Thursday, November 12, 2009

Stitching Mrs. Newton's Gown: Part I

Thursday, November 12, 2009
Susan reports:

The tradespeople of Colonial Williamsburg don't simply lecture to visitors. They are master craftsmen/women in their own right, with many years of study and experience.  They practice their crafts in exactly the same way as their 18th c. counterparts once did, and it's fascinating to watch.  

While we NHG were visiting this fall, the mantua-makers – the term used for the most skilled dressmakers in the 17th c.-mid-19th c. –were recreating a 1770 gown worn by a wealthy Virginian lady for her portrait. That's the portrait, right (Mrs. Thomas Newton, by 
John Durand; collection of Colonial Williamsburg, gift of M. Knoedler.) The new gown was fashioned of 18th c.-style fabric, a pink changeable silk taffeta, using only 18th c. techniques and tools.  Everything was cut and stitched by hand and by natural light, no cheating. Nothing was done by machine.

Here are the details: approximately 18 yards of silk, 27" wide, were used in the gown.  In the past, labor was cheap, and it would have been the fabric that would have been the primary cost of any clothing. In 1770, comparable silk in a fashionable London shop would have cost about five shillings a yard, but a Virginian lady could expect to pay about twice as much because of the expense of importation. On account of the delicate white trim applied along so many edgings, this gown took about 80 hours for the CW shop to produce, or about three work-days, with allowance for explanations to visitors.  Over the next two days of blogging, I'll post photographs showing the gown's construction and fitting, as well as the undergarments (stays, shift, and pocket-hoops) that were worn beneath it.

Above are the three CW mantua-makers working on the gown, spread on the table before them.  Left to right, Doris Warren works on the sleeves while Janea Whitacre stitches the petticoat, and in the window, apprentice Sarah Woodyard applies trim to the robings.  Many thanks to them all for so graciously putting up with our incessant NHG questions and camera flashes!

Due to a software glitch, the photos in this post would not enlarge. For those of you who wish to see more detail, I've reposted them on my own blog here.


Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Susan, what an interesting post. The one and only time I went to Colonial Williamsburg, I had no time to appreciate the craftsmen because I was attending the conference. Now I need to go back and really look around.

Vanessa Kelly said...

I love the beautiful gowns the three mantua-makers are wearing! Clearly, one of the NHGs was asking questions when this lovely picture was taken.

Loretta Chase said...

I wasn't there for this photo, and I'm noticing they're all dressed up. Was this for a special occasion? I wasn't there for the gown fitting, either, and I can't wait for the pix!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Elizabeth, CW really is one of those bottomless-pit places -- you can go for a day and have a great time, but if you're fortunate enough to stay longer, you begin to realize how much else there is to discover. Particularly if you're a NHG. I'm very, very fortunate in that my parents live in Williamsburg (the town, not the foundation), so I've been able to visit CW whenever I visit them. It's only been recently that I've roped Loretta into the CW cult, too. :)

Vanessa and Loretta -- the three mantua-makers were in their best finery on the day I took that picture (and some of the others) because they were being photographed not just by me, but by CW for promotional purposes. As you'll see in other pix here, most days they're dressed more comfortably for working.

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