Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“Says Beauty to Fashion”

For years now my two sons have been saying that I should write a book.  So, with the downturn in the economy, the lack of full time museum jobs and a lot of time on my hands I decided they were right.  I started to do some serious research (not that all my research isn't serious) last year make a small dent in a very big project.  What is so amazing about the research though is not just getting to hold 200 year old hand written documents in my hands.  Often it is the surprises you find alongside these documents: a hand written receipt for a French punch, Nanna's laundry list, a newspaper clipping about the death of a child.  So when I stumbled upon this poem I was delighted.  It was written in the tiniest script on inside back cover of a hand written receipt book dating to the latter half of the 18th century. Glasses off, nose pressed as near to the page as I dared I read the line "Now a shape in neat stays, now a slattern in jumps:" Proof of jumps!  Yippee!  I understand that jumps were worn, have seen them in person, but never ever saw evidence first hand of them before in text. 


So as carefully as possible I copied the poem.  But not the whole thing straight. Nope, that would make my life oh so easy.  Nope. I just copied the section that I liked. Then, about half an hour before they turned the lights out on us, I decided to copy the rest.  In chunks. And then to draw lines and symbols that would allow me to put the poem back together whence I got home. Ha!  You know that didn't work. 


Well, I did the best I could. And then last night, while watching "Good Eats" I decided to type in "Says Beauty to Fashion" to see if I could find the poem.  The heavens parted and there it was on Google books.  The printed version is slightly different, and much longer, than the poem I so carefully transcribed.  Not unusual when you think about how many words to a song we don't know, or don't understand today.  For example in an Aerosmith song I always thought the words were "Dream women", it took me 30 years to realize he was singing "dream with me".  This poem, like many other written documents,  maybe transcribed from memory, or written down as a plagiarized version from some other author, is an 18th century version of telephone.  


And here it is.....

"Says beauty to fashion as they sat at their toilette

If I give a charm your surely will spoil it

When you take it in hand there is such mustering and mangling

It's a metomorphos'd by your faunting and fangling

That I scarce know my own, when I meet it again

Such changeling you make, both of women and men

To confirm what I say, look at Phryne and Phillis

I'm sure that I gave them good roses and lilies;

Why you daub em all over with cold cream and rouge

Fine like Thisbe in Ovid one cannot come at 'em

Thou a mud wall of paint and pomatum

And as to your dress would think you quite mad

From the head to the tail it is all masquerade

With your flounces and furbelows, sack, trollopees

Now sweeping the ground, now up to your knees

Your primping and crimping and chevaux de frize

And all the fantastical cut of the mode.

You look like a Bedlamite caged and proud

For the late you're as fickle that few people mind you

For any part I never can tell where to find you

Now dress in a cap, now naked in none

Now close in a mob, now close in a Joan

Now a shape in neat stays, now a slattern in Jumps

Now high in French heels, no low in your pumps

Now monstrous in hoop, now trappish and walking

With your petticoats clung to your heels like a maulking,

Like the cock on the tower that shews you the weather

You are hardly the same two days together."


The poem continues here with Miss Fashion replying.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Not Always a Lady of the Manor

As much as I hate to admit it, I love being the lady of the manor. I love wearing the fancy gowns, and doing 'girly' 18th century things- sewing, dancing, playing music, making jewelry…. The list is endless. But what I usually get paid for is being the everyday working class gal- you know, the cook, the seamstress, the servant. Not complaining, nope not at all. Money is money is money, and in this day and age, with historic sites closing right and left and museum jobs nowhere to be found, I will do just about any character my clients choose. I of course do not play strumpets though I did once in a film, but I'll just let ya think about that one for awhile.

Normally I try and do a midway between what I call my skivvies (beat up short gown, worn out skirt, old old broken in apron) and my lady of the manor (hand draped, hand sewn silk ball gown). What that usually turns out to be is a nicely made linen English gown with no trim that I dress up with accessories, or a period correct print gown with some, not much, trim.

And I hate to admit it, here comes the snobby me, why would one want to dress up like a servant if you don't have to? Then I saw this painting and it changed my mind.

So when I came across this lovely lady in the de Young museum in San Francisco I was mesmerized. How lovely is she! The painting is called Market Woman, by Thomas waterman Wood, 1858. Though it is about 80 years later than the period I usually work in, she spoke to me. I love the way her head wrap and her neck kerchief match in that lovely pink silk or printed cotton. And look at the apron- pieced together off center. The colors make her joyful. Nothing has been wasted in making what would be an everyday work outfit into something beautiful. Simple. Clean and lovely. 

So the next time I have to dress up in my skivvies I won't feel so bad, though I do see a more colorful apron in my future, pieced together.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Chocolate Pudding, 18th Century Style

Back in November of 2009 I got to spend an amazing week down in Virginia.  For the first three days I sewed my little heart heart working on the De Hann And Waggonmaker gown (you know, the 'can't cut it' gown). Then for the next three days I went to a Foodways Symposium hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. During the three days we heard a variety of lectures, got to see demonstrations such as beer making, butchering, ice cream making, chocolate and so on.  But the best part of the trip was getting to cook in one of the reconstructed kitchens along with 19 other lucky people.  I say that because there were only 20 spots open.  I was number four to register.  How'd I do that?  I watched that registration site like a hawk, every Monday morning for months. And I do mean months.  Eventually it was posted and voila!  I got in.  Needless to say there were many disappointed and angry people.

I have to hand it to the Foodways staff.  It was organized chaos in those two kitchens with 20 of us stomping around, grabbing food, pushing our way around the fire, jockeying for get the picture.  They must have slept for a week after we left.

The meal was broken down into two courses, nine dishes in each course.  My partner Eileen Mercer and I got worked on a chocolate pudding, which I have to say was the coo since I was put in charge of the sign up sheet for who was going to make what.  Rank has its privilages, Ha!  It was the crowing glory of the first course if I do say so myself. 

That's Eileen to the left, me in the middle and Heather Menzel to the right.  We are all members of the HFSDV by the way-  The Historic Foodways Society of the Delaware Valley (NJ, PA, MD and DE). I'm currently on the Board serving as VP of programs.  If anyone wants more info on the group e-mail me.  I'll write about the group in another blog someday soon.

The receipt is as follows:  To Make a Chocolate Tart (Nott) "Mix a little milk, the yolks of ten eggs, with two spoonfuls of rice-flour, and a little salt; then add a quart of cream, and sugar to yoru palate, make it boil but take care it does not curdle; then grate chocolate onto a plate, dry it at the fire, and, having taken off your cream, mix the chocolate with it, stirring it well in, and set it by a to cool. then sheet a Tart-pan, put in your mixture, bake it. When it comes out of the oven glaze it with powder'd sugar and a red hot shovel.

Eileen is holding a very large metal grater that we used to grate up a bar of period style chocolate made my Jim Gay.  If you haven't seen Jim's video on the CW site on how to make cacao beans into chocolate then go take a peek.  It's amazing.  So he made this beautiful huge bar of period chocolate which he told us to grate up.  We forgot how much he said and ended up using almost the whole bar. Turns out we should have used half....sorry Jim.  I feel kinda bad since it takes an enormous amount of time to make just a little chocolate. Let me tell you also that the grater, not so good.  Worn down and the chocolate got stuck between the holes but we did not give up.

While we took turns grating up that chocolate we put together our pastry cream and you can see Eileen there stirring it in a beautiful copper pot on the hearth.  We used four cups of heavy cream, ten egg yolks, a spoonful of wheat flour (hey, you use what you have on hand) and a pinch of salt.  Don't know how much sugar, we did as it said- to your taste. But it was, in the end, not as sweet as most modern folks would like.  We liked it just fine. It was like eating a lovely dark chocolate bar.  We had to keep a close eye on it so it wouldn't curdle.

Here is the cream all ready for the chocolate which you can see in the copper dish just above the handle.  Now that's a lot of grated chocolate!  And there is my lovely hand mixing in the chocolate. 

As we set that aside to cool I made the crust.  I used the standard 2:1 ratio of flour to fat though I did eyeball it.  The crust was made from white flour, butter, lard, a little salt and a spoonful of sugar.  I cut the fats in using two knives, added some cold water and then quickly rolled it out.  we then lined a nice high sided tart pan with the crust and poured in the filling.  Karen from CW got our oven ready and in the pudding went.  I don't know how long it actually took to set, probably no more than half an hour.  The photo on the left is the pudding in the crust before baking, and the one of the right is still sitting in the oven. 

We then put it underneath the stair case to cool. It was the only place in the two kitchens that didn't have someone running around in it. Oh, and the oven was promptly used by someone else to bake a glorious pork pie.  While it was cooling Eileen and I whipped up the 10 egg whites using a beautiful round bottom, copper bowl and a bunch of birch twigs.  Never a true believer that a bunch of twigs could whip up a meriange as good as my Kitchen Aide, boy was I delighted when they turned out light and fluffy.  But we did whip them a bit too early as they bottom wept a little bit as we spread them onto the cooled filling.

They actually let us use a salamander to brown the meriange.  If you've never worked with one before think of a pizza peel you see in any pizza shop, now make it out of metal and make it hotter than hell.  The one we used was luck enough to have legs or we'd be screwed.  The legs were placed on a board and then we dipped the round head of the salamander down over the meriange which promptly browned.  It did loose heat faster than I thought it would though. That's me in the photo on the right with the salamander.  Eileen is beating the egg whites on the right.

And so it was done!  I was like a nervous mother waiting for the moment we cut into it...would it be too sweet?  Not sweet enough?  and how would embarrassed would I be if the crust turned out terrible?  Me, who's been doing this for fifteen  years?!  Whew!  Everything turned out fabulous, it was yummy, and the crust was crisp.  And every bite was gone in under five minutes.

Tomorrow I'll show you the results of when I tried it on my own.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Period Correct MY ASS

Sorry about that but I'm about to vent my spleen.  For some reason tonight the CRAP that I see listed in Ebay  as PERIOD CORRECT has burnt my butt.  WTF.  Okay, okay.  I know Ebay is not really a place you should go looking for period correct stuff, and I actually bought a domain name and hosting to start a new web site where people like me, who make period correct stuff, can list their new or used items for sale.  But again WTF?!

When I make something that isn't period perfect I say so.  When the inside seams are done in a modern fashion, guess what folks, I say so!  If I can't document trim I don't use it.  I don't use lace on my gowns because I am not going to put some cheap f.....g piece of poly ugliness on my work.  Yet there are those out there who will and then say it's period correct. Okay- you bought a good pattern.  But since when is poly taffeta period correct?  Since when, for the love of God will someone tell me, poly ribbons and poly lace period correct?

If you want to sell your stuff say it is period close but not period correct.  Or how about "My dress is period correct in style but with modern materials since real silk is expensive and who would plunk down that kind of money for it over an auction?"  Would that be too much to ask?!

I'm not saying I am the period correct Czar, and I do not profess to say I am the end all and be all of all 18th century gown construction. I admit to using my sewing machine and using modern interior construction methods (but I say so up front) and I have made mistakes and will continue to do so. But geez, is it asking too much to at least check if the print is correct before saying it is period correct?!  LISTEN WHEN I SAY- Cabbage Roses are NOT or ever will be PERIOD CORRECT!

And what about those out there that will list a gown as Colonial Victorian Civil War Prom Dress?  Okay, which one is it?  Can't make up your mind?  Or, as I've been told by one of them "My style does not follow any set tiime period." HAHAHAHAHA. Okay.

Let it go....just let it go.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Oranges In Paper

I'm a Dutch girl at heart.  Give me a Pieter de Hooch or a Frans Hals and I'm a happy girl.  I got to see Vermeer's the Milk Maid and stood there enthralled by sheer cleanness of the sunlight falling onto her headpiece.  If it shows everyday life or, even better, a still life of food, I become like a groupie following a band; I'll stand there for what seems (to everyone else with me) for a good deal of time drinking in the beauty of it all. When in Paris in September I got to see a lovely exhibit at the Jacquemart-Andre Museum.  There were all the other tourists, crowding around in huge clumps from painting to painting.  There was me pushing through the crowd with my notebook writing things like "strawberries, melons, quinces, gown has yellow fur trim...." you get the picture.   

Being an 18th century gal I understand that life was not so rosy or great in the 'good old days.' So what is it about these that captivate me so?  It is the excess of it all- the tables laden with food, the silver, the luminesent glassware. It's the gold of the peaches, the ruby red of the currants, the glimmer off the glass.  Do I think that everyone in 17th century Holland had that much food?  No, but what a wonder that someone thought that food, or a maid washing dishes, or a man handing off a letter, was worthy of remembering.  

It was shocking to me then, when I walked into the de Young Museum in San Francisco to see a painting that caught my attention to the point of obsession. And guess what? It wasn't even 17th century nor from Holland.  The artists name is William Joseph McCloskey, and the painting title "Oranges in Tissue Paper, Ca 1890." Wow.  It is as simple as the title:  a bunch of oranges wrapped in paper laying on a table.  I could smell them, I swear to you.  The paper looked as if it were made from real paper, not just pigment on canvas. I could see each of those oranges, deemed precious enough to wrap in paper for their voyage to who knows where, being wrapped by hand.  I could hear the paper crinkle.  Simple. Lovely. and Worthy of preservation.


I also got to see some of the ugliest stawberries in a painting I'd ever seen.  They actually gave me the creeps.  Shame on  you Severin Roesen. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


The pink dress is in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg foundation. It is a pale pink silk dating to the 1770's. The photo on the left is the original gown which was in one of the drawers in the current quilted garment collections. Once a month they open the drawers and let you look at the garments up close and personal. This gown was also on display when they had the exhibit "What Close Reveal" but I didn't have a digital camera back then. Bummer. The one on the right is a modern reproduction of the gown made by Janea Whitaker (sorry if I've spelt it incorrectly), from the Millinery shop at Colonial Williamsburg.

Many of the work gowns I make (and wear) are devoid of any trim since they are plain linen, made to used as working garments, not fashion statements. But who doesn't like a little dressing up, even on an every day basis? Typically one does not see trim around the top neck line of a gown so this simple trim caught my eye.

To make it I began by ironing the fabric. I then decided that I would make the trim 2" in width. The size of your trim should be in proportion to your gown and the pattern on your gown. To make it an inch was too small, got lost in the print, but 3 inches was too big. Plus the ruler I was using was 2 inches in width…nice when a plan comes together.

I then cut strips of fabric using a scalloped edge rotary cutter. Though it looks like it is pinked it is actually a scalloped edge. This is period appropriate and works get if you can find one. I got mine at a fabric store where I also found a scissor with a scalloped edge. The difference between using the two is that the rotary cutter works faster when you are cutting strips of the same width and length of fabric. The scissor tends to move the fabric when you are trying to cut flat and straight.

Once I cut the strips out I then joined them together using a sewing machine. No need to finish the edges since it will be held flat against the gown and normally you tuck them under when you come to them but more on that later.

I then ironed the strips into an inverted box pleat- my favorite way to trim. Not only does it look nice it is historically correct. You can use a ruler to make sure that each pleat is the same width and the same distance apart. I've done so many of them that I can do it now without the ruler, the same with pleating the skirts onto the bodice.

They look accordion like when finished.

Starting at the front edge, pin the trim onto the neckline of the gown. I use two pins per pleat. This holds them securely into place, especially as you go around the curved areas. Remember to fold under the unfinished edge so that is tacked down. This way it will not fray and looks clean. Continue to pin the trim into place all the way around. Cut the strip if need be and tuck under the raw edge.

I tacked them into place by sewing them in the center of each pleat. Beginning with the first one I simple sewed through the center, making sure to bring the needle up and down in the same holes. I then ran the thread through the lining on the inside of the garment. This is to make sure the thread does not get caught or break and it makes the trim more secure.

I sewed the trim all the way around to the front and viola! Lovely simple box pleated trim. I also did the same trim for the sleeve edges.

Trimming a Gown

I know I said I was going to talk about the painting but I thought since I just had to re-do the gown on my last few postings I'd continue with that. It's my sewing room's fault. No, really.

Okay, I have to confess. I have a sewing room all to myself which is cool except you sometimes can't see the floor. It's a small room but with way too much fabric and stuff, and did I mention the dolls? Hundreds of them. They are all loved and I wouldn't sell any of them except I can't move in that room most of the time.

So every once in awhile I clean it up and when I do I find the most wonderful things. Like the cream and red floral gown that I was working on. Lovely isn't it? I thought so too until I put it on the dress dummy and thought "hmmm, something is not quite right." I then put it on and guess what? See where the skirts attach to the bodice? Are you wondering WHY the skirts are so far back? Me too. And then I remembered. This was suppose to be a jacket with a full short skirt now a gown! That's what happens when you start a project, it gets lost for two months and then when you find it you forgot what the plan was.

Now, I could have just worn it that way, with the skirts towards the back. My new love is the 1780+, all those lovely transitional gowns. Skirts headed towards the back at that time but the print...not quite right for that.

What's a girl to do? You got it. I opened the bodice up, removed the skirts, made them come closer towards the front bodice closure, re-sewed everything back into place, finished the trim and viola! Ready for the hem tomorrow.

The trim is a simple reversed box pleat that I put around the neck line and the edges of the sleeves. I based it off an original in the Colonial Williamsburg collection. It is a lovely pink silk that I've gotten to see several times over the past few years, up close and personal. The ladies in the milliners actually made a copy of it as well. Got to hold that one.

Anyway,to make the trim I used a rotary cutter with a scalloped edge. Fiskar also has a scissor that will do the same edge. I'd love to have a pinking iron but have yet to find one that actually works well. (if anyone knows of someone who makes them let me know). It works well on cotton and on silk, even linen if you press hard enough.  With the silk though I use fray check.  I know, it's not period, but when you spend that much money on fabric why in the world would you want it to fray into ugly strings?

Tomorrow I'll post the instructions and the photo. Right now I have to go get rid of these hiccups.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Harder than I Thought

Did you all see that movie "Julie and Julia"? I really enjoyed it, but mostly because I'm a huge foodie and my daughter went to the same school as Julia Child. But man, do I have to give that woman credit. Not only did she cook that entire book, she wrote a blog every day! This is harder than I thought. Not that I don't like doing this, I really enjoy it. I've got so much stuff I want to post, and I do think about it. It's just things get in the way. Laundry. Yep, laundry gets in the way. Cooking too. Oh and the cats. Yep, them too.

But in reality its me getting in my own way. So, instead of me trying to post every single day I've opted to be kind to myself and set a goal of three times a week.

So, after I post my latest creation for sale on Ebay I'll be back to talk about the most beautiful painting I've ever seen, show you how to put trim on a gown and talk about patterns.