Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Favorite Historic Costume Recreations Part 2, How to Recreate a Mid-19th Century Marseilles Vest, Using a Portugese Shower Curtain

     Recreating Period Dress can be a challenge on many levels but one of the biggest obstacles to attaining historical accuracy is that many "period" styles of textiles no longer exist. Or do they ? Sometimes, if you apply a little creativity and are open to serendipity, you might just pull it off. This post is about that successful combination and I hope the viewer enjoys the tale.

Our original  mid-century Marseilles vest with later alterationto front
    In the mid-19th century world of the fashionable man, a beautiful vest was an important part of being well dressed. Styles of vesting fabrics changed with the seasons and with the latest trends in fashion. One popular style of Summer vesting was a fabric known as Marseilles. Marseilles Vests were popular for decades and there's a good reason. They were beautiful. In "Scissors and Yardstick; or, All About Dry Goods", published in 1872, Marseilles is described as, "A firm heavy cotton fabric, woven with alternate raised and depressed figures. These figures are usually stripes, diamonds, etc., and are formed somewhat similarly to those of the Marseilles quilts. Marseilles is also printed in colored stripes and figures." I should add that "Figured Marseilles" ( those with a colored design on top of the woven pattern) were as varied as the imagination of the mills and the colored figures were often woven into the fabric to appear as embroidery. This was a big clue to me later when it came to trying to recreate something similar.

       A few years back, I was chatting with my friend Ian McWherter, who is a fellow devotee of Historical Fashion and a fine period tailor. We were wondering about the possibility of a modern substitute for the original Marseilles. Ian went so far as to purchase samples of various cotton goods and sent them to me to aid in the discussion. I seem to remember that they were Dimity or Diaper or something similar but not quite a match for us picky types. One of my problems was that I actually own an original Marseilles Vest and have studied several others, so I was holding out for something closer. That serendipitous moment of discovery happened quite unexpectedly with the arrival of a modern home furnishings catalog, in the mail.

     Restoration Hardware is a higher end home furnishing company that puts out a beautiful catalog full of cool stuff you wish you could afford. The last place you would ever expect to find historic fabric but there it was, just what I had been hoping for in the guise of a Matelasse 100% Cotton Shower Curtain from Portugal. It even came in colors but white is what I wanted and white they had. Matelasse is very similar to the old Marseilles in that it has the bold quilted effect in the way it is woven. This particular Matelasse was woven in a small simple diamond pattern and I was in love. After searching around for a source of the fabric itself, it became apparent that it was not available to the public.

My recreation  with Mother of Pearl buttons
     Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I decided to go ahead and buy the pricey shower curtain and start my plan to turn it into a figured fabric, replicating the original fancy Marseilles. A great source for mid-century designs is Clarence Hornung's "Handbook of Early Advertising Art". In the Pictorial Volume, on page 81, there was a sweet little design that could have been a symbol for "knowledge" or something like that. A scroll wrapped in roses could have meant anything but it spoke to me as the perfect choice to decorate my fabric "canvas" with figures. On my newly purchased Matelasse, shower curtain, I laid out the pattern for the vest using the mid-19th century, double-breasted vest pattern from Saundra Altman's 1990's workshop.Within the vest pattern pieces I marked out the individual positions of the future figures with a washout pen, keeping in mind the overall pattern as if they had been woven on the loom. The next step was the actual embroidery and luckily I found a local custom embroidery shop that would work with me. Stitches in Motion in Sonora, did an awesome job with a three color embroidery, perfectly placing each design where I had earlier marked. It really looks like the figures were woven in at the time the fabric was loomed.

Close up of my recreation, showing Matelasse weave and embroidery
     When the embroidery was completed, I cut out the pattern pieces and sewed them together by hand, following all the details of an original vest, including neat top stitching where needed. In the time period of common use, these Summer vests would have been laundered and lightly starched before being worn so the buttons would have been removable as well as the chest padding. The buttons need a shank on the back and are held in place, on the inside of the vest, by a tiny brass ring. The chest padding would have given the wearer a more rounded form, that was so fashionable at the time. The padding slides between the lining and the fashion fabric on the frontpiece and neatly hangs on a button. All these historical nuances are detailed in Past Pattern's "Single-Breasted Shawl Collar Waistcoat" pattern 018, available to everyone. To me, when recreating historical dress, half the fun is working those details into the replica to celebrate the creativity and intent of the original garment. You really shouldn't skimp on the small stuff. Now, on to the next project!

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