A stitch in time at the Weald and Downland Museum in Chichester

By Rosie Clarke | 16 July 2009
A picture of an old sewing machine

A classic Singer sewing machine (above) is one of the most popular members of the weekly Needlework Group at the Weald and Downland Museum

A chorus of laughter comes from a light-filled, airy room at the top of a converted barn, where around 25 women sit stitching and chatting.

Once a month, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum Needlework Group volunteers spend the day together sewing and creating painstakingly accurate clothing for the museum’s interpreters.

All of the Tudor outfits and many of the Victorian ones must be sewn by hand using authentic techniques, although a Singer sewing machine is used when historically appropriate.

A picture of a woman in period costume outside a brick house

The Museum, near Chichester in Sussex, provides an idyllic setting for the expert group

“Working with period techniques is very different - you can’t use modern approaches to solve problems,” says Head of Interpretation Hannah Tiplady.

“The volunteers may be fantastic seamstresses, knitters, or quiltmakers, but the way you approach the pieces has to be carefully supervised, as tailoring was very different then.

“They’ve been absolutely tremendous though – it’s been a real joy as they offer their skills and learn why and how to use older materials.”

Situated in picturesque surroundings on the outskirts of Chichester, the Museum’s unusual collection includes 44 buildings, dating from the 13th century to the present day, brought from around South East England and used as focal points to explain how their inhabitants would have lived.

A picture of a woman smiling as she works on an ancient coat

The group enjoy manipulating clothes from the 13th century to the present day

The Historic Clothing Project began in 2007, and deliberately provides working clothes rather than costumes. “We have a lot of resources about clothes made with beautiful fabrics worn by high-status people,” says Hannah.

“Those are the clothes that survive, because they weren’t worn to death. As you go down the social scale, clothes were worn ‘til they dropped to pieces, were torn up for rags, or were made into rugs or patchwork quilts.

“Working clothes are extremely rare but have much more to tell us,” adds period costume specialist Barbara Painter, explaining that stains, burns and pollution survive on the fabrics. “A servant’s print dress can tell us a lot about her role.”

Consultant social historian Ruth Goodman says the clothes are both “an easy conversation starter” and “central to us as human beings”. “They’re often talked about as if they’re frivolous, but clothes matter a lot to us,” she says.

A picture of women working with fabrics inside a barn

The project concentrates on often-overlooked working clothes, rather than the glamorous frocks more readily associated with the periods

“They’re very good for connecting with older women especially, who may remember blueing their nets and starching on laundry day but haven’t talked to anyone about it in 30 years.”

Hannah Tiplady deplores modern versions of period costume. “I get very depressed seeing someone in a period-style polyester frock and trainers at other museums,” she admits, having tested her Tudor working attire when cooking to find that smouldering cinders would simply brush off.

One lady dressed as a Victorian schoolmistress was delighted with her new handmade corset. “I feel much more Victorian, you’re definitely an 1895 woman,” she exclaims. “It has a bearing on how you walk when you have your ribcage restricted.”

A picture of a stitched line in a piece of white fabric

Skilful, intricate stitching skills allow the team to put their own spin on fabrics

Hannah reckons corsets are actually pretty practical. “They make you lift things properly, bending at the knees,” she claims. “When they’re made for you, they’re very supportive.” She likens Victorian working women’s clothes to today’s cheaper, high street versions of designer labels.

The needlework connoisseurs who work here have had their sartorial appreciation sharpened, and fascinating historical facts are casually mentioned – salmon-coloured linen fabric for Tudor breeches was dyed with madder, for example, which produces a strong red colour in hard water areas but pink or orange when used with soft water.

“How much sewing gets done depends on how much I’m talking,” admits Gill Wittick, a new member busily stitching together the lining for a pair of breeches. In those days she’d have been known as a slopsmaker, from the 17th century Dutch word, sluyps.

A picture of a woman holding up a piece of fabric she has sewn

The meeting forms both a craft masterclass and a social get-together

She shows me how to run a short piece of linen thread across a block of beeswax, stiffening it to avoid breakage. Within a few minutes of sewing linen my straight line of stitches has gone wonky, and my hand muscles are starting to ache.

After half an hour my seam was only 10cm long, but would my tiny stitches pass the test? I winced as Painter gave the fabric a ferocious yank – but it held together. Looking at the smiling faces around me, I felt delighted with my achievement, and a strange sense of connection to the skills of my grandmothers, both accomplished seamstresses who I envisioned beaming down at me with pride.

The video below shows an interview with Hannah Tiplady, along with volunteers discussing their work on the clothing project.

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