Blacksmith apprentice Aislinn Lewis, left, last appeared in this blog as an intern in the blacksmith shop of Colonial Williamsburg. Now a full-time employee in the Historic Trades program, she raises more than a few surprised visitor-eyebrows as the only woman at the forge, despite the fact that there are documented examples of women working as blacksmiths in colonial Virginia.
In our last blog post about her clothes, Aislinn wore the practical short bedgown and petticoat popular with most working class women of the time. This time when I visited the forge, she was wearing a new gown that was equally typical, but more stylish. This is a fitted English nightgown (the 18th c. term for this gown, and not the modern garment that's worn to bed) with a pieced back, made from striped linen and lined with contrasting checked linen. The sleeves and shoulders are especially cut to give Aislinn a full range of motion as she works. As before, the linen fabric smolders rather than bursts into flame - an essential quality for work around the sparks of an open fire.
Even so, blacksmithing is not a trade for cowards. Like many blacksmiths, Aislinn wears a leather apron to offer additional coverage to her petticoat, but no gloves to protect her bare hands and arms. As she explained, gloves can be clumsy and limit the sense of touch, and if an errant spark flies down inside a glove and is trapped, the burn will be much worse than if it had landed on skin alone.
But there's still a nod to 18th c. London fashion in her dress. The curving seams of the nightgown's pieced back visually narrow her waistline, and echo the same lines to be found in lady's gowns of the 1770s. While Aislinn's skirts might be looped up to give her more mobility, she also achieves the same draped volume to be found in fashionable silks - and it's not that far removed from what the fashion-conscious mantua-maker's apprentice would be wearing. The flowered scarf around Aislinn's throat provides another stylish touch of international fashion: a block-printed cotton imported from India.
Photos top left and right by Susan Holloway Scott. Photo lower left courtesy Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.