CoBloWriMo ’17 Day 5 – Origin Story


My mother’s house has always been full of fabric. Mom is a quilter; she made clothes for me when I was very little, but most of my childhood memories of her sewing are of a hand-pieced, hand-quilted bed cover for me, covered in flowers and cows and bright colors. It took her eleven years to make, working on it in little bits and pieces on summer vacations and sunday afternoons when the “quilty ladies” would gather, sometimes at our house. She came into my first grade classroom to teach us how to make little nine-patch quilts; as far as I can remember, mine lived on a cat bed for years until it finally got so disgusting that we had to throw it away. I never had much interest in sewing myself when I was a little kid, but I loved helping her pick out fabric, and I loved all sorts of other crafts – beads and lanyard and friendship bracelets, classic summer camp fare. I did always love clothes – I played dress up in Disney princess costumes and my grandmother’s nightgowns from the 50s, I dressed up stuffed animals and barbies and friends, and eventually moved on to American Girl dolls (widely acknowledged to be the gateway drug to history), and drew pictures of outfits inspired by my favourite book characters. I was a crafty kid living in a sewing house; I think it was inevitable.

My very first garment – a Jedi costume for Halloween

I eventually decided I wanted to learn how to sew when I was fifteen and wanted to dress up as a Jedi for halloween. I wanted it to look as much like the real ones as possible so I did my research; found a pattern, looked at a ton of pictures, read the tutorials on early cosplayers’ blogs. Mom took me to buy fabric from a little hole-in-the-wall place in Brooklyn that she had been going to for years. She showed me how to press and cut the pattern pieces, and how to use her 1930s Singer Featherweight sewing machine, and then told me to follow the directions in the pattern and that she didn’t make clothes anymore and that was it. She helped me if I needed it, but for the most part I fumbled my way through that first pattern myself. I had unintentionally chosen a really good first project; it was a simple t-shaped garment with some borders, and I enjoyed the puzzle of putting it all together. I especially enjoyed the satisfaction of wearing a garment that I had made myself – that I had transformed from a flat piece of cloth into something I could put on my body. I was hooked after that. When later that year I became obsessed with The King and I and Gone with the Wind, I had no hesitations in deciding that I could make my own ballgown.

That was when I started catching the fashion history bug; I hated learning about wars and politics in history class in high school, but on my own I wanted to learn all about what everyday people in history did – what they ate, what they did for fun, and especially what they wore. I was also struggling at the time with being a fat teenage girl who didn’t want to dress like everyone else. Because I didn’t REALLY want to wear velour track suits and tight shirts with flirty slogans on them, I had spent years of feeling out my sense of style shopping with my grandmother at Kohl’s, wearing A-line dresses and trumpet skirts that were clearly meant for suburban middle-aged women who worked in offices. In a time when conformity was encouraged and plus-size options were limited, the ability to make my own clothes was LIBERATING. I embraced my childhood love of poodle skirts and decided I wanted to be a Rockabilly. I discovered Vintage Vogue patterns and used them to make myself 50s dresses in bright colours and bold patterns. I finally took some proper sewing and fashion design classes at FIT in their weekend program for teens, and made myself some more dresses, a crappy civil war ballgown, and a red trench coat to dress up as Carmen Sandiego for halloween. And, at the end of junior year, I sold my beloved American Girl dolls and used the money to buy my first Renaissance Faire costume. I went to college for costume design for theater, but only because I couldn’t find a program that would let me study fashion history as an undergrad. It turned out to be a good move; I learned how to build all sorts of garments and craft objects, I learned how to drape and pattern, and I learned the costume shop attitude of ‘everything is a transferable skill so you can figure out how to make anything’. But I was always the one who did way more research than necessary, and wanted to do things with historical rather than theatrical methods.

The most formative experience came senior year: I studied abroad for a semester in London. The program was the Rutgers Conservatory at Shakespeare’s Globe, and the advisor of the design program was the incomparable Jenny Tiramani. We began the semester in the midst of production on the Globe’s 2012 Richard III and Twelfth Night. These were ‘original practice’ productions, meaning they were intentionally done as closely as possible to Elizabethan theatrical practices as could be managed – they had all-male casts, and beautiful hand-sewn costumes made of custom made textiles. Over those three months, Jenny gave us insight into all of the research and experimentation that had gone into creating these incredible productions. We took a Shakespeare literature class where we examined a play for the clues in the text of how it was originally staged. We took a props class where we ground our own mineral paint pigments and made casts of our faces using burlap and wax. We went to museums and historic sites to look at portraits and extant garments and original furniture. And we took an Elizabethan costume construction class where we built a pair of beautiful silk sleeves, and sewed, starched, and set ruffs. My ruff was my first entirely hand-sewn garment. We set our ruffs at Jenny’s little house in Shoreditch, which was packed full of books and papers and fabrics and artifacts and cabinets full of Janet Arnold’s files. She showed us a project she was working on – a suit made of strips of red and yellow silk, recreated from an illustration in a German fashion book from the 1580s, with an extremely shallow-crowned hat that they were still trying to figure out how it stayed on your head. This was it, for me. There were people out there putting all of this effort into figuring out how clothes were really made and worn in the past, and then DOING it. And I wanted to be one of them. Jenny taught us that we can never know everything, but the more detailed, the more specific you can make your research and interpretation, the more real it will be to the audience. This struck a chord with me in a way nothing else I was taught in school had.

That was what set me on my current path. I got a job at Colonial Williamsburg right out of college, went to graduate school for fashion history, and now I work at Plimoth Plantation, a museum that is world-renowned for first person interpretation. I’ve come to love the community of people who recreate historic fashion – it’s very affirming to know that there are other people who love it so much that they have dedicated their lives to the study and practice of it (see, family? Playing dress-up is a viable career choice!). And I absolutely LOVE creative transformation of historical fashion – I know many historic costumers have mixed feelings about such things, but I love steampunk and cosplay and renaissance faire costumes (most of the time), they’re great outlets for my love of fantasy and flare for the dramatic and whimsical (you can take a girl out of the theater…). I hope to continue on this path for the foreseeable future – it turns out I have really strong convictions about the subject! And I hope to keep making connections with all of you awesome people who love it too.


CoBloWriMo ’17 Day 2 – Current Projects


This will be a quick post; in a shocking turn of events, I'm not actually working on very much right now! At least not in the way of sewing – my big effort this year has been learning to play the lute. Everyone who talks to me on a regular basis has heard me go on and on about it endlessly, and my poor housemates have had to deal with living with a beginning musician. I've done a lot of vocal music in my life, but never really any instrumental music, so this has been a VERY new experience for me. I'm currently learning out of a book, but I'm hoping in the next few months to find an actual human to learn from.

I chose the lute because it was a popular instrument in several of the periods that I'm interested in – my lute is a renaissance lute, good for late 16th and early 17th century music, and lute music continued to be popular through the 17th and 18th centuries as well (though the form of the lute changes a bit – more strings, weird necks, etc). I also chose it because it will be good to accompany myself singing. AND, best of all, there are lots of period images of women of all different social situations playing lutes.

(This is my lute outfit goal – totally doable with my red kirtle, I think!)

My actual current sewing project is making myself a lute strap. It's so uninteresting to look at unfinished that I won't even bother posting a picture of it (it's literally a strip of green silk that I've been hemming my hand for AGES), but what IS interesting is some of the images that I've been looking at for research. Most of them I didn't even have to find myself – someone on the internet has ALREADY put together a page of images of 17th and 18th century lute straps. Apparently there's lots of uncertainty about how some of these straps work – how long they were, how they were attached, etc. There's evidence for both a long strap worn over the shoulder like a modern guitar strap and a shorter tight strap made of stretchy animal gut (like what instrument strings were made of historically) that could be looped over a waistcoat button or pinned to the front of a lady's gown. I'm going for the former, since the materials are more easily accessible (and I like the look of the giant bows on the bottom of the lute!).

The strap I'm working on is olive green silk, so it will probably look very similar to this one.

That's what I'm working on right now! My other current project is a new smock for my Elizabethan outfit, which I'm hoping to finish in time for my trip to the New York Renaissance Faire in a few weeks.

Until next time!

CoBloWriMo ’17 Day 1 – Introduce Yourself


Hello, gentle readers!  It’s been a pretty crazy year, in which I have neglected my blog, but now that CoBloWriMo has rolled around again, I’m going to take this opportunity to start writing again.  To all newcomers, welcome!  To old friends, welcome back!

I’m super late to this party, but I’ve been trying to draw more recently so here is my take on that Meet the Artist meme that was going around on tumblr and twitter a few months ago

So here’s a brief introduction: Hi!  My name is Mem.  I’m 25 years old.  I’ve been sewing for ten years.  I went to undergrad for costume design and grad school for fashion history.  I currently work at Plimoth Plantation as a living history educator, where I get to portray a real person from history and demonstrate early 17th century daily life activities to the general public.  I’ve also worked at Colonial Williamsburg and the New York Renaissance Faire.  I mostly sew for myself, and I mostly make historical clothes (though I do every once in a while go through phases of making wallets and iPad cases and stuff like that too).  I also knit, crochet, spin, and embroider, and I love trying out new crafts.  My most favourite historical activity other than sewing is dancing and music; I love singing at events and going to balls (I haven’t been to any since I moved to Massachusetts, but I’m hoping to remedy that before the end of the year!).

I’m looking forward to getting back into writing this month, and getting to know my fellow CoBlers!  More to come soon!

CoBloWriMo 7 – Dream Wardrobe


Just a quick one because I again am writing late at night right before I have to go to sleep.  These are some dream projects that I would love to do once I have underwear from every time period that fits correctly and money to buy all the beautiful silks in the world.

My ultimate dream project: Deborah Kerr’s ballgown from The King and I. It’s my favourite musical of all time and it’s the movie that gave me my love of crinolines.

Madame de Saint-Maurice (1776) by Joseph Siffred Duplessis. I love Madame so very much and while pink is not usually in my personal colour palette I would wear the crap out of it in this context.

This red taffeta and black velvet suit from the 1780s; I forget who the subject is, but the portrait is by Vigee-LeBrun

This Regency open robe made of brightly coloured sari fabric of some sort. No one’s figured out what museum this is in yet; someone I talked to suggested it might be Russian.

This 1840s chick is hidden away in the depths of the American Wing period rooms at the Met. She’s fab and I want her hat.

“Girl Reading” by Alfred Emile Stevens (1856). I really want a sheer dress; they appeal to my inner Scarlett O’Hara.

This Lepape illustration called “Les Papillons” is from La Gazette du Bon Ton. I don’t usually care for the 1910s, but this is so simple and striking and gorgeous.

1855 Archery Jacket from (potentially) the Museum of London (the way it’s listed online is weird?). I just love the idea of Victorian women doing archery. I would of course pair it with a red petticoat.

Bonus: not an outfit, but how baller is this 1876 space quilt. I want to reproduce it one day just because it’s awesome.

CoBloWriMo 4: Badge!


We are so super legit now you guys!  The lovely and talented Carrie of Mantua Maker at Midnight has made us our own very own CoBloWriMo badge!


Feel free to download it and put it into your blog’s sidebar, or copy and paste this code:

<a href = "">

<img class=" size-full wp-image-644 aligncenter

" src=""

alt="coblowrimo-2016" width="200" height="200" /></a>

Huzzah! Longer post to come hopefully tonight, I missed Friday because it got unexpectedly crazy and then yesterday was the first New York Renaissaince Faire rehearsal which of course left me with complete all consuming exhaustion but still very happy at the end of it.

CoBloWriMo 2: Happy Things (We Should Send Into Space)


Oh boy I do love to slip Bob’s Burgers references into unrelated things!

Anyway, today’s CoBloWriMo prompt is “Write about five things that make you happy”. ¬†One particular thing that makes me very happy is research. ¬†I’m a rapturous researcher – I love getting sucked into the black hole of any obscure topic that comes my way for hours and hours and hours, and then bouncing around to another topic as soon as it catches my fancy. ¬†I’ve been in graduate school for Costume Studies for two years, which has let me research many of the topics that I’m very interested in, but it has also made me tone down my rapturous research tendencies in order to focus enough to write papers and such (which has been VERY CHALLENGING for me). ¬†So now that school is over, I’m going to indulge my little researcher heart and write about five of my favorite random research topics!

1.  Fancy Dress Costumes

Versaille Topiary Costume designed by Poiret. 1913 (La Gazette du Bon Ton, illustration by Georges Lepape)

I LOVE fancy dress costumes. ¬†They are invariably hilarious and adorable. ¬†They’re basically bad puns manifested as costumes from a time when puns were the highest form of humor. ¬†Fancy dress costumes could range in theme from famous people to literary characters to inanimate objects to vague concepts to basically anything you could think of – rainbows, mailboxes, literally anything. ¬†You could dress up as another time period by putting a perfectly good period costume over your contemporary undergarments for an interesting silhouette disconnect. ¬†There was even an infamous Hell costume, designed in the 1860s by the house of Worth. ¬†Fancy dress costumes are endlessly fascinating – they give us interesting insights into the more playful side of the 19th century, which is generally (pretty much erroneously) considered to be a very repressed time period. ¬†They show interest in progress, with all sorts of costumes embodying different fields of science and new technology – a famous Electric Light costume (that was also designed by Worth!) was worn by Mrs Vanderbilt at the Vanderbilt ball in 1883. ¬†There’s also an interesting aspect of gender play involved, with popular gender-role-bending costumes for women ranging from subtle ones like “Lady Brigand” and “Female Graduate” to actual cross dressed characters like Viola from Twelfth Night. ¬†Fancy dress parties were popular entertainments in general, but they were especially held at the very highest levels of society – Queen Victoria of England and Empress Eug√©nie of France were well known for hosting lavish fancy dress balls. ¬†Later, the tradition would carry on with events like the Shakespeare Ball of 1911, a massive London society event used to raise funds to build the national theatre, and Poiret’s Thousand and Second Night parties.

2. School Uniforms and Academic Regalia

Hilariously adorable Eton tradition – the boys wear these giant flower hats during the Parade of Boats on the Fourth of June. They row into the middle of the river, stand up, shake the hats on one side of the boat and then the other, (attempt to) sit down without falling out of the boat, and row on.

As part of the Harry Potter generation, I grew up with a fascination with British boarding school culture that I continue to cultivate today. ¬†I love to watch documentaries about Eton and Harrow, especially because I love the idea of preteen and teen boys walking around in tails suits all the time (which sounds like a TERRIBLE plan). ¬†I love that there’s a school out there whose uniforms haven’t changed in 400 years and their students voted recently to continue to keep it (the school is called Christ’s Hospital and they wear yellow stockings because supposedly in the 16th century they thought the color would keep away rats). ¬†One of my favorite movies called Another Country¬†is set at a school that they don’t say¬†is Eton but is clearly supposed to be Eton and a major plot point is that the prefects and other older boys called the “house gods” get to wear waistcoats made of elaborate materials while the other boys wear plain uniform waistcoats (this actually apparently is a real thing at real Eton as well). ¬†The whole badges-blazers-and-boaters thing is an interesting microcosm of the extremely stratified British class system that Americans find really fascinating.

This is what happens when you let teen boys run around in tails suits for centuries (well the equivalent anyway). Also this was the best parody of Gangam Style.

This photo, famously featuring Eddie Redmayne (front and centre) and Prince William (top right), shows the fancy waistcoat thing is stiill going strong.

I started researching academic regalia because I got bored at someone’s graduation one time, and that has also turned into a Harry Potter-related research topic. ¬†Academic regalia is probably the closest contemporary muggle equivalent to what we should be imagining wizard robes look like, which are described very little but I assume are based on medieval academic and clerical garments. ¬†It also means I never get bored at graduations anymore – once you learn a little bit about hood colors and sleeve shapes you can spend any academic ceremony guessing the degrees of the faculty members in regalia (which I suppose is only fun when you’re really nerdy, but I am really nerdy, so). ¬†They’re also probably the closest Americans will ever come to British ceremonial dress, which we also find endlessly fascinating.

This is a Doctor of Music gown from Cambridge. More magical than your graduation gown, I would wager. Certainly more magical than mine, thanks Rutgers.

3.  Bookbinding

One of the Colonial Williamsburg bookbinders doing some blind tooling.

I’ve been dabbling in bookbinding as a craft for several years – I learned enough very basic techniques to teach a “Make your own sketchbook!” Unit during art week at a Girl Scout camp I worked at in the summer of 2012. ¬†Since then I’ve done a few more projects, and read a bit more, and somehow I find this fairly mundane craft really fascinating? ¬†To the point that I actually did end up writing a paper about medieval bookbinding for a history of textiles class. ¬†A lot of the hobby bookbinding books that you find in the craft section of Barnes & Noble focus more on contemporary techniques that are kind of craftsy and good for making “art books”, but as a true nerdy historian I find myself more interested in the traditional side of the craft. ¬†When I used to work at Colonial Williamsburg I would often go stand in the back of the bookbinders’ shop and just listen to them interpret for way longer than necessary, and I still sometimes fantasize about becoming a historical bookbinder (if they’re ever looking for a new apprentice bookbinder at CW I will definitely be jumping ¬†on that!). I don’t really know why it fascinates me so much, but I do love books, and as a person who sews (and sews historically) I guess I’m interested in applications of sewing outside of the realm of clothing. ¬†(Also, MINIATURE BOOKS ARE ADORABLE – my current favorite bookbinding book is More Making Books By Hand by Peter and Donna Thomas.). It’s a difficult craft to practice at home without some serious consideration, though – to really do it “right” the process is fairly equipment-heavy, but with some research you can usually find simpler, more small-space-friendly techniques.

An embroidered book cover famously made by Queen Elizabeth 1 for her stepmother Katherine Parr

4. Corset-Induced Smushy Face (and other non-conventionally-attractive women in art)

Detail of Tissot’s “Hide and Seek”

You know when you’re wearing a corset and you sit down on a couch or a contemporary chair that doesn’t have a very straight back and you attempt to recline but it just pushes your boobs up toward your face and your chin down toward your chest in a probably fairly unflattering way? ¬†It turns out this has always been a problem! ¬†I love seeing corset-induced smushy face in art. ¬†It’s one of those things that really makes me as a historical costumer feel a strong connection across time to those women I am seeking to emulate with my work and research. ¬†My boy Tissot has a couple of ladies in various paintings with corset-induced smushy face for sure, and if you look carefully you can see it around in the background of plenty of domestic and pastoral scenes all over 19th century art.

Madame de Saint-Maurice (1776) by Joseph Duplessis. My ultimate evolution.

I also just generally love seeing women who don’t look perfectly thin and angelic in western art – and this ranges from Madame de Saint-Maurice (1776), who’s fat and SUPER fashionable (I will do a reproduction of her outfit one day! ¬†Should have had that on goals yesterday) to all the weird-looking barmaids and jolly washerwomen and plump servant girls who fell asleep in the kitchen and let the cat steal the meat again in 17th century Dutch genre paintings. ¬†I love them all. ¬†Those are the images I really identify with, because guess what, different body types existed in the past also.

The Eavesdropper (1620s) by Nicolaes Maes

5. Heraldry

So I belong to an organization called Markland, which is sort of the teenage son of the SCA who left home at 17 because fuck you, dad, you don’t know my life. ¬†We do very similar stuff (wear garb, have wars, feast, sing around campfires, dance a maypole sometimes), but we’re smaller and some of our rules regarding historical documentation for certain things are less strict. ¬†One of those things is heraldry – creating coats of arms (or “devices” to use proper SCA terminology, “coat of arms” only applies in very specific circumstances) that represent ourselves. ¬†This is a favorite activity in my Markland group, but our number 1 heraldry guy doesn’t always make it to our meetings, so I’ve sort of been picking up the heraldry research to help out my friends as needed, and because of the way my brain is wired I’m kind of obsessed. ¬†Heraldry comes with very specialized vocabulary to describe how it looks and how different pieces of it are positioned, and some very strict rules about what colors can and can’t go next to each other, how many of certain things you’re allowed to use, etc etc, and I LOVE THAT STUFF. ¬†It gives me real joy to help my friends navigate these restrictions to create something that they love (and real frustration when they don’t understand that just because you CAN put a million different things on your heraldry doesn’t mean you SHOULD because that’s not how they did it “Back Then”). ¬†My favorite heraldry moment was going through Randal Holme’s 1688 Academy of Armory and finding primary documentation for the heraldic penis.


Yup.  There it is.  Right in the middle.

From Randal Holme’s The Academy of Armory¬†(1688)

CoBloWriMo 1: Goals!


Hi friends!  It’s been a while.  But hopefully not for much longer!  For one thing, School’s over and my thesis is done so I’m going to have more free time going forward in general.  But for now, you’re going to be hearing from me more than usual for the next 30 days because I’m organizing a costume blogging challenge called CoBloWriMo (Costume Blog Writing month)!  I’m going to try to post every day for the month of June.  If you’re reading this and you’re interested in joining us, check out our Facebook group!  So, without further ado, here is my first CoBloWriMo post!  

Today’s prompt is “What are your goals for 2016?”  I’m sick and I need to go to sleep so I’m going to be brief, but I’ve got some costuming goals, some blogging goals, and maybe a life goal or two.

Costuming Goals

My first costuming goal is to finish a couple of unfinished projects that have gone by the wayside for various reasons. 

Not the most attractive picture of my face, but a nice shot of the outfit taken at a recent ball at the Morris-Jumel Mansion

The first is my 18th century outfit, which dedicated readers may remember from last year.  It’s finished to the point that I can put it on my body and wear it for a day if I have to, but it’s nowhere near actually finished.  Most importantly, I need to finish the stays, which are unbound at the top and bottom.  This was actually on purpose – I needed to put them together very quickly when I made them and so didn’t do too much fitting of the pattern, and as a result the front panels are too short and don’t cover enough of my bust.  I’ve recut the panels that don’t fit, but they still need to get sewn together, boned, and attached to the rest of the stays, and then I can do the leather binding and eyelets.  Once that’s done, I can fit and finish the caraco (and make tons more 18th century stuff!).  I’d also like to make an underpetticoat for this outfit, and maybe try a different shape of skirt support.
The second is the new 1860 corset I started back in January.  I went through two different mock ups and countless alterations and the pattern just frustrated me so much that I kind of rage quit.  Now that I have my old corset back from someone that I lent it to, I may just copy the pattern off that one (based on the 1860 French corset in Norah Waugh’s Corsets and Crinolines) and adjust it.
The third is my red kirtle. I wear it all the time but it’s technically not done – it’s supposed to have black stripes around the bottom of the skirt, and a lining in the bodice.  I also need to recut the waistline – I exaggerated the point at the waist a little because I thought it looked pretty, but it makes the waist wrinkle when I sit down, which is not super desirable, and pushes the bones up in a problematic way.  I also would like to get my whole court outfit to look more like this painting:

I still don’t know who this is a portrait of.

So I might add some gold trim, if only for the Faire season.  I had hoped to be able to do my hair like this, but alas for I cannot – I’m going to have to cover it because I cut a lot of it off recently (!!!)

Here are some other things I’d like to make this year:

I don’t remember her name but she’s from the Vigee-LeBrun exhibit at the Met – once I get my 18th century stays fitted better, I can start making nicer 18th century stuff, and what’s better than red taffeta and black velvet?

I’d like to make a sheer dress to wear in the garden at the Merchant’s House – I’m partial to the one in “Two Sisters” (1856) by Tissot becasue I think it’s the same woman that’s in Young Lady In A Red Jacket (and she’s got a great hat)

She’s my second choice for sheer dress – “Girl Reading” by Alfred Emile Stevens (1856)

I’ve had some beautiful buttery yellow wool sitting around for a waistcoat for months, so I’d really like to get on that and complete my middle class Elizabethan look.

Blogging Goals

I’ll keep this simple: I’d like to blog more.  My goal for CoBloWriMo is to post every day.  Afterwards I would like to post at least twice a month.  I would also like to bring back my attempts at regular features – Movie Monday and Sketch Saturday.

Life Goals

I’ll keep this simple also (because now I really need to go to bed): I’d like to get up earlier, draw more, rely on electronics less.  And I’d like a full-time job.  Dear universe: take notice.