Saturday, January 23, 2016


William Sidney Mount created this fantastic Rustic Dance After a Sleigh Ride. It's a chance to study everyday life in New York around 1830. Just look at it. So much going on here. Let's just focus on men's neckware for now. Dancing machine, in his yellow waistcoat, opted for droopy comfort: unbuttoning his shirt collar and tying on a kerchief.

More formal chap, in black, either added whalebone support for his red neck cloth or he is wearing a stock. The secret to stocks, all the high collars on the coats, and the crisp edges on the men's garments is buckram. Most commonly linen, buckram is an interface material that is stiff, flexible, waterproof and can be ironed. Buckram's secret is one of humankind's oldest trade items: plant gum.

Desert plants evolved an interesting way of defending against scrapes and cuts. Cellulose breakdown creates a sticky fluid that hardens in air. Goat's thorn, which grows abundantly in Iran, produces Gum tragacanth. Tragacanth is still used in an insane number of products, from pastels, to cake decoration, as a burn salve, and to stick cigars closed. It's harder to obtain, but unlike other gums it doesn't stick to itself. "Gum dragon" as it was called, was common in 18th and 19th century tailoring and leather work.

    Gum arabic comes from several species of Acacia trees found in Sudan. It's used in shoe polish, envelope adhesive, drug capsules, in ceramic glazes and painting. Either gum can be found in liquid and powdered form. Arabic dissolves in water, but it takes twenty four hours. Mix two parts water to one part powder. Refrigeration is required for long term storage.

Brush it on thinly, both sides of the cloth and allow to dry. The result is vaguely like fiberglass, and nothing like linen with the sizing still in it. Powder is cheaper, but tedious to mix, best for small batches. Leather and cake suppliers are the best source for liquid gum dragon. One coat is pretty stiff, but two can't hurt. MOST important: the cloth shrinks when it dries. Make a big enough sheet to cut out all the parts you need.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Another Year

Happy New Year! The holiday was merry and Federal swag-filled, while construction of the Velocipede proceeds apace. Brother Joseph pointed out something excellent on eBay:

These chaps are Italian, of indeterminate age, but could pass for 18th century. Plus they are sharp has hell. All of eight bucks, SCORE! They needed a polish and some oil, the only complaint: the drunk tailor is left-handed. Perhaps some button hole chisels will turn up soon. Thanks, Joseph.

Our sleazy waistcoat is progressing slowly but surely. Cold and darkness makes 23 button holes feel like 700. May have to add the expanding waist seam inserts as well. The black button covers are total conjecture, but fun: gives it a Nazi/White Stripes vibe. While the project pile is deep, it can be hard not to get distracted by something new and quick.

Hammer provided such a distraction. This thing turned out okay, but it's a bit too tight and stiff. Easy enough to fix either of those issues, but further research indicates that surviving early 19th century white silk stocks are for dress up.

There is a horrible, checked, Federal summer suit in our future. One where none of pattern lines up on any of the seams, and all the button covers are exactly the same. The kind that when it shows up in a museum collection you have to wonder.

The only way to improve that ensemble is with  clashing, checked neckware of some kind. Behold:

Courtesy of my Muse at the Rhode Island Historical Society. She also provided cloth that matches. What's not to love about a gigantic seam down the front and badly matched pattern? The tabs appear to be edged in wool tape. The only thing missing from this Federal Period clip-on bow tie is just that. A bow tie.

A wee, pieced-together bow tie can only enhance the awfulness. While we're at it let's make some buckram from scratch.