Textiles in Fiction: The Gown, by Jennifer Robson

The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel piqued my interest following the  two recent royal weddings in England, which must have required prodigious feats of planning and organizing. Queen Elizabeth II’s own wedding took place seven decades ago, when she was still a princess and her country was grappling with the myriad deprivations caused by WWII. Discovering that the story was told from the points of view of the embroiderers of the wedding dress clinched the deal, and I raced through this fascinating book, enthralled by the details of the experiences of the ordinary women who created this most important gown. The narrative unfolds in two far apart years and places, London during 1947 and Toronto in 2016.

Norman Hartnell functioned as couturier to the royal family during the 40’s and 50’s, and he and his army of seamstresses and embroiderers would create Elizabeth’s top secret wedding dress, with much stress and drama along the way. One of these skilled embroiderers was a real life French refugee named Miriam Dassin, who later in the century would become world renowned as a talented textile artist. Miriam, who features prominently in the book’s historical narrative, will also play a role in the 2016 segments. The second is the fictional Ann Hughes, who takes her in as flatmate. Through their eyes, the reader experiences the making of one of the world’s iconic textile creations, the struggles of commoners during this prolonged era of deprivation, and the contrast between their lives and those of the aristocrats that cross their paths.

The modern narrative focuses upon a bequest made to Heather Mackenzie by her grandmother, a parcel of exquisite embroidered and beaded flowers. Her Nan had emigrated to Toronto from London in 1947, but since she had never mentioned embroidery to Heather, what was the purpose of the bequest? Her attempts to solve this mystery lead her to England and France, where she will serendipitously encounter Miriam Dassin, who had worked alongside Heather’s grandmother at Hartnell for a brief time.

Friendship, family, romance,  struggle, betrayal, and glamour all coexist in the pages of The Gown, which is well worth reading by those with an interest in textiles, history, WWII, and the endless ways in which humans can make lemonade when life hands them a lemon.

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Textile Terms: On Tenterhooks

It’s been so long since anyone has seen either a tenter, or the hooks on one, that the word and the idea behind it are now quite mysterious, but at one time, the phrase on tenterhooks would have evoked an image that was immediately understandable.
Tenter hooks were L-shaped staples, much like a bent nail, placed at regular intervals on a rectangular wooden tenter frame. When cloth emerged wet from the fulling process it was stretched out on these hooks, preventing it from shrinking as it dried – hence the phrase ‘being on tenterhooks’.

  • What may be the last remaining 18th century tenter frames in the world, at Otterburn Mill, Northamptonshire, England.

It comes from one of the processes of making woolen cloth. After it had been woven, the cloth still contained oil and dirt from the fleece.  It needed to be fulled and blocked, much like handknitters treat their finished garments today. After  fulling, the cloth was stretched taut on frames, or  tenters, and the tenter hooks were the metal hooks used to attach the cloth to the frame. At one time, it would have been common in manufacturing areas to see fields full of these frames (older English maps sometimes marked an area as a tenter-field). So it was not a huge leap of the imagination to think of somebody on tenterhooks as being in an state of anxious suspense, stretched like the cloth on the tenter. The tenters have gone, but the meaning has survived.

 

Tenter comes from the Latin tendere, to stretch, via a French intermediate. The word has been in the language since the fourteenth century, andon tenters soon after became a phrase meaning painful anxiety. According to the folks at historicjamestown.org, where this photo appears, the figurative use of tenterhooks to describe someone’s suffering or suspense goes back centuries. For example, in 1601 Robert Chester wrote in Love’s Martyr or Rosalin’s Complaint: “Rack on the tenter-hooks of foule disgrace.”)

(information from World Wide Words, Exeter City Council Time Trails, and Historic Jamestowne)

 

Fiber Arts: How to Wear an 18th Century Pocket

Reblogged from that most excellent site, History Myths Debunked.

 

 

History Myths Debunked

resized-deerfield-pocket

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!

Knitting History: What are Buff Mittens?

Good question. What are buff mittens? I’ve never heard of them before, but today, Knitting Daily e-newsletter featured an article from PieceWork magazine that was published in Fall 2011. The following is quoted from that article, “Annis Holmes’s Buff Knitting: Preserving and Updating a North Country Tradition.” The North Country cited includes  New England, which increased my interest, being a lifelong native of the region.

According to author Joanna Johnson,  “In winter during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, warm, windproof, and waterproof mittens, deemed ‘buff mittens,’ were a mainstay for loggers and others laboring in the woods of the Adirondack region of New York, New England, and neighboring Canada….The term ‘buff’ may refer to the felted pile or to the undyed yarn that typically was used to make the mittens.”

Curious about the term “buff”, I checked it out in several dictionaries, but none of the definitions I found relate to mittens or even to knitting. Instead, a soft, thick leather with a napped surface, often made from buffalo skin, was known as buff. Then there were the more common meanings, such as a brownish yellow color, a polishing process, bare skin, a devotee of some particular subject or activity, or the slang for physically fit. Interestingly, American colonists in the 17th century wore a short, thick coat made of buffalo leather, called a buffcoat.

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But back to the mittens. For PieceWork’s 10th annual Historical Knitting Issue, available now, Joanna designed the child’s buff mittens seen in the photo. If you want to know how that soft fuzzy surface is made, you can order a kit, or read about it in the magazine. Basically, it involves knitting the fabric with loops on the surface, then cutting, trimming, and fulling the finished product. Sounds like the embroidery technique of Turkey work, aka Ghiordes Knot, for which there are numerous tutorials online.

More info about this project, including where to get the mitten kit, is available right over  here .

(Wonder how these mittens hold up after multiple washings and wearings. They recall to mind some dusting mitts my mother used to have.)