A Counter Blast to Machine Sewing – Comments by a 16th Century Tailor

This article was originally written by Mark on behalf of The Tudor Group for the magazine Echoes Of The Past. It was in response to comments about the impracticality of attempting to accurately reproduce period clothing in re-enactment and the preference for machine sewing by some re-enactors. It is reproduced here by kind permission of Mark Goodman and Echoes Of The Past.

In re-enactment compromises are inevitable. We choose to prioritise them by many criteria, conscious or otherwise and I think it is fair to say that for many attempting absolute accuracy on clothing takes a low priority. One obvious factor for this is often that absolute accuracy cannot be achieved, access to the cloth or the detailed evidence is difficult or sometimes no longer possible. However, I would argue that such criteria is in many cases a red herring as it also applies to most other aspects of re-creation.

10 years ago while rummaging through remnants at a cloth warehouse, I found some material that was labelled pure linen, this unbeknown to me was to spark my interest in reproducing period clothing. I was at that time an English Civil War re-enactor, though for the few years previously I had become interested in domestic living history. I was still reliant on the traders to supply my clothing and I thought it was accurate.

I remember my first shirt with fondness, a tea-stained calico shirt and I think it would be fair to say that at that time there was very little linen in re-enactment.

The fortuitous find of a sizeable quantity of linen fired my imagination into a project to make my own garments. I was unaware of any information easily available in re-enactment circles and that dictated that I start looking myself. The first book I found was Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold and this ‘bible’ acted as my muse. I quickly realised that all the garments I owned barely resembled the surviving evidence. I looked further: paintings, woodcuts, other studies of garments and written tracts – all indicated that what I already wore was too much of a compromise, so I set about making my own. I was already on the road to recreating a period tailor.

I did not realise at that time the reaction I would receive from many re-enactors, ‘cotton is better than linen’; ‘why hand-sew – you cannot see it’; ‘the cloth is wrong – why bother’; ‘it does not look good at the banquet’. I was not discouraged by such and after 65 hours of sewing I had my first suit; modelled on a combination of surviving garments and pictorial evidence.

Now back to the present, as re-enactment matures and more strive towards improvement; then clothing is becoming an integral part of re-enactment. More and more re-enactors are seeing that the modern concepts of perfection play little part in interpretations.

The knee-jerk reaction that because we should not all be filthy we must be clean and our clothing in good condition is losing its strangle-hold. If we wish to look ‘appropriate’ we should look after clothing in the period way. This is determined by the social position we are portraying, and a worn silk doublet worn by a lower artisan may well be just as appropriate as a woollen coat.

However there is little point in being pedantic about wearing naturally distressed clothing if that clothing itself is not a reasonable representation of the originals. Cut, construction colour and fabric all take a significant part in the correct interpretation of such clothing.

The tailoring practices of the period mean that narrow cloth encouraged ‘piecing’ fabric; which generates additional seams and was relatively commonplace. It is true that much modern cloth does not match the period widths and that may encourage a cutter to take the easy option. This has the additional downside of discouraging economy of cloth.

However it is not difficult to emulate the width limitations, where they exist, in period cloths. Modern 56 inch wide silk can be cut in half prior to marking and cutting to imitate 28 inch wide Spanish silk. Wools are not so much of a problem as modern widths often equate to specific period widths. 48 inch width for linens can be obtained by cutting a waste strip from 56 inch cloth.

It is true that many re-enactors dislike imperfect cutting, despite the compromises they are making. However, more re-enactors are willing to have such garments; even when the material is £50/metre; in fact when they know about it, that often becomes a part of their talk to the public.

As to hand-stitching, obviously a potential target when reducing compromises. This aspect can be daunting to many, but infact the construction methods of the period make the task easier than often imagined. The difficult part is actually cutting garments that fit. However again if the expectation of perfection is avoided then a slightly ill-fitting garment can often be more appropriate; similarly if the interpreter has knowledge of the life cycle of clothing in the period then it can be incorporated into their presentations.

The notion that stitching is invisible in period garments misses the fact that much of the construction, including for the most part hemming, is not achievable with a sewing machine. The lay of seams and hang of cloth is significantly different, which in my experience is frequently commented upon by the public. I do not know of one surviving garment which has no visible stitching and many of such garments have stretched or puckered seams, which expose the joining stitches underneath. The sign of no locking stitches, uneven tension or simply loose stitching , it is not inconceivable that many more of the lower quality garments that do not survive would suffer such problems. This cannot be reproduced by a sewing machine.

There are few groups who impose a hand-stitched only policy. However, it is noticeable in such groups that rather than heaping the workload on unwilling women; it is often true that the men take a significant role in the production of clothing. One such group that I am a member of has as many if not more male tailors and sempsters than female. Many of such tailors are capable of making exquisitely fine as well as basic garments. The making of clothing can be an interesting and enjoyable activity in its own right. Moreover when given an integral role within an event it can become a significant asset. It should be seen as nothing unusual as if it is, the damage is already done.

Those who think that such correctly made and worn clothing is uncomfortable or restricting need only look at the actors at The Globe. The confidence that interpreters gain by knowing that the compromises have been reduced to the minimum cannot be underestimated. Even with professional actors, it is noticeable when they know they are in good reproductions of period clothing.

To say the materials cannot be obtained is only true if you caveat it with the cost. Hand-cut Italian silk velvet can be had, but for £100s/yard. Good reproductions of woollen fabrics can be obtained for as little as £30/yard and even hand-woven linen can be obtained. Cloth dyed in a period commercial fashion is also available though again the cost of such dying can be high. So the issue is the price balanced against the compromise.

Yes it is impossible to create completely accurate period clothing. But that is the same of the majority of reproduction. Is that no reason to try ?. If it is then why bother to improve at all ?.

It is true that the mass market of re-enactment may not be able to support too many traders who make small amounts of high quality clothing. Yet it is true that the market can and does support a small, but growing number of such traders. Yes, there is a great diversity in re-enactment, of aims , objectives and standards. Increasingly, however re-enactors are looking critically at themselves and to ignore other than mass-market machine-sewn garments is to short-change re-enactment.

Written by Mark, Copyright © 2000 Mark Goodman/Echoes Of The Past