A pair of silver scissors, a needle with white thread, and pieces of pink and beige fabric with white stitch lines are arranged on a flat surface.

A New Gown at Michilimackinac

A dress, reddish-orange in color, held together with pins as it sits on a mannequin. When you come to Colonial Michilimackinac it is always easy to find staff dressed in historic clothing. This winter, the clothing collection has had a number of new pieces added. Each is carefully researched and recreated to represent the items worn by the colonial residents. One of the larger projects this year has been recreating a woman’s gown.

 18th century women’s dresses were remarkably consistent in the basic style and cut in North America and in Europe. Trimmings and fabrics varied, but the shape of the pattern pieces and the construction were very similar from gown to gown. The basic style consists of an “open robe” which is a dress that is meant to be worn over a separate skirt. The open robe gowns are cleverly constructed and take very little fabric compared to later styles of gowns. The bulk of the cost of a gown was in the fabric. It might only take a day to make a gown, but it might take months or longer to make and transport the fabric.

 Textiles were often re-used and remade into newer styles or new garments altogether. Clothing could be let out, taken in, re-trimmed, patched, cut down, made into a garment for a child, or completely unpicked to start over. Some items, such as ladies’ gowns, were constructed with future alterations in mind. Folds and pleats were used extensively to give the gowns shape and prevent unnecessary cutting into the valuable fabric. Even wealthier households were known to be thrifty with their fabric.

A reddish-orange dress being fitted on a staff member for Mackinac State Historic Parks.

The new gown being fitted for the historic interpreter who will wear it.

 There were many fabric options for ladies’ gowns. Silk has a lustrous finish and soft texture which made it a choice fabric. By the 1770s silk was worn by all people, not just the wealthy. Even the very poor were able to afford a silk neckerchief or a silk ribbon for their cap. In 1778 John Askin wrote to his trading partners in Detroit asking for a gift for his daughter: “I owe Kitty her wedding Gown, as there was nothing here fit for it. Please have one made for her in the French fashion of a light blue sattin”. Miss Askin’s bespoke silk gown would have been a special piece, but it wouldn’t have been that unusual at Michilimackinac where many people liked to dress well.

A staff member wearing a reddish-orange gown with a white apron standing in front of a black curtain.

The new gown being worn in public, as Devan, one of our historic interpreters presents an education outreach program.

 The most reliable and practical fabric to make a gown from was, and still is, wool. Wool gowns do not fade in the sun nearly as fast as cotton or linen. We especially love wool for our staff because it does not need to be ironed nearly as much as some of the other types of textiles. So, while our staff may want to wear silk, most of the gowns found in the Michilimackinac closet, including this new one, are made of wool. Lightweight wools are good for all seasons, keeping the wearer warm in the cold and cool in the heat.

 There is still a lot to do, but we are happy to have one project checked off the list. To support our programs and learn more about Michilimackinac’s history visit mackinacparks.com.

Staying Warm: Women’s Winter Clothing at Colonial Michilimackinac

 With winter settling in on the Straits of Mackinac, it can be difficult to image what life was like here in the 18th century. When guests visit Colonial Michilimackinac during the summer months, they get to see staff dressed for warm weather, but people often wonder: what did they do they when it got cold?

 For most women living at Michilimackinac year-round, the first thing to think about was changing the type of textiles that they were wearing. Light-weight summer wools and linens would be swapped for warmer or heavier layers. Wool was the obvious answer and imported from Europe in abundance. Some wools were so soft that they were more than comfortable to wear next to the skin while others were coarser and better suited for outerwear.

 Silk was another winter fabric option. It was lightweight, came in an amazing array of colors and allowed for less bulk. It has the ability to hold heat close to the body and is still used for long underwear today. In the 18th century it was used for mitts, petticoats, gowns, neckerchiefs, stockings, hats, and cloaks. Fur was another warm option but considered to be a little too bulky to make into a full garment. It was used more often as a trim for cloaks, gowns and for accessories such as muffs and mittens.

 Another option was to mix fabrics. Petticoats or skirts could be quilted with wool or down between the layers of wool or silk. Some women also wore quilted under-waistcoats that were meant to hold the heat close to the body and be hidden under their other clothing. Cloaks with hoods were sometimes lined and quilted with eiderdown to keep the head and core especially warm.

 The key to staying warm for the 18th century woman was to choose the right fabrics and layer up. If you are interested in seeing 18th century women’s winter clothing in action, come to Colonial Michilimackinac on December 11 for a celebration of the holiday season. For more information or tickets visit mackinacparks.com/a-colonial-christmas

It’s for Decoration

Recently, an artifact in the Colonial Michilimackinac collection was re-examined as part of our ongoing mission to present the history of our site. That object is a fragment of silver-colored metallic bobbin lace that shares with us a glimpse into the luster and shine of 18th century life in the Great Lakes. (more…)

Sophia Bates Truscott’s Dress

Sophia’s dress.

Sophia Bates Truscott was born on January 18, 1830 in Kingston, Ontario to William and Sarah Bates. She got married to George Truscott, a businessman, in 1852 after they met in Port Hope, Ontario. Together they had 4 children, Rosa, Ida, Lillian, and George. She died on Mackinac Island in 1911. Little is known about her upbringing except for the fact that her dress is in our collection and that she made it herself. (more…)