Saturday, January 16, 2021

Examining an Antique Length of Warren's "Skirtbone", Boning for the Hems of Mid-1890s Skirts!

Today I have something special to add to the research on period methods of adding skirt fullness in the mid-1890s. A length of antique, unused "Skirtbone" produced by the Warren Featherbone Company of Three Elms, Michigan.

At just a quarter of an inch wide and about 1/16 inch thick (NOT 1/32" as I have it in the video), it's a springy, sproingy boning. It weighs, well, a feather, and you'd not notice any additional weight in your skirt, I believe.

To understand it, you really have to see it close up, see it move, and see the insides. It's really remarkable, and perhaps the most interesting thing about it, is that it's not made of wire, but the quills of poultry feathers, set parallel to one another. I hypothesize that the quills were woven together with black thread and probably glued in place, and then covered by interwoven black threads that are again glued or perhaps starched.

I've made a YouTube video so you can get as close as possible to experiencing the real thing.

Here's the reel that the length actually came from, below.

Warren Featherbone Company's "Skirtbone" hem boning. Photo from Annie's Antiques on Etsy.

The skirtbone in detail. The actual boning in only 1/4" wide, so the photo is quite magnified.
It's really quite small. Photo from Annie's Antiques on Etsy.

How would Skirtbone would be actually used? For that, if you haven't read it already, please see "1895 Outfit: Period Methods To Add Skirt Fullness, Part 5, Steels, Rattan, Candlewicking, and Dust Ruffles".

I sure wish I knew more about the construction and production methods of Featherbone in general and Skirtbone in particular. What a clever use of easily available and renewable natural materials. Back in the day, Featherbone was an alternative to whalebone, and made from materials not otherwise used, say in feather dusters. Skirtbone would have been an alternative to wire-based skirt hem products, too, which would have been subject to rust; somehow I can't see folks using stainless steel for a stiffened hem tape, do you? I do not know how Skirtbone would have handled extended damp or wettings, and I am not going to subject my precious length to an experimental dunk some 120-ish years later. 

The Skirtbone is still amazingly flexible, as we have seen. No, we don't know how how it stood up to sudden breakage or repetitive stress breakage. We do know that whalebone tended to become brittle, while this product isn't brittle at all, even now. That's some pretty good longevity, no? Am I going to bend it wildly or bash it to see how it takes rough treatment? Um, no. It's antique and a small but significant part of dress history. It goes into the collection.

For those among us who are vegetarian or vegan, the prospect of reviving the use of feathers for boning likely doesn't appeal. However, it is a nice alternative to plastic. I sure wish Warren's would consider bringing it out again. Are you listening, ladies and gentlemen of the Warren Featherbone Company? 

The Warren Featherbone Company is still in business, although it's no longer in Three Elms, Michigan, but in Georgia. There's quite a bit out there about the company and its history. Here are a few good examples, and if you run a search, you'll find much more:

Finally, for all the research I have on mid-1890s skirt stiffenings, please see the following:

Research Article: Period Methods to Add Skirt Fullness in the Mid 1890s
Explores the skirt silhouette and the raft of stiffeners and underpinnings used to create it. Sources include period books, magazines, extant objects, and period film.
Okay, I've interrupted the petticoat project. Unless something else interesting shows up, which as we know from this blog sometimes occurs, we're back to it next time.

Wishing you all health and safety during very dark days, literally and figuratively...


The Quintessential Clothes Pen said...

Hello Natalie!

How wonderful to hear your voice and see the skirtbone in action! I haven't heard of featherbone before. It is, indeed, quite marvelous that it still has so much spring after 120 years! Thank you for sharing this bit of history!


ZipZip said...

Dear Quinn,

You're most welcome! It's super-neat stuff. Since having experimented with an array of skirt stiffeners this past weekend, a project which is still ongoing, am appreciating just how perfectly balanced the Skirtbone is by comparison for stiffening hems to stand out while allowing luscious rounded folds. Will be reporting on it in another blog post.

Am really tempted to purchase some chicken feathers and core-spin them on the spinning wheel with a cotton yarn plus thread to see if I can even faintly replicate the feel, but that would be quite an undertaking so it'll likely remain in the brain and not in the universe :}

Just last evening I bought a length of vintage Featherbone garment boning in a vintage already-opened package. The product is co-branded Dritz and look forward to examining the packaging up close.

Very best,