So over a decade ago (that sounds so long ago), I first learned about a 14 year old girl who lived on a plantation near LaGrange, Texas. In 1864, Lena Dancy spun, wove, and sewed a new dress for herself. The Civil War was dragging on and with the blockade, many Southerners were needing to spin and weave their own cloth and little was available in the South. Lena wove black and white cotton cloth in what was called Basketweave but today we call Log Cabin. The amazing thing is that this very dress is still extant and it was about 14 years ago that I learned about it and so desired to get to see it for myself.
Fast forward many years and I’m drawn into an email conversation by a friend, Connie. It was about textile mill fabric in the early 1800s in Texas. Now I do have a bit of research on handspun and handwoven in early Texas but not mill created cloth. But that is the great thing about how God works events out. Through an exchange of emails, I had mentioned trying to create a version of Lena’s dress for myself from photos and one article that described it. Michael was able to put me in contact with the right person to get a chance … drum roll … to actually see the dress in person. Up close and personal. Occupying the same space and time with it. To look real close and see how parts were done. Appointment made. Time set. I GET TO SEE IT! Find a fan quick and the smelling salts!
So yesterday I drove to the big city. This meant but one thing. Something was happening worth driving in a big city. Worth leaving my safe corner of the world. Worth a bit of insanity. Which proved greatly insane before done.
Yes, driving on the campus of University of Texas is enough to send you scampering back to the countryside as fast as one can get there. It was crazy. But thankfully, I researched this whole trip well before, and the places I needed to find were close to the freeway so not a lot of trouble there beyond just maneuvering the traffic. I found the parking garage and building I needed to get to so then went in search of some lunch. That entailed a bit too much driving and going crazy. I did end up at a sandwich shop which had a good BLT and I succumbed to a root beer float which was good as I like it when the ice cream crystalizes and it did beautifully.
Then I made it back to the parking garage. Maneuvered to a place to park up near the top. Although you do enter on the third or fourth level so not as far of a drive as it sure seemed hunting a spot.
Then was the walk across the street down into this larger area to the middle building and its end door. Enter it. Talk to first person. Need to move on to the next person. Get registered to be in the reading room of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. Deposit purse in locker and put in a code. Alas later to realize you didn’t check the number on the locker you chose. Here’s hoping we can just go and stand in the right spot and figure that one out. At least there weren’t many to chose from.
So I sat down with a couple of Southwestern Historical Quarterlies to wait for Jill to come and take me to the dress. After reading a bit on the history of Houston, she arrived and we went down the hall to a door that one could look through the glass and see this dress laid out on tissue paper on the table. Be still my beating heart!
First thought when walking in to see the dress? How small it was. OK, so yes, Lena was 14 when she created it. And yes, it was the 19th century. But from the two pictures I’ve seen of the dress you just do not get an idea of the size of it and though I shouldn’t have been surprised, I really was.
So we both went over it with a fine tooth comb – almost. We spotted this and that and I was able to take many pictures. I compared what I had done with mine to what was actually on hers. We commented on the worn areas and the patches and what looks like it could have water damage on the back shoulder. Noticed how small the piping was. Viewed her stitches and with what stitches she sewed it. Wondered at her tiny appliqué buttons down the front of the skirt. So tiny. And no there are no missing ones, there really are a different number down both sides. We came to the conclusion that the ones on the one side were just a bit bigger than the other side and evenly spaced you didn’t get as many on it. (You can see mine and discussion of the number Lena’s Dress is Done)
But the one bit that excited me almost the most, crazy as it may seem, was how she fixed the bottom of the front opening. The bodice buttons up with five buttons. But the opening extends down past the waistband and into the skirt panel itself. Lovely to see the nice little placket she created and pleat to finish that off so it didn’t tear or open further. But would also help keep the opening closed and not gaping when worn. Never thought of that myself, and it looks so much better than my dresses opening. So yes, first change I will be making to mine as a result of seeing the real one is this little pleat to finish it off. So simple and even looks better than mine.
So yes, outside my comfort zone, I managed to head to Austin, drive in the big city and on a college campus with people everywhere and all over the place walking around you and the road and wonder at how the air smelled and affected me. I don’t miss that big city air. Walk into a place I’ve never been to and talk to people I don’t know and walk into a room and see a dream come true.
I’m wondering what would happen if I were to decide to try making this dress again? Am I insane? The answer is assuredly yes. But I did learn quite a bit on the first go around. And yes, there is much I would still do different but at this stage I won’t change on the current dress. But what if ….
All my post concerning trying to make my version to this dress are listed here.