Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Shoe Truce

American Duchess Renoir and Nankeen Boots
How do I begin?  I haven't exactly been vocal about it in public, but I've mentioned a few times in passing that I'm not exactly the biggest fan of some of the options out there for reproduction footwear.  Recently, however, I received some very sad news and learned that one of the most often-recommended reproduction shoe manufacturers in living history circles will no longer be in business within the next couple of months.  There has been no official announcement that I know of, but I learned from the owner of the business that he is finishing his current commissions and taking steps to shut down his operation after inquiring about custom orders via his website.

Well, with the departure of a major player, that changes the face of the market quite a bit.  It just so happens that I had been hoping to buy a pair of boots in a particular style from that merchant, but had been putting it off since common knowledge was that in order to get any kind of customer service, you had to call.  I don't know if anyone here knows this, but I HATE making phone calls.  I CAN do it, but I don't LIKE to do it.  So, now I'll never have my Dream Boots, because I was too chicken to pick up the phone.  Ah, well.  C'est la vie, I suppose.

As it happens, just before all of this occurred, American Duchess posted on Facebook about their annual spring cleaning sale (which is ending TODAY so get over there if you've been procrastinating!), as well as a pre-order for their newest 18th century style, the Dunmore.  Well, despite my skepticism over the years regarding the brand, I'm not one to say no to a shoe sale.  And to be honest, the Dunmore style looks rather fantastic.  And it comes in wool!  And oh by the way over the past year, there have been some pretty great styles released that look pretty darn good.  So I might have gone a little wild.  I mean, I do already have shoes for Civil War, but they're kind of uncomfortable and rub my ankles raw.  And I can fake it with ballet flats for regency, but I've always wanted's totally legit; trust me!

Last night, my in-stock order arrived and I was able to try on my newest acquisitions.  On the left of the photo above you'll see the 1860s-1870s boot, the "Renoir," and on the right is the fabric "Nankeen" style regency boot.

And holy, holy shit you guys.  I love them both to pieces.  They're nicely made shoes--certainly nicer than the cheap ballet flats and fashion boots I normally wear!  They are machine made, but the materials are much higher quality than I would buy in "real life" and in comparison to high-end fashion boots these days the cost is comparable.  I got mine on sale, so that helped make it more palatable for my cheap-ass self, but to be completely fair--if I bought these in a nice shoe store at the mall, I would be happy with them.

So, being a child of my generation, I slapped that photo up on Instagram, as you do.  And immediately started getting the side-eye for it, which considering that I've mentioned my skepticism of the American Duchess brand is actually kind of understandable.  But it did get me thinking...which is dangerous.

In the beginning, I was straight up Not A Fan of the AD designs.  I felt that they fell short of the mark on accuracy, all while marketing themselves as super-accurate.  Over the past few years, however, things have come a long way!  I think I finally perked up and noticed the changes when the Stratford style was released, which was developed in conjunction with a shoemaker that specialized in that particular period.  To me, that spoke of a desire to learn and grow, as well as elevating the 'brand status,' so to speak, in terms of accuracy and research.  In the meantime, though, there's a subtle yet definite feeling in certain circles that not all shoes are created equal--there's a right way and a wrong way, and buy buying AD shoes, I've started doing things the wrong way.


So, here's the scoop on the not-quite-drama.  Some of it is the same-old-same-old costumer vs. reenactor bullshit, where the reenactors are all This Is The One True Way blah blah.  And, granted, a reenactor is more likely to see nasty outdoor conditions while wearing historical clothing and shoes than someone who primarily does indoor events and that kind of thing.  Then again, there are some events that are downright cushy--Greenfield Village has paved roads, paved sidewalks, and beautifully maintained lawns.  It's not exactly the great American frontier...with a modicum of care, one can keep one's shoes perfectly nice at an event like that regardless of make and model.

Some people also are really big into the handmade aspect of things--as in, a handmade product is Always Superior to something mass-manufactured.  I kind of agree with that, in terms of finding it very impressive that people dedicate so much time and effort to learning the skills to do things like making reproduction shoes.  You don't see me doing that, even though I think it's valuable to keep those skills and information alive, so of course I'll support those who have dedicated themselves to that if I can.  However, I'm also a shameless consumer and will totally throw money at a problem if that will fix it.  I buy stuff made in China all the time.  It's the world we live in and if I can get what I want that way, I'll do it.  Maybe that makes me a terrible person...but at least I'm a terrible person with nice things, I guess?

Some people just really dislike American Duchess and/or the proprietress herself.  I myself was skeptical of the brand and, if I'm honest, jealous of her seemingly instantaneous popularity.  That last part is not something I'm proud of, and it was definitely caused by my own insecurities.  I've been on a sort of half-hiatus for the past couple of years, haven't made anything new, felt like my 'research muscles' have been atrophying and like I'd forgotten everything I ever knew.  I'm also super bad at promoting myself and am horribly socially awkward even at the best of times.  But you know what?  American Duchess is a small business.  Sure, the shoes are manufactured overseas, but as far as I can tell it's Lauren and two? other people making this happen.  It's not like she's running some retail cabal Wal-Mart knockoff.  And over the past year or so, I've seen what I would call some major improvements in overall look of the shoes and historical accuracy.  I can appreciate that--we all start somewhere, and she's put in a lot of work to offer something that wasn't available before.  And, in my current job, I get a bit of insight into what it takes to run a business...and you can sign me up for that, um, NEVER.  I'm great at fetching coffee and making copies, but boy-howdy do I respect those who have the drive and know-how on the business-making side of things.  Because I don't.  At all.

Then there's the durability.  Will these hold up to years of abuse out in the field?  I'm guessing not, but then *I* want to be suffering in the same conditions?!  Um, no.  I've come to accept that I am not 'hardcore.'  I was moreso in my early 20s, willing to brave the cold and rain and mud and heat in the name of toughing it out and Reenacting, Dammit.  My very first reenactment was in such bad weather that they actually canceled the event for our safety.  I've walked til my feet bled (thanks to my oh-so-correct handmade shoes) and then kept walking in my socks.  I've been in such bad shape at events that I had blackouts and don't remember a good chunk of the weekend.  And you know, I'm glad I survived.  Do I want to do it again?  Oh HELL no.  I do this shit for fun, not for invisible brownie points.  Not to mention that I'm no longer single and living alone with no responsibilities other than a dead-end job.  I have a husband and pup to keep up with and a job that matters to me.  I need more sleep than I used to and am making conscious choices to take better care of myself--body and mind both.  Sometimes that means getting a hotel room, or skipping an event if the weather forecast is abysmal.  It also means taking care of my feet.  I invested in good shoes for running and walking the dog, to avoid getting blisters and raw spots.  They won't last forever--in fact, you should replace athletic shoes fairly often because the materials that make them healthy to walk and run in and protect your body from damage in high-impact sports don't hold up over time and use.  Those kinds of shoes are also hella expensive, especially when you're used to dropping $10 or less on ballet flats at PayLess.  But they're an investment, because nobody likes bleeding feet or stress fractures.

And you know, it occurs to me...why the hell is this even an argument?  Why am I even writing this?  For crying out loud, at my last 1812 reenactment I wore a pair of London Rebel flats made out of 100% synthetic materials, tied with polyester grosgrain ribbon.  And people congratulated me on them.  When I went to Williamsburg and my feet bled through my socks and I wore a pair of totally modern shoes on my last day there and walked down DoG street in my bloody, dirty stockings, people offered me sympathy and went out to buy me band-aids and Neosporin.  But I buy nice shoes that are real leather, with leather soles, that are dainty and cute and make me happy--they are decently researched and as far as I can tell they are well made...and I'm getting the side-eye about them because they're a certain brand that may or may not last for decades but nobody knows yet because they're new.

What the fuck, people?

These are SHOES!  Who doesn't love shoes?!  People who are WRONG, that's who! ;)

Okay, so here's me, standing on my soap box (stop telling me to stand up; I AM standing!  Shut up, I know I'm short!) and saying:  I am giving American Duches brand shoes a chance.  I'm calling a shoe truce!  I didn't like the early styles.  The new styles look good to me.  I'm tired of my feet hurting at events and so far, these boots seem comfortable and not painful.  Maybe I'll end up hating them and bleeding from my ankles--but I won't know unless I try, and if I do then I'll disinfect them and sell them to someone else to enjoy at a reduced price.  And frankly, I think that's more than fair.

There are a lot more things I could say on this--the value of a convenient web presence, customer service, advertising, just so many facets to the conversation.  But I've been running my mouth quite long enough and I'd very much like to hear your thoughts on the matter!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Regency Ball 2015

Wonderful dance programs!
One event I look forward to every year is the Regency Ball in Lansing each spring.  This year was particularly wonderful, both in terms of weather and the event itself.  My mom was unable to join us (she was visiting my sister and bro-in-law for the weekend) but that worked out well for me...I ran out of time to figure out a dress for myself since none of my stuff fits anymore, so she graciously loaned me one of hers!  Rich looked very fine in his brand-new trousers and braces, with a beautiful striped silk vest from Julie Rockhold of The Fat Reenactress.  Oh, and I put rolled hems in his cravat the morning of the ball--AND starched it!

Lining up to dance
I hardly recognize him without the beard...

I didn't have to make that dress!

Such a fun evening

Friday, April 10, 2015

Rich's Braces

I did actually finish my regency stays!  They're super-basic, just some light boning with no cording or anything, but they will work for now.  No photos yet, because I couldn't find a chemise that didn't need mending and nobody wants to see corset photos with no chemise.

What I do have photos of, though, is the stuff that I've made for Rich.  We have a regency ball tomorrow night and his trousers needed buttons, buttonholes, and braces in order to be wearable.  As of last night, he now has all three!  All that's left is to hem them.

Above, buttonholes in progress.  I started with the ones in the fly that you wouldn't see!  I've always been chicken to do hand-stitched buttonholes before, being absolutely certain that they'd look like crap and pull right out of the fabric, but these seem pretty sturdy (and don't look too terrible for a first try!)  I used the information from this post on 18th century buttonholes, and found both the linked Burnley & Trowbridge Facebook album and the Youtube video by Stuart Lilie to be very helpful!  And you know, they even go pretty quickly once you get into a groove!

The buttons Rich picked are 5/8" horn ones from Burnley & Trowbridge.  The internet told me that buttonholes should be the width of the button, plus 1/8" for ease of use (more, if you've got super thick buttons).  I started out by marking my fabric and using teeny scissors to snip the holes, but I had a hard time getting a consistent size.  So I switched to a chisel, which is what Hallie Larkin recommends in her post and was very accessible to me...there's a Lowes right down the street from my job.  They work great, by the way, and the three-pack I got included 1/2", 3/4", and 1" for about $12.  Definitely the way to go, in my opinion!

Because the trousers sit at or above Rich's natural waist, they just fall down if there isn't something there to keep them halfway up his torso.  I mean, he has a bit of a tum, and narrow hips, so even his everyday jeans and trousers need a belt, but that's not really an option here.  So, he needed a pair of braces!

A while back, Kannik's Korner was offering kits for braces, but when I contacted them they didn't have any in stock and I had a I had to wing it.  If you're looking to make some, though, I would absolutely contact Fritz and Kathleen!  I like what I was able to come up with, but I'm not sure it's the "right" way to go about it, you know?

This image, found on Pinterest (without a link back to an original source and said to be a detail of "The Filial and Heroic Devotion of Mademoiselle de Sombreuil in September 1792") iswhat I based my construction on.  I used leather I already owned for the tabs and purchased buckles and webbing from Needle & Thread in Gettysburg...over the phone, since they don't do online ordering.  But they were very helpful and I highly recommend them!

Stitchin' on lunch break

I didn't take any pictures of the tab-making process, which was quite hard on my hands and very nerve-wracking.  The leather was pretty thick to begin with and I had to not only shape it, but also shave (skive?) it down to a more manageable thickness.  This involved very sharp blades and honestly probably needed more hand strength than I currently possess, so it took a while.  And I didn't take pictures because I was too busy worrying about injury avoidance.  I managed to stab myself once, but it was while I was energetically sweeping leather shavings off the couch while holding an unsheathed knife, like a dingbat.  So, you know, it went pretty well.

Fortunately, I had a little baggie of glover's needles lying around from previous projects, which worked great for attaching tabs to straps.  I also have this funky leather thimble thing that came with a quilt-of-the-year block kit that I got ages and ages has been absolutely invaluable in the past several weeks, both for this and for doing eyelets in my blue wool stays.  I can't seem to work with metal thimbles, but this one works great.

Above, you can see how I shaved the leather down pretty thin where I wanted to stitch.  The thicker part is thinner than it was before I attacked it with a box cutter,but still too thick to get a needle through.

For comparison--here are the pieces after skiving for the basic tab shape, but not yet thin enough to stitch.  In a couple places I left too much leather and it was quite hard on my hands, even with the thimble.

The braces are actually four separate pieces when disassembled--two in the back, two in the front.  These are the front tabs, wit buckles attached.  I'm debating whether to sew another line across the tabs, so that the stitching is a box rather than an upside-down U...but the thing about leather is that it doesn't naturally have holes in it like a woven fabric, so each stitch is basically perforating the material rather than passing between threads or fibers.  I know it probably wouldn't make a ton of difference, but it seems fine to leave it with minimal stitching for now.  And, you know, my hands hurt.

These tabs will button onto the back of his trousers, while the straps at the other ends are just hemmed and will pass through the buckles.  Even with skiving off a bunch of the overall thickness, I found that I needed to bevel off the edges of the buttonholes or we couldn't get the buttons through.  If anything breaks on these, it will NOT be the tabs!

So, there you go...the basics of Rich's trouser-holder-uppers.  Are they done right?  I have no idea.  Are they sturdy, decently made, and will they keep his pants up?  Absolutely.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Stash Busting-My-Ass, More Like!

Okay, so I missed the February HSWTF deadline for the "blue" challenge.  I'm still working on it--my blue wool stays have acquired 85% of their hand-bound eyelets and will soon be ready for boning and assembly.  (She said optimistically...)


March's challenge is 'stash-busting,' aka "I'm not allowed to buy anything new for this project."  How fortuitous, then, that I had the materials for a new pair of regency stays already squirreled away for a rainy day.  I did make the executive decision to order a fresh copy of the pattern, Past Patterns 001, since while I did already own a copy, I slashed the pieces to add circumference to the body piece last time I used it and taping pattern tissue back together sounds like perhaps the least fun thing ever.

Actually, working with pattern tissue is probably one of my least favorite things to do.  I find the stuff infuriating--it's so lightweight that a stray mouse fart will blow it around the room, it shreds when you pin it to anything, and rips if you look at it sideways.  Which is why I procrastinated over cutting out my pattern pieces.  Which is why it's now, um, April, and hah, guess who doesn't have a pair of stays finished yet?  Oh, that'd be me.

However, about a week ago, I realized that hey--I sent my regency stays to a friend because they no longer fit me, I have no early 19th century undergarments, and OH, there's a regency ball in, um, like three weeks!  Two weeks, now.  Less, in fact.  April 11.  In any case, nothing motivates me like a deadline.  Let's DO this!

First step was to deal with the annoying tissue issue.  Fusible interfacing to the rescue!  It doesn't really have much use in terms of historical materials or techniques, but it's great for this--I seriously just ironed my pattern pieces to the interfacing and it decreased their annoying traits by about 4000%.  As an added bonus, they don't shimmy around when placed on fabric now!  Highly recommended.  A+, would fuse again.

So much better!

With that problem dispatched, it wasn't too difficult to get everything cut out on my lunch break, with the help of the ever-wonderful perfect-height filing stations.  I got the pieces cut--two layers of twill with an outer layer of cotton sateen--and appropriate basting done last week.  On Saturday, I set all eight gores, which went surprisingly well.  Until I then tried the corset on and got a very awkwardly-shaped reminder that I haven't fit into a B-cup bra since I was 12, and why would it be a good idea to start attempting that now?

Yeah.  The pattern comes equipped with gores labeled "B Cup" and directions to "widen at the top edge" for more room.  Well, I needed more room.  There was no way the temporary busk (aka 12" ruler) was going to come close to touching my sternum, and my chest was trying to become better acquainted with my chin and my armpits all at the same time.  Not a good look.  So, I put on my best-fitting, most uplifting bra with the straps cranked down way tighter than I'd normally wear them, put the stays on over them, and slashed down the middle of the gores until the busk could rest flat against my chest and everything shifted forward and settled down to a more natural and flattering position.

And no, I did not take pictures; you'll just have to imagine.

Anyway, I then measured how much space I needed at the widest point across the slashes and expanded my gores.  Much better!  There is a little extra space at the top now, but a drawstring will easily snug that in.

Next up, structural reinforcements.