Friday, June 14, 2013

Making Washington's Tent, Week IV: Hunting Shirts

In the years before the American Revolution, a strange garment emerged among the market hunters of the frontier backcountry. The "hunting shirt" was uniquely American, cut like a man's shirt but split fully down the front (rather than the typical pullover style of contemporaneous shirts), and typically adorned with a cape and fringe. When war broke out, the Americans adopted the hunting shirt as a cheap and quickly produced uniform. You can read more about hunting shirts in the groundbreaking research of our shop foreman, Neal Hurst, by visiting his page.

Aaron Walker modeling one version of an American hunting shirt while sewing another. His hat, a black felt "round hat" with a buckled band and a decorative bucktail, reflects one type of headgear worn by American Revolutionary War soldiers.

Joseph Privott wears another type of hunting shirt, this one made from osnaburg and embroidered on the left breast with "Liberty or Death" (you can read about this interesting adornment in Neal Hurst's recent thesis)

This week in the tent shop, we continued to work on David Uhl-style knapsacks (see last week's post) but also turned our hands to hunting shirts. We know that tailors and soldiers in Williamsburg made plenty of these as uniforms, and we're curious to see how quickly and efficiently we can accomplish such work. Hunting shirt construction is only slightly more complex than that of any other man's shirt. Both employ fabric cut in a series of rectangles and squares, although our hunting shirts also includes a curved cape piece. To guide this sort of linear cutting, we "pull threads," removing a single warp or weft yarn from the material, leaving a faint trail in the fabric and guaranteeing perfect parallel lines and right angles.

Michael Ramsey, Nicole Rudolph, and Gwendolyn Basala at work on knapsacks.

Michael Ramsey sews a hunting shirt while Brendan Menz cuts strips of fringing material.

We're making our hunting shirts from osnaburg, a plain-woven, unbleached linen, just the sort of thing that Williamsburg tailors used for a variety of military goods including knapsacks, haversacks, tents, and hunting shirts. Although we're still figuring things out, it wouldn't surprise me if a good tailor (or even, quite possibly, a typical soldier, issued fabric rather than a finished shirt) could sew a simple hunting shirt in a long work day.

Gwendolyn Basala sews a hunting shirt.

Michael Ramsey sews a hunting shirt.

Working on hunting shirts or any other project, we tailors sit cross-legged, while the two seamstresses of our shop don't do so primarily because of differences in our wardrobes. Most depictions of tailors from the eighteenth century show them sitting cross-legged (still known elsewhere as "tailor style"). It's not hard to find the reasons. It allows you to hold your work in your lap, given that, unlike other artisans, tailors didn't work at a bench or table. Secondly, it allows you to spread your tools around you and in your lap for easy access. Thirdly, and I can vouch for this from personal experience, once you train your body to sit in this fashion, your lower back muscles tighten slightly, allowing you to sit for extended periods without leaning against a chair or fidgeting much. In fact, one theory about the name (sartorius; think sartorial, as in clothes) and nickname (tailor's muscle) for the longest muscle in the human body, in the thigh, has to do with sitting tailor fashion. The practice continued well beyond the 1770s, as you can see in this image of a Wichita, Kansas, shop from around the turn of the last century.

Aaron Walker sits tailor fashion.

Michael Ramsey sits tailor fashion.

Of course, to comfortably sit tailor fashion, we unbutton and unbuckle the knee sections of our breeches, which button there to achieve a tight fit (you can see Michael has undone his in the image above). Thus tailors' stockings, normally held up by the kneebands of their breeches, tended to slip down, providing fodder for satirists in the eighteenth century, like in this 1768 image and this one from about 1794. As we continue work on knapsacks, hunting shirts, and, soon, the rest of our marquee, you can see us sitting tailor fashion, and maybe catch us with our stockings down, on the webcam and follow our progress on facebook.

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