Hand sewing - What It All Means. 8/26/03
Someone asked me, in essence, why do I bother with hand-sewing my historical clothing. He opined that people only seem to notice the flashy shiny stuff, not the really period details, so what's the point?
The short answer is that I know it's right. The long answer is a bit rambly, but here goes:
First of all, people don't just notice the flashy stuff, but it catches the eye immediately, so it's more likely to elicit a remark. But there's stuff going on here that isn't as obvious to the casual observer. Some say that people like "flashy" rather than "period". Not quite. There are an awful lot of people out there who think flashy *can't* be period, even though there are lots of paintings to refute this - the problem starts when people use the wrong kind of flash to decorate their clothes. Because there are people out there running around in frankly quite terrible outfits, there has developed a kind of reverse snobbery that says "period" is only period if it's dull and drab.
Case in point: For a couple of friends' coronation, I made them these beautiful satin Elizabethan outfits. The only thing not period about them was the blue colour I used, because I wanted them in Atlantian colours. Everything else was textbook Elizabethan, to the stained fleur-de-lys band on her dress to the white satin of his doublet. But because they were eye-catching, some people sneered and said that the outfits couldn't be period. In this case, flashy WAS period (after all, they were a King and Queen), but because of the existing hostility towards "flashy", people couldn't recognize period (and people don't bother to research properly - so they make pronouncements about what's period and what isn't, and make themselves look petty AND ill-informed at the same time). Flashy and period are not mutually exclusive, but you'll have a hard time convincing some rather close-minded people of that. And the people that do flashy without doing their research make it even harder. But it's not really my problem - I know it's right, so y'all will have to trust me. :P
But I digress.
Why do we bother with all the handwork when machines can do a passable job for us? Because that's what they did in period. While the difference between machine and hand work may not be visible from ten paces, you know it's there.
Never underestimate the boost wearing correct clothing can give your perception of "period". The feel, the look, the drape, the effect. It makes you stand straighter, move differently, respond to your surroundings in a more period way.
Yes, it's all in your head. That's where the re-creation starts. We can dress up in period clothes, eat and drink period foods, and sit in period furniture, but if we stick to our modern mindset, the illusion does not work. I've been doing this a long time - as B.B. King says, "The Thrill is Gone". I cannot simply go to an event and feel like I'm in another time - the modern intrusions, the modern conversations are all too present for me most of the time.
When I make an outfit by hand, I put myself in the place of an Elizabethan. I get a better understanding of how long it takes to make a new outfit (not as long as you'd think, at least, most of the time), and the feel of a garment taking shape under my hands affects everything I do with and in it from there on. I treasure the embroidered pieces I make, because they took a long time to create (a coif takes anywhere from six months to a year, and the larger pieces can take hundreds of hours). I mend and darn my clothes rather than discarding them for new outfits because I appreciate the value of a carefully made article of clothing. I don't have a new outfit for every event because making it right costs money and time, two considerations that also affected people in my chosen period.
Doing it by hand makes it feel right, and cutting corners means selling my dream short, I guess.
NOTE: Your mileage may vary - for a lot of people, the beautiful designs made by an embroidery machine enhance their perception of period.
But it's not for me. I'm old-fashioned, and getting more so. Yes, I have clothes that aren't quite right, and you may justly hit me over the head for my handwork snobbery, but I really get so much more out of the game by doing things this way. I like the way handwork looks; I like the way it feels when I run my fingers over it.
I like knowing it's unique, and I feel a real sense of accomplishment over my creations, from the simple couched pincushion I just finished, to the elaborate hand-appliqued doublet I made for Bob, to the fact that I finally got the couched sleeves finished on my green wool coat (and all 126 hand-made buttons). In the details, I find purpose.
And that's why it's worth doing it by hand.