Saturday, September 20, 2014

Growing Up Alcott

"She opens the door of one house, and all find it is their own house which they enter, a visitor once said of Louisa May Alcott"*

When I was little my mother read Little Women to me, and when I got a little older I found the Alcott shelf in the children's section of the library. I was hooked--not just on Alcott's novels, but on the period, the family, and the Orchard House. I went on tour several times as a kid: for programs with my Girl Scout troop, with my church's religious education curriculum, with my mom, and eventually with my sister after I gave her my copy of Little Women. That year I was twelve, at the end of middle school and awkward, but I loved history and its living traditions--Plymouth Plantation, Sturbridge Village, the annual Patriot's Day celebrations. So when we went to a program at Orchard House that winter, I was already wondering when I could get a job there. My mother started talking to the woman at the desk, and by the time I finished eighth grade I was actively researching, writing, and training to do living history programs with a volunteer group affiliated with the house.

chasing a rolling hoop down the hill at the front of the house during a program, sometime between 2006-2008
As soon as I was old enough to legally have a job I applied for a position as staff, and worked as a tour guide, living history educator, and eventually "In-Charge" (the guide in charge of opening/closing, managing the day's schedule, and running the shop) every summer, school vacation, and other assorted days until I graduated college. I spent a lot of time in the Alcotts' home--I did my homework there, read through the guides' room library of Alcott-related books, went on my first date on the same paths Louisa and her family walked by the North Bridge--and going back to the museum feels like coming home again. While a lot of the staff has changed over the years, many of the women are still there, and they have been an incredible wealth of encouragement and faith in me as I grew out of that awkward phase into a young professional.

Orchard House c.1865, with Alcotts in the foreground (via Orchard House)
Over the years as I grew as a researcher and interpreter, I became especially interested in May Alcott. Her enthusiasm for ridiculous adventures with her friends, her passion for making beautiful things, and her complete refusal to let Louisa have all of the family glory (she became quite an accomplished artist in her own right) spoke to me, as did her age--May was the only teenager to live in the house (she was 18 when they moved in in 1858). The ordinary adventures described in the papers of May and her contemporaries (capsizing a rowboat, playing croquet, attending costume parties, pranks with her sisters) brought 1860s Concord to life for me, and perhaps more importantly, these stories became my way of opening a path for visitors less interested in the family or Louisa's work (like middle school boys dragged in on field trips). I ended up spending several days off the last couple of summers at the house in Houghton Library, transcribing May's letters from her time as a young adult in Concord, before she moved to Europe to study art. I also adopted May as my favored Alcott when performing living history programs. May, and May's friends, still feel like my part of my social group (which includes several other former Orchard House employees). We had inside jokes that referenced them, we knew told their anecdotes as our own. I actually went to prom with a friend who also worked at the house and sometimes portrayed Julian Hawthorne to my May (they were friends and next door neighbors in the early 1860s). While I spent the school week in the 21st century, I spent the weekends in the 19th with the Alcotts.

playing May for a living history program, summer 2008
detail from a portrait of May Alcott, 1870s painted by Rose Peckham
showing visitors jacob's ladder (as May), 2008
Right now, Orchard House is running a Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary about the house, and I hope you will take a look at the video and donate if you can. The site has been a museum for over 100 years (the centennial was celebrated in 2012), and the story of how the Alcotts have inspired generations is obviously one that I hold near and dear. It's also really interesting, and the resulting documentary would be well worth watching!

at the house for the centennial celebration (in 1900s clothing), 2012
Possibly (hopefully) all this waxing nostalgic has already convinced you the Orchard House is a very special place, and the campaign is worth checking out. Watching the video (which also happened to hit just as I was reviewing my notes for returning next weekend--I have a couple of dedicated Alcott/Orchard House bookshelves at home) reminded me just how special the Orchard House is and how much it truly is a home to me, along with so many others. If you're not yet convinced, then it's time to let the house do the talking. After all, that's who this is all about.

(By the way, if you want to experience the house in person to let it convince you, I'll be giving the Welcome to Our Home tour Saturday September 27th! Come visit!)

Here are a few more pictures from growing up at Orchard House, and I hope you will all check out the Kickstarter info below!

Prepping for a program in May's bedroom, 2010. The bonnet was my first attempt at trimming/covering a hat; it's based on a description by Louisa of a hat May was making (which she called dreadful)
With a Turner painting in the British National Gallery, London, 2011. I met up with another Orchard House guide while we were both studying in the UK for a reunion and quest to find some of the paintings May studied while she lived there.

In the nursery during my last Christmas program, 2012. Hopefully I'll be back this year!

Some friends from Scotland visited while I was working, 2012.
Here's how you can help!

*From the Orchard House introductory video

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Mother/Daughter Dress Project (or, the most lead time on a project I have given myself in years because my mother is better at planning than I am)

Earlier this week I posted about plaid matching (or not!) in extant garments, and I mentioned that I am currently working on a project that relates. So far my plaids look pretty good (the shoulders, which will be unfortunately lost in the neck facing/trim and sleeve are my favorite), but not perfect, which seems just about right. I'm taking a pause because I need a new corset, and I don't want to take darts over my old one (which has never fit correctly, even though I made it almost three years ago...whoops). I'm also waiting because this is a special project: I am not venturing into a new decade alone, but rather in a joint expedition with my mother, so I'm waiting until our next sewing date to start the next bit.

My earliest experiences with sewing all involve my mom, who made my Halloween costumes every year until I was too cool for it because I wanted to be a "girl from the Civil War" with a dress out of one of those cheesy catalogs (funny how the 1860s stuck and the store-bought outfits didn't! Clearly Mom's influence was in there...). She would insist that she was only ever an "ok" seamstress, but Mom taught me to use a sewing machine, to pick out patterns and follow pattern instructions, and that sometimes making things was just better (those Halloween costumes were killer).

My first grade class Halloween party, dresses as Odette from The Swan Princess (my absolute favorite movie at the time) in her wedding dress, made by Mom...check out my opalescent swan "wings"!
the inspiration (ending scene from The Swan Princess)
Last year my family came to Fezziwig's Ball, hosted by the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers, because we all love Christmas and singing carols and having a lot of holiday cheer. I loaned everyone dresses, which worked out fine, but Mom decided for this year she wanted her own dress.

At the ball last December
I completely used the opportunity as an excuse to make a dress from a period I wouldn't otherwise have an excuse to sew--I proposed either the 1830s or the 1870s, and Mom chose the '70s. We're aiming for mid-lateish in the decade (with slightly padded butts but still in the natural form era), in between bustle eras. I am also taking the opportunity to make a day bodice and a train extension (I don't want a train at the ball) so that I can wear the dress for swanning around museums or something (for some reason natural form 1870s dresses say "swanning around museums" to me).

Mom and I are both using the same base pattern for a bodice, but taking it in different directions. We also have very different fabric, so the dresses won't look "matchy-matchy" even though we're using the same pattern (TV416).

The natural form era/mid 70s is interesting, because while it's missing the back end accentuation of the two bustle period it's sandwiched between, but it still follows a lot of the same lines (overskirts drawn up at the back, bows and gathers over the butt) and mixes the hard suiting/tailored elements that were coming into style with frilly details (layers and layers of ruffles, trim, and bows).

Plaid shows up quite a bit in fashion plates from this period, most commonly in bodices and as trim on skirts (usually bias cut). Another common plaid element is a plaid (sometimes bias, sometimes not) overskirt, often paired with plaid trim on other pieces of the ensemble.

Here are some of my major inspirations; they're almost all day dresses, because I'm planning on this being mostly a day ensemble, since we don't do any 1870s balls besides Fezziwig's (and 70s are sort of late for that).

no plaid trim on this one, but a plaid bodice and overskirt. I particularly like the pleated trim on the lower edge of the bodice
the complete opposite bodice arrangement from the previous! I like the two shapes of bias-cut plaid edging on the skirts

Possibly my favorite of all! Love the double row of bias trim paired with the half-plaid straight cut overskirt
Two words on this one: BUTT. BOW.
I'm definitely pulling from the barely-there sleeves on these two for my evening bodice
And here's a preview of my progress!

my plaid ball bodice from the can see what I mean by "almost" on the plaid matching...(also sorry for the awkward mirror/cell phone pic!)
you probably won't see much (if any) of the shoulder when the bodice is done, but these make me happy anyways

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Matching Plaid

Pattern matching is a type of witchcraft I am only beginning to learn.

See how the tartan continues all the way across the bodice, even with all the darts and curved seams? (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1873-1876)
I'm starting a new plaid dress (but more on that soon!), and so I've been taking some time to read up on pattern matching and working with plaids in an effort to do a better job of making my bodice look, well, matched. But I've also been revisiting my historical plaids Pinterest board, and I noticed something: while there are some beautiful examples of well-matched plaid, there are also a lot of examples of plaid that isn't lined up across seams.

They range from close-but-not-quite...

cotton bodice, 1860s
wrapper, late 1860s
silk ballgown, 1812
to not-even-trying.

bodice, late 1870s
Does it matter? Not really. All of these pieces are lovely. But it's a nice reminder that extant garments aren't always "perfect," and mine don't need to be either. That said, I'm still planning on trying my best to match the plaid on my bodice pieces!

a preview!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Quiet End to Summer

For the first time in possibly the last six years I didn't have to move on September 1st, which seemed like an open invitation to have a picnic! A couple of friends and I headed to the Boston Public Garden for a really low-key, relaxing last hurrah before fall. It was lovely, and nice to see friends I haven't gotten to see in a while, since August has been so busy.

We ate, had a ukulele sing-a-long, and watched the swan boats. I took the opportunity to play with my Petzval lens, which led to some great pictures and some...not so great ones. As soon as my arm gets tired, I have a hard time holding the lens steady enough for a clear shot. Something to build towards! In the meantime, it was a perfect way to end a very busy summer: a little bit of calm before my crazy work schedule picks up later this month.

A ukulele serenade as the swan boats go around (this is what I meant by blurry pictures...)
 To set the tone, here is a 1920s ukulele song about a girl playing the ukulele--I couldn't resist!


I love the Boston Public Garden...hanging out there never gets dull. It's like an impressionist painting come to life.

A quick lesson!

swan boats!

The beauty of the post-tourist season summer is that the Make Way for Ducklings statues are actually empty enough to be photographed!

I'm sad summer activities are coming to an end, but there are so many exciting things coming up during the colder months. If you're in the Boston area, please join me!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Expedition to the Crane Estate

Last year we had so much fun at the Roaring '20s Lawn Party at the Crane Estate in Ipswich that we had some pretty grand plans for how to make this year twice as good. Unfortunately, there was some bad weather and the event had to move to the rain date, so a bunch of friends couldn't go (I almost didn't make it!), and our plans sort of fell through. I had started a new white linen dress for the event, which I then abandoned when I thought I couldn't go.

A bit blurry, but hey look! I scaled a wall! Quinn was a great sport about attempting to manage the Petzval lens
When it turned out I was able to make the last bit after all, I decided to wear the dress after all. It still needs sleeves, so expect a more dress-centric post when I finally get around to that. In the meantime, Quinn and I decided to have fun exploring the Crane Estate despite the overcast day! 

the estate is at the top of a hill, with the ocean below--can you see it beyond the trees behind me?

The steps leading from the sports lawn down to another garden

Despite the date change and the overcast weather, the event attendees were colorful and cheerful

Dishes really help make a picnic feel special--this is my picnic china (from Savers, so I don't mind if it breaks!). We also celebrated a birthday and munched on yummy cucumber sandwiches.

Another Petzval portrait--I ended up having to switch to my kit lens for exploring, because the Petzval is just too heavy and not stable enough for adventuring, but I got a few good shots in before that.

reading Zelda Fitzgerald

a quiet path on the wooded area of the hillside