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By Emily Whitted

Stephen Girard—the wealthiest man in the Early Republic—had a secret hidden inside his shoes. From his knees to his ankles, his legs were clad in fine silk stockings imported from France, with delicate silk embroidery, known as clocking, on display when wearing breeches. But below the ankle, his stocking feet were thick with mended areas, known as darns, made to repair holes in the fabric (fig. 1). Twenty pairs of Stephen Girard’s stockings are housed in Girard College’s collection and are rare survivals of extensively repaired early American textiles. If the wealthiest man in the Early Republic had his stockings mended, then one can only imagine the sheer scale of textile repair work in early America as both a domestic task and a professional occupation.  But why is textile repair worthy of notice, and what can its visibility tell us about the lives of early Americans? 

Fig. 1 – A pair of frame-knit silk stockings made in France and owned by Stephen Girard in the early nineteenth century show extensive darning in the feet. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Mending is having a moment. The New York Times informed me and the rest of its readership in an article last March, as stay-at-home orders began to go into effect throughout the U.S., that “now is when we all learn to darn our socks again.”1 The article featured an in-depth look at the visible mending movement, a craft practice-turned-social commentary on fast fashion and twenty-first-century throwaway clothing culture that mends damaged clothing in bright thread colors and distinctive sewing techniques (fig.2). I don’t think that article could have predicted how accurate its title would soon become; for many, extended time at home due to the pandemic would generate a mass return to textile mending and a renewed sense of relationship with clothing through the act of repair. Mending is certainly experiencing a resurgence, but only time will tell if its popularity continues once COVID-19 dictates less of our daily routines.

Fig. 2 – Visibly-mended cashmere socks by Flora Collingwood-Norris, knitwear designer and visible mender. Her work can be found at @visible_creative_mending on Instagram or her website
https://www.collingwoodnorrisdesign.com/visible-mending.
Courtesy of Flora Collingwood-Norris.

While eye-catching color and embroidery in visible mending wants viewers to notice repair work, in early America those executing textile repair work—the overwhelming majority of whom were women—were much more concerned with their mends escaping notice. With needles and thread, damaged textiles could be repaired to extend the life of garments without drawing any additional attention. Threads could be selected to match fabric colors, and even woven or knit patterns could be mimicked. Function was also important; mended textiles would need to sustain additional wear, as necessity often justified the time and labor spent repairing garments. But need was not the only motivating factor for mending. Like many of us today, repair in early America could also be motivated by sentimentality, as objects that are meaningful then, as now, felt worth the additional care and attention of repair work.

Girard’s stockings attract special notice because they were repaired multiple times with different techniques, all designed to extend their period of wear for as long as possible. The most common form of mending, executed in white cotton thread, mimics woven fabric structure to mend a hole. Swiss darning, executed in the tan silk thread, mimics knit fabric structure and could be used to mend a hole or  strengthen weak areas of knit fabric. Girard’s stockings also sport “run heels,” a technique that layers thread onto stocking heels which were likely to wear through first, for additional strength and padding (fig. 3-4).  

Fig. 3 – A close-up image of the mended areas of Girard’s stocking. White darning thread mimics woven fabric structure, while the light grey Swiss darns mimic the original knit structure of the fabric and are meant to escape notice. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Fig. 4 – The reverse of Girard’s stocking heel, which reveals the complex rows of couched thread that make a “run heel.” This technique provides additional cushion and padding to delay the emergence of holes in the fabric. Stockings. Girard College Archives, Accession Number: 0323. Courtesy of Girard History Collections, Philadelphia PA.

Each of these techniques were part of many early American women’s plain sewing education, although the skill and frequency in which they were executed depended on each particular woman’s socio-economic status and individual talent for needlework. A homework sampler housed in the collection of The Library Company of Philadelphia offers multiple examples of repair techniques, including a basic darn and a run heel technique (fig. 5). Made by Emily Bell in 1830 while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, this sampler offers an example of more common needlework. A 1790-1830 sampler by Anna Hofmann, part of the Winterthur Museum’s collection, showcases more elaborate darning techniques, including mending that mimics multi-colored woven patterns in fabric and mends that recreate knit stitches (fig. 6). In lieu of written sources, these early American women are documented by the needlework of textile repair. 

Fig. 5 – Eleven samplers, mounted on board in the form of a book, made by Emily Bell while attending the Bethlehem Female Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. 1830. Courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia. https://www.librarycompany.org/

Fig. 6 – Darning sampler, Anna Hofmann, possibly England or North America, 1790-1830, Plain-woven linen and cotton thread, 1964.1702, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Within museum collections, early American textile repair work is difficult to spot, assuming that mended textiles even make it into museums in the first place. Collecting, whether on a personal or institutional level, has often privileged objects that seem perfect, authentic, and without flaws. Some museum objects may have damage, often due to age and prior storage conditions, but it is much rarer to find damaged objects that were also repaired in the same time period in which they were made and used.

Several reasons, some practical and others less so, explain this absence. Repairs can be difficult to date. Antique dealers or other collectors in possession of objects before they arrive in museums may try to repair broken objects before their purchase and acquisition, and while some collections with regular access to conservators receive professional repair, objects that have received conservation work before entering a collection might make it difficult for museums to determine when a repair was made. Repairs can also escape notice in object records within collection databases, whether due to the assumption that information about an object’s repair is less important than an object’s creation or use or because textile mending is still, many years later, performing its original function and staying hidden. But early American repaired textiles do exist in collections despite this host of reasons, and closer analysis can access diverse histories of labor, sentimentality, and economic necessity. The first step, however, is finding them.

Repairing our fashion industry, our rates of consumption, and our relationships with the objects that surround us requires both modern-day commitment and historical context. My dissertation research is interested in the latter, and I am seeking early American repaired textiles (broadly defined and geographically conceived) as well as other objects in collections that tell the history of mending through material evidence and additional documentation. Darned socks are just the beginning. 

Do you know of any repaired early American textiles in a museum or private collection? Let the author know!

Email: ewhitted@umass.edu

Twitter: @knitwhitted

Instagram: @knitwhitted

  1. Kurutz, Steven. “Now Is When We All Learn to Darn Our Socks Again.” The New York Times. March 12, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ydx4k63z

By Past@Present

P@P: First, it’s so exciting to see your photo on the cover of the new issue of The Public Historian—Congratulations!  Can you tell us how that came about?

RR: Thank you! I knew The Public Historian was publishing a special issue about childhood, gender, and play, but it was a surprise when the editor contacted me about using one of my photos for the cover. It’s such an honor to have my work recognized by colleagues in the field.

P@P: More than 3000 people follow your Instagram feed, @iamexcessivelydollverted.  When and why did you launch that project?  And how do you use this platform as a public historian?

RR: I began @iamexcessivelydollverted three years ago as a way to discuss and expand upon aspects of history related to American Girl’s historical characters. Over time, the project has transformed into a discussion of the history that is overlooked by American Girl. In recent years, American Girl has introduced more characters from marginalized backgrounds, but the vast majority of the dolls they sell are white and all but two of their historical characters are Christian. I am really interested in the idea of historical fiction as public history and how we can use fiction as an entry into understanding history, so I began creating my own historical characters from time periods and marginalized communities overlooked by American Girl. I use these original historical characters to discuss histories of non-white and non-Christian communities in the United States and elsewhere. I also use this project to connect history to contemporary events. All of American Girl’s canonical historical characters fight for justice and equality in their books, so it makes sense to me to use these historical characters to discuss contemporary issues of justice and equality and to trace how contemporary racism, sexism, and inequality is rooted in history.

As a public historian, this project is an extension of my other work. I typically write history articles for online and print outlets, on topics ranging from suffrage history to environmental history. On @iamexcessivelydollverted, I often discuss topics that I’ve written about for websites and magazines, but I’m able to interact with a different readership—over half of my followers are 18-34 years old and the majority are women. Too often, history writing aimed at a popular audience is synonymous with weighty tomes about men written by men. By using American Girl dolls to discuss history for a popular audience, I’m fighting against that stereotype; writing popular history is and should be a feminist act.

American Girl dolls dressed as early 20th-century suffragists used for the cover of The Public Historian’s February 2021 Issue.

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By Allison Smith

Over the summer of 2020 I participated in the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project, hosted by Smith College, where I completed my undergraduate degree. I interviewed women in my family about their experiences making and wearing face masks, and along the way, I learned how women understood their roles in the pandemic and how they adapted to the public health crisis.

Two professors from Smith College, Darcy Buerkle and Kelly Anderson, spearheaded the Women and COVID-19 Oral History and Memory Project as a way for Smith students to learn how to create historical sources. For me, this project served as a productive bridge between my undergraduate work and studying Public History at the graduate level at UMass Amherst. As a participant in the project, I could choose any topic to explore. Interested in material culture and fascinated by the changing mask fashions even in the short time from the beginning of the pandemic to the summer months, I decided to give women a space to talk about their experiences with face masks. I conducted six oral history interviews over Zoom and collected numerous survey responses from women who generously shared their experiences with mask making and wearing, pandemic life, and the political climate.

To learn more about mask making on a global scale, I also attended the Homemade Mask (Virtual) Summit in June 2020, an event hosted by Tulane University.1 During this virtual summit I realized how far-reaching this network of women was and I became even more encouraged to continue collecting oral histories. The Smith College project—which to date has preserved over 100 oral testimonies, and counting—is only one project of many, as the IFPH (International Federation for Public History) is collecting public history projects about COVID-19 in a Made By Us map.2 The COVID-19 Pandemic has presented us with an opportunity to capture history in ways that ensure diverse stories are told and women’s voices are heard. 

Patricia Stowell showing off face mask, June 23, 2020.

My grandmother, Patricia Stowell, is one of those women who rose to the challenge of mask making. She and other women from her retirement community in Punta Gorda, Florida, shared face mask patterns and debated the various advantages and disadvantages of each. Looking on YouTube for tutorials, my grandmother endeavored to find a pattern that was “loose enough to breathe, but tight enough so that I feel it’s working.”3 She also followed CDC guidelines, using two 10×6 rectangles of tightly woven cotton.4 After drafting a prototype, she located scraps of cotton she had laying around from previous quilting projects and began machine-sewing masks. Stowell not only sewed masks for herself and her husband but her children and grandchildren. After sending masks across the country to her relatives, she joined forces with her friends to make over 100 masks to donate to the local children’s hospital. The generosity and dedication of these women represent only a snapshot of the communities of crafting women across the world protecting those around them. 

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By Meghan Gelardi Holmes, Kathrine Esten, and Rebecca Simons

Imagine a United States embroiled in a deadly pandemic, divided over something as simple as whether or not to wear a mask. Or imagine a United States drawn into distant military conflicts despite deep societal tensions at home. Or imagine Americans going into a presidential election wishing that the previous four years had never taken place.

We’re not discussing 2020. This is 1920. Starting on October 1, the Gibson House Museum, a historic house in Boston’s Back Bay, is featuring a new outdoor exhibit titled “1920: The Gibsons’ New Normal.”

The exhibit follows the Gibson family and their staff through three waves of dramatic societal change that preceded the election of 1920: the Influenza Pandemic, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and the First World War. The impetus for the project came after the Gibson House Museum was forced to close to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Museum staff wanted to find a way to remain connected and relevant to the neighborhood community.

While these areas of study are fascinating under normal circumstances, their centennial anniversary comes at a time when the lessons of the past are more relevant than ever. Seeking to understand the Gibson family’s eagerness to embrace a “return to normalcy,” the staff and interns at the Gibson House Museum found themselves reflected in an America burdened with instability and social tension.

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