Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A New Straight Shoe Last

The straight shoe last, side.
Over the last year or two I've been looking randomly, on and off, and not very hard, for a straight shoe last about the same size as my foot.

A few months ago I found one, hemmed and hawed for a few more months, and finally a few days ago took the few dollars and forked them over, fearing someone else would pick it up, fall in love with its gentle worn surface as I did, and purchase it.

Here it is, a straight last, hand-carved, in all its friendly, down-to-earth glory. Soft with the touch and grip of hands, roughened on the bottom with the prick of many nails, with interesting bevels from the work of the drawknife or whatever blades were used to carve it, that invite the holder to look at them and to think about the soul who created this handmade, entirely functional, and very human object. What about the soul or souls who used it to make shoes? What was that person like? Did ever a woman, perhaps, send in fabric uppers, already sewn, for finishing into slippers or boots, as we hear could happen? Did it travel West, or remain East? Was it perhaps European? What happened to this piece when the shoemaker no longer needed it or it fell out of fashion and was replaced by a model with a heel? Who before me was touched by its charm and saved it from the stove or fireplace or garbage heap?

From the style, I'd date it anywhere in the heelless era, from the Regency through part of the crinoline era, but perhaps someone has better or more correct information.

Yes, it is a straight last. Neither long side is completely, 100% even with the other, but there is no strong left-right shaping.

Really, it's a handsome thing, and will go on my desk as a paper weight. conversation piece, and remembrance of skills past, but I have other plans for it, too.

Plans or Dreams?
You see, I've been dreaming of two items.

Item 1: bedroom slippers that:
  1. don't look like I ought to be wearing a house coat and pink plastic curlers
  2. don't have spotted fur and remind you of dead cute animals
  3. don't have maribou and remind you of cat glasses, bon-bons, and, well, pink plastic curlers again
  4. aren't earth shoes
  5. don't make a slap-slap sound when you walk in them and wake small children
  6. don't make a shuffle-shuffle sound and scare small children
Yikes, a monster!

I'd like bedroom slippers that are:
  1. really fitted to my foot so they won't shuffle, flop, drag, or drop
  2. easily washable so they won't smell
  3. cute as ballet shoes
  4. won't scare small children
Enter the straight last. I already have Every Lady Her Own Shoemaker, and stash canvas, thread, an old sweater to felt for soles, and petersham. What I need is spare hours. Somewhere between now and June. I've already jettisoned plans to make a dress for an upcoming wedding as too much, and finishing the petticoat and spencer shan't take up every free-to-be-me hour, so...

Straight last, front: note the hand-carving and how it's not quite even.
Slightly flattened toe could be used from the 1790s through the early 1860s.
Now for item 2:

After the bedroom slipper trial run, extremely pointy-toed Regency heelless slippers made from silk from my stash. When? Unsure yet.

About that rounded toe: I can add leather, or styrofoam (without damaging the last), to the front to add a pointed toe. Could be, will be fiddly, but I've looked at the toes of enough extants to think I might be able to squeak it out, especially in a fabric shoe.

If neither experiment works? No matter. I still have the neatest paperweight and conversation piece. It's just so friendly and it begs to be handled and admired!

More Pictures

Straight last, other side; perfect for a Congress gaitor or side-closing half-boot.

Straight last, three-quarter view.

Straight last, heel view. Pretty basic heel, no shaping at all.
Again, note the marks left from hand-carving.

Straight last, bottom: these were used a lot.

Today I leave you with...small children! In a tree! With Flat Stanley! He's our visitor from Atlanta, sent to have some adventures with us, and with other folks, and to take the memories home with him as hand-written notes and photos pasted to his front. Noah and Christopher had him up a fir tree (yes, it's a hemlock, not a fir, long story) and then I hugged him on the way home as the wind tried to teach him to fly. One of the adventures resulted in a tear to his arm, but it's been repaired with a band-aid and he's still smiling.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sleeveless / Convertible Spencer: Experiment Number 1 in Soie Ovale and Silk Chenille Embroidery

Weeeellll, experiment number one turned out two mediocre motifs; the silk ovale thread is too big for the tiny motifs, so the results are clunky, if shiny. Big sigh. I had hoped experiment number 2 would be all about improving the stitch quality; instead, I have to get new thread!

The silk embroidery work so far, under the light of a lamp, to better catch
glints and gleams.

Here are the two motifs, embroidered on a side piece so as to be relatively hidden. If you look carefully, you can see the drawn lines that mark the edges of this side piece. The pins have been used to attach the silk to the edge of my impromptu embroidery frame. The fabric color is corrected to be as close to lilac as possible; the appearance of the petals is a little redder than it should be, but the shine is decently accurate; the thread shines like crazy and it is also taking on the yellow of the incandescent lamp the work has been placed next to.

The completed sprigs; petals in soie ovale, and stems and leaves
in silk chenille.

The petals are sewn with Au Ver a Soie soie ovale from Hedgehog Handworks, the stems and leaves with Hand-Dyed Fiber's silk chenille, narrow width, the gilt spangles from Berlin Embroidery, and spangle and couching thread in Au Ver a Soie Paris twisted silk (a great all-rounder!).

What are the designs I am working from? The sprigs from the Met sleeveless spencer, of course! It was those sprigs that drew me to the funny little garment to begin with. They are handsome little things, not quite high fashion, but not totally naive or provincial, either, and the level of work is nice, when one considers that each motif varies, I estimate, from under an inch to a bit more than an inch and a half high.

I copied the designs as nearly as possible, and colored them in, in pencil, marking the direction of the embroidery threads as well as I could. The colors are a little off compared to the original: I don't have the neccessary shades in my pencil set, or in my embroidery threads, come to think of it. Am going for the spirit of the designs, not a total copy; after all, I am not using that shade of sea blue silk!

The Petals and Working with Soie Ovale

The soie ovale has a sheen like no other thread. Made up of lots of silk filaments, it is untwisted, so it can be made to lie flat and display the full shine of the filament. Being untwisted, each filament is gossamer, like a spider's thread. Together the filaments make rather a thick strand. Mary Corbet describes this silk as having body, and she is right.

The strand is almost impossible to divide into smaller strands, because it's just one bunch of filaments. The strands fuzz and bunch if disturbed by too much handling, and lose their perfect smoothness, even after being run through the fingers.

When worked into petal shapes a quarter to a half inch long, the strands are too beefy, and I have not the skill to lay them pefectly together; the results look coarse, and too naive, if nice an glowy. Look at the closeup below: the quilting pins to the right give you an idea of the size of the motif, and of the thread, and of how few stitches were needed to complete a petal, making the result coarse. (N.B. It turns out the coarse effect is due to how I did the stitches; it's not the fault of the thread. Please read experiment number 2, which came out much better.)

A closeup of a motif.

By contrast, when I examine the threads used in the Met spencer, they are about as thick as the sewing thread used for seams: that's very fine stuff, resulting in relatively exact motifs. They don't have tons of glow., either, through time and wear could have roughened the threads. (N.B. As I learned in experiment number 2, this was not a good motif to look at. Other motifs show a thicker flat silk thread, very nicely laid.)

The Met spencer: closeup of stitchery.

The soie ovale is interesting to work with. It is slippy, it is slidy! It comes off the needly! Even with a size ten or eleven needle, it slithers out of the tiny needle eye very easily. Further, the filaments catch on the fingers, so it's best to have soft hands, not work-roughened ones -- which for this gardening, child-rearing lady, a big Ha! to that -- and to moisturize them well. Laying the threads in laid stitch with a laying tool is essential. Thank goodness it is pleasant and produces a nice flat surface, although I have some glitches, this being my first time at it. And the glow, the wonderful, wonderful glow, pure color that gleams back at you. Even with its challenges, I like working with soie ovale and with much more practice and the right project, should get handsome results.

Yet for this project I need a flat silk that is divisible into much smaller strands so that the motifs won't look so coarse, and have determined on Eterna Silk. It's inexpensive for silk thread and Mary Corbet says it's nice, if not the best. For a garment exposed to wear, it's more sensible. Further, it divides into up to twelve strands, since the main strand has a slight twist. When divided like that, it's downright pennies a yard. (N.B. The Eterna silk turned out to be not nearly as nice as Au Ver a Soie: when well treated, it does glow, and it is easy to use, but it isn't the quality and I am not sure it's being made anymore. The maker's site doesn't answer email and the place I bought mine from is discontinuing it.)

The Stems and Leaves and Working With Silk Chenille

Mixing embroidery materials and stitches happened a lot, it seems. In my explorations of 18th century embroidered garments that have good close-ups (see my Pinterest board), I have found tamboured silk and chenille coexisting, flat or spun silk and chenille coexisting, and goldwork coexisting with both. So it was with confidence that I decided to do the spencer's floral motifs in a mix of flat silk, silk chenille, and gilt spangles.

The silk chenille is fun to work with. I love couching work, and the chenille silk is just plain cute. If you like cats, or any fuzzy animal, really, you'll like silk chenille: it teases you to pet it.

Mmm, mm, good: silk chenille on the spool.

Once I learned to keep the chenille on the reel while couching it down, rather than cutting short lengths, it was easier to work. Short lengths bounce around and are hard to coax into shape. The ends are a bit fussy; you have to secure them with an extra couching stitch and then snip off the end with the point of your scissors right on your fabric (eep!). Shaping the stems and leaves requires forethought, like tambour work or fine soutache work. You have to figure out how, and if, you can run a continuous piece of chenille in order to avoid lots of tiny lengths.

I will be experimenting awhile, as I explore how doubling back on the chenille to keep going with one strand, and placing one layer over another and so hiding colors when a contiuous color is not wanted, works. This project won't require much of that, though. Others will; I note that some extant garments keep to really simple shapes and few tones, while others are like silk painting in chenille, with lots of tiny bits of color impressionistically used to create gorgeous, rich, shaded flowers and swags.

Time Expended

Even with practice, this embroidery will be slow; I am rather chagrined if I bore you.  Each petal stitch is carefully placed and laid with the laying tool. The stems and leaves are faster. I expect two motifs per hour-plus session, with one motif per session when it's a carnation. Since the Met spencer is sparsely embroidered, I have perhaps twelve to fifteen hours ahead of peaceful, peaceable, meditative enjoyment, spread over weeks.

Very little happens fast on this blog, does it? How very un-21st century.

So, What's Next?

I will put the embroidery into hiatus until the Eterna silk arrives. Meantime, I will hem and finish the waistband on the lilac petticoat, the long seams of which I had hand-sewn in the car during our Easter

That means, next up you'll probably be treated to a petticoat post.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

1790s Sleeveless / Convertible Spencer: Recutting The Neck and an Embroidery Teaser

Over the last week or so the spencer's neckline was recut to a lower, rounded shape. Here is where we started, with a very square neckline, as like to the Met spencer example as I was able to draft it and with seam allowances added: which makes the thing look rather too large. The pieces have been basted to make fitting easier.

Lining fitted, ready to be reshaped.
Reshaping the neckline was a matter folding the shoulder strap fabric into a pleasingly rounded shape, and then folding down the front pieces at the top to complete the curve, while folding up the bottom to shorten the spencer. Here are the rough folded results, pinned carefully. You can see that I have the image of the model spencer up on my computer to aid in the process.

You can see the neckline dip, but it's hard to see the curvature in the
shoulder strap part of the neckline. Trust me, it's there.

The model spencer, Metropolitan Museum of Art, number  C.I.38.100.10, has been dated from 1800-1830, and it has a very high waistline. Since my spencer is late 1790s and I want to fit it to my cross-front dress, I kept the waistline a little lower. I also recut the center closure of the front pieces so that they would lace shut or hook-and-eye shut; I cannot overlap them and pin them as originally planned because of the neckline ruche trim.

I took off the lining, marked all the folds with blue tailor's chalk, cut the basting threads, and laid the pieces all flat. Then, using the rough marks as a guide, I drew clearer, truer curves with the chalk, then took scissors and cut the new shape. The rounding in the neckline continues beyond the shoulders to the back, so I had to cut new shoulder straps and reshape the back neckline to a more rounded shape as well.

Here is what the pattern pieces look like now. The backs of the shoulder straps are particularly wide, because the curve of the neckline really pulls in there. The seam allowances are still very wide, too, for "just in case". They'll be trimmed later.

Recut lining; seam marks included in chalk.
Next up, reading for embroidering the fashion fabric in small sprigs, in soie ovale, silk chenille, and true gilt spangles! The sprigs I copied directly from that Met spencer. Here is a peep:

First experiment in silk chenille and soie ovale.

That's not plastic thread you're looking at, that's the fantastic shine of flat reeled (filament) silk floss, soie ovale from Au Ver a Soie. Like the silk chenille on the little rolls, way fiddly to embroider with, and a very different beast than cotton floss, spun silk thread, or crewel wool, but with experimentation, I will get the hang of it.

Today I leave you with a wish from the boys: they would really like a window seat, they say, and until I removed him for safety's sake, Christopher sat on the window sill to show me how pleasant window sitting is.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

1790s Sleeveless / Convertible Spencer: Neckline Modification

Last I wrote about this project, I'd just fit the toile. Since then the silk has been dyed lilac, and now is the time to cut out the garment. Yet I can't seem to confidently take scissors in hand to the lining fabric, to create the second toile that will then be the pattern for cutting the silk.

What's the barrier, besides mowing the lawn, polishing windows, weeding, weeding and more weeding, laundry and more laundry, work, childcare, and a happy trip to family and friends in Georgia to celebrate Easter?

It's the neckline. I'm just not happy with it. Here is the toile:

The blue marks show where the toile is cut now; the red ones show the up-to-now modifications. After all, I was going for this sort of front: very low, very open...really 18th century short bodice sans sleeves. (If you look at the endless string of posts on this project, you'll get the history.)

You see, this design might do well with a ruche in the back, like my fashion plate inspiration model below, but can you see the ruche working in the front? Of course not. It would look really silly to ruche narrow straps and then a broad expanse of low neckline. You see, in the effort to make the poor little garment do so many things, I initially thought to tack on the ruche and then remove it as desired, for a different look. Ditto the epaulettes.

I've been looking at ruched spencers since the project began: the Met has lots of them, but not until Sabine of Kleidung um 1800 finished her cotton variation on the theme this past week did I really focus on my own ruching plan...and decided that I'd better rethink the front.

The best plan, I thought, would be a low rounded neck, ruched, or better yet, a vee neck, ditto. Luckily, an extant comes easily to hand, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has quite a selection of spencers, a good number of them featuring a ruched or plaited neckline. This one is perfect in cut for my purposes. It's center-front closing, cut very deeply in the neckline, and has a narrow ruching.

Black spencer, 1800-1830, Metropolitan
Museum of Art, number


The Met included a fascinating photograph from an exhibition long past showing the spencer on a dressed model.

The Met gives a wide date range for the garment, and given the tiny diamond back, it is very unlikely to be 18th century, though the silk seems to be. No matter, the front cut is reminiscent of late 18th century fashion plates, such as this sleeveless spencer, or body, from 1799.
London and Paris Fashions, December 1799
(but appearing in the January1800 number)
Image Bunka Gakuen Library.
 The front works so much better with my wrap-front dress...

Just to show another favorite example. Here's a Met extant with the low round neck, a good bit lower, I might add, then some of the other specimens the Met has with the popular neckline treatment. Here, the ruching has become a careful pleated flat frill, sewn near the neckline, with a header.

Late 18th to early 19th century quilted blue
spencer, with pleated neckline frill. Metropolitan
Museum of Art, number


Most of the other examples, and in fact my inspiration fashion plate, employ quite a wide ruche. Sabine did in her spencer, too. However, I think a wide ruche or plaiting, lovely as it is, would overwhelm my sleeveless spencer, so the narrow version in the black spencer above is more appropriate.

There, now I can rest easy tonight. Sometime later this week or next, as time allows, it will be time to cut the lining!

p.s. Ruched jackets were nothing new. The Victoria and Albert has this delightful printed and quilted jacket from France. Look at that neckline!

Printed and quilted linen jacket, France.
c 1785-1790. V&A, number

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Lilac, Lilacs, and a New Look

The lilacs are in full bloom, and the sleeveless spencer and petticoat silk are lilac-colored!

The silk is true lilac color, although I suppose, since it matches my violets, it could be called that color, too. It was dyed (from the same stash of old cream silk almost slubless dupioni I've had for years) in the washing machine with Idye from Dharma Trading. Easy to use and entirely mess free. The color of the silk when wet was MUCH darker than this, more a royal purple, so when using Idye at least, one must trust that the color will come out well. I was worried it would be too dark and wondered whether I had left it in the dye too long (30 minutes, less than the 50-60 that Idye suggested); had I taken it out earlier it would have been too pastel colored. As it stands, it's nearly the exact shade needed.

From London and Paris Fashions, Bunka Gakuen Library
You can read more about this ensemble in Making the Wrap-Front Dress Do Double and Triple Duty.

At the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville in July, I will probably wear an afternoon variation of this ensemble one day with my wrap-front dress -- with the petticoat showing and a day hat -- and on the other day will wear the sleeveless spencer over the wrap-front dress, with no petticoat showing. A third choice is to wear the petticoat and the spencer together, and add muslin sleevelets to the spencer. Love all the choices!

Lilacs and a New Look

Here are the lilacs in our garden. No purple tint, but definitely a royal fragrance.

Now for the new look. It's an experiment. Because I am doing so much embroidery, with more in the works, it seemed appropriate to feature embroidery in the blog design. Am not entirely happy with it: the header needs centering and I chose the background from a copyright-free image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons from the Victoria and Albert: it's a detail of a mantua's petticoat. The petticoat is from decades previous to "my" decades, and it needs Photoshop work. There are other glitches...more edits over time.

Today I leave you with...

...a shot of the boys watering everything in reach, including themselves. We have had a highly irregular, extraordinary, Technicolor springtime. Everything in bloom at once. From the ground up: vivid green grass spangled with violets and spring beauties, above them nod tulips, azealeas in glory and shading the tulips, under the blow of crabapple and pear and cherry trees, blooming alongside redbuds, and even just over a week ago, forsythia, and over all, most of the trees in leaf, even our walnut. Only the daffodils and very early flowers have gone. I feel like I've walked into Elven territory, it's all so verdant, except that in my heart I know it's not natural and I fret at what summer will bring, if it's 80 degrees now...

Shorts and almost swimming on April 4.
Will Mother Nature shout "April Fools"?