Friday, 21 April 2017

Roman Wall Blues (World Heritage Day 2017)

Roman Wall Blues. Picture by my dad.
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place;
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W.H. Auden

You can read more about this poem, and the music composed for it by Benjamin Britten, here! Sadly the free download no longer works, but you can still listen to a clip here.

So I've been on an unexpected Roman history kick recently. It started when my parents were visiting last week, and we took a day trip with Rabbie's Tours to the Borders and Hadrian's Wall. It was very cool to drive along Roman roads, and see stones that have been piled in the same place for centuries. It was hard to imagine what an impact it would have made on the landscape at its original size, up to 5 metres high and stretching from horizon to horizon. As it is now, it can easily blend in with the other countryside drystone walls, but its linear neatness is remarkable even now.

A serious historian examines the wall. Picture by dad.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Keeping the balls rolling (1870s inspiration)

Now I've recovered slightly from my month of nonstop dancing, it's time to start preparations for the Bath Victorian Ball coming up in May. Some time soon I'll post about the underthings I've already made, but for now I want to share my inspiration for the dress, because I'm super excited about it!

The theme for this year's ball is early bustle period, c. 1868-75. I'm really pleased to have the chance to make an ensemble for this era, as I have long admired its excessive floofyness, and not had an opportunity to wear it. I was looking at fashion plates and extant garments from the early 1870s, and started to notice a pattern.

Le Moniteur de la Mode, 1872

Dress, 1873, Wadsworth Athenaeum.

La Mode Illustrée, 1873
Dress, 1872-74, The Met.

Journal du Grand Monde, 1876

That's right, I'm going to make a Hufflepuff ballgown to show off my Hogwarts house pride! Or, given that it's the 1870s, HufflePOOF might be more appropriate!

The dress in the first image is very similar in shape to the 1870-71 one in Patterns of Fashion II, so I'll be using that as the basis for my design, with the evening bodice option. If I have time it would be nice to have a day bodice too, but we shall see! I have silk which I bought online, and it turned out to be more beige than I wanted, so my lovely long-suffering parents let me attempt dyeing it in the washing machine while I was home for Christmas. Here it is drying, much more acceptably yellow (it's actually even brighter than it looks here). I was advised that RIT yellow dye is extremely potent (thanks, Quinn!), so I only used one packet for about 10 metres of fabric, and I'm glad I didn't use any more.

Stay tuned for increasingly frantic updates over the next six weeks, and in the mean time, enjoy the pintrest board I made of every hufflepuff-coloured historical garment I could find (if you want- I don't want to badger anyone into it. Haha.)

Friday, 17 March 2017

Having a ball in 1817

Remember me? I have severely fallen off the blog updating wagon, though in my defense, my flat hasn't had internet for over a month so I've basically just been living in the 19th century (and stealing next door's wifi). Since my last update, I marathoned three consecutive weekends of dance events, and did quite a lot of sewing! Only the most recent event was historical, and it's very exciting, so I'm going to focus on that, and the dress I made for it.

The event was the re-creation of Nathaniel Gow's quadrilles first being danced in Edinburgh, in 1817. So 200 years later to the exact date, we were doing the same dances, in the same Assembly Rooms! There were a number of workshops beforehand, and I wish I'd attended more of them, because it was a bit hard to hear the authentically un-amplified dance calls. However, the musicians in their little alcove sounded great, and the hall made a stunning setting for the dance. There was dinner and dessert included, and we got through an impressive number of dances. And Raven happened to be in town, which made it extra special! It was a pleasure to have her company for last-minute hemming, and be able to do regency dancing together again.

Friends! Photo courtesy of Juliette Lichman.

One of many quadrilles. Photo courtesy of Juliette Lichman.

I hadn't made a new regency dress for a while, and given the bicentennial we were celebrating, I decided to aim for the later end of the period, with a more triangular skirt and a horizontal emphasis in the trim. Well, I would have done if I'd had time to add any trim. I started the dress the weekend before the dance madness started, so it's actually kind of a miracle it was wearable!

Front view...
...and back! Again, pictures courtesy of Juliette.

This is it! Entirely hand sewn from silk, with cotton lining in the bodice and sleeves. Worn over my old shift and stays, and a new petticoat. I didn't get a good picture of my hair, but I'm wearing a lovely comb made by Peryn.

Construction details and more pictures below...

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Ruffles for Justice, or, why does this matter?

For the past few days, I've been trying to think about writing my next post. I'd like to show off my fabulous stripey bustle, which I absolutely will write about soon. But I keep getting distracted by the flaming Orwellian disaster that is US politics at the moment, and asking myself, "so what? You made a cute 1870s bustle that you plan to wear to a ball, why does this matter?" And on one level, it doesn't, and that's okay. It's not necessary for my every action to be a feminist statement, and it's just fun to dance around a ballroom in a floofy dress. On the other hand, I'd like to make a case for celebrating traditionally female craft, and women's lived experiences in the past.

That argument perhaps gets more tenuous the higher up the social ladder I'm portraying; I'm certainly representing a privileged minority when I'm wearing a ballgown. As a dress and textile historian, I can use that ballgown to expand on many aspects of 19th century life: the steel hoops in my bustle represent new manufacturing processes. The ruffled trim, while facilitated by the invention of the sewing machine, still required hours of female labour to produce, which I know because I had to sit there sewing the damn things for hours.

Ruffles upon ruffles: a preview

The importance of portraying women's history is obvious when it's explicitly political, or done in a public history context: showing how women were involved in the American Revolution, or agitating for the right to vote, for example. I wore a 'Votes for Women' pin and ribbon to the Edinburgh women's march on Saturday because that still feels extremely pertinent. Reminding people that history has always been more than straight cis white guys helps validate claims for representation in the present. We have a voice and a context, we've always been here and we're not going away.

Reproduction WSPU badge from the Museum of London, with my ribbons

However, on a purely personal, selfish, level, I still like to think that this hobby has some value. This BBC article talks about the recent 'pussy hat' trend as part of a long tradition of craft activism, which I think is entirely appropriate. My mother taught me both sewing and politics, which have been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and require a lot of the same skills. You need a vision of what you can create, and the patience and dedication to work for it, stitch by stitch, step by step, the skill to know what techniques work best for a given task, and the willingness to always keep learning.

Yes, a lot of my sewing is escapism. It doesn't do anything for the current dire state of politics, for feminism, or even arguably for the study of history. But it brings me joy when the world at large doesn't, and makes me feel like a person who can get things done. I can look at my hands and remind myself of what I'm capable of. And when I get sick of sewing ruffles, I can sit down and write to my representatives, I can do my research to separate truth from "alternative facts," I can take to the streets and march.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Bog body crafts: Gunnister Purse

This is a project I completed before Christmas, but it's a good introduction to my interests... history with a side of weird and morbid. I've been fascinated by bog bodies since I was little, and the Boston Science Museum did an exhibit on peat bogs. I remember being terrified of the preserved body on display, and obsessed with a live play where a woman portrayed the bogman's daughter. I watched it loads of times and would go home and act it out, standing on the sofa and yelling, "bog burst! bog burst!" Anyway, I was a cool kid with lots of friends...

Fast forward to last year, when I had to write a paper about the intersections between textile history and scientific analysis, so I decided to write about bog bodies, because they often come with exceptionally well-preserved textile specimens. One example I wrote about was the Gunnister Man, found in Shetland in 1951. In this case, the body was not well preserved, leaving only skeletal remains, but his clothing was. Peat bogs preserve animal fibres, such as wool, but completely dissolve plant fibres, such as linen. Therefore, what was found were his wool waistcoat, coat, and breeches, along with knitwear, including stockings, gloves, and a purse. Many more details about the original garments, and the Shetland Museum's project of recreating them, can be found on the Costume Historian. I was super excited to find a free kitting pattern on Ravelry to recreate the purse, so of course I had a go!

Supplies! Pattern, yarn, and tiny tiny needles.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Always know where your tiara is.

If you’re reading this, hello and welcome! I’m Emma, and I'm starting this blog primarily to document my historic sewing projects and costumed adventures. I will probably also diverge into thoughts on researching and interpreting history, books I like, terrible puns, and whatever else occurs to me.

This is also an attempt to figure out where I am right now as a reenactor and historical costumer. I moved to Scotland last year for a Masters programme in Dress and Textile History at the University of Glasgow, and I'm trying to find more opportunities here both for professional research and history dress-up for fun. I want to record how I reproduce historic clothing as accurately as I can, on a limited budget and usually at silly hours of the morning.

The name ‘Ballgown in a Backpack’ was inspired by a trip the lovely Peryn and I took to the Bath Victorian Ball this past spring. It was just the two of us, a suitcase stuffed with ballgowns, and copious amounts of chocolate, and we felt like we could go anywhere. It was the non-galactic equivalent of knowing where your towel is.* The experience summed up why I love this hobby: wonderful people, crazy adventures that I would never go on if it wasn’t an excuse to dress up, and of course, tiaras. No matter what I end up doing with my life, that’s the feeling I want to hang on to, and which I hope to chronicle here.

Walking home from the ball with our suitcase of ballgowns. Not, in fact, a backpack, but I can't resist alliteration.
Photo courtesy of Peryn.

Always prepared.

*I'm currently listening to an audiobook of Stephen Fry reading Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It is as delightful as it sounds.