Category Archives: Currently Reading

Currently Reading – Quilt Books

I’m fascinated with quilts. No, I don’t collect them, nor do I make them. It’s the historical meaning hidden within these little pieces of textiles that keep me interested in them.

Recently I drove to the Pickens flea market in Pickens, SC. I’d been before, and knew that it’s a very mixed bag of good and bad, new and old, and down right bizarre. The highlight of the visit was a bluegrass band in which a little mutty dog was the fifth member. He had been taught to let out a howl at just the right time. I was too amazed to even take a video.

I had been all over the field – and it’s a big one – with no luck when I stumbled upon a used book seller. He had a few books on quilting so I stopped to have a browse. I asked the price, which was a dollar each, so I was feeling extravagant and had about five or six picked out when the seller said he had more in the back of the truck.

What he had was the entire library of a long-time quilter. There were easily several hundred books on quilts, most of them how-to books. I wasn’t interested in those, but there were also quite a few books on quilt and textile history. I ended up with eighteen of them, which he let me have for $10.

The prize of the lot is the book above, Barbara Brackman’s quilting classic, Clues in the Calico. I had been looking for this book for a long time, but I didn’t want to pay the high price it commands. It is a guide to dating quilts, but more than that, it’s a guide to identifying antique textiles. I’m still reading this one, but I found myself using the information a few days ago when someone on Instagram posted a recently found hoard of old fabrics. Immediately I knew that some of the prints had been printed with “fugitive” green dyes, as the stems and leaves of plants were now a tannish brown.

Some of the books are general quilt histories, but most focus on a particular type or region. I thought this title was very interesting, as I do not associate quilting with Native Americans. I’ll probably put this one at the top of the reading queue.

There were also a couple of books on textiles, and in particular the types of textiles commonly used for quilts.

I’ve read probably four or five of the books, and I’m beginning to see quite a bit of the same information. That’s not a bad thing. I certainly don’t want to read conflicting “facts” as then, how would I figure out who to trust?

Several of the authors have pointed out one of the big fallacies of early quilt-making in America: that colonists made patchwork quilts out of their old textiles out of necessity. I already knew this, but it seems to be a generally held belief when so many writers take the time to make sure that the earliest quilts were not scrap projects in a make do and reuse sense.  The earliest American quilts were generally whole cloth quilts, or were quilts made from appliques cut from fabrics that were printed specifically for that purpose.

Two of the books are detailed accounts of the quilts of one family of makers. I’m in the process of reading one of these, Mary Black’s Family Quilts, by Laurel Horton. I’m enjoying this one partially because Mary Black lived in Spartanburg, SC, which is only an hour and a half down the road from me. And besides that, many quilt books tend to focus on quilts from Pennsylvania or New England, so it’s nice reading about quilts from a Southern family.

I need to point out that it’s almost impossible to separate the production of quilts, textiles and clothing in the days before the Industrial Revolution. All the quilt books I’ve read so far also discuss cloth and clothing production. I’ve had to stop and remind myself that the authors of these books are quilt – not clothing – experts.

In referring to the South Carolina backcountry in the late 18th century, Horton writes, “Fabrics were available in abundant variety in local stores for home sewing as was ready-made clothing.” While ready-made fabrics were readily available, ready-made clothing was not. Most of the ready-made clothing at this time was very cheaply made, and was marketed in the South as being appropriate for enslaved people. The best explanation I know of for this is found in Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America by Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman.

Okay, no more quibbling over the details; let’s look at some quilts. The one above is pictured in Kentucky Quilts 1800 – 1900 by John Finley and Jonathan Holstein. It was made by Ann Johnson Armstrong, circa 1890.

Emma Van Fleet made this quilt in 1866 to commemorate the Civil War battles in which her husband had fought. There are forty-seven battles. Seen in Threads of Time by Nancy J. Martin.

The maker of this one, also seen in Threads of Time, is unknown. It was made around 1865.

And finally, this marvelous creation is seen in New Discoveries in American Quilts by Robert Bishop. The quilt was made by Celestine Bacheller, and the blocks are thought to depict real places around her home in Massachusetts.

It’s a sort of scenic/crazy quilt hybrid. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

 

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Currently Reading – Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather, by Tessa Boase

Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is the story of two movements for change, and the two women behind the movements. One story, that of  Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst, is well documented. She was the force behind WSPU, Women’s Social and Political Union, one of the groups fighting for the right of women to vote in Great Britain.

Lesser known was the other woman, Etta Lemon, the leader of the SPB,  Society for the Protection of Birds. I had, in fact, never heard of Mrs. Lemon, but I was pleased to meet her acquaintance.  In today’s world many of us are very concerned about the rights of animals, and so it is very fitting that Tessa Boase has brought Etta Lemon’s story into the limelight with this book.

The book begins with Etta Lemon, and how she came to be a fighter for birds in a time, the late 19th century, when birds were prized as hat decorations. It’s hard for us to believe today just how many birds were killed so that their feathers, wings, and entire bodies could be perched on top of a woman’s head. For a quick and easy introduction to this issue in the USA, listen to Murderous Millinery at the Dressed podcast.

Part of the feather story that is often neglected is the human cost. The feathers as they came from the bird were not beautiful enough to satisfy the fashionable, so many women and children toiled at rock-bottom wages to process and enhance feathers. In a very enlightening subplot, Boase tells us the story of Alice Battershall, a feather worker who stole a feather from her work, and who paid the legal price of three weeks hard labor in prison.

Mrs, Pankhurst, the champion of women’s voting rights, cared not a whit for the plight of birds. As a fashionable woman, she loved her hats which were frequently trimmed with feathers.

World War One, which started in 1914, pretty much put both movements on the political back burner. After the war ended, the world had changed tremendously. Women, whose wartime work had been invaluable were given the right to vote (not all at first, but eventually all were enfranchised). And the elaborate styles of the prewar years faded as a more modern and streamlined woman of fashion emerged. Mrs. Lemon finally got her bird law in 1921, just as demand for feathers in fashion dropped.

You know, this was exactly the book I needed to reassure me that there have been lasting changes made for advancement of women and the protection of our natural world. With so much of the news out of Washington causing concern on these issues, it’s nice knowing that justice does often win in the end.

This book was sent to me as a review copy, but those of you who know me know that the opinions expressed are entirely my own. Yes, I do recommend this book, and I want to thank Tessa Boase for arranging for me to read this fascinating story.

 

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Caricature: The Wit & Humor of a Nation, c. 1915

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One of the great joys of the Goodwill Outlet bins is the over-abundance of books. I never leave the place without a stack of them, most of which I read and then pass on or re-donate. A while back I found an interesting volume, Caricature: The Wit & Humor of a Nation in Picture, Song & Story. Of course it went into my cart, because as the subtitle promised, it was full of wonderful illustrations.

There’s no date on this book, but the Leslie-Judge Company published an annual Caricature starting around 1895. Several of the illustrations in this particular book are dated 1915, and so my guess it is from that year, or perhaps a year later.

The sporting life was a popular theme. Maybe it’s because members of the leisured classes were a bit of an easy target for humorists of the day. I’ll admit that the humor is often dated, and would leave many modern readers scratching their heads. But I’m in it for the pictures, not the jokes.

There are lots of illustrations of people swimming, and the bathing suits are incredibly modern for 1915. From what I’ve seen in the many circa 1915 photos I’ve examined, most women at the beach were still in long, woven wool or cotton bathing suits, not the sleek knit ones seen above.

This one is especially skimpy. Do you suppose the man is her father and is getting ready to lock her in the bath house?

Here the young women are still wearing their schoolgirl middy blouses. This was a common look for tennis and golf. Notice that girl with the tennis racket is wearing a headband to control her hair.  As I wrote earlier, this is a look associated with the 1920s, so it seemed a bit early for this style to appear in print. I knew that the look was popularized by tennis star Suzanne Lenglen, and a quick google search found a 1914 article showing Lenglen wearing the famous bandeau.

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Just as interesting as the sporting pictures are those showing well-off people at leisure.

Here we have three elegantly dressed promanaders…

and three more (bulldog included) who would rather be, well anywhere but on that boring boardwalk.  But these illustrations show how the fashion silhouette of 1915 was showing big changes over the previous years. The skirts are shorter with considerable fullness. And it seems obvious to me that stripes were very popular for seaside wear.

You do have to look at period illustrations with a questioning eye. Drawings are often exaggerated to make a point, as we see in the skimpy bathing suit drawing above. But look carefully, and you just might learn something, as I did with the tennis headband.

 

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Currently Reading: The Hidden History of American Fashion

One of the things I love about fashion history studies right now is that historians seem to have moved beyond writing about Chanel and Dior. I said some time ago that I didn’t know what else could be said about the great and familiar names of fashion. It appears that lots of others are in agreement.

The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th Century Women Designers is a book after my own heart. Edited by Nancy Deihl, the lives and careers of sixteen designers are explored. Some, like Tina Leser, are familiar to me, but others, like Pauline Fracchia and Catherine Scott were not. All are important to the story of American fashion.

Each chapter features a different designer, and each is written by a different historian or team of two. I like this type of book because it is easy to pick up and read one chapter when time (or attention) is short. Each chapter is well-documented with the sources given.

One of my favorite chapters is about designer Libby Payne. Payne was one of the hundreds of designers who worked without ever having their names on the label. Though her career spanned from 1937 to 1987, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that her name was on the label of a line she worked on. She designed for some very big names, among them Bobbie Brooks, Jonathan Logan, and Saks fifth Avenue. It’s great that now her name is a part of the historical records of the companies she helped make successful.

I was really surprised and pleased to spot my own name in the bibliography of one of the chapters, that on Fira Benenson. I was familiar with Benenson because I had seen the sewing patterns adapted by the Spadea company. Author Michael Mamp referred to the patterns, and referenced and quoted the article I wrote concerning how Spadea cut their patterns directly from the designers’ garments. This was information I got from Anne Spadea Combs, the daughter of the owners of Spadea Patterns.

I can’t help but think of how the internet has allowed this book to be written. So many of the sources are primary ones that are easily accessible due to back issues of newspapers and trade materials being available online. Material that used to be buried deep in microfilm is now easily found.

It is gratifying to know that even blogs like this one are now contributing to the written record and are useful to others doing research.

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Currently Reading – Fashion Victims

I think we are all very much aware of the problems and dangers associated with the production of textiles and clothing. They range from unsafe working conditions to pollutants caused by dyes and other processes. But what about the clothes themselves? Can our garments be dangerous to our health?

According to author Alison Matthews David, the answer is an unfortunate yes. There is a long history of poisonous colors, flammable fabrics, and plastics that combust. But this is all in the past, one might say. Today there are laws to protect us. Don’t be so sure!

When thinking of the dangers of clothing, a good starting place is with the producers of fashion. This cartoon from 1863 shows that little has changed when it comes to how fashion is produced. It is the makers who toil in dangerous conditions and who must work to exhaustion just to make enough money on which to survive. While we’d like to think such practices are firmly in the past, all we have to do is watch the news to see that abuses in the clothing industry continue.

Perhaps we have overcome one danger from the past, that of catching disease from our clothes. When skirts dragged the ground, all sorts of trash and microbes were gathered just from walking on the street. This 1900 cartoon in Puck magazine helps illustrate the problem.

Sometimes the dangers from clothing have been part of the deliberate act of manufacture. People knew that arsenic was poisonous, but the fears of it were set aside when it was discovered that arsenic made a lovely shade of green dye.

People knew that the dye was dangerous, but we all must suffer a bit for fashion. The above cartoon was published in Punch, 1862.

Problematic ingredients have also been used in cosmetics. The chemicals in hair dye and mascara could lead to blindness.

Probably the most famous example of death by fashion is that of dancer Isadora Duncan. In 1927 as she sped off in a car, she wrapped her long silk scarf around her neck, the ends streaming behind her. The fringe became entwined in the wheel, and Duncan’s neck was snapped.

One of the most mocked skirt fashions, the hobble skirt, was also a dangerous fashion. There were examples of women being trampled and drowned while wearing the style, which was fashionable from 1910 through 1914.

Fire was one a major danger. In the days before electric light, stages were lit with gaslights, and especially dangerous where the footlights. Ballerina costumes were highly flammable, being made of gauze and tulle, and fires were common.

Women wearing the cage crinoline were also at risk for burns, as the space under the cage acted as a chimney, allowing flames to quickly race up a skirt.

Today we have all sorts of laws and regulations that are meant to keep us safe from the clothes we wear. It would be foolish to think that our clothing is without danger, however. It may be safer to wear, but what about the safety of the makers? What about the toxins used in the production of clothing? The clothing industry needs quite a bit of improvement before our clothes are truly free from dangers.

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Currently Reading – Stitches in Time by Lucy Adlington

Looking back at my post archives, I haven’t written a book review since April. It’s not that I’m not reading. Last year I read almost sixty books, half of which were fashion or textile related. I’ve been a bit of a slacker when it comes to posting, to be honest. The current state of affairs in the world have zapped my motivation, but I’ve vowed to try harder to share the wonderful things that I run across.

And to start off, I want to tell you about Stitches in Time. Published in 2015, I had seen the book online, but didn’t feel the urge to buy it. The subtitle, The Story of the Clothes We Wear, reminded me too much of that book from a few years ago where people were interviewed about their clothes. But on a whim a few weeks ago, I put it in my cart. When I received it I was pleased to see that there were over 400 pages, a long bibliography, an index, and even footnotes!

The book is divided into chapters that take on one particular aspect of clothing. There are chapters on pants and coats and undergarments and pockets (and many more). Each chapter delves deep into the history of the garment, for both men’s and women’s clothing. I love that Adlington points out expressions that have made their way into English, things like boot licking.

As someone who knows a bit about fashion history, I pretty much don’t enjoy books that are a fashion overview. But that is not what Stitches in Time is. It’s a group of histories of garments, and it is engaging and interesting. If you know someone who thinks fashion is frivolous, give them this book.

The book is rich in text, but low in illustrations. The illustrations are small and there’s not one for every concept introduced in the text. Personally, I’d much rather have it this way. Isn’t that what Google is for? Read the book with a computer or other device nearby so you can look up what you can’t quite visualize.

There is a small section of color illustrations, but I found them to be of little use. They weren’t referenced in the text so you just have to take them as they are.

Another small consideration is that Adlington is British, and the book is written from that point of view. I know that when it comes to certain objects, the history within the US can be different from that in Britain, Europe, or Australia. Adlington addresses this when it is appropriate, but a reader outside of Britain needs to remember this is a UK point of view.

Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. It’s very inexpensive, and is a good one to read on Kindle.

And now a question for readers. Do you want more book reviews?

 

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Currently Reading: How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards

Today is a really great time to be interested in fashion history and how people dressed in the past.  When I first “discovered” fashion history, the reading choices were quite limited. What was available before the 1990s was usually in the form of dry chronological fashion studies or fashion encyclopedias.

Contrast that with the present when there are almost too many choices.  Fashion history, it seems, sells, as not just museums, but also book publishers have discovered. Unfortunately, not all the fashion books published in the past twenty-five years are good. Because of this I’ve gotten pretty particular about which books get added to my library.

One thing I look for when deciding whether to order a new book, is the author and his or her credentials. Not that I’m a fashion intellectual snob; my own degree is, after all in Early American history. But I’ve found that the very best books are written by someone who is either a professional in fashion studies, or has considerable experience in studying historic fashion. There are exceptions of course.

Another thing I look for is a new approach.  I don’t need another basic survey of fashion history, nor do I need another book on “vintage fashion.” I’m always looking for a new way of looking at garments, and on this level, How to Read a Dress by Lydia Edwards, really delivers. Technically, this book might be considered a survey of fashion history, but it is the author’s use of photos of garments that sets this book apart.

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Edwards starts her survey in 1550 and ends in 1970. It is a chronological study, which helps one to see the subtle, and not so subtle changes that occurred in fashion.  Most importantly, Edwards points out what is important in each garment.

For me, this book was especially helpful in showing me the changes made between 1790 and 1918.  I have a pretty good grasp of twentieth century fashion, but I’ll be the first to admit I need to learn more about fashion prior to WWI.

Another plus in this book is the use of garments from museums that are not commonly seen.  Instead of relying solely on garments from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert, Edwards uses images from museums in Australia, Canada, Britain, and the USA. It’s a very refreshing change from the same couture garments that are pictured over and over in publications and on websites.

It serves to remind us there are fashion treasures all over the world.  I was especially pleased to see garments from the collection of the North Carolina Museum of History in the book.  I’ve been in their collection rooms, and I know what a great and extensive collection is there, and yet, these clothes are rarely seen.

I’m hoping this book does well, and that a second edition is published.  As much as I love the book, there were several photos of black garments that were incredibly hard to read.  There are also a few editing errors – repeated lines, seemingly mislabeled photos, and a contradiction or two of place of creation.  But I’m nit-picking. This is a beautiful, well written book.  The photos are a joy to study, and I finished it wishing it were twice as long.

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