As a kid, I’d have told you that homeschooling could solve a lot of the world’s problems, but I admit I never imagined a pandemic would be one of them. However, it looks like a whole lot of people are now embarking on the adventure of educating their children at home as part of a global effort to halt COVID-19 in its tracks. As someone who thrived being homeschooled as a child, I want to share a few words of, if not wisdom, then at least encouragement.
First of all – and you’re going to have to trust me on this – it doesn’t really matter what you learn, or how you learn it. There are many ways of homeschooling. Not interested in forcing your kids to do stuff? Neither was my dad – google unschooling and see what you think. There also many different ways to learn. Just because the school does it one way, doesn’t mean you have to. And just because they were planning on covering the multiplication tables, how volcanos work, and the revolutionary war in the next 3 weeks, doesn’t mean you’re going to succeed in covering those topics at home with your kid. So maybe don’t even try.
The objective here, really, is to keep everyone sane while locked up in the house together, right? That’s going to be a lot more likely to happen if everyone is engaged in a project. The key word here is engaged – make it a project which springs forth from some predisposition or prior interest. Do you know what I did instead of taking a history class in high school? I researched and sewed a pair of eighteenth-century stays. (I have, in fact, never taken a comprehensive U.S. History course, and I’m a historian!) Skip math and physics in favor of an afternoon around the dining room table, jointly re-designing your current house to be better suited to the needs of your family in self-insolation. Take a pass on the essays and write a story, a poem, an op-ed for the local paper, or skip the writing entirely and draw something. It might be harder than usual to get physical exercise while cooped up in the house, but you have a unique opportunity to exercise parts of your brain that don’t usually get to stretch at school.
If someone in the family has a question, turn it into a research project. Where is Iran on a map anyway? How do vaccines work? What did people do during the bubonic plague?
Start off by getting really, really bored. Many families who are transitioning out of traditional school and into homeschooling or unschooling take time off – often months – to not do any school at all. Without anything you have to get done, life can get kind of boring, and that’s the point. After being really bored, learning stuff starts to feel appealing again. So make the response to “I’m bored” be “Ok, what do you want to learn about?” and go from there.
Let kids teach themselves. One of the most common comments about young adults who were homeschooled is that they are really good self-motivators. That comes from taking responsibility for our own learning. If, like me, you discover at age ten that you have a really keen interest in colonial American dress, which is not shared by your parents, you get really good at finding and investigating your own sources. Trust me, this is a skill which is many times more valuable than whatever the fifth-grade class was going to cover next week while preparing for a standardized test.
You may find that it is not helpful to draw definite boundaries between work, play, and school. Work around the house and the yard can be schoolwork/ Gardening becomes plant biology; cooking becomes chemistry; and laundry a chance to talk about history and women’s studies. Play can also be schoolwork. Think dress-up as theater or social studies; sports as physics; card games as math (when else, after all is your child going to learn to count cards and cheat a blackjack?). Without firm boundaries between these activities, it becomes apparent that we learn from everything we do. Also, it’s a win-win for everyone when kids get school credit for doing chores.
With all of that in mind, I’ve got a suggestion for your first unit of study: collectively, design your ideal education. Everyone (parents, kids, anyone else you live with, the dog) gets to describe/discuss/draw/write about their ideal education. What would they learn? How would it be assessed? What would it enable them to do?
Maybe the perfect education looks like never having to take another test. Maybe it looks like lots of discussion and no homework. Maybe it looks like super-hero school, where the classes are all in things like “emergency first aid” or “secret-hideout construction, 101.” Maybe it looks like 4 hours a day where the kids are empowered (and required) to find answers or solutions to all their own questions or problems. This last possibility means that parents have some time to themselves, but also have to respect the solutions arrived at by the kids.
I think you will find that there is an element in everybody’s concept of ideal education that can be incorporated into your homeschooling. The act of designing school together will also give everyone a sense of ownership and responsibility over what they learn. That is perhaps the most valuable thing that can be learned while homeschooling.
I’m excited to announce that I’ll be teaching a class on how to conduct research about historic textiles at the Marshfield School of Weaving, in Marshfield, Vermont, between Friday May 8th and Sunday May 10th. This is a great opportunity for craftspeople looking to gain the skills they need to research historic textiles or textile processes, for historians seeking to branch out into material culture, and for museum professions who want to brush up on their knowledge of historic textiles.
You can find more details about the class from the MSW’s online course listings. Be sure to check out the other amazing classes on offer while you are there!
On the last Sunday in January, I put on a presentation in the crowded exhibit gallery of the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum*. The talked was titled “The 1920s Style of Vermont’s Mill Girls,” and was part history lecture, part show-and-tell. In it, I used reproduction garments I had made to teach the audience about a historical moment in early 20th-century Vermont.
As I mentioned in a recent post, this was a project which had come out of a conversation a few months previously, and for which I researched and sewed an outfit of reproduction garments. My goal was to explore two topics: first, how the type outfit I had recreated was practical clothing for workers in a textile mill; and second, to illustrate how even working-class women participated in broader style trends. These two themes would allow me to pass on some of the practical realities of what it was like to live and work 100 years ago, but also to give the audience a sense of the larger cultural forces at play in 1920, and how they effected the material lives of people at all levels of society. To borrow a phrase from striking textile mill workers from Lawrence, Mass., in 1912, I would talk about both bread AND roses.
In total I made eight different garments for this outfit and I found that each garment encompassed part of the story that I wanted to tell. To a small degree, I chose to reproduce certain garments or styles because they helped me to build a more comprehensive narrative, but really it was simply that a complete outfit equaled a complete story. I began the presentation fully dressed and over the course of 45 minutes, I removed layers of my outfit one at a time and explained the significance of each newly revealed garment. Below is a list of each garment along with the story it told.
The work apron – this simple apron was the one part of the outfit which was based purely on images of textile workers. It featured large pockets, seemingly for the carrying of maintenance tools, and was black to keep machine grease from showing. This garment let me talk about working conditions in a mill’s spinning or weaving room. The machinery which packed these industrial spaces was loud and could also be dirty and dangerous. Weavers at this time often oversaw as many as eight looms, and their work consisted of keeping this automated power machinery running smoothly.
The coverall apron – beneath their work aprons, the women of the Queen City Cotton Mill (as well as women depicted in many other early 20th-century industrial contexts) wore smock-like garments described in the pages of the Sears & Roebuck’s catalog as coverall aprons. As the name implies, this garment was designed to cover the wearer and protect the rest of her clothing from wear and tear. Though advertised to housewives as practical clothing to be worn while doing chores around the house, it was clearly also a logical choice for working women. These aprons were loose, comfortable clothing which kept whatever was worn beneath free from grime.
The particular apron which I chose to reconstruct (and which I talk more about in another post) had one other interesting aspect: the style was described in a contemporary dressmaking text as a “kimono apron.” These days that’s dressmaker’s lingo for a garment where the sleeve and body are cut as one piece, but the choice of the word kimono to describe that style is an interesting one – garments have been made in this way for millennium, so naming it, in the 1920s, after a Japanese garment had more to do with the style trend of “Japanism” than with the way kimonos are constructed. For mill workers, the coverall apron was the epitome of practicality, but this particular style of apron also spoke to what was going on in the broader world of fashion.
Layer Two: Separates
Underneath the protective out layer, my outfit consisted of the types of garments which were wore by women in slightly cleaner jobs around the mill, such as working to inspect the cloth for defects after weaving, or doing administrative work in the mill office. Probably, some of the female weavers and spinning room staff also wore garments like these under their coverall aprons, or changed out of their protective aprons and into clothes like these after their work days.
The shirtwaist – One of the themes I wanted to draw out with this layer was the impact that World War One was still having on fashion in 1920. There were plenty of choices of “shirtwaist” styles I could have gone with, but I chose to go with a sailor-style collar, in order to highlight the impact of military dress on women’s fashions.
The skirt – This garment’s waistband detail was also meant to evoke the military styles that had prevailed during the Great War (if I’d had time, I might have added pockets, which would have furthered this look). The skirt’s short length let me talk about the idea of raised hemlines and the related wartime saving in textiles. This garment was also the only part of this outfit not made of cotton. Made rather of worsted wool, it allowed me to bring up the types of textiles produced by the Champlain Mill – the building in which my presentation was taking place – which at that time produced piece dyed worsteds, among other things.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this layer, however, was its simplicity. These garments look (and, for the most part, are) comfortable, practical, and easy to wear. The trend toward simple, relaxed clothing which began during the war continued into the twenties, where it illustrated the urge to let loose that reigned in the Roaring 20s. I think that the simplicity of this layer also felt deeply relatable to my audience during the presentation. Everyone in the room was comfortable with the idea of an outfit made up of what was essentially a shirt and a bottom – a skirt in this case, but it wasn’t impossible to envision pants in its place. One woman even interrupted to tell me that she’d happily wear “a skirt like that” today. However, the apparent simplicity of the outfit was quickly dispelled as I went on to show additional layers of my wardrobe:
Layer Three: Frilly Under Things
This intermediate layer interfaced between outer garments and those which unquestionably fell into the category of underwear. In that capacity, they both maintained a level of modesty and helped to prevent outer garments (which were likely washed only where necessary) from sitting next to the skin. Just as the aprons protected the garments beneath them from the filth of the mill, so to this layer kept prevented sweat from reaching those nicer, less-frequently laundered outer layers.
The corset cover – A modern viewer might well choose to use the word camisole for this garment, but the period term corset cover handily describe’s this garment’s intended use. First, it tells us that, in 1920, plenty of women still wore corsets – more on that shortly. Additionally, it highlights that a corset needed some kind over cover to prevent it’s lines – or the lines of the female form beneath it – from being too readily visible to the outside world. My cotton batiste shirtwaist, for example, was a little too shear to be worn without some sort of additional layer underneath.
The petticoat – As the corset cover is to the upper body, so the petticoat is below the waist – it adds one more layer of fabric between the distinct lines of corset bones and the outer surface of the skirt (we wouldn’t, after all, want anyone to have a reason to think about a lady’s underwear). Traditionally, petticoats can also add volume to a silhouette. In this case, the slender styles coming into vogue around 1920 meant that my petticoat was relatively narrow.
Layer Four: Undergarments
As someone who likes to understand how things work, the internal structure on which an outfit is built always holds a special fascination for me. In the case of this project, which was, by my standards, a bit of a rush, I at first contemplated cutting some corners with the undergarments. After all, I could have simply stopped undressing at the lacy underthings layer and no one would have been any the wiser (and a few people might have been a tad less scandalized) but honestly, where’s the fun in that? In the end, I’m very glad I constructed, and showed off, this layer, since underwear can be a particularly effective tool for thinking about physicality, comfort, and body standards in any given era.
The corset – I hadn’t originally thought I’d need to make a corset for this outfit– the 20’s was when women had started wearing bras, right? This, I figured, would save me time. But further research on the subject made me re-think my assumptions about the fashions of 1920. It is always best to be a little conservative when building a wardrobe for a historical character of a lower socio-economic class, and while corsets may have begin dropping out of favor in the 1920s, they were still a feature of most women’s wardrobes in the 1910s. If the mill worker I was portraying was my own age (28), then she would have been wearing adult women’s fashions for at least a decade, meaning she was probably used to wearing a corset as part of her daily attire.
Additionally, it was pretty clear to me that my own physic would work better in the styles of 1920 with a little help from some shapewear. My body does not conform to the slender, boy-like ideal that was just coming to the fore at this time. To achieve an approximation of that look, I, like many women then and now, would need to choose garments that helped my cause. This long and low style of corset does nothing to support the bust except to hold the layer beneath it secure around my rib cage (which did, indeed, have a bra-like effect). This was intentional in an era when a small, flat bust was considered the ideal. At the same time, it smooths waist and hips, eliminating any unsightly bulges and downplaying curves.
The union suit – There were lots of different choices for the garment that would make up the inner-most layer of this outfit – one piece or two? Batiste, or jersey? Sleek and practical or covered in lace? This was the layer that would sit next to my skill and which I would sweat into. For women working in textile mills, in needed to be comfortable and practical. I decided I would make a cotton jersey union suit – essentially, one-piece underwear with a split crotch, so that the wearer can go to the bathroom without getting fully undressed. For the sake of the narrative I was telling, I liked the choice of the union suit because it allowed me to talk about the popularity of female athleticism in the early 20th century. This type of comfortable, stretchy underwear was perfect for a new generation of active women, engaged in sport. That same focus on exercise also had a lot to do with the fashionable fit and slender silhouette of the decade, and so the union suit allowed me once again to draw connections between the practical clothing of mill workers and the broader style trends of the era.
During my talk, I undressed as far as my corset, union suit, and stockings, because I felt it was important that the audience understand the foundation of the outfit, and because I still felt reasonably “dressed” by 21st-century standards in that layer (I did wear a very minimal modern bra under the union suit to minimize having my nipples show through the union suit, which seemed a bridge too far by contemporary standards of dress, and would have made both me and the audience uncomfortable, I think.) Throughout the presentation, I handed some of the garments around the audience, allowing them the opportunity to look not only at the shape of the garments, but also at their construction.
After I had finished talking about all of the pieces of the outfit, I re-dressed in the easy-to-put-on house apron and fielded further questions from the audience. Their enthusiasm proved to me what I already knew: that clothing is a uniquely accessible entry-point to thinking about history and material culture. Not only is clothing something that everyone understands, when we “step into the shoes” of someone from another era, we find ourselves several steps closer to imagining their lived experience. We get a chance to see what they needed to feel comfortable when working and beautiful when they looked in their mirrors.
*If you missed my presentation in Winooski, I will be presenting my talk again at the Richmond Free Library in Richmond, Vermont, at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, March 25th, and hopefully at other dates and locations soon as well!
A year ago at this time I was just wrapping up my experiments in fulling in the wilds of Vermont. Now, at long-ish last, my Master’s thesis, “‘Milled Fit for Trowsers’: Toward a Fuller[‘s] Understanding of Cloth Finishing in the Mid-Atlantic from 1790 to 1830,” is not only done (that was true last April) but up online! and accessible to you! for free! through the University of Delaware’s online portal:
I posted recently about the outer-most layer of my 1920 mill worker outfit. Here’s a post about the inner-most layer. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this garment and how I made it; hopefully this will address them.
As I started my research for this project, I spent some time digitally flipping through old Sears and Roebuck catalogs (1918, 1922, 1923). Among other things, I was hoping that activity would help me get a better handle on all of the various undergarments which composed the base layers of women’s wardrobes at the time and which I frankly find to be fairly overwhelming. In doing so, I stumbled upon advertisements for Pilgrim brand union suits for women (“Pilgrim Princess” being by far my favorite heading in the entire catalog). It appeared that a one-piece wool or cotton jersey suit was one of the many options for women’s underwear at that time. As I scoured the internet for extant examples of such a garment, I became intrigued by the engineering that went into these suits and decided that I wanted to try my hand at making one.
Knit union suits were recommended by Mark Brooks Picken in her wardrobe advice for college girls. While co-eds certainly represent a different socio-economic demographic than mill workers, many female mill workers would have been around the same age as college girls, and would have benefited from comfortable underwear which didn’t hinder their movement. Plus, the union suits weren’t that expensive, so I thought it seemed like a reasonable choice of undergarment for the impression I was building.
I was able to find examples of many different styles of union suit for sale by vintage clothing dealers, which proved to be an invaluable source for reference images. Because I wanted my suit to be as versatile as possible, I decided it would be sleeveless and would have legs that ended just below the knee.
Some of the extant suits I was able to find on Etsy and Instagram, like the two modeled above, were shaped as they were knit. These all seemed to be wool though, which was fine with me because I didn’t have the technology to make my suit like that. Instead, I would cut and sew mine from cotton jersey.
The cotton suits were still knit to shape in one way, however: they were made from cloth knit in the round, and they utilized the tubular nature of the cloth to eliminate side seems on the outsides of the legs. The material that I had was also tubular, but its circumference was too large for my needs, so I started by cutting it down to a 44” tube. I decided to position the seam at center-back, where it would be least noticeable.
Next, I fitted the body of the suit by cutting out crescent shaped pieces at either side of the torso and finished the neckline and armholes. I did all of this before working on the legs or crotch because I knew that was where the real engineering challenge would lie, and I wanted to be able to try on the suit as I fitted the legs.
Because the body of the suit was made from a single tube of fabric, to make the crotch I had to add in additional material for a crotch gusset. But not only did the crotch area require extra material to go around the thighs and compensate for the seat, it also had to allow the wearer to go to the bathroom without getting fully undressed (a practical impossibility in one-piece underwear). This was facilitated by a split crotch, with two overlapping gusset panels which the wearer could pull apart to go to the bathroom.
The original garments I had found engineered this in a variety of ways (nearly every example I’ve shown here handles it differently – the one I chose to copy is shown at left). I chose to add two crotch gusset pieces on each side: one forming the rear part of the crotch (the “butt flap”) and also serving as a gusset to widen the leg for the upper thigh, and a second piece for the front portion of the crotch.
Front view of the finished suit
Back view of the finished suit
The finished garments is remarkable comfortable, as well as practical. It fits well underneath the corset I made for this outfit, and I can even go to the toilet in in, though I will admit to it being slightly complicated.
A few months ago I hatched a plot with Miriam Block, Director of the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum, for a short public history presentation. The idea was to participate in a series of events going on in the town of Winooski in the month of January to commemorate the start of a new decade by looking back 100 years to the 1920s. Playing to my own strengths, I volunteered the idea of a short costumed dress history presentation about the clothes being worn in Vermont’s textile mills in 1920. The thought was that this would form an interesting contrast to our popular idea of twenties fashion, which tends to have a lot to do with beads, fringe, and flappers, and not much at all to do with factory work. I, of course, had not a single one of the garments I would need to do this, but at least I could sew everything by machine, right?
I’ve been busily researching and sewing for the past month, and though I’m still a few garments away from the full look, the outer-most layer is finally completed, and so I wanted to share a preview.
For someone who specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century costuming, the 1920s is something of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to primary source material, but that doesn’t actually mean it was easy to find the sources I need for this particular project. I am trying to create the clothing worn by working-class women – often immigrants – who were employed in the textile factories of northern New England, and information on that specific demographic is harder to track down than I had hoped. Luckily for me, the Champlain College Library has a pamphlet in its special collections called “Burlington, Vermont: the Advantages it Offers the Workman’s Family,” which was put out by the Queen City Cotton Mill. It was designed to advertise the mill to prospective employees and it shows a series of images of the mill’s workers. Queen City Cotton was located in Burlington’s South End, and therefor was only a few miles away from the Champlain Mill, where the Heritage Winooski Mill Museum is now located.
With those photographs as a starting place, I perused the 1918 and 1922 Sears and Roebuck catalogs for the types of garments which were available to American women at the time. Then, thanks to the wonderful librarians at the Winterthur Library, I was able to look through a series of pamphlets on dressmaking published in the teens and twenties by Mary Brooks Picken of the Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences.
The one piece of clothing which was clearly in evidence in all three sources was a smock-like garment known as a “house apron,” which the women in the Queen City Cotton Mill clearly wore to protect their clothing from getting dirty while on the job. Though Sears and Roebuck and Mary Brooks Picken both show this apron as an outer-most layer, worn presumably while carrying out house chores, the mill workers wore it topped with a second apron, this one generally dark in color, and with large pockets to accommodate their tools.
Close-up of spinning room workers from the Queen City Cotton Mill, from “BURLINGTON, VERMONT: THE ADVANTAGES IT OFFERS THE WORKMAN’S FAMILY,” page 10. Image courtesy of Champlain College Special Collections, Llewellyn Collection of Vermont History, 2010.1.407.
From Mary Brooks Pickens directions for making a Kimono Apron, Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, and Mary Brooks Picken, eds. Aprons and Caps. Scranton, Pa: Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, 1922, page 15.
Woman’s Coverall Apron shown in the Sprin 1922 Sears and Roebuck Catalog
From Mary Brooks Pickens directions for making a Kimono Apron, Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences, and Mary Brooks Picken, eds. Aprons and Caps. Scranton, Pa: Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts & Sciences, 1922, page 14.
I found one particular style of house apron in all three sources. It was a simple design, with attractive detailing at the neck and sleeves, and so chose to reproduce that garment. Stay tuned for updates on the rest of the outfit at the 26th approaches, and if you’re in the area, please come to the presentation! There will be tea and cookies and lots to learn about old clothes and Vermont history.
Close-up of spinning room workers from the Queen City Cotton Mill, from “BURLINGTON, VERMONT: THE ADVANTAGES IT OFFERS THE WORKMAN’S FAMILY,” page 10. Image courtesy of Champlain College Special Collections, Llewellyn Collection of Vermont History, 2010.1.407.
This past Friday and Saturday I attended a small conference called “Teaching Textiles” which took place in a room on the top floor of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Human Ecology. Human ecology,* as a field, is concerned with the world which people make for themselves. As a material culturalist (not to mention a craftsperson), this totally delights me. (And in fact, the SoHE’s Design History program was one of the places I applied when I was looking into graduate programs back in 2016.)
The Teaching Textiles Conference was an opportunity for scholars and makers to come together to talk about how textile knowledge is transmitted. It also highlighted the fact that, at least when it comes to textiles, the majority of scholars are in fact also makers. This was in evidence throughout the conference, as the audience diligently worked on one or both of the two craft projects provided by the event’s organizers: a tiny palm-sized loom, laser cut from lightweight plywood, and a conference bag printed with an embroidery design and accompanied by floss and a needle.
I presented about my project to teach myself the craft of fulling, which was part of my thesis research last year. Aside from talking about the project itself, my goal was to share how it was possible to integrate craft work with academic scholarship, something which my adviser and I had discussed at length as I was writing last winter. By the time I stood up to speak however, it was pretty clear that I was preaching to the choir. Everyone attending this conference seemed to agree on this point: our scholarship about the material world is improved when we, as scholars, spend some time interacting with that world before we sit down to write. Amy Hare, who teaches contextual studies for the Royal School of Needlework’s degree program, made the point that this goes the other way as well: makers’ work is also more meaningful when informed by scholarship and the historical record.
Though this is not [or should not be] a particularly ground-breaking assertion, it is one which continues to benefit from amplification. While material culturalists and historical craftspeople tend to be very aware of the benefits of both making and reading, plenty of traditional historians and modern craftspeople are less tuned in to how crossing these disciplinary boundaries can foster new ways of thinking. I would posit however that textilians** are uniquely situated to cross that line, if only because of how easy it is to stitch while sitting in a lecture. The small fifth floor room which housed Teaching Textiles for two days was a perfect chamber for that amplification.
I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from this gathering before I arrived, but it quickly became clear that while the number of attendees was small, the quality was extremely high. Participation was, by and large, limited to people who were presenting (and there were 20 of us!) and about a dozen faculty and graduate students of the SoHE. This small group meant that conversations could easily include everyone and run through both days. As we worked individually with our needles, we also worked collectively to build community and shape big ideas.
In that space, we listened to each other present on our various research projects, an act which inspired me, at least, by illustrating several new ways in which to cross the line between research and making. In doing that, we sat together in community, and passed knowledge from woman to woman, an act which is so fundamental to textile crafts that it was in fact the topic of our gathering. I left Madison with the feeling that I had made new friends, and with a strengthened conviction that it is worth while for me to dedicate myself to helping others see the connections between the world of the mind, and the world of the hands. I like to believe that this is true of all of my fellow attendees as well.
Many thanks to Dr. Marina Moskowitz and Amanda Thatch for their leadership and organization of this wonderful event.
*The SoHE at UW Madison was once the Home Economics department. The two ideas are connected, and it was a home economist in fact who first coined the word “ecology.”
** A term of Linda Eaton’s coinage, of which I am especially fond because, since it lacks a dictionary definition, it is as aptly applied to textile craftspeople as to textile historians.