Stepping Back

Hm. I haven’t posted since the day before the election. I’ll let you interpret that as you like.

I sewed a canvas jerkin by hand over the past month. It isn’t 100% historically accurate (i.e., no interlining) because it was for a friend who is always too warm and lives in Virginia, where our summers are brutally hot and humid. In this project, I learned a few things.

  1. What makes my projects take forever (more like a year) isn’t how fast I sew, but how often and for how long I set down projects when I get to a tricky bit. I get to the part where I have to do the buttonholes, and I set it aside and don’t get back to it for six weeks. I get to the bit where I have to make the skirts symmetrical at the center front of the doublet, and I set it aside for two months. Right. If setting it aside isn’t an option, I can make a jerkin by hand in a month.
  2. Closely related to #1, perfect is the enemy of good, and of adequate practice. We get better (usually) at things we practice. Every hour holding a needle or manipulating fabric with a sewing machine makes me better at that skill and usually generalizes to related skills. Obsessing about perfection keeps me from getting enough practice at the things I want to improve. Suck it up, Jen, and accept that the project will not be perfect. Make it good. Make the next one better because of the practice you got on this one. Repeat until it’s really bleepin’ good.
  3. Backstitches are known as a very strong stitch. It’s what you want to use on a seam that is going to be under a lot of strain. I have read about extant garments that had backstitches used in parts of the garment where there is almost no stress on the seam, and I didn’t understand why. I haven’t gone back and found those examples to verify that my theory is correct, but in working on the jerkin, I found another reason to use a backstitch. If you’re sewing through many layers, it’s almost impossible to do a running stitch where you take one “bite” to go into and out of the fabric to make a full stitch with one motion. If that makes no sense to you, watch this video. The fabric is just too thick to bend the way it needs to bend to do that, and your running stitches would have to be huge to make it work. If you use a backstitch, on the other hand, you can end up with normal-sized stitches, but do it quickly taking big “bites” through the thick layers, then backing up to make sure the final stitches are small enough to work. I sewed on the jerkin’s shoulder wings and skirts with backstitches, and while it uses more thread, it is infinitely faster than trying to use a running stitch. This is probably a “Duh!” thing to people who sew a lot by hand, and that’s why it’s good to get practice – this is the sort of thing you figure out by doing it.

Since I posted last, I bought male and female half-scale dress dummies, and I even (mostly) finished a pair of breeches for “Robin.” I’ve been meaning to make him the matching doublet. Maybe if I can keep up the motivation, I will post about all of that here. (ETA: Just realized that I DID post about Bess’s body block last year. Haha. I’ll get back to that.)

Weave Structures

I got a new toy. We used magnifiers to look at weave structures in my SHD class in London, and I found a nifty one -it has its own light! – on Amazon. I need to start bringing this with me to fabric stores.

I looked at a couple of “plain weave” or “tabby” woven fabrics today. This is the simplest weave – one over, one under, repeat forever. Look at this clever person’s diagrams and explanations.

Now we’ll look at it in real life.

Looking first at a simple tabby woven linen:


Now looking at the same tabby linen close-up:


And a tropical weight (very lightweight fabric) worsted (from tightly spun threads – as opposed to “woolen”, which is fluffier and from looser spun wool threads) wool tabby:


And the close-up of the wool tabby:


A silk that has very thin warp threads (running up and down the length of the fabric, parallel to the selvedges) and very thick weft (crosswise) threads:


And the close-up of the silk with thin warp and thick weft:


Finally, what modern fabric stores call a “shot” silk – the warp threads are one color, and the weft threads are a different color, which gives it an iridescent effect when it moves in the light. In the 16th century, it was known as “changeable” silk – this one is red and black:


And here is the shot silk close-up, where you can easily see the two different threads.


Now you’d think that because tabby woven fabric is a simple weave that looks the same if you turn it 90 degrees (try it with the diagram in the link above or with the close-up of the linen above), it would behave the same regardless of whether you cut it on the straight grain (i.e., all of your pattern pieces facing so that the selvedge is running from the top to bottom of the pattern) or on the cross grain (i.e., turning your pattern pieces so that the selvedges are running from side to side of your pattern pieces).

You’d be wrong, as I was. I will do some demos in the near future so that you will know it in your heart of hearts as I now do, but until then, I have heard this from a patterner/cutter who has been doing this for decades, and I have seen it with my own eyes. You have been warned. Straight grain – every time, and *especially* for interlinings.

Tailoring vs. Dress-making

I asked this earlier and got some good answers: “Pop quiz! What are the differences between tailoring and dressmaking skills? Extra credit for citations or explaining the history of the two traditions.”

Here is my understanding of the major differences in the 16th century and the implications for historical costuming. If I’ve missed anything or gotten something not quite right (or just mucked it all up), feel free to comment.

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I have decided that I want to master patterning. This is not a small, short-term goal that I’ll accomplish this fall. I took a class with the School of Historical Dress in London last month on “The Art of Cutting Out c. 1600-2000,” taught by Melanie Braun, who probably knows more about this topic than anyone on the planet. It’s hard to summarize what I learned, but it made my head explode a couple of times. It also made me aware of many things that I didn’t know I didn’t know. Her class – two days long – was just a taste, but it was incredible, and I want to learn it all.

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Tailored to a New World

   I don’t know where to start re: describing the conference at Jamestown. The tours, workshops, and lectures *all* rocked. Some bits were of more interest to me than other bits, but it was all full of good information, and the areas that didn’t appeal much to me made my friends squee with delight. I’ll likely write about some of the specific topics later.

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