Project 3, part 2 – Sail Stitching and How Things Get Misidentified (Part 1 here)
Welcome back to the Victorian Era Nightgown Restoration project! The first step for me after assessing the state of my nightgown was to mend any rips or holes. Historian Ruth Goodman, in her excellent book How to Be a Victorian, wrote “A woman began by checking over the laundry for holes and rips in the fabric. Washing clothes was such a vigorous process that any small tear would quickly become a major one, and anything that needed a stitch was immediately repaired.” Naturally I don’t intend to give my nightgown a full, Victorian-style thrashing for its wash, but wet fabric – particularly wet cotton – can be very heavy. The weight of the saturated fabric alone can damage an antique textile, and the most likely place for further damage is places where the fibers are already weakened or torn.
Patching would probably have been the strongest method of repair, but I don’t particularly care for the appearance – especially with how delicate the detailing is on this garment. (With all due respect to Katrina Rodabaugh! I love her philosophy but I just think patches look sloppy.) My goal, then, was to have my repairs be strong, but low-visibility. To this end for the smaller rips I used one of the two stitches I think of as sail stitch. (The other stitch I learned as sail stitch involves doing even diagonal stitches up the tear, and then going back down with diagonal stitches the other direction to form an “x” shape.) For the smaller ones, which were often oddly-shaped or were nibbled out by insects rather than being torn on the grain, this herringbone-style stitch ensured that the thread itself took some of the tension and could at least cover the area like a net.
For the only long rip, I went with fairly loose diagonal stitching up the length, secured at the top and bottom within fabric that wasn’t damaged. My goal was to keep the fabric from tearing further, and not allow anything to slip into the tear, but also to allow it to flex more freely with the drape of the cloth rather than having it under high tension. Hopefully my idea works out!
Tracking down some of the origins of this nightgown really got me wondering about how antiques get identified – or misidentified. There’s no one answer, it turns out. Even the experts say to get multiple opinions on a piece if you think it might be valuable. For me, of course, I’m not looking to sell anything from my collection, but as someone who has loved history and scholarly pursuits my whole life I want to know as much as I can! I got lucky with this piece and had family records to start my journey, so I researched those since obviously this garment was not passed on directly by the original owner. In fact, the relative who bequeathed it to my friend was an artist in the Edwardian period – which as you may recall from my first round of research was when white car coats were commonly worn. Therefore, it’s entirely reasonable that the Edwardian owner either looked at it and thought “oh, that’s a car coat!” due to its similarity in some regards to pieces of the time. Alternatively, they may have known very well it was a nightgown, but thought “that would make a smashing car coat!” and wore it as such – and therefore it got recorded as one. Honestly, I may well wear it as a summer-weight coat myself – the excess of fabric in the skirts mean it will fit over lolita dresses, and the aesthetic details are too gorgeous to hide away forever.
I definitely don’t claim to know enough about fashion history to say that I will always get everything right when looking at the extant garments in my collection. My process starts with researching clothes from the era I believe mine to be from – comparing images, textiles, and museum pieces (when possible). Then I dig in deeper – construction techniques (which again, I’m no expert on!), styles, etc. Most of the antiques I own are either British, American, or Japanese in origin, but things get even wilder when you consider at what point various fashions appeared and disappeared in other countries. Additionally, clothes were remade more often in historical periods – for example, the Dreamstress posted a banyan and waistcoat recently from the 1830s that were remade out of fabric from approximately 1740! So my hope is to learn as much as I can, and go as deep as I can, while accepting that I may never know the full story.
Happy Earth Day, if you’re reading this on the day it’s published! I feel like revitalizing old clothes is a small yet valuable thing I can do to reduce the strain I put on the Earth’s resources. Join me in the next installment of this project when I will gird my loins and submerse my nightgown in water to see if I can begin removing some of the stains!