Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Pair of Homemade Mittens: Practice Piece

I recently found this pair of homemade, hand sewn, mended/reinforced mittens at the Collector’s Eye in Stratham, New Hampshire. They are probably New England made and worn (?). There are two hands evident in the work; one especially appears as though the maker were just starting out. After thorough inspection, I wondered if they were in fact “practice” mittens? 

Perhaps they were created as part of a sewing lesson or home economics class sometime during the 1sthalf of the 20thcentury. The materials – a rough medium weight cotton and a soft chamois-type of cloth for the cuff—may have come from a larger project or from a fabric stash.

Note the awkward shape of thumbs, tops and reinforcement or practice patching. The bodies of the mittens are comprised of rough cotton, with no lining and would not provide much warmth. 

Despite the fact that the design concept exceeds the success of the sewing, I find the mittens both charming and instructive. After all, you have to start somewhere! They are now part of my study collection and I will use them in my Material Culture classes.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Luster. Shine. Sheen: The Visual Lexicon of the 18th Century Elite

Mid 18th century paste stone and silver shoe buckles, French or English. Private Collection.
Behind me in the pit sat a young fop who continually put his foot on my bench in order to show off the flashy stone buckles on his shoes; if I didn’t make way for his precious buckles he put his foot on my coat-tails.
       Carl Moritz, at a London theater, from Journeys of a German in London in 1782 [i]
Silver thread embroidery with spangles. Private Collection
Mid-18th century gold lace. Upham Family Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society 
Luster, shine, sheen. Creating highly polished surfaces, adorning oneself with glittering metallic lace, silver or gold threads, or sparkling jewels were part of the visual lexicon of the eighteenth-century. Baroque then Rococo styles dominated European art, architecture, and fashion, introducing a taste for dramatic, theatrical movement and the interplay of light and shadow. As global trade expanded, new materials and ideas from foreign ports became more accessible. Designers and artisans experimented with bold palettes, active patterns, undulating lines, and S-curves. The naturalistic motifs found in rich brocades and silks were not limited to interior furnishings and textiles, but permeated all aspects of elite dress. Elite consumers could draw upon Chinese, English, and French silks, metallic threads, and trim (then known as lace), elaborate passementerie (decorative trims including tassels, floss fringe, and so on) and the softest of Spanish and Moroccan leathers.
In keeping with the aesthetics of the era, Americans, too, sought to create dramatic effect through a lady or gentleman’s hair, dress, and accessories, particularly for special occasions. The goal was to create a sense of movement and a play of light by employing shimmering silk damask and brocade for ladies dresses, petticoats, and bodices; and gentlemen’s coats, waistcoats. And the accessories were no exception – shoes embroidered with metallic lace and embellished with spangles, clocked stockings worked with metallic threads, and glittering silver and paste stone buckles--some even featuring real gems, such as diamonds and sapphires.[ii] Shoes and stockings were transformed from the everyday by metallic lace, and spangles, which, in combination with glittering buckles, epitomized popular Georgian style aesthetics.[iii]

[i]Carl Moritz, at a London theater, from Journeys of a German in London in 1782, in Richard B. Schwartz, Daily Life in Johnson’s London(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 171.
[ii]Extravagant examples, such as sapphire- and diamond-laden shoe buckles dating from the mid-eighteenth century, were recently exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the exhibition “Pleasure and Pain” (2015). 
For additional information on buckles as a fashion and economic statement, see Riello, A Foot in the Past, 75-82.
[iii]For more on metallic thread, see Garside, Paul (2012). 'Gold and silver metal thread', in: Gale Owen-Crocker, Elizabeth Coatsworth and Maria Hayward (eds.). Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450-1450, Brill: Leiden, pp. 237-239; Marsh, Gail (2006). 18th Century Embroidery Techniques, Lewes: Guild of Master Craftsman Publications. Paperback edition 2012, pp. 38-69.

For an example of the use of gold metallic lace on a woman's dress, see Robe à la française (or sack back) with petticoat(English or French, 1760-65)from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: - see images above.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Breathtaking Bespoke Boots, c. 1890s

I have written about these bodacious boots before (, but had the opportunity to view them in person as part of the “Fashion Victims” exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (now closed). (

While they are visually arresting in published photos (as seen in the image above, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum; all other photos by author), seeing them up close was a very different experience. The level of artisanry, the luxury of the materials and the whimsy found in the overall design, is exceptional.

As noted by the Museum curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, the gold kid leather appliqué and velvet are 'erotically charged' and they resemble a stockinged leg. Even a glimpse beneath a skirt would have been tantalizing. They are most likely of Swedish or German make, from c.1890s. 

These bespoke boots may have been commissioned by a specific client or perhaps more likely, as a ‘show off’ piece meant for display at an Exposition.  In any event, they are truly stunning. Enjoy the photos I captured during my visit.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

A Baptismal Apron Embroidered by Mary Woodbury, c. 1735

I thought you might enjoy the story connected with this baptismal apron, c. 1735. Currently on view in Fashioning the New England Family at the Massachusetts Historical Society (10/2018-4/2019;, it was embroidered by Mary Woodbury (1717-1748) of Beverly, Massachusetts.[1] 
All images are courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society; photographer, Laura Wulf.
Using familiar 18thcentury iconography inspired by Asian motifs -- vases/urns of exotic flowers, flying phoenix/hoho birds--it is replete with silk and metallic threads, as well as small spangles. The primary stitches are flat and satin stitches. The colors are still bright against an extremely fragile silk ground. Born on March 3, 1717, the maker may have attended a female academy in Boston. 

She married Dr. Benjamin Jones on March 3, 1736/7.  She died the day before her 31stor 32nd  birthday. The baptismal apron was most likely made for her own child, embroidered when Mary was around age 18-19. After her death on March 2, 1748, her belongings were carefully saved for her daughter, Lydia, by Dr. Jones' second and third wives.  Lydia later married the Rev. Thomas Lancaster, who was minister of Scarborough, ME. from 1775 to 1831.

A baptismal apron such as this one, was worn by the infant. The term "apron" appears to be used in the 17th century and into the early 18th. Changes in baptismal practices - the move away from full immersion -- allowed for the better known Christening dress or gown to supplant the earlier ensemble, which often included the apron, a bib, mitts, and cap. The use of bearing cloths in the 17th and 18th century was also common. The example embroidered by Mary Woodbury has proportions closer to the apron than the square bearing cloth. Further, her family had settled in Massachusetts in the 17th century, likely continuing the practices from home. A full ensemble from the Victoria & Albert Museum may be seen herereact-text: 204 Victoria and Albert Museum /react-text :react-text: 207

1. Accession # 0168
Given by the grandchildren of Dorothy Lancaster Libby, through Charles Thornton Libby of Portland, ME, on August 5, 1931.
References   MHS Proceedings64; 346

2. A second, and very unusual, example of her work, also survives at the Massachusetts Historical Society – a painting of Pocahontas. This may well be the first representation of Pocahontas by a woman. For more, see

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Striking Persimmon Sack Back, c1760s

Now closed, I was fortunate to tour the Casanova exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston this summer. It was a lavish and bold exhibition; a feast for the senses—as one might imagine for one with the appetites (many quite unsavory) of Casanova and the 18thcentury world he traversed.

One of the entrancing tableaux was of an elite woman’s morning ritual – her toilette. Seated at her dressing table, there are shenanigans occurring behind her, presumably between her husband and ladies maid, passing a letter between them.

Each mannequin in this tripartite ensemble is of interest. For this post, I focus on the striking persimmon orange robe a la francaise (or sack back) open robe with compere (a variation of a stomacher often with buttons like a waistcoat) front, double-flounced pagoda sleeve ruffles and pocket slits at each hip.  It is two parts (robe, petticoat), c1760s

For information on the sack back, see:

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Fashionable Neoclassical Dress, 1800-1805

This formal dress, c. 1800-1805, of white cotton gauze, features small floral sprays across the textile. It is detailed with a border design “composed of vine and a modified Greek fret worked in a chain stitch with fine red and white wool.”  This is a classic example of what is known as the Regency, Empire or Neoclassical style which began in the last decade of the 18thcentury (post-American and French Revolutions) and continued to inspire women’s fashions into the 1820s, and in some places, beyond.

A dress like this would not have been out of place in the first quarter of 19thcentury in Boston. By the time of Henry Sargent’s painting of The Tea Party(c.1824) showing the elegant attire of the age – although clad in long columnar dress, with shawls and hats of every variety, we begin to see additions of pouf sleeves, decorated hems, fancy trimmings altering the silhouette and profile. The setting for this elegant gathering was none other than Boston’s Beacon Hill, and is a companion piece to his masculine habitués detailed in The Dinner Party.[1]

 (Via the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Accession #22.665

1. For additional information on Sargent’s painting, see Jane C. Nylander, “Henry Sargent’s Dinner Party and Tea Party,” Magazine Antiques, May 1982.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Quilted Silk Petticoat Bridges Past and Present

Looks can be deceiving.  Here, what at first glance seems to be a lovely eighteenth-century petticoat, is actually a brand-new reproduction, commissioned for an exciting new exhibit—“Fashioning the New England Family”—now open at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston. ( As the guest curator, it has been a delight to have had this opportunity to work with so many talented individuals over the last three years of research, planning, and design. The MHS has become a second home. 

         This pale blue, silk taffeta, quilted petticoat was reproduced by the team of Janea Whitacre and Christina Johnson, aided by Rebecca Starkins and Sarah Woodyard. They make up the Historic Trades and Skills Milliners and Mantua-makers of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation ( 2018).  Working from a pattern in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, given by Alice (Scott) Brown Knight Smith in 1953, they created an exemplary garment that bridges the past and present.
         The new quilted petticoat has its roots in a story that stretches back to the late seventeenth century. In 1953 the Society received a traced (or pricked) pattern of the quilting design of a petticoat, said by the donor to have been bought in Holland by Sir John Leverett for his first wife, Hannah Hudson. The original petticoat came to the donor’s husband, Hannah’s descendant through her only surviving child. The pattern was first pricked onto paper from the petticoat by the donor in 1896.  After the original petticoat burned in the aftermath of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake she transferred the pattern to a piece of muslin to give to the Society. We were able to use her tracing to commission the mantua makers of Colonial Williamsburg to recreate this quilt pattern for display. 

         The opportunity to take the flat pattern and have it ‘come to life,’ to once again have a form or body, which occupied a space, was of intense interest to Anne Bentley, MHS Curator of Art and Artifacts, and to me. But this vision was only realized through the efforts of the Milliners and Mantua Makers, Historic Trades & Skills of Colonial Williamsburg at Colonial Williamsburg. Their reproduction is splendid. Two years in planning —the outcome exceeded expectations in every way, thanks to their dedication, talent, skill and in-depth knowledge, in combination with the talents of Schaeffer  Arts Costume Exhibition & Care.( The petticoat is shown with mid-18th century brocaded stays, possibly Italian.

         Like many stories connected to family relics, Mrs. Smith’s account of the original petticoat became problematic as we began to examine it in detail. The purported original owner, Hannah Hudson Leverett, died in 1643. How then can we explain the fact that, at present, the earliest documented extant petticoats with this type of quilted design dates from c1720s…more than seventy years after Hannah’s death? This is one of those mysteries that beg to be unraveled with further research, which is ongoing as of October 2018.

Exhibition Design: Spokeshave Design, Will Twombly, Watertown, MA.
Graphic Design: Orr Studio, Mary Orr,
Photography: Laura Wulf, MHS photographer; Kimberly Alexander
Mannequins: Astrida Schaeffer,