Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Importance of Mending, c1775

Thursday, August 11, 2016
Isabella reporting,

We've often shared beautiful clothing here on the blog, lavish silk gowns enhanced with yards of lace and ribbons. For most women living in the 18thc, however, gowns like those were as far beyond their wardrobes as haute couture Chanel is for the majority of us today.

But our 18thc sisters valued the garments that they did own much more than we do. The cost of their clothing lay in the fabric, not the labor. Last year's clothes weren't discarded when they no longer fit, fell from fashion, or showed wear. Instead they were unpicked and taken apart and remade, mended and reworked. While the more expensive dresses would be remade by professional seamstresses and mantua-makers (see examples here and here), most mending was done at home.

Girls were taught useful darning and mending stitches as well as fancy embroidery, and though it was often called "plain sewing," the neatness of the stitches and repairs represented a skill that was anything but plain. Nor was mending an entirely feminine endeavor. Men whose work took them far from home (and thus far from obliging female family members) like sailors and frontiersmen also became adept at mending their clothing.

I was reminded of the importance of mending as I recently watched Sarah Woodyard, a journeywoman mantua-maker in the Margaret Hunter shop, Colonial Williamsburg, repairing a gown. Sarah made the gown in 2012 for apprentice blacksmith Aislinn Lewis. (See the dress when it was new in this blog post.) The fabric is a serviceable linen with indigo-blue stripes, and it's the fabric that marks this as a working-class garment. With its open-front, fitted bodice and full skirts thanks to neat rows of tiny pleats, the same style of the dress could have been made in silk for a wealthy lady.

Aislinn's work at the anvil in the blacksmith's shop has worn sizable holes in the bodice and in the underside of the sleeve where the two areas rub together. Since the rest of the dress was still in good shape, Sarah offered to mend the holes. The goal of an 18thc patch or darn was to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Statement-making patches of contrasting fabrics wouldn't even have been considered. (The checked fabric that shows in the hole of the sleeve is the sleeve's lining, not a patch.)

In the photograph, above, Sarah is patching the hole in the bodice with a scrap of the original fabric, taking care to line up the stripes; the only difference will be how the new fabric hasn't faded. She'll turn in the raw edges and overcast them, and stitch everything neatly into place. The finished effect won't be invisible, but it will give fresh life to a favorite garment - not such a bad idea in our era of fast fashion and disposable clothes.

Photograph ©2016 Susan Holloway Scott.

12 comments:

Elisa Jenkins said...

I love to collect antique christening gowns. Several of the gowns I am privileged to own show exactly the type of mending you are referring to. In several cases the mends are practically invisible. As an experienced seamstress myself, I am amazed every time I examine them.

Brann mac Finnchad said...

Extant clothing repairs is a topic dear to my heart.
However, what would they do when there was no more of the original fabric available to patch with?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Elisa - Agree! Meticulous mending like that is almost a lost art.

Brann mac Finnchad - They'd find a scrap that was as close a match as possible. In this case, I'd guess another indigo linen stripe. :)

Sarah said...

I was brought up darning and patching, I still have my darning mushroom, but I only darn socks once heel and once toe these days as they are cheap and easy to replaced. You shouldn't use left over scraps to mend with though, because they haven't been washed as often as the garment and are therefore essentially new, and if you mend old cloth with new scraps the old cloth around the mend will tear away [You can prove that mathematically with stress and strain equations, but I can't be bothered to look it up; my mother and grandmother and great grandmother who left school at 14, 13 and 12 respectively already knew what someone with degree level knowledge in stress analysis can show on paper.] You need to modify the garment to make sure that you use a scrap from the garment itself, perhaps by shortening a sleeve, or taking out some of that pleating and using strips. My mother used to wash leftover scraps in a net bag with my garments because I was hard on clothes, so she had plenty of bits to fulfill the conditions of being old, but when you can sling them in a twin tub, which we had then, that's still easier than putting them through an 18th century wash house. And of course when you can't repair easily any more, you cut down an adult garment for a child, or for an apron, or use it in patchwork. It's only a modern conceit that patchwork is made of new fabric!

Elisa Jenkins said...

Exactly Sarah! Many of the christening gowns I own show signs of being altered over several generations. I can also see occasions where sometimes length was cut to create a patch, or length just folded up into a pleat to make it shorter but not lose the material. I love how clever and thrifty these seamstresses were. Most of these are done by hand as well....it is just mind-boggling!

Sarah said...

I came off my bike and ripped the front of a favourite pleated skirt, you would not have known after mother had taken off the waist band, reduced one pleat and hid the join under the fold that it had ever been damaged. I respect so much those people who make clever mends. I'm not half so clever as my mother, or my great gran or her mother - as a collector of Christening robes, Elisa, you might be interested to know that my great great gran, who took in laundry to supplement her fisherman husband's pay [and while he was in hospital with rheumatic fever before she had to take to the workhouse at 8 months pregnant] collected donated articles of clothing like simple christening gowns, night dresses and bed linen for those women too poor to own more than one night gown or set of sheets which went out on loan during the confinement, and a pintucked muslin christening gown and bonnet for the baby to have something to wear other than being wrapped in rags for the christening. I inherited the 'whites bag' which was what it was called, and carefully hand-washed and laid away everything that wasn't falling apart for being stored until we house cleared.
A bit of social history too, my great-gran Charlotte loved the workhouse; they paid for her to go to school. But the doctor's sister helped them to get out and continued to pay the weekly penny for each of the school age children. Ruth was still washing and midwifing when Charlotte was about 13, and a man came home, and wanted his marital rights, which as his wife was giving birth he could not have, so he thought he'd have Charlotte instead and took his trousers down. So she bit it ....

Regencylady said...

I was brought up by a frugal mother who patched, fixed and extended the life of our clothing. Today I toss out my everyday clothing to charity shops. But not my historically based clothing. I have gained weight as I am growing older. So I have spent a good part of the Summer going through bags of fabric scraps, pairing them up with the original clothing, mainly dresses and then remaking them to fit. They may look a bit different from when I first made them, but I swear it's worth the effort. As the saying goes, "Waste not, want not."

Anna-Carin said...

Sarah,

Already in Biblical times, people knew that you should used washed fabric for patching - "No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse." (Matthew 9:16, king James version)

Sarah said...

next, as I recall, to not putting new wine in old bottles which makes more sense with leather bottles. I didn't know there were people left who knew their Bible well enough so I didn't mention my Great Aunt quoting it, glad I'm not the only one left! a grand point to raise ... sensible lore known to women and tailors time out of mind. Unlike the prohibition in Leviticus of wearing cloth woven from two different fibres, which a Biblical scholar friend of mine informs me is a political prohibition to stop the Children of Israel from getting too cosy by adopting the decadence of linen from Egypt, but which I suspect is more to the point of not being able to boil wool to wash it and it being possible and even desirable to boil linen. of course nowadays there are a plethora of fibres and friendlier washing soaps, and by King James' time there were a heap of fibre mixes available, mostly from the Florentine Arte della Seta and Arte della Lana. I suspect a servant-heavy age managed to handle the cleaning of linen fibres in a linsey-woolsey which a nomadic tribe could not.

Anonymous said...

Sarah: My Great Gran came to this country after a soldier followed her into the barn when she went to milk the cows. She dissuaded him with a pitchfork, family stashed the body under the haystack and got her on the next boat to anyplace away ...which turned out to be New York. They were strong women in those days.

Sarah said...

yay for great grans with spirit!

Karen Anne said...

It's necessary to sew nowadays when so many items come apart at the seams when they are first washed. Or the hems come undone.

 
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