Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Regency Millinery: Blood, Sweat, and Possibly Tears

Earlier this month, I headed off to Perrysburg, Ohio, for a weekend educational opportunity I'd been anticipating for months: a regency bonnet-making workshop taught by historical milliner extraordinaire Lydia Fast.

I'd always wanted to try my hand at making a regency bonnet, and I thought it would be good research for those times when my fictional characters discuss millinery matters. Making a bonnet from scratch is a time-consuming process, and I'd already learned that workshop attendees frequently don't finish their bonnets during the workshop. Lydia also warned me that the class was an advanced workshop, while I'd never tried a millinery project before. But as long as Lydia was willing to allow me to attend, I was eager to learn.

Lydia isn't just a skilled craftswoman, she's a real artist. Her bonnets are gorgeous, and each has an average of 30 hours of work invested in it. (That's 30 of Lydia's hours--for a novice like me, you can pretty much double the time required to finish a bonnet.) Here are a few of her creations:

Bonnet by Lydia Fast

Aren't the fabrics and trims Lydia uses gorgeous? Sorry the photo doesn't show the bonnet linings, because they're equally lovely. (Edited to add: Lydia tells me the brown bonnet at upper left was actually made at last year's workshop by Tonya, one of the other attendees. I think I knew this at one point, but neglected to make a note of it. My apologies, Tonya, and your work is equally beautiful!)

Here's Lydia herself, modeling a bonnet she made during the workshop:

Lydia Fast
Lydia tends to gravitate toward fall colors, which isn't surprising since they definitely suit her.
I decided to make an 1809-1817 style poke bonnet. Each workshop participant received a kit that included buckram (mesh permeated with glue to stiffen it), pellon (a heavy interfacing used to cover the rough buckram), wire for shaping, crinoline tape, and mull (batting used to soften the lines of the buckram form). A well made bonnet has up to nine layers of construction: buckram, pellon, wire, crinoline tape, mull, fashion covering, lining, and trim--not to mention the muslin drawstring liner sewn inside the crown. Bonnet construction also involves a variety of hand stitches: running stitches, whip stitches, buttonhole stitches, overlapping backstitches, and the ladder stitch that makes the finishing invisible. When it comes to quality workmanship, Lydia's method doesn't cut any corners, but Lydia and the other attendees were patient with my newbie cluelessness.

After tracing a paper pattern for later use when cutting our fashion covering fabric, we sandwiched the buckram pieces between layers of pellon, wired them, encased the wires with crinoline tape, then assembled and sewed the pieces together. I ended up with a form that looked like this:

My buckram bonnet form. From this point on, the sewing is mostly by hand rather than by machine.
The next steps involve covering the buckram form with mull, and then covering that with fashion fabric, including the silk lining for the brim. I'd bought ivory silk for my brim lining, and wisely chose to cover the outside of my bonnet in velvet--I say wisely because velvet is a pretty forgiving fabric, and the texture helped disguise my overly tight hand stitching. Due to my inexperience (and boneheaded attempts to wind a machine bobbin with thread made for hand quilting), I was several steps behind the other attendees, who were all re-enactors skilled in costuming. But I did reach my goal for the weekend, which was to get far enough along in my bonnet construction that I could finish the project at home. I left the workshop with the top of the crown and the bonnet brim covered in velvet, and when I got home I pinned and pleated the brim lining, like this:

You can see I've covered the top and outer brim of the bonnet in red velvet before stitching in the brim lining. My bonnet looks slightly squashed on one side, because I was a bit too forceful with it. Fortunately, I was able to reshape the buckram later with a steam iron.
The next step in bonnet construction is to cover the sides of the crown, which on a typical regency bonnet has that distinctive stovepipe shape. Here's Lydia, demonstrating how:

Action shot! Lydia gives the newcomers instruction in sewing a bonnet covering with invisible "magic fairy stitches."
I had a great time at Lydia's workshop. The other attendees were all members of the Jane Austen Society, and it was a joy to be around ladies who knew so much about history, and fashion history in particular. Fun fact: Lydia has seen a number of extant regency bonnets, and she reports that the workmanship in them was frequently poor. I learned a lot, including that it's almost impossible to make a regency bonnet without bleeding on it. (I stuck myself several times with pins, and poked myself more than once trying to pull my needle through the stiff buckram).

So how did my regency poke bonnet turn out? In the end, I was pretty happy with the actual construction, though not quite so happy with the job I did trimming it.

I went with a primary color scheme, including blue piping along the crown and brim, but I don't think the ribbon is wide enough to suit the regency proportions.
Part of our workshop included a field trip to a shop that sells vintage ribbon, and I bought some lovely and rather expensive ribbon there, but when I got home that ribbon just seemed too dark against the red velvet. Instead, I ended up using some inexpensive plaid ribbon from my local fabric store, and though I like the brighter color, the new ribbon doesn't have the right visual impact. I wanted to have a finished bonnet photo for this blog post, but I can always re-trim my bonnet later--something any regency heroine worth her salt would have known how to do.

Because millinery work is so time consuming, it's not for everyone. But I found it relaxing to sit and sew, and the best part about making a bonnet is that it's a small-scale project with boundless opportunities for creative expression. I'm already planning to tackle another bonnet once the holiday rush is over. Maybe something in blue...

Alyssa EverettAlyssa Everett's newest regency romance is A Tryst With Trouble, the story of an arrogant man's man and an outspoken spinster who must join forces to solve a deadly mystery. It joins her first two regencies, Lord of Secrets and Ruined by Rumor. Alyssa hopes you'll visit her website and follow her on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, where she promises not to spam you.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Five Short Stories For the Holidays

The romance of the coming holidays tugs at everyone's heart. The magic of Christmas is in the memories we hold dear and those precious treasures that remind us of the past. Join us as our Timeless Keepsakes take us on five remarkable journeys that heal old wounds, remind us of days gone by, play matchmaker, sweep us back in time and prove that love can conquer all.
Introduction ~ Sharon Sala

Mistletoe and Magick ~ Ruth A. Casie
She would give her last breath for him. He would give up everything to guard her well and love her more.
Christmas Spirits ~ Lita Harris
A widow's everlasting love is renewed by the memories of the holiday season.
Granting Her Wish ~ Emma Kaye
She doesn't belong in his time and he doesn't belong back home. Could they belong to each other?
Letter from St. Nick ~ Nicole S. Patrick
She’s trying to save her home and he’s never had one until now. Can an unexpected gift lead their hearts to the same place?
Secret Santa ~ Julie Rowe
A nurse grieving the death of her twin brother receives an unusual gift at the staff Secret Santa party: the bullet that killed him along with a message of hope and love.

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Friday, November 01, 2013

Sensual Games

Are any of you old enough to remember the original Thomas Crown affair movie? The one starring Steve McQueen as a millionaire businessman who pulls off a perfect crime because he’s bored. Faye Dunaway is an independent insurance investigator who will receive a percentage of the stolen money if she can recover it.

McQueen knows who she is but can’t resist getting involved with her, sure she won’t get the better of him. They play a game of chess, which was pretty damned sensual and gave me the idea for a scene in my latest release from Carina Press, Finessing the Contessa. Lord Rob Forster, younger brother of the Marquess of Denby, is a chess master and relishes the opportunity to cross rooks with Electra Falzone, the beautiful Sicilian widow who is reputed to play the game as well as he does. Just like Crown, Rob suspects her motives but can’t help being drawn towards her.

Here’s what happens when they play chess in the presence of others and Electra seeks to distract Rob.

Rob leaned back in his chair as the contessa moved a pawn and stopped her clock. The Sicilian defence again? He countered her move, already sensing a trap. She darted frequent glances his way as they moved their pieces in taut silence. She was up to something, something that was immediately obvious to Charles if his amused smile was anything to go by.

Damn it, he needed to keep his mind on the game.

He saw it when it was almost too late to stop the rot. The Steinitz variation. Ah, very clever. He was able to save his position by advancing his rook two squares and trapping her king. “Check.”

She caught her lower lip between her teeth. “Diavolo! I thought you hadn’t noticed.”

“I almost didn’t.”

“Mind elsewhere, Rob?” Charles asked innocently.

“Go to the devil, Charles.”

Charles roared with laughter as he strolled away from them. “I very likely will.”

“Now, what to do?” she mused.

She moved a piece but Rob didn’t notice which one or how it affected his position because he became conscious of something gliding across his foot. A slipperless, stockinged foot to be precise. Perdition, did the woman have no shame?

“Your move, my lord,” she said sweetly.

“Don’t start anything with me unless you plan to finish it,” he said softly.

“You told me to go with my instincts.”

“Hmm, yes I did.” Rob treated her to a challenging smile. “Perhaps I overplayed my hand.”

She canted her head and returned his smile with a sinfully tempting one of her own. “Not afraid, are you, my lord?”

Rob wanted to growl at her. He also wanted to kiss that smile off her lips and then put her across his knee, lift her skirts and spank her bottom for being such a tease. He might very likely do both of those things before the night was out, but right now he had a game to win and distractions to ignore. He made a move that worsened her position—and his—because that stockinged foot was now creeping tantalizingly slowly up his calf.

Rob’s mind froze. He could think of nothing other than the progress of that damned foot and its intended target, now throbbing painfully within the tight confines of his breeches.

“Do you wish to up the stakes, my lady?” he asked.

She cut off the trap he’d set for her with her rook. “I am very satisfied with the terms of our wager, my lord.”
Well, that made one of them.

Rob thought ahead several moves, doing his best to pretend that her toe hadn’t now worked its way dangerously close to his groin. He could see that she intended to attack his king as stealthily as she was attacking his person and made the appropriate defensive move.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said quietly.

“I’m almost afraid to ask why not.”

With a serene smile she landed her toes squarely on his erection, and left them there. Rob, unable to do anything about it other than continue with the game, shot her a warning glance and simultaneously suppressed a groan.

“All actions have consequences, my lady. Are you sure you’re ready for them?”

 Finessing the Contessa, Book Three in the Forsters series, available from November 18th http://tinyurl.com/qe8cgdb Amazon link http://tinyurl.com/luvq2g6