Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Crewel Mistress: The Pretty Pocket

One of many things I love about the 18th century- or really any period dominated by handmade/ homemade items- is how much beauty was incorporated into everyday objects. Of course if you were wealthy, you wanted to show that off by having elaborate or lavish things, but even those of modest means took the time to embellish their everyday items by carving, painting, and other methods.

Even items that weren't normally meant to be seen in public were often very intricately decorated. No, I'm not talking about unmentionables- the only real "underwear" a woman had in the 18th century was her shift, and as far as I know those were not embellished, except maybe with ruffles at the neck or cuffs, which would have shown at the edges of the gown anyway. (The lack of decoration on a shift was probably a practical consideration. It was the closest thing to your skin and got dirtied by sweat/body soil sooner than anything else you wore, and so needed to be laundered relatively frequently. Laundry practices were harsh in those days, and a shift needed to be able to stand up to a considerable amount of abuse.) But there are many extant examples of gorgeously decorated pockets.

Women's pockets in the 18th century were not sewn into clothes as they were on men's garments; they were more like a bag that you tied around your waist. There may have been a number of reasons for this, which I won't go into here. Whatever the reasons, it is generally agreed upon that pockets were meant to be worn under the petticoat(s), and accessed via pocket slits in the petticoat (and sometimes the gown). Whenever you see a visible pocket in 18th century art, it's usually because the woman wearing it is in a state of undress. I've also heard of examples of merchant women wearing them on the outside, presumably for easy access, but I've never seen any.

Now, because the pocket was never seen except by the woman wearing it (and the man undressing her, but I'm sure he wasn't looking at her pockets), some find it puzzling that there are so many extant examples of finely decorated pockets in museums and private collections. There are even those that say that these fancy pockets prove that sometimes a woman would wear her pockets on the outside to show them off. I don't really agree with this viewpoint. First and most importantly because there isn't really any evidence to support it, but also because it doesn't make much sense from a practical standpoint. Pockets couldn't be closed like a purse, and wearing them on the outside would only increase the chances of having something fall out or get stolen. Plus, it would throw the whole silhouette off, having bulges at your hips outside of your skirts. I can't say for certain that it was NEVER done ("never" and "always" are dangerous words when discussing history) but I do think it was unlikely.

The prettiest pockets, in my opinion, are the ones that have been decorated with crewel work: designs worked in two-ply wool thread in various (usually bright) colors. The most common theme seems to have been the natural world- birds, leaves, flowers, anything that lent itself to a gracefully curving shape. Remember the Rococo love of natural curves! Crewel work was done on other items as well, but I really love to see it on pockets. It's like wearing a really cute pair of panties- it's your own adorable little secret. And there's something quaint and homey about it. It lacks the pomp and expense of silk, and instead looks like something your grandma would make for you, something special and personal.

I'm dying to learn how to do crewel work myself (one of many hobbies I plan to pick up eventually), and since I love it so much, you can imagine how thrilled I was to find it in- of all places- IKEA. I saw this lovely pillow and just about fainted from the excitement. "It looks just like an 18th century pocket!" I said, and the urge to buy a truckload of them was almost too strong to withstand. But, I told myself, I have plenty of throw pillows, and I certainly don't need to spend $25 on another one. But then, I came across this and I was determined to make it mine. Unfortunately they appeared to be out of the large ones, but I found one last little one on display and got a very nice employee to take it down for me and find its item number. Well, I needed a lamp for the new nightstand I was buying anyway. But I drew the line at the toile de jouy sheets (I can't find a link, but I assure you, they are divine), which shows that I have some restraint, afterall.

I can't tell you how much I adore IKEA, and after finding these little snatches of my favorite century there, I love it all the more. And I can't wait to build my new nightstand, so I can embellish it with my new, lovely lamp, and bring a little beauty into the everyday, 18th century-style.

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