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02 September 2018

HSM 2018 #8: The trimmed underpetticoat

A partridge petticoat in a pear plum tree.
My project is inspired by a petticoat in the collections of the Chester County Historical Society, depicted and patterned in Sharon Burnston's book "Fitting & Proper".

Chester County is situated in southeastern Pennsylvania in the US; a fun twist is that the town of Chester was originally founded by Swedes and named Upland, after the Swedish county where I live. Quakers were the county's largest social group in the 18th century, but Germans also had a strong influence on the material culture.

The original petticoat is made of white linen with printed linen facing or trim on the outside and inside of the hem. It was earlier thought to be a reversible petticoat for work-wear, but Burnston considers it more likely that it is an underpetticoat.

A number of unusual things about this petticoat caught my interest. There's the printed trim, the unusual pleating at center front, and the fact that the waistband has traces of rust suggesting it was closed with a hook and eye.

Pleating

While the center front pleating pattern is unusual with its two box pleats, I don't think this has to do with reversibility, because there's a non-reversible Swedish petticoat with similar box pleats in the collection of Kulturen in Lund, Sweden (shown below). It belongs to a 1770s linen gown with blue embroidery and draped-up skirts featured in the book "Kvinnligt mode under två sekel" (2001). It's an interesting coincidence that this unusual pleating pattern is seen in two linen petticoats; maybe it was more common than we think, and for some reason was used only in linen petticoats (which have rarely been preserved)?

Photo: Kulturen. KM 67871.2
Petticoat, showing the box pleats at center front.



Hook and eye

The waistband has traces of rust at the ends, suggesting it was closed with an iron hook and eye at some point. In the photo the waistband extends a bit beyond the back edge, suggesting an overlap. This is helpful as it reduces wear or chafing from the hook.

Hooks and eyes seem to have been unusual in a British 18th century context, as virtually every 18th century petticoat depicted in British and American costume books has ties instead. (For two exceptions, see Nancy Bradfield's "Costume in Detail 1730-1930", p 23 and 25 in the 2009 reprint; it doesn't say if they might've been altered later.)

But there was at least one country where hooks and eyes were quite frequent, even in the same era. A book on common dress in Sweden says:
"In the 18th and 19th century, hooks and eyes were definitely the most common garment closures. [...] In garments from the late 18th century, iron wire is the most common material. Because the wire rusted easily, most garments have little spots where they were attached [...] The rust-proof brass wire was surely a welcome novelty around 1800."
("Möte med mode", Berit Eldvik 2014, page 171; my translation)
The authoritative book on sewing Swedish folk costumes also points to hooks and eyes being the closure for petticoats in common dress here ("Folkdräkter förr och nu", Ulla Centergran & Kicki Kirvall 1986, page 91). So, the rust marks on the underpetticoat's waistband suggest that its hook and eye were made in the 18th century, and the tab at the end of the waistband suggests it was made for a hook and eye closure from the beginning (unless it's just the remains of a former tie?).

Facing or trim

There's a broad facing on the outside of the petticoat, and a narrower strip of fabric on the inside. Both are linen, each with a different brown print.

To begin with the purely functional side of things, inside facings are seen in many (but not all) 18th century gowns and petticoats, e.g. in Janet Arnold's "Patterns of Fashion 1". Facing a hem adds weight and body and protects the back of the fabric from wear and dirt. If the facing (a.k.a. hem guard) extends below the fashion fabric, it also protects the edge from wear.

Mara Riley's site has a file of clippings from the defunct "18cWoman" list, which indicates that petticoats with a band at the bottom are documented in German dress. E.g., it says this style can be seen on a couple of German samplers in the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, dated 1733 and 1734, though I failed to locate them in CW's database. So, the petticoat's hem trim might reflect a German influence. Some Swedish folk costume skirts also have a contrasting band at the bottom, though attached in a different way ("Folkdräkter förr och nu", page 92). Petticoats in late 17th century fashion plates sometimes feature a broad trim at the hem, and they may have inspired simpler treatments that lived on regionally.

German rather than Quaker?

Quakers were the largest social group, so statistically any Chester artifacts may most likely be Quaker. But putting printed trim on the inside of an underpetticoat seems to me like the kind of "useless and superfluous things" that Quakers were supposed to shun. Neither does the idea of a reversible underpetticoat make sense to me, because only a rabid perfectionist would care whether a person who accidentally spotted the hem of her underpetticoat would see brown print A or brown print B!

Parallels to the hook and eye closure, unusual pleating, and band at the bottom, can all be found in Sweden, which was heavily influenced by German culture and German craftsmen. As Germans had a strong influence on material culture in 18th century Chester county as well, I think these observations suggest a possible German connection.

The thought that this is strictly an underpetticoat doesn't sit right with me. I'd more easily think it was sometimes worn as an informal outer garment, after all, and was reversible so that it would match different bedgowns—say an underpetticoat that doubles as work-wear. I imagine it being worn in the kitchen on a hot day, in the family circle when no visitors are expected, and during haymaking (if women took part in it). But I don't know what was acceptable in Quaker dress, nor German dress of the area, so these are mere guesses.

My own version 

I'm all for copying local extants—when there are any. A law passed in 1738 required Swedish households to leave their linen rags to the paper mills for recycling, so washable underwear from the 18th century is almost as scarce as hen's teeth. The Chester petticoat is from the wrong continent but the similarities I pointed out above convinced me that it fits nicely with Swedish sewing traditions.

My main fabric is a handwoven tabby with linen weft and cotton warp, which has been reused in several steps. It started out as a pair of bedsheets and was probably used for several years before they were cut off and altered into window curtains. Later they ended up in a thrift shop where I bought them, and used about half of the fabric for my 'Secret Date' Shift. Afterwards I cut the remaining bits into rectangles for another project, which I soon abandoned, but finally I reused them for this project. So my petticoat is made up of three main pieces, plus a strip around the hem to lengthen it (I had to skip the growth tuck). As the fabric has some weak spots from wear, I used some NOS vintage linen for the waistband. The hook and eye are new (Prym #9).

Hook and eye closure. I didn't spot the extended tab of the extant's waistband until
after I'd completed mine, so the edges of the slit overlap a bit.

The hem is trimmed with two different Ikea cotton prints—a wide strip of Hässleklocka on the outside and a narrow strip of striped Pärlhyacint on the inside. Frankly I'm not thrilled with the combination, but in use you'll see at most one pattern at a time, so I guess it doesn't matter.

Hem trim. The join in the main fabric is clearly visible from the inside.

Sewing around the circumference of the hem at least 5 times seemed daunting, so I used a sewing machine to lengthen the petticoat and sew the lower edge of both trims (right sides together). The rest is all hand sewn, including two running stitch seams for attaching the top edge of the trims. While the machine sewing shows if you look closely (especially on the inside), it isn't apparent when the petticoat is worn.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much body the hem has,
thanks to the trim.

I expect this to be a very useful garment in my future wardrobe. A white underpetticoat will help to block out the color of a darker or patterned underpetticoat worn underneath, which makes it very useful for layering under a light-colored (or Ikea print) petticoat.


The facts

The Challenge: HSM 2018 #8 Extant originals.

My submission: A trimmed underpetticoat.

Material: Thrifted white cotton/linen and a scrap of vintage linen. About half a pillowcase each of two Ikea cotton prints—one new and one thrifted.

Pattern: From the book "Fitting & Proper" by Sharon Burnston, page 26.

Year: 1780-1800.

Notions: 50/2 and 35/2 linen thread, polyester sewing thread for machine seams, hook and eye (all from stash).

How historically accurate is it? The fabrics are a plausible match for what was available in period. Hook and eye are modern and too shiny. I used some machine sewing to cut corners, but most seams are hand sewn using period techniques. 65 % on the Peacock scale.

Hours to complete: Can't say—several short sittings over a three month period, completed a month ago.

First worn: Not yet, I've just tried it on.

Total cost: About SEK50 ($5).

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