Thursday, April 29, 2010

Stitching Lady Dunmore's Gown: Part I

Thursday, April 29, 2010
Susan reporting:

This week the mantuamakers in the Margaret Hunter shop in Colonial Williamsburg have been working at a feverish pace to finish one of their most ambitious and elaborate projects, a ball gown for the royal governor's wife. While the original Countess of Dunmore would have desired her gown in time for a ball given here in Williamsburg in her honor in May, 1775, there's another deadline this week in 2010 that's just as pressing: the new gown will be part of a special event at CW this weekend called Lady Dunmore Prepares for the Ball. Lady Dunmore will be portrayed by visiting guest artist in residence Mamie Gummer.

True to the taste of a peeress like Lady Dunmore, the gown is in the most fashionable formal style of the mid-1770s, featuring a flowing, pleated back and wide, spreading skirts to accommodate the widest hoops. Cut silk brocade in cream and pale yellow, the gown is being trimmed with delicate off-white lace and looped gold braid, and a wealth of poufs, gathers, ruffles, and bows.

For a similar style gown, check out this one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

But while the cost of an 18th c. ball gown was based primarily on the value of the materials rather than on the labor, there were still hours and hours of cutting, pleating, and stitching, with every step done by hand. All employees in the shop would have concentrated on completing such an important commission, and so is the case with the three CW mantuamakers.

In the photo top left, Sarah Woodyard stitches the long channelled panels for the petticoats trimming. Each channel is stuffed with sheepswool, and will be gathered and tied into a lavish border.

In the middle photo, Janea Whitacre pins one of the ruffles in place on the gown's elbows; the loose gathers of the skirt will eventually be filled by the hoops.

In the bottom photo, Doris Warren stitches the more trim in place, with the gown's skirts spread before her. Each one of those long strips of trim has been hemmed, edged with gathered lace, and finally topstitched with the gold braid – and yes, everything is being done by hand. No one is sneaking off to the sewing machine, no matter how fast the clock is ticking.

And just as an 18th c. mistress of the trade might hire an extra common seamstress or two for the less important stitching, so, too, in this case there's at least one outsider
who has helped out. In the bottom picture, those hands stitching gold braid on the trim are...mine.

Check back over the next few days for more pictures of Lady Dunmore's gown.


Anonymous said...

It already looks gorgeous! I looooove the fabric and that lace is being used in the trimming! Can't wait for more pics! =D

Vanessa Kelly said...

Susan, what fun that you helped with the gown! Can't wait to see the end result.

Rowenna said...

Gorgeous fabric! And of course, beautiful work as well. But that fabric...breathtaking!

Lauren said...

They are doing a great job! Looking forward to more updates!

nightsmusic said...

I'm so jealous! I would love to have an opportunity like that, to sew one of those gowns. Lucky you. And it look gorgeous. Can't waif for the finished dress.

MJ said...

Susan: About how much would a gown like this have cost in the 1700s? Cost today?

nightsmusic said...

Good heavens! I have no excuse for the above typos except that I hadn't had my coffee yet!


Linda Banche said...

You're a brave woman, Susan. I'd be too terrified to take needle to that silk.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Glad you're all enjoying this! I totally lucked out by being here this week while the mantuamakers were working on this gown, and I'm delighted that I'm able to share it. The joys of the internet!

To those of you who sew -- it's gorgeous fabric, yes, but it's also a feisty challenge. Lots of floats across the reverse mean you have to watch out for pulls. Also ravels into wisps, as silk does. But it's totally worth it. :)

My part was very, very tiny, a couple of long lengths of lace edging and some gold trim. And yes, I was incredibly nervous. A misplaced stitch can always be ripped out, but what if I sneezed? *g* I'm a decent hand sewer, but I was in the company of ladies who can make their needles fly. Very daunting --but totally cool.

MJ, I will ask about the cost, esp. as it compares to more ordinary gowns. Stay tuned.

Margaret Porter said...

Mamie Gummer--that would be Meryl Streep's look-a-like daughter. How fab!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Yup, Margaret, that's the Mamie. Though apparently she has been adamant about not having her famous mother mentioned in any of the publicity, which I can certainly understand! I'm looking forward to seeing her performance tomorrow. Since there aren't any surviving portraits of the real Lady Dunmore, Mamie can make the role her own!

nightsmusic said...

I know this is more about Mamie than CW, but there is quite a bit here about CW.

I found it quite interesting :o)

ImportanttoMadeleine said...

I enjoy your blog so much and feel a particular affection for it because I grew up in Virginia and much of my family lives there. Williamsburg has been one of my favorite places ever since I had to wear an embarrassing Colonial cap on my 4th grade field trip to Williamsburg forty years ago! My father lives there now. I could go on and on... one of my ancestors is buried inside Bruton Parish Church; I love William and Mary; am fascinated with the dig in progress at Jamestown... I love reading your posts about history in general. This particular post of yours caught my eye and reminded me of one I posted on my blog regarding, in a round about way, Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette's dressmaker. My blog ( a mix of family stuff, Marie Antoinette/France, and a little Williamsburg/Jamestown. Right now, it's about Marie Antoinette and Count Axel Fersen. You probably know that he spent time in Williamsburg while serving with the French in the American Revolution... Anyway, just wanted to say hello and thanks for the time and effort you put into your blog. It's a pleasure to visit!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Theo,, many thanks for the link about Mamie. I attended her performance yesterday -- outdoors, ninety degrees, in the mid-day sun -- and she did a wonderful job. She's much prettier in person than in her pictures, and there's an undeniable resemblance to her famous Mom.

Madeleine, I'm glad you're enjoying our blog. Thank you, too, for including the link to yours -- what a wealth of info you have, plus some glorious pictures!

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