Sunday, September 8, 2013

Even More About Buckskin Breeches

Sunday, September 8, 2013
Isabella reporting,

I've written twice before (here and here) about buckskin breeches, the favorite comfortable and stylish breeches of choice for 18th-early19th c. males, from stable-boys to the sporting noblemen. The photographs illustrating those blog posts show breeches that were modern replicas of ones worn in the 1770s, and made by hand using 18th c. methods as part of the historic trades program of Colonial Williamsburg.

On one of the hottest days of this past summer, I had the opportunity to chat with the maker of those breeches. Jay Howlett is a journeyman saddler in CW's historic trades program, and is not only skilled in working with leather, but also possesses the tailoring necessary to make buckskin breeches. While I was close to expiring from the steamy heat of Tidewater Virginia, Jay was perfectly at ease seated on a stool beneath a tree in 18th c. attire, making the most of the dappled sunlight while he stitched and chatted with visitors. His project that day was a pair of breeches that were a commission for an Englishman who would be wearing them for Regency-era re-enactments. The difference between the buckskin breeches worn by gentlemen in 1770 and 1810 would have been slight; the later ones would likely have a higher rise and waist to reflect the changing styles in menswear as waistcoats became shorter and coats were cut away in the front.

While leather breeches were made from hides ranging from sheepskin to moose, this pair was in fact
traditional deerskin. As Jay explained, buckskin can be made from any leather. "Bucking" is the a mechanical process that breaks the grain surface and produces a soft, irregular nap. The skin was incredibly soft, almost like modern chamois. Processing the deerskin to achieve this would been an involved process in the 18th c.. A paste of cod liver oil and bran was spread on the skins. Then the skins were stacked, creating heat and oxidation that transformed the surfaces. Finally the skins were were rubbed with stiff wire brushes to remove the rough outer surface, revealing the softer leather beneath.

Jay estimated that it takes him about thirty hours to make a pair of breeches. I was impressed by the care that he put into the seams, matching and enclosing all edges. Not only would this have made a stronger seam, but a more comfortable one as well, smooth and without raw edges. His seams were a neat twelve stitches to the inch - though Jay said he'd seen an original 18th c. pair that was sewn at an astonishing gauge of twenty-five stitches to the inch!

Photographs copyright Susan Holloway Scott.


Madame Gilflurt said...

One of my favourite subjects, though that sounds filthy now I think about it!

Jill Sardella said...

Great article! I never gave buckskin breeches much thought. When you mentioned the seam edges were enclosed, did you mean Jay did so by creating a French seam? I'm an avid sewer and am always fascinated by sewing techniques, past or present.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jill,
Leather doesn't fray so there is no need to bury the edges, I believe what Susan is referring to is that the seams are strapped or taped on the interior to help distribute the stress 'basic construction on seams is the panels are placed edge to edge and whip stitched(just halfway through) this prevents stretch and holds the pieces together, the actual seams are worked on the exterior in a fair stitch( a sort of double back stitch, sorry easy to do hard to explain ,it too is worked only halfway through)then at stress points, center seam and outseam a thin strip is placed over the seam and whipped down on either side to take the stress off. Likely more than you wanted to know. Jay

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Thanks for the additional information, Jay!

Jill Sardella said...

Thank you so much for your explanation, Jay. From your description, I do get the general idea. I'm not a great hand-sewer so I can appreciate the time and skill it takes to make the breeches. I'll have to come visit to see you demonstrate in person.

Susan, thank you for the great article! You and Loretta always make my day. :-)

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