On the day we got our (catastrophic) election results, I thought I’d hoist the red flag (well, red petticoat) and talk about living history then and now, and the random thoughts I had whilst re-modelling a piece of ‘costume’ from the 1980s. Comrades, the Red Flag is at half mast today. But the red petticoat will live on, survive change, and emerge re-made a-new.
(On a piece of art by E. PENNY, R.A – ‘Lavinia’):
… The beautiful Lavinia he has made a homely country girl, sweating in August under a red flannel petticoat. Happy choice of drapery!…
Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Saturday, May 12th, 1781
CHARITABLE DONATIONS. …. Ninety-four women, residents of Great Bolton, were furnished each with two shifts, a pair of stockings, a red flannel petticoat, and a shilling loaf…”
The Morning Post, Friday, December 24th, 1830
THE WORKING CLASSES AND THE CORN LAWS … by his side lay three children, and one sat by the embers of a dying fire, mending an old red flannel petticoat…
The Charter, Sunday, December 8TH, 1839
Thirty three years ago, I made a couple of petticoats for re-enactment/living history, in the English Civil War Society. We wanted to copy those double petticoats seen in the famous Wencelas Hollar engraving. I read somewhere, that red flannel had been a common choice for women’s petticoats. So one was red, one yellow – not bad, as more luck than judgement, madder (red) and acid yellow (weld) were indeed cheap and common dyestuffs.
In those days, most female 17thC re-enactors’ clothing consisted of neatly matching waistcoats (we then called them ‘bodices’) and skirts, a la Margaret Thatcher. My instinct from the start was, surely most of the common people were wearing secondhand clothes and handmedowns, or things adapted and altered from older clothing; most everyday clothing was unlikely to ‘match’. I was Glad to be Garish.
At that time, women in re-enactment, if they wanted to portray women, were restricted to being water carriers on the battlefield. I found that boring. This led to me looking for a craft to learn, so I could do something ‘authentic’ – which was right at the start of living history.
In those days, living history was just getting going. I had been one of the handful of people in a little tent at an event at Ulverston – roughly half of us Blackwells (Royalists), and half of us Montagus (Parliamentarians), who were in at the start of living history. Only two of us were female. I have since seen on a forum, people claiming to have been there who most definitely were not – I think that fabled tent must have held 50 people, if everyone who claims to be there was there! I do think that is where living history started in UK re-enactment. The White Company came along months after, if I remember it right – one of their founders was our old regiment’s commanding officer – which left a vacancy for CO filled by my then 23 year old worser half.
These days we take living history for granted. But it started with a small group of ‘levellers’ or ‘diggers’, probably long forgotten. The ECWS had a very small but vociferous minority who were starting to push around 1979 or 1980 for what we then called ‘non combatant’ roles. The “non combatants” were even, at one point, threatened with ejection from the ECWS if they didn’t take to the battlefield – or at least, several I knew, were. But they persisted. Eventually they got the Baggage Trayne and that gave a place for people to take on other roles. Now, many regiments also have their own living history folk – we started doing LH within our own regiment, Foxe’s. “Re-enactment” was eventually more than infiltrated by what we now call “living history”. These days, the public probably come more for the living history than the battle. Some living history folk get sniffy at the word “re-enactment” but I use the terms interchangeably as whether it is civilian or martial, we’re all re-enacting something.
Which brings me to last week. One of the things I do in my love for all things textile, is tinker with old sewing machines. One way we used to pay for going to events all over the country, was to make clothing for our own friends, our own regiment, and sometimes, people beyond. We usually did this on my husband’s great grandmother’s 1890s’ Pfaff sewing machine. Sometimes, we used vintage Singers or my mum’s 1970 Brother machine. This was in the time before anyone considered hand-stitching historical ‘costume’. Although everything was usually hand-finished, we’d do most of our sewing on elderly machines, so were used to them. A Singer 66 isn’t going to complain if you ask it to sew leather, or layers of thick wool. These old workhorses were demonstrated by reps sewing through successively thicker fabrics, finishing the demo with the machine sewing through a tin can.
I spent a bit of last week restoring a 1910 Jones sewing machine, and to run it in, did a few projects. Whilst doing this, I remembered I’d bought some really nice red flannel to make a new petticoat for our 1800-ish living history forays. And I was about to cut into the nice new red flannel when I remembered I had that red flannel petticoat made on some old machine or other, back around 1981 or so. Why not adapt that?
In 1981, a machine sewn petticoat was fine. To be honest, I sometimes think it would be fine today too. As whenever I look at extant clothing in museums, it strikes me that they look machine sewn, whether 17thC or early 19thC or anything inbetween. The technical difference being that most sewing machines make a lockstitch, not a straight running stitch but to the uneducated eye it looks similar. The average sewing machine could sew more like a competent, 1800 home-seamstress, than I could, is the truth. But still – I decided to take my old petticoat apart and remodel it; my wonky handstitching notwithstanding.
Extant 18thC petticoats rarely have the original waistband. We all expand (or decrease) and change and in the past, clothes were handed down in wills, or given to friends and family, or sold on, or pawned, or…. altered for another person or another incarnation of yourself. So we have to be wary extrapolating info about waistbands on petticoats, more than most garments a re-enactor might want to make.
I knew the original waistband that fitted me in 1981 when I had a 22″ waist if I breathed out, would be no use now all these years, decades of insulin resistance and 5 kids on. Looking through Linda Baumgarten’s ‘Costume Close Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790’ , I realised I could even use another material for a waistband, such as linen or silk as I knew I would have no hope of matching this 30 year old flannel, made at a mill that has probably been long torn down. So I set to ripping apart the petticoat we first made all those years ago. Not just because I am fatter (I had already adapted the waistband, moving a hook and eye to its furthest extremity), but because I wanted to re-use old material. Let’s face it: some living history people spend ages distressing and ageing up new fabric to look old and worn. Here I had a genuinely faded, elderly piece of cloth to work with.
When I work on a vintage sewing machine, especially when cleaning out the accumulation of lint, I wonder who owned the machine before me, and what they sewed on it. My tiny herd of vintage machines – all common models of Jones and Singers – date between the 1890s and 1916. Like spinning, I suppose, we textile folk are intrigued by continuing the threads once held by other hands. This time, I knew whose hands had done the sewing, long ago.
I got a strange feeling, unpicking the old flannel petticoat. Back in 1981, I hadn’t even bothered to match the colour of thread to the red flannel. You see this in extant historical garments as well – sometimes the sewing thread will be a different colour to the fabric, or change colours as and when they ran out of something. Also, I had sewn it originally using cotton, not linen thread which is fine for my 1800 re-modelling, but totally wrong for the 1640s!
That red flannel came from a stall on Birmingham’s outdoors market, run by a lovely gentleman called Mr Sharman. He’d get bolts of cloth fresh from Yorkshire (and elsewhere) and many Mondays we’d go and see what he had. He had all types of wool; often broadcloth of a stunning quality. We financed our hobby by making clothing for other re-enactors so our finds there became our friends’ clothing. One time, he had the red flannel. It was old fashioned flannel and had a proper selvedge – not like you get on modern cloth. But, being flannel, it was not heavily fulled so would unravel a bit when cut into. As I prized the waistband from the skirt, I was surprised to see how well it had stood up to the ravages of time. I also realised that the petticoat was pilled, and the original colour dulled on the outside. So I made an executive decision to turn my petticoat the other way. For the next thirty years of its life, it will be the other way out! This is utterly in keeping with what our ancestors would have done. It still looks distressed enough and is a shade of red I haven’t seen in a long time.
I soon unpicked the waistband and the long seam. The original white tacking stitches were still intact under the waistband: I must have figured no-one would ever see them holding the pleats in place and in any case, they’d give it more strength if left in situ. Interestingly, in ‘Costume Close-Up’ several garments that look fancy on the exterior, are shockingly finished on the inside, and tacking (basting) stitches did indeed get retained. Maybe I was a mantua maker in a former life! Somehow, unpicking my two rows of brown stitching and the white tacking stitches was poignant. I was another person, the last time my hands did this work. I lived in another world. I hadn’t realised I needed to shape the upper edge of a petticoat if I was wearing a bum roll under it. That kind of thing didn’t occur to us in 1981. Luckily there are no crinolines or bustles or bum rolls for 1800 so the unshaped petticoat skirt could stay unshaped.
Back in the 80s, we didn’t get to see the incredible clothing in museums’ reserve collections, I could now go and study at the drop of a hat. We only had a handful of sources, like Hollar and Dutch genre paintings, and a couple of books like Norah Waugh’s ‘The Cut of Women’s Clothes’ and C and P Cunnington’s ‘Handbook of English Costume in the Seventeenth Century’. We had to figure things out from them. Now there are many good resources, more appearing all the time, and the internet. Researching then, with no transport or money to get to other museums, we had to piece together whatever we could, with the limited information out there. My husband figured out the first ever montero cap, with the help of his mother who came from a long line of Luton hatters. He also made the first Scottish bonnets for sale. A friend’s mother knitted the first ever thrum cap I saw, after we showed her an engraving. Interesting how so many memories flood back when your hands are working with a piece of your past.
Sewing an 18thC/early 19thC petticoat, you have a few fundamental decisions to take. You can machine the first pass down a long seam if you are flat felling it by hand afterwards. Similarly, you can use a sewing machine to attach the waistband to the skirt, on the first pass along it, as when you fold the waistband over, it will be hidden forever, anyway. Depends how anal/pragmatic you are.
I have entire ensembles where every stitch is hand sewn. But I am coming to the conclusion my hand-sewing is equivalent to an 1800 four year old’s. So if it is going to be forever hidden, I will machine sew a long seam. I see no virtue in doing otherwise – especially as this is faster and more durable (in my case). If, however, you feel the need to fess up under fellow LH interrogation, you’d better hand sew every stitch.
My original petticoat had a centre seam (hidden by a judiciously placed pleat), then a 6″ slit at the centre back, where there was a fastening. It is more ‘authentic’ to leave slits at either side for use of a pocket which meant I changed the orientation of my 2 skirt pieces so the seams in the new petticoat are now at each side. Luckily, the seams were selvedges.
Re-modelling an old Red Flannel Petticoat
1. Unpick original stitching – waistband, hem, seams.
2. I decided to turn pieces the other way out, and then put the two skirt pieces with the new right sides together. Iron out creases, try and steam out creases from old pleats, in particular, as far as it’s possible.
3. Sew up each seam, leaving 6 – 9″ slit open at the top, on both sides. At the slits, you can fold back selvedge/edge of skirt about 1cm to wrong side, and hand sew flat.
4. Now, if your petticoat fabric is thin enough, eg: linen, flat fell seam, working stitches by hand on right side. I found it useful to make a row of tacking stitches as a guideline as you will be working on right side of fabric, and want to make sure you catch the seam edges under. I tacked close to the edge of the flattened seam, on the wrong side then when I flipped work to flat fell up the seam, only had to sew on the inside of the line of tacking stitches, to be sure I caught everything down. When working on the right side of fabric, I used a back stitch.
My flannel was too bulky to do a true flat fell, so instead I pressed down the two sides of the seam flat, and then felled down the right side on first one, then the other.
Do this for both seams, leaving the pocket slit on both sides. Even if you don’t want to make a pocket, it is a more typical way to make this, and the slits are there if you change your mind, later!
5. Find waistband material. I used a length of linen cut from a red linen petticoat I made too long! Make two waistband pieces, each the length of 1/2 your waist measurement, plus 12″ either side. Find centre of waistband, and mark or stick a pin in to mark where it is. Now mark 12″ from either end of waistband.
6. Find centre of skirt front. Mark or mark with pin. Use your waistband as a guide as to where you want to place pleats.
7. Pin pleats skirt Front and Back. According to “Costume Close Up” many extant petticoats have a large-ish centrally placed box pleat, and then small single pleats either side of it, facing the pockets on each side. Pin pleats in place for Front and Back.
9. Attach waistbands to Front and Back of skirt, right sides together. Sew at least twice. This has to be strong! Fold over and whipstitch in place on wrong side.
10: Finish ends of waistband. See those 12″ of waistband dangling either side of Front and Back waist? Turn up the bottom by around 1cm. Press. Fold down top and turn under to cover raw edges. Press. Pin together and sew.
11. Hem your skirt. I use whipstich again.
This might not be the most authentic 1800-ish petticoat in the world, but will be serviceable and is made broadly similar to extant examples. A red flannel petticoat was seen as a rather rustic item of clothing. It is hard to infer too much from the extant petticoats in museums tend to be made from more high status materials, such as silk and may have been treasured and kept as they were beautifully quilted, as well as very expensive in an age when every yard of fabric cost dear.
Back stitches are common because they made a seam strong and durable. Often seams were sewn with a quick running stitch punctuated every so many inches by a few back stitches, to add strength: easier to unpick for future alterations in a world where cloth was a special, finite resource. Whipstitch is commonly found on linings and hems. The eighteenth century mantua maker sometimes left her workings-out: the inside of a piece of clothing may have looked more hastily done and sketchy than the public face of the piece.
Several years back, at an ECWS event I recognised someone who bought a doublet my husband made around 1981. I was amazed to see he was still wearing it. I was always terrified anything we made might fall apart.
To finish here are some interesting newspaper quotes, mentioning red petticoats.:
“….She is small in stature, and had on a black gown, black chip bonnet, a plain buff kerseymere shawl, and some say a dirty red petticoat. It is suspected the imposter may be a man in a woman’s dress…”
[Description of a conman/woman, at Malton, Yorkshire, The Leeds Mercury, Saturday, November 27th, 1824]
On Saturday evening, at about eight o’clock, a woman was found lying dead on the road… She is a big woman, with a red cloak, a stamped gown, and red petticoat, and had two shillings and three-pence hapenny in her pocket, and a small whisky bottle. There are no marks of violence about her and therefore it is supposed she had been the worse for liquor, and died with cold…”
[Whitehall Evening Post (1770), January 26th, 1788)
Friday morning, a woman in a short Jacket, with a Red Petticoat, was found drowned in a pond near Whitechapel Mount.
Penny London Post or The Morning Advertiser, August 1st, 1746