Stitching a fine seam is something Dana Lippitt of Bangor and Kathy Cook of Amherst do with ease. They create the period clothing they wear at local museum functions or as re-enactors of historic eras.
Lippitt, curator of the Bangor Museum and History Center in Bangor, dons the garb of a Civil Warera lady when she conducts twilight tours of Mount Hope Cemetery in Bangor during the warmer months of the year. The costume is complete right down to the hoop skirt, undergarments and plumed hat.
“I make everything as authentic as possible on the outside,” she said. But she feels perfectly justified in using modern sewing machines to construct the garments. Some details are, of course, sewn by hand.
Her favorite patterns are Old World and Patterns of the Past. She has used Simplicity historic clothing patterns, but “the fit is wrong,” she said, “because they have a modern, built-in ease.” Authentic period clothing, she said, fits much more snugly.
She also purchases patterns and notions from the Amazon Drygoods catalog.
Before embarking on a stint of historic garment sewing, Lippitt looks at prints from the era she’s interested in. She studies fashion silhouettes of the time, absorbing ideas and details that give the garment its style.
“You can never find quite the same materials that were used then, but sometimes you can find authentic buttons and trims,” she said. “I like to make the clothing as close to authentic as I can get using local resources.” She shops at Marden’s in Brewer, the Yardgoods Center in Waterville and JoAnn Fabric in Bangor. She also finds useful notions at thrift stores and antique malls. “The challenge is to fool the eye and not spend a lot of money.”
When museum staff and volunteers dress in historic clothing she has made, Lippitt said, “it elicits a positive response for the museum. People enjoy it.”
Period garments Lippitt has made include a Civil Warera dress, two Gibson Girlera outfits, a 1902 tea gown, a 1910 walking dress, a 1918 walking dress and an 1880s bustle dress. “I would like a dress from every era,” she said.
The last Mount Hope Cemetery twilight tour of the season takes place at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 10. The last Ghost Lamp tours of the season, taking participants on an entertaining and educational walk of downtown Bangor, are scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14 and 28. The cost for the tours is $5. Call the Bangor Museum and History Center at 942-1900 for more information.
Kathy Cook of Amherst approaches the creation of historic reproduction clothing differently from Lippitt. She stitches entirely by hand the garments she wears when taking part in re-enactment events, using only needle and thread, the way such clothing was constructed in the days before the invention of the sewing machine. Several times each year, Cook and her husband, William, re-enact life as it was in the late 1700s at Leonard’s Mills, the living history museum in Bradley.
Cook, who has 20 years’ experience making the clothing of centuries past, also researches the background of the garment she wants to create. If possible, she looks at a garment from the period to see how it is constructed. Like Lippitt, she studies paintings, prints and lithographs of clothing of the period.
“The most challenging aspect is fitting the garment to myself,” Cook said. She drafts her own patterns to ensure that the fit will be correct. The garments she has constructed are from the Middle Ages, the 17th century, and Revolutionary and Civil war periods. “You have to be your own tailor,” she said. She recently acquired a Civil War-vintage sewing machine, which she plans to use for making 1860s clothing.
“I’ve never been comfortable in the 20th or the 21st centuries,” she said.
Cook also shops locally for fabrics, whenever possible, to stock up on cotton, linen and wool. Sometimes, she said, it’s possible to find Civil War-era reproduction prints that will serve her purpose, but finding printed linen is always difficult.
“Nothing is ever perfect,” she said of the clothing she makes. “I come as close as I can.”
Cook advises those interested in creating historic clothing to join a re-enactment group, find a mentor, start out with inexpensive materials, and to make muslin patterns and never throw them away. “And don’t be a copycat — evolve a style in keeping with the times — women of the past would never always be dressed just alike,” she said.
The favorite outfit of her own making is from the 18th century, she said. It consists of a yellow skirt and a checked linen jacket, which she wears on Sundays when she is doing a re-enactment.
The lure of the past has been with Cook since she was in the fourth grade and went on a field trip to a museum where she saw a woman in period costume spinning. “I thought,” she said, “when I grow up I want to be her.”