to show you pictures.
  3. Get chenille in soft yellow from Hand Dyed Fibers. Get yellow silk thread (check Mary Corbett's Needle 'n Thread for best source: it could be Hedgehog Handworks.
  4. Design a Neoclassic embroidery pattern.
  5. Find braid or use chenille to make it.
  6. Work up toile in muslin and refine fitting over the dress, especially the sleeves.
  7. Take the toile pieces, and draw them on the silk.
  8. Draw the trim design in pencil on the silk. Do not cut the pieces. This is how I understand 18th century embroiderers would have worked.
  9. Stretch the silk in a hoop, and work the embroidery*. I do not have a proper "slate" stretcher such as would be best for such a project, but embroidery hoops galore, so there you are.
  10. Cut the linen lining, cut the pieces.
  11. Construct the body and sleeves.
*Eighteenth Century Embroidery Techniques has a chapter of how-to that can help teach you, and see also Maureen's Vintage Acquisitions blog article titled Using Silk Chenille for an illustrated tip on handling the chenille thread.
So there is my wintertime project: small, portable, but rife with social history research opportunities, and incorporating the chance to bone up again on an old favorite skill, embroidery.  Plus, pretty summery silk, but warm fluffy chenille.
Apply it to collar, fronts, sleeves, as here.

Now that was a pleasant effort as a lunch break during an especially busy work day. So nice to think of something entirely different from work-work, housework, house projects, and children.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I need a spencer. Okay, I don't "need" a spencer, but as I develop at 1790s-early 1800s set of garments, a spencer, or a garment with some spencer-like features, would be a next likely project candidate.

Done well, it could be convertible, used in multiple situations:
  • if a lapelled spencer, with my little white wrap-front dress as morning dress; then with a matching skirt, and a high linen stock, and a hat, as a habit; with the informal cotton cream print dress as a walking-in-the fields ensemble;
  • with the wrap-front dress again as morning dress, then retrimmed for afternoon or evening.

A spencer has the advantage of using little fabric and being a small, portable project just right for doing a seam or two as I feel like it. Here at home we have so many important house projects going on that I while I'd like to be working on something as a change of pace in the evening from reading, and as a brain-freshener, the project needs to be one that requires little in the way of especial energy, and next to nothing in the way of expense.

Herewith, a few ideas, all from the full span of Gallery of Fashion.

Option 1: a blue wool spencer.

March 1794, Gallery of Fashion. Morning dress
Figure XLVI (on the right). ...Petticoat of worked muslin...Spencer of dark blue cloth, edged with scarlet. Ruff of white lace round the neck. Plain muslin handkerchief. York tan gloves.

This spencer will have been of wool. A pattern for such a spencer is available from Sense and Sensibility. It would be straightforward to work one up and then later make a matching skirt. I would have to purchase wool, however, and could not wear it in summertime. Mmm, no. A project for another year...

Option 2, a green cross-over front spencer.

April 1798, Gallery of Fashion, morning dress
...Petticoat of white muslin, with an embroidered border. Spencer-corset of green satin, with plaitings in the front, and plaitings with a gold trimming at the wrists. Yellow sash, with gold tassels, tied on the left side. Triangular gold earrings. Four small gold chains round the neck. Yellow shoes, trimmed with blue fringe.

Here's a handsome spencer, of a color that can be worn year round. I cannot admire the "Minerva bonnet", but the "spencer-corset"! (Interesting terminology.) The effect is handsome and understated, and that Regency green just sings, doesn't it? To make it, it is nothing but the top from a wrap-front dress with some pleatings on it, and tight sleeves. The sash, a nice length of my silk, painted or dyed, with silk floss tassels.

Another look:

Still, with long sleeves, this one doesn't really work for very hot summertime wear -- which is when I tend to dress, anyhow, and it cannot convert to a habit style, for a more rugged look. Hmmm. Must think. Is this the one anyway, despite the limitations? Or does that wait, too?

The "Body" Option

What about another option, the "body", a sleeveless bodice? Even less fabric is needed, and but a bare few seams, and it is easy to wear in the summer to give a blast of color to the ubiquitous white dress.

Why yes, I think I can see that easily. I would need less than a yard of fabric, and gee, I have some lovely periwinkle silk, just waiting in the stash, left over from a shift dress I made to wear to a wedding some years ago.

July, 1795, Gallery of Fashion, morning dress
...Round gown of embroidered muslin, flounced at the bottom. Short full sleeves, drawn in the middle of the arm. Body of lilac taffeta. Yellow handkerchief, crossed in the front, and tied behind.
The yellow handkerchief adds yet more color. Let's borrow her friend's hat though, shall we? Her own reminds me of a corona of straw.

To make it, the pattern from my cotton dress for the back, and a wrap front, which will look the best with the underlying dress.

As for convertability, as you will see in the example below, the "body" can be worn for evening dress as well, when it is trimmed a little more.

February 1796, Gallery of Fashion, afternoon dress
...Muslin petticoat, trimmed at the bottom with blue satin in vandyke scallops; short full sleeves of muslin, trimmed with blonde. Body of blue satin, trimmed round the neck with a double plaiting of blonde, and on the back with a chain; epaulettes of the same, looped with a spring chain and tassels of gold.

This one is funky. Perhaps originally the bodice and sleeves were sewn attached to one another, but it could be easily treated as a separate body, with lace tacked on. The full sleeves of my dress could be pulled up with braided braid and tassels, and the ends tacked with lace as well. The chain in back, more braided braid, set with small buttons at each end, and again, tacked on as needed.

For right now, this tiny garment of four seams might just be the thing.  Mmm, I see too that I could do plaitings to the front of the periwinkle body, then make removable sleeves that tack in, as was so often done, and voila, have a periwinkle spencer. The ultimate in convertibility, for it would go from sleeveless undress to sleeveless evening wear to sleeved daywear. Wow. Really, how can you beat that? The next question, will that fabric eke out?


The Half-Jacket Option

Here is a handsome summertime option. Jackets never fully went away; in a few issues previous to the plate below, there is a Hungarian fur-trimmed jacket, for example.

In this case, the jacket...a jacket because it has skirts -- or what we might call a peplum today -- is sleeveless. I like this one especially because it's in black gauze, and so it let's the dress show through, and is as light as light. Don't you enjoy the seaside view, as well? I think it's an effective picture.

October 1800, Gallery of Fashion, morning dress
...Round gown of white muslin, short full sleeves, tied in the middle with a coquelicot riband. Half jacket of black gauze, trimmed with broad black lace...yellow gloves.

To make this one, I would use the pattern from the bodice from my cream robe, which has the same back. We cannot see the front, but I would do a wrap front, using the pattern from my little white dress. The peplum? I'd drape that to see what would work best. I already have some sheer black cotton, rescued from a cutter garment, a gift from a friend, and black lace, ditto.

Because of the lace, the jacket could work as well for afternoon or evening as morning, especially if dressed up with jewelry. It is a fussier design, but sweet.

Mmmm. What to do? Which would you choose?

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Two weeks of it, and counting. First the boys, with seal-like coughs, flushed faces, fevers, then colds, and throughout, lethargy and pain in the chest. Now both parents, ditto, excepting a trade for the terrifying cough with a sort of laryngitis.

Are we blessed to live in the days of modern medicine. This year 2011 may be spilling with every kind of sadness, tragedy, carnage, and venom, but we understand what germs are, do not bleed our already weakened patients, or apply blisters or other heroic treatments. Some of us, anyhow, can nurse each other with plentiful steam baths, plenty of clean air, good food, carefully controlled temperatures, real rest, isolation from further germs.

Thank God.

If you wish to know what croup used to portend, read William Buchan's notes on croup in his 1790 book, Domestic Medicine, pages 557-559.

In other news, lately this blog has received two very lovely awards; more on them anon, when I have time and energy to write.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Cotton Is Ripe and Bursting from the Bolls

The first cotton boll bursts open.
Here in Kentucky, we grow cotton on the back 40 and it's ripe now. The bolls, like enormous acorns minus the caps, become too full to hold their contents, and burst one by one into puffy white quatrefoils. It's quite a sight.

Okay, only kidding, sort of. Yes, we are growing cotton, but in two large pots in the back garden, so our crop is minute, a jar full of fresh, soft cotton balls, perhaps, and enough seed for a short row next year in Mamaw and Papaw's much larger garden on a real back 40 acres.  Curte was keen to show the boys two iconic crops from Georgia, where we both used to live, so we have both cotton and peanuts back there.

It turns out his grandfather did grow cotton, for real, here in this state, where I never knew it to be farmed. It was for home use, I understand. Now, I knew his Mamaw (grandmother) made their clothes -- I have her treadle Singer machine -- but did she spin, too? Unsure. She was a big quilter so I am betting the crop was more for sale and for batting to fill quilts and pillow or mattress ticks. Must ask.

So is the cotton a veritable sight? It is, in veritas. The plants themselves are all shriveled and stalky and unattractive, and their rough leaves harsh on the skin, but those bolls and the pure, pure, pure cotton, its surface faintly sheened, a wee bit like silk in a mellow yellow October light, all balled up inside. Come see!

Look for two cotton bolls in this blurry photo.

Here in the garden, almost all of summer's flowers are cut or pulled, the leaf mould underneath working its way into the ground, and black walnut leaves are fluttering down by the hundreds every few minutes. Our tree will be bare too soon. The walnuts come carronading too from the branches, their great size and density enough to raise a bump on a person's head, or to really injure a small child. The boys may not play back there without their helmets.

But here's a cotton stalk, bearing two bulbous bolls, acorn-shaped, as I wrote earlier.

See the quatrefoil pattern?

Here is the brother boll, burst, cupped in my hand so that you can see it is indeed big. The four-sided husk, when it opens, pulls the cotton into four separate puffs. Let's pull one out, shall we?

A gentle tug to release the cotton puff.

Here we go; I just take the top of a puff in my fingers and a light pull is enough to get it out of the smooth inside of the boll husk...

The husk's inside: smooth.

...which is sorry, I am sure, to lose part of itself. I will take the rest before the next rain. Do you see the faint glow on the fibers? Detect their whiteness, note that the fibers are all balled up, truly balled up inside, not lying all flattened and ready to spin, no, not by a long way.

Stretching the puff.

Here, let me stretch out that puff for you to inspect. You see, some fibers when I pull them, show that they have grown parallel to one another, but not all do. I must inspect other puffs to see what they do. However, this puff that I now hold in my hand, late this evening, under the lamp, why, part of it looks just like a pharmacy cotton ball, it's that tangled, but other bits are in parallel groupings, like wool roving, really, only the fibers are so short, that when I pull on each end, the roving readily narrows and thins. I have yet to measure the length of an individual fiber to understand the staple -- the fiber length which will help to define how the cotton will behave when woven -- must do that tomorrow.

The puff is lumpy, so I tease apart the fibers, and they give me some resistance; they do not like to come away from their seeds. Here's one. It's big and greenish and roughly a triangular shape, each edge rounded, and as long as my pinky finger nail, perhaps 3/8" inch. The fibers appear to originate with the seeds? For they grow on it and the close ones are too tightly on there for me to even rub them off, and they grow on it like hair on a head.

A cotton seed.

I find some seven seeds in just one puff; thus if there are four puffs per boll, that's 28 seeds. Five or so bolls per plant, and we have four, and yes, I can grow a short row next year, which we will do, I think. Although it's important to be careful. Cotton is a heavy feeder and quickly depletes soil of its richness.

Meantime, we have the softest, cleanest cotton balls imaginable; perfect for little boys' boo boos!

In Other News

Yes, I will report on the Edwardian skirt again soon. The last weeks have been full of family things and work work work and a hunt for a new sofa as well as good upholstery fabric to cover my Great Aunt Marion's chaise longue. Matelasse, perhaps? Or an Italian-made chenille stripe in a natural? Mmmm...

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Long Day of the Second Keeper of the Robes

Portrait miniature on ivory of Fanny Burney
by John Bogle, circa 1783.
Image from
Lest you should be tempted to complain of your own long hours, hear now how Fanny Burney spent each day from mid-1786 until 1790, when her health began to fail...

MONDAY, JULY 24TH. Let me endeavor to give you, more connectedly, a concise abstract of the general method of passing the day, that then I may only write what varies, and occurs occasionally. I rise at six o'clock, dress in a morning gown and cap, and wait my first summons*, which is at all times from seven to near eight, but commonly in the exact half hour between them. The Queen never sends for me till her hair is dressed. This, in a morning, is always done by her wardrobe-woman, Mrs. Thielky, a German, but who speaks English perfectly well. Mrs.Schwellenberg*, since the first week, has never come down in a morning at all. The Queen's dress is finished by Mrs. Thielky and myself. No maid ever enters the room while the Queen is in it. Mrs. Thielky hands the things to me, and I put them on. 'T is fortunate for me I have not the handing them ! I should never know which to take first, embarrassed as I am, and should run a prodigious risk of giving the gown before the hoop, and the fan before the neck-kerchief.

By eight o'clock, or a little after, for she is extremely expeditious, she is dressed. She then goes out to join the King, and be joined by the Princesses*, and they all proceed to the King's chapel in the Castle, to prayers, attended by the governesses of the Princesses, and the King's equerry. Various others at times attend; but only these indispensably. I then return to my own room to breakfast. I make this meal the most pleasant part of the day; I have a book for my companion, and I allow myself an hour for it. At nine o'clock I send off my breakfast things, and relinquish my book, to make a serious and steady examination of everything I have upon my hands in the way of business in which preparations for dress are always included, not for the present day alone, but for the courtdays, which require a particular dress; for the next arriving birthday of any of the Royal Family, every one of which requires new apparel; for Kew*, where the dress is plainest; and for going on here, where the dress is very pleasant to me, requiring no show nor finery, but merely to be neat, not inelegant, and moderately fashionable.

That over, I have my time at my own disposal till a quarter before twelve, except on Wednesdays and Saturdays, when I have it only to a quarter before eleven. My rummmages and business sometimes occupy me uninterruptedly to those hours. When they do not, I give till ten to necessary letters of duty, ceremony, or long arrears; and now, from ten to the times I have mentioned, I devote to walking. These times mentioned call me to the irksome and quick-returning labors of the toilette. The hour advanced on the Wednesdays and Saturdays is for curling and craping the hair, which it now requires twice a week.*

A quarter before one is the usual time for the Queen to begin dressing for the day. Mrs. Schwellenberg then constantly attends; so do I; Mrs. Thielky, of course, at all times. We help her off with her gown, and on with her powdering things, and then the hairdresser is admitted. She generally reads the newspapers during that operation When she observes that I have run to her but half dressed*, she constantly gives me leave to return and finish as soon as she is seated. If she is grave, and reads steadily on, she dismisses me, whether I am dressed or not; but at all times she never forgets to send me away while she is powdering, with a consideration not to spoil my clothes, that one would not expect belonged to her high station. Neither does she ever detain me without making a point of reading here and there some little paragraph aloud.

When I return, I finish, if anything is undone, my dress, and then take Baretti's Dialogues, my dearest Fredy's Tablet of Memory, or some such disjointed matter, for the few minutes that elapse ere I am again summoned. I find her then always removed to her state dressing-room, if any room in this private mansion can have the epithet of state. There, in a very short time, her dress is finished. She then says she won't detain me, and I hear and see no more of her till bedtime.

It is commonly three o'clock* when I am thus set at large. And I have then two hours quite at my own disposal: but, in the natural course of things, not a moment after! These dear and quiet two hours, my only quite sure and undisturbed time in the whole day, after breakfast is over, I shall henceforward devote to thus talking with my beloved Susan, my Fredy, my other sisters, my dear father, or Miss Cambridge.; with my brothers, cousins, Mrs. Ord, and other friends, in such terms as these two hours will occasionally allow me. Henceforward, I say; for hitherto dejection of spirits, with uncertainty how long my time might last, have made me waste moment after moment as sadly as unprofitably.*

At five, we have dinner*. Mrs. Schwellenberg and I meet in the eating-room. We are commonly tete-a-tete: when there is anybody added, it is from her invitation only. Whatever right my place might afford me of also inviting my friends to the table I have now totally lost, by want of courage and spirits to claim it originally. When we have dined, we go upstairs to her apartment, which is directly over mine. Here we have coffee till the terracing* is over: this is at about eight o'clock. Our tete-a-tete then finishes, and we come down again to the eating-room. There the equerry, whoever he is, comes to tea constantly, and with him any gentleman that the King or Queen may have invited 1m the evening* ; and when tea is over, he conducts them, and goes himself, to the concert-room. This is commonly about nine o'clock.*

From that time, if Mrs. Schwellenberg I never quit her for a minute, till I come to my little supper* at near eleven. Between eleven and twelve my last summons usually takes place, earlier and later occasionally. Twenty minutes is the customary time then spent with the Queen: half an hour, I believe, is seldom exceeded.

I then come back, and after doing whatever I can to forward mv dress for the next morning, I go to bed and to sleep, too, believe me: the early rising, and a long day's attention to new affairs and occupations, cause a fatigue so bodily, that nothing mental stands against it and to sleep I fall the moment I have put out my candle and laid down my head. Such is the day to your F. B. in her new situation at Windsor; such, I mean, is its usual destination, and its intended course. I make it take now and then another channel, but never stray far enough not to return to the original stream after a little meandering about and about it.

Madame d'Arblay, nee Frances (Fanny) Burney, in her lifetime a celebrated author and playwright, is today best remembered as one of most prominent chroniclers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in England. The massive repository of journals and letters she left us, written in a toasty warm, lively style and giving minute details of all she experienced, have offered readers almost since her death an unparalleled window into the worlds of the English court, life in Bonaparte's France, and much, much, much more.

In 1786, in her early thirties and unmarried, she was offered the position at the English Court of Second Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte. In bare essence -- minus the honor of service at Court -- she served as a lady's maid; she helped the Queen on and off with her clothes, as many times a day as the Queen needed to change them.

This Court position would offer her a much-sought position of honor, money, rooms and perks and influence, but knew it would exhaust her and leave her little time to write. Reading the above, anyone could see why...she almost keeps the hours of a mother with a month-old baby! I count perhaps a little over six hours' sleep per night?

*Summons by a bell, which she hated as being a sign of a menial position.
*First Keeper of the Robes. Apparently she was ill-tempered and somewhat crude. Nice.
*George the Third and some of his many children
*We learn that the old palace at Kew was the smallish and most favored of King George's homes.
*I believe she means getting her own hair ready.
*"half dressed": Fanny's rooms were relative close to those of the Queen; I wonder how much privacy she had?
*I believe the Queen took 1/2 hour to dress for breakfast and Chapel, then two hours plus for the day, which by our schedules seems to start very late.
*Fanny had not wished to take the position at Court; she did so for the benefit of her family.
*"terracing": As Constance Hill writes, "The 'terracing' refers to King George's well-known custom of walking with his family in procession each evening, when the weather was fine, up and down the Castle Terrace to the gay sounds of a band of music. The King would walk first with the Queen leaning upon his arm, followed by the youthful Princesses, and their attendants bringing up the rear. The public, who gathered eagerly on these occasions to witness the sight, were honoured sometimes by a friendly nod or a gracious curtsey, while the musicians received from the King upon his retiring a profound bow with the words, 'Thank you, gentlemen.'"
*Her "mid-day" meal. Note that it's followed by hours of coffee and then of tea. Caffeinated they were, and I think they all needed it.
*According to Constance Hill in Fanny Burney at the Court of Queen Charlotte, men could never sit down in the presence of the Queen; therefore men could not have dinner with their Majesties. p. 26
*Good grief, concerts just beginning at nine. Those are college hours; nowadays I am getting ready for bed about then.
*We use this term for a late dinner even today.