Sunday, February 22, 2015

Cast a Smaller Net

Lately, I've been very interested in diving further into the study of late medieval garments not just as what they were and how they were worn, but more specifically how they may have changed during their use and how they were employed with other garments to make appropriate outfits for the wearer. In essence, I've found myself much more sensitive to pairing dresses, gowns, hats, and accessories with each other in a manner consistent with their more specific time and place. I'm no longer interested simply in "15th Century Fashion" as a catch-all category for all the various items in use during that time. Instead, I'm finding much more interest in looking a shorter ranges and narrower geography to eliminate the things that don't fit, and to see what really goes with what.

I think this interest in getting more specific is part of the natural progression toward greater authenticity (that each of us takes at our own pace), but it stems more recently for me from something in particular. I know that our modern culture champions the idea of "mix-and-match". We like to have clothing that can be worn in several situations in different configurations. We're kinda done with one-hit wonders, so we choose versatility. This is a thoroughly modern idea, and it's really only been in the past four decades that the consumer experience centers around the concept of buying individual items to swap around with other individual items. In the past, stores offered up outfits or suits as their primary sell. And before that, women wore dresses- one and done. No need to go crazy with the mixin'.

We're modern women. We're creative in our recreations. Some medieval rules are incredibly easy to overlook or ignore when they appear to be limiting to us. We want all the things, after all. So we apply our present-day ideals of versatile fashion on a society of women that did everything by strict, often unwritten social standards to define themselves in time and place. At a time when a woman's non-conformity to the norms of her community could single her out in the worst kinds of ways, I would say that doing things according to a pattern and sticking with socially acceptable (and approved) fashion identities was a really safe bet. Women found other ways to display their unique characters by applying it to trades or skills, or things such as writing or politics. Women were considered beautiful when they conformed to the ideal (however boring or standard it may seem to us), not when they blazed a trail of wild novelty out on their own.
If we are interested in greater accuracy, we need to stop mixing. We need to quit looking at a single century's fashion as if they were a whole. We need to stop choosing things we like from one end of the timeline and wearing it with something from the other end. And before anyone gets offended, know that I say this to myself as much as anyone else. I've been doing it wrong. Lots of us are.

So today, I challenge each of us to start taking a closer look at our sources and really pay attention to them. Remove the outliers. Find the averages, the standards, the norms. Ignore the extant finds until they fall into the category of "typical". What are the contexts? Who are these women we are looking at? What does she symbolize, and is that something we want to symbolize as well? What appears more often than not? Are two things never seen together in the same outfit? Does one detail belong with another detail? Is something worn the same way, in the same context, every single time it's seen? Focus on less, hone in on specifics. Cast a smaller net for a bit, and see what you learn.

It's a rabbit hole that's worth going down.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

In Progress: Navy Wool Middle Layer

It occurred to me while working on the navy wool dress that it might be a good idea to focus today's post on how I make my dresses these days. I've fallen into some routines and habits that I tend to overlook or gloss over when I share here, since, in my mind at least, it would start to sound like a broken record to outline the steps I take each and every time. I do my best to share when I've done something different (like the symmetrical patterning on the ginger linen dress), but it's those minute steps that I go through that I sort of stopped detailing.

Even before developing the symmetrical pattern on the last dress, I've relied on a standard base pattern to get me started for a while now. So the first step is to determine if I'd like to create a dress with or without a center front seam and to make adjustments to the pattern accordingly. For dresses that will be worn as outer layers (the fashion layers), I prefer to not have a seam. It's a personal visual preference, but it's also what my research has shown to be accurate for early 15th century Franco-Flemish middle class fitted gowns.

Layout is incredibly simplified with the symmetrical pattern, but even with four distinct panels, I prefer to get as much of the material laid out as I can at one time. The best place to do that now is on the living room floor. I use chalk to outline my panels, and a combination of tape measure and yard stick to draw out the remainder of the panels and the gores. (My pattern pieces only go to my hips.) I like to chalk everything out before I cut, just to make sure.

With the symmetrical patterns, I can cut my panels from the folded material.
The left-hand panel is the front, placed on the fold.
I use a sewing gauge, the kind with the little slider, to help me mark out uniform seam allowances all the way around. I don't do that on gores, though- they are what they are when I figure out how large I can make them on the material. I do nothing with the sleeves at this point- the remaining material just gets folded up and put aside until I'm ready for it again.

After getting everything cut out, I start by sewing together any half gores I may have ended up with (usually at least one pair). I sew it and finish it. That way all four gores are full triangles and can all be treated the same way. If I only end up with one gore with a center seam (like I did on the navy dress), I put that in the center back. Not sure why, but I just feel like that makes sense visually.

Before I worry about putting gores in, though, I stitch the panels together and give it a try. If it's an outer gown, I wear it over a dress I intend to wear under it. This gives me a chance to see if I need to make any adjustments to the fit before moving on. I didn't need to make any changes on the navy dress, but I did when I made the ginger linen dress. So far I have always needed to do that on my under dresses. I've spoken before about wearing the dress around the house like that for several hours to allow the linen to stretch before I correct the fitting.

Midway through wearing the ginger dress around the house.
I usually wear leggings and a cardigan to make it a little less weird.
After resewing any necessary adjustments, I then insert the gores. If I'm hand sewing, I hand sew the gores in too. For the navy dress, I'm using the machine for the construction seams, so I used the machine for the gores. When there is no center front seam, the front gore goes into a slit. That can be a bit tricky, and it's taken me a while to get comfortable with how that works and how to do it. I started with this clear tutorial from La Cotte Simple. The principle is the same whether you're hand sewing or machine sewing.

With the gores in, I have the choice to continue on with finishing the seams on the dress body before creating the sleeves, or going right in to the sleeves. From my new drafting method, I have a pattern that I feel really confident with, so all I needed to do was adjust the sleeve holes to match the sleeve head length.

I'd made some marks when I wore it, then used those as guides along with measurements
from the sleeve pattern to find the right curve.
At this point, I've cut the sleeves out and they are waiting to be sewn together. I'll baste them in and try the dress on again to make sure everything's working out right. That will be my last chance to make any adjustments before I move into the finishing blitz.


For the navy dress, I'm using flat felling as the seam du jour. It creates a strong, good-looking seam, and goes pretty fast. I have the option of using running stitch or an overcast or hem stitch to tack it down. I prefer overcast but if I'm short on time, running is the way to go. Since I've got time, I'm using overcast on this dress.

That one in the middle is kind of a runt, isn't it. I'll replace it with one that's the right size.
Just like I do on half gores, I finish the sleeves before sewing them in for real. In this case, I'll be leaving the lower arm open for the last 3" and doing buttons/buttonholes. I've already made the buttons, using my method outlined here. There will be three on each arm. This should be just enough for me to get the sleeves rolled up when I'd like to wear it as a middle class outer layer.

Before I sew the sleeves on, I will finish the shoulder seams and at least the top portion of the side seams. That way I can sew the sleeves into place without having to fuss with getting those seams finished later on. Once the sleeves are in place, I'll finished the rest of the seams.

At the very end of the process, I put the dress on and have someone mark my hem with some chalk. Then it's just hemming and finishing the neckline. I'll share those details when I show you the final dress.

BTW, I also notice in these photos that the blue is all over the place. The buttons are the closest to the real thing.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Pinkie Promise

I had planned to share with you my completed Ginger Linen dress today, but just as I was finishing that up, I had a bit of a change to my plans. Plus, it's too cold to be wandering around outside in just a single-layer linen dress to take pictures, and I don't have a suitable interior picture-taking spot at the moment. So even if I was going to share the finished dress with you today, it would have been in bits and pieces, rather than the full photo shoots I normally do. Which would have not been cool, really. I can, however, share this little teaser of the neckline with you:


While I was completing the finishing work on the ginger dress, I decided to pull out the navy blue wool I originally purchased 6 years ago. I had intended it to be used for my now-defunct Garb Quest project, but at the time I still had so much to learn about dressmaking that I feared ruining the piece. I carefully folded it and preserved it as if it was a precious document, and had gotten it into my head that it was the most valuable piece of material I had. Which was a load of bull that I fed myself out of a lack of confidence.

So I pulled that sucker out, ran my hand over it, remembering why I loved it so much (it's so wonderfully soft), and washed it. We hung it up in the shelter in our backyard to dry, but then it rained, then it dropped below freezing, and eventually 2 days later, the wool came back in, only to be draped over our living room furniture to finish drying. If I'd still had any inkling that the wool needed to be preserved, it had been tossed out the window and fed to the possums by that point.

We turned the heat lamp on to prevent the wool from freezing overnight.
To me that was a lesson. Authentic materials (or at least authentic fibers) are costly, and they can tend to feel like investments that must be protected. But the reality is that we purchase these things not just to use them, but to LEARN to use them. Mistakes are always going to be a part of that process. Instead of fearing that a beautiful piece of cloth might be ruined by our ineptitude, we can embrace the opportunity to learn how to deal with any mistakes we may or may not make, and stop allowing them to hold us back. I bought that wool all those years ago to turn it into something. Whether I'd done it then or now, it would still teach me - there's always something new to discover when you're on the path of learning a skill.

So, back to my original point. I got the blue wool ready, and decided that I wanted to try to make a dress with it for the next event I was attending. I was still on the fence about it, though, since there were at least three other projects that needed my attention first. But while I was contemplating this, with the hem of my ginger linen dress still waiting to be completed, a friend started messaging me.

She needed some prompting to help her get back on track with a dress that had been waiting around to be completed for several months. If I had to guess, I'd say that she already knew she needed to get on it, but she needed that other voice to back her up. I was more than happy to oblige. We continued to chat, and then realizing that we would both be attending the event at the end of February, she suggested that we should pinkie promise to both have complete, new outfits for the event.

Now, I'm not sure how pinkie swears work in your circles, but in mine, a pinkie swear is serious business. It's a contract of trust. My husband reminds me when we pinkie swear that a broken pinkie promise means a broken pinkie. And I really like my pinkies. So when I decided to swear on my littlest finger, that's something I don't take lightly.

Since I was very close to completing the ginger linen dress, and the washed wool was waiting to be cut, I sent her my digital pinkie swear, and the deal was struck.

from The Queen's Book (BL Harley 4431), circa 1414, fol. 178
I had already tagged the navy wool to be a component to my Manuscript Challenge outfit, so I needed to figure out how to do it so that it would work has a middle layer. In the challenge outfit, the navy dress is worn under the gray outer gown, as a cote/kirtle. But in order to make the dress for Candlemas, to wear over my ginger linen dress, I need it to function as an outer gown on its own merit. 

Since the ginger linen dress has long sleeves with buttons at the forearms, it makes sense to wear the navy dress sleeves up, to expose the ginger dress. But the navy dress sleeves also need to be able to work down. The solution I have come up with is to make the navy dress sleeves with three buttons at the wrists. The buttons can be undone, and the sleeves loosened enough to roll up to show the dress underneath. The effect will be identical to the rolled-up sleeves spotted in French manuscripts from the first 3rd of the 15th Century, such as this example from The Comedies of Terence:

from The Comedies of Terence (BnF MS Latin 7907 A) circa 1400-1407, fol. 8
This also means that the wool dress won't have any lacing, since it needs to be a fashionable outer layer when worn over other dresses in this rolled-sleeve manner. But that's something I do anyway, since lacing is mostly not a viable option for anything but the lowest supportive layer on me. (Which is what I would wear under the wool dress when wearing it with another outer gown. My supportive short cote is one such bottom-layer option.)

So I'm going to skip sharing the finished Ginger Linen dress with you until I can share the entire new outfit next month. I'm sure you don't mind missing out on photos of me freezing my butt off today if it means you get to see something worth the photo shoot later on.