This is a post I wrote back in 2017 on another blog site.
Crittersmock! And musings on historical compromise.
Ever since I learned about the early-17th C smock in the V&A with the (now faded) pink animals and flowers embroidered on it*, I’ve wanted to make one for myself. The snails are soooo cute! The designs seem to mostly come from the Scholehause School for the Needle, which I have a copy of, and I actually like to do hand embroidery.
But I was never able or willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen. Even if the embroidery technique used is simple, there’s a lot of it. I never thought I could commit the time to make it happen.
But now I have technology! I own machine embroidery (ME)-capable sewing machines! And low and behold, the designs used on the smock had been digitized for ME and were available for purchase!** I even had a deadline-excuse: as part of my 30-year-a-Laurel celebration I plan to have an Elizabethan Underwear Party.
Now, because I’m me and I’m a Laurel in the SCA for costuming, I found myself wondering about the “ethics” (for lack of a better term) of creating a copy/version of this extant historical garment using machine embroidery. I actually thought a lot about it. Since most of you who are reading this are in the SCA and/or also like to make historical clothing, I thought I’d share my conclusions and approach to making this smock:
1) First and foremost, if I wasn’t going to use ME I wouldn’t have made this smock at all. I just don’t have the bandwidth. Given all the other demands on my life I’ve got limited time for sewing. Add to that, I’ve got other sewing projects on my plate, including commitments to sew for other people. Having the option of doing all of the embroidery by machine kicked this project into the realm of Doable In My Lifetime. And once this project got labeled Doable in my brain I was able to get the time scheduled and gather the materials to make it a reality.
2) I accepted that this smock was going to be a work of compromise. My reasoning went as follows:
- I was going to copy the original smock as much as I could, but I was going to use my machine(s) when I thought it would not be obvious and would save the time necessary to keep the project Doable.
- I was going to be wearing this at SCA events. I was not ever going to wear this smock to work at a more “rigorous” historical re-creation event, such as Kentwell in the UK.
- Most of these SCA events would be camping, so the smock had to be made sturdily and be machine-washable.
Alright, how did this all play out?
- I copied the construction of the original smock to the extent my fabric allowed.
- All the seams are flat-felled like the original. The felled-seams are wider than the original, but they turned out to be something between under 1/2″ but more than 1/4″. To be specific, I folded on side up and the other side down and then interlocked the sides and stitched them down. I got a good look at the pics of the original and matched which side got folded up and down.
- All of the seam stitching from the top to below the waste is hand-done, including the sleeves, cuffs, and collar. I didn’t want any machine seam stitching visible when I was having a conversation with someone. I had been sick through most of this process, so sitting and hand stitching while binge-watching Netflix shows was the perfect thing to do. I used what I believe is called a slip stitch on the top side and something like a blind hem stitch when working on the inside.
- All the seam stitching below the waist/hip–including the hem–is machine done. I just didn’t have time to hand-sew all the seams, especially because of the way I had to assemble the side gussets. And, remember, there’s 2 lines of stitching for each seam because they’re flat-felled. But to minimize the visibility of the machine seams I used a very tiny zig-zag stitch. This works very well, folks–much less noticeable than a straight seam. I used this zig-zag for the hem as well because I knew that if I hand-hemmed it would be less sturdy (camping, remember?). I figured machine seams wouldn’t be seen from a distance, or when I was having a conversation, so it was an acceptable compromise to same time.
- On the original, the underarm gusset squares are sewn onto the side gusset, rather than the front and back rectangles. I copied this approach. The original’s side gusset is split to accept the underarm gusset (rather than there being a side seam that would create side front and back gusset). This makes sense to me from the standpoint of minimize the amount of hand sewing. In other words, for us in the modern world we find it easier to run a long side seam from the wrist, down the sleeve, then down to the hem, rather than set the point of an inset gusset. But when you’re hand-sewing that’s a lot of stitching, so faster just to set in the gusset.The way my fabric worked out, I had to piece my side gussets differently than the original. I had to use 3 triangles, top to bottom. The original had additional triangles only at the bottom to make up the full triangle of the gusset. See Patterns of Fashion 4 if you want a clearer picture of what I’m talking about.
- On the original, there is nothing indicating if or how the neck was closed at the center front. Since I want to be able to wear this smock with the neckband closed, I added buttonhole-stitched bars on the inside collar so that I could run a tape through for a tie. I didn’t want to use an eyelet because that was not used on the original. For the cuff closures I hand-sewed eyelets. My eyelets are farther in from the edge compared to the original, due to the fact that I didn’t check the original’s images first. (What can I say; it was late at night and I wanted to finish. You know the struggle, I’m sure. 😉 ).
Embroidery/ Decorative Stitching notes Notes:
- The original was done in a now-faded pink silk. I chose Floriani Polyester 40 wt ME thread, color PF1120, a nice, darker carnation-shade of pink. Polyester embroidery thread is very strong and color-fast. Floriani is shiny, and so has a nice sheen when used in these imitation-split-stitch designs. This is a good thread-choice for something that’s going to be thrown into a washing machine.
[Side note for those of you who have a ME capability: Polyester ME thread got a bad wrap because when things were starting out is was crappy. But the currently, brands like Floriani and Isacord are really good. And they are color fast, whereas Rayon ME thread is not.].
- The original smock decorated the main felled-seams with “X”s, worked in the same pink silk as the designs. These Xs had small spaces between them. I’m assuming that these stitches had both a decorative and a functional, seam-reenforcing reason for being. I wanted to include that decorative element but was not willing to stitch them by hand. I found that my Bernina 750 had a continuous X decorative stitch so I decided to use that. I think it looks good. The stitching is not perfect in places, but it looks plausibly hand-done. Again, I used the Floriani Poly PF1120 thread.
- I looked long and hard at all the pictures I could of the original. I figured out that, looking at the designs in columns, there was a repeating pattern of 4. These 4 alternated between flora and fauna. Rows alternated as well, so that flowers always had an animal/bug next to it, and vice-versa. The super-cute double snail with Lily design, however, counted as a flower.
- I used a 3-inch square grid to lay out my pattern. This was the best I could do to replicate the original, although I don’t think it’s exact. I had a good pic of the front half of one sleeve, so I was able to match that sequence. On the back half of the sleeve I just made it up per what I liked. I embroidered both sleeves exactly the same, so that the front halves of the right and left show different designs. For the chest sections, I wanted the double snails–my favorite design–to figure prominently, so I set that and sequenced the other designs around it. No attempt to copy the original, except to have the same number of rows.
- In order to get a good sense of what things would look like when I laid out the design, I stitched out all of the designs using a strong cut-away stabilizer. I used a basting box around each design, using my machine’s built in capability. Then I cut them out and used them as templates. This test also allowing me to test a couple of shades of pink before settling on the one I wanted. It’s surprising how different thread can look on the cone compared to stitched out. Usually it comes out lighter than you’d think.
- More grid notes: I used my gridded pattern paper to create a pattern for the sleeves and center front. at the center of each 3-in square I punched a hole. I also wrote the name of the design to be used in each square. I then used the grid to mark the centers on the linen. I am keeping these patterns just in case I ever decide to do this again (not likely in the foreseeable future).
- When hooping up, I was sure to align the vertical axis so I knew I could start each design on the marked center dots and know that they would be correctly on that axis. I am keeping these patterns just in case I ever decide to do this again (not likely in the foreseeable future).
- I decided that the most time-efficient way to stitch this out was just to use my 12 x 8 inch hoop, sit at my machine, and choose/stitch each design one at a time. Since each design stitched out pretty darn quickly, I decided that that approach would be quicker than me going into my digitizing software and laying out multiple designs to be stitched at a time. If you have a ME capability you probably know what I’m talking about. 🙂
- I did use my digitizing software to do one thing, though. The original stag design had an arrow in it. Hunting was big with those people, . Well, no animals are going to be harmed on anything I’m going to wear!*** It was pretty easy to take out that arrow in my software, so I did.
- Another change in the designs was that I increased the size of the dog and the stag. For whatever reason, those design as purchased were really small and didn’t look good next to the other designs. I used the Increase Size function in my machine to make these 2 designs bigger. I’m unclear as to how big those designs were in the original(s).****
- One of the designs that was on the original cuff was not available. So when I laid out the designs for the color and cuffs I just used what I liked.
- I found one photo of the back of the original. There is no embroidery on the back body; makes sense, really. So my smock has no embroidery on the back body piece as well. I won’t be using this as any sort of partlet in consequence. But like the original this smock is pretty wide and so is better suited as a stand-alone-under-a-loose-gown garment anyway.
- All the machine embroidery was done on my Baby Lock Ellisimo II Gold. The decorative and machine stitching was done on my Bernina 750 (which has a built-in dual feed, which was nice for the bia-on-straight-grain elements of the seams and their thickness.)
- I used a ton of wash-away stabilizer. 2 layers under the embroidery, and one-layer strips under all the decorative seams.
- The original smock has bobbin lace around the cuffs and collar and down the center-front neck slit. I had some simple machine-made, store-bought white bobbin lace in my stash that I thought was an acceptable match to the original, so I used it. Now, I know that it’s becoming popular to make your own lace in Elizabethan costuming circles, and I say More Power To Them. But that LOE fell victim to my Make It Doable Compromise-approach.
Overall, I’m very happy with how it turned out. In terms of time, I know it took a good solid 2 weeks to do all of the assembly, and that’s with Big Blocks Of Time available because I was too sick to leave the house. The Embroidery took several weekends, but there was a break between doing that and the assembly. I’ll have to go back to my notes to get a more realistic sense of the time. I know, however, that if I were to charge for all the time I put into this smock no one could afford to pay for it.
*Pictures of this are available in a variety of sources. See Patterns of Fashion 4 and Fashion in Detail- Seventeenth and 18th Century.
***OK, I’m not a vegan and I do wear leather. Don’t think too much about this, OK?
**** These dog and stag designs come from a different 17th C smock. But I liked them and wanted to use them. Deal with it America.