Monday, March 18, 2013

Shadow of the Willard Suitcase Project

Hey Guys and Dolls, Cats and Kittens,  all you vintage lovers out there....  Have I got a wonderful thing to share with you!   I came across a blog by photographer Jon Crispin who hails from western Massachusetts, who over the past few years did a series called "The Willard Suitcases."

Willard Suitcases - scroll down for more
The Willard Asylum for the Insane was a facility outside Ithaca NY that was closed down in 1995. It had operated since the 1860's. In the attic of one of the buildings were found hundreds of suitcases that had belonged to past residents who had been admitted to the hospital from around 1920 to 1960's.      A few of the suitcases were found to be empty, which is a little hopeful in that the person might have collected their belongings and moved on to better things. The majority of the cases however held the possessions of people who spent their lives at Willard and died there.  

Rather than be destroyed,  the suitcases were turned over to the New York State Museum where they were on exhibit for a few years ("The Lives they Left Behind").   Jon Crispin (aforementioned photographer)  undertook the project of photographing the different suitcases in a way preserving and giving honor to many of the people that lived there.

I spent several hours pouring over Jon's site, taking in the pictures, reading comments, and following up links to other sites and looking up various information on the Willard Asylum itself.    On the information I found about the Asylum, I was left with feelings of despair.  It seems that after passing, many of the residents were buried in a large 'cemetery'  where the graves were not marked, kept track of, nor were the grounds particularly cared for.   The graves were dug by many of the patients themselves as part of their work program.     Some of the bio's I found for the residents made me think that they were less insane and more misunderstood, or just had no place else to go.   In some cases, their mental issues seemed to be actually brought on by the treatments (electro-shock, medicines, etc) they were given. Of course it is easy to judge another time with a modern eye, and the best lesson we can take from the past is to improve the future

In stark contrast to the anonymity of many of the residents deaths, and what was most probably a cold and institutional existence on a daily basis, Jon is able to bring a certain warmth and dignity to the patients' lives through the possessions of theirs he photographs.  

 I have copied some of them below,  I was particularly intrigued by how many of the patients were sewers or craftspeople to some degree.    I have included links to Jon Crispin's blog where you can see more of his beautiful photographs of the suitcases and their contents,  as well as photos of the Asylum he did as part of an abandoned buildings project.

These first two cases belonged to a lady named Anna G. There was no mention of her date of entry, but some close-ups of the contents show a postmarked letter dated 1950, so one would assume sometime thereafter.  The clothes look to be circa 1940's, and due to the numerous items and quality of them,  I would think Anna probably was from a well to do background.   In reading some of the  

different bios of the patients,  it seemed like there was a good mix of people from wealthy and poorer backgrounds.

 I absolutely love these pieces!  Hard to tell if these beaded accessories are belts or perhaps fancy headpieces.  And the shoes (picture below)  are so lovely and unique!  They remind me of a fairytale I used to love as a kid "The twelve dancing princesses"   where each day 12 sisters had pairs of shoes made for them, and each night they snuck away and danced 'til dawn and the shoes were worn down.   I wonder if Anna might have been a socialite dancing til dawn herself?

These next cases belonged to Eleanor G.

Jon has carefully shot not only the contents, but also the cases, the tags, (of which he has a special affinity) and the wrapped packages as sent from the NY State Museum wrapped in archival paper and tied with cotton ribbon.  The whole series has almost an other-worldly feel, the way parcels used to be wrapped and carried.  (Brown paper packages tied up with string..these are a few of my favorite things)

  Eleanor G. was apparently a sewer. Many of the contents of her several cases were things like patterns, thread, & other sewing notions.  There was one case with several handmade dresses in it. The clothes are very beautiful, and the embroidered collars a lovely touch.   A date book among the contents is circa 1935, and some of the letters are postmarked '37, so we can assume Eleanor was probably admitted                    
 sometime in the late thirties or early forties.  Note the card depicting the girl picking flowers titled "To My Sister" So precious!

 Some close-ups of the items and the handcrafted work.

More of the sewing stuff from (another) of her cases, along with a period curling iron.  Note the perfume bottle - Jon has a link on his blog to a re-release from the original company "Isabey"  The site lists the original perfume to have been available in 1925.    

Also note the sewing pattern circa early 1930's.  I tried to find the exact pattern number, but alas was unable to.    I did find an awesome flickr stream for McCall's patterns in the thirties though.    (It seems that in the early 30's McCall's had that format of showing the colored drawings to the one side on the front, and the b&w line drawings to the other side. the later patterns from this decade have a more 'modern' format a little closer to what we see today)

The next few pictures are of a suitcase belonging to Mary. She, too, was a sewer. This is a beautiful trunk that had a few levels to it.  There is the close-up of the hooks 'n' eyes, ribbons and other bits of stuff.  Also, check out the beautiful perfume bottle that was in Mary's case (last picture down)

There was some discussion on his site as to whether the patients had access to their effects while they were there.   From what I gather, and this has not been confirmed,  that yes they did, which could explain why some of the case were empty.   It was suggested by another reader that because it was a 'mental health' hospital, they might have rules as to what the patients could keep with them (i.e. nothing they could potentially harm themselves with, like sharp objects).
One other thought was that reading some of the bios,  the patients showed up with many boxes/suitcase full of all their worldly belongings, and depending on the living arrangements, may just not have had space to accommodate everything they brought with them.


This case belonged to Freda.  It seems like this came with a full out ladies grooming-vanity set with mirror, brush, nailbrush and a few other accessories.  There was no admittance date mentioned, but a book that was in the case I googled the title for and found to be originally printed pre-1923.  The vanity set looks to me to be Art Deco, which might place it a little later?    You simply cannot find anything made today that has quite the beauty that these items do.

This last case here belonged to Mary. Her admittance date was 1968, a later piece  in the collection.  Here are a few clothes that look handmade, several bits of lace trim, and also there was a set of bath towels.  

 Please, please have a look at Jon's blog and see firsthand the beautiful photographs he took.   There is mention of a book coming out at some point too.
Special thanks to him for allowing me to use some of his photographs to illustrate the sewing/vintage clothing aspects for my blog.

Here are a couple other interesting sites if you want to find out more about Willard Asylum, and the suitcases:
Treasures of the Tier
Inmates of Willard: A Geaneological resource
The lives they left behind

Have a lovely weekend!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sew for Victory update

Hi Everyone!  I'm very excited to be back in sewing mode...

Here's a little confession:  Whenever I stop sewing or crafting for awhile,  I begin to lose confidence in myself and wonder if I ever had much skill to begin with.   Sometimes I need to just play with the fabric and patterns for awhile and tell myself that what I create doesn't need to be Coco Chanel or Vera Wang good,   I just have to like it.

So when last I wrote about the "Sew for Victory" project,  I had found 2 lovely patterns circa 1947 in my collection.

I planned to do the long sleeve blouse from the first and the skirt from the latter.      I have some lovely dark red cotton fabric with little roses on it  to use for the blouse, but haven't found or decided on any fabric for the skirt yet.
close up of the fabric

Prepping the Pattern:

I mentioned that this is my first foray into the world of using a vintage pattern to sew with.  I have collected them for years, and love to look at them and use the pictures for inspiration, but never actually got around to using one.

First off,   I was taken by surprise - where were the lines? the seam allowance, grain lines, dart lines,   all that handy-dandy info that they print on modern patterns was nowhere to be found... or was it?    At first glance, the pieces looked like plain tissue paper with little holes punched in them.  Upon further examination I found the little holes were actually strategically places and all the aforementioned information was right there in black and little punches.

   Note on the this piece is punched in little letters "blouse front"    There are also square holes that demark the fold line for the fabric/facing area (where the row of buttons will eventually go.)

Kind of hard to see, but there are also small holes around the edge to show where the seam allowance is, and also two sets of 3 holes - sewing lines for the darts.
Here is a larger look at the whole of the pattern pieces.
These appear to be unused with the original factory folds... so I gather that unlike modern patterns, most of which are large rectangles of tissue that you have to cut the pattern pieces out of,  these vintage pattern pieces come precut to the size mentioned on the envelope.

Now given that these lovely patterns are now near septuagenarians,  I worry about handling them and sticking pins in and cutting them etc.  
Here's a little trick I learned from my Mom :  Wax Paper!

Some brands of modern pattern will sell a size range - example "A" would be sizes 4-8, "B" would be 8-12. and "C" would be 12-16 etc.   The pattern pieces then have multiple lines around them with each line being a different size in the range (ends up looking a little like tree ring dating- concentric circles)
If you cut the size you need, you are then not able to use the pattern again for a larger size (which would be helpful if your kids like mine grew a size every other week!)     This is where wax paper comes in handy  - you trace the size you need on the wax paper, and thus preserve the original pattern piece for future use.
Wax paper is also more durable than the tissue paper, which tends to rip very easily,  and comes in a nice long roll for about $2, where some patterns cost upwards of $10-$20.     I've also found it helpful in close encounters of the feline kind  (my kitty likes to help me sew, but sometimes her claws get in the way :(


So....  I traced the pattern pieces onto the wax paper, cut it out, and then used a sharpie marker to note the markings on the piece.

 Here are the instruction sheets that came with the pattern.  These unfortunately are not in as great of shape as the pattern pieces themselves.   I will have to try to photocopy them at some point so as to minimize their use.

Here comes Lightning, my steadfast kitty helper....she of course has noticed that I have spread out pattern pieces and lovely fabric and must come to take a look. (Thankfully by this point the original pattern has been copied and put away)

examining the fabric

 giving her approval

    the fabric has passed the inspection

Here I have laid out the wax paper pattern pieces before cutting them out.

 and proceeding to cut them out

That's all I have for today kiddies,  next stop sewing machine!

Do you have any pet helpers for your projects? I'd love to hear about them!

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mad Men Sewing Challenge

Hey Everybody!

At least it's not raining this weekend, but still very cold (mid 30's Fahreinheit)  overcast and gray.     This morning took my doggies to the dog park.   We have a lovely one in town and I have met lots of nice people and their puppies there.

My dog Charlie (my beagle mix doggie) was born to run, and he is fast. Every time we go he gives the dogs a good work out playing chase (the other owners love him as he tires their dogs out).  

Calvin (my mini-dachshund) was never particularly fond of the park. He always has been anxious by breed and nature, and the first several times we went, I couldn't even put him down, he would just hover around my feet and then beg to be picked up.   He eventually got used to it though, and would wander around a bit.  As the park is covered with pea-gravel and not grass or dirt, I think the little stones bother his feet, he never really ran while he was there.   Also, since his injury, moving around has been difficult (Calvin ruptured a disk about 6 months ago, due to IVDD and as a result, his hind legs are mostly paralyzed)
I sling-walk him, and we will soon be getting him a little doggie cart. (the vet said to wait awhile before getting a cart once they get used to using it, they don't make much progress with trying to use their legs).
Here are some pictures:
At home - Calvin & Charlie snuggle in the warm laundry

Calvin at the doggie park

Charlie romping with a Great Dane
Back to Sewing....

  I spent last evening cutting the pattern and fabric for the beginning of my Sew for Victory project, but will post about that shortly.   I believe I was going to talk about the "2nd Mad Men Dress Challenge" from Julia Bobbin's blog.

Here are the reveal pictures from last year's challenge.      Julia is absolutely cute as a button! (From the same tiny island nation as my sweetie Chris, btw ....  Australia)

I have to admit that before this, I had not even heard of the TV show "Mad Men."
I sort of wondered if there was a 'beyond thunderdome' connection (she being Australian and all) ...but alas, no, it is a show about TV execs in the 1960's.  
That being one of my favoritist decades mind you, I was almost immediately sold on the idea of doing the challenge because the dresses WERE RIDICULOUSLY GORGEOUS back then.

So I looked at her inspiration ideas as well as did a bunch of googling about the show and came up with the following dress that I would love to do:

Betty from Mad Men

I did some looking around for fabric, and have to tell you to my dismay, that not too many fabrics sport roses now-a-days :(       A few quilting fabrics had little rose designs, but nothing as large and beautiful as the Betty dress.     The other drawback was that the dresses from back then were very voluminous, and require around 5 yards of fabric, so I wanted to be careful not to have to spend a small fortune on fabric.
 In true Scarlett O'Hara fashion,   I did some thinking and came up with a creative solution.  I found a lovely set of sheets with a beautiful bold rose print in purple and violet.  I got it at a local discount store for $10, it is a queen sheet set, and had some additional pillowcases (which I'm always needing extra for my home anyway)

A Queen flat sheet runs 90" x 100",
A fitted sheet is 60" x 80" (with about 8" along the gusseted edges)

so if I were to cut the flat sheet in half, I would have 2 pieces 50" wide by the 100" -which is 2 1/2 yards long. (This is for theoretical calculation purposes so I can figure about about how much fabric I will end up with that would be equivalent to what I would buy at the fabric store off the bolt.  I may not end up actually cutting it in half -I have to see how best the pattern pieces lay out first),  
 For the fitted sheet, I would leave the 60" width, and have the 80" (which is a little less than  2 1/4 yards long). So all in all, about 7 yards of equivalent 54" fabric, which is plenty to do this project.

For Patterns, I went through my collection, and found 2 that could maybe work:

More than likely I will end up using the one from the first picture, McCall's 6146.   The bodice on my inspiration dress is a little different though:

so I will need to make some alterations to the pattern so that the finished product more resembles this bodice. I will, to quote sewing guru Tim Gunn: "Make it Work."

I am really excited to get started on this project!   The wrap up date is April 19th to get pictures emailed to Julia.  

Before finishing this post, I thought I would include a picture from a skit comedienne Carol Burnett did.  (I was remembering it earlier while thinking about Scarlett O'Hara)   It is a parody of "Gone with the Wind" from her Carol Burnett Show that had me absolutely in stitches (no pun intended).    If you have a couple minutes for a good laugh, you can check out the entire skit here on youtube.

Have you used alternative fabric sources for any of your sewing projects?  Do share!    Thanks for reading!

Update ~ 4/22/13  See my completed look....