Often, antique textiles are too delicate, or too rare, to actually wear or use, particularly those dating to before the twentieth century. (See Handling Antique Textiles for more information.) But it is possible to create close reproductions of original pieces without damaging them, and those reproductions, made with new materials imitating old materials, can then be worn or used safely. Additionally, reproducing historical textiles can broaden an understanding of the original piece, and lead to thinking about its function and construction in ways potentially similar to the original owner or maker, which can be illuminating for study. Reproduction textiles can be used for display, living history programs, historical reenactments, home use, and even sold in gift shops or offered as items of construction in workshops. Books on reproducing historical textiles are increasingly popular, and books which include high quality museum pieces with schematic drawings and construction information are well received. Complex garments and items may require a high degree of expertise to take patterns off, but simpler items can be managed with more limited expertise.

For example, many textile collections include 19th century caps, which were often made of plain-woven, fine linen or cotton. Some of these are relatively simple in construction, and may be measured and diagrammed without great difficulty. 19th century caps were often decorated with whitework embroidery or lace, and were also made in other materials such as netting, though some of the more complex and delicate caps may be far more challenging to diagram. Many examples of caps can be found at the website of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, such as this elaborate whitework cap, circa 1830, this dotted whitework cap, circa 1814, and this ornate lace and ribbon cap, circa 1855. The MFA has relatively reliable dating for items on its online catalog, but beware that some sites may have guesses or incorrect information. Cap styles, especially for more utilitarian types, did not always change quickly, and styles were somewhat regionally bound, so it can be difficult to accurately date caps. As with other extant costume items, it can help to compare an antique cap in your collection to caps in other collections, caps in fashion plate illustrations, caps in photographs (post 1839), caps in illustrations, caps in painted portraits, and caps as described in books, letters, and diaries. Also, there are reliable secondary sources available on historical costume which can help to date particular items, such as those listed on my Books on Historic Costume page. Some styles changed faster than others; for instance, it is easier to reliably date a gown than a cap, generally.

I will use a 19th century whitework cotton or linen cap as my example of how to measure and diagram an extant textile, because many collections include similar items, it is a relatively simple item but it is shaped, and the materials for reproduction are not impossible or outrageously expensive to obtain. After explaining the process of diagramming an extant cap, I will explain a bit more about the process of taking patterns off of extant garments, and include links to another, far more elaborate, example of the process.

This cap is one that I was able to handle (wearing cotton archival gloves!) in a museum collection. I chose to reproduce it because it is a fairly representative style and shape for the early to mid 19th century, it is similar to caps diagrammed in The Workwoman’s Guide, which will help me to reproduce it accurately, and I wanted a design with whitework, but not too elaborate a pattern. It is made of a fine, smooth, semi-sheer white cotton or linen, the main body of the cap embroidered with whitework dots made with buttonhole stitch, much like eyelets would be, but these are uncut. The dots are laid out essentially like polka dots, on a shifted grid, which unfortunately did not photograph well. The dots are roughly the size of a large glass pinhead, and are spaced 5/8″ apart running along the imaginary grid-lines (rather than the diagonals). The cap is finished with two double-fullness ruffles along the face edge, one double-fullness ruffle along the neck edge, and two long ties, all of which are made of the same fabric, but without any dots. This is the cap:

I also took close-up photographs and notes. But most importantly, I drew a roughly-to-scale sketch of the cap and noted on it the cap’s dimension’s, fabric grain-lines, and other details. A friend wearing gloves took the measurements while I sketched, without gloves on. It wouldn’t be very helpful to get graphite on archival gloves!

The cap was entirely hand-sewn, with beautifully fine stitching and a very interesting binding enclosing the gathered back section of the main body of the cap, as you can see here:

After documenting the cap, I determined which design in The Workwoman’s Guide, an 1838 publication, it most resembled, in order to help to reproduce the shape of the garment. Here are the images for Plate 15, figures 25 and 26, with the accompanying text from page 128.

This cap design is not identical to the extant cap that I examined, but it has enough similarities to give me a sense of the cap’s probable role in the world of fashion and clothing, and assistance in determining how the pattern pieces for my cap might be shaped.

Next, I used the fussy but functional technology of OpenOffice Draw (the poor man’s Microsoft Paint) to trace in the dimension-lines, fabric grain-lines, and other details from my schematic sketch, directly onto a photograph of the cap. There are more artistic ways of going about this, but for this project, and for the purposes of this demonstration, hopefully my approach will suffice:

Most of what a sewist needs to know in order to reproduce this cap is right there, in wobbly lines and primary colors. But if one looks closely – particularly if one has had the opportunity to spend half an hour staring directly at this garment and turning it this way and that – it becomes apparent that the pattern for this cap is somewhat more complicated than that of the similar design in The Workwoman’s Guide. The grain-lines of the material are especially easy to track, because the layout of the whitework embroidered dots follows the grain of the fabric precisely. Therefore, if you compare the cutting layout of the cap in The Workwoman’s Guide to this cap, it is clear that they are patterned differently, as this cap does not run on grain. The front edge is curved, and the cross-grain of the fabric droops downward toward the back of the head. Also, the chin section comes down to a point.

Therefore, taking these differences into account, I subjected the cap pattern from The Workwoman’s Guide to the same inglorious OpenOffice Draw treatment, this time sketching in cyan lines roughly where I thought the pattern adjustments needed to be made:

This is a somewhat rough approach, but if I start with these two schematic drawings that I have so colorfully created, and work with the measurements I took of the extant cap, I ought to be able to draft a working pattern, which I will then cut out in a similar, lightweight cotton fabric and baste together for a test fit, checking for functionality and fit to my own head (because I am looking to make a usable reproduction rather than an exact display copy) as well as shape. Once a satisfactorily accurate pattern has been obtained through trial and error, the pattern itself will be fully notated and finalized, and the actual cap will be cut. I will then mark and embroider the buttonhole-stitched circles before I construct the cap. I will stitch it entirely by hand, as much as possible like the original, including the yards of tiny rolled hems along the ruffles and ties. Reproduction of this type of item often involves a great deal of hand-sewing, which fortunately I enjoy.

***

There are a variety of approaches to taking patterns off of extant garments, all of which involve patience and precision. Frances Grimble’s book After a Fashion: How to Reproduce, Restore, and Wear Vintage Styles (available through the publisher and on Amazon) offers a bit of information taking patterns off of extant garments, primarily on relining, on pages 233-236 and 243. Some other textile conservation and vintage clothing related books offer more detailed information, including Naomi Tarrant’s Collecting Costume: The Care and Display of Clothes and Accessories (available on Amazon), which discussed taking patterns off extant garments on pages 76-81.

To see the garment-copying process from start to finish, visit Katherine’s Dress Site and look at everything she has done with the extant corset in her collection, circa 1820-1840. First, there is the original corset, more photos and information on the corset, the corset’s inside with construction details, the precise pattern along with detailed construction information, a side-by-side photo comparison on a dress form of the reproduction corset along with the original, and the reproduction being worn by the costumer. Depending on perspective, Katherine’s work is either intimidating or inspirational, but it certainly demonstrates how much can be learned from an intact extant textile, and how that knowledge can be applied to creating a functional reproduction garment.

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