Travelling Haberdashery

My car is full of fabric.

I’ve mentioned before, how I went a bit nuts during last year’s four-month lockdown and immersed myself in historical clothing, mostly from 13th Century to early 17th Century.

Does my ruff look big in this?
Trying on an 18th Century puffy sleeve shirt (hand-sewn from an old sheet) which MIGHT pass muster for Tudor clothing. Maybe…

One of the choirs I belong to performs medieval and Renaissance music, and we perform in costume. I mentioned this in Travelling in Costume — at Christmas!

Over summer I got busy sewing more costume items, working at my own pace with no deadlines. Hand-sewing can be taken anywhere and I often sew while a passenger either in a car or by train. I discovered that old flannelette sheets make an acceptable visual substitute for wool, while being more lightweight for a warmer climate.

Sewing in lockdown while getting my dose of Vitamin D.

Backyard fitting. It still looks like a flannelette sheet. Needs work…
I bought the braid. It was $3 a roll. I needed three rolls exactly. Which makes this a $9 coat.
There we are! A bit of braid and he looks much happier.

Before I rediscovered hand-sewing, I got involved in Boomerang Bags in our village. We are a group of volunteers who make cloth bags from discarded, donated fabric. Another group near us formed as an offshoot of our group originally. I met up with one of them while browsing a new second-hand fabric shop which has opened in our district. I’d gone there looking for more old flannelette sheets (no such luck).

The rest of the same flannelette sheet — 13th Century hose. Not joined in the crotch.
Currently worn with lightweight cotton trousers underneath. Braes next!
Back view, to show the seam down the back of the leg. Functional, not glamorous.
The grin on his face is because a couple of neighbours stopped to stare.
Explaining to the neighbours with maille coif. Also unwittingly demonstrating why codpieces were ‘a thing’.

I was exclaiming over some lace I found, when my fellow Boomerang Bag sewer from the neighbouring group heard my voice (we couldn’t really see each other’s faces, current guidelines are for mask-wearing in shops). Her sewing group had plenty of sheets, she told me, which their group won’t use.

There was a brief lull in the rain on the day when I visited her home to collect the fabric. At the last minute she warned me that she had just been diagnosed with Covid, so we did a quick outdoor transfer of bags. I didn’t get a chance to check the fabric until we got home several hours later. It all needed to be  transferred from my husband’s car to mine.

When I inspected it, I found to my joy that there were several flannelette sheets. They were old, badly pilled and had no other use. A tablecloth was a bit too worn and had a couple of stains. Ideas!

My car was full to the back of the seats with bags of fabric. “Not a problem,” I told hubby. “I’ll hand it over at our next sewing bee on Wednesday.”

The next day one of our kids tested positive for Covid. We were locked down.

I got sewing. No sewing machine, but I’m getting more confident with my hand-sewing.

Women in Tudor times wore a precursor to stays, called “pair of bodies”. They were in two parts, laced at the front and back, stiffened with bundles of reeds. The purpose was not to tightly lace a person into their clothing, but to provide a smooth shape in order to better display the fabric of their clothing. Fabric was expensive and labour-intensive to make, and the best was on display.

Ready for cardboard mock-up.

Because a pair of bodies was something all women wore, often as part of their undergarments, it was worn to death. Literally. Few examples survive, because these were patched, re-stiffened, repaired, re-lined and re-purposed until they fell apart. When people died, their clothing (including underclothing) was too valuable to throw away, it was passed on, until the next wearer passed on…and eventually the underclothing itself died in service.

As a result, few examples survive. But when Elizabeth I died in 1603, an effigy of her was commissioned, along with clothing to her measure. The dressed effigy was paraded through London, with the queen’s body, on the way to Westminster Abbey. This pair of bodies is still on display there, perhaps the best remaining example in the world, as it was never worn by any person living or dead, and never simply passed on to the next wearer.

We learn a lot from portraits also.

So here we were in lockdown, and I still need to keep working on my costume project for the dual purpose of dressing up at medieval fairs, and being suitably attired for the Renaissance choir performances.

I drafted the pattern for a pair of bodies to my own measurements. I started with cardboard, wrapped myself in it to check and moved to a fragment of old, stained curtain for a fold-up pattern.

Cable ties at the ready. Strong scissors are enough to cut them to size.

An old, stained and frayed tablecloth became the mock-up. A practice run.

Because this is for a costume rather than true historical accuracy, I had no qualms using heavy-duty cable ties for boning. In Tudor times bodies were often stiffened with buckram, a sort of heavy linen canvas liberally coated in glue made from rabbit skin. Not exactly washable… I did consider making my own modern and washable buckram using acrylic house paint instead of rabbit glue, but I wanted to play with boning. I’ve never done it before and it looked like fun.

As this was hand-sewn, I was able to take it with me. When we were allowed out of lockdown to at least shop for food, I would take my sewing bag with me and work on the bodies in the car (hubby driving). Doctors’ waiting rooms too, got a close-up look at my stays in development.

The first few ‘bones’ in place. In Tudor times they used bundles of reeds to stiffen the ‘bodies’, or buckram.
Lacing is the elastic from a dead fitted sheet. This is just a mock-up, after all.

Because I carry a seam-ripper in my pocket, spare thread in my bra and my current sewing project in a cloth bag, I’m at the ready for any other sewing tasks that come my way.

Yesterday on the train in Melbourne, while I was hand-felling some seams in a chemise, hubby said, “I need to put a few stitches in the strap of my shoulder bag.” He quickly added, “I don’t need you to do it, just give me some thread when we get back to the hotel, I have a large needle in my pack.”

I reached into my sewing bag, pulled out a bargain-shop array of sewing needles and invited him to select one. I threaded the needle for him (challenging on a moving train!) and he got to work, both of us sitting side-by-side on the train, sewing companionably.

I’d started the boning at the back for the lacing. Then I tied myself in and realised, it was too big. So I took to it with scissors and hacked out the centre. Did I cut too much? I’d have to do all the boning, and sew it all up closed, before I could know.

With a long trip coming up (another post coming soon, I promise – with REAL travel!) I wanted the job done. And I did it, by one day. I laced myself in and found that it fits. A bit rough, the final result may need to be re-made, but I’ve learned a lot in the process.

Laced in,front and back. I need to make a few adjustments. Better lacing, for a start!

And isn’t that what life is about?

Two days before we travelled, I was finally able to drop off the spare fabric I’d been given.

However, my car is still full of fabric.

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