Sunday, July 2, 2017

Don't Call Them 'Blue Jeans' Part II: My New 'Denim Overalls'

This is a follow-up to my last post where I talked about evidence and examples of indigo dyed work pants in the 19th century.

I set out to make the most common sort of pair of denim work pants of the 1880s into the 90s as I could figure. A lot of fabric sold as "denim" these days is too light weight or not the right weave at all. I was able to locate a bit of denim that was, indeed, a heavy cotton drill and a good dark indigo dye.

I've found Past Patterns #014 to be a good base for mid to light 19th Century trousers. I cross referenced with the table on page 86 of Jason MacLochlainn's The Victorian Tailor of common trouser knee and cuff dimensions in the late 19th Century. I copied the back belt from a pair of extant jodhpurs in my collection.





Amy helped me out pinning the break in the front in back. Incorporated a number of tricks of late 19th Century trouser making I have learned over the years with well reinforced seems. They have proven excellent work pants. Been wearing them quite a bit day to day.




Yours & c.,

The Victorian Man

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Don't Call Them 'Blue Jeans'; Denim, Jean, Indigo, and Otherwise Blue Trousers That Weren't Levi's in the 19th Century

This post will discuss my research into indigo dyed work pants in the 19th century. In a later post I will talk about how I created my own reproduction of these commonplace trousers.

Please note: this is meant to be a general, digestible summary; an exhaustive report could be a book unto itself.

The iconic "blue jeans" that somehow endure but are also constantly new have such a strong association with the present that I find a lot of reenactors and living history people downright phobic about implementing trouser fabric that even vaguely resembles what is currently known as "blue jean." Not helped, surely by the horror stories most have us have heard and witnessed of some folks blatantly or mistakenly subtly utilizing modern blue jeans in pre-1960s contexts.

For a corroborating perspective/further reading, Ms. Downey has an excellent piece here geared toward history and myth busting regarding Levis here:

A wide a range of shades of blue have been utilized in blue jeans and referred to as "denim," including cotton weights and weaves, which do not resemble at all the heavy cotton drill to which the name was originally applied. The result being that nearly any blue dyed cotton fabric made into trousers makes many reenactors cringe at the inevitability of some ignoramus (fancying himself a clever fellow) inquiring about their "blue jeans."

But work trousers, cotton and otherwise, of such a color and even texture were not an innovation of Levi Strauss at all. The only distinguishing feature of his pants at the time actually seems to have been the rivets. Modern Levis, however, do not resemble denim/jean/indigo trousers of the 19th Century. Even in their classic/early cut versions, the waist line is noticeably low as far as the 19th Century is concerned. Likely because it would seem too foreign to modern customers.

Jean, itself, is a modern misnomer for the fabric of blue jeans. In the 19th Century, "jean" referred to a blended weave of wool and either cotton or linen (linen being either flax or hemp). If the cotton or linen was left natural, with the wool being dyed blue, it can resemble the modern concept of denim or "jean" from a few feet away. This is a legitimate choice for trousers and other garments even early in the 19th Century, when such goods were domestically produced rather than imported (making it frugal for them; modern recreations have often swung the other way price wise). Examples include these breeches belonging to Isaac Shelby, Kentucky's first governor, at the Kentucky Historical Society (ca. 1815):


And this frock coat at Western Kentucky University, accession # 1930.19.3, ca. 1850-60:


And here are some examples of actual mid 19th Century trousers made of blue cotton that to modern eyes might be thought of as denim (though not necessarily qualifying for the technical term).

First, some well known ca. 1840s trousers from the Museum at FIT (thanks to the Two Nerdy History Girls for providing an accessible report):


And second, some details of a fly front pair in a private collection. They are mostly faded to nearly white but some less exposed areas reveal that the original color was blue. Date is difficult to determine. They are very plain and entirely hand stitched. My impression is no earlier than the 1850s and absolutely no later than the 1880s:





A survey of 19th Century art work reveals frequent occurrences of such trousers (specific textile, of course, being impossible to determine). Just a few examples:


Leisure Hours by William Sydney Mount, 1834



James Goodwyn Clooney, Mexican News, 1847


James Goodwyn Clooney, 1847


Rail Shooting by Thomas Eakins, 1876

Even more than two decades after Levi's famous patent, such clothing, in denim, specifically, was still just commonplace work wear. Page 178 of the 1897 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog advertises several "denim overalls" corresponding to images that are what would now be thought of as trousers with "apron overalls" (more like the modern concept of the form of overalls) being a separate product. None of the items were produced by Levi Strauss Co.

NONE of this is intended as a slight to the Levi Strauss products; just as a clarification on their context in the broader 19th Century world.

Yours & c.,

The Victorian Man

Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to to Give Your Collars a Good, Heavy Starching

I spent a long time trying figure out how to break my spray starch habit and give my detachable Victorian shirt collars a good, heavy starch that would keep them crisp and shapely (and not yellow) all day. I by no means mean to say that this is the only or best method- if you already have a process that works for you then by all means stick to it- but hopefully this will help someone make the leap to well starched collars.

The Collars- 

It starts with what you make your collar out of. I have found plain weave linen, a little heavier than you might ordinarily make a shirt out of, to take the starch best. This is a good economical solution, 5.3 oz from Fabric-Store.com. 

An example of one of my own attempts to deviate from this- I made several collars out of cotton twill, thinking I had really stumbled onto something, but when I tried to starch them, they just turned into a limp, powdery mess.

The examples I'm going to use here are collars I made for the early Victorian period (and as far back as the 1820s) that button in the center front, tie in the back, and stand straight up (actually, they kind of gradually mold to your contours as you wear them).

First- they must be CLEAN. At this point they will be a wrinkly, limp mess, not resembling the end result at all.


Giving credit where credit is due, this fellow's video gave me the foundation of my method:


My Starching Method- 

For up to three collars and maybe more- take a smaller sized mason jar and thoroughly mix 1/4 cup of starch (can be just plain off brand corn starch) and 1/4 cup of cold tap water. Then add 1/2 cup of boiling water and mix thoroughly.



Then add the collars and screw the cap on tight.



Get them all thoroughly saturated. For the next hour or more, turn the jar upside down and then back again a bit later repeatedly to keep the starch mixture flowing (and soaking in) evenly through the collars. Then, remove them from the jar, ring them out, and use your fingers to slough off excess water and starch. Hang them up and let them dry until damp. Do NOT let them completely dry.



Now it's time to press them. For a modern iron, be sure there is no water in the reservoir and heat it to the "linen" setting. Also, cover the portion of your ironing board that you will be using in a piece of scrap natural linen or cotton (don't use synthetic- it will melt).

Slowly, firmly, and evenly, run the iron over the collar, working it into a smooth firm surface as the starch dries under the heat of the iron.






They will be stiff as a board, which is exactly what you want! A very tall collar like this may be a bit uncomfortable at first but will gradually shape itself to you and will be fine to wear all day.

If you are making a collar for a later impression that requires heavy starch but folds over:

Follow the pressing procedure in two parts (with your protective cloth) over a tailor's ham, working it into a curved shape as you go.



Do the neck band first, then place a piece of natural cloth over the neck band, fold the upper portion of the collar down into position, and repeat the pressing process on it (with the piece of cloth between the neck band and upper portion; again- working it into a curved shape over the tailor's ham). 

Remove the piece of cloth between the neck band and fold over.




Photo by Naomi Faith Hammond Wilson


I hope this helps! There's nothing like starting the day by affixing a clean, crisp starched collar to your shirt.

Yours & c.,

The Victorian Man