Thursday, November 19, 2015

A French Plaid Silk Taffeta Boutis Quilt, c. 1760s+

How many more wonderful textile related words can you squeeze into this title? Plaid. Silk. Taffeta. Boutis. Quilt. Each on its own denotes something special, but when taken together? It is beyond the ordinary, everyday.

This cheerful French silk taffeta, most likely intended for a dress, was in circulation by 1764 --it  appears in Selling Silks: A Merchant’s Sample Book by Leslie Ellis Miller. There is at least one extant example of a gown made from the same or very similar plaid, sold at Whitaker Auction.

 However, at some point -- probably a few decades later than the silk production date—it is transformed into a French quilt (c.1800?). The quilting is of a type known as boutis. Boutis work is a Provençal word meaning 'stuffing', describing the manner in which two layers of fabric are quilted together with stuffing sandwiched between sections of the design, creating a raised effect. [1] This example is charming, and includes hearts at the corners. You can see bits of the cotton wadding or batting used to “puff” out the quilt, typical of boutis work.

Taffeta is a very thin silk. The batting used to quilt the boutis has pushed the silk, causing strain and resulting in damage. However, the design of the hand stitching also holds the silk together. Although damaged due to folds and wear, with tears to the boutis and shattered silk, it nonetheless is valuable as a study piece.

Formerly from collection

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Nathaniel Soames, Shoemaker of Ludgate: Wedding Slippers, c. 1786

These delightful British wedding slippers (noted as such via the Metropolitan Museum) were made by “Soames, Ladies Shoe Maker, London.” They are typical of their day: leather slippers with a low heel and all the energy focused at the toe. A wonderful fringy silk tassel captures the eye and surely would have been noticed as one promenaded or danced across the floor. The work of Soames is similar to shoes by Bragg & Luckin, and Hoppe, both of Londan. Examples of their work survives at The Bostonian Society, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Smithsonian Institute to name just a few.

The label indicates an increasing specialization between women’s and men’s shoes. “Soames” was most likely Nathaniel Soames, a shoemaker at 9 Ludgate. Soames was able to send his son, Henry (1785-1860) to St. Paul’s School. From there he matriculated to Oxford. He became an eccelsisatical historian. It appears another son, of the same name, continued in the family trade.

While information on Soames may be somewhat spare, we get a sense of the challenges of doing business in the great metropolis in the 18th century. He shows up in the 1797 records of the Old Bailey – as  the victim of one William Clark, who “feloniously stole” 18 pair of men's leather soles from him, valued at five shillings. The episode tells us a bit more about Soames shop. Clark was a workman, doing some work for the shoemaker.  We learn that Soames had an apprentice or journeyman named John Dupree who testified that he was in his masters shop at the time of the theft. A second employee, named Richard, saw the property on the prisoner’s person as he came up from the cellar. Clark was fined one shilling and discharged.
Scant records indicate that the family business continued and that Soames may have invested in other businesses or acquired property.
All images are courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

An 18th Century Embroidered Linen Bodice – Remade, Refashioned

It was the exquisite, delicate silk thread embroidery which first caught my eye. Some of the threads have worn away and the penciled outline drawn to guide the stitching is faintly visible. I know nothing about who embroidered this bodice or even where it was made. It was purchased in America, so perhaps it was made here during those turbulent mid-century decades. And yet the global nature of goods in the 18th century, does not necessarily support this attribution without a provenance.

 It has been suggested that the bodice is of a hand loomed linen – if true, that is an uncommon find. Given the wispy quality of the embroidery and the type of garment , it probably dates from the mid- to later half of the 18th century. There is a drawstring at the front and skilled piecing at front and back. The diminutive garment was in the process of being transformed –although into what it is not certain. There may have been sleeves, which have been removed, as the shoulders have been unpicked. The previous owner  notes “I would surmise from the way that the embroidery is cut and folded on the underside of the shoulder straps that originally this piece had sleeves.”
A single stay survives. The hand embroidery features those familiar Jacobean flower and leaf motifs we find through much of the 18th century.

The height is 13.5 inches, it is 14 inches across, and 20 inches from bodice edge to edge when open. 

While not considered a “museum quality” garment, I nonetheless find it interesting as a study piece, which I share with my museum studies and material culture students. Was it being remade for a younger member of a household? Was it in the process of being completely disassembled for some of its pieces to go into a new garment? While we may never know the answers, it serves as a good example of silk embroidery and a time when even the smallest pieces of textiles were used and reused and remade.

Former collection of

For more on embroidery, see: The Project Gutenberg eBook of Jacobean Embroidery, by Ada Wentworth Fitzwilliam and A. F....

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

A Silk Damask Sack-Back Dress, c. 1760s: Margaret Hunter Shop Milliners and Mantuamakers

Detail of silk damask
Apprentice Abby measuring 
Journeywoman Sarah taking advantage of daylight for sewing

I was very fortunate to be able to spend time recently at the Margaret Hunter Milliners and Mantuamakers at Colonial Williamsburg, watching the construction of a sack back dress (robe à la française) of gold silk damask. It is based on an original held in the Charleston Museum collections, dating from the mid to late 1760s.

To watch the skilled work of the apprentices and journeywoman, under the masterful eye of Mistress Janea, was a true education for me, as well as the dozens of onlookers who packed into the shop.  Word had spread quickly that there was a dress being made and visitors were anxious to see the how the “gown in a day” project was proceeding.
Mistress Janea offers instruction 
As the first cut was made into this rich buttery yellow gold silk damask, I actually felt a pang of fear – I could not imagine cutting into the textile with such deft certainty. Over the weekend, I observed the first cutting of the fabric, the creation of the sleeves, the extensive pleating which went into the self fabric robings, the mock up of the stomacher, and the sack back (from which the dress derives its name), falling from the neckline and trailing elegantly behind. As the dress on which it is based, it is unlined.
Sleeves and trim

Self fabric robings with trim applied
On my final day, I was able see the gown fitted for Journeywoman Sarah. Due to the bustling activity in the shop and the level of detail required for the dress, the work was not yet complete when I left Colonial Williamsburg, but I will share finished views when they are available. (For additional in-progress shots, follow the shop on FaceBook, Twitter or Instagram:

Note the deep pleats for the sack back, the play of light on the silk
Fitting the dress

A few tidbits shared by the mantuamakers: 

The estimated cost of the fabric at the time would have been about 10-12 shillings per yard; approxiamately18 yards were needed for the dress

It would take about 30-40 hours to construct, most time would be devoted to the trim

The estimated cost would have been approximately 10-11 shillings for “making up”

The dress was designed to be worn over small pocket hoops

The extras are known as snips

I spend a good deal of time reading about historic garments, but nothing compares with actually seeing the handwork involved for garnering a deeper understanding.

Many thanks everyone at the shop – Janea, Sarah, Abby and two very talented and poised interns, Fiona and Lily -- and to friend and colleague, Susan Holloway Scott of Two Nerdy History Girls ( for introducing me to this creative group. I am already planning my next trip!

For more about the shop and its activities, see