Sunday, July 29, 2012

Stockings Unstumped!

One of the best things about living in the greater D.C. area is that there is an unbelievable wealth of curatorial expertise here. I know a few people who study costume, so I sent out my stocking inquiry in case one of them could tell me whether the socks were hand knit or frame knit. Fortuitously, a friend of a friend had been to some sort of gathering where frame knitted stockings were a major topic. My friend, Mary Doering, and her friend, Carol Kregloh, and I had already planned to meet up for a "costume party" (we brought old clothes to study and then we went to an exhibit of paintings with period costumes), so the right person arrived in my network of connections at the right time. Mary is a collector who uses her costumes to help small museums install clothing exhibits, and she also teaches courses on costume for the Smithsonian's decorative arts program with George Mason University. Carol is a costume specialist at the National Museum of American History, and she has a vast mental library of clothing knowledge, including a volume on the history of socks. 
Carol Kregloh's expert hands show me what I need to know to recognize how the stockings were made.

The raised rows of stitches are knit, and there is no seam allowance. This rules out frame construction.

Detail of the edge finish on the stocking.  
Here's what I learned: The stockings are completely hand knit. Frame knit stockings have a seam where they are sewn closed, not knit closed. If my socks were made on a frame, they would have a seam allowance where the two sides met. The line of stitches on my stockings that looks like a seam is not a seam allowance, and it is knit, not sewn. I think Carol said that the raised stitch line was used to help with row counting, though I'm not sure I fully understood that part. As for the inscribed date "1819", both Mary and Carol were of the opinion that this indicated something commemorative. For example, the stockings may have been made especially for a wedding. They told me the date is really rare. Rare is good. Happy me!

I am so grateful. Both Mary and Carol were so generous with their expertise, and of course I'm grateful for having received the gift of the stockings in the first place. With this kind of support, I'm hopeful that I can really put my collections to good use.  

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stocking Stumper

One of my mother's quilting buddies recently gave me a clothing collection she accumulated over the years. She is more interested in quilts and sewing tools, and her children are not into the old clothes, so I happily accepted this gift. More than happily, actually- I seriously can't believe my luck. Sometimes I find myself giddily hugging this stuff like toddler with a new teddy bear. I contained myself as best I could when I went to pick the collection up because I didn't want to seem greedy, and I knew I didn't do anything to deserve a whole collection falling into my lap. Now it's mine though, and words don't really describe how I feel. Picture someone with a stupid grin, hands clasped at her chest, hopping from foot to foot a little, and making a high-pitched noise that sounds something like, "Squeeeee!" That's me. Because the day I can afford a pair of knit stockings dated "1819" on my collecting budget is unlikely to ever arrive, and yet I have some! There are other exciting pieces, too, but I'll feature those later.

These stockings are on my mind lately because my museum, Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, has a War of 1812 event and we are putting together a little exhibit on clothing and accessories that will include the stockings.

The stockings have integrated reverse knitting that reads, "S. B. 1819"

As we think ahead to exhibit text, there has been a little debate about how they were made. I know nothing of knitting or knitting history, but my colleagues do. One thinks that the stockings were knit by hand for personal use, and she bases her assertion on the construction and the presence of the initials "S.B." and the date 1819. Another colleague says there was an active home industry, especially for stockings, where the knitting was done on a frame. She feels that it would be easy to custom-order the personalized stockings from a professional. Since these were purchased from an antique dealer in Pennsylvania, there's little hope of determining who S.B. was, so our best chance for learning more is to look into stocking manufacture trends in general.

Overall view of the foot.

This detail shows the connection of the heel and calf area, as well as the zig-zag pattern knitted into both sides of each stocking.

I figure that if you can tell whether stockings were made by hand versus on a frame, this side seam connection  may be the key. Then again, maybe hand-made and frame-made stockings have the same kind of seam. I hope to find out.

The toes have been mended several times over. The mends appear to be period rather than recent.
I'm equally enamored of the stockings no matter how they were made, but I enjoy exploring the history. Anyone out there have specialized knowledge of 19th-century stockings to share? 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Something Blue

So it turns out I'm not the only one with happy memories of going through boxes and bags from Nanny's closet and discovering old clothes with Grammy Rivers. My cousin Tina, who found Nanny's portrait dress after we dismantled the closet, has fond memories of the happiness she and Grammy shared when they realized what it was. Apparently it was in an old bag, and since Grammy was mostly blind, she had thought it was a set of crusty old curtains. More recently, Tina's discovery skills struck again as she and my mother stumbled on this blue ensemble when they were helping clean out Grammy's house. This dress is from about the same time period as the portrait, c. 1900-1908. I'd never seen this one before though, despite all of my explorations, which is a testament to the unknown depths of the things stashed away at Grammy's house. Sadly, some mice found this dress before we did. They had nibbled on the hem and a cuff and are probably responsible for some staining on the skirt. The rest is in excellent shape though, and as is often the case with dresses from Grammy's, we have extra fabric if we want to repair it. The extra material suggests that this is either a "Nanny original," or it was made by Nanny's mother. 

These images show off the fabric print and trim. The extra fabric is shown slung over the shoulder on the right.  I am sure that Nanny's sewing skills are the reason we still have so many of her dresses. A garment like this includes a lot of yardage, and no seamstress worth her salt throws out that much fabric. Nanny altered a number of dresses instead of throwing them out. I'm grateful that she never got around to dismantling this one though; it is completely original.

The ensemble has two pieces, a skirt and separate bodice with an unlined black lace neckline. I think it also would have been worn with some kind of waist-cinching belt and a separate high collar.The fabric is either silk or highly-polished cotton with black velvet trim. The skirt is slightly trained with a double row of ruffles at the hem. A linen lining with central hooks and eyes is sewn into the bodice. 

The bodice is gathered to create the tummy poof that was so popular in the early 20th-century. The lining was form- fitting though, to help maintain the overall structure of the look. The lining closes at front with hooks and eyes, while the outer bodice hooks at the side and shoulder with hooks and thread loops. The bodice detail at right shows the pin tucks on the sleeve and the tight cuff outlined in black velvet ribbon to give it the look of a belt.

The sleeves have a series of pin tucks that stop above the wrist to create a flare before they end in tight cuffs. This is the kind of detail that seems to be characteristic of Nanny's sewing, especially for the dresses she made in the 1920s and 1930s. She never seemed to skimp on the detailed stitching, even though she preferred busy prints that obscured all that hard work. I try to take pictures of these details, which is why I have so many shots of this dress. The photos don't show off all of that detail though, especially if you get the whole front and back in the image as shown below, so it's even more striking in person. Many thanks to Tina and my mom for rescuing this so that we can all enjoy it as a gorgeous example of our ancestor's taste and sewing skills.  


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nanny's 1906 Portrait Dress

Those of you who have been reading along might remember the amazing portrait I posted when discussing Nanny's closet. I'm sure you can imagine how anxious I was to find the dress from that portrait. But alas, I did not find it, and returned to school in upstate New York confident that it hadn't survived.

Since I was a kid when we went through the closet, I didn't have many qualms about the mess we made in the process; I was way too busy loving the treasure hunt. I think Grammy's curiosity had been triggered, too. I remember her often saying, "Huh, I've never seen that before." So she was totally nonchalant about having everything out even though we had trashed Nanny's former bedroom by using it to drop all the stuff we displaced to reach the closet's depths. When my vacation ended, I left without helping to put anything away.  As I'm sure you can imagine, subsequent visitors to Grammy had a "What the Hell happened here?" kind of reaction to the disaster. Someone seems to have continued the exploration though, because when I next visited Grammy, the room was still a mess, but it was configured differently and the goods removed had multiplied. More importantly, however, I was informed that the portrait dress had been located!

I rushed up the stairs and demanded direction to the dress in question, and was unbelievably deflated when I saw it. It looked like a mass of stiff yellowed paper. And not only did it look bad, but it was clear that there was NO WAY I'd fit into it. My disappointment was complete. I concluded, with all of my teenage knowledge, that it had probably been starched like crazy and stored that way, leaving it to shrink and become brittle over time. I took pictures in 2000, but remained unimpressed.

Even when we spread out the portrait dress for photos in 2000, it looked shriveled, yellowish, and generally not as fabulous as I expected it to be.  

Well, last week I was up in Maine and this time I was armed with two dress forms, a backdrop, a petticoat wired to help a trained skirt take its intended shape, and most importantly, a hand-held steamer! My aunt Joy inherited the portrait and the dress to go with it, so she brought it over for a photo shoot. Sadly, the original matching lace belt has not been located, so I substituted with another gathered belt from the collection that was period appropriate. The fabric is still yellowed, but it no longer looks like old shredded paper. So here it is: the dress Georgiana Mayhew Duncan wore in the portrait made when she graduated La Salle in 1906, front, back, side, and in detail. Now I can finally say that I'm impressed. Who wouldn't love this delicate frock?