Dressing the 18th Century Woman

IMG_1028Visiting history museums is one of my favorite activities, especially places like Plymouth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, or Williamsburg, where great care is spent getting things right. But something I find really irksome is seeing interpreters playing “dress up”, wearing clothing that sort of evokes the period they are portraying but is far from authentic. Pants with zipper flies, for instance, or sneakers, or push up bras.  You also see this kind of thing in parades. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. So it was with great interest that I viewed the following video, produced by National Museums Liverpool.

The video can be accessed here

 

 

 

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Shakespeare Knits: Act I

William Shakespeare was one writer who was familiar with the fiber arts, and he referenced them often in his work. Thinking about “the ravll’d sleeve” made me curious enough to look up more references. Here are the first few:

Antony and Cleopatra

II 2:

To hold you in perpetual amity,
To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts
With an unslipping knot, take Antony
Octavia to his wife
; whose beauty claims
No worse a husband than the best of men.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I, i:

HERMIA. My good Lysander!

I swear to thee by Cupid’s strongest bow,

By his best arrow, with the golden head,

By the simplicity of Venus’ doves,

By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,

And by that fire which burn’d the Carthage Queen,

II, 2:

O, take the sense, sweet, of my innocence!
Love takes the meaning in love’s conference.
I mean, that my heart unto yours is knit
So that but one heart we can make of it;

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IV, i:

THESEUS Fair lovers, you are fortunately met:
Of this discourse we more will hear anon.
Egeus, I will overbear your will;
For in the temple by and by with us
These couples shall eternally be knit:
And, for the morning now is something worn,
Our purposed hunting shall be set aside.

V, 1 :

Thisbe
O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me!
My cherry lips have often kiss’d thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.

The Tempest

III, 3:

My high charms work
And these mine enemies are all knit up
In their distractions; they now are in my power
;

Macbeth

II, 2

Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course

How many people realize that sleave, as the word was spelled in Shakespeare’s work, means, not part of a shirt, but a knot or twist of silk fiber?

Textile History: The Carpet

If you haven’t yet discovered the Atlas Obscura site, check it out. The writers over there cover all sorts of little known places, people, and things, and the newsletter almost always offers articles that I want to read. Today they posted about the history of carpets, which goes back thousands of years. The picture below is of the  Pazyryc Carpet, which was discovered in Siberia in 1947 and is now displayed at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. It is currently the oldest ever found.

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The carpet’s incredible state of preservation is due to the fact that it was preserved for 2 millennia within a block of ice.  According to Carpet Encyclopedia , it measures 183×200 cm and has a knot density of approximately 360, 000 knots per square meter, a higher knot density than most carpets seen in stores today. The pattern includes a central ribbon motif, border a procession with deers and another border warriors on horses. This carpet was probably manufactured in Armenia or Persia around 400 BC.  Head over to Carpet Encyclopedia for more info on this amazing work of art.

It is believed that the carpet was developed by nomadic peoples living on the plains of Central Asia, as a more easily portable source of warmth than animal skins. Their looms, in their simplest form, were made of two wooden ribs which were secured to the ground and between them the warp was fastened. Similar looms , which fold easily for transportation, are still used today by the nomads, as pictured below.

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Amazing, no?

Oldest Western Knitting Images

 

Most representations of knitting in art have been produced from the 18th century on. The earliest ones are knitting Madonnas.  The Holy Family, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, c. 1345, shows Mary knitting, but what she might be making is not clear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3c8e17f881dba2917b93bcdbb016c9f6This is a detail from a polyptich by Tommaso da Modena, whose dates are 1325-1375). Mary is knitting something in the round using four needles. I believe this is in Bologna.

 

The next painting, by Meister Bertram von Minden, Germany, was done c. 1400-1410, in
the right wing of the Buxtehude Altarpiece.  Titled “The Madonna Knitting Christ’s Seamless Garment”,  it represents the Virgin Mary making a tunic in the round, using 4 needles. The tradition of the seamless garment describes a scene at the crucifixion, when the Roman soldiers cast lots to win possession of it, not wishing to tear up such a valuable item of clothing. Two churches, the cathedral at Trier and the parish church of Argenteuil, claim to have possession of the actual garment. Trier claims that it was brought to them by the Empress Saint Helena, who also is supposed to have found the True Cross. The French believe that theirs was brought there by Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. Both claims date from the 1100’s. Most probably, Christ’s clothing was woven, not knitted. But it’s a lovely painting and a lovely thought.

 

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The Madonna appears to be knitting a sock in this altarpiece painted by Nicolás and Martín Zahortiga, c. 1460 for the Museo de la Colegiata de Borja in Spain.

Does anyone know what the other two women are working on?

 

 

Fiber Arts: How to Wear an 18th Century Pocket

Reblogged from that most excellent site, History Myths Debunked.

 

 

History Myths Debunked

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Thanks to Rose Linden for submitting this myth–and yes, it is a myth.

I found an MA thesis written in 1994 by Yolanda VandeKrol of the University of Delaware entitled “The Cultural Context of Women’s Pockets” that treats this topic thoroughly. According to Ms. VandeKrol, pockets were common from the end of the 17th century until around 1800, when the neoclassical dress styles (high waists and clingy lines) made wearing interior pockets impossible. Dresses with hoops or bustles more easily accommodated pockets. By the early 1800s, pockets had been replaced by drawstring bags called reticules.

Pockets were defined in 1688 as “little bags set on the inside with a hole or slit on the outside, by which any small thing may be carried about.” They were “not visible for reasons of orderliness, privacy, and crime,” says VandeKrol. “Women did not deliberately display their pockets,” but sometimes they were briefly visible…

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Dyeing and Those Blue Sugar Loaf Wrappers

This interesting article was posted a few months back and is of relevance to all fiber artists.

History Myths Debunked

sugars2

A sweet story, but experts in historic crafts say that no actual instances of this practice are known in America’s colonial era. Apart from lack of evidence, it is illogical. Refined sugar was an expensive, imported luxury—think caviar—that only the wealthiest could afford. Not the sort who are scrimping and recycling their wrapping paper or dying their own fabric. (If the family budget couldn’t stretch to include sugar, what did folks back then use for sweeteners? Maple sugar, honey, molasses, or muscovado sugar. Or nothing.)

But lo and behold, several household management books published in the mid-nineteenth century do mention this practice. In one of them, The American Frugal Housewife (1835), author Lydia Childs tells how to make various cheap dyes, including “a fine purple slate color” by boiling sugar wrapping paper in vinegar with alum and boiling it in an iron kettle. In another, Eliza Leslie’s Lady’s Frugal House-Book; a…

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World’s Oldest Woven Garment

tarkhan-dress

The v-neck linen garment pictured above is a bit threadbare, but after all, it’s about 6,000 years old.  Excavated by Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1913 from a First Dynasty tomb at Tarkhan, an Egyptian cemetery located 50km south of Cairo, the dress was consigned to storage  with various other textiles until 1977, when the bundle was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for conservation work.

Now on display at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London, the dress was made from three pieces of woven linen, with a natural pale gray stripe, and knife-pleated sleeves and bodice. Wear patterns in the cloth suggest that it was worn in life, not made as a grave  garment. Because the hem is missing, the original length of the dress is unknown, but its overall size suggests that it was worn by a slender teen or woman.

Interestingly,  the style of the Tarkhan dress  differs very little from styles of today. Perhaps someone will make a copy!