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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Making Colonial Clothing by Cynthia Howerter


Because of my interest in making colonial clothing, I recently stopped by Margaret Hunter's Millinery Shop in Colonial Williamsburg.



18th century millinery shops provided virtually all of the fashion needs for men, women, and children. The word milliner is derived from the Latin mille which means "thousand." The name of the business makes sense when one considers that some milliners sold as many as a thousand different items.

I always thought that colonial women made their family's clothing, but this was not the case for the middling (middle) and gentry (upper) classes. Due to the large amount of time required to hand-sew garments, people in these socio-economic groups purchased their family members' clothing in millinery shops.

As an example of the time needed to make 18th century clothing, the petticoat (what we call a skirt) and long gown (jacket) in the photo below took about ten hours of labor from the cutting of the fabric to sewing the final seam.



Samples of feminine clothing are displayed in Margaret Hunter's shop. Shifts for young girls hang on either side of a woman's short gown and matching petticoat.



Men in need of a hat should be pleased with the assortment at the shop.



Because both men and women had their clothes made at the milliner's, these shops employed mantua-makers to make women's clothing and tailors to produce men's clothing.


In the photo below, a mantua-maker takes advantage of the natural light coming through the shop's window to illuminate the petticoat she's sewing by hand.



The outfit of this middling class gentleman, consisting of a white shirt, blue waistcoat, brown coat, and breeches, was custom-made for him by a tailor employed at a millinery shop. He would have also purchased his tri-corn hat, blue stockings, and buckled leather shoes at the milliner's.



This middling class woman's shift, gown, petticoat, cap, and apron would have been made by a mantua-maker at the millinery shop.



Millinery shops also made clothing and special items for babies. Below is a bumper hat for a toddler. Placed on the head, the padded headgear protected the wee one from bruising its head during falls.



There's much more I want to learn about colonial millinery shops and 18th century clothing, so I'll have to make another visit to Margaret Hunter's shop. I'll be sure to share what I learn with you.


Photographs ©2017 Cynthia Howerter



Award-winning author Cynthia Howerter grew up playing in Fort Rice, a Revolutionary War fort owned by family members, and lived on land in Pennsylvania once called home by 18th century Oneida Chief Shikellamy. Hunting arrowheads and riding horses at break-neck speed across farm fields while pretending to flee from British-allied Indians provided exciting childhood experiences for Cynthia and set the stage for a life-long love of all things historical. A descendant of a Revolutionary War officer and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), history flows through Cynthia's veins.



You can find Cynthia on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and Google+.






18 comments:

  1. Very interesting post Cynthia. I too always thought all colonial women made their families clothing, including the middle class...with the exception of the upper class who had someone make them for them.
    Blessings,Tina

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    1. It was an eye-opener to me, too, Mrs. Tina! So glad you liked the post.

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  2. Thanks for the great info. Fits perfect with the peace I am working on right now. :)

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    1. That's wonderful, Angela! So glad my article is of help to you!

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    1. You are too kind, Carrie! I'm glad you enjoyed the visit to the millinery shop.

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  4. Love all this information and the photos, Cynthia! Boy, do I wish I lived close to Colonial Williamsburg, too. so I could visit whenever I want to.

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    1. Thank you, Joan! I wish you lived in the area, too, so we could get together and visit the local historic sites.

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  5. Fun stuff! I love to sew and I could get lost in a shop like that. :)

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    1. Thanks, Pegg! The millinery shop was a feast for the eyes. You would love it.

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  6. Thank you for taking us with you on this tour. I'd love to find a source for patterns of that era. I'll have to decide whether my Quaker wife sews her own or is of the middling category. Or could she be gentry? Hmmm....

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  7. You are most welcome, Judith Robl. The Mary Dickinson Shop on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg usually sells women's patterns. Try contacting them through the CW website if you're unable to visit the shop.

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  8. Thoroughly enjoyed the trip to the milner's shop. As a seamstress, this is all very interesting to me. I don't make garments anymore, as I am now learning to quilt. Howevr, it still is very fascinating to learn how clothing used to be made. Thanks for the research. I hope to someday visit Colonial Williamsburg.

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  9. I'm so glad you enjoyed the article, Betti! Can you imagine sewing entire garments by hand with a needle and thread? Yet, the garments for the middling and gentry classes were well-made and fit the wearer like a glove. I hope you can visit Colonial Williamsburg's millinery shop - I know you will love it.

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  10. A bumper hat would've been handy to have when my boys were little!

    Great article, Cynthia!

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    1. Thank you, Susan! I'm thinking that my new grandchild should probably have one!

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  11. Thank you for sharing. Very interesting!

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  12. Thank you, KayM. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

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