31 October 2015

HSM 2015 #10: The 'Secret Date' Shift

Today, there are books, patterns, and blogs, that document the construction and sewing techniques of garments that have survived for centuries. There are reprints of period fabrics, dealers that specialize in historical fabrics and notions, and people who use traditional dyes to dye fabric.

As a result, period garments can be reproduced more accurately than ever before. But, some of the reproduction garments that are sewn today, might also survive for centuries. It's easy to tell them from extant garments today, when the copy is new and the original is old - but how will a collector or museum tell them apart in the year 2215, when reproductions and extants both have aged for centuries?

If a recreated garment is mistaken for a period garment, it will skew the knowledge of period garments. Will museums and collectors have to use carbon dating in the future, to ascertain which garments are truly from the period?

Conscientious makers of replicas of ancient coins and other archaeological artifacts mark them "COPY" or similar, so they can't be mistaken for the real thing. Costumers could do it too, in the interest of future generations - marking garments with one's initials and the year works fine, probably better than just "COPY"! ;-)

For instance, an apron in "What Clothes Reveal" has the year embroidered with tiny cross stitches near the waistband (marked apron, p 116). Stitched with white silk on a blue/white check, in an area where the fabric is pleated, it barely shows. In use, nobody would notice whether the digits said 1775 or 2015 - but when it was scrutinized by a person trying to date it, it would make all the difference. On outer garments, a piece of the lining can be marked before assembly; by hand, or by machine. Anything that will be spotted when examining the garment inside and out would work.

(Edited, 20th December 2015: Do check out Cassidy Percoco's blog post about a dress that turned out to be a later reproduction... even though it was antique!)

The shift

The "Secret Date" on the shift
For this challenge, I've marked an in-progress working class 18th century style shift. There aren't any extant Swedish shifts from the period, so I looked to other sources for information on period marking in Northern Europe - period Swedish newspapers that contain accounts of stolen goods, and a preserved Danish shift dated 1775 (shift pattern is on the relocated Tidens Tøj site). The accounts of stolen shifts sometimes mention that they were marked with initials, while the Danish shift has a more thorough marking - initials, the digit 2 with a little diamond on each side, and 75 (for 1775). So apparently the owner had at least 2 shifts made for her in 1775.

I decided to combine both approaches, by stitching the first line in color, and the rest in white. At first glance, you just see the initials. The white stitching is very unobtrusive, but easily readable if you look closely or with backlighting (for the photo, I used side light). Not knowing what colors or thread were preferred for marking linens here, I decided to use linen thread in indigo blue and white, as it was available in period. I adapted the middle line for my own purposes; mine says * 1 * as this is the first shift I've ever started - if I make another one eventually, I plan to put 2 instead, and so on. (BTW, if you really want to have a shift that says e.g. 1775, you can stitch your initials and 1775 in color, then add the current year in white.)

The facts

I'm not a proper participant in the Historical Sew Monthly, but here are the facts anyway.

The Challenge: #10 Sewing Secrets.

My submission: The 'Secret Date' Shift.

Fabric: Thrifted cotton/linen bedsheets (handwoven, judging by the uneven selvedges; the monograms date them to the first half of the 20th century - they had been clumsily converted into curtains, so I didn't feel bad about cutting them up).

Pattern: I made my own pattern for the shift, in the style of Garsault's French shift (English style shifts don't seem to have been used here). The letters and digits come from 18th century samplers in Swedish museums.

Year: Last quarter of the 18th century.

Notions: Indigo blue and white linen thread, also thrifted.

How historically accurate is it? Say 75 % (I think everything is period except that the fabric has a cotton warp and linen weft; it should've been all linen).

Hours to complete: About 1 to 2 hours for the marking (I stitched a letter now and then, and didn't keep time).

First worn: Not yet (the shift isn't finished!).

Total cost: US$5 (for the entire shift, including fabric and thread).


  1. This is a lovely idea! I think identifying ones sewn items in this way is an excellent thing to do, both looking forward, in terms of history, and also in the event that the items are passed down as heirlooms.

    1. Thank you! Good point about heirlooms. Just think of all anonymous embroidered tablecloths that are left to thrift stores - maybe a relative would've wanted to hang on to them if there had been a marking that said who'd made it.