Monday, March 28, 2011

Marseille, France, 1700s, and white corded quilting

In a recent post, Nancy told us that American dressmakers often looked to France for inspiration, but as the 19th century wore on, they became increasingly independent in their design ideas. I recently attended a lecture that made me aware of just how far-reaching the French fashion industry has been over the centuries.

Godey's Ladies books might have brought
French fashion to America in the 19th
century, but the French were "all about fashion" long before that!

The lecture I attended was sponsored by the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, in conjunction with their current exhibition titled Marseille: White Corded Quilting, which features phenomenal works from the collection of Kathryn Berenson and others. See more of the exhibition at

Because of my love of all things French ... and my passionate interest in quilting traditions ... Berenson's books pictured here are two favorite reads.
When I look at the engraving above of the woman bent over the quilting frame in an atelier in France, I can't help but wonder what her life was like. She spent hours a day creating phenomenal quilted clothing. What would she think if she could see us today as we stand in open-mouthed wonder at her exquisite handiwork?

Among the more jaw-dropping things I learned from speaker Frederique Sevet-Collier at the lecture that day was that, by 1680, the women working in
the textile ateliers of Marseille, France, were producing 40-50,000 pieces of whitework a year. Tens of thousands.

What's corded whitework? Draw a design on a piece of white cloth, then layer that with a backing fabric and stitch along the design. Finally, separate the weave on the back layer to introduce a length of white cording into the channel created by the stitching. How many hours do you suppose it took to create even a small piece? Surely hundreds of hours. Other more intricate pieces in this exhibition would have required thousands of hours.

While the Marseilles whitework industry was nearly eliminated by the Plague, quilted clothing remained in vogue for centuries. I am still amazed by the work that went in to making beautiful petticoats like this one in my personal collection. Petticoat ... as in ... undergarment rarely seen by anyone but the wearer. Amazing ... and somewhat simplistic compared to the pieces on display at the museum. Still, as I run my hand over the feathers quilted into the hem, I imagine "her" ... and I'm inspired to attempt to tell her story.
Of course "she" lives on the Great Plains in the 19th century, not at Louis XIV's court. She's a newcomer to fashion compared to the ladies who wore the creations from Marseilles. Still....I wonder....what if one of those women's creations traveled to the New World in a trunk aboard a ship .... what if ....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sew 'n Sew

There are some inventions you marvel over, and wonder why someone didn't invent it earlier: Velcro, Scotch tape, rollers on suitcases, Chapstick. . . But there are other inventions that were invented early on, as if humanity made them a priority. One such necessity that spans the ages and all geography are sewing needles. By varying accounts, they’ve been around 20,000 years. I consider that pretty much forever.

People have needed to sew since Adam and Eve first wanted to get dressed. The first needles were made from animal bone and didn’t have an eye, but a slit in the top to hold the thread (which was made from animal sinew.) Metal needles followed, but were often made by the town blacksmith, which means they were often crude in design. England was one of the first places to mass produce them, and the town of Redditch became known for its manufacturing. In 1866 Redditch produced 100 million needles! There's a museum you can visit there:  Forge Mill 

In 1755 the first sewing machine was invented by the German inventor, Karl Weisenthal, who created the first sewing machine needle, but never finished the invention of the machine. The first machine that was usable was invented in 1790, by British Inventor, Thomas Saint. It only used one thread to form a chain stitch, and was mostly used on shoes. It didn’t have a needle, but used an awl to get through the heavy leather fabric. And it never was produced beyond the patent model.

The next inventor was French. In 1830 Barthelemy Thimonnier patented the first sewing machine that actually was sold. It also produced a chain stitch and was used to sew uniforms for the French army. But tailors voiciferously—and violently—objected to this machine, believing it would hurt their business. They mobbed Thimmonnier’s factory, and destroyed it. He fled to England and died bankrupt.

The man who figured out the two-thread system we use today was American Walter Hunt in 1834—he also invented the safety pin. But he gave up the invention when he became convinced that his sewing machine would cause too many seamstresses to be out of work.

Elias Howe Jr. lived on the edge of poverty and watched his wife as she worked as a seamstress. He got the idea to copy the movement of the human arm and created a machine that made a lock-stitch. He had a public contest against women sewing by hand and finished five seams before any of them had finished even one. But no one bought a machine. He went to England to try to sell some, but when he returned, he found more than one sewing machine on the American market, many using his patented mechanisms. He sued and agreed on taking royalties. He made nearly $2 million by getting a cut in the sale of other people’s machines

The inventor who finally got it right has a familiar name: Singer.

In 1851, Isaac Singer patented his version, the first rigid-arm sewing machine. Previous to this, the arm vibrated with the needle. Singer’s machine included a presser foot to hold the cloth steady. And sales really popped when he figured out how to let the sewer power the machine with their feet, via a treadle vs. a hand crank.

Singer brought the sewing machine to the people. He advertised, and provided service-after-the-sale. He sold the machines for $75-$125 in fancy showrooms, and let people pay in installments. This was essential for sales, as the normal annual income was $500 and as such, people would have to pool their money to buy a single machine for an entire small town.

 But then a young farmer, James Gibbs, saw a picture of a Singer machine and made his own. He teamed up with James Willcox to sell a lighter, cheaper model than the expensive Singer (he sold his for $50.) Willcox & Gibbs sold machines until the 1970’s.

Helen Blanchard patent drawings
 Women made improvements to the machines too, and many patents were given to women. Helen Blanchard of Maine invented the zigzag sewing machine and in 1881 started the Blanchard Over-seam Company. Very mechanically inclined (and self-taught) she was awarded 28 patents.

In my new novel An Unlikely Suitor, my two immigrant seamstresses go from working in a sweatshop making ready-to-wear, to working for a private dressmaker, sewing custom-made designs for a rich clientele.  Knowing how to use a sewing machine was invaluable.

As is the normal cycle of any “new” machine on the market, the price eventually went down so they were more affordable. The fact many women could have their own machine changed their lives drastically. Before machines (according to Godey's Lady's Book) it took fourteen hours to make a man’s shirt and ten to make a simple dress. So women spent a lot of their day mending and sewing for their families. But with a sewing machine . . . suddenly a woman could sew a shirt and dress in about an hour.

What to do with all that free time?  Women were able to think beyond the home . . . and the world has never been the same.//Nancy

Monday, March 14, 2011

1896 Spokane, WA & New York City with Jane Kirkpatrick, author of The Daughter’s Walk

In 1896 Helga Estby and her daughter, Clara, made an historic walk from Spokane, WA to New York City hoping to earn $10,000 from the fashion industry that would be enough to save their family farm.

In 2003, when novelist Jane Kirkpatrick finished reading a book about that walk, what struck her was the unfinished story: that upon their return from the walk, Clara, the daughter, changed her last name and was separated from
the family for twenty years. Jane wanted to know what happened, why did she change her name? What did she do during those years? What brought the reconciliation after that extended exile? "I also liked the idea that one of the few things Clara carried with her as they followed the railroad track across the continent was a curling iron. What did that tell us about her character, or did it tell anything at all?"

The result of Jane's quest to find answers and to know "the story behind that story" resulted in her new release, the Daughter's Walk.

I'm thankful to Jane for agreeing to visit today and share some of the "footnotes from history" that led her to tell this unique story.

  • What was the most surprising thing you learned about “the real story” while researching this book? I found Clara living about 50 miles from Spokane during most of the separation and that she later became quite a successful business woman owning many properties in Spokane and eventually living not all that far from her biological family. Descendants whom I interviewed were stunned to know their great aunt had actually lived so nearby. They were also surprised to discover that the house Clara and her sister -- after the reconciliation -- lived in was owned not by the sister but by Clara. I also discovered that she had two close women friends who had been furriers in New York City about the time of the historic walk. That set me on the journey to research fur fashions in the early 1900s and took me to a contemporary fur auction, one of the largest in the Northwest and one that Clara and her business partners likely attended more than once years before. The Fur Commission staff were wonderful in helping me speculate about Clara's life during that time and told me that she would have had to have a male agent as women wouldn't have been allowed to bid at the fur auction. That helped explain a family story about Clara sometimes traveling to Europe "with a man" on business. Several years ago I wrote a series of books called the Tender Ties Series about a woman involved in the fur industry in the early 1800s. Now here I was researching that same industry in early 1900. It was fascinating to see what changes had occurred and how Clara might have been involved.
  • Is there a historical photograph that inspired you you’d like to share? On the left! To earn their way across the country, they had photographs taken which they sold for a nickel. Part of the reason we know about this journey at all is because a few of those pictures were saved by a relative and others were located in archival copies of newspapers. The women were to wear the new reform dress once they reached St. Lake City and they also modeled the dresses while in Chicago. Most photographs showed off their high button shoes, scandalous for the time period when modesty meant ankles were covered and corsets worn daily.
  • What one non-fiction book helped you research the most Linda Lawrence Hunt's book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America (Random House, 2003) Her book tells of the walk, the social challenges of the period and explores the great silencing of the story by family after the women returned. It was there I read about Clara's name change and separation. Little was known though about what Clara did after the return and that's what I wanted to explore through fiction. I also wanted to imagine what Clara might have been thinking as a teenager walking across the country for eight months with her mother.
  • What spiritual encouragement did you draw from what you’ve learned? I had to explore the great emptiness of exile, of being sent out or away and how much we may play in that journey by our choices. I actually ached for Clara at times knowing her family was physically so close and yet so emotionally distant. Her efforts to deal with that made me sad and I longed for her to find a way to step over whatever had caused the rift and to mend the break. When we feel separated from God I think the pain is profound yet not unlike the heartache when a family rift defines our every day. It's said that forgiveness is required of us as Christians, as God forgave us; but reconciliation is not. That becomes a choice and it made me conscious of rifts within my own family that I wanted to heal. The story also made me want to seek forgiveness for my own choices that left me separated from God and to take action to allow Him to seek me out.

  • Did you meet a special woman from the past you’d like to tell about? Definitely Clara Estby Dore, the daughter on this journey. Her very wish to do things differently than her mother had actually taken her onto paths very similar to her mother's making decisions for family. Clara's journey reminded me that the word family comes from the Latin Famalus meaning servant. I believe that Clara discovered the true meaning of family and deepened my own understanding of family. I hope her journey brings nurture to readers as it did to me.
Thanks so much to Jane Kirkpatrick for sharing her footnote from history with us today.
To learn more about Jane's other wonderful books, visit her at

Friday, March 11, 2011

Fashion: Action and Reaction

I know I’ve written about historical fashion before, but this morning I woke up with a few new insights.  Again, they are my insights and have no basis on anything beyond my own reasoning. So beware!

Thinking about fashion in the last two hundred years I started seeing an action/reaction phenomenon going on...

After the French Revolution, women got rid of their ridiculous high wigs and huge side-hoops and wore simple flowing dresses that allowed women freedom. Revolution? Freedom? It goes together. Now when they danced, they could actually get close to their partners, sliding past, shoulder to shoulder. And bonus, they didn't have to worry about their wigs and head-dresses toppling over.

As the memories of the Revolution faded, in the 1820's and 30's (see below left) fashion became more constrained again with big sleeves, big skirts, and corseted waists. It's as if the only action possible was over-reaction.

By the 1860’s women were encased in a bell. They were unable to go through doors easily, sit in a chair, and were encouraged by the style to be little more than pretty ornaments.

After the war, and during the industrial explosion of the last half of the 19th century, women seemed to gain freedom again with dresses that were flat in front and on the sides. Yet, the grips of fashion wouldn’t let them go, and they were burdened with large, elaborate bustles, holding them back, prohibiting them from gaining full freedom.  Heavy trains impeded their forward progress.

In the 1890’s women escaped the bustles and all forms of hoops (for good!) Once free to move, they . . . moved.  Women rode bicycles, played golf and tennis, and went to work in offices using a new invention called a typewriter. The idea of women gaining the right to vote stirred them into believing they actually could wield some power. Their sleeves grew enormous as if mimicking the idea of a strong woman, flexing her muscles.

For a few decades women’s fashions seemed almost sane—until the teens of the 20th century, when the hobble skirt became the rage. Tight near the ankle, there was only one way to walk in the dress. Slowly, with small steps. Hmm... Was society spooked by the inroads women were making, so it created fashion to hold women back by “hobbling them”? 

But women wouldn't be hobbled and kicked free of such ridiculous fashion. The flapper era of the 1920’s was a full revolution with corsets banished, hemlines raised from ankle to knee, fabrics softened to flowing sheers, and long hair cut into easy-care bobs. What did women do to celebrate their freedom? They went wild, dancing the Charleston, smoking cigarettes, and drinking cocktails!

Here's a link to original footage from the Roaring Twenties: Charleston Video

As women moved into the workplace, the flimsy flapper dresses gave way to practical clothes that were more tailored and menswear inspired. For the first time in history, women discovered the comfort of wearing pants (what took them so long?  Really.) As our men went to war, women filled in the gaps, working in factories and on the farm.

But after World War II and the Korean War, with our boys back home again, it was as if fashion insisted that women look like women again. Corsets returned—in the form of heavily constructed bras and girdles. Hoops were still out, but in their place came layers of petticoats, once again giving women an ornamental look. And as an alternative, there were tight-tight skirts, which were nothing more than modern hobble skirts.

The style didn’t last long, as the late sixties created fashion spurred by social reform. Those were the anti-years. Anti-war, anti-establishment, anti-any constraint at all. Bras were burned, coiffed hair was set free, and the freedom to choose virtually any style teased women with almost too much freedom.

For in the 1980’s, when women were making huge strides in the business world, the hippie dress code didn’t work in the corporate workplace. And so… fashion once again copied menswear with man-sized shoulder pads and silly bows instead of neckties. Having lived through this style, I cringe.  We looked ridiculous in our "power suits", like men-pretenders.

Women eventually realized they didn’t need to try quite so hard, and fashion evolved into what it is today. Which is? I’m not sure. When I try to think of fashion trends right now it’s hard to pinpoint. Hemlines and the width and length of pant legs vary. Shoes span the range from flip-flops to stilettos. Popular colors come and go. Have we finally reached the point where we can wear what we like and what looks good on us, and not have others make the choices for us?

If so, it’s about time. Actually, it is about time. For over two hundred years women have suffered their social gains with stops and starts, advances and regressions, and their fashion has followed suit.

Pun intended.// Nancy

Monday, March 7, 2011

Steamboats on the Missouri

Ah ... steamboats ... how romantic. One of the things I learned researching A Most Unsuitable Match (which is in its final stages of editing--WHEW) was that, in actuality, steamboats on the Missouri were noisy, exasperating, and dangerous. The Missouri presented challenges that Samuel Clemens didn't face piloting the Mississippi.
"We felt the shock and at once the boat started sinking ... (it) keeled over on one side ... there was a wild scene on board ... the chairs and stools were tumbled about and many of the children nearly fell into the water."

So wrote one of the passengers on board the Steamboat Arabia when it hit a snag hiding below the surface of the Missouri River and met its demise. The year was 1856, and the Arabia was only one of some four hundred steamboats to meet their demise while navigating the river called "Old Misery" by those who knew it best.

The lovely hanging lamp above is one example of some of the goods making their way north aboard the steamers that carried virtually millions of tons of freight from St. Louis to Montana in the latter part of the 19th century when gold fever called tens of thousands of hopeful miners to Alder Gulch.

It was seeing the cargo (on a field trip for a history class) a couple of years ago set me on course to write the story of a young girl venturing north from St. Charles Missouri, in search of her only living relative in 1869. I never would have imagined crystal bowls and bolts of silk cloth, ornate dinnerware and silver thimbles, but there they were on display at the museums showcasing the cargo of the Bertrand (in Nebraska) and the Arabia (in Kansas City). What was that like? I wondered, as I read of survivors being hauled ashore and watching as the ship sank in the murky depths.

Those who knew it best called the Missouri an "unpoetic and repulsive stream of flowing mud studded with dead tree trunks and broken by bars." Pilots were constantly challenged by its shifting course and the confines of steep bluffs. Just when a pilot thought he knew the river, she deposited a sand bar and cut away a new bit of bank, leaving new and treacherous barriers just below the surface of the water. The Missouri went through open country that was subject to tornadoes, violent thunderstorms, and fierce gales that could literally blow the shallow-drafted steamers over. Prairie fires could blister the paint when the current forced a steamboat close to the bank and passengers were often tormented by clouds of mosquitoes.

While the record passage from St. Louis to Fort Benton, Montana was "only" twenty-three days, most trips took far longer thanks to exasperating delays from sandbars, broken tillers, failing boilers, and various other challenges including the ever-present threat of boiler explosions, fires, and snags.

And so ... I send eighteen-year-old Fannie Rousseau north aboard a fictional steamboat ... and of course things will not go well.

If you have a chance to visit either historical sites at DeSoto Bend in Nebraska or at the Arabia Museum in Kansas City, you won't be bored. And you'll be thankful for the interstate!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Discovering Newport

When it’s time for vacation, my family--like most of you--tends to go to a place that’s different from where we live. We live in a big city in the Midwest, so to relax we go to a lake or the mountains in Colorado. People who live in the desert go to a place that’s green and cool; people on the shore go to the mountains, etc.

But during the Gilded Age (the last few decades of the 19th century) where did people go to escape the cities of New York and Boston? One of the most popular destinations was Newport, Rhode Island. Actually, I have roots in Newport--old roots.  An ancestor of my family landed in what would become Newport. The town was founded by Englishmen in 1639 and my very great-grandfather stepped foot there in 1643. Of course, native Americans had been in the area for 5000 years. At first, Newport was a haven for those seeking religious freedom, but it soon became a bustling center of trade.

My husband and I discovered Newport in 2007 and were immediately charmed by the waterfront of tall ships and sailboats, and the amazing Cliff Walk. Edging the east side of the island, the rugged Cliff Walk is a narrow public path dividing the waves crashing on the rocks close by and the stunning mansions of the mega rich.

During the last half of the 19th century, Newport became a vacation spot for the middle class and for the wealthy industrialists of New York and Boston. The mingling of the two classes added interest to a city used to independent spirits.

After the Civil War, beautiful summer homes were built on and around Bellevue Avenue. Owners were senators, bankers, railroad barons, and entrepreneurs. This was a time before income tax, leaving plenty of income to build lavish (and more lavish) mansions. These homes were often inspired by European castles and palaces,  yet they were called “cottages”.  Very funny. Millions of dollars were spent on the homes—homes that were only used for 6-8 weeks each summer.

My husband and I took tours of many of these mansions (the Breakers, Marble House, the Elms…) and were blown away by the gold and the gilt, the marble, statuary, carvings, and furnishings. But mostly, we were impressed by the massive size. The Breakers (I’ll go into more detail in a future blog) encompasses 65,000 square feet. It was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife Alice. This was a single family home? Its construction was a successful attempt to one-up its neighbor. Next door, Cornelius' brother and sister-in-law (William K. and Alva Vanderbilt) lived in the regal Marble House that boasted 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Talk about keeping up with the Joneses...

The vastness, the decadence, and the image of a summer vacation far different from anything I’d ever experienced, spurred me to write a novel set in Newport. An Unlikely Suitor comes out May 1 (you can preorder it now). It’s the story of an immigrant seamstress from NYC who befriends a rich socialite. The two girls end up in Newport during the height of the summer season in 1895. What a culture shock for Lucy Scarpelli to go from the immigrant slums of Five Points to the opulence of these mansions.  Those of you who've read Masquerade will recognize Lucy as Lucia Scarpelli in that book.  Her mother and younger sister, Sofia, are also vital to An Unlikely Suitor. But it's nine years later and Sofia isn't a little girl any more...

In the coming weeks I’ll share some of the interesting historical tidbits I discovered as I wrote this novel. I hope you’ll enjoy this journey through Lucy’s Cinderella season in Newport.//Nancy Moser