CoBloWriMo ’17 Day 5 – Origin Story

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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.

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CoBloWriMo ’17 Day 1 – Introduce Yourself

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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 12 – Embellishments Conference, Day 2

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Another fun filled day of new techniques from the past!

This morning, we started with a bobbin lace demonstration by Plimoth interpreter Kate Moore.  


She even set up a basic pattern and let us each try out a few basic stitches!  I was super psyched about this because lacemaking is the next craft on my list! And I actually really enjoyed trying it out, which was good to know.  So…new craft hopefully coming soon!  Yay!

After that, we had some time to work on our samplers before lunch.  Here’s the embroidery squad!

Bonus Dan judging us


During lunch, a lovely woman named Kim taught some of us how to do the plaited braid stitch, a super fancyface goldwork stitch that’s really common in 17th century embroidery for doing all of the beautiful scrollwork, stems, etc.  Her method of teaching it was pretty brilliant – instead of trying to get a bunch of beginners to do an intricate stitch really tiny and waste nice materials, she taught us on plastic canvas using big gold cord!  It was so much easier to see, and helped us understand how the whole stitch goes together.


I’m definitely going to have to give this stitch another shot tonight to see if I actually absorbed it!

In the afternoon we got a tour of the wardrobe department!  We saw a bunch of the embroidered pieces they have in their stock, and some other fun stuff – including a scrapbook of photos of the Plantation in the 70s!

I liked this guy because he’s fab

BABY PILGRIM!!

This hilarious electric celery doublet was apparently built for someone portraying a gentleman who went off course sailing to Virginia and ended up in Plymouth. I love the idea of a fop pilgrim.


We also got to hang out with the Plimoth Jacket some more, and get some photos up close and personal!


Our last workshop of the afternoon was making buttons with Dan Rosen.  We learned how to make one very common style of thread wrapped button with many variations, and a more decorative style of button that’s covered with a basket weave pattern.

These are Dan’s sample buttons

These are my buttons! They came out ok! Especially the woven one.


Overall, it was a fantastic weekend.  I learned a bunch of new techniques, made some awesome new friends, and rekindled my love of embroidery that’s kind of fallen by the wayside while I’ve been in school.  I’m looking forward to finishing my Plimoth Jacket sampler, and I’m already thinking about my next embroidery project (and the next one…and the next one…) – I found a pattern in a 1608 book of Celtic knot work…that’s made of snakes!  I’m thinking a coif 🙂


This week, though, I have to get my summer project started – I’m building a gown for a new Guilde of St George member who will be portraying Blanche Parry. Stay tuned!

CoBloWriMo 10 – Queensleeves

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This summer I’m going into my third season in the cast of the New York Renaissance Faire.  I portray Frances Brooke, Baroness Cobham, Lady of the Bedchamber and Mistress of the Robes to Queen Elizabeth 1.  I was going to write this post about my own costume, but that might take some more planning and compiling.  Instead, this post is about another faire-related project that I love very much and am extremely proud of.


Queen Elizabeth 1’s actual birthday is September 7.  Last year, September 7 fell on a Faire day, so we made a big deal out of the Queen’s birthday, which included an elaborate ceremony where the courtiers presented the queen with gifts.  We know from extant New Year’s gift rolls that Lady Cobham always gave the Queen clothes, so I decided to make a pair of sleeves for the Queen’s birthday.  Luckily, my director wanted new sleeves for the Queen anyway, so I didn’t have to supply any of the materials!  Which was a good thing, because I ended up bejeweling the crap out of them.  My director had a general design in mind for them, and gave me fabrics that coordinated with the Queen’s gown, and then gave me free reign to decorate them as I like.  I’ve never decorated anything to the extent that these sleeves were decorated, and I did a lot of the work by hand.  I originally didn’t love how they looked with the rest of the gown but they grew on me and now I LOVE THEM.  So enjoy!


History Twins!  Also, so much stuff is happening!

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Ok, news first!  I’m going to be doing all sorts of cool stuff in the next few months (and never sleeping!):

  • My thesis programs are up on the Merchant’s House website!  I’ll be Bridget Murphy the kitchen maid on St Patrick’s Day, and Julia Tredwell talking about etiquette on April 23 and talking about fashion on May 21.
  • I’m also helping out with the interactive kids’ tour on February 20, which is going to  be really really fun.  If you are interested in daily life in the 19th century and have access to a child, I suggest checking it out!
  • On April 24 I will be modeling my Tissot dress in the New York Nineteenth Century Society Extravaganza fashion show at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn.  Not a lot of info on this event yet, but I’ve really enjoyed the other NYNCS events that I’ve been to.
  • I am very excited to be participating in Fashioning Weeksville, an awesome program that will involve creating a costume for a new living history presentation at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn.

Holy crap, right??  So much awesome stuff. When it rains it pours!

And now for something completely different: Remember my Ren Faire gown?  And St. Cecilia from 1568, who was wearing a very similar outfit?    

Well guess what!  I found another portrait that is even more eerily similar to my gown:

Right?  RIGHT???? This is basically exactly the same as my gown. And I’d never seen it before someone posted it as a one-off response to something on the Elizabethan Costume Facebook group maybe two weeks ago.  It’s like the time stream cracked open in a moment of perfect transference.

Or just a huge coincidence.  But hey. (Incidentally, anyone has any info about this painting please let me know – the Kunsthistoriches Museum webpage is really unhelpful).

I always love having history twin moments like this.  They provide unique insight to me as a modern person trying to recreate historical clothes in that they show that the choices I am making in color, cut, material, styling, accessorizing, etc are appropriate for someone who looked like me in period.  This is information that people were unlikely to write down, but very inportant for getting that truly authentic look.  So in this case, well done me!  I think now that I’ve found her I’m going to continue using her as inspiration – I love her hairstyle and jewelry, and the long pearl strand I wore for faire last year was really annoying.

I’ve done the history twin thing before – avid readers may remember my Tissot gown – and I’m doing it again for Bridget’s costume for my thesis: 

Painting : “The Jolly Washerwoman” (1851) by Lilly Martin Spencer, fabric is a reproduction from the collection of the Virginia Quilt Museum

 

Have you ever had a history twin?  Found your doppelgänger in a portrait or an old photograph?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Fashion Idioms

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Dear readers,

I am heading off to the first weekend of rehearsals for the New York Renaissance Faire!  Huzzah!  I am very excited for the rehearsal process, last year I started part-way through the season and missed it.

Readers, this is where I need your help.  This year I am portraying the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes (which is going to be so, so fun).  In order to create her unique voice, I am collecting up as many fashion, sewing, and textile-related idioms as I can think of.  There are so many that we use in everyday speech (straight-laced, tight-knit, bursting at the seams, and infinitely more) that I cannot possibly think of them all myself.

So, readers, please comment with any fashion, sewing, or textile-related idioms you’d like to share!  I would love to hear from you!