A number of months ago, I completed my Woolen Undersleeves. The pattern is from 1862 from Godey’s Ladies Book, and like with other historical patterns, I had to muddle my way through the historic lingo when creating my own undersleeves. I created these undersleeves to wear with my historic costume for work, knowing they would come in handy during any outreach I have to do in the cold weather.
This weekend, I had my first opportunity to use the undersleeves. My co-workers and amazing volunteers and I got dressed in our Victorian finest and marched in our local Santa Claus Parade. After a very warm Friday, the temperatures dipped on Saturday, much more appropriate for Christmas weather. Undersleeves were a necessity.
I am very happy to report that I was able to 5+ kilometres in the chilly weather, and thanks to my woolen undersleeves, I was very toasty warm. I can happily report, the undersleeves were a success.
The pattern I used was from Godey’s Ladies Book, 1862
For the modern interpretation of the pattern, please read my original post.
Every so often, my job requires that I dress like a Victorian. When I first started, fresh out of museum studies and thrilled to be employed, I remember a slight feeling of embarrassment and nervousness the first time I donned the costume. I think it was mostly my own insecurities and anxieties working their way out, but after time and NUMEROUS occasions, I’m quite comfortable in my ‘pioneer’ dress and am quite happy to wear it as the time sees fit.
The dress I wear was made by me, under Grandma’s careful supervision, over two years ago, and recently, I’ve been adding to my accessories through various historic knitting patterns. I completed by Sontag last Spring, and my Sortie Cap was a very fast knit over a weekend last summer. Since the holiday knitting season ended, I’ve been slowly working away at another historic pattern which will keep my arms very warm, as I’ve been knitting myself a pair of undersleeves.
I’m still working on undersleeve #2, and I’ll share the project, photos, and my own edits and notes in a future post, but I thought for today, I’d share a little history on this accessory, because until I started working in the Museum field, I had never heard of undersleeves before. The name seems straight forward, but what is the history of this accessory?
Undersleeves were commonly worn during the mid 1800s, an essential part of any woman’s fashion. They were detachable, which made laundering easier – and laundry was no easy task during the Victorian era. As much as I long for aspects of the past, I am very thankful for my modern washer and dryer. Hot water, harsh soaps, washboards and wringers – no thank you. Typically white or off-white, undersleeves helped to keep body oils off the fabric of dresses, which were commonly made from wool or silk, materials which couldn’t be washed. Undersleeves served to be both purposeful for protecting the fabric as well as decorative.
Many museums have undersleeves in their collection, and quite often they are trimmed with lace or other delicate stitching. When fashions changed, as fashions inevitably do, undersleeves were a simple way to change up the look of a dress rather than with a new dress entirely. The undersleeves would also change seasonally; warm weather would see sleeves made from light-weight white fabrics such as organdy, while cotton and other heavier materials could be used to help stave off the cold. The pattern I am making from Godey’s is for wool undersleeves, clearly intended for cold weather wear.
The styles of these accessories also varied, from those that required pinning to the interior of the dress sleeve, ones which gathered at the wrist and those that were open and loose at the wrist. Not only could the material change for the season, but Peterson’s, another Lady’s publication from the era, discussed how undersleeves could change for wear throughout the day.
White undersleeves for morning wear are made with a deep linin cuff, fastened with three studs, either comprised of precious stones, or of gold. For evening wear, the cuff is made of lace and embroidered insertion; but fullings of any description are now never employed, as the under-sleeve should be as flat as possible.
~Peterson’s Magazine, 1863.
Undersleeves, after a number of decades, fell out of fashion, but one can still find many sewing or knitting patterns for making your own. Coming next week, the Godey’s pattern I followed when knitting my woolen undersleeves, my interpretation of the pattern, and my finished sleeves. Stay tuned!
When researching this post, I referred to a few sources, including:
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History, Volume 3, 1801 to Present, edited by Jill Condra; accessed: https://goo.gl/npaeZg
Oshawa Express, ‘Under sleeves, a unique piece of clothing,’ J. Weymark; accessed: http://goo.gl/WYbzxL
Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900, Joan L. Severa; accessed: https://goo.gl/gI30oL
Okay, I’m going to say it… for a historian, someone who is passionate about history and the preservation and promotion of history, I thoroughly dislike historic knitting patterns. Maybe this isn’t fair; I’ve worked with exactly two ‘vintage’ patterns, but both have been less than straight forward. Both, however, have given me the chance to do some reading and research into the history of these patterns, and the history geek in me has loved every second of it!
The first pattern I made was a World War I sock, based off a pattern I found in a local newspaper in 1916. It was the second pair of socks I made, and the directions were clearly meant for someone who was not a sock novice. Instructions for the heel flap and the foot gusset were lacking, and I had to rely on common sense and my knitting circle friends for advice! Newspapers from that time period are scarce – hard copies that have been donated the the Archives are what is available as they are not available on microfilm. We are lucky that the papers we have have since been digitized. I was able to read through the papers from the First World War and I loved reading about the 116th Knitting Society who worked hard to send socks overseas to the Canadian troops.
The second pattern I’ve tried is the one I’m working on right now – the Sontag. This pattern was first written in 1860. It is a lovely piece, a wrap/shawl combo meant to provide warmth to the torso without adding extra layers on the arms, leaving them free to work as needed. This piece, also called a Bosom Friend, was likely named for Henriette Sontag, a noted German opera singer who was popular during this time period. The pattern first appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in January 1860, although they do not explain why it has been given the name ‘Sontag.’ The Bosom Friend makes sense, knowing, ahem, what the garment covers and how it crosses over, but why Sontag? Did she wear something similar, or was Godey’s making an inference to Sontag’s anatomy?
So, I got to searching. Archive.org is a fantastic resource with many primary sources available. Simply by searching for Godey’s, I was able to look at this woman’s magazine from the Victorian Era and search within individual issues for Sontag. The first instance of Sontag that I found was in 1852, when discussing the operatic singer who was making appearances in New York. Later in the issue, they made note of the following under fashion:
As was predicted in an earlier number, velvet ribbon has become the favourite style of trimming for all heavier materials, whether formed into cloaks or dresses. We give a beautiful cloak, the sontag, trimmed in this way
From the illustration, this looks nothing like the piece I am currently making.
In 1856, I stumbled across the following passage, written by the editors in response to correspondence they received from readers:
Miss B of Fair Haven – We do not know the material of the title given, but presume it is a style of poplin. Such fancy names are usually invented for country towns. A Broadway or Chestnut Street mantua-maker would but smile if you should ask her to make you a ‘Parodi,’ a ‘Sontag’, or a ‘Eugénie,’ when you meant a certain style of basque. As regards the second inquiry, poplins are never flounced – the material is too heavy.
There were a whole lot of textile references in that quote that I hadn’t heard before. Poplin is a strong fabric; mantua-maker is a historical sewing pattern company; Parodi, well I’m not 100% sure what that is referring to; Eugénie is likely in reference to Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III who would have set standards for popular clothing, much like celebrities today – she greatly popularized a coat known as Eugénie paletot; and, basque, in Victorian fashion, refers to a closely fitted bodice or jacket extending past the waistline over the hips (thank you Wikipedia!).
From the sources I could find online and through Archive.org, it looks like the first knit pattern for a Sontag appeared in 1860, and it is the basket-weave pattern I am working on currently.
In 1861, a second pattern is published which would be more straight forward for a novice knitter, but it does not have the basket-weave fabric that the 1860 pattern produces.
And again, in 1862, they published another image of a Sontag, this time more rectangular than previous and without a pattern to accompany the image.
Godey’s never outwardly states that this style of wrap was named for Henriette Sontag, but she was known to them and was well regarded. It is likely that she wore something similar, it became popular and has been named in her honour.
Once I cast on and started knitting, I am enjoying this project, but the initial start was frustrating. The directions for the basket-weave, as written in 1860, aren’t straight forward, and everyone who has tried to ‘interpret’ the pattern has a different way of explaining the directions. I am a very visual person so to knit something, it is helpful to me if a) I’ve made it before, b) there are clear instructions, or c) there is a video or someone to help explain it to me. I cannot look at the written words and know immediately how the finished piece will look. I’m more of a ‘trial and error’ kind of person – I try to figure it out and if it works, great, but if not, then we frog and start again. After reading 3-4 different interpretations on the construction, I simply said, to hell with it, I’m going to muddle through. And muddle through I did. In hindsight, I would have altered the way I’ve knit the pattern at the sides when increasing, but it won’t bother me so much to want to start over.
The basket-weave is ultimately working up to a lovely fabric, and the deep purple colour of the yarn is making me very happy.