Mid Century Child’s Chemise

Here’s a little project I have taken on to create a period accurate suit of clothing for my 7 year old daughter. Check back for more as the project proceeds!

Notes from the Melody Maker

I have finished the first installation of practice on the Mid Century Sewing Project as I referenced a couple posts back! The first item I decided to try was the child’s chemise from the Elizabeth Stewart Clark’s Historic Moments Girls Linens 1840-1865 pattern. While the pattern comes with a 30 page booklet, do not let this intimidate you, as it did me at first. It is packed full of helpful tips on making your garment as period correct as you want or can, plus complete instructions for three garments with a variety of options.

I am glad I made this as a practice run because I made a few mistakes and some decisions on construction about half way through the project. First off, I learned how to make the run and fell seam, an historic technique that encases raw edges inside a seam and adds greater strength to seams…

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Extending the life of a dress

Our 19th century counterparts were very good at using every resource until it was completely used up. They didn’t have a local Walmart or Target available to run over and buy a replacement. Stores were sometimes a full days ride away from home, and so they stocked up on certain things, and used and reused things diligently. In their day, it was called “being frugal.” These days we have rebranded it for school kids and we call it recycling.

In a woman’s repertoire was the ability to remake dresses from one fashion to another, or to update a look with new trims and decoration. In particular with children’s clothing, it was important to make them last as long as possible because children grow! If you ever read Laura Ingalls Wilder, she refers to Ma “turning” hers and Mary’s dresses. This involved removing the skirt from the bodice and turning it so that the hem became the waistline. This would hide worn hems and keep the skirt looking fresh. Children’s clothing was also often made with growth tucks and extra wide seams so the clothing could be let out as the child grew in height and size. When tucks were removed, a pair of faded lines would show and the part of the fabric that was inside the tuck would be a bit darker than the part exposed to washing and sunlight. To help disguise this, trim was frequently sewn over those lines.

Today I want to show you one method to making your child’s reenactment dress last a little longer. I bought this dress when my daughter was 4 1/2. She has worn it through two full seasons and I expect she will wear it through the current season. When I first bought the dress I took up 4″ in growth tucks, they have all been let out but the dress is still a bit short. Because it fits her nicely through the body, I wanted to add length.

Old drawers

Old drawers

Since this is all about reusing and recycling, I started with a pair of drawers I had that developed a tear that could not be repaired. The drawers have nice lace and are gently ruffled. I cut off the lower portion of each leg and threw away the rest. Next, I decided to use two of the three bands of lace to extend the length of the dress. I carefully cut close to the edge of the lace.

Careful trimming

Careful trimming

Once I cut away the lower portion, I cut open one seam. Because the drawers were made with a serger, to eliminate bulk, I cut away the entire seam, and I was left with one long piece. The hem of the dress is 78″ and each individual section of the lace was 50″. So, I next sewed the two sections together, making one 100″ long piece. I determined I would sew just next to the edge of the lace and placed it on the inside of the hem.

No, I didn't pin it

No, I didn’t pin it, naughty naughty

I made sure that the edges met at the end, stitched them together, then finished sewing the lace onto the skirt. Because my daughter is tall, I am quite used to adding length to her dresses and pants. If you aren’t, be sure to carefully measure the exact length of the skirt hem, then measure again. Cut your lace with enough to make a 1/4″ seam, then stitch it right sides together. Finally, sew it to the skirt. A tip for measuring the exact length you need is to pin the lace into place and baste it, then cut the length. You would have to remove the basting and I would never take this extra step. It depends on your comfort level and sewing experience.

Voila, 4 extra inches!

Voila, 4 extra inches!

Now, a friend mentioned to me that if I added a bit of lace to the sleeves it would look more like I intended to have that white ruffle all along, so I used the third piece of lace from the drawers to do just that. I cut away every bit of fabric and seams possible while still retaining about 1/2″ of fabric above the upper edge of the lace. I did this because the sleeve is an elastic gathered sleeve. (Yes they had elastic, yes they used it.) I couldn’t stitch right on the edge of the sleeve because of the casing, hence the extra 1/2″. I removed the elastic from its casing, then pressed the sleeve nice and flat.  Next, I attached the lace to the inside of the sleeve.

Ungathered sleeve

Ungathered sleeve

Finally, I added the elastic back into the casing. Because our dress has a belt it will hide the faded lines from the bodice tuck I let out. This much extra length should get my daughter through at least this year, maybe even one more…fingers crossed!

Dress with extended life!

Dress with extended life!

The next time you are tempted to sell the current dress and just buy a new one, try channelling our ancestresses and their frugality. A little bit of time and some scraps could save you a good $50 – and that’s $50 more toward YOUR new dress, don’t you know! :-)

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Prado success, on to Costa Mesa

What makes an award look even better? Two cute little girls holding it!

What makes an award look even better? Two cute little girls holding it!

We introduced a new “room” to our household at Prado – a wall tent as our bedroom – so our full household now features a kitchen, parlour, children’s play room and bedroom. It was a lot to set up, but the hard work paid off and we took 1st Place as the Most Authentic Civilian Camp for the second time. Squeee!

When we set up at Costa Mesa we will be just a diminutive version of our household, with a fly and small tent, but we will have our bookshop, and will be teaching handcrafts. Hope you will come out and join us!

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2013 Season

The 2013 Season for us is beginning this weekend at the Prado Park Civil War Encampment, Prado Regional Park, Chino, CA! We are excited to expand our household a little bit with the addition of a tent/bedroom, and we plan to camp over the weekend. We will have displays of children’s games and activities, the household, and our little bookshop with all original work available for a small donation.

This event is a fundraiser to support a Boy Scout Eagle program and people in scout uniforms get into the event for $2 – this includes Girl Scouts and leaders. So if you are a Daisy or an Eagle, wear your uniform and enjoy the day! Admission to the park is $10 per car and helps the park continue to provide space for great historical events like this one, camping, park and fishing facilities for the general public, and much more for the enhancement of the area.

Click over to the Southern California Civil War Association (SCCWA) website for more details. See you there!

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Victorian style pomanders

If you are looking for a historical craft activity to do with your kids, or just on your own for the joy of it, you might try out a Victorian style pomander. Pomanders were made from citrus fruits pierced with cloves and date back to the 15th century. The cloves helped preserve the fruit from spoiling and the aromas helped fragrance the home for many months. They were often hung in bunches from ceiling beams. Remember, homes often had one great room for cooking, eating, socializing and sleeping, so the pomanders helped to keep unpleasant odors at bay. Cloves were sometimes inserted in symbolic shapes and as the fruit dried the pomander became a good luck charm. They could be made annually to continue the good luck in the home. By the 17th century, the wealthy had decorative holders to put the pomanders into so they could hold them close to their nose. Not only did they help hide unpleasant odors, but they were also used for disease prevention as it was believed that certain spices could prevent diseases or noxious vapors from entering the body through the nose.

Pomanders enjoyed a revival during the 19th century with the greater availability of citrus fruits. Americans had access to oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruits grown in Florida and California in particular. Follow these simple instructions to create an aromatic and lovely historical holiday item. They can be hung from the ceiling as in old, or displayed in a bowl on a table.

Citrus spice pomanders

Orange, lemon or lime

Whole cloves


Implement for poking holes – some people suggest a clean 2″ nail

Pour a small bowl full of whole cloves.

Create a design on your fruit – spiral, stars, crosses, etc. – by poking holes into the skin of the fruit. Place the holes no closer than 1/4″ apart, otherwise the skin of the fruit could tear; also because they shrink as they dry you could lose some of the cloves if they are too close. Place a clove into the premade holes. If you are working with oranges or lemons, you may want to make a few holes, place the cloves, then make a few holes, place the cloves, etc., as the lighter colored fruit skins can disguise your holes and you may lose your pattern.

Proceed this way until your design is complete. Gently but not loosely wrap a ribbon around the fruit, tying it in a knotted bow at the top. You can also tie it in a loop to hang from a hook. We used boutonniere pins to ensure the ribbon did not slide off the orange.

The pomanders will dry but should not spoil because of the preservative effects of the cloves. As they dry the pomanders will naturally lose some of their scent. To refresh their fragrance, place them on a baking sheet, sprinkle with ground cloves, then bake at a very low temperature for about 15 minutes. At that time you can also adjust the ribbons to ensure they do not come off.


Enjoy your traditional holiday pomander!

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Slates & Slate Pencils

If you have stumbled across this site because you were browsing historical topics, at some point you likely have come across references to school children using slates to perform their work. We all know (somehow, by osmosis perhaps) that a slate is a chalkboard. But, who exactly knows the how and they why of the slate?

Many sources reference the fact that paper was expensive while slate was inexpensive. Now that really turns our modern concept of school supplies on its head, doesn’t it!? But, in perspective, a slate was a one-time purchase, and for practicing at something such as penmanship or arithmetic, it wasn’t practical to keep the work. Paper would have been reused to start the fire. Slate is a type of stone you might have seen used as stepping stones or patio paving, but in the 19th century, the stone was “flaked” into thin sheets and then cut to size. The average size was 8×10 once encased in the frame. Slates could be bound in a book to protect the surface, and smaller 3×5 slates were available for adults to jot notes and work math on. Both sides of the slate would have been used as a work surface.

Slate & slate pencils

Because the slate was for temporary work, memorization was crucial for learning and in passing examinations. A teacher could walk around the room and review a student’s progress much like today, but assignments couldn’t practically be collected and then returned at the end of the session with a grade. There was just too much chance something would be erased accidentally. Once the work was reviewed at the student’s desk, the slate was wiped clean and new work commenced. And now you know where that saying comes from…

School children had a slate which they carried back and forth from home to school. But, what did they write with? Until recently, I assumed “chalk of course!” because that is what the teachers of my childhood used on the chalkboard. But! that was not the case in the 19th century. Slate pencils were most common, and made from soapstone or of a softer grade of slate than the actual tablet was made. They were commonly wrapped in paper and slate pencils wrapped in wood (akin to a modern #2) were also available into the 20th century. The softer the pencil, the fewer scratches it made into the slate surface, preserving the slate for a longer amount of usage. Chalk was also available which was softer and easier to write with on slate. If you don’t like the sound of nails on a chalkboard, plug your ears when learning to write with a slate pencil on a slate! The scratching sound is something like a cat catching its tail under a rocking chair’s runner.

The slate was phased out in the 20th century as paper making became less expensive. They are still widely available on auction sites like ebay where you can get an antique slate and the pencils, but don’t look for them at you local craft store because they are no longer the “in thing” to decorate apparently. The ones you might find there would be chalkboards rather than slates anyway – particle board painted with chalkboard paint rather than an actual piece of slate. While researching for this article I found the following history sources, although I know nothing about them and this is not an endorsement.

Early Office Museum

PBS’s School: The story of American Education

Faire Tyme Toys

Historical Folk Toys

My friends and I will be visiting Huntington Beach’s annual Civil War event this Labor Day weekend. Hope to see you there!

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Poppets (traditional handkerchief dolls)

The word poppet is an older spelling of puppet, from the Middle English popet, meaning a small child or doll. Also commonly known as pew dolls or church dolls, poppets were popular toys for young girls (and boys) to take to church. During the American Colonial period, church lasted all day and children became restless while trying to be quiet for such a long period of time. A poppet could entertain them, but if it was dropped it would not make any disruptive noise.

In its most rustic form, a poppet consists of a fabric square simply knotted at three corners, forming a head and two arms. More commonly, however, a small bit of stuffing is used in the head and then bound by thread, ribbon, or yarn. Any type and color of fabric can be used, but you may best recognize a poppet made from a handkerchief. 

The handkerchief could have evolved from a “fichu” – a decorative piece of fabric women wore around their necks for modesty or warmth. More likely it evolved from a kerchief, which is a triangular piece of fabric worn around the head for warmth, protection, or decoration. At some point in history, a kerchief was designed to be held in the hand and the handkerchief was born. Early handkerchiefs were larger and not of the uniform square sizes we are familiar with today. In the 18th century, King Louis XVI of France decreed that the length and width of a handkerchief would be equal. The square handkerchief has dominated ever since.

How to make one: Lay the handkerchief upside-down on a flat surface. Fold in half so it forms a triangle (putting opposite corners together). Center a cotton ball inside the fold. Gather the handkerchief around the cotton ball and tie a thread around the bottom of the cotton ball, forming a head. Tie a small knot in two corners to make arms. Carefully draw eyes on the head to make a face.

Click here for our free pdf of the instructions!

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