It’s funny Sandy should ask (in yesterday’s comments) about how we make stays. I’ve been thinking about doing a “how we do what we do” post, or a series of them, since Carolyn H noticed the rack of serger threads in the background of a photo way back in December.
The Colonial Wardrobe & Textiles department consists of three full time staff – Shaina, Penny, and me – occasional interns, and loyal volunteers. We’re responsible for providing all the articles of colonial clothing (not Native Wampanoag) for the role-players in the 1627 Village, on board Mayflower II, the museum teachers who do outreach programs (in schools, etc) and any other program or exhibit the museum needs.
In each calendar year, we dress approximately 60 people. This includes role-players who work all of our open season (this year 22 March to the Sunday after Thanksgiving), or only part of it, full time or part time, those who work part time in period clothing and part time behind the scenes, child volunteers; basically anybody who gets even one set of period clothing counts in that tally. Most of the role-players, who are also known as historical interpreters, have at least two full sets of clothing, two pairs of shoes, and one each of cold weather accessories – one coat, one pair of knitted stockings, one pair of mittens or gloves, that sort of thing. Of course we don’t make everyone’s clothes new every season, but making new things either to replace those that are wearing out, to effect role changes, or for new hires, altering old things for new hires, and mending can keep us pretty busy.
We’re also jointly responsible for the textiles in the Village houses and on Mayflower II. We share the task of cleaning and keeping track of the blankets, sheets, bed hangings, etc, with Martha; we share the task of mending them and making new ones with the on-site interpreters. I’m partly responsible for research and training new interpreters in the use and care of their clothing and household textiles.
We compromise with the historical record for health & safety and economic reasons; we also make subtle adjustments to increase our ability to present historical information to the public. (You’d think that last one wouldn’t need a compromise, but sometimes it does. I’ll try to think of a good example for tomorrow.) The sewing machines definitely count as an economic compromise. We would never be able to afford the labor to do everything by hand. And where would you start? With hand spinning? Growing the flax/sheep? I’d love to – but our interpreters would be very scantily clad, and that’s a different program altogether. I try to document where we diverge from what we know of historical practice and keep both the CW&T staff and the interpreters informed of these decisions.
We use sewing machines, including a serger and an industrial straight-stitch machine, where it won’t show in the finished garment, with two notable exceptions (more on that later). That means internal seams, which saves us a great deal of time on some garments, like shirts and smocks which are French seamed, and not much time on some things, like slops breeches where so much of what has to be done must be done by hand that the machine only saves a few hours (still worth it). All the pleats, hems, buttonholes, eyelets, and any trim is all sewn by hand.
As far as the two notable exceptions, a few years ago we started sewing the hems of shirts and smocks on the sewing machine. This saved us an hour per garment. The shirts/smocks are the first layer, worn closest to the skin. The hems of the shirts are tucked into the men’s breeches and extremely unlikely ever to be seen by a visitor. The hems of the smocks are long, to the knee, and are under at least one petticoat, and while sometimes female interpreters will show visitors the hems of their layers of clothing it is also extremely unlikely that anyone will get close enough to see whether they are machine sewn or not.
The other exception is the channels on the stays. Up till a few years ago the vast majority of our stays were heavily machine sewn; not only all the bone channels but also all the binding was top stitched. They were designed to remain hidden under the waistcoat or jacket. I guess it’s about 5 or 6 years ago we started adding a pair or two of hand sewn stays every season. Now I’d say we’re up to almost half of the pairs of stays that have only hand sewing visible. We’re still using the machine for the internal seams, but all the bone channels and binding are done by hand. I counted one time, and it took me (conservatively) about 40 hours to hand sew a pair of stays. Small ones. Since the end of last season, we added two pairs of hand sewn stays. Penny made one pair and Emily made another.
All of the stays, hand sewn or not, have 1/4″ white steel bones in the channels. As Sandy pointed out, whalebone isn’t really an option nowadays. Years ago we used plastic boning cut to the right length, but we found the plastic tended to mold to the curves of the wearer, rather than the other way around. We have experimented with using reeds in the channels, as described in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion: the cut and construction of clothes for men and women c.1560-1620. This wasn’t an unqualified failure, but it wasn’t a resounding success either. Being a modern museum, and seeing as we have modern people only pretending to be 1620s colonists, we like to wash our clothing now and again. The reeds really didn’t hold up to washing. Taking the binding off, removing the reeds and replacing them wasn’t an option either – the reeds disintegrated in the channels after several months’ wear, making it nearly impossible to get the pieces out.
In the last few years we’ve been using wooden busks in the front of the stays. Peter Follansbee, joiner in Plimoth’s Crafts Center, makes them for us. Most women prefer them to the stays without a busk. The busks take some of the work off the steel bones, keeping the front of the stays stiff and straight, and help the stays to last longer overall.