Friday, February 26, 2010

Carolyn Dowdell

A fascinating article about Carolyn Dowdell ... This is not a recent story but I thought I'd share it with you, with those who have not heard of it ... Very interesting and indeed amazing!

Thesis project stitches together image of the past

By Ileiren Poon, ExpressNews Staff

Carolyn Dowdell talks about her thesis work:

March 11, 2009 - Edmonton-Unwashed, huddled by candlelight and sewing lavish gowns using only a needle, thread and her own worn fingers, a University of Alberta student has recreated the working conditions of a typical 18th-century seamstress and the fine garments she would have turned out for more fortunate women.

"It was long, and hard, sometimes grueling, sometimes painful, and very, very tiring," said Carolyn Dowdell, a master's student in the Department of Human Ecology.

"My hands got really sore. The set of stays, those were really tough. It's a really high concentration of sewing, and you're sewing through several layers. The stays are made up of wool satin, and behind that there are two layers of a linen canvass. So, you're making the boning channels through all those three layers. Then the bottom of the stays is bound with leather, and that's sewn through all of those layers. I was using pliers to pull the needle through."

Driven by a self-admitted obsession with sewing, Dowdell has spared no detail for her thesis project, authenticating six 300-year-old ensembles and the harsh working conditions of their makers. Even so, producing the complicated outfits in five months would have landed her in hot water during the period she was replicating-between 1750 and 1770.

"If I had been a seamstress back then, working at this pace, I would have been fired," Dowdell laughed. "One of these individual ensembles would have been done in about a week, so all these outfits would have been done in about a month. But those women would have been working even longer hours than I was putting in-12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week."

Following a trip last summer to view antique gowns in the prestigious Museum of London, Dowdell has been working almost every day in her cramped basement apartment to complete the collection of hand-sewn gowns. Toiling only by natural daylight or candle glow, pinched by a tight corset and wearing a plain work dress she made herself, Dowdell sat for hours in a hard wooden chair armed only with a thimble, cutting and stitching natural silks and wools true to the fabrics of the period.

"I wanted to get an idea of the physicality of doing this kind of work in the 18th century, even down to the sanitary conditions, which didn't allow for much bathing," said Dowdell. "These seamstresses were early career women, really, and this project is a way of recognizing their backbreaking work as well as the sumptuous fashions of the time."

All of the pieces are incredibly detailed with handmade, thread-covered buttons, one quilted skirt with about 25,000 tiny hand-done stitches, full ruffles and delicately scalloped edging.

"These are appropriate clothing choices for a middle-class English woman from that time period-merchant class, lower gentry, or clergy," she said. "She wouldn't have been working, but she wasn't wealthy."

The styles wouldn't have changed much as the social status of the wearer changed, said Dowdell. "It's a question of what they're made of-more luxurious fabrics, brocades, embroidery, silver gilt thread and jewels. Those were the things that cost money and showed how much had been spent on clothing. The cost for the labour that went into the pieces was almost nothing."


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