Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Volunteering at an 18th century French fort!

 So as crummy as the first half of my year was with losing two beloved pets, a delightful new opportunity has opened up for me and I'm enjoying it tremendously. Fort de Chartres, the big French stone fort about half an hour from me, has been looking for volunteers so that it can open its little trading post at regular times when the talented and incredibly knowledgeable Fort gardener Carol (see the Jardin Potager site for her well-researched work) is around, or the Les Amis du Fort de Chartres is having a meeting, and/or the gun club is having a shoot in back of the fort.   

Me with my basket of sewing... I got most of my Burnley & Trowbridge wrapping gown sewn on that day! You can see the bake oven under the canopy in back.

I first got to volunteer in the Trading Post during the summer Rendezvous, and I jumped at the chance, because as much as I like setting up camp and sitting under the fly watching the passers-by watching us, it's not the best opportunity for talking history to people. Most visitors are a bit wary of interrupting people in the camps and it's more of a tourist viewing experience than a history-learning opportunity ( uh some of the 18thc 'history' being portrayed is a bit dubious in some camps... I see you, flour sack 'blouses' and cabbage-rose Victorian skirts 😂).  

 I've read a LOT about the local French colonial history, and understand some of the nuance and complex interplay between the French colonists, the local Native tribes (the more settled tribes were the Metchigamea with a village very close by, the Tamaroa, the Kaskaskia, and the Cahokia peoples, but there were others who would sweep in to war with and raid the settled tribes), and the enslaved Africans brought by the French. But I'm not comfortable calling myself a full-fledged interpreter just yet, and am still learning from people who have been doing it for a while. I don't want to cultivate a single persona at the moment -- although I hope to pursue something along the lines of one of the few women who made it here from France -- most of the women married by the male French settlers were either Native or were hardy French-Canadian women who had a generation or two of the New World underneath them.

So in that regard, staffing the Trading Post is ideal for me, because I can share some of what I know, but being in a building that sells modern coffee mugs and t-shirts with pictures of the Fort on it, nobody's going to mistake me for some kind of expert, haha! The Trading Post is also not an original historic building -- the buying and selling would have been done out of one of the governmental structures on the property: large, long stone buildings that also housed offices, soldiers' barracks, grain and goods storage, and more.

But I so enjoy having the chance to dress up and go down with a purpose. It doesn't hurt that the Trading Post has air-conditioning because it is extreeemely muggy down at the Fort when hot, since it's in the rich 'American Bottom' area, near the Mississippi River, bounded by tall bluffs on either side (and no breeze, like, ever).

Always excited to get in the car and drive down the hill to the Fort
Kinda looks like I'm outside an 18thc tavern, but no such luck, just my workplace for the day, haha.


Volunteering with Keni, a sweet lady with Friends of the Fort


I've been kind of wearing stuff I already had, but I wanted a cuter cap, so I made the JP Ryan Dormeuse in cotton (I have a fancy sheer one in silk) and it's been serving me well.

For Rendezvous, I did bust out the cotton sacque for the first time in a couple of years, and it was so sunshiney-looking that people loved it!

Never quite ready to go home at the end of the day... these are the times I wish I could just stay in 18thc clothing for the whole week.

Oh! I forgot! I did make the shoes above. Knowing I might need to be on my feet all day, and having a bad ankle and bad knees, I wanted some super flat, super comfy, 18thc-passing shoes. All I had to do was cut out uppers (from black velvet, in this case) with latchets that would work with shoe buckles, and I sewed them onto the all-fabric-upper of some Target memory-foam flats. They have been great so far and I wish I'd bought a couple more pairs so I could make more cloth shoes!
The original shoe:

I used the sturdy wool from my 1890s jacket to back the latchets and give them some stiffness

Eventually I swapped these buckles out for some non-bedazzled plainer silver buckles, but you get the idea. Everything's bound with black grosgrain ribbon, which works out great for going around curves. Very comfortable, very easy, only took me parts of a weekend, really!

1870s summer white, and a picnic

 The StL Georgians (I can't get used to not calling it that, even though the group has branched out into other eras) had a picnic this summer, and it was going to be toasty. My Victorian wardrobe is quite limited so far because I'm a little too in love with the 18th century to really commit to other eras, but I have an 1870s ballgown that has yet to be worn; so what about using the pretty pink skirt from it?  I was having quite a joint pain flare-up and just couldn't countenance wearing a corset that weekend, so this got me thinking... were there any semi-loose, semi-cool summer garments in this era? I went to the fashion plates for answers and found the following:


Sure, they're all most likely being worn with the usual underpinnings, it would have rarely been proper NOT to, but I felt like they were all loose and fluffy enough that maybe I could get by with a modern bra.  Truly Victorian's TV401, the 1870s blouse waist, felt like a good base to use, and by adding some ruched trim and bows, I felt like I wasn't looking too out of place! The blouse went together extremely quickly from an old bedsheet, I'm sure I'll end up using this pattern again.

Thanks to a very late vet appointment for poor Charlotte (my bunny who at this point was in early kidney failure and we just didn't know it) I knew I was going to miss the first half of the picnic, but everyone was so sweet when I got there that it was a balm for my stressed soul.

We had such a fun range of eras so that each person was a fresh visual treat! Hot and sweaty though we all were, the afternoon was a delight anyway, with drinks and fruit, sandwiches and desserts, and good stories and laughter. 

1890s Wool Jacket

 This has been a difficult past few months for me... I started out the year with so much optimism, and lost my sweet senior rabbit Coal in January. He was my handsome companion of 10 years, so it left a definitely hole in my daily routine, missing his bright snappy black eyes. Then my sole remaining bun, Charlotte, had months of health struggles until she finally had to be put to sleep in June, and I genuinely feel like I failed her somehow, which makes the grieving process harder.

Sweet babies, barely tolerating each other for a Christmas photo
For now, I am rabbit-less, although we still have a darling sassy cat (found as a tiny kitten in an alley last year) and three needy dogs, so they are a big comfort.

Slow sewing is a comfort too, so I have managed a couple of projects that I really enjoyed. First was an 1890s jacket from the Black Snail pattern #0520.  This was my first attempt at anything resembling traditional tailoring methods, and I found I really enjoyed learning padstitching!

I had found an incredible deal on a hefty wool blend, and backed it with a canvas in all the spots required by the pattern, giving a really great shape to the jacket. 

Soooo much padstitching
While I didn't intend to fully duplicate the raised collar of a coat I had saved from a museum Instagram post, I really embraced the neat swirly design on the back of it and tried to bring a taste of that into the project.

Despite not always being sure of what I was going for or if I was tailoring correctly, I really was pleased with the nice clean lines of the jacket. I chose not to follow the pattern's skirts, as I wanted a tad more pleating around the front.

The sleeves didn't need any internal support, much to my surprise! The pattern had me cut a little half-moon of canvas that gets stitched into the upper armscye, and that was quite enough to keep it standing out from the shoulder.

I got to wear the jacket with a basic wool skirt for a skating party in Forest Park with the StL historical sewing group, and enjoyed the opportunity to put this to the test.

I was PLENTY warm the whole day, that's for sure!! My hubby was a good sport to dress up in black vest, pants, my dad's woolen greatcoat, and a top hat...but I couldn't quite convince him to ditch the sunglasses against the snow glare.

Jean of Fabricating History and Alyssa of The Sewing Goatherd looked marvelous and warm in their beautiful green ensembles!

I absolutely loved my hat, which was whipped up the night before from a black straw 18thc bergere, a lot of black matte taffeta, some ostrich feathers, and dotted net veiling. Initially I thought "Oh I'll just take this apart when I need my black bergere back" ...but it's way too cute to disassemble now.

Forest Park has a lot of picturesque spots, but none more perfect for this era than the wrought-iron Victorian bridge, and iron park benches near the lake. We had a lot of fun trying to get just the right feel.

 The following are my favorites, and it's fascinating how authentic they look with a bit of an old-timey filter applied!

Alyssa and I were all smiles that day

The jacket had just the dramatic flair I was hoping for, and hopefully will get worn for more late Victorian winter outings!


Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Fresh year, fresh projects!

 Overly optimistic as always, I have a TON of things I'd love to make this year, or at least to get started on! In no particular order (I want to leave room to tackle them only as they inspire me), here we go!

Somehow I stumbled across this portrait of Marie Antoinette -- and while my brain is probably just forgetting a million images I've seen, dark green feels less usual in 18thc portraiture than most other colors, especially for the frequently painted MA. This painting crossed my path at just the right time, when I had just bought a stunning changeable green taffeta shot with the lightest pink, absolutely perfect for recreating this gown. But because I love the fabric so much and want to save some of it, most likely I'll be doing a jacket/petticoat combination rather than the full sacque gown I imagine was probably being worn here. Also fortuitously, I have a LOT of suitable lace (something like a 26 meter roll?) and it took no time at all to find the little pink paper flowers.  The petticoat is sitting at home right now, already halfway done, as I'm going to wear it to an event this weekend (hopefully) with a plaid pet en l'air.

Next up, this amazing gown in Alexander Roslin's portrait of the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna (born Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg, later Empress consort of Emperor Paul I of Russia). I have a fondness for her as a historical personage, it sounds like she made the best of a difficult situation with the nightmare of all mother-in-laws, the formidable (and similarly German-born) Catherine the Great, who yanked from Maria the first two infant sons she bore. But though most women would have been overshadowed by a monarch like Catherine, Maria Feodorovna held her own. She was bright, well-educated, curious, won over her difficult husband, had 10 children, and greatly influenced Russian charities, architecture, and politics during her era. 

I'm not much of an orange-wearer, but this dress just won't leave my mind, and I've been wanting to try it for years. I feel sure it's silk satin rather than taffeta, and most likely a Robe a la Francaise, but for the sake of yardage (I have an orange satin that's been sitting in my stash) I'm going to attempt to make it a Robe a la Anglaise instead. I have rather a lot of vintage gold net and ivory flowers with green leaves, so supply-wise I should be set!


A Renaissance gown has been very high on my list for the past 6 months. For years I have watched The Borgias over and over and OVER again, and love all of Lucrezia's floaty, decadent gowns, so maybe this year I'll attempt something like a mashup between the papal investiture ceremony gown and her wedding gown (because I love her headdress in that scene). I now have the Margo Anderson Italian Gamurra pattern recommended to me by Costumer's Closet, 10 yards of a stunning gold silk damask (for $10 a yard!), and quite a bit of a sheer ivory window-pane material for a camicia...I don't anticipate that any of it will really be historically accurate, being more screen-inspired than anything, but since Renaissance is a hot thing in the community on Instagram right now, it might be time to dive in! The show mixes textiles and textures in the most intricate, delicious way, so it would be fun to experiment with that.

Victorian needs to be high on my list this year as well, if I ever want to finish my self-set "Decades" goal of making one gown per decade from 1700-1900.  I have a really fun red cotton print that I'd love to use to make something like this 1840s day dress! There's a good Truly Victorian pattern in my stash that should produce a similar gown.

Similarly, I'd like to get a good 1850s gown in, from a dark brown and navy stripe (synthetic, but hey I'm not just going to throw it away!)....

...and a plaid 1860s gown as well (I've got a brown/blue/red plaid silk that I picked up for $10 a yard and it would be perfect for this).  While I only plan to make the day bodice for now, eventually it'd be nice to also have a matching ballgown bodice, and hopefully there's enough yardage left over for that.


There's a lovely lilac plaid sitting in my fabric storage, and possibly enough solid purple fabric to attempt this Natural Form (ish? there's a wee bit of bustle there) walking gown...

...and just to round out the Victorian insanity, this amazing bustle gown, for which I have lots of grey satin stripe with a little bit of yellow ribbon stripe running through it.

I have a beautiful yellow and white silk damask that would be a stunning riding habit, a la Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, and a black straw bergere, all ready to go....if I ever feel like making a million black buttonholes! 😂

From the thrift store, I found a remarkably similar orangey/burgundy fabric with dark green stripes already woven in....and I think it'd make an amazingly similar outfit to the "Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia" by Lorenzo Lotto. We'll see if I ever get around to this or not, it's not high on my list but the fabric is just too good to let go.

And then a couple of VERY long term projects, because they'd be so detail-intensive:

I'd just love to have an early Regency ballgown that's spangled at the bottom. I have a chocolate brown silk in the stash already, and a ton of flat gold spangles....but probably not as many as I'll need for a very intricate design. I might start off very small in design and see what my tolerance for such a project might be, but thanks to the 1790s adjustability, I could work on such a thing for years and still be able to fit in it despite any weight fluctuations. 

Lastly of all -- This incredible sequined Worth gown has been on my radar for years, and it's always surprised me that none of the 'big' costume names have been interested in tackling it. Whatever I do would only end up being my approximation.... I have neither the interest nor patience to painstakingly count the number of sequins per square inch to make an exact copy. But it really is an absolutely stunning piece and I can only imagine how it would shimmer with each movement. The silhouette itself is nothing unusual...basic Edwardian bodice and skirt shape... but the sequins embroidered onto the sheer overlay on both the bertha (is it still called that by the 1900s?) and skirt will be a challenge.

So there we have it! Way too many projects for me to get done in one year, but I'd rather aim too high than too low. It's lovely to have something to look forward to, and I'm not really the kind of person who feels pressured by setting goals for myself and then not moving as quickly as I'd like on them. These days, sometimes it's progress to get in 10 minutes of sewing, but my love of fashion and art just can't let pieces and projects like these go without a fight!