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,