The Waistcoat of Bath’s Tale

Hallo.  I write as Elinor of Kentdale, and I am a textile craft addict.

For the medium term future, this blog is mainly going to be about the creation of an embroidered waistcoat, though I don’t think I shall be able to write without mentioning other craft projects as well.  The story of this waistcoat actually began just before Christmas 2010, although I didn’t realise it at the time, when I had the immense good fortune to win a prize draw on a LiveJournal community.  The prize was outstanding: free subscriptions for a year to two sister needlecraft sites (Your Wardrobe Unlock’d and Foundations Revealed, which are linked in the “Online Resources” section to your right), plus a trip to Bath to visit the Fashion Museum and – best of all – have an “up close and personal” look at some of the beautiful historic clothes at their study tables.  The Fashion Museum is linked here under “Original Inspirations”, so if you can’t get there you can at least browse their site.

The visit happened on Thursday 3 March.  I saw a lot of gorgeous things in the museum, and I will show you some of them when I work out how to post photos, but two of them in particular struck a chord, and they were both waistcoats.  One of them was Victorian; if you get the chance to visit the museum, it’s in the history of fashion display room at the moment, about three quarters of the way round.  It’s dark blue, with a very striking feathery paisley sort of design, and the moment I saw it I thought of a good friend who is a baroque singer.  I could instantly imagine him walking on stage in that.  The other waistcoat was upstairs on the study tables, and that was 17th-century.  It didn’t specifically remind me of anyone, but it was a work of art – beautifully detailed polychrome embroidery and goldwork on linen, with the metal spangles that were so often used at the time.  You can see some examples of this kind of embroidery in the “Online Resources” section; enjoy looking through the collection of 17th-century coifs, and see the Faith Jacket for a superb, historically accurate modern reproduction.

I returned home from Bath the following day, and spent the rest of the weekend processing the photographs I had taken (they were all taken without flash, so they needed a lot of brightening and contrast enhancement) and squeeing over all the amazing details.  Somewhere over the course of that weekend, the two waistcoat ideas somehow collided in my brain, and by about the middle of the week they had crystallised into a single solid idea.  What I wanted to do was to make a waistcoat that was similar in colours and design to the Victorian one, suitable both as an exhibition piece and to be worn by my friend the singer, but using techniques like those used in the 17th-century one and taking some stylistic influence from that piece as well.

If it hadn’t been such an immensely clear idea, I might have balked, because I’ve only ever done one actual historically accurate project, and that was quite small (it’s an embroidered pouch in the style of the 12th century, and it’s still in progress).  The challenge of blending two completely distinct historical eras into a harmonious unity is quite a big one.  Nonetheless, I knew I wanted to do it.  It just somehow felt right.

This, then, is what I have done so far:

1. Selected and ordered the pattern I’m going to use, which is Vogue 8048.
2. Ordered some free samples of fabrics from my favourite fabric site, which is linked under “Suppliers”.  MyFabrics have a huge selection of good quality fabrics, often at very reasonable prices, and you can order up to 5 free samples from them per month.
3. Identified the 17th-century embroidery stitch I didn’t already know (brick stitch) and found out how to do it online.
4. Found and saved several 17th-century embroidery images as reference.
5. Considered the problem of spangles.  In the 17th century, spangles – metal sequins, often made of silver – were used routinely.  I’m not even sure one can still get metal sequins, but if one can, they are likely to be too expensive for this project.  I immediately rejected modern sequins as they have the wrong feel; they are too “plastic” in appearance.  Seed beads, however, are made of glass, so won’t look out of place, and they have the subtle glint that I want without looking too flashy.  I’m therefore going to be using these instead.
6. Done a lot of thinking about whether and how I want to use some of my other crafts.  I make a lot of lucet cord, which could be couched onto the fabric as part of the design or used as an edge trim, and I also do tablet weaving, which I think has potential to be used for the strap at the back of the waistcoat that adjusts the fit at the waist.  I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about either of these things, but I think I will be able to decide better once the fabric samples arrive.

I should say about the fabric samples that I’m going for a considerably lighter blue than the original Victorian waistcoat, for several reasons.  The main one is sheer practicality.  Lighter fabric can be marked for embroidery with a propelling pencil – not something I’d do for ordinary sewing, but if you’re embroidering, you know you’re going to cover the marks, and a propelling pencil is very accurate.  If you’re using dark fabric, though, you tend to be limited to tailor’s chalk, and it’s very difficult to keep that sharp enough to get a fine enough line.  There are other reasons as well, of course; it’s also a nod to the 17th-century part of the inspiration (generally speaking, they used to prefer to work on lighter fabrics, possibly for exactly the same reason that I do).  The back of the waistcoat will not be embroidered.  For that I’m trying to get a lining fabric in a similar shade to the front.  The interior lining is likely to be gold, since there will be gold in the embroidery, and anyway I like contrast linings in waistcoats.  Then there’s interfacing.  I will say here and now that I do a great deal of dressmaking and I have completely given up on commercial non-woven interfacing.  I find I get much better results using muslin for light fabrics and unbleached calico for heavier ones.  This waistcoat will be interfaced with organic cotton muslin, but I’m not planning to buy that until I actually start making it up, and that won’t be for quite a while.

At some point over the next week or so, I intend to make at least a start at designing the pattern.  I have never done a surface repeat pattern before (as opposed to a border repeat pattern, which is a doddle by comparison), so it will be interesting.  I should perhaps also say that I may have neat fingers, but when it comes to actually drawing anything I have slightly less artistic talent than my cats, so I’m going to be relying very heavily on squared paper.  I like squared paper.  It’s a wonderful substitute for being able to draw. 🙂

Watch this space!


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