Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Male convicts

This year is the bi-centennial of the first white crossing of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales in 1813. The mountain range had been a real obstacle to the expansion of white Australian settlement in New South Wales until Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson and several convicts finally found a way down from the steep cliffs to the grassy plains below on the western side. My client was referred to me following some clothing I made for guides at Old Government House Parramatta. Outfits for 7 or 8 convict men were required for a play about the convict workers on the road over the mountains. As usual a small budget and tight deadline had to be worked around, you'd think I'd be used to that by now wouldn't you? So by early April, as well as fitting in family wedding preparations for May, I had a line full of convict shirts, pants and punishment pants with buttoned sides drying in the sun. I stencilled the government broad arrow on sparingly in several places as my reference drawing showed. We used the Augustus Earle drawing of convicts at Parramatta this time. Some handspun wool rough caps were also knitted for me by Kurrajong Crafts Inc. thanks to a friend who recommended their help. This job also led to another recent order for an Overseer of Convicts for Hyde Park Barracks. I made an 1820's shirt with stock and cravat, a burgandy wool double breasted vest and frock coat, grey knee breeches and purchased long white hose, a black top hat and braces to complete the outfit. Some ladies day caps and aprons will also follow. Hope to have the time to make myself a new 1880's gown for September when I'm giving an after-dinner talk at a national conference for one of my Guilds, fingers crossed.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Altering an Ambassador's coat

I certainly do get some fascinating projects to work on. This one has to be one of the most interesting yet frustrating I've had for quite a while. My client is an illusionist who loves using vintage for his stage costumes. He told me about this suit, bought on Ebay from a Perth Western Autralia antiques dealer, and I didn't believe my eyes when he brought it to me. It was sold to him as an Ambassador's Suit but he has no provenance or any other information. The dealer had 3 to sell, and N. fell in love with the embroidery on this one. It's gold bullion embroidery, but unfortunately quite tarnished with age. I think it's still magnificent though! The photograph above is quite true to colour, Ive enhanced the ones below so that the beautiful detail can be better appreciated. Judging by the workmanship and style I'd say it could be turn of the 20th century and the buttons on the false "vest" front panel which he removed match those on the back waist and are crested gold with a London button company name on the back. I looked up the crest online, and they appear to be British Royal crest. So, who did the previous owner represent, the British Royal family or a British colony at the time, and how did the 3 suits wind up in Perth Australia? A lot of British migrants stayed on in Perth, the first port of call for emmigration ships from England. What a mystery, it's driving me mad !!

Anyway, N. needs a new false vest front in a larger size, so I've made a toile in calico and he's sourced some black wool. We'll make a press stud fastening for quick change but mount the original buttons through worked buttonholes in the centre front to simulate an opening vest. I also have to shorten the sleeves under the ornate cuffs and pad out the chest area. I'm trying to leave all original fittings/fastenings intact and make the changes reversible so that when he retires the costume it can be put into a collection somewhere. Some more photos of the stunning embroidery below. Remember I've altered the contrast slightly so that the beauty of the stitching can be seen better. I can only imagine how many hours it took to do this work, which is now done in England by British firm Hand and Lock.

Detail front left side

Detail back neck

Detail cuff

While browsing the Lafayette Studio photos from the V & A Museum site, I stumbled on a photo of Sir Herbert Eustace Maxwell taken in 1901 attending the Royal Court, wearing his Full Dress, Civil Uniform 1st Class and guess what? This looks remarkably like N's coat. Not THE coat as Sir H's is larger with a slightly extended embroidery design, but same design and style. This gent was an MP, a Lord of the Treasury, Privy Counselor and author on Scottish history. I still wonder how it got to Australia though, don't you??

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hand made trim for a Victorian dress

A recent request for assistance on the Australian Costumers' Guild forums has prompted me to document a trim I made once for the German housekeeper's costume in the Gordon Frost production of "Sound of Music". It was a common period trim, and turns up on hats and caps too. I made that one from stiff black woven self patterned taffeta ribbon, but it could be made from self fabric if it has enough body. You could seam up a tube of fabric or if it's stiff enough just press the sides under to just overlap in the middle of your finished width. The work is done by hand from the back as the thread carries along.

Contrast thread is used for illustration only, use a best match thread in case the small stitches show through

To work the honeycomb smocking stitch, begin by marking a point in the middle of your width on the wrong side with a coloured pencil a distance in from the raw edge. Next mark your required distance away on one edge and another point opposite it on the other edge, then a mid point at the required distance away, then the edge points and so on along the length required.

Using doubled thread secured in the middle first take a small running stitch out at the edge marking then carry across the back to the other point then along to the mid point, only taking a small running stitch each time. Now pull through and tighten to form folds as in the photo below.

You can manipulate the fullness of the folds, it could be steamed if really neccesary but do not press. It takes a few inches to see the folds forming properly so I did a few samples to test the ribbon and work out the size of the completed trim. I think it was something like 3 times the finished length in the end, it all depends on the fabric. I attached it to the dresses every few inches only, and it survived 8 shows per week plus laundering.
Once you get a rhythm going, it works up quite quickly and looks really great. I made about 10 metres finished all up, in the train going to and from the workroom each day.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Women Transported Exhibition

This post first appeared at Lady Janes Wardrobe

I can't believe it's been so long since I posted here, but I haven't been entirely idle. You can see what I've been doing in the stitching world here

Earlier in the year I was fortunate to work with a great group of volunteers who were reproducing some convict women's clothing for an exhibition which ran from August to November 10th at the Parramatta Heritage and Information Centre. Called "Women Transported", it was the first time a lot of extant artifacts and photos had been exhibited in the one gallery. The curator Gay wanted to show that the convict women transported to Australia were not all hardened criminals, in fact there was a policy eventually of convicting young healthy women of petty crime to send them to New South Wales to populate the country.

We decided to offer 3 different outfits for display: a 3rd class Tasmanian convict, a 3rd class Parramatta convict and 1st class Parramatta Sunday best dress. I was charged with researching the actual designs, making patterns and sourcing the fabrics required. There were 5 volunteer sewers who hand stitched every item. We had an 1844 satirical cartoon called "Beautifully Linked" by Winstanley which showed a version of a female convict outfit, and the word descriptions of government issued clothing but information about Australian convict dress is very scant.

I referred back to English working class clothing of the early 1800's as seen in drawings, including the Cries of London series which although a bit earlier wouldn't have changed very much. The project was very challenging, but I think the resulting costumes were well received. They have certainly started a dialogue about publishing a book on working class clothing in Australia.

The Tasmanian convict showed a drab jacket with a longer sleeve and a dark checked neckerchief. You can see it in the foreground of the picture above.

The 3rd class Parramatta outfit was the most complete.

It featured a shift, petticoat, over petticoat (skirt) jacket, neckerchief and cotton cap, as well as an apron of dressed sheepskin worn for rock breaking duty.
The apron was the biggest hurdle, because no-one in Australia or New Zealand could supply dressed sheep skin. Can you imagine that? We had to get a skin from the USA!

The first class Parramatta Sunday best outfit consisted of a red calico jacket, white cap and straw bonnet which I hand sewed from 22 metres of wheat straw braid, as inspired by an extant 1830's bonnet in our Powerhouse Museum here in Sydney.

These photos were taken yesterday while the exhibition was being taken down. I lost all my photos taken in August while learning to use a new camera! Also, after seeing the red jacket in these photos, I altered the fitting of it last night before it was packed to travel to the next Gallery at Tamworth in February. It now closes much more neatly and fits the very small mannequin better. Did I hear someone say "damned perfectionist" ?

ETA: This exhibition was very well received right around the state and indeed interstate as well. We won 2 prestigious awards for the total exhibition, and after the tour is completed the convict womens' repro clothing will probably be on permanent display at Parramatta Heritage and Information Centre

Planning to make convict womens' clothing

This post was moved from Lady Janes Wardrobe

As part of a group sewing for a forthcoming exhibition of Australian convict women I've been researching and helping to reproduce some clothing which may have been worn by women transported to the Australian colony. Our period is approx 1820's to 1840's and is based on a political cartoon drawn at the time, as well as contemporary word descriptions of what women were issued with. No clothing has survived so our efforts are "educated speculation". I've been trying to base the designs on the working dress of Britain at the time, and have come up with a shortgown, petticoat and neckhandkerchief combination which I hope will pass muster. I toiled them last week, and the first photo shows the calico pieces on a dress model. The most difficult part is the fabric choice - we only have vague word descriptions, and unfortunately some terms are no longer valid. For example calico refers to a cotton cloth which came from Calcutta in India, which were dyed then block or roller printed with designs. There are some examples of the fabrics to be seen online in albums on quilting sites, but you can't be sure they were dress fabrics and not furnishings. Then there is "stuff", which is cotton, linen or wool yardage ! Another difficult one is "blue gurrah" which was an Indian coarse cotton cloth, used for petticoats and working class garments. I have purchased some Indian cotton furnishing weight fabric in a blue, and discharge dyed it with bleach to see the result (see photo 2)

The third photo is the result of today's playing with bleach and dye. I bought some 100% cotton washer canvas to make the 3rd class Tasmanian convict clothing, but was unhappy with the colour range available. I bought a milk chocolatey brown, with the plan to discharge dye it after my success with the blue. Well, the first attempt went to a pale terracotta colour, not terribly "drab" which is the desired colour. Now just what drab is can only be a guess, but I don't think it was a pretty pinkish terracotta. A quick call to friend Jenny B. who has a little more experience with colour theory than me and her suggestion was to try a green dye to counteract the red.
So back into the washing machine went 5 metres of 150cm wide fabric with 1/2 cup pale green Gilseal powdered dye dissolved in hot water and a 15 minute hot wash. Voila, a distressed looking drab brown, which when dried was not too bad at all.Photo 3 shows a strip of the pink terracotta, and a strip of the fabric dyed in a concentrated green bath and the finished drab colour yardage.

I'm hoping to visit the Powerhouse Museum on Thursday to eyeball some other clothing from the same period to "get my eye in" for the colours, before I do anything further to the fabric.

ETA: During our museum visit we realised the period was not well represented by any extant clothing, so chose to go with the fabric as I dyed it.

1887 purple bustle dress photos on Mothers' Day

This post was moved from Lady Janes Wardrobe

I needed a photo of my 1887 purple and black bustle dress to accompany a newspaper article about costuming for the ACG. Unfortunately the photographer scheduled a shoot for Mothers' Day in the city, and as I was invited to lunch at my son's place on the other side of town, I was asked to email some photos instead. Quandry - costume is size 10 - 12, I am definately NOT. Solution - my youngest daughter was persuaded to model for me. She is size 8 - 10 so didn't quite fill it out, and she's standing on a little box in the photos, but I think she looks the part. The costume is a nice contrast to the green of the garden so I hope these photos are useable for the article. Thanks Bron, you made my Mothers' Day.

1830's dress analysed

This post was moved from Lady Janes Wardrobe

The costume in the previous post was just picked up by the director of an historic house museum and is to be worn for an Open Day tommorrow. I insisted that she try it on, she had previously tried on a sample of the dress but I had changed the sleeve. The dress is a standard 10 - 12 size (32 - 34" bust) and I didn't think there would be a problem, but it is good business practise etc. The young lady in question is a fitness enthusiast and we had a problem with the sleeve going over her bicep, which was quite muscular. I let it out as much as I could, but I will need to recover it after tomorrow to add a small gusset under the arm through to the elbow. Lesson to all, young ladies who exercise might have larger than average fashion size biceps, shoulders, and across back measurements. Always check. I didn't and now I have to alter the dress at my expense. But she did love the dress, and the little cap, and the matching reticule I made. She won't be able to wear the chemisette tomorrow as the dress is VERY firm, which is very historically correct but not so comfortable for a modern body. I'm hoping she'll send some posed pictures of her in the outfit on the day.

ETA: The costume was worn on the day and much admired. Since that day, the museum curator has moved on, and no-one else has tried to wear the dress since. There was a misunderstanding about the ownership of the outift apparently and now it hangs in a wardrobe in a gallery until needed again. I'd like to see it on a manequin or dress form on display, similar to the one at Hambledon perhaps?