Sunday, February 24, 2013

The B. in the Bonnet

The "B" will be me, of course.

I've gone and sewed some flotsam to a bonnet, an activity which required neither skill nor cunning. (And surprisingly little pre-meditation!) There's no need to beat a dead bonnet, so I shall endeavor to keep my punch-drunk, sleep deprived self on the modest side of the usual descriptive quagmire I write myself into!

Oooh. Did you read that last sentence? We're off to a terrible start. Best get this over with.

Some of you may remember the smug bit of rubbish I wrote last year about turning 30 and buying a bonnet. (And for those of you who don't remember, congratulate yourself on your excellent judgement! Or follow the link.) For the Fourth Historical Sew Fortnightly Challenge (embellish!) I decided that it was high time I decorated my lovely Timely Tresses acquisition.

Image courtesy of the National Trust Collections, who will NOT be made to photograph anything from the front, because that's just the sort of thing that got HRH Kate in trouble.

My inspiration was this c. 1840-1850 bonnet from the National Trust Collections. This particular bonnet was selected because the shape of my bonnet is nearly identical, and the time ascribed to the inspiration piece played wondrously into my devious little hands. You see, I wanted a bonnet I could wear at Civil War events without raising too much of a fuss, but something that could also conceivably be displayed with the Jehossee Exhibit if need be. A Time Lord of bonnets, if you will.

The middle of the nineteenth century is not a great time to decide you want a chapeau that will accommodate a 15 year time span. But a Thread-Head's gotta do what a Thread-Head's gotta do.

I started the embellishment process by rounding up a piece of scrap silk that was too small to do anything else with. (It is actually too small for this project as well, but who needs to actually TIE their bonnet strings?? NAME ONE PERSON. That's what I thought.) I cut the silk into roughly 4" strips with the pinking shears I never use, and began pleating the fabric inside the brim.

The pleats are not precise. Frankly, if the surviving examples are any indication, bonnet trimming was a brutal, haphazard sport in the Antebellum era. (Some of them look as if the ribbon was applied with a cannon.) The silk I used is not remotely starchy or crisp, so I was forced to accept a certain... draped quality to the pleats.

I used pretty much every needle I own at some point in this process. It was ridiculous.  I started with my weapon of choice, a #12. That was tough going, so I ended up with the beloved vintage darning needle. That was a bust too, which ultimately led me down the rabbit-hole to a needle that I have no other earthly use for: a book-binding needle. Blunt, solid, short and possessing an eye commodious enough to house a family of four, it was the last thing that I thought would work. (Hence, why I tried it last.) But it was great! The blunt tip spread the fibers of the straw rather than stabbing through them, and the large eye protected the thread from the ravages of the straw. Who knew?

My bavolet is precariously created from the very last scraps of 4" silk that I'd cut. The chain-stitch across the bottom is H.U.G.E.... but so is the design on the original. Historical relevance for the win! 

Regrettably, my photo documentary ends here abruptly. After attaching the bavolet, I ran another row of stitches across the front frill of silk, roughly 1.25" from the pinked edge. It was the only solution I saw to a dreadful case of Flaccid Silk-itis. (When the bonnet was on, I looked like I had upholstered Zooey Deschanel bangs.) Then, in the manner of the Romans, I threw crap all over the bonnet until it could take no more. When at last it was full, I threw even more crap at it. Then I sewed the crap to the other crap. 

I've never felt more alive.

I then dragged it to the Archives and stuck it in a display case as part of the Jehossee diplay. Since it's living in 1850 at the moment, I tried to play up the horizontal look of things rather than the vertical. That said, I failed to get a single decent picture of the bonnet on a human head post-production. The stuffed head above does a lovely job of supporting it, but cannot provide the proper foundation of 1850's hair.

These pictures were taken after the bonnet was put on display and they were all taken from the outside of the case. Brilliant, yes, I know. *Sigh.* Why must I be merely beautiful instead of organized?

In addition to the saffron silk, I used cotton embroidery floss, felt pussy willows, wax blueberries, and some lovely blue plaid ribbon. The plaid ribbon was culled from the $1.00 bin at Micheal's (our local branch of a semi-national craft chain). It is not a natural fiber ribbon, but desperation won the day. Plus, I really love the ribbon.

And Huzzah! Blammo! Bonnet!

Hats Facts:
The Challenge: #4: Embellish!
Fabric: A 15" by 30" piece of saffron colored silk.
Pattern: Are there patterns for things like this?! None used. Images of extant bonnets were consulted.

Year: 1850-1865. (But really, I'll take any combination of those years. Right now we're going for 1850-1855.)
Notions: Yes!  This was the Big Show for notions. I used: 
3 kinds of thread! (cotton embroidery floss plus yellow and brown cotton quilting thread.)
Wax blueberries!
Felt pussy willows!
Pinking shears! (They deserved a second mention.)
How historically accurate is it? With the exception of the VERY inaccurate blue plaid ribbon, everything else used is at least plausible. When I find appropriate replacement ribbon for the blue plaid, it can be changed out. I'm giving this one a 9 of 10.
Hours to complete: 6ish. 
First worn: I had it on several times after it was finished, just for fun. It has not been worn with historical intent at all, though it is currently on display with Antebellum clothing. Did we ever decide if that counted?
Total cost: The bonnet was an initial investment of $85, I think. I purchased the blueberries and pussy willows on sale over the course of the past year. I wouldn't have paid more than $3.00 per pick, so the lot comes to $6.00. Blue plaid ribbon was $1.00. Everything else was stash stuff. Roughly $100, if you count the shipping on the bonnet when I bought it.


  1. Dear Thread-headed Snippet,

    Your writing gives me the giggles. B as in brilliantly funny.

    All the stuff thrown at the hat ended in a handsome hat! No matter that pussy willows bloom before blueberries are a twinkle in the mama plant's eye: they work!

    Very best,


    1. Natalie-

      Thank you!

      I am a proud and brazen practitioner of botanical anachronism. Currently in production is a straw Regency bonnet which boasts an enthusiastic combination of dried wheat, faux-pyrocantha berries and felt poppies. What can I say? I live dangerously.


  2. Every one of your posts is a delight to read. The bonnet is incredibly fun and pretty. I hope to see it on a human head one day!

  3. Um, I totally love the color silk you used! The bonnet turned out charming! :)

  4. I hope you had as much fun writing this (and making it and taking the photos) as I did reading it! True entertainment. And the bonnet is lovely. Deserves to be in a film somewhere!

    Seeing that you're such a quick hand with improvising materials -- have you ever improvised hoops for a hoop skirt? I need something that will be cheap (not strapping!) and stand up under a cartridge-pleated skirt or two. Any ideas?
    Thanks a bunch!
    Auntie Nan

    1. Auntie Nan-

      So let me get this straight... you want me to help you create an economical, historically accurate reproduction of a hoop-skirt out of readily available materials?

      That's it... I'm going home.

      I'm actually in the process of revitalizing my own homemade hoop. It's currently made of 5/8" spring steel and plastic rivets, with canvas duck strips to hold everything together. I made it about two years ago, and it's taught me a great deal. Mainly, that I do NOT need a 160" bottom hoop. (WHAT was I thinking??) Mine is comprised of 4 graduated hoops with the strips suspended from a wide waistband. In its new life, it will be enclosed in a cotton sleeve from the hips-down, with channels sewn for the steel.

      This brings me to my answer, such as it is: I haven't found the Holy Grail for easy+affordable+accurate crinoline hoops yet. If you go the route I did, you're looking at an investment of roughly $60 for materials, provided you have the tools to rivet the metal strips together. I've seen hoop skirts made of hula hoops, plastic pool toys, plastic wall-trim and just about everything else you can think of. Bottom line is, what's most important to you? If you're on a very small budget, I'd get a plastic hoop-skirt from one of the ebay sellers. Some of them will give a perfectly fine shape and you'll be spared a 2-day tournament of horrors in your kitchen with a roll of duct tape and a stack of hula hoops (or whatever).

      If you are more concerned with accuracy, your investment will probably increase quite a bit but your results will look better in the event of a sudden wind storm. Please let me know what you decide to make! I love Costume MacGyvering! When I get some of my other projects under wraps, I'll do a post on my own hoop skirt. Hopefully by then you'll be on a better path than I. Thank you for your (always) kind words!


    2. Dear T.H.S.! Thanks for your VERY GENEROUS response to my query! I really only expected a "well, you could get some hula hoops and duct tape, or I heard of a desperate and lazy costumer once who used busted venetian blinds.." Actually, blinds MIGHT work, if you could put up with the thunderclaps coming from under your skirts when they snapped!

      Holy C..p! HOW DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THE TOURNAMENT OF HORRORS! And it usually is performed in my bathroom in puddles of dripping dyed muslin, not duct tape... Costume MacGyvering should be my motto, and if you haven't grabbed it first...
      Seriously, I need to create at least 4 farthingales and the less it costs the better, so any tips and tricks you are generous enough to share will make me giddy with glee. Know any reason why reinforced nylon tubing from Lowe's wouldn't do it?
      THANKS for making me laugh. Dangerous, with food, but fun!

    3. Nancy-

      I see absolutely no reason not to try the nylon tubing. If it's cheaper than a couple dollar store hula hoops, GO FOR IT! Thrift store belts are good waistbands and adjustable, too. My experience with Costume MacGyvering on anyone besides my lonely self is verrrrry limited, so I don't have a ton of tricks up my sleeve. Liz at The Pragmatic Costumer has some awesome posts on costume improvising, and so does Lauren at American Duchess.

      And can I say how bloody happy it makes me that someone of my "acquaintance" needs to create 4 farthingales? Livin' the dream.

      Good luck! I demand updates.