Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Death by petticoat - or how to do an 18th century patch job.

One of the prevalent reenactor myths is that the second leading cause of death for women during the 18th century was by what we call “death by petticoat*”, or women dying from their clothing catching on fire and burning them to a crisp. (With the leading cause of death believed to be complications of childbirth.) Those myths are busted here, but I can tell you from personal experience that your skirts catching fire is not an automatic death sentence.

I was assisting the costumer at a film shoot, dressed in my linen working gown with the back polonaised up off the floor. It was a bloody cold, windy day in December, and the cast and crew were inside one of the interior sets trying to stay warm while a couple of exterior kerosene heaters were going full blast. These heaters had the heating element/flame set up about three feet above the floor. I was standing about a foot in front of one, feverishly sewing one of the “talent” into her gown as the director was standing in the open door bleating “We must go NOW! We’re losing the LIGHT!” I felt what seemed like someone brushing against the back of me and thought nothing of it until the talent was out the door and a nice young man said to me “Ma’am – your butt was on fire. But I put it out for you!” Who said chivalry was dead? (And proof that at least once in my life I had a hot ... backside.)

Upon further examination, I found that my gown had some rather interesting holes burned in it. Had I been dressed in polyester, or some sort of poly blend, I would have been shrink-wrapped like a package of bacon. Wool would have shown less damage, as wool is self-extinguishing and won’t hold a flame. This is good to know if you are shooting anything that requires a priming pan filled with black powder. Wool is a good choice for your upper body garment.

Patching the gown was one of my projects this past weekend. In the 18th century, labor was cheap and fabric was dear, so patching was done a little differently – it was patched from the back.

First step is to find a piece of fabric that matches as closely as possible to the original. Or, at least as closely as practical for the character you are portraying. I had scraps from the original gown, and had my gown been old and faded I would have used these to show a subtle change of color. Since I was wearing for the gown for the first time when it caught fire, I found another shade of brown to use. I wanted them gown to be neatly patched, but still noticeable enough to use as a talking point.

Next, with the right side of the fabric facing up, place the patch behind the hole and pin in place making sure the garment fabric isn’t distorted. Try to match the straight-of-grain. Turn under a narrow hem (like about an eighth of an inch or less) and sew with tiny overcast stitches.

Partially done on the back.

Turn the garment over and trim the patch to about a quarter of an inch away from your stitching. Turn that raw edge under, and repeat with the tiny overcast stitches. Repeat for each hole.

Done in back.

Finished in front.

Five of the ten holes patched.

*Petticoat – what we today would call a skirt – a garment (usually at least two at a time) worn under your
gown (what we would call a “dress” today). Your skirts were the bottom portion of your petticoat or gown.

1 comment:

  1. I had a freind who's favorite pair of pants had holes worn in the backside. He wouldn't let anyone throw them out and had the holes patched with a red paisley bandanna. It was an interesting look.