Once upon a time, in Ye Olde Upstate New York in the year of our Lord of Chaos 2020, I was mired in several work projects, including changing staff structures, retiring department heads, and conference trips on top of also having costuming programs I had been asked to do after the success of my 2019 grant project. Suffice to say I was Stressed. Printable calendars scheduling every hour of my day and getting canker sores stressed. A stressed I hadn’t been since grad school. And then all of a sudden a global pandemic fell from the sky and everything shut down. All the events and programs I’d been stressing about were canceled, my library closed to the public (“for a couple weeks”) and we were all sent home to librarian remotely as best we could.
The sudden silence was jarring. It was like emerging from a raging river that was carrying you to a definite destination instead onto huge, still, mirrored lake so big you couldn’t see the shores to try to navigate your way across. I was adrift, but my mind and body were still so locked into go-go-go mode that I couldn’t stop. And with nothing else to direct that frantic energy toward, I picked up my sewing.
I was lucky in that my years of “someday maybe” project planning had left me with a huge stash of fabric that I had to pull from. Some had been purchased for designated projects that I now had time to start, and some had been purchased just because it was a steal and I knew I would find a use for it. I also had a bag (a literal bag, for organization purposes) of UFOs (Un-Finished Objects for those who don’t know) that had never had a deadline, and so got thrown to the wayside in favor of more pressing outfits. So despite everything being shut down, and the few places that were shipping sewing supplies being overwhelmed with orders I had plenty of stash to pull from.
I sewed on my lunch breaks, I sewed after clocking out of work, I sewed all weekend long on my couch and in the park. I started with a UFO, but I also quickly cut out new pieces I’d never had time for before and alternated between cutting and machine sewing in my sewing room and handstitching pre-sewing machine era items in my living room. Sewing kept my hands busy, even while my mind was unsure where to look or how to feel. I discovered that handsewing for me was as good as meditation (if not better, since meditation never really seemed to do much for me). As news orgs started interviewing psychologists recommending taking up hobbies and reconnecting with family over Zoom to get through, as everyone started renovating their house and taking up gardening, I put my head down and sewed and kept sewing and it felt slightly manic, but also no worse than the manic feeling of work stress I’d had before everything shut down.
In those first couple of months I probably finished more individual pieces than I had for all of 2019, though by late summer, as things seemed briefly like they were trending toward “normal” and a whole new kind of stress (re-emergence stress as well as pandemic burnout) popped up, my creative energy began to ebb. Since then it has been an up and down ride of spurts of sewing focus followed by general malaise that couldn’t be filled with Jane Austen movies, good fiction, bad fiction, stupid app games, or even sewing.
But here it is now in June of 2021, on the other side of the “second wave,” when at least half the country is now vaccinated, and though we can’t say yet that the pandemic is truly over, this is as thorough an accounting as I can manage, for the moment, of the projects that got me through it. So far.
One of the first UFOs I picked up was the English Gown made from the Larkin & Smith pattern that I had started back in 2019. I had gotten it about half done and then set it aside to finish my Saratoga Dress, so it was easy to pick it back up and make good progress. I stitched it entirely by hand.
I also picked back up the 1780s frock coat I had been working on slowly on and off since about 2016. It mostly just needed button holes and buttons.
I also finally finished the liripipe hood I had started years before by learning how to make fabric buttons and putting them on.
I then also finished the breeches I had started in 2019 and the waistcoat I had started in 2016.
I then put the waistcoat and breeches together (along with a linen shirt I made, which I’ll talk about later) and started wearing them to work on the rare days I’m on-site, because they are my clothes that I made and I’m tired of not wearing them.
The biggest UFO finishing project, just because it was the one that had the least work put into it pre-pandemic, was an 18th century jacket I made out of remnants of my Waverly curtain fabric. I had cut the pattern pieces sometime around 2017 or 2018 out of the American Duchess Simplicity pattern, but then I set them aside and never sewed a stitch on it. Early in 2021, looking at the bottom of my UFO bag, I decided to just go all-in and try to finish all of the old projects.
I hand-sewed it based on instructions in the American Duchess book, adding skirts and cuffs to the pattern. It’s not actually 100% done, because I’m pretty sure I want to add loops for lacing inside the front edges, but I have also seen extent jackets like this that appear to just pin closed, which is probably how I’m going to wear it to its first picnic in a couple weeks, so it’s “done enough.”
The Stash Projects
This isn’t to say that I finished all my UFOs before starting anything new. Of course my creative energy was nowhere near that organized. The UFOs were pretty much all handsewing, at least what was left to do on some of them. But I did also have new projects that I wanted and wanted done quick that I did in between on the sewing machine.
One of the first ones I started was a 1900 split skirt. I had purchased the pattern from Truly Victorian some time before, and when I started inventorying my stash of fabric, I found several yards of wool in a subtle tartan that I had grabbed on sale several years before and decided it would be perfect. I did have to purchase buttons for this project, because I needed 20 of them and just didn’t have 20 matching buttons on hand.
The next project I started, thinking there was a chance that I might still be going to the 2020 Jamestown Conference (ha.) was a pair of slops made from the Period Patterns Elizabethan menswear pattern. The pattern was very confusing, with instructions absolutely all over the place, and notations missing from the pattern pieces. Would not recommend it, especially for beginners, but I persevered and made them up in some light wool I had previously picked up from a tailor’s shop that was going out of business, with antique buttons I had gotten as a gift from a friend. Then, I was too intimidated to start the silk doublet that is supposed to go with the slops, so instead I used the doublet bodice pattern in the Tudor Tailor to make a jacket out of some brocade that I had acquired from a friend a few years prior that I intend to wear to work or out or wherever.
After that I looked at the four yards of white cotton dimity I had purchased from Renaissance Fabrics in 2018 in a Jane Austen-fueled fit, and decided it may as well be time to make my Regency gown. I used a Laughing Moon pattern, lined it with scraps from my stash, handsewed the whole thing while watching webinars and weekly publisher’s Book Buzzes, and in seemingly no time at all I had my gown.
But then I wasn’t happy with how polished the look was, so I decided I needed some accessories and a bodiced petticoat to give it more oomf. I did end up purchasing some cotton voile for the petticoat, but everything else came from my stash. I made a chemisette out of a very fine voile I had also gotten from Renaissance Fabrics previously, and made from the American Duchess book pattern; I made a sleeveless spencer from a heavily altered Laughing Moon spencer pattern in some green velvet and purple scraps I had laying around, and then I made a reticule to match it.
I also purchased a wonderful aubergine colored hat from Shocking Bad Hats to complete the outfit. That all was finished by September, when I was able to organize a small socially distanced picnic in a local park while the pandemic situation was fairly stable in our area.
After that is when my momentum began to slow a bit. The major items were crossed off my list, and starting something new felt like a chore. Especially as we started heading into the fall and there were warnings that a new wave was coming, and that things may not be “back to normal” even in summer 2021.
But I plugged along, making a few linen blouses out of a pattern I Frankensteined together, making a set of side hoops for a future as-yet-to-be-determined francaise project, and making a couple petticoats that had been missing from my wardrobe.
I also made a late 1890s walking skirt which I did purchase cotton twill for and just realized I do not have photos of, and hand sewed an 1890s vest from wool left over from the slops, just because I wanted a handsewing project.
There was also a doomed pair of plus-fours made up in a tartan suiting of questionable fiber content that I had in my stash and tried to use a Laughing Moon Victorian mens pattern for, but after successfully putting in a welt pocket, during my first try on I discovered the waist measurement is totally off, and the crotch is droopy in front, so they have been banished to the (recently emptied) UFO bag for future consideration and/or destruction.
I did also purchase fabric for a large project I’ve been wanting to do for some time. There is a dress in the cover image of the Images of America: Wilton book that I have been wanting for years, and some people on Instagram helped me find a striped fabric that could pass for the skirt, so I scooped it up, bought wool for the bodice from Burnley & Trowbridge, and I’ve been slowly piecing it together.
As it stands now I’ve just finished up the Waverly jacket; I am nearly finished with yet another black shirt made from a historical pattern (Tudor this time) that I intend to wear with my historical pieces to work; I have cut out the bodice pieces of an 18th Century dress I’ve been intending to make since 2018, as well as some of the pieces of another Regency gown, but these feel like projects for a different time. We’re transitioning back to normal now, and the momentum I had early pandemic is gone, long replaced with burnout and languishing, and while I have spurts of creative motivation now, they’re out of a sense that I will need these things to wear to events that are going to be coming again. It’s no longer a matter of sewing to survive; I’m no longer sewing myself back together every lunch break, even if I am still working from home most of the time. I’ve finished at least 18 pieces since the start of the pandemic; twelve of them started and finished during that time, and started at least four more that haven’t come to fruition yet. It’s going to be a bit more time before I feel totally safe going out in the world again, but hopefully only a few more projects until us costumers can safely travel to get together again.