Fitting A Commercial Pattern To Your Body

Fitting A Commercial Pattern To Your Body

If you’ve ever made a garment from a commercial patterns, especially something that is meant to be fitted, and have been disappointed that your body doesn’t look good in the garment…you have it the wrong way around. In this post, I’m going to show the steps that I take to fit the commercial pattern to my unique body. My hope is that you can follow these same steps to make garments that flatter your own unique physique.

First things first, I’ve been working on upping my professional attire by incorporating more blazers. With summer just around the corner and DC’s infamous hot, muggy weather, I thought some dressy vests would help me transition this upgrade to the summer months. Guess what’s not in fashion at the moment? Dressy vests. The only ones I found were online, polyester, and clearly made for waiters as the only color I found was black. Well, I figured, I should go ahead and make my own.

0425201001_resizedI went through my boxes of patterns and pulled out McCall’s M5186 (it doesn’t seem to be on the McCall’s website but is available through other sources online). I also pulled out my roll of tracing paper. I get this paper at the art supply store and it’s less than $20 for a 50 yard roll. Instead of cutting my paper pattern, I trace out the pattern pieces.

Since I am short-waisted, I folded the paper pattern at the lines that are indicated right on the pattern for shortening the pattern and traced my pieces that way. I do this because I can refold the full pattern paper back along the original crease lines and neatly fit it back into the envelope without the possibility of losing a piece. Also, as I gain or lose weight, I don’t lose the other sizes available on the pattern, I simply trace off the size I need at that time. Additionally, if you have a large difference between say bust and hip, you can trace the hips to the proper size and then trace the bust to the proper size and connect the two lines somewhere in the middle. I started doing this when I was regularly costuming for theatre productions and I find it a useful habit.

0425201005_resizedA little about my unique body. I had scoliosis as a kid and ended up having a good length of my spine fused. My scoliosis caused rib rotation which makes my right scapula stick out further than my left and my right chest to be sunk back further than the left. My hips are also different heights and just generally shaped differently. I used to hate these differences and I still struggle with accepting my differently-formed body, but I’ve become more and more accepting of it as I have created more custom garments that account for my uniqueness and flatter it instead of puckering and looking wrong.

For my unique body, I can’t just fit half the pattern. In order to truly capture my complete form, I have to adjust the pattern all the way around. When I trace off the pattern pieces, I fold the paper in half and cut two copies of each piece. I then use my sewing machine to sew all of the pattern pieces together, using the 5/8″ seam allowance included in the pattern. Each commercial pattern should state the seam allowance that is included, but you can pretty safely assume the “Big Four” use 5/8″. Now the fitting begins.

Wearing the undergarments and blouse that I would wear under the vest once it is 0425201006_resizedcomplete, I gently put on the paper garment and pin the button hole marks to the button marks. Standing in front of a mirror, I find any areas where there are creases or waves in the paper and a gently pinch them down to make darts. The darts are sometimes coming from the edge of the pattern piece and in certain areas are contained entirely within the center of the pattern piece. I tape these darts down as I work my way around my body. I start with the largest, most obvious folds and work my way around the body. Then I move on to smaller adjustments and make my way around the body. I try to trace the pattern to my largest area, but I do sometimes find that I need more room. In that case I either write on the paper how much more fabric I need in an area (where an entire seam needs to move) or I cut the area where I need more room and tape in a new piece of paper. In the end, my pattern pieces have a bunch of pleats and sometimes edges that aren’t neatly aligned. I gently take out the stitches that hold all of the pieces together and I’m ready for the muslin. I lay out my paper pieces onto muslin fabric and cut around them as they are, with all the pleats still held down by tape. This transfers the adjustments I made to the fabric. Any jagged edges are eased together so I have a continuous line.

Once I have my new pattern pieces cut out of fabric (muslin, or really any other cheap fabric that has a similar hand to the final material), I sew the pieces together and again put it on over the clothes that I’ll be wearing. Using the same process, I gather up areas of excess fabric and pinch it out to make pleats. I pin these in place as I work from big, obvious pleats to smaller pleats for smaller refinements. When I take the mock up off, I sew all these pleats flat. Because this pattern has princess seams, I don’t need a bust dart to account for fullness, the curve of the princess seam takes care of that. However, if the garment didn’t already have bust shaping, this is where I could add a pleat that I intend to actually incorporate into the final product. As it stands, I just smoothed down my pattern pieces and laid them onto my final fabric, a pair of tropical-weight wool pants that I love but didn’t fit anymore. Yup. I just recycled my pants to make a vest.


(Above) Muslin with pleats where I took out excess fabric. I smooth the piece onto my finished fabric and use the new outline to capture the adjustments I made. To be honest, I should have made one more muslin, but I got lazy. I’ll explain why this became a problem later.

(Below) You can see the difference between my final pattern piece and the original pattern piece. I am even more short-waisted than the pattern accounts for. On a fitted garment like this, the placement of the waist is so important to a good fit. If I had just folded up what the pattern said and made the garment, the waist would likely have landed at least 1/2″-3/4″ lower than my actual waist. This would have put the waist where my body is already getting wider at the hips, giving me a boxier look than I wanted.


O0425201222_resizednce I cut out my wool, I then laid out the pattern pieces onto more of the tracing paper. I traced off my new pattern pieces to use in cutting the interfacing and the lining. Had I made another mock up, I would have smoothed down the pleated muslin on top of fresh muslin and cut it out. It’s all just about transferring the new shapes onto something you can use to recreate the pattern pieces. Trying to spread out the pleated mock up the same way twice is not very feasible and an easy way to introduce errors into the design. I cut out my new tracing paper pieces and used them to cut my interlining (in this case a lovely cotton organdy) and lining (a simple cotton fabric). I pre-washed them all by hand to take up any shrinkage. I don’t wash any of the garments I make in the machine. Too much time and effort goes into them for the punishing regimen of the agitator and spin cycle to make me comfortable. I also avoid dry cleaning my garments in an effort to reduce my impact on the planet. I just fill up a tub with warm water and gentle detergent. I then gently move the garment through the water (it is the action of the water moving around and through the fibers of the fabric that cleans them), then rinse and hang or lay down to dry.

In the end, this is what the final piece looks like:

The fit across the back, where my one scapula sticks out more than the other, is perfect. Because the fit is so good, it makes the scapula less noticeable. I’m in love with the back. In the front you will see why I should have made a second mock up. Do you see that wrinkle on my shoulder holding the phone? That’s not all distortion from the way I’m posing, that’s actually in the final product. I noticed that it was a little bit ripply when I made the first mock up but assumed it would work itself out when I made the final piece. It didn’t. It’s not as noticeable when I don’t have my arm at a weird angle to my body, but it is still there. Not enough of a problem for me to not wear this vest, but I did go back and adjust the pattern piece so that future vests don’t have the same issue.


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Nécessaire du Voyage

My career keeps me very busy…much too busy to do much acting or designing any more. I’ve instead focused my creative energies into creating garments that follow (as closely as I am able) historically accurate 18th- and 19th-century designs. I recently attended a weekend workshop and needed to bring my sewing materials with me. I’m a follower of the dictum, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” At home, this is simply a matter of putting things into the box, bin, or basket I’ve assigned for it. Traveling with my gear was bound to be trickier, but I expect to do a bit of it as I continue in this hobby so I decided that what I needed was a Nécessaire du Voyage.

Nécessaires have been around for many centuries and come in various shapes and sizes. They hold any manner of items that a lady or a gentleman might need on a regular basis.  Some were small and could fit in your pocket or hang from a chatelaine:

Phila Museum- Chatelaine with EtuiChatelaine with Etui, Made in England, c. 1760-1765. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

You’ll notice the term used here is Etui. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but Etui seems the more appropriate term for a smaller case. However, you will just as often find the use of Nécessaire for these small cases, especially when the tools enclosed are sewing implements.

Oftentimes, a Nécessaire du Voyage is a box or leather case with spaces for containers, drawers, or other storage devices for items needed when traveling.


Antique Tortoiseshell Necessaire Etui, c. 1825, Hampton Antiques.

This is a small sewing nécessaire, likely no more than 8″-9″ long. Others are rather more impressive.

Grand Ladies nécessaire, early 19th century, Le Curieux

The case above is just about 18″ x 12″ x 6 1/2″. It contains all the accoutrement for tea for two, combing and styling one’s hair, sewing, and writing. The center portion with the spoons lifts up to reveal two more trays of items!

My nécessaire only needed to be large enough to hold my sewing tools. Since I wanted it to hold my tools, I knew I needed to make mine myself (not that they are readily available otherwise). Since I’ve not been able to study more than one or two of the smallest cases personally, I decided to make mine out of modern materials and treat it like an experiment. At some point, I’ll hunt down an antique box and do more in-depth research, but for now, I just needed to get the thing done and ready for the event just two weeks away. I know a lot of people get frustrated with creative types because they don’t understand how we can come up with some of the things that we do. I always try to explain that part of it is applying experience from one project to another that may be completely unrelated. It’s also a willingness to try things and make mistakes. To that end, I will be sharing my failed attempts, of which there were several.

I began by trying to think of what they used to create the custom formed holders for everything from scissors to spoons. In this period, the options would most likely be carving out wood, sculpting papier mache, or perhaps some kind of heavy paper board. My tiny apartment doesn’t leave me much room for woodworking, but that seemed to me like a highly likely option since it is rugged, easily carved (depending on variety), and readily available. I decided to use foam as my wood substitute. Friday after work, I headed to the craft store. At first, I got the type of foam that’s used in upholstery. I know this type of foam is easy to cut with an electric meat carver and you can also hack at it with scissors. I went to an art and craft store and bought the foam, a wood box, and some other small pieces of hobby wood.

I began by laying out those materials and all the things I wanted to carry in the case.

The first thing I realized was that my box was smaller than I had hoped. The second thing I realized is that the awl that I got from my toolbox was too big (especially the handle). I thought I’d see if I could develop a layout that would accommodate all the rest.


I drew a rectangle the size of the interior dimensions of the box on a large piece of paper and marked off a half inch border to keep from getting too close to the edge. I liked the balance of this arrangement and felt comfortable moving on. I traced each item onto the paper, using the width of the marker to give me a little wiggle room for the lining. I wasn’t happy with my symmetry on the four silver containers so I picked the tracing I liked most, folded the paper in half, and copied the good tracing onto the other side. Once I did that, I covered the paper both front and back with clear packing tape to give it a little more body. I then cut each opening out with a blade on my self-healing cutting mat.


I thought the template turned out rather well and turned my attention to making the tray that would sit on top of the base layer. I really had hoped to find a piece of model-making wood that would be thin but not too thin and wide enough to fill the whole box. Alas, I was unable to find this so I had to settle for a piece that’s narrower than the box. I purchased a 1/2″ square dowel and cut it down to size. I mitered the corners in order to get nice clean edges. I realized I needn’t have bothered after I’d done all the work because I was going to cover the tray with fabric.









My approach to the carving was meant to be additive and subtractive at the same time. I intended to cut out openings for everything from the top layer of foam, then cut out only the taller items from the bottom layer. I traced the template onto the cushion foam and got out the electric meat carver (along with some polystyrene foam) I’d just bought at the store. And then…I made a mess. The foam cushion was too narrow for the carver to really move through it smoothly. No matter, I thought, the rough edges could be smoothed over when I covered the whole thing with the fabric. Then I started using my craft knife to cut into the foam. I started with the smaller implements at the top and very quickly discovered that the foam had no structural integrity when making several cuts in a small space. I ended up with pieces of it flapping everywhere. I knew, covered in fabric or not, that this was just going to fall apart when I tried to use it. I knew I needed a foam with more density but I didn’t have a good source for the really dense upholstery foam and decided I would need to give the rigid foam a go. The block I had purchased was 2″ thick. I had seen a melter/cutter tool at the craft store, but I didn’t want to pay $30 for a tool I’ll likely never use again, so I skipped it. Using my craft knife and a box cutter, I attempted to carve the shapes into the foam block. I eventually realized that heat really would be useful, so I was using a lighter to heat the craft knife’s blade, then running it through the foam until it cooled down again and got stuck. The melt was unpredictable and I was struggling to get smooth lines when it took 10-12 heatings to cut out one shape. It turned out..well, see for yourself.


I couldn’t get a nice flat bottom to the partial-depth pieces because I had no way of sliding my knife in the material but parallel to the surface. It looked terrible and I knew a little bit of fabric wasn’t going to fix it. So I sighed and do what I always do when I reach an impasse. I set it aside and decided to come back to it later.

In order to keep the project progressing, I decided to do something I thought I’d be able to actually do fairly well because I’ve done it before. I, therefore, turned my attention to the box. This box is a cheap basswood hinge-lidded box from the craft store. The box is glued together with wood glue, which works just fine until you drop the box on the corner and the whole thing splits apart. I speak from experience on this point. I decided the first thing to do was reinforce the box. Using some small brass nails I already had in my toolbox, I set a series of nails up along each side of the box and the lid, doing my best not to come out of either side. This particular box was tricky because the corners were mitered and then chamfered so there was very little material to put the nail into. I worked slowly and meticulously and managed to do a pretty good job at it. Then I needed to stain the piece. Well, I don’t have the right shade of stain for what I want. Oops, forgot to pick some up at the store when I bought the other supplies. What to do? What to do? I went into my painting box and pulled out a couple of colors of oil paint. I knew I wanted a very red-toned stain finish. So I pulled out my pallet knife, squeezed out some colors and got to mixing.

IMG_4464I used a scrap piece of the wood I had used to make the tray with and brushed a little bit of the paint on it to see what I had (bottom area). It was a little too red so I mixed some burnt umber into the paint and painted a second swatch. That’s the color I was looking for! As you can see, I was applying the paint in a very thin coat, just enough to get the color onto the surface, not enough to hide the wood grain. I could wipe any excess off with a towel as well, but I didn’t want to touch the surface too much so I tried as much as possible to dry-brush the paint on. I’ve done this technique before with acrylic paint (house paint) and, as long as you dry brush and wipe any thick areas quickly (because acrylic dries so fast), it does a beautiful job. Happy with my color, I set up my box on jimmy-rigged supports and got to work dry-brushing. Oil paint takes some time to set, so I knew I needed to leave it alone for at least a few days. This was fine since it was Sunday night by this point and I had to work all week and may not have the time or energy to do much more on this project during the week.

I came back to the project on Friday night and, sure enough, IMG_4467the oil paint was set. I had painted right over the nails I had added to the box, so I used a rubbed bronze acrylic craft paint to delicately paint the head of each nail. I did the same with the hinges. That sets pretty quickly so I was able to cover the whole box in polyurethane that night. On Sunday night, I gave that coat very gentle sanding, then wiped it down and gave it a second coat of poly. This gave a nice shine to the box and protected my hacked stain and the bronze details from the eventual wear and tear the box will see.

I had picked up two 1″ pieces of polystyrene foam during the week and a craft knife that heats up so I could melt/cut my way through the foam. I decided that the best path forward was to cut all of the shapes out of the top layer, then only cut the shapes of the deeper containers into the second layer. I would then glue the two layers together and have just what I needed. Having the special melter blade definitely helped, but I was both not perfect using the tool (of course, first time) and I somehow misaligned the two sheets of foam. I glued them together, trimmed off the excess on the edges, then carefully tried to trim off or smooth out by melting, the little bumps and misalignments between the layers. It was much better than both my first and second attempts, but still not great. I gave it some thought and grabbed some wood filler. I applied it like frosting to the inside of my shapes, then smoothed it out as best I could. The secret to working with wood putty is to touch it as little as possible. I knew I’d need to come back and do some sanding, but it did work to fill in hollow areas and give me something to glue the fabric to later.


You can see my layout evolved somewhat. I decided I’ll buy a bone awl next time I see one and I carved out space for it. I decided also at this time to forego my metal ruler to clear up some space at the top. When I bought the additional foam, I also picked up some black felt fabric. I decided the black would be a sharper contrast against the color of my box than the grey fabric I had had laying around. I used it to cover the entire tray that I made early in the process. I squeezed some wood glue onto the edges, then used a foam brush to spread the glue out. I found the wood glue wasn’t absorbed as much by the wood and so it was able to create a better bond between the wood and the fabric. I also held it in place for a good minute on each surface. IMG_4477

The wood putty had set on the foam by this time, so I used some emery boards to sand any really high spots down. I knew it didn’t have to be perfect because the felt would hide any small discrepancies. I cut a piece of felt the size of the whole base and glued it to the underside of my foam assemblage. I then cut out a piece for the top and, once again using my stencil, marked and cut out each piece from the design. I used these cutouts to line the bottom of each of the openings, then cut strips of the felt to wrap around the inside edges. In some of the extant examples, it appears this lining may be done with grosgrain ribbon and I had purchased some but decided against using it because I needed the felt to hide the discrepancies in the walls of each shape. I set the whole thing aside to dry.

IMG_4482 (1)

Most of the examples of the box-style nécessaire I’ve found have a lock, but I do not have the wherewithal to install a lock on this flimsy little box. I found one or two examples with a latch and happened to have one in my stash of stuff (cannot even fathom when I got it but it was likely at least a decade ago). I installed the hardware for the latching mechanism on to the face of the box. It attaches with screws and I didn’t want to be glaringly in your face. Screws have been around for a long time but the use of screws to mount surface hardware is not seen until very recently. I know this project isn’t HA, but I don’t want to be totally anachronistic if I take the box to an event. Besides, it bothered me.IMG_4483

I filled the head of each screw with some wood putty. Once that dried, I painted the putty and used the same paint to fill in the background of the filigree design on the latch. I did not paint the strike because I didn’t want the paint to gum up the works. By rubbing off the paint from the high points of the latch, I was able to soften the contrast between the paint and the original finish of the assembly.

At this point, I went to glue on the top layer of felt onto the foam. And the project almost met the garbage can. First, I applied the glue to the wrong side of the felt, which was a problem because of the two items that are not symmetrical. I cut another piece of felt, got the glue on the correct side, started sticking it down and it looked terrible. The felt I used to line the sides got stiff from the glue and any little piece that was proud of the surface created a bump under the felt. The felt, traced from my original template, didn’t align well with the cutouts in the foam. I was almost out of felt, frustrated, and really considered giving up on this whole project. I was also running out of time. I sighed, ripped off the felt, set the whole thing aside, and went to bed.

The next day, I thought about using some thin board to give the top some support. My hope was that this would keep every little thing from being seen under the felt. It was a work day and I had no time to buy something, so I needed to find something on hand. I fell upon the idea of using the backer board from one of my large drawing pads. It’s a thin cardboard material, just enough thickness to give the top some shape. I took a piece of paper and laid it on the foam. I used a piece of chalk to trace the openings as they existed and realized I wasn’t too far off. In fact, the openings were mostly ok, the whole assemblage was slightly twisted. I used this knowledge to trace my template onto the cardboard and then set to work cutting out all the openings. I cut a piece of felt larger than the top and glued the cardboard to the felt. I set a stack of books on top of that and went to bed.

The next night after work, I cut slits in the felt so that I could wrap the material around the cardboard. I glued the felt to the back side, trying to keep it even so that there was no one area with a lot of overlapping material. When I set the top onto the styrofoam base, it was brilliant! I had one or two spots where the white of the styrofoam could be seen if you looked at the whole arrangement at a certain angle so I used some matte black paint to cover those little spots up. It looked so good and slipped into the box on the first try with no problems!


I was really excited to fill up the spaces with my goodies. That’s when I came to realize that using the width of my marker to trace around the items wasn’t quite enough and that I hadn’t selected a large enough circle for my thread winders. The winders can sit in their spots, but most of them have to be at an angle instead of laying flat at the bottom how I wanted. My seam ripper, bone folder, and pinking iron fit in their slots, but they are wedged in there super tight!


I decided to just live with the thread winders and other items being too large for their spots since they don’t interfere with the tray being able to sit on top. I cut a little bit of the grosgrain ribbon that I had purchased for this project but didn’t use and put a small piece under each of the tight tools with the ends of the ribbon sticking out. That way I can pull on the ribbon and get the traction I need to get them out. I figure these will loosen up with time. Until they do, this works just fine. So, there we are. In the end, when I am able to do some more research on the materials used for period nécessaires, I will be able to apply this as a lesson learned and will cut the spaces a little bit bigger to account for the thickness of the felt. Until then, I have a useful nécessaire du voyage to see me off on my sewing-related travels.

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Posted by on March 16, 2019 in Favorite Things


A Blank Canvas

The decision to move to a larger city after leaving Charleston was one I made a long time ago. I’ve always preferred big cities. I like being able to use public transportation instead of having a car, I love having access to many museums and galleries, and I enjoy hearing many languages spoken as I make my way through the hustle and bustle of downtown. As I searched for a job, I concentrated on NYC, DC, Chicago, and LA. DC won the race and I am glad to be here. Starting over is always scary, but I’m enjoying the challenge.

As I spent a few days in May packing my things, I knew that, regardless of which city I moved to, I would end up affording a smaller apartment than I had in Charleston. With this in mind, I seriously purged my belongings and decided to leave all of my furniture behind in South Carolina. I own a lot of books. Even after my major purge, I still have more than 500 books in my collection. I know this because I assign them each a catalog number that I put on a bookplate in the book. I keep a list of my catalog in a series of spreadsheets, organized by general category (art & architecture, biographies, etc.). I don’t even keep all the books I read, just the ones I would like to re-read, or would like to have available to lend to my friends. As I searched for an apartment in DC, I was looking for a place with enough wall space for me to be able to install enough bookcases for my books (also acknowledging that I will add to my collection). I settled on the Columbia Heights neighborhood, a neighborhood that was mostly Hispanic for most of the second half of the 1900’s and into the early 2000’s. Gentrification is changing the area, but I still find tías selling watermelon and mango slices on the street and families with babies that look like me, brown hair and big brown eyes.

This is the apartment I found. I chose it because it has a great bank of windows facing the street, which lets in a lot of natural light during the day. The window sill is a great spot for my orchids. The kitchen is tiny, it makes me smile it’s so itty bitty. I don’t do much cooking, so it’s fine for me. The main studio space is approximately 250 square feet (there’s a walk-through closet to the bathroom and the tiny kitchen space, so the apartment is a little more than 350 sq feet overall). Other than the full-size bed that I had delivered when I moved in last week, there is no other furniture…yet. I will be bringing a drafting table from my old apartment, otherwise I have a blank slate. I’m excited to hunt for vintage pieces to create a home from this little space, and to build some new shelves to accommodate my books. I love a good challenge!1225161026

Let’s see what this blank canvas becomes!

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Posted by on December 25, 2016 in Uncategorized


I’m Back!

Hello world! I made it through graduate school, landed a great job and moved to DC! It’s time to get blogging again. The degree I just completed is a Master of Science in Historic Preservation. Basically, I work to document, save, and reuse historic buildings and sites. This means visitors to Let us be sweethearts will get to see cool pictures of old places. Some will be restored to their glory days and others will be in need of some love. The best part is…I get to share cool pictures with you!


First up, the Nathaniel Russell House in Charleston, SC. This house is owned by the Historic Charleston Foundation and you can pay for a docent-led tour. Check out HCF’s website for more information about the house and some lovely overall views of the rooms. It has been mostly restored, although that is an ongoing process. These are some of my favorite details in the house. Enjoy!

Front entrance:


This is a reproduction floor cloth. It’s canvas that is stretched out over the wood floor and painted. Often these were done in trompe l’oeil style to mimic tiles, marble, or other intricate designs. The floor cloth protected the floors from wear and tear and were less expensive than carpeting.

Doors throughout:


This beautifully grained door is actually another reproduced trompe l’oiel design. I actually learned how to do this as a undergrad Set Design student. By utilizing layers of glaze and various brushes, an artist could make an inexpensive wood door look like a much more expensive wood.



I have a bit of an obsession with inkwells. This one is silver and cut glass. The Russell House has a full compliment of furniture and accessories appropriate to the time period. Some are pieces which belonged to the original family, others are examples of items that are known to have been owned by the family.

Plaster crown molding.


The intricate plaster molding throughout the house has been restored and paint analysis discovered the original color scheme. For many decades, historic house museums painted walls in muted colors and trim in white, reflecting modern tastes. As the preservation movement has become more scientific, details like this color scheme, unlike anything one would normally imagine, show us what was in style when the house was built.



This is an exposure done on the back of a door. Layer after layer of paint was gently sanded away to show what the original faux graining looked like. A modern craftsperson then reproduced the original design, leaving this little sample so we can compare it to the original. I think they’ve done a stupendous job.

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Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Site Visits


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How is Grad School Like Being Dead?

You don’t have time to think, much less post! Check back, I will be posting some of the awesome pictures that I’ve taken on tours of different historic properties. Cross my heart!

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Posted by on November 2, 2015 in Uncategorized


The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime by Judith Flanders

As if I didn’t have enough books of my own, I can’t resist browsing the library books when I’m doing research. Although my current research topic is a Victorian-era Landscape Architect who was a part of the Garden Cemetery movement, this totally unrelated book was just screaming my name…although I did rationalize reading it instead of my research because murdered people are buried in cemeteries. ;-D

Released in 2013, this 400+ page work is impeccably researched and presented in an eminently readable manner. Flanders covers the vast time frame of the Victorian era (most of the 19th century) as pertains to crime in Great Britain. She tells stories of the rich and the poor, along with the newly rising middle-class. Gleaning insights of these male and female killers (or purported killers) from newspaper articles, broadsides, and theatre productions (as found in the official censorship records of the period), Flanders shares stories of murders thematically. She discusses the great hysteria that led to the “poison panic” at mid-century, the rise of murders as entertainment, court trials as grand theatre, and hangings are festive occasions, as well as the rise of the professional police force, especially the detective. Most fascinating of all are the connections Flanders is able to make between a particular crime (or crimes) and great works of fiction, including most, if not all, of Dickens’ catalog.

Some of the transitions between one crime story and the next feel a little forced, and there are times that she references a particular name in a previous or upcoming story in a way that the reader may have difficulty following, yet these are minor issues in an otherwise compelling narrative. It is apparent that Flanders did extensive research for this book but the effort is not a drag on the text. The tiny snippets of information each source provides have been woven together to tell a cohesive narrative that is better than fiction.

bookcaseDid I mention that I own a lot of books? Took some time this winter break to build bookcases. That’s 85′ of bookcase, 65′ devoted solely to books!

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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Book Reviews


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Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo: Spanish Architecture and Urbanism in the United States by James Early

There’s something new going on in my life…I’ve gone back to grad school! I am working towards an M.S. in Historic Preservation. It is a lot of work, but I really am loving it. I’ll be posting more things related to the field, especially as I work on my research and thesis. The following review is of a book on my “recommended reading” list. It caught my eye, since I’m Puerto Rican. Read on to see my thoughts:

 The history of the United States has generally taken a British-centered approach. Other inhabitants, have often been simply a foil for the story of the British, and later American, conquest. In Presidio, Mission, and Pueblo, James Early endeavors to fill in the missing history of the Spanish and Hispanic occupants. His account is extremely detailed and provides not just a study of buildings and construction techniques, but is, in fact, a truly anthropological view of the period from 1526 and the first Spanish settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape, through to the occupation by American forces in 1846. As Early points out, this is a length of time greater than that from the American Revolution to the present day.

Early begins with an overview of the development of Spanish settlements on the mainland. Following the instructions laid out for the West Indies in the “Ordinances of Settlement”, water-front development required a town square built at the head of the port, with the central church facing the water. In-land settlements were to be designed around a central square containing the church. Without water to restrict growth, the settlement would radiate out from the square.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the Spanish settlements, organized by modern U.S. State and, within each state, by region. Florida, with early settlements up the coast, is the first state. Early explores the reasons for the development of St. Augustine as the regional capital (not the first choice of the adelantado for the region). He further explicates the process of constructing the city, the Caribbean influences to the stone and shell-concrete construction, and the dangers of attacks that demanded it become a heavily fortified town. He moves on into the area of present-day New Mexico, where native Pueblo construction techniques were preferred, due, in part, to the lack of masons or engineers versed in any other building styles. It is as Early moves into the West that the Spanish Mission system becomes the driving force behind the architecture. Whereas St. Augustine, a cosmopolitan city with ties to the Caribbean, attracted many settlers, few Spaniards were interested in the hinterlands of New Spain. This led to missionaries, intent on the conversion of native peoples, and soldiers (to protect the missionaries), being the primary inhabitants of these regions. The structures in Texas, Arizona, and California best exemplify this history. Possessed of well-trained military engineers and masons from Mexico, the missionaries in these regions guided the construction of large churches made of stone and wood, with vaults and soaring arches. The structures, usually covered in white stucco, look simple and humble from the exterior, but are often filled with wooden and stone sculptures and paintings in a riotous array of colors.

Insightful and expansive, Early’s book should be read by anyone interested in a fuller exploration of architecture and culture in the United States.


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Posted by on September 2, 2014 in Book Reviews


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Russian Summer

Discontent with the Russian system was a fact of life before the revolutions of 1917. In Angel of Vengeance: The “Girl Assassin”, the Governor of St. Petersburg, and Russia’s Revolutionary World*, Ana Siljak tells the story of Vera Zasulich,

a young woman from a noble family who became a devoted anarchist and decided to do more than talk. In 1878, Vera walked into the receiving room of the Governor of St. Petersburg, swathed in an oversized shawl. Under the shawl, she hid a gun. As she approached General Fedor Trepov, she withdrew the gun and, with a cry of “revenge!”, shot him. The revenge she sought was for a friend of hers,  Alexei Bogolyubov, a young man who had been flogged for refusing to remove his hat in the presence of General Trepov.

Unrest was rife in the ranks of the bourgeois at this time. Vera was involved for several years and came to recognize that many of the people in the movement were content to simply talk of a utopian future. With her single act, Vera set in motion the “Age of Assassination” that unsettled Russian society. Her trial for murder (even though Trepov did not die), was attended by the creme de la creme of society dressed in all their finery. Vera, a generally quiet and reserved person, was the picture of composure. Her attorney did a brilliant job of turning the trial into a condemnation of General Trepov and the Russian government in general. Acquitted, Vera left the country and discovered Marxism. She became a passionate supporter of socialism and was aghast at the use of assassination as a political tool of her fellow revolutionaries. She translated the works of Marx into Russian and both her trial and her translations (and further writing) influenced the leaders in the early 20th century who eventually brought about the rise of the Soviet Union.

Siljak does a masterful job presenting the story of Zasulich. The people who populate the book, the members of Vera’s social circle, her friends, her influences, her lovers, are presented in a vibrant manner that allows the reader to feel the energy and flow of life that guided Vera. Vera herself is rendered as a fully three-dimensional person. The reader gains deep insight into her psyche, her thought process, and her feelings. She is a woman to be admired, a woman of action, a woman of thoughts, a woman who functioned in a manner outside the confines of her time. Yet, even Vera regretted some of the effects of her actions and words. This complicated woman makes for a great subject and Siljak has created a lively book that captures her brilliantly.

One of Vera’s biggest regrets was that the “Age of Assassination”set in motion by her own attempted assassination eventually led to the murder of Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881. John Curtis Perry and Constantine Pleshakov document the aftermath of this assassination in The Flight of the Romanovs: A Family Saga.

The Flight Of The Romanovs A Family SagaThe story of the family of Tsar Nicolas II and his family, murdered in 1918 is fairly well known. The women with bodices lined with jewels, dying slowly as their bodices prevented assassins bullets from hitting the mark. The story that is not well known is what happened to the rest of the Romanovs. This book presents the tales of many of the vast number of Romanovs. The Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Nieces and Nephews that supported the monarchy, or the revolution, or their self-interest, or their adopted homes, or the homeland of their non-Romanov parents. Those who buried their heads in the sand, and the ones whose lives seemed touched with tragedy long before the revolution.

Perry and Pleshakov weave the stories of these various family members in a smooth manner that makes for an eminently readable book. Even with the various Nicholas’, Alexander’s, Constantine’s, Alexandra’s, Olga’s, Perry and Pleshakov use family nicknames to help the reader keep all of the stories straight. It’s fascinating to follow this large family at this time in history that saw so many changes, and particularly fascinating how many strong-willed women influenced the course of history. In the Romanov family, the old rejoinder of a strong woman being behind every strong man is particularly true. The Romanovs of the earlier 20th century paid the price for generations of decisions made by their antecedents, as well as their own choices. The ones who left Russia generally survived. Those who thought they could protect themselves in Russia, generally could not.

Tragedy and Triumph, all in my Russian Summer.

*This is the title of the book as I read it. It has also been released under the alternate title shown in the image of the book cover.

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Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Book Reviews


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Picture Parade

Was looking for a little vintage purse to carry for my sister’s wedding and I found some other goodies as well. I came across this arrangement of violins and thought they would be a beautiful hanging together on a wall in someone’s house:


Then I hit the boxes of photographs that I love so much. This one caught my eye immediately:

IMAG2061-1-1From the mother’s hairstyle, I would say this is a 1920’s photo. What I thought was so interesting is that it’s a double exposure (probably accidental). There aren’t twins dressed in the little pilgrim style, it’s the same girl after she’s moved. What’s so cute is that the fainter image of the boy shows him rubbing his eye…was someone crying?

I tend to be drawn to photos of babies and small children, beautiful girls (awesome for historic costume research) and handsome men. But, mostly, it’s the babies and tykes:

IMAG2065 IMAG2066-1 IMAG2063

The little boy’s hat with the two pom poms on either side, adorable! The babies in prams, so cute…

And this little one, so serious with the ringlets:


A lot of vintage photos are mounted on these card stock “frames”, usually with the photography studio’s information somewhere on them. They’re often called “cabinet cards“. While they’re not great for the photograph itself (acidity in the card stock), they are helpful in placing the location of the studio (and, thus, the area where the sitter was from) and, with a little research, can narrow down the time period as well. This one is from the E. D. Baily Studio in Tamaqua, PA. From the embossing and card stock, this photo could date as early as 1890. Children’s fashions are a little harder to place, with a general unisex look for much of the Victorian and Edwardian era for babies and toddlers. I do know that this is a little girl as her name, “Lillie”, is written in pencil in a beautiful hand on the back of the card. An advantage of a cabinet card is that it ensures that it’s not a photo reprint. An unscrupulous dealer can create a negative of an original photo by taking a new photo, which would allow unlimited reprints to be sold as “vintage”. On loose images, one should check the paper stock, it should be faded and any creases or damage to the front face should be evident on the back, if you don’t see that, it might be a duplicate. I don’t worry too much about these as I’m only spending 50 cents or a few dollars for them, but I do like to have original prints. Another way to know it’s original is seeing black paper still stuck to the photo, or black tape across the corner(s). This shows it was mounted into a scrapbook at some point. As such, they should be on the surface, you should be able to feel them when you rub your hand over them. This could, of course, be faked, but I don’t know anyone who would bother for such a low cost item. If you were buying a photo of a famous person, one that you’re being asked to spend more money on, you would want to check these things. Celebrities in particular would often have hundreds of prints made, some with a message already scrawled on the front, ostensibly by the star. If the signature is on the surface (move it around in the light, you should see the ink sitting on the surface) then this may well have been done for the star’s convenience. If the whole image, writing and signature included, looks the same under the light, then you know that the whole thing is a copy of an original. It still might have been an original publicity item, but isn’t as special as a signed image, or one dedicated and signed. Then again, some of these celebs hired staff who would sign fan images for them…caveat emptor!

Finally, I came across this tiny treasure. I’m not terribly keen on the image, badly framed snapshot, but the size is great. I have a modern stamp here to show how small it really is:


So, did I find a purse? Yes, yes I did. I’ll post pictures once I get some of me carrying it in the wedding. 🙂


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Posted by on May 20, 2014 in Vintage Beauties


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El Espinazo del Diablo (The Devil’s Backbone)- 2001

I watched this film in Spanish, although it is available with English subtitles as well. This screenplay was written (with some collaborators) and directed by the incredibly talented Guillermo del Toro and centers on a haunted orphanage in a remote part of Spain in 1939, the last year of the brutal Spanish Civil War. It is sold as a ghost story, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. Certainly, there is a ghost in the story (several, in fact), a young murdered boy, Santi (Junio Valverde), but it’s not a “ghost story” in the traditional manner. It’s not about scaring the audience, it’s more about the ghosts of life that drive each of us.

Young Carlos (Fernando Tielve), the son of loyalists who leave him in the care of his tutor before being killed by Franco’s forces, is left by his beloved tutor at a distant orphanage in a town with a large, un-exploded (but de-activated) bomb in the center of town. Carlos is small and, as the newest boy in the orphanage, is challenged by Jaime (Íñigo Garcés), the resident bully, to fetch water from the kitchen after lights-out, a violation of the rules. Carlos agrees, as long as Jaime accompanies him. Jaime abandons Carlos, who stumbles into a storage area with a large cistern, where he hears a whispered warning of impending death for all. He has a run-in with the handyman Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), who is not happy to see him near this particular area. Carlos manages to get back to the dormitory, which (along with taking the blame for being out in violation of the rules and taking blame for owning a knife which Jacinto finds– and uses to slash his face), earns Carlos some respect from the other boys.

Carlos visits Dr. Casares (the venerable Federico Luppi), who addresses his cut. A large jar containing a fetus with a severe spina bifida malformation– most of its spine is exposed– resides in a glass jar in the doctor’s office. The doctor tells Carlos that this is known as a “Devil’s Backbone” and explains that the orphanage brings in extra money by selling quantities of the spiced rum this and other specimens are kept in as a cure-all to the villagers. The doctor claims this rum can even cure impotence, and is later seen ingesting the rum himself. Dr. Casares is in love with Carmen (the equally venerable Marisa Paredes), headmistress of the orphanage who has a heavy artificial leg she must drag around in order to walk. Although she beats herself up over it and continues to insist that this time will be the last time, Carmen has a sexual relationship with Jacinto, each encounter overheard by the brokenhearted, but impotent Dr. Casares. Jacinto was once an orphan in the care of the orphanage, and has a genuine hatred for the place, yet stays on as caretaker. He uses the key his girlfriend, Conchita (Irene Visedo), has as a teacher at the orphanage to search for gold. He knows that Dr. Casares and Carmen are loyalist sympathizers who have hidden gold that was dropped off my men fighting Franco for safekeeping. He intends to find the gold and steal it for himself, before leaving the orphanage and town behind forever.

Carlos investigates the idea of a ghost and is told by the other boys that they believe it is Santi, a young boy who disappeared the night the bomb fell on the town. Carlos also posits that Jaime knows more about Santi’s fate than he is willing to admit. The war is coming ever closer, and Dr. Casares convinces Carmen that they must flee the orphanage. As they begin gathering the children, it is discovered that Jacinto, who had been shot and sent running by Conchita, has returned and poured gasoline all over the orphanage. He sets fire to the gasoline, which blows up the kitchen where Carmen and some of the children had gathered. Carmen is killed, but Dr. Casares survives as he was just outside the building, loading children into a vehicle. He holds Carmen as she dies in his arms, and tells the surviving children, Carlos and Jaime included, that he will protect them. Dr. Casares and the kids spend the night in the charred remains of the orphanage, an injured Dr. Casares sitting in front of an open window on the second floor, looking out for Jacinto’s return, shotgun at the ready. Jaime finally tells Carlos the story of Santi’s death. He and Santi were in the room with the cistern, hoping to collect slugs, when they witnessed Jacinto trying to break into a safe that he believed contained the loyalist’s gold. Jaime managed to hide before being caught, but Santi was seen by Jacinto. Jacinto struck Santi and the boy hit his head on the rocks surrounding the cistern. Jacinto got rid of the body by dumping it into the cistern. Thus, a ghost was born. Jaime has decided that he is no longer afraid of Jacinto, and vows to kill him if he ever sees him again.

In the morning, the boys discover that Dr. Casares has succumbed to his wounds, still keeping watch at the window. The boys are caught by Jacinto and locked into a small room. Jacinto continues to search for the gold, but the boys know he will kill them once he has found it. They scheme together to take him down, rationalizing that there are several of them and only one him. They create weapons out of things that are at hand, and are able to escape the room with the help of Santi’s ghost. Jacinto finds the gold (I won’t tell you where), but encounters the boys down in the room with the cistern. In a scene reminiscent of Ceasar’s murder at the hand of the senators, the boys all stab Jacinto, and he is dumped into the same cistern where he had dumped Santi’s body. Jacinto struggles to escape from the cistern but, in a bit of ironic justice, he is impeded in his efforts by his gold-laden pockets. The ghost of Santi comes up from the deep and helps to drag Jacinto to his death. The boys are free and walk away from the orphanage, the ghost of Dr. Casares still keeping watch over them.

I am a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro. He has managed, despite massive commercial success, to continue to create projects in the manner of an independent filmmaker, slowly, meticulously, telling unique stories from a distinct point of view. All of his movies have a feel that identify them as his work, but they are not mere copies. This film, in particular, showcases the exceptional talents of the two older leads, Luppi and Paredes. Though not necessarily well-known in the States, they have had long and distinguished careers overseas. They are enormously talented and I was particularly drawn to Luppi’s interpretation of Dr. Casares; warm and gentle, sad and strong. The scene where, heavily injured, he insists on keeping a look out for Jacinto from the second floor are particularly touching. This is why I love watching independent foreign films so much…the stories are strong, the acting stronger.

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Posted by on May 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews


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