Monday, 18 March 2013

Peasants and Pioneers

This is a very late entry to the latest Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge; Peasants and Pioneers. It goes back to an idea I had last summer. I was working in the garden on a hot and sunny day, and feeling that the hat I was wearing was not really suitable for the job. It fell off every time I leaned down, and it wasn’t doing much to keep the sun off my neck and shoulders. I decided that what I really needed was a sunbonnet of the sort that Victorian women working outdoors used to wear, like this.

Bonnet 1850-1890 © Victorian and Albert Museum, London

Then it rained for the rest of the summer, and I thought no more about it.

Until the 1920s, when Coco Chanel popularised the idea that a suntan meant that you had just come back from a holiday somewhere hot and exotic, a tanned complexion was to be avoided. It showed that you were poor, and did manual labour, outdoors. Not that the thousands of women who did work outdoors just accepted their tanned lot. Their bonnets were designed to protect them from the worst of the sun, with large brims to protect the eyes and face, and a ‘skirt’ at the bottom to cover the back of the neck. There were numerous variations, but the basic idea remained the same.

"Canal Life" by Herbert Johnson, Illustrated London News 1874

When we were on holiday the other week we went to the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury. This is a wonderful place, centred on the magnificent fourteenth century Abbey Barn, which is one of only four surviving barns which belonged to Glastonbury Abbey.

The Abbey Barn

Browsing in the shop I came across a pattern for making a bonnet, based on an original which was worn in Glastonbury in 1870 by Mrs Sarah Cox, the wife of a stonemason. It struck me that this would be ideal for the “Peasants and Pioneers” challenge. Then when we got home I read the Dreamstress’ post on hand sewing, and decided that I would make the bonnet entirely by hand, and try to get to grips with using a thimble at the same time.

The pattern calls for plain fabric, so the original must have looked more like this than the V&A example above.

Victorian Sunbonnet © "Windows on Warwickshire"

The pattern gave a cutting layout, and instructions for how to make the bonnet up. The main headpiece is a large rectangle of fabric, across which creases are ironed at various intervals.

The headpiece with the creases marked

Lines of stitching below each of these creases form the frills and channels, which are then corded with string.

The headpiece with the channels sewn

I don’t know if string is historically accurate, or used in the instructions because it is easier to find than piping cord. Either way, it’s a good excuse to include a picture of my string box, which is also from Somerset.

So cute

The back of the bonnet has three vertical cording channels.

Headpiece, back and skirt with all the cording complete

The headpiece is pinned to the back at the centre and the ends, and the backmost string is then pulled up to gather the headpiece. Then the other strings are then pulled up to shape the bonnet. This is where I was glad I had stitched the cording channels with the running stitch/back stitch combination which the Dreamstress talked about; the fabric is so tightly gathered that a plain running stitch would have pulled apart.

The skirt and ties are rectangles with narrow hems. The bottom of the bonnet is gathered to fit the neck, and the skirt is gathered and attached to the bonnet. Finally the ties are attached inside.

Front view of the completed bonnet

So, was it a success? I can't fault the pattern itself. The instructions seemed a bit confusing when I first read through them, but once I was actually following them, they were perfectly clear.

Looking at the side view, I think that I should have pulled the cords at the back up a bit more - they are a bit baggy. From a purely practical point of view, I would have preferred a deeper brim. I have a little of the fabric left, so I might experiment with making an extra corded strip to attach underneath the front rows of cording. However it certainly looks the part.

Side view ...

... and back view

This is the first time I have made something entirely by hand since I was a student without access to a sewing machine. A friend of mine has an allotment, and says that growing even some of your own food really makes you aware of what life must have been like when, if your crops failed, there was no greengrocer or supermarket to go to instead. At a time when so much clothing in the UK seems to be ridiculously cheap and almost throwaway, sewing this bonnet has made me think more about the time when your clothing represented a considerable outlay of both money and time, and was to be preserved as long as possible.

The Small Print

The Challenge: Peasants and Pioneers

Fabric: 1 metre-ish remnant of putty-coloured cotton twill, from my stash

Pattern: Glastonbury Bonnet from Somerset Rural Life Museum

Year: 1870

Notions: Thread, string

How historically accurate is it? Apart from possibly the string, I think it’s fairly accurate

Hours to complete: Forgot to count, but hopefully I’m well on the way to the 24 hours of hand sewing which the Dreamstress reckons is the time needed to get used to using a thimble

First worn: Just now, to take photos. I am planning to try it out when gardening later in the year (perhaps I should mention that most of our garden isn’t overlooked!)

Total cost: I had the fabric, thread and string already, so 50 pence for the pattern.

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