Jenny Wren

The dolls' dressmaker

I am sewing doll clothes this end of week. This is another round of Amish dolls, and the dolls themselves will be sewn next week, after the muslin arrives in the mail from my friend Bernadette, who threw in odds and sods of fabric remnants, lace, notions and general sewing et cetera. I am as thrilled as if I were getting ten pounds of Godiva chocolate in the mail.

I have little choice in fabrics now.The nearest fabric store in Canada is two hours by gas-guzzling truck. I still do not have documents necessary to re-enter Canada, so traveling to Maine isn’t possible. My friend Milli shops in Presque Isle sometimes, but she says that prices are going up rapidly, so their expeditions to discount shopping are becoming less frequent. Wal-mart carries some fabric, but the price of pre-cut yardage of muslin is about the same as a nice cotton chintz, which makes it far from economical.

I sew with my aging and ancient Pfaff, circa 1965. It is all steel, and with a little coaxing and good sewing machine oil, it will run like a champ. I had to have a friend in Moncton buy needles for me, as they are no longer available locally. I find it hard to believe that so few people here sew. It used to be the cultural normative. Of course, clothes from the one big discount store are cheaper than sewing your own, but they are desperately poor in quality, and the result is everyone goes around in the same t-shirts and jeans/leggings/sweatpants. Mao couldn’t have asked more of the Chinese people under the old Communist regime. My Plain dresses, aprons and kapps look downright original.

The Chinese factory seamstresses whip out those discount clothes, earning pennies an hour. The skillful ones bead wedding dresses. Yes, those expensive, top of the line dresses are made in Asia. Beading, like basketry, can not be automated. It is tedious, eye-straining work.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Dickens wrote about the seamstresses in England who turned out the exquisite, fine handwork so demanded by Victorian ladies. In Our Mutual Friend, the teenaged Jenny Wren, crippled by congenital disease, sews delicate dolls’ clothes for the children of the wealthy. She hobbles on crutches to view society’s beauties coming from the theatre or church, or riding in expensive habits on Rotten Row. Taking mental notes, she draws her designs of the current fashions and makes them up as doll clothes for her clients, everything from mourning dresses “for a doll what lost a canary bird” to elaborate evening wear.

Dickens evoked pity for these destitute women and children who took to sewing millinery, beaded bodices and slippers, and dolls’ wardrobes, by hand, often late into the night by candle light in order to make a meagre living. Few thought of the poor home-based workers who provided their finery. Nor do we – rather than make an effort to sew our own clothing, make our present wardrobe last, or buy clothing that is ethically produced, many prefer the quick turn-over and fads of cheap garments. These garments are often out of shape and unusable after a few months.

I wish home sewing would come back as a popular pursuit. It is economical – my handmade clothes last for years. I am not dependent on someone who has had to leave their rural home or distant town in order to relocate to a smog-covered city in order to make a bare living.

London Street, Victorian era

Rest and Recovery

Amish doll

I think I am making gains in my health, but some days I seem to have no true energy. We are eating properly, but too many nights of poor quality sleep have left me a bit wan.

Good things continue to happen – the silkies are finally int he barn, and adjusting to this large pen, although they seem to stick together very closely. I am suspecting that I have three roosters and one hen, which will not please the girl once they mature! I may trade two roosters for hens, once I am sure. They are lovely birds, very elegant in their Quaker black and grey, with their feathery bonnets and fringed wing-shawls. I don’t have good photos of them yet.

This week was our granddaughter’s first birthday. She is just walking a bit, has twelve teeth and is already talking: “Kitty, daddy, Mum, doggie, give me!” And “car.” I made the doll above for her birthday gift.

Crofting- Trading Time

spring laundry line

Laundry rarely dries stiff here. Wind is constant, and usually strong. My laundry danced as if it was starring in Swan Lake. I have a washer and dryer in the house, and I am using the washer – cold water only – until the new washtub stand is built and I can do laundry outside and get it really clean. But I don’t like dryers, and while convenient in stormy weather and while I was sick, I prefer not to use it.

It was laundry day all over the settlement, apparently. I drove across the river and up the mountain to the garage that cares for my truck, and many neighbours had laundry on the line. I can tell a lot about my neighbours’ lives by their laundry lines. I see green and gold shorts and t-shirts on one line, and say to myself, “Oh, the Anderson kids are playing soccer this year.” And then, further on, men’s coveralls waving and kicking like a chorus line: Bob has cleaned out the barns. Down the road, Nadia has scrubs and turtlenecks on her porch line, so she must be working nights at the hospital.

Spring in the north – the misty pink aura of budding trees is deeper red in some places, cloudy white in others, as leaf buds break through. The rose bushes, presumed dead, are unfurling minute veined leaves. Tulip leaves are pushing through bracken and mulch in front of old wagon wheels, and we found crocuses blooming on the field edge, discards from last year’s Easter plants.

We trade our time for money, not by working, but by not spending. We don’t spend on electricity by using the wind (which is free, and as the schooner captain said, we haven’t run out yet.) We don’t spend on nursery plants by appreciating the incredible landscaping the Great Architect planned for us.

I almost ordered a cape dress for me and trousers for Nicholas on eBay this week, but the cost of the outlay for three pieces of made-up fabric for myself and him came to about what I need to pay for the repair on the truck. So I will trade my time for money – sewing these clothes instead of buying them. And I will sew them on the Pfaff – given to me at a charity sale and then repaired by my husband rather than buying a new one. Time is money – money we don’t need to spend.

The Pfaff, hard at work

More Bonnet Styles

These are not bonnets I have made, but I will try to describe them for you.

Ohio Amish bonnet

A traditional Amish bonnet, the sort a young woman gets at her baptism. The brim is stiff and shaped. Shellacked bonnet board (heavy cardstock) was used in the past, but flexible plastics and plastic mesh are used now.

Old Order Amish bonnetSame Old Order Amish bonnet, side

This bonnet was described as an Amish slat bonnet, but I think the owner was mistaken, and it is just a stiff-brimmed bonnet, again of the typical “outing” bonnet style worn by Old Order Amish women in different districts.

Lancaster Amish sunbonnet

 The collector called this a Lancaster Amish sunbonnet, and described it as vintage. It has a vintage look to the fabric and what I can make of the stitching. Quite possibly it was a homesewn sunbonnet for field work, saving the outing bonnet for “nice.”

Black slat bonnet

I would think this slat bonnet was machine sewn and not old. It was described as Amish or Quaker; I’m thinking it is a recently made bonnet for the re-enactor’s market. A slat bonnet has slim pieces of ash splint or heavy cardboard sewn into the pockets on the brim. It lies flat when not in use, so it can be put in a drawer rather than requiring a peg or shelf space. The long cape in the back covers the neck and upper shoulders, and has a tie in the back ot sort of pleat the excess fabric together. The brim hides the whole face. I wear one working outdoors as I am very allergic to sunscreens. One of the reasons I think this is for a more sophisticated buyer than the average farm woman is that it is in black, which is too hot to wear in the field. A friend made a beautiful slat bonnet in dark wool that I think would be perfect for someone who walks a lot in winter, rather “Jane Eyre”-esque.

Amish-made child's sunbonnet

 A child’s sunbonnet found at an Amish auction, I would hazard that this is made from a man’s shirt or even a remnant bought at an “Englisch” (non-Amish) shop. I’m dating it from the forties or fifties. A windowpane check is a bit wild for most Amish households.

flour sack slat bonnet

 The collector who posted this photo thought it a strange shape for a bonnet. Well, it is, because she has it the wrong way round. The neck ruffle is at the front, the slats facing down. She called it a flour sack bonnet. Cotton flour sacks were produced in chintzes, florals, and other  patterns for the farmwife to turn into aprons and bonnets and even children’s dresses.

Amish women in Lancaster, vintage postcard

A vitnage postcard from Lancaster County, Pernnsylvania, shows three Amish matrons chatting on the street. The bonnets look to be more of the field style rather than the more formal and stiffer outing bonnet one would wear to church.

Sunbonnets

These are the bonnets I mentioned on facebook.

Seafoam green toddler bonnet

 This is more green than blue as it looks here. It would fit a child between 18 months and 3 years.

Pink gingham baby bonnet.

This has a brim that stands off the face, so it is pretty but may not offer my coverage. It would fit a child up to 2 or 3 years.

Blue floral baby bonnet

The same bonnet, in a pretty light blue floral fabric.

Prairie sunbonnet

This is a standard sunbonnet, which I can make in any size and in any colour of light cotton fabric. The ones I prefer to make now have a neck ruffle to keep the back of your neck from getting burned. I have some pretty Ozark style bonnets to sew that are similar to this, but with fancier ruffles.

Traditional slat bonnet

A slat bonnet has battens in the brim to give it some shape while still lying flat  when it is off your head. It has a wide cape across the back and shoulders.  It is the best protection from the sun, but it has rightly been described as feeling like you have your head in a mailbox.

Bonnets obscure the side vision, and while this is fine working in the yard or garden, it’s best to remove it when driving or crossing busy streets.

Plain Dress – Children

Amish children, Lancaster County, old postcard

All the Old Order children I have met dressed Plain. There didn’t seem to be any question about it; they dressed much like their parents, and if anything, their clothes are simpler and plainer. Little girls usually wear a chemise type dress with sleeves, and a overall kind of apron that buttons in the back. Little boys wear pants with suspenders and button front shirts. Infants of both genders wear a longish dress with diapers until they are toilet-trained, which seems to be at an earlier age than Englisch children.  When you are just weary with washing cloth diapers, you are likely to push the toiletting much earlier, especially if you have another in diapers and one more on the way! Most children have the muscle control necessary by two, at the latest; very few won’t by three. It might even be four or five for all night bladder control, but as my family pediatrician used to say, “They never start school in diapers.” I honestly don’t know why parents want to keep buying disposable diapers. They are expensive and a nuisance to dispose! I know that if you don’t have your own washer, it is quite a chore to haul buckets of diapers to a laundry. Still, women did them by hand for many generations.

Amish child's dress and apron ca.1900

Amish girls still wear garments much like these. This outfit was for offer on eBay; the seller’s reserve wasn’t met, so it may still be available. I think he was hoping to get upward of $100 US. Perhaps someone will want this for a collection. But since the style and method of construction is pretty much the same as today, I don’t see anyone spending much for it. Old clothes only have real value when they are connected with a famous person or event. Contrary to what most people think, museums don’t purchase much unless it has an important history and is directly related to the rest of their collection. They are often the sellers of items that are no longer pertinent to their focus, or are being replaced by better examples. Archival storage space is expensive, and for textiles in particular, as they must be held within a certain temperature and humidity range, while being housed in containers that are acid-free and insect proof.

The dress without the apron

I would think that examples of Amish clothing from this time would be rare, as clothes would be handed on to another sibling or cousin, and eventually would end up as rags or patches. I think this cornflower blue quite pretty, but I suspect the original colour was a deeper indigo.

Amish child's dress and pinafore

This is a more recent example, but made of the same basic design.

Winter outerwear, Lancaster County

Both boys and girls wear simple short jackets in winter in Lancaster County. The young man here is wearing a scaled down version of Pa’s black felt hat. Girls might wear black bonnets over their prayer kapps, or a black wool scarf tied kerchief fashion under the chin. This group, apparently siblings, have bright scarves at their necks. They seem to be without mittens or gloves, though.

Englisch barn boots of the black rubber pull-on type seem to be in common use now among Plain people in winter, with socks inside for warmth. Lace-up boots are so cute on little children, but I can imagine when Mama has to get five young children into boots every morning, it could be quite a struggle. I’ve noticed that Old Order children often wear flip-flop sandals in summer and dark or white running shoes the rest of the year. Young men in their teen years wear dark running shoes or workboots, while young women and girls wear Keds in all but the coldest months.

Bright sunbonnets are standard among small girls – parents allow a bit of freedom of choice in the fabric for the summer bonnet, and even older women will wear quite a colourful floral print sunbonnet on weekdays. Bonnets are good sense for children’; they protect the face, neck and the tender scalp of children prone to burn, and there is no risk of adverse reactions as there is to sunscreen. They stay on better than sunhats. Little boys wear wear straw hats much like their fathers. They may be anchored on the youngest with a bit of elastic.

I would say that Plain parents, even if not Amish or Mennonite, should expect their children to dress Plain. The child is obedient to the parent until independent. It might be a struggle to get teenagers who go to public schools to honour this, but I wouldn’t allow much dissension in my own house. (It isn’t an issue, since all the children were away from home when we became intentionally Plain.) I would expect little girls to cover by the age of eight unless parents don’t expect that until baptism or reception as an adult in the church.

Plain dressed families have so many advantages – the clothes do not go out of style, and are usually handmade and sturdier than factory made clothes. There is no question about status or fashion. There is no temptation to push the limits on how mature or “sexy” the clothes make the child. (Although I have heard of Amish girls asking if they can wear a cape dress and adult covering at a younger age than their older sisters, so they can look more mature. It’s rather like my wanting lipstick and pantyhose at twelve, emulating my older cousins.)

Lancaster County, vintage postcard

Note that here, all the children but one are barefoot! The little boy looks as if he has been dressed up for an occasion; this may be a family setting out for church or market. Perhaps the oldest girl has another place to visit or attend, and she put on shoes and hose.

Plain Dressed Men

Someone asked recently how men can dress Plain, as to be distinguished from some guy in jeans and a blue shirt. Plain as a conviction of a Christian witness is a powerful statement. Plain attire is as much an identiification factor as a Franciscan’s brown robe or a priest’s white collar. I’ve found some images to help those who are Plain outside traditional Plain communities.

Mennonite, 1947

The flat black hat (or flat straw hat) is associated with Plain orders. The wide brimmed hat is practical and distinctive. This older man is wearing a placket shirt and a black jacket without lapels. His square beard and lack of mustache indicate that he is Anabaptist and married (or widowed). Why the lack of mustache? Either because the mustache was associated with military rank, or to indicate the setting aside of vanity. My husband has a full beard and mustache, because he finds shaving to be very difficult with his reduced vision, but he prefers the “peace” or “brethren” beard. Some Anabaptist groups have men start their beard when they married, and a few others when they are baptized.

Amish men at barn raising

This old postcard shows young men working at a barn raising. They are wearing “broadfalls” – old-fashioned button fly trousers – with suspenders. I’ve noticed that Amish and Mennonite men have their suspender buttons sewn outside the waist band, the opposite of what I was taught by my tailoring grandmothers, that suspender (or braces) buttons go inside the waist band. They are wearing long-sleeved shirts of the basic Oxford type, with the sleeves rolled up. Most Plain men now wear blue jeans or basic dress cut trousers in a  dark colour. A few groups continue to wear broadfalls.

I would guess these men were photographed at a mud sale, or spring auction. They are more formally dressed in mutze (jacket), dark trousers and the black flat hat. Plain men do not wear neckties or belts, as both are considered indicators of fashion. Plain men used to wear just black boots, but I’ve noticed a number of even older men have taken to wearing workboots, Oxfords, and running shoes, all for practicality. My husband wears workboots, casual Oxfords, or plain black dress oxfords. He used to wear a pair of all black running shoes at work, since he was on his feet all day.

I made this plain black vest, Nicholas’s “Sunday meeting” attire, worn with a white banded collar shirt and black jeans.