Two weeks ago today I was driving off on an adventure all by myself, spending 12 hours in my car driving from my home in Upstate NY to Williamsburg, VA.
This started back in late November when I was catching up on the new posts by one of my favorite historical costumers, Samantha of Couture Courtesan. She announced on her blog that she was planning an early-17th-Century clothing conference at Jamestown Settlement where she works, and the keynote speakers and workshop leaders would be the authors of one of the best books on Renaissance costuming, The Tudor Tailor. I was ecstatic. Everything I do, everything I know is self-taught, so the idea of an entire weekend devoted to learning historical clothing recreation spearheaded by a costumer that I admired and women whose book I learned so much from was too good to pass up. I checked when the conference registration would go up and set my alarm for 5am that morning so that I could wake up extra early to register.
The 72 attendee slots sold out just 14 hours after I registered.
In the intervening months I dithered between excitement and doubt. Me being a self-taught seamstress relatively new to historical costuming with no training in anything like fashion history or sewing, I worried that I would be the noob in over my head. It didn’t help that the Facebook group created for everyone who had registered seemed to be full of people whose profile pictures showed them already wearing gorgeous Elizabethan outfits. A lot of them were part of SCA or seemed to work at museums or other historic sites.
We were told there would be an opportunity to dress up on the Saturday night of the conference, but I almost didn’t bring my Elizabethan gown because, it being polyester and made from an adapted Simplicity pattern, I thought I’d be too out of place compared to everyone else. My boyfriend finally told me (in so many words) that I was being dumb, that I spent a lot of time making the dress and I loved it and hardly ever got to wear it, and I would regret not bringing it (he’s so smart, that engineer).
So, setting my doubts aside, two weeks ago with a suitcase full of Virginia summer-friendly clothes plus some sewing supplies, my copy of The Tudor Tailor, and a duffle bag stuffed full of my Elizabethan gown, I drove the 12 hours to Williamsburg by myself (I won’t recap that; I’m still slightly traumatized).
The first day of the conference we met up in the education wing of Jamestown Settlement to sign in; a lot of people knew each other already, which is always slightly intimidating. But I was “sorted” into the group that would be led on tours for the morning by Samantha herself. *cue silent squeeing*
First we looked at some highlights of the collections at Jamestown Settlement, and we got to go backstage to the costume shop where Samantha and the other tailors make the clothing that the living history reenactors wear at Jamestown. We actually got to touch and examine the clothing that was made for the employees of Jamestown to wear.
Samantha talked about things that the tailors have to keep in mind when making clothes for the employees, like: even though wool is historically accurate, they can’t really force everyone to wear wool doublets at the height of Virginia summer heat. And, being an equal-opportunity employer, how do they work around things like employees with disabilities, or who need things like shoe inserts in their historic footwear? It was really interesting to hear about trying to find the balance between historical accuracy and modern needs.
Then we went down to the recreated fort where there were no less than six tailors working all at once; the most since about 1610! We got to touch the fabric and tools and ruffs and watch the tailors at work, and Noel, the ruff expert, even let me try on a ruff that he had dyed with cochineal that happened to match my hair.
In the afternoon we toured Historic Jamestowne, led by an excellent guide. The tour was interesting and informative, but the Virginia heat got to me and I started feeling quite woozy, so unfortunately I don’t remember as much of the history as I’d like. I did get some tea and this really cool bag in the (air conditioned) gift shop, though.
That night was the excellent presentation by Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila “As I Lie Dying.” It’s a mixture of stage show, dressing demonstration, and clothing history lecture that was informative and quite funny at times.One of the things I took away from it is that, in their research they have seen plenty of evidence of women mixing “eras” of clothing. For example, during the talk, Ninya’s character dresses to go out to church in a 1540s silhouette dress with a 1580s ruff and pair of undersleeves. They said that women reused the dresses as long as they had them and they sometimes made them over, but other times just paired them with more “modern” accessories. That year-specific nitpicking about dresses from one year being worn with an item from a different year always intimidated me! But here Jane and Ninya said they found evidence that historically women were a lot more flexible about it, so I found that quite a relief.
On the second day of the conference, my group attended lectures by the guest presenters. Some of the highlights for me were hearing about Noel’s misadventures in experimenting with making ruffs. He presented his lecture from the point of view of “here’s what I tried that didn’t work.” It gave me confidence to hear that it took him years to discover the best (at least, current best) way of making, starching, and ironing ruffs, and that he’s still learning and trying new things. It somehow made ruffs less intimidating.
We also got to hear from Mathew Gnagy, of The Modern Maker, about his research into 16th and 17th century tailoring techniques. Tailoring methods are something else that has always intimidated me, but Mathew’s demonstrations of how simple little tweaks improve clothing fit drastically left me energized and I scooped up a copy of his book, The Modern Maker: Men’s Doublets when I saw him the final day.
We also heard from Brenda Rosseau of Colonial Williamsburg about the construction of the embroidered jacket that was made in 2014 to commemorate the anniversary of the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. It took 70 volunteers more than 1,000 hours to embroider the jacket and it is stunning. It was brought into the lecture room for us and we got to take a closeup look at it!
That night was my favorite part of the whole weekend. The recreated fort and the replica of the ship Susan Constant were opened to us after Jamestown Settlement closed to the general public, and we got to dress up for the Fort Frolic. There was a band playing Celtic music, there was food set up everywhere (crab cakes, mashed potatoes in martini glasses, fresh fruit, apple crumble, and I don’t even remember what else!), and a professional photographer set up in one of the fort buildings to take our photos with reproduction period furniture. We got to chat and hang out and laugh, and even though I kept apologizing for my gown, everyone kept telling me it was gorgeous. I finally had to silently scold myself for apologizing for my dress instead of just graciously accepting the compliments. The only critique I really got that night was that I stitch my eyelets too heavily; too many stitches weakens the fabric, so only 10-15 are really necessary. Otherwise, everyone was so nice about my dress! At one point as the sun was setting I was standing on the deck of the Susan Constant, all dressed up in my gown, and I looked up to see two bald eagles fly over the ship’s rigging. It was such a surreal, amazing moment.
The final day my group attended all of the Tudor Tailor workshops. We got to try out fulling little wool “swircles” (circular swatches) that Jane had stitched to examine the process of making fulled wool caps. We got lessons from Ninya on how to lace up our hair and tie kerchiefs over the resulting updos. I volunteered to help with one workshop and as a result I got to lace up in the very bodice that Ninya wore during the As I Lie Dying lecture. And between all of these things we got to touch and examine the clothes that Ninya and Jane have made, some of which are the very pieces that are modeled in The Tudor Tailor.
The entire weekend was really indescribable. We basically talked of nothing but sewing and research and patterns and sources for the whole weekend. I made a ton of new friends, got a ton of new ideas, and my sewing inspiration was kicked into overdrive. As I pulled out of the parking lot Sunday evening to start my drive home I got a little choked up about going back to real life. But since then everyone has been posting tons of photos and ideas and projects that they’ve taken home with them from the conference and it’s like I have this whole new community to pull knowledge and advice from. I don’t know if anything can ever really top this experience, and I’m so, so glad that I was able to go.
So to sum up just a few of the things I learned from this conference:
- Only stitch hand-bound eyelets 10-15 times
- It’s okay to mix pieces from different decades a little bit. Historic women did it!
- According to in-process research, as yet there is no evidence of doublets being worn without sleeves; wearing them that way is basically just Faire Garb.
- Oorijzers (ear irons) were cool little metal devices that women wore on the backs of their heads to pin caps to and help give their caps shape.
- The Tailor’s Pattern Book by Juan de Alcega is a great source for late 16th century patterns
And some things I want to try after the conference:
- Hair lacing. I actually think this might be fun for regular day wear in the summer. And black laces would probably look really cool with my lavender hair.
- Embroidery. We received an embroidery pattern for a coif in our attendee packet, and since I saw some gorgeous embroidered pieces at the conference, I’d love to try it out. I’ve already borrowed a couple embroidery basics books from a coworker who embroiders.
- Ruffs. I’ve always loved the look of ruffs. I thought if I wanted one I’d have to pay someone hundreds of dollars to make me one. But, after Noel’s lecture, his enthusiasm for ruffs is infectious and I think I might be able to try making my own.
- Doublet tailoring. Or really, just tailoring in general. There are other eras that require tailoring methods in clothing construction and I’ve always just backed away from them, but Mathew said that once you learn the tailoring basics from the 16th century, it translates very easily into later eras.
Now I just have to find the time to try out all this stuff. Good thing I have some vacation time banked at work.