An Interview with Rebecca Olds

Rebecca Olds, founder/designer/dressmaker at Timesmith Dressmaking is an independent ‘original practice’ researcher and maker of reconstructed historical clothing of the 18th century. She will be our guest speaker at the Meet the Isabella MacTavish-Fraser Gown event on March 14, 2020.

She sat down for a virtual interview with us this week.

TNN: You spoke a little about your motivation to recreate the Isabella MacTavish Fraser wedding gown in the recently released American Duchess documentary. Can you tell us a little more about your personal interest in the history of the gown?

Photo Credit: Rebecca Olds. Used with kind permission.

I think everyone who takes an interest in this gown does so for personal reasons. I am no different. I came across one photo of the dress on Pinterest while designing my own wedding dress and, as it happens, I love tartan, red is my favourite colour, and the 18th century is my favourite period for historical dress. There it all was, embodied in one dress. 

The added ‘punch’ is that my family had just discovered the long-rumoured but elusive line of descent from a Scottish emigrant and it turns out he was a Highlander who landed in North Carolina about 20 years after the Battle of Culloden.  Sound familiar? 😊  While my own ‘clan’ is Mackenzie, I was already a fan of the Outlander novels and when I spotted Isabella’s wedding dress, the name Fraser certainly added to its appeal. 

© Simon Lees Mobile 07900278953 email simon@simonsstudio.co.uk Copyright Designs & Patents Act 1988, moral assetred credit required. No part of the photo to be stored, reproduced, manipulated or transmitted to thrid parties be any means without prior permission

Had the creators who worked together on this project ever worked together before?
How did you meet?

A few of us had, but not all of us. I was the one who (with Katy’s encouragement) decided to get this project off the ground. I knew what the project entailed so I recruited people I was confident not only had the right ‘technical’ skills but also who I could rely on to work hard, treat each other with consideration and respect and pull together to get the job done. 

Back at the beginning, it was me and Katy with the initial project concept, and I approached Abby and Lauren. I already had a team of women who knew how to make the dress, but what Lauren and Abby could bring to the table was media, filmmaking and pattern drafting experience as solid historical research and dressmaking skills. 

I knew Katy and Georgia from social costuming events in the south of England and knew their high standards of work and their amiable natures.   I knew Alex from her final year at university when she did a work experience placement in my workshop in order to supplement her performance costuming training with historical construction methods, with her particular passion being 18th century dress. I knew Lauren and Abby from afar – yes, they flew over to Scotland to work with 6 UK-based people they had never met before!  Sorry, that’s not quite true: Abby knew Peryn who lives in Edinburgh, as Peryn had been a summer intern at the Margaret Hunter Workshop while Abby was serving her apprenticeship there (in the Colonial Williamsburg historical trades program). Abby and Peryn knew from first-hand experience what a “gown in a weekend” event looked like and they knew each other’s ways of working, so it’s fair to say that Peryn’s availability and willingness to come on board, though very busy with her PhD studies, was pivotal in bringing the team together in a way that gelled. 

How did you connect with the museum to gain access to the gown and carry out this collaboration? 

A mix of social media connections, serendipity and chutzpah!

Photo Credit: Rebecca Olds. Used with kind permission.

Someone on social media who knew of my keen interest in making a replica of the address had connections to introduce me to the Collections Curator at the Inverness Museum & Art Gallery where the original dress was on loan. We arranged a date for me to just go see the dress the next time I was in Scotland. This actually turned out to be while I was on my honeymoon, with my new husband and two sisters in tow! So it wasn’t a study visit. However, we had the great good fortune to visit on a day that the owner of the dress was also meeting with the curator, so we met her as well and that circumstance of meeting all the key people with responsibility for the dress, all at once and in person, lay the perfect foundation for getting permission later on to pursue the recreation project. 

Once the project began to take shape, it was then a matter of taking the initiative to contact the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh to put forward a proposal to run this “gown in a weekend” event as an interesting ‘attraction’, if you will, during the window of opportunity presented by the original dress being on loan to them for their major exhibition, “Wild and Majestic: Romantic Visions of Scotland”. 

The National Museum of Scotland had never organised or promoted an event of this nature. It was a big gamble for them and I had to convince them (with fantastic support from Lauren and Abby by way of data and statistics!) that the right audience existed for this, that we knew how to reach them and how to get them through the museum’s front door… yes, for what could be described as just a sewing demonstration! 

It was a steep learning curve, but it gave me a very good idea of what approach is needed to convince the public programme team at a world-renowned museum that it is in their own best interests, as an educational and public service provider, to host a unique event like this.

The reading list you offer on https://timesmith-dressmaker.co.uk/reading-list is quite extensive. What are your top five resources for people interested in taking up or improving their historical sewing work?

Ah, yes, the Reading List….. it is quite long, isn’t it? Yet that’s just scratching the surface, if post-graduate studies are in your sights. 

So, top five resources. I think it all depends on your purpose.  If you’re a maker and just want to know how to sew something, you’d not going to trawl through dry listings of tradespeople in the period equivalent of the Yellow Pages! You may not have any particular interest in the working conditions of people who eked their living from wielding a needle. On the other hand, you may find recipes for achieving desired colours with natural dyes of the period utterly fascinating…. even as you put a clothes peg over your nose as you stir the vat of pig’s urine. 

On a more serious note, for me personally this historical dressmaking journey is about figuring out how to make clothes using the methods (not just the cutting, the stitching, the order of construction, but also the values and priorities, a peek at the mindset, if you will) of dressmakers in the 18th century.  Our own great-x-grandmothers almost certainly did not make their own clothes, but every single one of them, regardless of class, wore them so they had clothes made for them and thus they knew the women who made their clothes. These dressmakers touched our foremothers’ lives in a very literal sense: they poked and prodded their bodies, pinned fabrics to their shifts and stays, discussed fashions and design ideas, and did their very best to make their customers – our foremothers – comfortable, confident and happy. 

So from that point of view, my own personal recommendations for you, if you’re a maker, are: 

  1. The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking, by Lauren Stowell and Abby Cox (and I don’t say that because they were on the Isabella team – I think it’s more that they were invited to be on the team because they had proven their research credentials with this book!)

  2. Patterns of Fashion 1, by Janet Arnold

  3. Costume Close Up, by Linda Baumgarten

  4. Costume In Detail, by Nancy Bradfield

    I think those are the 4 core texts for an 18th century specialist. 

You will also want something about making shifts (for which you absolutely cannot do better than Sharon Burnston’s incredibly thorough research, pattern and instructions) and for making stays (with the seminal text here being Patterns of Fashion 5 by the team at The School of Historical Dress who are the legatees of Janet Arnold). 

Oh, yes, and a fifth one!

Choose your own elective.

  • If you’re interested in English dress history:  Dress in Eighteenth-Century England by Anne Buck
  • If you’re interested in the working class:  The Dress of the People by John Styles
  • If it’s period art that floats your boat: something by Aileen Ribeiro
  • If you’re interested in the women who made these clothes and can access academic journals and/or post-graduate research:  articles by Elizabeth Sanderson; also Carolyn Ann Dowdell’s MA and PhD theses.
  • If you just LOVE ALL THE TARTAN: publications by Hugh Cheape, Peter Macdonald and Sally Tuckett
  • If it’s a bit more about what clothes the Scottish were actually wearing, then one of the books by John Dunbar
  • If you’re interested in the theory of dress history as an academic discipline and practice:  The Study of Dress History by Lou Taylor
  • If you’re interested in just how to go about studying an extant garment and figuring out what the heck you’re looking at (!):  The Dress Detective, by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim

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