Sunday, 26 May 2013

Foundlings and fabric, a window onto the eighteenth century

Mr Tulip and I have spent a few days in London, visiting exhibitions (both of us) and buying otherwise hard-to-get sewing supplies (me). My mum visited on a day trip and came with us to one of our favourite museums; the Foundling Museum.

Situated not far from the British Museum, the museum is on the site of, and tells the story of, the Foundling Hospital; London’s first home for abandoned children.

A map of the area, probably late nineteenth or early twentieth century

The Foundling Hospital was established by a retired sea captain, Thomas Coram. The sight of deserted children dying in the streets of London prompted him to spend 17 years campaigning for a Hospital (which at that time meant a charitable establishment in general, not solely a place for treating illness) for the "Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children".

The Foundling Hospital was established by Royal Charter in 1739. The first children were accepted on 25th March 1741, into temporary premises in Hatton Garden. By then a 56-acre site to the north of the city had been purchased for a purpose-built home for the Hospital. At the time the land was fields, and the site was chosen to provide fresh air for the children, away from the pollution of London. This engraving of the completed Hospital clearly shows the countryside beyond.

The Foundling Hospital in 1750

In reality, the Hospital was a rather more plain and forbidding-looking building than the engraving might suggest.

Photograph of the Hospital circa 1900, © Peter Higginbotham

In order to encourage women to bring their babies to the hospital rather than abandon them, no questions were asked, and foundling babies were given new names on admission. However from the beginning the Hospital went to great pains to ensure that a mother could be reunited with her child, if in the future she found herself in a position to reclaim the baby she had given up. A detailed registration form was completed, which noted the clothing the child was wearing on admission, and mothers were encouraged to provide a token, to be used as an identifier. The Hospital would attach the token to the child’s record of admission, which was then folded up and sealed to protect the mother’s identity.

A selection of the tokens, © Coram

Many of the tokens were everyday objects such as coins, jewellery, buttons etc. However a number of them were fabric, either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the Hospital's nurses. Kept from light, stored with the exact date on which they were received, and scrupulously preserved by the Hospital authorities, these form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the eighteenth century.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the folded records were unsealed, and bound into ledgers. In 2010-2011 an exhibition, Threads of Feeling, displayed some of the 5,000 textile tokens in the museum’s collection. The online exhibition can be viewed on the Museum's website here.

A view of the exhibition, © Courtesy Foundling Museum

Four of the ledgers, © Courtesy Foundling Museum

A large proportion of the fabric tokens are patterned. As the purpose was to provide an identifier for the child this is not surprising; the parent would want to be sure that what they provided was distinctive.

"Flowered lawn", flowers printed on a fine linen lawn. Foundling 11868, admitted 4 March 1759. © Coram

The descriptions of the tokens show how spelling has changed over time.

"Flowered chince", chintz. Foundling 13789, admitted 27 August 1759. © Coram

Although many of the textile tokens are printed cotton or linen, there are some far more costly fabrics.

"Silk. Fringe", an expensive flowered dress silk of about 1750 with a matching fly braid. Foundling 2584, admitted 27 October 1756. © Coram

Not only fabric was left as a token; ribbons were a popular choice as well.

"A bunch of ribbons narrow - Yellow, Blue, Green & Pink", silk ribbons tied in a bunch with a knot. Foundling 170, admitted 9 December 1743. © Coram

Sometimes part of the child's clothing was used as a token, presumably when the mother had not provided anything.

"Sleeves red and white speckl'd linen turn'd up red spotted with white", a baby's sleeve made of linen with a cuff of linen or cotton. Foundling 235, admitted 23 May 1746. © Coram

Some of the tokens feature embroidery.

"Worckt with flowers", linen or cotton embroidered with flowers. Foundling 14084, admitted 3 October 1759. © Coram

Many of the tokens, whether fabric or not, feature hearts in some way.

"The Bit of Red Cloth Enclosed was pinned to the Childs Cap", heart cut from red woollen cloth, ribbon of blue paduasoy silk and a piece of linen diaper. Foundling 10563, admitted 22 November 1758. © Coram

Perhaps the saddest tokens are those which include the child's name. It was common knowledge that when a child was admitted to the Hospital he or she was baptised with a new name. Nonetheless some mothers included a token with the child's original name on it, possibly in the hope that the child would one day get to see the token. In fact, no child ever saw the token with which it had been admitted. This example, given the work and care which has clearly gone into it, is particularly heartbreaking.

Fine embroidery. The scale to the side is in centimetres. © Coram

Although sadly very few of the children were ever reclaimed, the system did work. When a parent petitioned the Hospital for the return of his or her child, they had to provide details of the token they had left. In a few cases, they even brought another part of the token with them, to prove their claim.

This token is part of a needlecase, which had been cut in half. It was the token of foundling 16516, admitted to the Hospital on 11 February 1767 and renamed Benjamin Twirl. On 10 June 1775 his mother Sarah Bender returned to the Hospital to reclaim him, presumably bringing with her the other half which she had kept for eight years.

Patchwork needlecase. © Coram

These tokens, and many more, are featured in the book which accompanied the exhibition. The book is still available, and can be purchased from the museum.

But what of the Hospital itself?

By 1926 the city of London had expanded well beyond the Foundling Hospital, and the decision was taken to move the Hospital out to the country and sell the original site. Changes in the approach to child care later in the twentieth century brought an emphasis on children being placed with families rather than in an institution, and in 1954 the Hospital, now called the Thomas Coram School, closed. Today the charity continues as Coram; supporting vulnerable children, young people and families.

When the original site was sold, the Hospital governors bought back the northern portion of the land. Today the headquarters of Coram, and the Foundling Museum, are based there. A further seven acres were bought by local residents, and turned into a park. Now known as Coram’s Fields, it is a rule of the park that no adult may enter unless accompanied by a child.

Coram's Fields today. The white building in the background is part of the original Hospital.

Saturday, 25 May 2013


The current Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Literature. I have been away from internet access for a week, so was only able to look at what had been posted today. I was looking forward to seeing what had been made for this challenge, but sadly there wasn't much take-up for it. However I like to think of it as quality, not quantity!

Mouse Borg took an Edgar Allan Poe story as her inspiration, and made the cravat which the hero uses to extricate himself from a tricky situation, while Quinn turned a rather uninviting and very 1980s evening dress into a much nicer 1925 beaded dress, inspired by The Great Gatsby.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Style 'N Fit

When I posted last year about my small collection of vintage patterns, I mentioned that I didn't have any from the 1970s, because I couldn't imagine ever wanting to make any clothing from that era. Well, it turns out that I may have to eat my words.

Of course, because I don't have any 1970s patterns, I couldn't illustrate my point about the awfulness of 1970s fashion from my collection, so I turned to the web to find an example. This fitted the bill perfectly.

The wood panelling! The ric-rac! The alarming fabrics!

Then a couple of weeks ago I was at a vintage fashion and textiles fair, and guess what I found on a stall? It was only a couple of pounds, and curiosity got the better of me. . . .

So, what did the "Style 'N Fit" pattern kit contain, and how could you, "make over 500 perfect fitting stylish patterns", from the contents of a slim A4 folder?

The kit is based on the principle of pattern grading. With modern multi-size patterns, most dressmakers are used to the idea that a pattern piece consists of a basic shape, enlarged in two or more directions by different amounts for different sizes.

Multi-size pattern piece

Dressmakers in the early twentieth century may also have been familiar with this idea. The book, The Edwardian Modiste, by Frances Grimble contains patterns from American periodicals from 1905 to 1909. These used the American System of Cutting, which was based on a proportional system of grading scales. However I suspect that in 1972, when the kit was published, the concept of pattern grading was unknown to most home dressmakers.

The kit consists of two large sheets of pattern drafting paper, an instruction book, and a fold-out sheet of printed card which contains a six-piece grading scale, French curves, and a template for drafting front and back armholes.

The grading scale

French curves and armhole guide

The first things to be done are the construction of the grading scale by taping the six pieces together, and recording your bust and hip measurements. These are the only measurements taken.

The instructions begin with two basic dress styles; an A-line dress and a dress with a fitted bodice and a slightly gathered skirt.

The first dress styles

Miniature pattern pieces (the front and back pieces of the first dress are only 8.5 cm/ 3.5" long) for both styles are printed on the next page. Each pattern piece has a focal point marked on it, and lines radiating out from the edge with a number beside each line.

Miniature patterns for the two dresses

The miniature pattern is attached to a piece of pattern drafting paper, and a drawing pin put through the grading scale at the correct point for the bust or hip measurement. The grading scale is then pinned to the focal point, and laid along each line in turn.

The miniature pattern positioned on the pattern paper

The point on the grading scale which corresponds to the number for that line is marked on the drafting paper with a dot.

How to use the grading scale

Once all the lines have been used, the drafting paper will have dots all around the miniature pattern. These are then joined together to make the full-sized pattern piece.

Because the pattern is only generated from measurements around the body, no allowance is made for height variations. This is done once the pattern piece has been drafted, but before it is cut out. Facing pieces are drafted from the cut out pattern pieces.

There then follow quite detailed instructions on how to manipulate darts, and quite sketchy instructions on how to calculate yardage.

After this come several pages of drawings showing some of the garments that can be made from the Style N Fit Designing System, and a number of pages of more miniature patterns.

More dress designs

There are seven more basic body shapes, plus 13 sleeves, 11 collars, patterns for tops, jackets, trousers and shorts, seven pockets, and accessories and belts.

Another dress, and separates

All the body patterns use the same armscye; there are no dolman or raglan sleeves. Similarly all the pockets are the patch variety; there are none set into seams or welt pockets. Nevertheless, I assume that by using every possible combination of the pattern pieces provided, it would be possible to design over 500 patterns.

Having read through all this, I'm intrigued about how well the system actually worked. The kit I bought is clearly unused, did the original owner find it too complicated to even try? Given the number of measurements which are required to draft a basic bodice block from scratch, I'm dubious that even with the miniature pattern pieces to start from; a pattern for a properly fitting dress could be drafted from just bust and hip measurements. There is only one way to find out: I can't quite believe that I'm even thinking about this, but I feel a new project coming on!

Sunday, 12 May 2013

More decisions

Now that I've finished outlining the flowers on the skirt panels, I've got to make a decision about the rest of the beading. The panels themselves are to be outlined with a row of beads. This is partly to finish them off visually, partly to add a bit more weight so that they hang well, and partly to provide cover for the hem around each panel.

Originally I was going to outline the panels with the same seed beads as I used for the flower 'stalks'. These are a darker gold colour and slightly larger than the beads I used to outline the flowers; size ten rather than size eleven. However now I'm a bit worried that they might overwhelm the beading on the flowers.

So, I laid a string of each set of beads around the motifs, following the line marked for the beading, and took some photographs. Do I prefer this, or this?

This, or this?

And this, or this?

It doesn't show too well in the photographs, but I'm wondering if the mid gold makes the whole thing look a bit too brassy. There again, possibly the light gold looks a bit too feeble.

To add a further level of decision-making/angsty-confusion, there are also the hip and neckline panels to be outlined. Laying a string of beads neatly onto these for effect was impossible, so I just arranged them loosely around the outline.

The hip panels

The mid gold seems to overwhelm the painted design a bit.

The neckline panel

In an attempt to add some context to the decision, I tried to lay the hip and neckline pieces over the actual dress.

Rough layout of the dress

I'm not sure that this helped much, as the heavy horizontal lines just called to mind this 1925 Paquin dress in the Victorian and Albert museum.

© Victorian and Albert Museum, London

So many permutations to consider! Still, there is no need to make a decision just yet. I've got a busy few weeks coming up, and I'll be away from home for some of that time. I won't be able to do much sewing, certainly not beading at my big embroidery frame. However I do have a couple of failed attempts at the original, smaller neckline motif going spare, and these fit into a small (and very portable) embroidery hoop. So I may do what I often do in this situation, and work a sample.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

How to bead a lotus flower

This fortnight’s Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Flora and Fauna, and as I have almost finished outlining the lotus flowers on the skirt panels with couched beading, it seems a good time to post about how I did it.

The beading is done with size 11 seed beads. For the fringing I strung the beads onto proper beading thread, but these beads are going to be couched down, and the thread is not required to take much weight or movement, so I used ordinary sewing thread in a gold colour similar to the beads. The couching thread is ivory, the same as the fabric.

The two panels I am currently working on are on a single piece of fabric. This was put into a roller frame and stretched taut. I didn't lace the sides because the fabric has a crossways stretch, and I didn't want to distort it.

The most fiddly part of the beading is starting and ending, so it is best to do as little of this as possible. I worked out that with a little doubling back it was possible to outline a motif with a single pre-strung length of beads. The diagram below shows the order of working the couching; apologies for the wobbly lines!

The length of the beaded thread needs to be at least as long as the total lengths of 1-15 in the diagram, plus a long tail at each end. The ivory thread is the same length as the gold thread.

Begin by taking one end of the gold thread through to the wrong side of the fabric, at the start of length one. Start a little way away from the green area, to leave room for the row of beads which will outline it. Knot the gold and ivory threads together with a long tail, and pull this back through to the right side of the fabric, away from the sewing line. As I’m working on satin, I pulled it though somewhere which would be covered by later beading, so that there were no marks on the fabric.

This photograph shows the wrong side of the motif, with the tails of gold and ivory thread pulled through to the right side at the top of the green, and the ivory thread ready to come through to the right side.

Pull the gold thread taut, and slide enough beads down it to fill the space up to the ivory thread. Make a tiny stitch across the gold thread and back down to the wrong side.

Continue to do this up the side of the first petal. I found that it was best not to pull the ivory thread tight, as this caused gaps in the beading. Because the beading is in a straight line, the couching stitches can be quite widely spaced, every four or five beads.

To bead round the point of the petal, stitch the beads down just before the point.

Then couch down a short length of thread only, without beads, to the point of the petal.

Then continue to couch beads down the other side of the petal. Push the beads up to the start of this line of beading, to form the point.

The aim is to have the beading running in as smooth lines as possible. Therefore the red petal should have an uninterrupted row of beads along each side. To do this, couch down thread only from the end of the turquoise petal to the base of the red one. This is line three on the beading diagram, and is marked with a dashed line. Because this is a straight line, it only needs a couple of stitches to couch down the thread. Again, do not couch right down to the green leaves, leave a little room for beading line fourteen.

It is best to check the wrong side of the work occasionally, to make sure that the ivory thread has not got knotted up. This is also a good time to sew in the long tail at the start of the beading. Do this with a couple of tiny stitches in the direction of the beading; they will be covered on the right side by the beads.

Make the point as before, and continue down the red petal to the base.

This time, the thread-only couching is done from the base of the red petal up to the start of the turquoise one. Slant the needle in to sew the thread as far under the beads as possible.

Couch around the turquoise petal, and then start around the green leaves.

Depending on the quality of the beads (and how careful you were when you strung them) you may find the occasional misshapen bead in the string.

I preferred to remove them, as I found it impossible to hide the extra bump. There are two ways of doing this. Ideally, unstring the remaining beads, remove the offender and restring the others. The alternative method is to slide the other beads away from the misshapen one, and crush it with something.I used a small pair of pliers.

WARNING! Be very, very careful if you do this. Ideally, wear a pair of safety goggles. At the very least, wrap a towel or cloth around the bead to contain the fragments. When the bead breaks, bits of it will go everywhere, and you don't want a shard of glass in your eye.

Continue beading around the outline of the flower, to the end of line ten. Then couch the thread around the base (line eleven). Because this line is curved, the distance between the couching stitches is much smaller than for the straight lines. Then couch the beads over the thread line. Because of the tightness of the curve, the couching stitches are every two beads. On the even tighter curve of the base of the small motif below, the beads are couched singly.

Once the couching around the blue base is complete, take a small stitch to secure the gold thread right at the end of line ten. The idea is for the beading to look continuous around the outline. Then continue around the green leaves, with the last ivory couching stitch being just before the end of line fifteen.

Pull enough beds close to the end of the couching to fill the gap (in this case, two). Then cut the gold thread, leaving a long tail. Thread this through a beading needle, and then pass the needle through the first couple of beads of line nine.

When pulled taut, this should not show any join.

Pull the gold thread through to the back of the fabric, and secure it and the ivory thread with a couple of tiny stitches.

You now have a completed lotus flower.