Pandemic Projects

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.

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Williamsburg Wardrobe

Back in early October 2019 I heard that Burnley & Trowbridge, purveyor of my favorite fabrics, kerchiefs, and other goods, would be holding a minimarket in February of 2020. Since making a trip to Colonial Williamsburg had been on my travel “to-do” list for a couple of years, and I assumed the minimarket would bring other costumers into town for the weekend, I decided it was a perfect opportunity to finally make the trip. That was further reinforced when Colonial Williamsburg announced that the same weekend would be a “Fashion Days” weekend, featuring programming specific to the clothing culture of the area. And coming off the high of having finished my Saratoga Dress, I immediately got ahead of myself with grand plans of finishing a bunch of UFOs and making a new riding habit (a hand-sewn one at that) for the weekend. I booked my stay at one of the Williamsburg hotels, and then sat down to plan.

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Drafting the Saratoga Bodice

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Once I had chosen the dress for my project, I had to develop a pattern for the bodice. I didn’t want to simply use a paper pattern that had already been developed by someone else; I wanted to do my best to draft a new pattern that would mimic the original image as closely as possible. For this I turned to Fashions of the Gilded Age by Frances Grimble.

FotGA

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Refashioning Saratoga: Planning Stages

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Even before applying for the grant for this project, ideas were swirling in my head about what dress to do and how to do it. There were several images that I had come across in the collections at the Saratoga Springs Public Library that I thought could work, and a couple of them stood out in my mind, but once I was actually awarded the grant I went back to the collections to get a better idea of all of the options.

My focus was on the Robert Joki Stereoview Collection at the library because the library owns approximately 1,400 of them. There are a lot of options. And while the individual images on the cards are a bit small, when scanned at high resolution they scale up really well. The library had a local organization scan all 1,400(ish) of their stereoviews a few years ago, so it was just a matter of looking through and saving the ones I was considering (the images were all taken and published for sale pre-1890, so their copyrights have expired and they are now in the public domain. This eliminates the need for getting permission to publish, alter, and use them for advertising and other projects, short of crediting the library for providing me with the scans).

The more I looked at the images, the more intriguing dresses I found, and what I had thought were my top two choices were quickly crowded out by an abundance of other options.

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1830s Underthings

Back in November I heard that a local Historical Society would be hosting an “1830s costume ball” in March 2019, so I decided it was finally time to join the crowd of costumers who have been making 1830s ensembles recently. We bought a house at the end of November and spent December moving and painting, but in January I was able to get my new sewing room organized and start my underthings.

I knew I wouldn’t have time to make brand new period-appropriate corded stays, so right away I decided to cheat and just wear my mid-century corset under the dress (sorry not sorry). The corded petticoat was a must, however, to get the correct bell shape for the 1830s skirt. I had purchased Izabela Pitcher’s Victorian Dressmaker book back in November(ish), so I primarily used her corded petticoat pattern and instructions for guidance.

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