Resolutions, Ripper Street and Tiny Toiles

This year’s new year’s resolution is to learn how to sew better.  I want to get to grips with hand-quilting, embroidery and dress-making.  In particular, I want to make some vintage clothes from old patterns.

This year sees the start of a new research project on material culture in children’s literature.  I’m taking a semester’s research leave to get started on a monograph and I’m surrounded by all things Victorian at the moment…books, catalogues, advertisements, cartoons…and so I decided that my first project of the new year should be something Victorian that ties in with my research.

Outside of the library,  I’ve been getting a regular fix of rollicking, romping, ripping Victorian entertainment through Ripper Street.  I know people complain because it’s not historically accurate.  I know that while it’s theoretically set in the late 1880s, there are all sorts of anachronisms and some things (like Jackson’s gun) appear WAY ahead of their time whereas other things (like some of the slang words used) are more than a little archaic.[1]

But I don’t care.

I don’t care because the whole thing is filmed in Dublin and I love watching to see if I can spot bits of the sets – Trinity College[2], the Dead Zoo[3], Dublin Castle[4]

I don’t care because the dialogue has a rhythm and a register all of its own that makes the world of the story unique.

I don’t care because even the small characters are brilliant and have their own little lives to get on with.

And mostly I don’t care because I adore the clothes.

The sleeves! The standy-up collars!  The skirts! The mad turquoise and orange palette that the third season rocked!  Everything Long Susan wears!

Behold her mighty sleeves. And those hats.



How I want to get a hat like that and stick it to the front of my head like a mad Victorian unicorn…I want to sit in a room wallpapered with gold and teal peacocks and snark at anyone that comes near me in an inferior get-up…

And so when the latest (and maybe last?) season of Ripper Street came to an end I decided that what my little heart desired most was a jacket like Long Susan’s.  Preferably one that I could actually get away with wearing in real life without small children pointing at me on the street.

So – to research!

My recent searches of late 19th century periodicals turned up some beautiful pictures but sadly no practical patterns.  I found some nice modern patterns that are based on old designs but that felt a little bit like cheating (bear in mind that I will cheat heavily when it comes to actually making this this…there’s no way I’m going without interfacing or my sewing machine so cheating at the pattern stage too makes the whole thing dishonest).

Then I found The National garment Cutting Book of Diagrams from 1888.  It’s from exactly the right period and it is a many-splendored thing.  It’s full of wonderful, strange, outfits with big bustles and enormous sleeves.  I love sleeves.

I was tempted by some of the coats and the dresses – even the aprons looked like fun.

But I loved this jacket the best.

Ladies’ Street Jacket, The National Garment Cutter Book of Diagrams 1888

The pattern is…not what I’m used to.

Here it is in its entirety.


That’s it.  One page.  There’s no indication of how any of these bits fit together and the only advice for sizing is “use scale corresponding with bust measure”.  The description says ‘in ten pieces’ but only nine are drafted here.  Thanks Anonymous.  That’s so helpful.

After some serious moping, Karl suggested that I make a miniature version as a sort of tiny mock-up toile.  And so I did.

I traced over the pattern pieces as they are printed and cut the pieces out of some left-over quilting cotton (bad choice in retrospect because it frayed so much). It was a bit strange to sew sleeves that only had space for one or two pins.

Here it is.

Apart from the woejeous[5] stitching and the gammy[6] bits under the armscye I’m rather pleased with it. I did eventually (after some swearing) figure out where all the bits went and how the pieces fit together.

So, this weekend’s project is to make a full-size toile.  I have some canvas, a lot of pins and a heap of enthusiasm. And I’ll be following the (anachronistic) advice from Singer the whole time.


I’ll let you know where it gets me.

[1] Vanessa Heggie has an excellent blog post that points out that it’s not as far-fetched as it seems initially

[2] My alma mater…it doubles as a surprising number of buildings.

[3] For non-Dubliners, the Dead Zoo is like the normal Zoo but it’s full of taxidermied animals rather than living ones. It’s a fantastic place and there are many wondrous things to see, including a lion who obviously died of natural causes.  Probably the mange.  It’s the saddest looking lion in the whole world. He’s gone all baldy and sideways in his case and the moths have been at him but he’s kind of brilliant because you won’t see a manky old dead lion so proudly displayed anywhere else.

[4] Also where they filmed The Tudors.  That’s less exciting to watch because history has already given out the spoilers.

[5] A word I learned from my mother which means very bad, worthy of woe, grief-inducing

[6] Unable to function normally due to chronic injury or pain (in this case, pain caused to my fingers)

Treasure, sharks and shopping

The Headington Shark AKA “Untitled 1986” by John Buckley


Maybe the only thing my sister and I have in common is our love of vintage knitwear.

Not that we have any taste.  I’ve just started reading one of Gail Carriger’s novels (rollicking romps across nineteenth century London with extra dirigibles) in which the main character has no soul and, therefore, no fashion sense…and I am a little worried about me and my sister.

We love horrible things.  Terrible, textured, awful things that could make angels weep.

On Saturday we went on a little adventure to Headington a town with a shark in a house and more charity shops than you can shake a stick at.   In the back of one of these shops we found a basket of old knitting patterns hidden away under a shelf.

We sat on the floor and went through them all, cooing over the hairstyles and sleeves and the poses and lamenting the fact that modern pattern books seem to only show models in weird and elaborate scenes – holding fancy drinks or laughing in an apple tree or digging a ‘flowerbed’ to hide the suspicious bundle at their feet.  I eventually settled on five of the patterns and went to the counter.


The woman at the counter looked at me, looked at the patterns, looked at me again and narrowed her eyes in vicious suspicion.

“You’re not going to MAKE these, are you?”

“Oh yes, I hope so.”



“Hrump.” This is the noise she made.  If you say it out loud, exactly as I’ve written it, you can make that noise too.  Don’t forget to frown as you make it.



I call this a successful haul.  I’m not totally sure about the shape of the blue 1980s(?) number but we’ll see.  You never know when the urge to dress up as a sailor-orphan will strike.  I’m totally sold on the flowery Tyrolean thing.  My sister has asked for this one for Christmas.


If she’s lucky, she might even get it.






Knitting: on the train and in the bin

Knitting on the train with snide yarn

Knitting on the train with snide yarn

I like knitting while I’m travelling.  Random strangers come and start conversations about their grannies and their own memories of knitting.  When you’re knitting, you’re perceived as being total harmless and very friendly.  People seem to ignore the pointy needles for some reason.

I brought my knitting when I went back to Ireland this week.   As well as catching up with family and friends it was a time to rediscover the joys of feeding terns off the harbour in Galway, getting drenched to the skin in Ardgillan and watching seals off shore in Balbriggan.  And knitting on trains, planes and in cars.

Travel-knitting is always limited.  You can’t have anything too bulky or heavy.  Nothing too complicated or requiring millions of charts or different needles and yarns.  I decided to make socks – just plain, vanilla, snoresome ribbed socks.  With a boring round heel because I forgot to bring a yarn needle and so I couldn’t do my favourite Balbriggan Heels.

And it would have been utterly mindless except that the yarn rebelled.

The only word to describe this yarn is ‘snide‘. It slithers off the needle and wriggles its way out of stitches.  It splits if you so much as breathe on it.  I came to loathe it.  Knitting became a battle of wits – I’d try to sneak a few rounds before the stupid yarn knew what had happened and started its snaky, slithy, writhey dance of spite off my needles. I even lost the ball-band so I can’t reliably report what the nasty stuff is.  I found the ball-band.  Ironically enough, it’s called ‘Superba Harmony’ and the slidey snidey quality is because it’s 25% polyamide.  Won’t be using that again!

The trip wasn’t making for good knitting until Helen (TCD Medievalist and doyenne of Dublin crafting) gave me this.

It’s a book.  Or rather, it’s a manuscript.  It was found in the bin in the booksale room.

People donate loads of old books to the Trinity booksale.  Mostly from house-clearances, dead-men’s shoes, that sort of thing.  Sometimes there are real treasures because people toss out things without really knowing what they have in their hands.

Like this little gem.


It’s a diary that someone has repurposed as a knitting journal – there are notes for knitting patterns, crochet patterns, embroidery and dressmaking.  There are patterns, sketches and ideas.  Some are copied from magazines but others are clearly home-made and are called things like “May’s Tea-Cosy”.

It’s a fascinating manuscript with at least three different hands in evidence and you can see where two different people have used the same pages:

First and second hands

First and second hands

The first has a right-leaning slope, written in good black ink (now faded) and these notes relate to financial transactions and business.  Though there are some stranger entries including one saying


To Banish Mice Fumigate with pomegranate (like cucumber).  Hellebore (Christmas Rose).  Sulphur.


I don’t know about you but I’m fascinated by anyone who thinks that pomegranates are like cucumbers.

The second hand is far more sensible, left-leaning, uses blue ink, pencil and red pen for some titles.  The second hand doesn’t spell very well and tends to leave out letters or to ‘hyper-correct’ words like ‘lacy’ to ‘lacey’.   Most of the entries are written in this second hand.


The second ‘hand’


The third starts off quite round and naïve but becomes more assured and developed (and illegible) towards the end of the journal.

The third 'hand'

The third ‘hand’

The diary itself is for 1929 so, as Karl (resident palaeography expert and Viking enthusiast) reasoned, the earliest someone could have bought it is 1928 and it must have been in use from then until some point in the 1970s going by the notes on some of the patterns.  Many of the patterns are dated in the 1940s so I’m guessing that the diary was dug out and repurposed by the second hand some time during the war when the paper-ration came into effect.  The thrifty crafter then passed the journal on to someone else – I’m assuming a younger person because the third hand starts off with patterns for toys and patterns marked ‘for Dad’.    The third hand seems to have gone back through much of the journal making amendments to many of the patterns and adding notes such as


Not RED/WHITE unlucky in hopitals. A. says

The journal has been well-loved – parts have been carefully and painstakingly repaired and you can see where someone tried to replace some of the bindings and wrote over letters that had become blurred or faded:

It’s clear that this was a bible for at least two crafters.  It’s strange to read over these notes and speculate about the relationship between these crafters– a mother and daughter? Aunt and niece? Nana and grandchild?  Neighbours? Friends? I’m assuming that they are female going by the predominance of patterns for women’s clothing but I don’t know.  I don’t know where these people lived.  I don’t know their names.  I don’t know anything about them and I don’t know why such a lovely thing that was treasured for so many years ended up in a booksale, let alone in the bin.  I wonder about the travels this little book went on, the hands it passed through and the shelves it sat on before it was thrown out.

So now it’s travelled back to Oxford with me and will be part of my own (steadily growing) collection of vintage craft books and patterns.  I’m glad Helen salvaged it from the bin – I’m going to rescue as many of the patterns as I can. I’ll post one just as soon as I decode the handwriting.