Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The finished mantua

I finished the working class mantua and took some photos last night.  In period it would have been worn over a couple of petticoats, but I don't have the petticoats to go with it so you will have to imagine them.  I do plan to make the petticoats, but they aren't as interesting to construct as the mantua itself so I haven't done them yet.

Here you can see the bodice and skirt drape:

Based on my experience making this mantua I would say wool is an ideal fabric to use.  It drapes beautifully, and mantuas were all about the draping.  Even if I was doing an upper class version, wool would still be my first choice for fabric.  If, like me, you find wool itchy, remember that once you have a shift underneath it won't touch your skin anyway.

 The draped skirt looks really nice from the back:

One of my favourite things about this project is that even though it's very definitely a cheap version of the style and suitable for all your everyday chores, it's still an attractive dress.  It was fun to make, too.

The Challenge: Practicality.

Fabric: Three meters of blue wool.

Pattern: None.  I referred to patterns from The Cut of Women's Clothes by Norah Waugh and Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold to get the general shape and methodology, but mostly I made this up as I went along.  However, during the course of my research I discovered that Reconstructing History have a mantua pattern.  It's based on existing garments and looks pretty good, so if you want a pattern it might be a good option.

Year: Late 17th to early 18th centuries.

Notions: Linen thread, and you need pins to close it.  For now I've also used pins to drape the skirt.

How historically accurate is it?  I like to think my level of accuracy here is quite high.  There were things I had to guess at and I'm sure I've made a few mistakes.

Hours to complete: Somewhere around 20.

First worn: I did most of the draping on myself in front of a mirror, but I've also worn it around the house a bit.  It's warm and comfy.

Total cost: The wool cost me $34.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Mantua construction details

At this point the mantua is mostly finished.  One of the side gores is not finished and the skirt needs hemming, but apart from that it's done.  This is more or less the colour it really is; the wool goes odd colours for some reason when I photograph it and I have to fiddle with the white balance to make it come out okay.

To make the mantua, I've used stitch types known from the 17th/18th centuries.  There's a good outline of techniques here, and in this article which discusses textile remains found in a 17th century New England privy.

You will notice my thread doesn't match the fabric.  Today, we like our sewing thread to match our fabric colour, but that wasn't always the case.  La Couturiere Parisienne says the following about pre-19th century thread and sewing:

"Silk thread was too precious to use on linen and wool fabrics, so silk was sewn with silk thread, linen and wool with linen thread. Before the invention of chemical dyes (late 19th century), linen was difficult to dye, so most linen sewing thread was usually left undyed. It is, therefore, perfectly authentic to use unbleached linen thread on, e.g., dark blue wool fabric."

Well, by happy coincidence I've got dark blue wool and off-white linen thread.  The fact is you can't really see the stitching from the outside anyway.  The dress is stitched with a combination of backstitch, running stitch, and whipstitch.  Raw edges are overcast on the inside with whipstitch:

Inside one of the sleeves.

My seam allowances are wider than was normal in the 17th century, because I didn't know what I was doing and it's easier to let a seam out than cut a whole new piece if you have to alter it.

Those pleats are sewn down with whipstitch.  I've taken a photo and I hope you can see what I'm doing there.  I sew the pleats from the outside of the garment, but I find as long as if you go carefully and use small stitches the seam is all but invisible.  I saw this done on the internet somewhere, but it was a long time ago and I'm afraid I can't remember where.  UPDATE: Cathy Raymond has suggested that this might be where I saw the whipstitching technique, and I think she's right.  Do take a look at that site - there's all sorts of good stuff on there.

Sewing a pleat using whipstitch along the edge of the fold.  This, by the way, is how the fabric looks when photographed on the camera's default setting.

I used this same method for the shoulder seams (it helped me to match up the front pleats with the back pleats), and the sleeve heads.  The sleeves are like later 18th century sleeves; you sew them in with back stitch under the arm as far as the sleeve head, then you arrange the sleeve head into pleats underneath the shoulder fabric and carefully stitch them in place from the outside.  The Brocade Goddess explains the process far better than I can here.  She's doing a later 18th century dress where the bodice is lined, but the principle is the same.

My mantua is unlined.  From what I've seen I think it was normal not to line the bodice, but the skirt could be lined in a contrasting colour (see this example, for instance).  I opted not to install a contrasting lining because this is a working class garment.  The mantuas in The Cryes of the City of London don't appear to have different coloured linings and even wealthy women's mantuas didn't necessarily have a lining.  I can always put one in if I find out down the track that it should be there.

However, not lining the skirt left me with the question of what to do with the skirt seams.  I flat felled them so the seams look identical from the right side and the wrong side, which means the skirt can be worn down or up, but I have no idea if that was ever done in period.

Skirt seam from the outside

Skirt seam from the inside

Sunday, 17 May 2015

In search of the working woman's mantua

May is all about Practicality for the Historical Sew Monthly.  I like practicality.  It appeals to me on a philosophical level.  On a historical level, practical clothes intended for work and everyday living are often more interesting to me than the clothes of the elite, because they are the clothes that most people would have worn most of the time.

My project for this challenge started out as one thing, but ended up being something completely different.  It was initially going to be a 15th century working woman’s dress, made from a pattern I drafted last year.  It was going gangbusters too, right up until I got to the sleeves.  I didn't do a great job on drafting those sleeves, and they don’t fit at all.  They did the first time I made this pattern, but I used different fabric then.

Fixing this problem was going to require me to actually sit down and learn how to draft sleeves properly.  Screw that.  I decided to go right back to the drawing board and make a mantua instead.  And you know what?  I’m glad I did.  It'll still be a lower class garment - no frills, no train, made from plain dark blue wool and suitable for working in.

The mantua, which started to become fashionable in the mid-1670s, is a supremely practical garment.  It was much more comfortable and less restrictive than the heavily boned bodices that had been worn previously, and quickly became a popular choice for ladies of quality.  As you might expect, the mantua became popular with the working classes too.  For an excellent overview of the mantua, see Isis' Wardrobe here.  However, while a number of upper class mantuas still exist, I'm not aware of any working class versions that have survived.  Reconstructing a working woman's mantua will involve researching existing mantuas, and period art showing working class women.

The Cryes of the City of London, a series of etchings from 1688, depicts a number of lower class women doing all kinds of practical business activities while wearing mantuas.

A street trader walking to left with a basket of fabric under her left arm; from bound series of the Cries of London.  1688  Etching and engraving
Look at those sleeves.  Those are easy to fit.

A strawberry seller standing to front, carrying fruit on a large flat basket on her head, and punnets in her hands; from bound series of the Cries of London.  1688  Etching
No front pleats.

The number and placement of pleats is variable in these examples, as is the neckline.  The woman in the second picture there doesn't seem to have any pleats at all on the front of her dress, while the third woman doesn't seem to have pleats at the back, though I suspect the center back seam on her bodice may in fact be two pleats that meet in the center back, a bit like the Shrewsbury mantua. She wears her skirt draped back over her hips the same way upper class ladies wore their mantuas.

A fruit seller walking to left carrying a basket on her head and another hanging from her left arm; from bound series of the Cries of London.  1688  Etching and engraving
Either no back pleats, or two pleats that meet in the center back.  I can't tell for sure.

Surviving garments and pictures and the mantua patterns in The Cut of Women's Clothes and Patterns of Fashion reveal that construction methods for these things varied in terms of detail, but revolved around the same basic principles.  The bodice and skirt were cut in one with bodice shaping achieved by pleating the fabric, and in some cases the front and back were a continuous piece of fabric with no shoulder seam.  Sleeves were elbow-length and quite roomy, with the sleeve head pleated into the armscye.  Skirt gores tended to have a right-angle triangle shape.

Because there’s so much variation I haven't used any one pattern.  I've based my construction on the Kimberley mantua pattern in The Cut of Women’s Clothes, and the Shrewsbury mantua pattern in Patterns of Fashion, and the more generic pattern in Period Costumes for Stage and Screen.  From there I simply cut my cloth and pleated it into shape.

This is one of my front pieces with the pleats pinned in place and ready to be sewn down.  The armhole hasn't been cut yet.

I found trial and error was the best way to figure out where the pleats should be.  I pinned them in place and tried a few different ways of doing them.  After joining the back and front pieces together, I changed the front pleats again.

The pleats look deep, but in fact the depth varies along the length of the pleat from 40mm at the waist to 10mm over the bust.  After some experimentation, I found the front pleats worked best if I didn't stitch them down over the bust.  The back pleats got sewn down along their whole length and are just straight pleats tapering from 40mm at the waist to 10mm at the shoulder.

Draping a garment to shape can be a wasteful way to cut cloth, but in this case I don't think it was.  There were very few offcuts - just little curves cut out to form the armholes and a couple of little bits at the sides.  I find this interesting.  In the pre-industrial world fabric was expensive, and even wealthy people could not afford to waste it by using uneconomical cutting layouts.  So I was curious to see how much fabric the mantua would use compared to the Medieval dress I originally intended to make, and the answer is about the same.

At first I wondered if the women wearing unpleated mantuas in the pictures above had cut them that way to save on fabric, because bodice pleating was a defining feature of the upper class mantua and I've only seen unpleated versions on pictures of working women.  I now think that may be true, but not necessarily.  I've sketched out (roughly - these aren't to scale) the cutting layout for my mantua, and the cutting layout I would have used for the 15th century dress using a pattern made according to the directions in The Medieval Tailor's Assistant.  As you can see there's not much between them.

So why omit the pleats if it wasn't to save fabric?  Well, I wonder if some of these working class mantuas are hybrid garments made by combining the overall look of a mantua with the kind of shaped bodice block used for earlier fashions (see this pattern from Reconstructing History).  Perhaps the seamstress didn't know how the bodice of an upper class mantua was constructed, or perhaps she preferred to stick with a pattern that she knew would work for her.

Next time, we'll look at construction details.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The linothorax - finished at last

Well, here it is.  I get such a kick out of the fact that it's a real, functional piece of armour.  I don't know that I'd want to use it as armour though.  Aldrete et al tested it against the kind of arrows used in ancient Greece and it performed very well, but it didn't stop a modern hunting arrow.  Technology has moved on since Alexander's day.

I was going to photograph it on my tailor's dummy, but it doesn't fit on the dummy so you will have to make do with a coat hanger.  Luckily it keeps its shape nicely even with nothing inside.

The last layer of linen is cut larger than the armour piece and folded over to the back to make the edges neat.

The back of the linothorax, showing the neck guard.

Detail of the side lacing.

The linothorax doesn't weigh much.  I could run around all day in it and the weight wouldn't become a problem.  That's an advantage you don't get with metal armour, and would have been a real asset to soldiers who needed to be highly mobile, as Alexander's army did.  The downside is that it wouldn't provide as much protection as metal armour.  Linen armour was obviously cheaper than metal armour and for some soldiers would have been all they could afford, but I think weight was a consideration too and it seems like some people may have chosen to use a linothorax instead of a metal breastplate.  Assuming Greek art reflects what was actually worn into battle, even Alexander the Great wore linen armour.

For some reason the cat liked to lie on top of the pteruges (that's the flappy bits at the bottom) when I put them in front of the fire to dry.  The wet glue didn't seem to bother her at all.

Things I have learned from this project:

  • Ideally you want a mate to help you get into your linothorax.  It does bend, but it's extremely stiff and springy, so lacing it up on your own is a bit of a challenge.
  • You'd be able to mount and dismount a horse fairly easily in this armour, and because the extra weight is minimal it shouldn't worry the horse too much.
  • The linothorax doesn't take much skill to make.  It's just a matter of cutting out the pieces and gluing them together.  Anybody could make themselves a suit of armour using this method.  They couldn't do it in a hurry though.
  • I have obviously lost weight since I made my tailor's dummy.  The linothorax fits me okay, but doesn't fit the dummy at all.  I'm glad I discovered that before I tried to drape my next project on the dummy.

In due course I'll make a couple of linen test patches and see how they go against an airgun.  Watch this space!

The Challenge: War and Peace.  Obviously, this relates to the "war" component of War and Peace.

Fabric: Approximately 10 meters of linen.

Pattern: From Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor: Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery by Aldrete et al.  If you want to make a linothorax but don't have the book, the authors have kindly made patterns available online here.

Year: We have pictures of this type of armour from approximately 600BCE to 200BCE.  We also know that linen armour was used in Mycenaean times, but I'm not aware of any images from before the 6th century showing armour that looks like this.

Notions: 750 grams worth of rabbit skin glue from Gordon Harris.

How historically accurate is it?  Probably not bad.  This reconstruction is conjectural, but it does replicate what we see in the pictures using materials and processes available at the time, and it provides effective protection against the weaponry used at the time.  Aldrete and co were able to source linen that had been processed, spun, and woven by hand just like the Greeks would have used, but my linen is commercially produced. According to the book, handmade linen is slightly less resistant to arrow penetration.

Hours to complete: This is hard to estimate.  Once each layer has been glued it takes anywhere up to 24 hours to dry, and you kind of have to do each layer individually, but actually pasting a layer on only takes a couple of minutes.  Aldrete and co have calculated that making a linothorax from start to finish required somewhere around 715 man hours.  Of course it takes much less time if you buy the linen.

First worn: I tried it on quite a few times to check the fit, see how much it weighed etc.

Total cost: About $145, and it would have been nearly double that if I hadn't bought the linen on sale.