Sunday, August 05, 2012

Embroidering Lives - Researching Costume History for Novels

When I'm not buying and selling antique and vintage textiles (or deciding to hang onto them, because I love them so much!) I'm a professional writer and these days, I mostly write novels. You can read all about me and them on my Amazon Author Page, here.   A lot of what I write is historical. The Curiosity Cabinet is partly set on a small island in early 18th century Scotland while The Amber Heart is a big romantic family saga, set in 19th century Eastern Poland.

I often find costume and embroidery figuring in my fiction. Central to the Curiosity Cabinet is a little raised work cabinet, such as can be admired in Glasgow's Burrell Collection. The heroine of that novel, Henrietta Dalrymple, finds herself having to alter and wear another woman's clothes, and they are described in some detail. I can remember having to point out to my editor that yes, bright Indian cottons would have been imported at the time, and might well have been worn by a lady of quality. Similarly, in The Amber Heart, Maryanna's mid nineteenth century clothes are described in some detail and on one occasion at least become quite central to the plot. Such details - so long as they aren't overdone - bring a scene to life and for me, are part of the joy of writing fiction.

In fact, for me, one of the chief pleasures of writing historical fiction is the research involved. I love finding out about things, how people lived and what they ate. I particularly love finding out about how they dressed and how things were made. One of the best books I ever found at a library sale, was a volume called Costume in Detail, 1730 - 1930 by Nancy Bradfield. It is stuffed full of detailed line drawings of the way men, women and children dressed over 200 years, from underwear outwards - an absolute gift for a writer and I've used it more than once.

A few years ago, I attended a session at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, designed particularly for writers. The curator of costume at the time allowed us to see various items at close quarters and even to handle some of them. It's always a revelation to me to handle these items, to see how they were made and to realise that sometimes dresses which appear beautiful on the surface are cobbled together underneath! They have a sort of theatrical quality to them. The curator also pointed out that the wealthy were cleaner than we might suppose and changed their 'linens' - their shirts and underwear - often, as can be seen from the inventories of possessions, including clothes. It was the top garments which weren't washed (and sometimes had to be unpicked for cleaning.)

Also interesting for me is when I buy boxes of old textiles at auction, and realise just how treasured some of these possessions were. I'll find little baby gowns, for example, which have been mended and patched, carefully and beautifully, over a number of years.

The picture above (and detail right) is an embroidered christening cape, dating from the very early 1800s. I bought it years ago with the intention of selling it and then couldn't bring myself to let it go. It is so very beautiful, in silk and satin, embroidered with tiny, delicate but wholly realistic flowers. I found myself wondering all the time about the woman who might have made it. Who she was. What became of her. The result was a new novel called The Physic Garden, set in early 1800s Glasgow: a story of friendship, love and betrayal, much of it set in and around the 'physic garden' - the medicinal garden of the old college of Glasgow University. It will be published as an eBook before Christmas 2012 and as a paperback some time in 2013.