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 6, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Historic Costume Recreations, Part 1, Over-the-Top Suspenders

     I've had a long running association with Historic Costume throughout the creative part of my life. Studying it, making it, wearing it, teaching about it and always loving it. Way back in the Dark Ages, I use to compete in the costume contests at the annual Great Western Gun Show in Southern California. If any of you readers out there aren't old enough to remember or never heard of it, let me tell you, it was the biggest show of its kind then and nothing like it has happened since. The contests were crazy fun and it was a great chance to strut your stuff in front of a judging panel. I even won a few trophys but the whole thing was mostly for entertainment and history was only the theme.

Saundra Altman Teaching a Workshop at Columbia 1994

     Fast forward to the early 1990's and after living  in Northern California for about 6 years I found myself volunteering at Columbia State Historic Park. When the Park staff  found out I had some experience in men's costuming and could sew, I was drafted into the Costume Committee. With the Park being an actual Gold Rush site, the costume focus was primarily mid-19th Century California. That was fortunate, as it was already an  interest of mine. I didn't really "need" an excuse to create more clothes but hey, now I had a good one. Over the years at Columbia, the committee sponsored many costume workshops to improve the quality and authenticity of the volunteer's costumes.  Oh, did I mention, I met my wife Lindy on the costume committee ?  It's important, as she is the better half of the "we". The most successful of the workshops were the ones with Saundra Altman of Past Patterns. Supported by our  encouragement Saundra eventually introduced a line of Men's 19th-Century Patterns to the public. Many of them were tested by Columbia volunteers before they were released. In fact, I owe the successful creation of my Frock Coat to Ms.Altman's generosity but that will come out in a later post.

1853 Suspender Design for Ladies to Make
Victoriana Magazine
      Enough of this background stuff, on with the project. In this series of posts, I didn't want to go into "all " of the different costumes or costume elements I've created over the years but I thought it might be fun to tell the tale of  3 of my favorites. The first post (this one) is on a pair of Needlework Suspenders, followed by one on my Marseille Vest Project and the final installment will be the saga of the illusive Frock Coat. Mid 19th-Century needlework suspenders were most likely created by ladies for a loved one, as some evidence suggests. One pair I studied was even inscribed with an appropriate sentiment. Many fashion magazines of the time routinely carried patterns for embroidered suspenders like the ones pictured here.

    I call my replica suspenders "Over the Top" because they turned into one heck of a project. The originals that they are based on were a lucky purchase we made in an antique shop in Petaluma. The moment I saw them I said to myself, "self, you need to copy these". What was I thinking?  I'd never done needlework in my life. Not to fret, my soon to be wife Lindy, was an award winning cross-stitcher and a great and patient teacher.

My Replica on the Left Next to the Original Pair
     First things first, I had to round up my materials based on the original suspenders. To copy the leather findings I needed some 4 oz. vegetable tanned cowhide and Tandy Leather came to the rescue. The white kid leather needed for the backing was a little bit of a challenge but a doll restoration supply company (no longer in business) had some and would sell smaller quantities. The edge treatment on the originals is a wool or mohair cord and Wooded Hamlet Designs had a perfect match except color. The needlework supplies came from JCA, Inc. of Townsend, MA.. The perfect choice for yarn was Paternayan Persian Wool as it matched the original in weight and came in a multitude of colors. There were some accent areas in the original design that were done in Silk Floss which I scored from my wife's old stash. Age had taken its toll on the original needlework as it was quite dark and soiled. I had to imagine what it might have looked like when it was bright and new before I ordered my colors. For the canvas, I lucked out in that a few moth holes in the original suspenders revealed what looked to me like Penelope Brown  11 / 22. It was obvious from the start that I would have to fabricate the buckles to match the originals as nothing like them was available.

My pattern graphs and card for the yarns
     The first thing I did was grid out the beautiful floral pattern in color pencil, on graph paper, so I could understand the design. I had matched the original suspender's yarn colors to a Paternayan color chart and now identified each color's corresponding number on the side of my drawing. There were many subtly different reds and greens, so I needed to simplify the process of recognition. With my wife's endorsement, I made a second graph and this time I used coded symbols to represent the colors. Coming up with 22 different but easily recognizable symbols was fun, sorta. The symbols and color numbers ran down the side of this drawing as well. To avoid confusion, I glued little snippets of the individual yarn next to its number. At this point you might think it was overkill on the planning but I knew what lay ahead and I couldn't afford any mistakes. What followed was the pure joy of creation and my discovery of an age old craft. There is a relaxing rythmic pace to needlework as you see the patterns emurge and it's downright fun. Pulling the yarn just so to keep everything even is a big plus if you want to be consistent. There is no substitue for practice. Now, where have I heard that before ??!!

Once the needlework was finished, I made the brass buckles and assembled the leather components that I had finished before I started the cross-stitch strips. All the sewing was done with linen thread, by hand, and the leather parts were joined with a saddle stitch. At this point I will let the pictures do the talking but in closing I will say it was a great project and well worth it.
Rear View, my replicas on the left
Buckle closeup, original on right


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  2. Jim, as with most of the projects you have written about, the amount and level of detail is utterly astounding. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of time and effort it takes you to do these things. I am so impressed.

    Your posts really cause me to question all aspects of my military and civilian impressions (which I thought to be of high standards as it was!).