Tag Archives: research

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: The Dress Detective by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim

If you notice the subtitle of this recently published book, A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, then you might have correctly guessed that I love this book.  Written by two museum professionals, the book gives an organized method of evaluating any piece of clothing.

One of the old criticisms of dress studies was that professionals often gave the appearance of being concerned with just what can be measured.  The description of an item in a collection might give the dimensions in minute detail, every smudge and tear would be measured and noted, and every bead counted.  But what did all this information tell the researcher?

The answer is quite a lot, as long as you are asking the right questions.  In order to understand a garment, the first step is observation.  The means to note not only the things that can be measured, but also other information contained within the garment itself.  Are there any alterations?  What is the fiber content?  Are there labels?  Mida and Kim give a list of forty questions that help you gather the information in the garment.

The next step is to reflect on the information and what it means.  You also need to take time and reflect on your own reaction to the garment.  Would you wear it?  Does it appeal to the senses?  Are you reminded of other garments by some aspect of it?  Is there any documentation on this garment?  Reflection is time-consuming, but is a necessary step in understanding the garment and where it fits into an area of study.

The last step is interpretation in which you connect all the information and make conclusions.  Your conclusions will depend on what your objectives of study were to begin with.  This is what makes the study of fashion so fascinating.

The authors work through each of the three steps, and then they present seven case studies using their method.  All the right questions are asked as each garment is closely observed.  There are plenty of photographs to show what they are looking at as it is described.

One of the case studies is a Lanvin wedding dress and matching veil. By close observation it was determined that this dress had been altered.

Close-up photographs show that the fabric in the sleeves is a newer, synthetic fabric, and is not original to the dress.  The original trim was reused on the new sleeves.

The label is missing from the dress, but is still present in the veil.  You can see that some material (and awkward stitching) had been added to the veil.

Another case study was of a late Victorian velveteen and wool bodice.  Part of the reflection of the piece involved looking at period fashion plates to find similar styles.  This helps not only with dating but might also provide clues into the social and economic class of the original wearer.

Also of use is the study of period photos.  It is rare (but delightful) to have a photograph of the wearer of the actual garment, but even photos of people wearing similar garments can be of use.

As this garment is close to the era of ready-made clothing, another avenue of study might be into the way companies like Eaton in Canada, and Sears in the US were operating dressmaking services.  Could this bodice have been made in this manner?

These interior shots show the complexity of construction.

The book was written as a guide for students and researchers, but I think many people who deal with clothing could learn a lot from it about how to read a garment.  I especially liked the sections on taking what you see in the garment and looking for external information .  In the world of the internet it is increasingly easy to search museum databases, find newspaper ads and references, and to find similar garments for sale.  Information about labels is readily available on the Vintage Fashion Guild’s Label Resource.

The Dress Detective does not give the researcher all the knowledge that one will need in looking at old clothes.  It would take a much larger book to tell things like when the NRA eagle label was used, the invention of the zipper, or the first use of synthetic fabrics.  These are the facts that have to be learned by the researcher, or else researched.  A book of these dating tidbits would make a great companion to The Dress Detective.

 

 

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Accessibility of Information

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It has occurred to me that I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to make history accessible to others, first through efforts to make it relevant to twenty-eight years of pre-teens, and now through blog posts that I hope help make fashion history a little more interesting to anyone who cares to read them.   It has also occurred to me that at no time has information been so accessible as it is today.

When I was in my senior year of college I had to write a thesis on some aspect of American history in order to satisfy the requirements of my history degree.  I chose as my topic “The Effect of the American Civil War on the Moravian Communities in North Carolina.”  I picked this topic because I knew I’d have access to primary sources that would supply the information I needed.  The Moravian were meticulous record keepers, and many volumes of the records had been translated into English from German, and then were published.

Today I’d not have to be so picky when it came to picking a topic.  Many historical organizations, museums, and universities are in the process of making their archives available digitally.  This is a big deal for anyone who is doing historical research of any kind as it eliminates a lot of travel and expense.

It’s not just institutions that are revolutionizing the way research is conducted.  One of the major digitizers is Google.  The Google Books function not only makes available thousands of out of print books and magazines, the content of them is searchable through Google search.

I’ve mentioned a research project I’m currently working on – women’s hiking and camping clothing of the early twentieth century.  Not only have some of you sent great links to information and images, but Google Books has made accessible resources that I’d otherwise not even have known of.  My favorite is The Outing Magazine, with issues from the 1910s and 1920s being made available.

Fashion history can be found in all sorts of books.  Because I have a source that supplies me with cheap books (also known as the Goodwill Clearance Center) I’m always picking up old books that I suspect might contain tidbits of fashion information.  Books that relate to the history of women or to sewing and clothes making often have little insights into what women wore in the past.

I recently found a book published in 1942, as the USA was entering World War II.  Women for Defense, by Margaret Culkin Banning was a call to action for the women of America, and included was how women were already working for the war effort.  It contains all sorts of little details about dress that make primary sources so valuable, and fashion history so interesting.

Any account of American women in defense begins with these workers whose whole day’s labor is for victory.  They are paid for their work, to be sure, but that does not mean they are not filling an emergency.  It does not mean that they are not in uniform, nor out of danger.  They are literally so in some places, as for example in the Frankford Arsenal where the women explosive workers are urged to purchase two simple cotton uniforms, one red and one blue, colors alternated weekly, in an effort to ensure the wearing of a freshly-washed garment at the beginning of each week.  Not for style or becomingness is the color insisted on, and the fabric is lightly starched cotton – because it is somewhat resistant to fire.  

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