Sunday, August 12, 2007

Clothes to Dye For.

And so, at long last, finally, the post on what I was doing at the Charleston Museum almost two weeks ago. (Good grief, time flies when you're feeling shitty.)

It was a curator-led tour, and after, I had a chance to talk to her for a bit. The museum has piles and piles of clothes from generations of wealthy local folks emptying out their closets and donating the stuff (or the heirs doing the emptying, as the case may be). They do clothing exhibitions regularly, but she'd been trying to come up with a new angle, and tried the clothing/dye angle. The dye information in the tour was very simplistic (I'm pretty sure I was the only semi-professional dyer there, haha), but apparently there is a dye workshop being held on Saturdays. When the weather cools down I'm going to check it out. I've got until April of 2008, when the exhibit closes.

Anyway, on the tour I was accompanied by two groups of tourists; a couple, about my age, and a woman with two younger kids. I think the women had a mild interest and hauled along their traveling companions - the kids and the husband had no clue, but they were curious and good humored about it. I mention this because they were quite entertaining, in their reactions to some of the historic clothing. The girls were horrified at the idea of corsets, and what kid's playclothes were like.

The clothes were all arranged in a rainbow, along the outer walls of the room. Down the center were glass cases of bits and pieces - shoes, bags, you name it. Standing in the door was like looking into Aladdin's Cave for anyone who is interested in textiles.

(Sorry about the bad photo; they had the lights down low, I assume for conservation purposes. I tried a slower shutter speed but without a tripod, they came out really blurry.)

We started out in the reds and worked our way around. I'm going to mostly stick to the knitted items, because we'd be here all day otherwise.

Charleston was founded in 1690, ish, to give you a frame of refrence as to how far back into the history of the place some of the clothes go. In particular, one of the prizes of the collection:

Silk jersey (knitted fabric later cut and sewn) knee breeches, from about 1740. Dyed with cochineal, these are probably one of the reasons the lights were low - cochineal fades badly in light. The kids were totally grossed out at the idea of dye from a bug, particularly after I told them it's what makes Cherry Coke red. I doubt they'll ever touch the stuff again.

There was also a red knitted bathing suit of what must be fairly recent origin, because it's a bikini.

To sort of go with, there was an orange men's bathing suit, down the way, that was hand-knitted. Out of wool. And someone wore it, too, because it was patched and darned in places, including one shoulder strap.

To the left, you can see one side of a fantastic Chinese kimono from the 1890-1940 period; at that time, there was a huge fashion for Asian fabrics and styles and people bought up the stuff as fast as China and Japan could make it and export it. Behind them both, you can see the bottom edge of a magnificent rust, green, and blue kashmir shawl that was hanging on the wall. Pure cashmere and in mint condition.

Yellow didn't have any knits, but there was another golden kimono from the same era as the last one,

and a completely outrageous yellow and black 'opera coat' that reminded me of something Louis XIV would wear (or Mick Jagger), but was more likely worn by a lady in the 1920's.

The green section also didn't contain any knitwear, though there was an interesting discussion at that point about overdyes, and using yellow and blue dyes to produce green, which was a very hard color to achieve. Even after synthetics were introduced, many of them were toxic because they contained copper or arsenic.

There was, however, a netted bag from the 1920's. The peacock feather motif is a dead giveaway. No information on what the bag was made from, and it was so fine I couldn't tell if it was crochet or some type of macrame or a real netting; I can only tell you it wasn't knit.

There were at least half a dozen beaded bags in the exhibit, and I had my nose to the case on most of them, trying to tell if they were knit with beads, or some other form of beading (crochet and just sewing the beads onto fabric being the most common). The only POSSIBLY knit, beaded bag I saw was this one:

I couldn't tell, and the curator wasn't sure. I was afraid to ask her to take it out of the case for me; I hope to chat her up at a dye workshop and see if I can get her to let me have a look at it. I can beg; I'm not proud.

Sorry for the bad photos of the two bags; like I said, the lighting was really bad. I took a dozen photos, and those two are the best of the lot.

In the blue section, we hit paydirt for more knits. The most entertaining of the lot, from the reactions of my tour group, was the 1890's women's bathing costume.

Knit knickers, with overdress. It would of course been worn with long stockings, shoes, and a hat. The gentleman on the tour was completely flabbergasted by this one. He just couldn't get over it, and kept returning to the bathing costume. Later, we were looking at an elaborate, three-layer, beaded wedding dress, and he said "Then, on the honeymoon, she could wear it swimming."

There was also a nice (I just typed that 'knice'), probably hand-knit women's suit from the WW2 era, or directly after.

I leaned WAAAaaaaay over the railing to get a close look, and I'm pretty sure the edging of the jacket, with the white triangles, was knit all in one piece - picked up all around and then increases done to meiter the corners. I hadn't been aware people were using that technique at the time. Very cool.

And then... then! A SOCK! A very darned sock.

Again, sorry for the photo quality. The reason socks are very rare in museum collections is, nobody saves them to donate. Think about it. You wear socks 'til they're holey, and throw them away. For those of you trying to get an idea of gauge, they're a women's regular size, and the white stripe is one round deep. I'd guess fifteen stitches to the inch, easy (about seven stitches to the cm).

That's it for knits. There was nothing in the purple section. (Well. There was a long, crushed-velvet duster from 1910 that looked like it belonged on Lenny Kravitz and was quite a hoot, but it wasn't knit. Neither was anything else there.) For most of history, purple has been either very difficult or very expensive, or both, to achieve. By the time a cheap synthetic was developed - 1860s - for the most part, people weren't doing fancy knitting any more, and so nothing purple got saved. (I'm sure someone knit some purple socks. But they're gone.)

So there's the tour. If you're in the area before spring of next year, try to get to the exhibit, it's really nice. There's piles more stuff, I just stuck to the knitting so I wouldn't have to type an encyclopedia. But it looks like I already have.


Amy Lane said...

That's so cool... the people at our local museum keep getting shows of artists who are exploring the baroque religious historical periods--interesting..but watching angels eviscerate demons in exacting pen and ink detail was a little intense for the children...

(hee hee hee...'and then she could wear it to go swimming'...hee hee he...)

NeedleTart said...

Thank you for the tour. Wish I could be there. I love me some good museums.

Bells said...

Fascinating stuff. Re purple, I saw a documentary on purple making, or a documentary that had some info in it, rather. Revolting job!

That bathing costumes back god...

Dana said...

I also loved the exhibit, esp one of the chiffon green dresses. Wanted to slap it on and pounce around in it. You'll enjoy the dye workshop. I made some cochineal dyed Knitpicks WOTA and some onion skin and indigo skeins, too. THe instructor is someone you'll enjoy talking to. Very in to the history of color and natural dye (and a Civil War re-enactor, too)