Saturday, April 10, 2010

Polly's Eureka Moment!

A few years ago I woke from a fitful sleep to experience one of those rare yureka! moments. At the time I was still working, relatively happily in the operating theatres of a small town in the Midlands of Ireland and the whole thing seemed pretty ridiculous. This was especially as I related the experience to one of our most senior and respected anaesthetic consultants. Surprisingly enough she was enthusiastic when I told her about my dream to make corsets - yes CORSETS!

The thing is that once upon a time, having been little more than mediocre in the sewing department at school, I used to make corsets or at least the equivalent thereof. This is not quite as daft as it sounds, although what follows by way of explanation most probably is...

You see, for a period of eight years or so I used to engage in historical reinactment and living history. Battling for charity with The Sealed Knot is great fun, it's also a fantastic way to meet people, do some good and travel around the country to places that you'd otherwise never have dreamed of visiting. It's also a great way of learning a little bit more about the history of the country in which you live as the school history lessons were little more than a rapidly glossed over potted history of little or no interest to man nor beast! For a wee bit more on the Sealed Knot watch this video

The question has to be asked though, where in all this does the tale of my making corsets come into the grand scheme of things? In case you're not aware The Sealed Knot is a seventeenth century reinactment society, which brings the history of the English Civil War to life. Unfortunately seventeenth century clothing isn't readily available these days which provides two options: 1) You purchase it off someone who is selling it for a premium price on Merchants Row or like me 2) you purchase some inexpensive woollen cloth from your local market and make your own according to the hand drawn patterns you purchased on Merchants Row at your first muster.

Looking at the construction of the garment it soon becomes apparent that this is nothing like the clothing worn in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. For starters the use of modern textiles is understandably frowned upon considering they were not authentic to the period and are totally inadequate for the type of wear and tear inflicted upon the average suit of clothing - this is true for both ladies and gentlemen. For the beginner it is acceptable however to use modern nylon boning in the construction of ones bodice, largely due to the absence of anything more suitable...

The major similarity between the bodice of a C17th dress and a corset is the fact that one is made of woven wool and the other from cotton or maybe something a little nicer. Otherwise the construction is remarkably similar. Do bear in mind that the 'dress' came in several parts, in so far as the skirt(s) were separate from the top, the centre piece or stomacher which lay beneath the central cording was also separate as were the sleeves which were attached by ties. This allowed for interchangeable sleeves, ventilation in the warmer weather and for those of a lower social standing for the wearer to go without sleeves altogether.

While all of this sounds dreadfully complicated for the modern seamstress, in reality it isn't. One thing that I discovered very quickly was that hand sewing is not only more authentic, it's easier and results in a stronger garment overall. Bear in mind that as with the modern corset, the C17th lady was not in possession of a brassier beneath this constricting garment and any reinacter foolish enough to do so will soon change their mind.

The bodice was worn over a calico shift however, for decency although images of barmaids and prostitutes might lead one to wonder about its very existence, and the purpose of the stomacher was two fold. It held in the stomach as it was highly boned and it concealed the appearance of the shift in those partial to gaining a pound or two from time to time. As you might imagine ladies of this period didn't have ready access to chain stores like Penney's or Tesco's and the ability to purchase disposable clothing for each season as the young misses of today so clothing had to be durable and adjustable.

As for my Eureka! moment, I'm still thinking about making corsets - apparently they sell for a fortune and it could be the path to my salvation moneywise...

Have fun over the weekend and please say a prayer for my poor demented soul!

Polly Pierce
Irish Greeting Cards Made By Hand For All Occasions

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