HSM #11 – A Regency Reticule, Part One

Antique Scissors

I am happy to report that production “chez moi” is up and running once again. We’ve had a series of severe windstorms blow through in the past three days, severe as in half a hurricane or so, so I’ve pretty much stayed away from the computer. But the skies are calm today so I want to catch you up on the action.

I decided to go with a Regency Reticule for HSM #11. As you may recall, the Challenge is Silver Screen: “Be inspired by period fashions as shown onscreen (film or TV), and recreate your favourite historical costume as a historically accurate period piece.” I based the decision to make a reticule on somewhat perverse logic: they were a foundation piece, historically speaking, of everyday dress. Yet they are rarely seen in films. Women gambol across fields and prance at balls with great regularity. But they spend a good part of their time empty-handed in terms of reticules, with rare exceptions. Here are a few “caught on screen” examples from the BBC’s 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice.

A phantom reticule dangling from Lydia's arm. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

A phantom reticule dangles from Lydia’s arm (far left).

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Charlotte, Lizzy, Maria Lucas, and Sir William Lucas. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

Maria Lucas carries a green reticule (center back).

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Kitty's reticule. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

Kitty carries a patterned maroon reticule (center).

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Lady Catherine sports a reticule. BBC's Pride and Prejudice, 1995.

Lady Catherine sports a dark brown reticule. (You know which one she is.)

It’s understandable. If our heroine is trouble-free it would be visually distracting to have a hand bag swinging about. If she is burdened by great sorrows it would seem cruel to burden her further with something to lug around. I do get it, from the artistic standpoint. But I still notice it. So my tribute to the Silver Screen is to put a reticule in hand, where it belongs.

In order to decide what type of reticule to make I did some visual research at my favorite “what it really looked like” site – Pinterest. On the plus side, reticules came in a plethora of shapes and sizes. On the down side, that meant the field was pretty much wide open for interpretation. I already knew I tended to like the more angular shapes and all of those with tassels, so I focused primarily on those.

In the end I decided to merge shapes and decorations into a manageable size that would hold the essentials and be just slightly better-than-average with embellishments. I want to emulate the shape of the reticule on the left and incorporate the swirling spangles of the one on the right.

Design

I fooled around with the shape and the swirl pattern. I knew I wanted the pattern to be symmetrical. I also know I wanted a little area for some embroidery – an initial or a little flower. The pointed reticule above is nearly 24 inches long. That may be OK for someone six feet tall, but a bit much for me. I ended up with this:

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I used a fine point Sharpie (indelible ink) on cheap printer paper. The cheap part is important because of what happened later.

Fabric

The vast majority of surviving reticules are made of silk. That’s all well and good, but I am allergic to silk so I rarely use the stuff and certainly don’t keep it in my stash. I found a fairly local fabric store that carries a large selection of reproduction fabrics and they had a line of shot cotton solids. I’d heard of shot silk, but shot cotton was new to me and I immediately loved the look of it.

What does “shot” mean? When looking at extant garments, one sees a lot of shot silk. Wikipedia gives a nice definition:

Shot silk (also called changeant, changeable silk and changeable taffeta) is a fabric which is made up of silk woven from warp and weft yarns of two or more colours producing an iridescent appearance.

This shot cotton is the same. The warp and weft threads are two different colors: one is orangey, the other is beige. They read as a solid, but the color changes depending on the light and the fabric’s position in relation to it. In the fabric store it looked a medium apricot-rose. In outdoor light it looked more salmon. At one extreme it looks almost pumpkin orange, at the other it appears a medium-light apricot pink or looks like an electric carrot. The camera picks it up through its full range. (You’ll notice it looks as if I’m changing fabric, but it’s all the same single piece.)

This is an unlikely color choice for me. I look deathly ill in orange and any of the yellow-based colors. But this one is a bit of a chameleon – I spent a very long time walking around the store holding the bolt up next to a wide variety of other colors and prints and, much to my surprise, it looked good with almost all of them…a very unlikely neutral indeed. So not only would it work with all of the fabrics in my stash destined to become Regency wear, it would perk the wardrobe up a bit without getting the dreaded orange too close to my face.

A winner all around and still in keeping with a historically accurate color palette. I promise – it’s not nearly as harsh a color as it appears in the photos. It is more tempered; richer and softer by far. And one can find all manner of oranges in Regency fashion plates.

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Embellishment: Paillettes versus Spangles versus Sequins

I spent some time studying what we call sequins and how they were used on reticules.

My first query was terminology – what were they called? Paillette is defined a number of ways:

  • a small shiny object (as a spangle) applied in clusters as a decorative trimming (as on women’s clothing) [Merriam-Webster]

  • a spangle for ornamenting a costume [Free Dictionary]

  • sequin, spangle [Oxford Dictionaries]

Paillette is French for spangle or sequin. Spangle appears to be a British term: a small thin piece of glittering material, typically used in quantity to ornament a dress; a sequin. (It was also a type of British sweet, first made in the 1940’s; eaten, not applied to clothing.)

So sequins, spangles and paillettes are all the same thing. I thought that was the case, but now I know for sure.

Today one can buy sequins that are curved, faceted, laser etched, iridescent, glow in the dark…you name it, it’s out there. Historically, spangles (my favorite term) were shiny, flat discs of a single color – originally metal, later made of processed vegetable matter, colored resins or synthetic material.

In the Late Georgian and Regency periods, I found examples of spangles sewn on with two different methods: either sewn with thread through the central opening on opposing sides or with a bead sewn over the center opening. It looks like they were generally placed edge-to-edge to form patterns, not densely overlapping to create a sparkling mass.

I feared that metal spangles on cotton would look out of place, so I hunted for other options. To my delight, I found a local bead supplier who frequents the Paris flea markets and buys antique spangles in different colors. She told me they are becoming harder and harder to find, so she buys whatever she can find. She happened to have two containers of chocolate-brown spangles from the early 1880’s – flat, shiny discs. Not exactly Regency, but as close as I was going to get without having to sell off a kidney so I snapped them up at a bargain price of $2 each for hundreds, if not thousands, of the little buggers. They feel like some kind of vegetable material, but they may well be synthetic. There’s not much bend to them, but they don’t snap easily. And, having been poured into their containers, they harbor a fierce static cling so it’s a real challenge to separate them.

Design Transfer

First step was to transfer the design onto the fabric. I used to have a nice light box which I used a lot during my quilting days for my appliqué work. (I was into appliqué Big Time.) But it’s long gone, so I tried using Mother Nature’s light box. As it turned out, there was a big storm blowing in and I was losing light almost as fast as I could get everything taped on the window.

The fabric is made of mercerized cotton, so the warp and weft threads are strong. But they are not tightly woven. This made transferring the design by tracing over it with pencil not only difficult, but tiny separations in the threads started to appear. You can just barely see it in the photo. Not good.

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Time to consider the options.

Thinking back to my quilting days, I recalled a technique for appliqué where the design area is outlined with thread using a simple running stitch. This way, there is no direct marking on the face of the fabric. The thread can either be covered with the appliqué or removed as you go. Looking at my swirls, it looked reasonable. So I pinned the paper design to the fabric, being careful to keep it flat and straight, and started stitching. It worked a charm.

If you ever use this method, an important thing to remember is once you’re done you only have your thread to guide you. Big stitches are fine for straight lines like parallel runs or boxed grids. But curves require smaller stitches: the tighter the curve, the smaller the stitches or you lose definition. Here’s what I mean.

This is one of the larger curves, marked with long stitches:

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Here is the same curve, marked with short stitches:

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See the difference? The long stitches don’t give you enough guidance to keep the curve smooth. If everything was marked with long stitches it would end up an indecipherable hodge-podge. (Ask me how I know.)

It took a while to get the entire design transferred. I kept my pace deliberate to make sure the paper stayed flat against the fabric and that nothing slipped or twisted. But soon enough it was done.

Back side view, all stitched up.

Back side view, all stitched up.

From there, I traced the final cutting lines and trimmed away some of the excess fabric to make it easier to work with.

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The next step is to remove the paper. There are products which allow you to transfer your design as I did, then all you do is wet the product and it dissolves completely. I couldn’t get my hands on one, so I’d gone old school with the printer paper. I dampened a sponge with warm water and pressed it to the paper. I’d used indelible ink, so I wasn’t worried about transfer or bleeding. This is where using the cheap stuff became a bonus, because it turned mushy in no time at all.

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I lifted it away carefully, getting as many of the little stray bits as I could. Once they dry, they are like teeny, rock-hard spit balls and a needle won’t go through them easily. It takes a little time, but not much and the extra effort is well worth it. And because I didn’t have to soak the paper, the fabric air-dried fairly quickly.

At this point, given the loose-ish weave of the main fabric, I decided to back it with muslin to provide extra support for all those spangles and basted the two layers together. I went around the inner and outer edges of the design and used a different color thread (because I know myself all too well). I also basted a center line through the bottom of the design for extra stability. Then I mounted it on an embroidery frame I bought from the Royal School of Needlework in England when I took a course there a few years ago. Of all the frames I’ve ever used, it is my favorite. (If the house ever catches fire, Sophie will be in one arm and this frame and my handbag will be in the other.) Here are two photo color variations of the fully marked design: electric carrot and mellow pumpkin.

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Finally – time to start playing with spangles. Whew!

I decided to start at the center bottom and work my way out and up. This way, if there are areas of overlap, the outer spangles will cover the inner spangles and the spangles toward the top will cover the spangles toward the bottom. I think this will make them less likely to snag on things, so I’m curious to see if I thought it through correctly.

I went with a straight up and down stab stitch: up through the center of the spangle and down at one edge, then up at an opposite edge in a line that follows the design and back down through the center again, then repeat for each one.

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Once in a while I snag a knot from the back side and pull it through to the front. No problem. I just carefully snip it in half and keep stitching. The design stays in place.

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Here’s a shot of the first spiral, front and back.

My original plan was to snip out the marking thread from underneath as I went, but I outsmarted myself. (If you’re surprised, I refer you to previous blog entries…you’ll notice the trend.) The spangles completely cover the marking thread on top – no surprise there. But by deciding to add a support layer underneath, I cut off all access to the marking thread. So I’ve ended up stitching just to the side of the marking thread so it doesn’t show through. For the most part, that is.

I knew this wouldn’t be a slap-dash project, but I’ve discovered just how tedious the going is. This is going to take some time. I could use a tiny dot of fabric glue to pre-place each spangle and then just stitch them on. It would be a whole lot faster. But for now I’m doing them one at a time. That feels like a more historically authentic procedure, although I don’t know it for a fact and I’m not sure how important a detail it is. We’ll see how I feel about it a thousand or so spangles from now and whether or not I can still feel my fingers.

In the mean time, if anyone out there knows for sure that Regency reticule makers used glue to secure their spangles/sequins/paillettes before sewing them in place (after all, glue was well-known and used in other applications) don’t be shy – please share! My fingers will thank you.

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