Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What a Woman Blacksmith Wore, c. 1775

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Susan reporting:

We've seen many stylish women's clothes that have come from the talented needles of the mantua-makers in the Margaret Hunter Shop, Colonial Williamsburg. Whether a ball gown for Lady Dunmore, a pink silk gown copied from a portrait, or the everyday block-printed cotton gown for a fashion-conscious apprentice, these replicas of 18th c clothing have been impeccably cut and sewn by hand, exactly as their Georgian predecessors would have done.

But while fine ladies, women of the middling sort, and shop owners represent the most style-conscious women of the American colonies, there were plenty of other women – tradeswomen, servants, the wives of soldiers, farmers, and others of the lower sort – who also needed clothes that suited their lives. Recently the mantua-makers were delighted to create clothes for a new member of the historic trades program. Aislinn Lewis, left, is the newest blacksmith's apprentice at Colonial Williamsburg. She's not there just to fulfill an equal-opportunity clause; there were documented women silversmiths, tinsmiths, whitesmiths, and blacksmiths working in 18th c. Britain and in the American colonies. (For more about these women, see this article from the CW Journal.) Aislinn is an accomplished ironworker, too, a graduate of the American College of the Building Arts who specialized in forged architectural ironwork.

Shown here at work in the forge, Aislinn's new clothes show what an 18th c woman engaged in physical labor would have worn. Unlike the fitted gowns of the middle and upper classes, Aislinn wears a short red wool bedgown, a loose-fitting, T-shaped garment that allows plenty of room for movement. The bedgown wraps in front and is pinned in place, and is further secured by the strings of her checked linen apron. Her matching red petticoat and underpetticoat are also of wool, and around her throat is a blue linen neck handkerchief. Her hair is covered with a ruffled linen cap, not only for modesty and a bit of style, but also for protection. In fact all the fabrics of her clothes serve this purpose. While many modern synthetic clothes use fibers and dyes that are highly combustible, a spark that lands on wool or linen will smolder first, and are much safer for the wearer – especially a wearer who works around an open fire.

Photographs courtesy of the Margaret Hunter Shop, Colonial Williamsburg.


Rowenna said...

To take it a step further--even linen and wool are wiser choices than cotton, which tends to "poof" quicker than these two smoldering fabrics. An acquaintance caught a spark while cooking, and her cotton jacket burned through in an instant--but her linen clothing was barely touched (and she was, fortunately, unhurt). And one more reason women wore their hair up--imagine if a spark landed on a lock of unkempt hair and took flame! Yikes!

Gerri Bowen said...

Interesting post. My first thought was about their clothes and being near fire.

Anonymous said...

So great to see a 'working woman'! I take it she is not wearing stays- I do know that working woman would wear some type 'half stays' sometimes referred to as jumps, possibly. Which were not as restricting- and believe me, if you have ever tried to cook or bake at a hearth or open fire, you don't want to be wearing a pair of full stays! Thanks again for giving us an everyday fashion from the 1700'S!

Julia said...

That is so cool! Now I have the urge to learn how to blacksmith. I've watched it now and then and it's no wonder that smiths are often part of myths and religion; there's something magical to turning cold, unbending metal into something that can be turned into knives, tools, swords, pots, clasps and so on.

And thanks for the link to the article about female smiths! I'm off to devour that one.

Abby said...


Aislinn does wear stays. They are not as visible underneath her bedgown simply because the bedgown is not fitted. She can do everything a man can do in her stays. As someone who also wears stays everyday (full boned) you just learn to adjust the tightness of the stays for whatever it is that you are wearing/doing. You can totally cook in a hearth too in stays. Colonial Williamsburg foodways trade does it all the time. You just learn to move your body in the 18th century way, bending at the hips and not at the waist, using your knees, and keeping your back straight. :)

Joanna Waugh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joanna Waugh said...

I'm curious why she isn't wearing a leather apron. Isn't that what most blacksmiths wore?

Isobel Carr said...

Wonderful post. I've seen the horror of a synthetic costume going up in a flash at more than one SCA event over the years, while my sturdy woolen gowns might have a char hole or two, I never worry that I'll be carted off to the emergency room mid-event because I caught fire!

And I’ll second Abby on the stays. About the only thing I find I can’t do in them is climb a tree (and yes, I tried, LOL!).

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Fire was a real issue to nearly everyone in the 18th c, and a part of everyday life, from cooking and heating and as a light source. Any woman involved with cooking (which would have been the majority) would have been sure to wear linen or wool petticoats when near the fire. And yes, linen caps would be essential - nothing burns faster than hair.

As for the stays - yes, Aislinn is wearing them. If you look closely, you can see their shape beneath her clothes. But an extra thanks to Abby for offering the definitive word. Abby also works at CW, and we've seen her (and her own lovely lavender stays) on the blog before:


As for the leather apron - I don't have an answer yet, but I've emailed various sources. Will post the reply as soon as I have it. :)

Lyn S said...

And everyone thought Diane von Furstenburg (sp?) was so avant guard for her wrap dresses for working women in the 1970s.

But her's were the new no wrinkle poly synthetic and would have melted if they caught fire.

Different work conditions, but wrap dresses all the same.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

The modern synthetic fabrics don't just burst into flame: they can actually melt into the wound, while leads to a much more severe burn (or so I've heard from ER nurses.)

Recently I took part in a knitting project through my LYS, knitting wool caps for US soldiers in Afghanistan. The caps were to be worn under helmets, and the project coordinator was very specific about what kind of wool was to be used - not only for warmth, but again for the safety factor.

Can't improve on Mother Nature! :)

Isobel Carr said...

It does melt to the skin, and it's horrific. Thankfully I've only seen it happen once at an event. The other ones the fabric really did just sort of vanish in a flash.

Kathi Nikolich said...

Thank you for this posting. As re-creator of 1400th century 'useful' clothing for work around the fire, I appreciate the information proffered here. I am tasked with helping a friend to make a 1793 Georgia homestead gown for a historical site. The references I am finding are beautiful but impractical for everyday purposes.

Also, I am well aware of the fire properties for linen and wool. I love working in those fabrics around open fire cooking. Further, I noticed the hem length is shorter than most people would expect. Believe me when I say that you want a shorter hem when dealing with fire on the ground.

Thank you ladies!

MJ said...

Thanks for confirming what I already suspected - what many people think of as 18th century stays weren't necessarily what the working class wore. My critique group must have spent half an hour discussing what it was like to wear a corset and that my character couldn't "flop" onto her bed. I tried to explain that the character was a farmer's daughter and if she wore stays they were more than likely for back support, not so much for style. In the end, I decided to change the verb to "fell" since I didn't want to alienate a reader who might (like my critique group) have a preconceived notion of what a woman could or could not do in her stays. Still, your post makes me feel better. :-)

Shmiggen Mghow said...

srsly feminism......you're concerned about what clothes they wore?

Diane said...

I have been looking and looking for an example of a woman black smith for a few years now. My husband does black smith demonstrations and we get invited to a few places that requires period clothing or costumes. Everything I ever see is either way to hot to wear or too restricting. I'm excited to find something I can use now. Thank you!

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