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!
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.