Alabama Chanin makes garments and each piece is stitched by hand by “artisans working in their own homes and businesses using a modern cottage industry method of manufacturing.” Much care is taken with each piece and the details are stunning–the stitching, the beading, the embroidery. In a recent workshop, Natalie Chanin stated they were “making garments for generations. When someone buys one today, her granddaughter will wear it and will want to wear it.”
To our throwaway culture, this is very much a radical idea–passing along garments for generations. However, during the colonial times articles of clothing were listed in probate records. In her book, Two Centuries of Costume in America, Alice Morse Earle traces the lineage of clothes:
“Many persons preferred to keep their property in the form of what they quaintly called “duds.” The fashion did not wear out more apparel than the man; for clothing, no matter what the cut, was worn as long as it lasted, doing service frequently through generations. For instance, we find Mrs. Epes, of Ipswich, Massachusetts, when she was over fifty years old, receiving this bequest by will: “If she desire to have the suit of damask which was the Lady Cheynies her grandmother, let her have it upon appraisement.” I have traced a certain flowered satin gown and “manto” in four wills; a dame to her daughter; she to her sister; then to the child of the last-named who was a granddaughter of the first owner. And it was a proud possession to the last. The fashions and shapes did not change yearly.”
Not only was a garment expensive to make, but the cloth itself was a dear commodity. People often did not own many garments. Marla R. Miller inventories the colonial wardrobe of Rebecca Dickinson (1738-1815):
“The wardrobe of a woman whose family’s economic status, like Rebecca’s, might be called “middling”–that is, neither especially well off nor especially poor–contained perhaps three to six shifts (the long, light gown that served as the century’s foundation garment); two or three petticoats; three under petticoats or skirts, sometimes quilted in silk or wool or made of linen and wool blends (such as linsey-woolsey); a number of “short gowns” (more akin to today’s blouse than a gown, this was the everyday working shirt of the era); a cloak or cloaks; and assorted caps, kerchiefs, and aprons.”
Storage units across America are filled to the brim with unworn unused clothing, and countless factory workers in developing countries are frantically working to keep chain stores filled with the latest fad. The time is ripe for us to take up our needle and thread and begin to make garments that last, and to mend those that may be showing signs of wear and tear. As I stitch my DIY skirt, I will think of Rebecca Dickinson and other revolutionaries that forged the path for us.
Alabama Chanin website, http://alabamachanin.com/women, (September 2013)
Alice Morse Earle, Two Centuries of Costume in America MDCXX-MDCCCXX Volume 1 (The MacMillan Company, 1903), pgs 10-11.
Marla R. Miller, Rebecca Dickinson: independence for a New England Woman (Westview Press, 2014), pgs. 25-26.