Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Give 'Em Enough Rope

Last post of the year. Hoping for more next year. Slightly taller than the originals, the boots now need stretching and finishing. These things are crying out for some pantaloons or stretch pants. Very happy with the finished product. Somehow there are now twice as many Federal Era shoes as 18th century.

Where the boots were simple, the bearskin has spawned a cottage industry. The old Royal regiments were allowed to have their badge embroidered on the cap's wool top. The 7th's device includes a crown, rose, and the Order of the Garter's motto. A delightful woman is willing to take this on. There is plenty left to do.

The cut hide is nearly perfect, with a small hair club for bears problem on the back. As with the period items, the bald spot is patched and the top sewn together into a point. The small triangular patch of soft leather reduces hair bulk behind the frontlet plate. It's also damn comfy.

The seam allowances are all tiny (1/8") with hair trimmed out.  The cap is slightly large to allow for all the metal and lining to come.

As if all that isn't enough, the cap is finished with knotted wool cord arranged in an elaborate pattern with two tassels. Wool cord is hard to find in the correct thickness. Fortunately, machines to make cord are cheap and fun to use. At left is a test batch of 24 strands of lace weight. It came damn close to the 3/16" cord required.

Kitty promised to help make three or four yards of this in January, channelling all those old New England rope walkers. We will need her help with the tassels as well. Once the cord is made it's time to braid. Some surviving caps have a Monkey Braid pattern sewn around the crown. Jason decided to have both tassels behind the right ear as seen in the 1778 de Loutherbourg drawings. More next year.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


With the boot toe up, pressed flat on the floor, here is the cardboard template for the front. The pin marks the center, and the scratch awl is used to trace the new edge. A cut down Teflon cutting board inserted into the boot makes this job easier.

Nearly two inches need to come off the back of the boot, so the canvas pull straps are removed, and their stitch holes made further down. Cutting was nerve-wracking at first, but not difficult.

This is not one of the Frenchmen's helmets from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The secret of 18th century British bearskin caps is a mitre-shaped tin plate. Bent into a curve, it is drilled with holes for stitching. It is sandwiched between the hide and the linen lining, with the front plate over the hair.

The front cutout makes it lighter, more comfortable and it is matched to a small triangle of calf skin sewn into the bear hide. The whole mess at the edge is wrapped with a leather sweatband (velvet for NCOs on up.) One of the Royal Marine caps has holes drilled around the cutout. Since there are no known Fusilier bearskins, the height of the plate was determined by surviving German Fusilier mitre caps.

Here is our legally taken bear hide. Check your local laws before you buy one online. Some states have strict controls on bear parts. The pattern is sketched to take advantage of the hair crown on the back. All the hair should lay up on the cap. The very top of the pattern is cut in a shallow V-shape, for a nice tight seam over the point of the plate. The gradual curve is where the wool bag goes.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Boots and Bearskins

Well that didn't go well. Making two coats at once was a huge mistake. Too many distractions. The regimental coat looks good, but doesn't fit worth a damn. Snug WITH constraint. Perhaps Kitty can make it into a riding habit. The lesson here is patterns need to be revisited and fitting patterns made for everything. Don't rush.

Time to shift gears a bit. This beautiful thing was found during Big Dig construction in Boston's North End. Boots have been around forever. At the start of the 19th century they became fashionable everyday wear for men. High-front "Hessians" and "Suwarrows" copied Central and Eastern European military styles. They were replaced soon after by "Wellingtons" (not the rubber kind.)

No we aren't making boots. We are taking advantage of an excellent boot maker who is flexible. The design is not unlike mid-19th century boots, with changes to the toe and heel. The canvas tabs need to be removed and replaced after the tops are cut.

Another good winter/Apocalypse project is at right. The 1768 British Army clothing warrant gives grenadiers, fifers, drummers, pioneers, and fusiliers the authorization to wear bear skin caps. The fusiliers cap is "not so high," as the others, which are to be twelve inches tall. This fearsome headgear cost over ten times as much as the standard hat. No wonder many regiments (including the 7th Foot,) gave them up as the American War progressed.

The Royal Fusiliers DID arrive in American with them, though none survive. Construction of surviving caps was a bit of a mystery until the 1990s, when the Scottish United Services Museum started conserving the Seafield Collection. These are post-Revolution, but still follow the 1768 warrant. Pioneer, musician and grenadier caps are remarkably similiar, but for some details. Good friend Jason is using this as the basis for a fusilier version and so shall we. Trade in bear parts is legally complex, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Words. Details can be maddeningly elusive in the past. The Continental Army coat started out well enough. There were good sources that helped shape the color and style of this coat. Then there weren't. Always good (painful) to check footnotes. Construction of the coat has passed the point of drastic changes. Since details are often few in letters, orderly books, and journals, the meaning of words becomes key. There are coats and there are jackets.

This might look familiar. The white at left is the belted waistcoat. Wrapped around the right edge of the canvas interfacing is the red strip of a lapel. Hooks and eyes get fixed at top right. Only a skirt lining in this coat.

The America Southern army was nearly destroyed in 1780 at Charleston. General Gates did his best to destroy the replacement Army two months later. Gates replacement, General Greene discovered a dearth of roads and wagons in the Carolinas. States like Maryland struggled to get clothes to their nearly naked troops.

"Regimental Coats" arrived in October, and were handed out immediately. In Virginia, good old Baron Steuben rushed supplies, arms, and men South. These fellows wore "jackets with sleeves."

Steuben put a bug in Greene's ear about jackets. Jackets were not as "sightly" as regimentals, but easier to make and better than nothing. Here is the single layer collar turned to the outside. The seam will be covered by the collar. Greene described the jackets as "in the form of British Light Infantry Coats; to come down as low upon the hips as the waistband..."

Since the buttons have short shanks, it's easier to apply linen tape to the lapels--till you get to the collar. None of this is visible when finished. To muddy the waters further, the 1780 Board of War specifications state coats should come to mid-thigh, and have functional lapels, and collar.

Always nice to know what they were supposed to have. There is period imagery of British Lights with square cut jackets as early as 1777. This is probably what Greene is talking about. No lapels, no skirts, "with sleeves" implying that sometimes they were without like a waistcoat. Blue and red is a safe choice for mid-Atlantic Continentals, but not sure. Already ideas are forming for another coat.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

What Cheer, Netop?

Time to retire, after the most extraordinary history day yet. John Brown House returned to 1799 Saturday. The Browns, their friends and servants, took tea in period bowls and sat on antique chairs and sofas. The inhabitants were interpreters who studied period sources for weeks to play people who lived and worked in the home at the start of the 19th century.

Along with their duties, maids served as guides for visitors and related gossip as the day progressed. Stairs made their task even more strenuous.

The late 18th-century coat barely survived. It went together (too) quickly for the event and has some flaws that need to be addressed. The lining side actually tore. The sleeve lining seam pulled away, but the outside remained unscathed. The cuffs need to be removed and rotated out slightly.

The collar is a nuisance. The top button needs to be moved out, or a third one added. Pad stitching is uncommon in this period, but some stabilizing stitches could help. Steaming and shaping are good idea. The tails are too long. Stay tuned for improvements.

The creator of all this historic madness is our own Kitty Calash. We used her dishes, cutlery, and &c. The Brown's letters, journals, and articles on late 18th-century Providence were shared online. Participants were selected based on age matches to historic figures. Past What Cheer Days had a script and schedule, but the free-form version worked just as well.

Brown family artifacts and furniture, items with Rhode Island provenance, were safe in the corners, as less valuable antiques took their place. Modern lighting disappeared. As it was a gray day the house was dark (history is darker than you think.)

An outline of the day got us rolling, and interaction improvised. Before long visitors were following characters room to room as the drama unfolded. It was as cool as it sounds.

(all event photos by J.D. Kay)


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Under Pressure

Okay, so maybe two coats at once (plus ancillaries) is a bit much. Luckily, one of them is supposed to look half-assed. Both projects are interesting, it's only a question of getting both done on time. Here is the faux-cuff stotted to the sleeve. Regimental coats in this period have sleeves that end right at the wrist.

 Looks like the poor Baltimore contract worker who is making these coats has cats. While construction continues, research is ongoing into the appearance of these coats. Blue and red seems a safe bet. A thorough search of Nathaniel Greene's papers, 1780-81 is in order.

Meanwhile, work on the super-fiddly 1799 coat proceeds. Here it is inside out, over a shirt and waistcoat. Hemp canvas interfacing helps shape the body, but lack of pad-stitching means things can slide around. All the front edges of the coat have been turned and whipped to the canvas. The interfacing tends to curl around the shoulder seams, so the canvas edges are whipped together over the pressed-open wool seams.  Like the 19th-century tailcoat, this has ridiculous lapels, but they are totally separate from the Elvis-like collar. It's really more cape than coat.

Cheryl agreed to the tedious task of providing silk Death Head buttons for this project. With the silk tail lining, just the right amount of pimp. Thirty-one days till showtime.  Hope to finish a new neck cloth and get some boots in the mail before then.

A close up of the chaos under the shirt sleeve. The pocket bag peeks out from the interfacing, complete with back stitches to hold the under flap in place. A pencil/chalk line marks were the outer pocket flap gets sewn to the body.  Once they are in place, the lining can start.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Pew and Pocket Flaps

Great times were had at Frederick, Maryland. Chaps from the Fort Dobbs garrison and the Fort Pitt Museum formed a combined company of North Carolina Provincials serving with General Forbes in 1758. Good lads. Brandyn Charlton took this Last of the Mohicans shot of us. In the background is the 300-year-old road built by the people we are portaying.

There is something satisfying about marching with an axe or spade instead of a musket. Roadwork was part of the scenario, a job the Provincials performed, even though the public couldn't see it. Shovelling dirt into ruts in the heat, felling trees, all while dressed like Natives may sound boring, but many Carolina men arrived in Maryland without weapons or much else. There was even a coffin maker in the camp to keep us honest. Pew is losing it's appeal.

Here are the front and back of the 1780s Continental Army pocket flaps. These snazzy buggers are purely decorative and vertical, not unlike those on Light Infantry coats in the period. Holes are punched in the cloth, and the shanks are secured with linen tape sewn to the back. Yes, the USA acronym is that old. This is the Kochan and Philips French Blue cloth that was color matched to a surviving American uniform fragment. To save money, the coat is short, with no functional bits.

Equipping and clothing the US Army every year became a headache for the bankrupt Congress. Lack of shoes, hats, small clothes, gear, even food was common. France helped, and some of the clothing was made there under contract.

Things are looking up by 1799. This gentleman's coat is made from fine black cloth, and lined with green silk. Along with custom Death's Head buttons and giant pocket flaps, these under pocket flaps secure the opening and keep the pocket bag from stretching. Less cost-cutting here. The nine-piece lining is made from three different materials depending on visibility. The back and sleeves are cheap cotton.

Fatigue cap scraps will be useful when it comes to the cuffs on the Continental coat. A combination of stotting and piecing will simulate frugal construction. In the experimental history department: how did folks in the past deal with Poison Ivy? Perhaps it wasn't as much of a problem then.