Looking Quakerly today

Plain isn’t easy. First, I don’t have a huge closet of costume to choose from, and I do laundry by hand (it’s an ecological, plain-living thing), and I don’t wear trousers (except for overalls if I’m shearing sheep.) I don’t have scads of money to spend on custom-made dresses, not even some money to buy fabric, patterns and notions. I have a sewing machine, a really good one that was given to me because it wasn’t working. My husband got it running in about half-an-hour. I have some things I’m going to modify or rebuild, but that doesn’t give me a lot of variety.

Plain dress is supposed to be really plain, and that means modest in price as well as modest in appearance. So I get things at thrift stores that work for me, take other things apart and restructure them, and I sew my own prayer caps, which isn’t that hard. The cap part is basically a circle with the bottom quarter cut off, and the band is a doubled rectangular piece of fabric. I pleat my caps rather than gather them because I think pleats look more sober. The cap I have on today is made from old unbleached linen table napkins, a good source of fine fabric. Small pieces become caps, bigger pieces (old plain tablecloths) become aprons or neck-kerchiefs. Cap string can be made easily with ribbon. I have made the cap strings the old way, but this is time-consuming and at my age, requires strong daylight to see the tiny overcast stitches.

The dress I have on is a matte velveteen, long-sleeved, gathered loosely in a high waist. It is dark brown, a very quakerly colour. It has a bit of lycra in it, so it is easy to put on, and has no buttons or zipper. I avoid zippers, and choose only very plain buttons that look like wood or horn.

Over the brown dress I have a plain, fringed, rectangular shawl, gathered at the front with a brass kilt pin. Under the dress is a plain black skirt, with a tie closure that I made specifically as an underskirt. I wear dark knee-length stockings (never sheer hose) and dark brown boots.

I have two plain black dresses of similar construction, which I wear with either the black shawl or a white or tan neck-kerchief pinned in the front with a straight pin. All the dresses were of commercial manufacture and purchased at thrift stores. One had a slit, but I sewed that shut. The skirts are almost ankle-length.

The Plain Quaker dress style has a bit more freedom than that of the anabaptist groups, since they have an ordnung, or a stated way of life, to follow. The ordnung (German for “order”) varies from group to group in Mennonite, Amish and Brethren tradition. That’s why there isn’t one obvious anabaptist style of dress. Conservative and traditional Quakers also vary in practice, but prefer dark, sober colours and clothes that have no hint of “worldly” about them.


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