Amissville column for April 23

Quilting group learns about hoops and corsets

Charlotte Laing displaysLongtime reenactor Judy Segaar shows a bit of pantaloon-clad leg after a presentation on Civil War-era clothing to fellow members of an Amissville quilting group.Cathie Shiff | Rappahannock News
Charlotte Laing displaysLongtime reenactor Judy Segaar shows a bit of pantaloon-clad leg after a presentation on Civil War-era clothing to fellow members of an Amissville quilting group.

The eight needle women met last week at the regular day and time (Thursday at 1) at Charlotte Laing’s house, but this time they weren’t going to just quilt or embroider. They were going to talk about underwear. Women’s Civil War-era skivvies, to be exact.

Another member of the group — which is called, well, “Stitch & [Complain]” — was on hand to lift her hoop skirt and show some very covered leg. Judy Segaar has been accompanying her husband Rudy to reenactments and living-history events for almost 20 years, and she has created an extensive wardrobe of period clothing that women wore 150 years ago. She wore a day dress with a hoop skirt for the meeting, but she also brought other items of apparel that illustrated what women in the camps would actually have worn.

Back then, it seems it was all about layering, and one’s economic station was announced by the number of layers of clothing a woman wore. Great wealth could mean a dozen layers, while Judy wore a more modest four layers for the group. Beneath the dress came the petticoat, really a slip that helped keep the hoop layer beneath it clean. After the hoops came the chemise, which included a bodice part that was mostly covered by the corset. Under that came the pantaloons, which were like cotton yoga pants that extended all the way to the tops of her modest black lace-up boots.

She explained that the hoop skirt was on its way out of fashion by 1865, its diameter already shrinking for some years. But the tyranny of the corset was still going strong, with an attendant daily schedule that amazed the assembled women.

An upper-class woman could come down to breakfast wearing a loose-fitting morning coat with no corset, but that comfort was short-lived. She would immediately don a “market dress,” complete with corset, for the day’s errands. At midday, she changed into a “lunch dress.” At this time, the corset would be tightened. A few hours later, she would don an “afternoon dress” and the corset would again be tightened. Finally, she would change into a “dinner dress,” and the corset would be tightened once again. The goal was to have such a tiny midsection that your gentleman could touch the tips of his fingers when he placed them around your waist. Such vanity came at a price; women of the era were plagued by back problems and a variety of health issues.

“For reenactors, you learned very quickly to always put your shoes on before you put on your corset. Once you’re corseted, you can’t bend over to tie your shoes,” Judy explained, laughing.

Because of the danger of fire, women in Civil War camps did not wear hoop skirts. Instead they wore a modest and simple “camp dress”, along with a “camp hat.”

“Women always kept their heads covered,” Judy said. She also showed the women items worn during the winter to keep warm, including a heavy woolen cape, quilted petticoats and an ingenious triangular “sweater” that tied around the waist and kept the arms free.

This was a bit of a reenactor’s swan song for Judy. She had just returned from the reenactment of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House involving 3,000 participants, and she was still touched by the poignancy of what she had witnessed.

“The battle suddenly came to a halt, and the Confederates shouldered their arms and marched off the field. The next day they stacked their arms in surrender and, one by one, the Confederate battle flags were lowered. I wondered what those troops 150 years ago were thinking. What would they find when they returned home? How would the occupational forces treat them? What did the future hold for them?” she said.

She feels nothing in the future as a reenactor will approach the emotion of what she had just witnessed, and she is ready to hang up her hoops. But the story does not end there. Judy made most of her own Civil War-era clothing, a process that involved historical research, the search for or creation of patterns, yards of special fabric and scores of minute buttonholes, pleats and hook-and-eye fasteners. She now plans to create a Civil War-era quilt featuring stars made from her favorite reenactment dresses. One wonders if the scent of gunpowder and campfire smoke will linger in the cloth.

Donated quilt for Food Pantry

Charlotte Laing displays her “I Spy” quilt, made for the Food Pantry fundraiser. Cathie Shiff | Rappahannock News
Charlotte Laing displays her “I Spy” quilt, made for the Food Pantry fundraiser.

Charlotte Laing has just completed a colorful “I Spy” quilt that will be used to raise money for the Rappahannock Food Pantry. Composed of small medallions featuring an animal or object, the 44-by-35-inch coverlet is sure to become a beloved learning tool. In addition to keeping a child warm, it also allows the adult to ask a child to look for the quilt piece showing, say, a dog. Once the tot finds the piece, the child then calls out, “I spy a dog.”

The quilt will be part of the upcoming Food Pantry Day fundraising activities on May 9. For more information about them, call Mimi Forbes at 540-675-1177.