Sunday, February 26, 2012

Clothing the Body of Memory: Ellen E. Janney (1822-1887)

The "For the Love of Costume" post above this one gives you some background on my love of “fancy dress.” In this post, I’ll share a costume journey of a different sort, a journey that formed part of the process of my dissertation, whose abstract you can read here. In the dissertation, I explored from a very personal perspective the importance of women’s work and women’s voices.

My companions on this journey were a group of women I call the Ladies, all of whom have long since passed from this world but who remain interested in the goings-on in our plane of existence. They have stories to share, wisdom to pass on, and terrific sewing skills to teach!

This tale begins in the spring of 2005, when I sat for nearly six weeks, every day from sun-up to sunset, guarding my apricot crop from the depredations of the local squirrel population. That in itself is a story! But the importance of that vigil to this post is the fact that during those six weeks, I spent most of each day stitching a dress for a “friend” of mine, Ellen E. Janney (1822–1887).

Who Was Ellen Janney?

Ellen’s 1843 letter to my great-great grandmother has survived, but almost nothing else is known about her. From the “thees” and “thous” in her letter I knew she was a Quaker, but after much searching, I still could find no reference to her in the genealogical literature. It seemed that she had vanished into history, leaving the marks of her pen on brittle brown paper as a record of her existence.

I began to imagine into her life: One afternoon, as I sat in a state of reverie, I caught a “glimpse” of a young woman in a light-colored gown and a plain white cap or bonnet. This, it seemed to me, was Ellen herself.

By “listening” to what she had to say, I understood that at the time of her life when she wrote to my great-great grandmother, her “dearest friend,” she found herself hemmed in and confined to a rather dreary life. One of the things she missed, which was absolutely not allowed in her strict Quaker family, seemed to be pretty clothes.
The artwork for my dissertation crystallized in my mind: I would make Ellen a new gown, one that she would have been delighted to wear.

Designing the garment

The pattern I used was from an English day-dress from the period 1839-1845 (Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 1, p. 64). It has a dome-shaped skirt that would have been supported by numerous petticoats and a padded hem to help it stand away from the body.

On the bodice is a “bertha” or decorative drape on the front part of the neckline made of twelve narrow bias strips of the dress fabric lapped one over another and stitched down to a backing piece. Onto this bertha, I envisioned photo-transferring lines from Ellen’s letter to my great-great grandmother.

The sleeves on Arnold’s dress pattern are narrow all the way to the wrist, an up-to-the-minute style in America in 1843, but the sleeves in the dress Ellen seemed to want were full, at least below the elbow. The “bishop” or (even more exaggerated) “imbecile” sleeve, ballooning out from shoulder to wrist, was stylish in the early 1830s but would have been decidedly old-fashioned by 1843—not to mention that, to a Quaker, those enormous sleeves would have represented a shameful waste of fabric!

Quaker styles often lagged ten or more years behind fashion trends, in part because they considered it a virtue to wear a garment until it wore out rather than be guided by worldly ideas like fashion. However, Ellen was a young woman of 20 or 21 in 1843, and I wanted something more fashionable for her. The bodice pattern has a pointed waist that began to show up in garments around 1839 or 1840, so I chose to construct a pattern for the “Victoria” sleeve from the late 1830s, with a tight upper portion and a full, cuffed lower part, in order to bridge the fashion gap.

I also needed to locate a fabric that would be suitable for the reproduction-quality garment I wanted to construct. I wasn’t able to find anything like the white and off-white cottons with woven stripes interspersed with printed flowers that were fashionable and readily available in the first quarter of the 19th century.

The fabric needed to be light-colored enough that the printed lines from Ellen’s letter would show up. They might never be fully legible, but the viewer needed to be able to see that there was handwriting there, and be intrigued enough by it to struggle a bit to read the words.

The fabric that I finally settled on was a fine cotton in a gray and black print with tiny red cherries. However, in its original state the fabric was too dark to show the printing, so I bleached it thoroughly and then tea-stained it lightly. This process both “aged” the fabric and removed most of the background color, leaving a brown print with subtle red tones in the cherries. The handwriting extracted from the letter would blend in but still be visible.

Constructing the garment

My final consideration in making the dress was that it should be made as if it were going to be worn, using only fabric types and construction techniques that would have been used in the early 1840s. The dress is life-size; my working assumption is that Ellen would have been about five feet tall, average height for her time, about the same height as the owner of the original dress in Arnold’s book.

All the fabric used in the garment is cotton; the thread is cotton quilting thread rubbed with beeswax. No shortcuts were taken in the cut or construction. All pieces are lined with plain white cotton broadcloth. Each seam is piped for strength, backstitched by hand, and overcast. The 1/16th-inch piping itself is hand-made from bias strips stitched over cotton string. The skirt is cartridge-pleated with three rows of gathering threads. The hem is carefully interlined with cotton batting, just as in the original garment.

Even the fastenings on the garment are as authentic as possible. Pins might have been used, or more likely hooks and eyes. Rather than using modern, store-bought fastenings, hooks were twisted from brass wire and attached to hand-made thread loops.

In the end, the only deviation from an actual garment is that only the front of the skirt was constructed. Apparently my frugal Ladies could not condone wasting two full yards of fabric only to be hidden against the canvas—when I placed my order, there was exactly, and only, enough fabric available from the company to make the bodice plus the skirt front!

The construction process took place almost entirely out in the yard, under the apricot tree, during that spring and early summer. My days were filled with handwork and my “inner ears” with the conversation of an entire sewing circle of ladies to whom such stitching was a daily labor and a lifelong skill.

The Sewing Circle

Sitting for ten or twelve hours a day with a needle in my hand, stitching endless seams, yards of gathering, and what seemed like miles of piping, I found a rhythm and sense of calm that I have only rarely experienced. In that quiet place I discovered I was not alone, but surrounded by the spirits of other women who had spent similar long hours sewing during their lifetimes.

The women who sat with me under the apricot tree formed a companionable group, and though I couldn’t generally understand their words, I could hear, with my heart’s ear, the murmur of quiet conversation and laughter. This was a real sewing circle, and I was definitely a part of it. It felt like a privilege.

I also received instruction in some of the techniques I needed to master in order to create the dress. I had some good teachers:

This morning was especially interesting. I really feel like I was being guided and instructed by a woman older than Ellen presents herself, someone perhaps my own age. She’s someone who has used the needle all her life, and in her circle is considered an expert at dressmaking, though I think she sews only for her family, not professionally. She presents herself as Ellen’s mother’s generation but gives no name that I can hear.

She was most clearly present as I was trying to figure out the best way to put gathering stitches into the sleeve cap. I couldn’t figure out how to make it easier—I was just kind of holding it up in the air flat and aiming to make the stitches match the stitches to the ones in the row above; that didn’t work well. I tried pulling up the gathers in the first row, but that didn’t seem to work, either. Then I heard, “Let the pleats form under your fingers.”

It took me a while, but then I realized that they would do precisely that, with only a little coaxing. Of course, it will be easier after MUCH practice, but I got the idea. Then, when it was time to begin the gathering at the cuff end of the sleeve, I heard, “Form them on your needle.” Sure enough, if you put several of them close together on the needle as you stitch, you can tell immediately if they’re the right size, evenly spaced, and will hang correctly. Amazing! Then, in the second and subsequent rows, you can just let the pleats form and then catch them up as you go. This is just astounding.

There is considerable difference of opinion among the Ladies about the proper way to attach a skirt. The woman with whom I’ve been studying this morning has a definite way of doing these pleats, making them regular and even. There’s another voice—I’m pretty sure it’s my friend the master quilter Annie Grubbs, since I was wondering about her when I heard her, and she has a kind of rural, hill-country accent—who thinks this fancy stuff is for the birds (“Pshaw!” was her precise comment—I never before heard anyone actually use that word!).

“Gather it up and stitch it down good and tight—save yer fancy work for when it counts!” None of this “itty bitty” pleating, and never mind the fussy details. The difference, I suppose, is that Annie has a lot less free time. She’s a farm wife, I think, or a hill woman who lives alone; maybe widowed?

I realize I can relax in their company, and just enjoy listening to the talk. I can’t yet hear much, just these occasional phrases, but the murmur is constant, soothing. I feel like belong here. I’ve missed these Ladies all my life! How interesting.

Women’s Work

From those hours I gained a huge appreciation of what women’s work was about in years past: how vital the work was, how difficult, frustrating, often dangerous, and often rewarding.

Imagine: In this country (as it still is in some parts of the world) until the late 1850s when the sewing machine was invented, every stitch on every sheet, curtain, and garment used or worn by every member of your family would have been sewn by you or your daughters, or by some (usually female) dressmaker or seamstress.

Every stitch sewn by hand. And for some, that fabric would also have been made by you, from thread spun by your own hands. Thus it has been for millennia. Until well into the 20th century, a woman would have had a needle and thread in her hand for at least part of almost every day of her life from the time she was five or six until her eyes could no longer see or her fingers stitch.

The strong association between women and needlework throughout the ages perhaps explains why the artwork that Ellen and I worked on had to be created through needlework. It would not have been sufficient to create a painting of someone doing needlework, or even a collage of needlework done by someone else. Nor would a mock-up of a dress have been sufficient, even though the stitches are for the most part invisible.

No, the essence of this piece is the nature of its creation: by hand, by me, carefully and thoughtfully through fifty or sixty hours of hard work, just as Ellen herself would have done. The care and selection of the materials, the skill required, and the time and effort invested form a vital part of the energy of the finished piece. There was no other way to embody Ellen’s memory.

Once the dress was completed, I mounted it on canvas with an aluminum armature beneath its petticoats, so that it appears almost as if Ellen, re-inhabiting her gown, is about to step off the canvas and into the room. Invisible she may be, but she is not forgotten!

When I defended the dissertation in 2010, I presented much of it garbed as Ellen Janney, in a modest Quaker gown. But as a kind of continuation of our work together, I also created an ensemble that she might have enjoyed wearing (very un-Quakerlike though it all was!) in the early 1870s.

The removable sleeves of her Quaker outfit allowed for lace frills, and with appropriate trim, it became a lovely dinner dress. The skirt was then paired with a ball gown bodice and bustle. As I’ve worn each of these pieces to dinners, dances, and balls, I’ve imagined Ellen’s spirit enjoying the events right along with me!

(Parts of this post were excerpted and abridged from my dissertation, Working With the Imaginal: Art-Making With Figures of Soul. Unpublished dissertation, Pacifica Graduate Institue, Carpinteria, CA. 2010.)


Arnold, J. (1972a). Patterns of fashion 1: Englishwomen's dresses and their construction c. 1660-1860. London: Macmillan.

Barber, E. W. (1995). Women's work: The first 20,000 years: Women, cloth, and society in early times (New ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.

Bradfield, N. (1981). Costume in detail 1730-1930 (2nd ed.). New York: Costume & Fashion Press.

Cassin-Scott, J. (1971). Costume and fashion in colour 1760-1920. Poole, Dorset, England: Blandford Press.

Parker, R. (1984). The subversive stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine. New York: Routledge.

Tozer, J., & Levitt, S. (1983). Fabric of society: A century of people and their clothes 1770-1870. Carno, Powys, Wales: Laura Ashley.

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