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.