Saturday, February 26, 2011

Swing Dress Sew-Along

Is there something out there that people assume you like, but you don’t and just because you like something similar you have to explain over and over that you don’t like that second thing? Until very recently I felt this way when I would talk about reenacting and history, and people would go from there to vintage. I’m not into vintage. It is not that old. I am not glam, I don’t wear modern lipstick or nylons. I have often despaired when folks that I admired in the Living History world jumped on the vintage bus. That is, until this winter.

Stephen and I have, in the past, admired the waltzing and swing dancing couples at Reenactorfest. I love dancing in any form, so when Stephen suggested we find ourselves a studio that might teach some of the more historical dances I jumped at the chance, and in December we found ourselves at a ballroom studio taking classes in Waltz and Swing. The waltz, and a few sampler classes we’ve taken have been really interesting, but the swing class has been plain fun. We’ve been taking the classes for 2 and a half months and I almost feel like I could hold my own for the length of a dance.

Then, about a month ago one of my 18th century blogs that I follow mentioned that she was thinking of participating in a swing dress sew-along. I had never heard of a sew-along! I had to find out what it was, and what exactly this swing dress was. The link took me over to Casey’s Elegant Musings which is a lovely blog. Casey is lovely and sews beautiful outfits. She writes well, and was just starting to host a sew-along. This is where a blog author picks a pattern, and followers all over the blogosphere follow along and make the dress too. Casey had lovely pictures of a couple versions of the dress that she had already made: really classic looking, but fun at the same time. The idea of a sew-along tickled me, and I thought it would be tons of fun to have a dress for swing dance class; but I was in the middle of an intense sewing project that I was determined to finish, then I had the next few projects all lined up after that. I did not need a new sewing project.

Over the next few weeks I kept going back to Elegant Musings. I told myself that I did not have time, that I really didn’t even like vintage, that I had so many other projects and they were all more important. But I kept going back. The pattern was one designed and sold by Sense & Sensibility Patterns and they had a $10 e-pattern version that you could download and print yourself. I ordered it, but I told myself that I was just ordering the pattern for some later time, possibly years down the road. I would not take part in the sew-along, and I most certainly would not try to make a dress before this February’s Reenactorfest!

Winter is a hard time of year for me. This winter we have gotten tons of snow, and every time I contemplated winter projects, and preparing for spring, the swing dress would pop into my head. I added Elegant Musings to my RSS feed, and even tried out one of Casey’s hairstyle tutorials (I got it right on the first try.) When the post about fabric choices came up I saw that lightweight wool was an acceptable fabric, and right then I knew I had lost the inner battle. If I could find a good fabric I would make the dress. This proved harder than I had anticipated. All my local fabric stores had a small selection of light-weight wool, but the colors were not what I was looking for. I was looking for a combination of weight and drape that did not seem to be in the stores. I finally drove down to Boston, and after despairing about all the drab and horrible suit-weight wools (half of which were polyester and not wool at all) I pulled a poly-cotton bolt out of the bottom of a pile and found a lovely wine colored fabric with pretty pink flowers. I bought enough for the swing dress plus a little extra, just in case.

As you know from my previous post, I was making up my 18th century stays for a mid-January ball, and once I had gotten them at least far enough along that I had worn them once successfully I started thinking more seriously about the swing dress. Have I mentioned how snowy this winter has been? We have had a number of days where it has been too snowy for my to drive in to work. On the snow days I would treat myself by giving over lunch breaks and commute times to the swing dress. I also stole some evening hours on weekdays. The sewing room is in the back of our house, and fairly cold since we keep it closed up in winter, but I braved the chill since I was now obsessed.

e-pattern printouts

Miss Mini "helps" me lay out the pattern. By sitting on top of the printouts.

First I needed to print out the e-pattern. This was not as easy as it seemed since the sizes only come out right if the scale is perfect. The e-pattern comes with a test page that you print first. It has a ruler on it, and you match that up with a real ruler to determine your scale. I had to bump up the pattern to print at 102% in order to get the ruler to print right. Then once I printed all the pieces I laid them out on the floor, and taped them all together. It was a rather messy process, but since I always trace out patterns on to tracing paper, I was not as careful about trimming margins as I might have been. Once I had the paper pattern pieces taped together I cleaned off the cutting table in the sewing room and started tracing.

Everyone comes to sewing differently. Some people are taught by their mothers and sew all throughout their childhood. Some people come into it as teenagers, or possibly even adults. I got into sewing in college when I wanted more historical outfits and could not figure out where to buy them. This means that although I can use a pattern, I’m much more comfortable sewing something from the 16th century than the 20th. Zippers? What the heck is a zipper? There were a lot of things about this pattern that were completely new to me. One of which was the suggestion to sew the dress together first in a cheap fabric to get the fit right before even attempting to sew it for real. The whole dress. I’m used to making up the lining of a dress first to adjust for fit, but a complete muslin! The sew-along was going to do one, and there was no sense making the dress badly. So I dug out some green cotton broadcloth purchased a long time ago and cut out my “muslin” pieces.

The sew-along was really incredibly helpful. There was a tutorial for making bust adjustments, how to sew the shoulder yokes, even how to add pockets! One of the things I had to get over was the fact that the dress was designed to be sewn on the machine. My backwards way of learning to sew involved mostly making outfits that went out of style long before the sewing machine was even dreamed of. But here was a style of dress designed for the sewing machine. What a strange concept. This dress actually has visible stitching, on the outside of the dress! My green muslin looked pretty ridiculous, the top was too tall, the hips too wide, and the skirt not nearly full enough for actually dancing in. But that is what a muslin is for, right? I struggled though the muslin process stealing precious minutes from my stays project, and anything else that I could steal a few minutes from until I was satisfied enough to cut out the fabric, and think about actually putting the dress together. I was1 week away from Reenactorfest, with an entire Sunday free and only two rows of eyelets to go before the stays were finished.

On the Sunday morning before Reenactorfest I managed to wheedle Stephen into fixing my serger so I could finish all the seams as I sewed them. Once he was done with that, I set to work on the swing dress. Before the day was out I had most of the dress pieces put together: the bodice, the front and back skirt pieces, even half the side seams! But I had also broken a needle on the serger, so it was out of commission again. I used the evening to finish the stays (yay!) and went to bed contemplating the schedule for the week ahead:
Monday – Dance classes (so much fun, but no time for sewing)
Tuesday – record a podcast (takes all evening, no time for sewing)
Wednesday – Finish off my colonial skirt (more urgently needed for reenactorfest than the swing dress.)
Thursday – pack for Reenactorfest, (will I have time to finish the dress?)
Friday morning – Fly to Chicago.

Yup. I was actually attempting to finish the dress ahead of the sew-along, to have it done for Reenactorfest. I told myself no, but do I ever listen to me?

I was rationalizing my hurry by telling myself that it would be good to wear the dress on Sunday. Since we check out of the hotel and fly home on Sunday, it makes changing from historical clothes into airport clothes a pain, but there was no reason I could not wear a simple dress through the airport, I could be at least somewhat historical, and face the TSA. I would not get to dance in my swing dress; the dancing happens Saturday night and Stephen and I had already agreed to wear our Colonial America outfits, but I would get to wear it.

On Tuesday we recorded a really fun podcast, we talked about our obsessions of the moment. It was easy to talk about the things we’d been spending so much time on and I got to talk about The Swing Dress (It had acquired capital letters somewhere along the way.) When I mentioned that I WAS NOT planning on finishing the thing before Reenactorfest, which was then only 2 days away, Stephen leaned into his microphone, looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and declared to our listening audience that he would not be surprised if I left the ball on Saturday night after the historical dancing was done, only to come down a bit later in my brand new Swing Dress. The pressure was on.

Wednesday I finished all my other Reenactorfest-related sewing obligations, and got everything else packed. All the other outfits, normal clothes, electronics, I was even ambitious enough to set out a pile of undergarments that would be needed to go under the swing dress, if I could finish it. Thursday evening Stephen fixed the serger for a second time and I set to work. Add the sleeves to the dress? Piece of cake. Hem the skirt and the cuffs? Smooth sailing. Add a Zipper? Well, this part was not as easy, but I managed to fudge my way through, and by 10 pm I had a completed Swing Dress! I packed it along with the under-things, my dance shoes, and a nice scarf and cardigan to complete the look. I fell into bed so we could fly to Chicago a few short hours later.

All weekend I watched the lovely ladies in their WWII suits, uniforms, caps and stockings. I knew my one dress in only semi-appropriate fabric could not compete, but still, I was looking forward to it anyway. Sunday morning we packed up early, I put on my lovely Swing Dress, then my hair refused to cooperate! So I shoved it in a quick French twist, and ran to the vendor’s room. There was a lady with lovely 19th century hats that had some vintage ones tucked in among the ribbons and frills. There was a little black one that I’d been eyeing since Friday. The vendor was so nice and told me the right way to wear it (cocked over my right eye), and how to use the hat pin to secure it (hold it by the tip, push it through the hat first, then run it around the inside of the hat, before pushing it back out). She was nice enough to say I looked like Hercule Piorot’s secretary, I assume she meant in the TV series or movies, since the books are not terribly flattering. I had not really thought about character to match my new outfit, but the idea of a French (or Belgian) secretary is certainly appealing! Once I’d completed my outfit with the hat Julie took some photos, then we did two more interviews (coming soon to a podcast near you) and one panel discussion before getting on a plane, and flying home!

Now I need more excuses to wear my lovely dress! Read this entry on entry page

Monday, February 21, 2011

18th Century Stays

As I mentioned in this post in January, I got it into my head recently that I needed a pair of 18th stays, which meant that I had to make them. I know some fine professional (costumers? tailors? sewists?) but I wanted the stays for early January and I only started asking around in late November. Not a good time to get on anyone’s custom project list. I was incredibly reluctant to take on a project as complex as stays, they’ve got to be really well fitted, and involve sewing little channels that all have to be the right width, and basically I was Nervous! But Stephen promised to help me, and Reconstructing History offered a before Christmas sale on their stays pattern and reed (for boning) kit, so I bought the kit and I was off!

One of the first suggestions in the RH pattern is to make a cardboard mock-up instead of a muslin one since it will give you the best approximation of the stiffness you will be going for. I used posterboard, and I’m afraid it wanted to rip rather a lot, but I felt I got close. I did not however, choose the right size, so Stephen kept taping me into the thing and telling me to cut off an inch here, a half inch there, I must have cut down and re-tried the thing 4 times before deciding I was ready to cut out the cloth. I used an adorable light pink linen that I had already in my stash for the outer and lining layers, I cut out a medium weight white linen (probably scrap left over from lining something else) as my two middle layers. I probably would have been happier with something a little stiffer, but I think I got the thickness right.

As soon as I had all the layers cut, I ran a basting stitch around all the pieces, and basted them together at the seams because I was feeling so worried about the fit. We fitted it again, took off a tiny bit more on the sides, then Stephen was kind enough to draw out all the boning channels for me. I sewed up all the channels on the sewing machine, in fact, I did as much as I could for the whole piece on the sewing machine. Since this is my first pair of stays, I was pretty sure they would be far from perfect, and as underwear they would not be seen by too many people. After I stitched the sides to the fronts and backs I tried them on again. They were still too big around. By almost 2 inches per side! I had tried them on before, but apparently, I had just not got them tight enough yet, and it was hard to tell until the pieces were boned.

I got incredibly discouraged then, and put them aside for a few days, but a couple week deadline was looming, I’m not the fastest at sewing (or anything else for that matter) so I knew I had to keep at it if I wanted them done by the colonial dance. So I pulled out the side seams, cut off 2” and before sewing them back together, put the eyelets in at the back. Most Colonial American stays only lace up the back, but I really dislike not being self sufficient. I hate not being able to dress myself. So my stays would lace up the back, and lace up the front. I started with the back eyelets since I knew they would be the less perfect eyelets, that I would get better with practice, and also that there was less room in the back so if I still needed to bring the stays in I might still loose a bit off the front, but none off the back. Once I had two rows of eyelets I stitched the sides back together, and finally! They fit!

The rest of that weekend and week was taken up sewing tape along the seams and outside edges. I only managed to sew the tape (I used off-white twill tape) to the outside with the machine, then turned the tape under and whipped the tape to the back by hand. All that hand-sewing meant that I ran out of time, but was still able to wear them to the 1775 Ball, I just sewed the front closed for the evening and pinned the shoulder straps there eventually they will tie, and since they were underneath everything, who could tell?

We had a great time dancing and hanging out with friends, and after wearing them for an evening I was fairly pleased, and happy to finish them up.

Now, I did not get the lining put in before the dance, because according to the RH pattern the historical thing to do was to put the lining in last so you could take it back out and wash it. I’m not sure I’d do it again this way, but I’ll see how I feel after wearing them for a couple weekends in the middle of July, then I’ll know better. I fitted the lining and serged the edges because I was not about to take out the lining and wash it if I did not think it could handle being washed. I hand stitched the lining while in front of the TV on quite a few snowy evenings.

In the meanwhile, I had started on a new sewing project (which will be my next few posts) but it meant that I took my time on the stays. I did manage to put in enough time that I got the lining in, and put in front eyelets and arm strap eyelets just before wearing them again this past weekend. I feel incredibly accomplished and very proud of my 18th century underwear! They are definitely not perfect, I have things I would do differently next time, but I am happy with the final product.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When is a history book too old?

I was recently browsing in the library of the small college where I work, and I wandered into the section on German history. I was a little surprised that the section was so large, since the college does not strictly have a history major. Most of the shelves were taken up with books about World War II, which is to be expected, but there were a couple of books on the Holy Roman Empire, which is the reason why I had wandered into the section.

When looking at history books I always check the publication date. History information does get out of date. Every year historians are digging up new facts, and formulating new contexts in which to see the old figures. I like to imagine that we’re getting more picky about sources too, but I don’t want to swear to that one. The first book I pulled off the shelf had a publication date of 1983. Thirty years is pretty out of date, but I was willing to take a look at the book if the other couple were even older. The next one I opened was printed in 1967. The one after that was printed in 1928. 1928! I am shocked that that book is still on the shelf!

Now, that does not mean the book is worthless, I like to trace my sources back as far as they will go, often to books published in the early 20th century, but I’m obsessive. The book might have use in a historiography study, but I highly doubt anyone attending this college could even define historiography. The college where this book is shelved does not have a full history major. It is an undergraduate institution that offers 2 classes in Western Civilization, and one course on Contemporary Europe.  I’m skeptical about the worth of the 1967 book, and  I’m sure that the 1928 book has very little to offer the current students.

But I’m not a librarian, or a professor. I’m a lowly staff member with a love of history. I’m not going to make a fuss, the librarians are over worked and underappreciated. But I did want to say something here, and remind folks to check those publication dates before you trust anything you may read.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dabbling in Academia

What am I getting myself in for? Last night I drove from the college where I work, to another college almost an hour east, in order to volunteer away the next two months. I’m horrified and psyched at the same time.

There are a lot of Medieval Academic blogs out there. In fact, Medieval academic blogs have their own category on my RSS feed. I’ve never taken a college-level class in Medieval or Renaissance history, but my academic background always skirted around the edges of history, and I’ve taken graduate level courses in American Historiography, Material Culture, and Museum Studies. I pride myself that I am able to keep up with most academic texts, and I will admit to an unabashed love of college/university libraries. Last spring one of the blogs I read had a call for papers for a conference on Medieval and Renaissance topics that was to take place in April, right here in New Hampshire! I was so surprised! I have looked at all the colleges in NH and none of them offer graduate level MedRen courses. Colleges do not need graduate level courses to host a conference, but still I was not expecting to see something like this in a relatively short distance.

When I saw the call for papers I looked up the conference’s website, which was fairly limited, but included a large number of photos of college students in bad “medieval” garb. I have heard and sometimes seen the divide between academia and reenacting, the photos intrigued me, did stuffy academics barely tolerate the bad costumes? Were they wearing the bad costumes? I emailed the contact person on the call for papers about possibly interviewing her for the Living History Podcast, and said that I would be happy to volunteer my services at the conference itself. I have no idea what the professor must have thought of my email, I mentioned my employment at another college, and my reenacting experience, but I did not submit a resume. I know reenacting’s reputation, I did not want to seem like I was busting in to the middle of some place I did not belong. The professor emailed me back, but then did not respond to my second email for a few months. Then I wrote her, but when she wrote me back I did not respond for a few months. We were not very good at communicating.

Finally yesterday evening we did manage to connect. I drove to Plymouth State and we met for a half an hour. Our meeting was really good. The professor was super nice, and happy to hear about what I thought I could contribute. She told me about some of the great things they have planned for The Forum (that is what they all call the conference.) It turns out, what she really needs is an assistant, someone who has administrative skills and event management experience. I am an administrator with event management experience! And The Forum is totally in an area of my interest! But Plymouth State is almost an hour from where I work, and over an hour from where I live. I am not in a good position geographically.

After we met, we headed to a meeting of the Medieval Society club, the student club that is the source of the photos, and would help out at The Forum. The MedSoc (Medieval Society) meeting was also interesting. It was an organization run by students who had a lot of other priorities, and more enthusiasm than actual knowledge, but with guidance had potential. Oh how I wish there was one of those at the college where I work. I could be such a great resource! I have tons of extra clothing, a huge library of books, and have access to my biggest resource: Stephen, knows more and is a better teacher and leader than I am.

So here I am, with an opportunity to do what I love, albeit in a volunteer capacity. But it is such a long drive, and a lot of it would happen on weekday evenings. I need my sleep to be at all functional. At this point the conference is only two months away, and I’m not likely to get really involved until it is a month out, right? Right?

Please tell me I won’t regret giving away the next two months.

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