From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

From the TNHG: Stitching Mrs. Newton's Gown: Part I

Tuesday, November 10, 2009
This post originally appeared on my other blog, The Two Nerdy History Girls. Because of a software glitch, the original photos didn't enlarge when clicked. These should!
Susan reports:

The tradespeople of Colonial Williamsburg don't simply lecture to visitors. They are master craftsmen/women in their own right, with many years of study and experience.  They practice their crafts in exactly the same way as their 18th c. counterparts once did, and it's fascinating to watch.  

While we NHG were visiting this fall, the mantua-makers – the term used for the most skilled dressmakers in the 17th c.-mid-19th c. –were recreating a 1770 gown worn by a wealthy Virginian lady for her portrait. That's the portrait, right (Mrs. Thomas Newton, by 
John Durand; collection of Colonial Williamsburg, gift of M. Knoedler.) The new gown was fashioned of 18th c.-style fabric, a pink changeable silk taffeta, using only 18th c. techniques and tools.  Everything was cut and stitched by hand and by natural light, no cheating. Nothing was done by machine.

Here are the details: approximately 18 yards of silk, 27" wide, were used in the gown.  In the past, labor was cheap, and it would have been the fabric that would have been the primary cost of any clothing. In 1770, comparable silk in a fashionable London shop would have cost about five shillings a yard, but a Virginian lady could expect to pay about twice as much because of the expense of importation. On account of the delicate white trim applied along so many edgings, this gown took about 80 hours for the CW shop to produce, or about three work-days, with allowance for explanations to visitors.  Over the next two days of blogging, I'll post photographs showing the gown's construction and fitting, as well as the undergarments (stays, shift, and pocket-hoops) that were worn beneath it.

Above are the three CW mantua-makers working on the gown, spread on the table before them.  Left to right, Doris Warren works on the sleeves while Janea Whitacre stitches the petticoat, and in the window, apprentice Sarah Woodyard applies trim to the robings.  Many thanks to them all for so graciously putting up with our incessant NHG questions and camera flashes!

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