Three Clues in the Parchment

In the early 1960s, a young agriculture historian named M. L. Ryder had the idea to use parchment manuscripts to research medieval sheep breeds.

He surveyed manuscript illuminations for evidence of the colors, conformation, and wool types of sheep from the past.  Few descriptions of sheep were written until the eighteenth century, so he was looking for clues to breed formation — were sheep raised more for wool or for milk and meat?  Where were new types of sheep imported from? Were the fabled Spanish Armada sheep survivors real?

You can see the list of images he found in this article (p. 10 of the PDF of the article)*, but thanks to the fabulous British Library, I can show you a few of the images themselves.  (And I would encourage you to go look at them on the British Library site, because you can zoom in to your heart’s content.)

Detail showing sheep - also a hog, camel, and unicorn!

Detail of page above showing a sheep and a goat – also a hog, camel, horse, and unicorn!  This book is from c. 1327 – 1335 AD.

That book, the Holkham Bible Picture Book, has a lot more sheep images that Ryder didn’t catalog.  I don’t know why.  Maybe he only had access to a copy of the page above and didn’t even know there were more.  So let me show you another really good one:

Cain and Abel from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, p. 5r, from the British Library.

Cain and Abel from the Holkham Bible Picture Book, p. 5r, from the British Library.  The bottom part of the page shows Adam talking to his sons Cain and Abel, and the top shows them sacrificing the best of their labor to God.


Detail from page above. Here the Biblical shepherd Abel has quite a flock, and he and Adam are wearing sheepskin clothes. Brother Cain, a farmer, is not.

Detail from page above. Here the Biblical shepherd Abel has quite a flock, and he and Adam are wearing sheepskin clothes. Brother Cain, a farmer, is not.

Okay, back to Ryder and the sources he studied.

This is page 163 v from the Luttrell Psalter of 1325 - 1340 AD, from the British Library.

This is page 163 v from the Luttrell Psalter of 1325 – 1340 AD, from the British Library.

Detail of page above, showing 20 sheep being milked and shorn; 2 have horns.

Detail of page above, showing 20 sheep being milked and shorn; 2 have horns.

Ryder listed about 40 sources for sheep images, from Roman times to 1825 AD.  From those, he noted face color, horns, fleece type, and other comments.

"Agnus Dei Ghent" by Hubert and Jan van Eyck - Jan van Eyck painting "Ghent Altarpiece", finished 1432.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Agnus Dei Ghent” by Hubert and Jan van Eyck – Jan van Eyck painting “Ghent Altarpiece”, finished 1432.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He also considered church carvings, and paintings.  And one of my favorite art history comments ever, is what Ryder said about the van Eyck Adoration of the Lamb—  you know, from the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the most famous and most stolen pieces of art in the world — when commenting on the Mystic Lamb, he wrote “good mutton conformation.”

From the study of these sheep images, Ryder felt you could tell a lot about sheep history.  He noted that most of the images showed the types of sheep found in the times and places the illustrations were made.

But he didn’t stop there.  These ancient documents were written on parchment, which was made from the skins of sheep (as well as calves and goats).  He realized that wool fibers remain embedded in the parchment, and analyzed those!  Getting the fibers from a manuscript as opposed to a piece of clothing has the advantage that the manuscript is dated.  Ryder analyzed about 100 wool fibers from seven centuries.  He created a chart showing how British sheep breeds probably originated and evolved. He surmised that the expanding towns of the 16th and 17th centuries caused more of a demand for meat, and as more land was enclosed,  farmers were able to control and protect their sheep better.  They brought in larger meatier animals, and the medieval emphasis on fine-wooled sheep faded.

Ryder continued to write about sheep and fibers up until 1987 (including an 846-page book!), but the story of parchment analysis continues.

Now in the 21st century, researchers are still uncovering clues to history from parchments, but with a new process – extracting DNA!  At the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, bioarchaeologists tested some tiny scraps of parchment for genetic information.  Like Ryder, they were looking for evidence of sheep breeds and characteristics .  They chose scraps from a relatively late time period, the 17th and 18th centuries, spanning a time when breeders were looking to improve the quality of British wool [after losing that quality during the 16th and 17th, according to Ryder?  I  don’t know. I’m just reporting the research]. The parchment study resulted in much more complete information than what has been available before, from bone fragments.  Unlike bone, the parchments’ dates are known, and there are millions of them available, in known locations.

Since “wool was essentially the oil of times gone by,” as Trinity College Dublin professor Daniel Bradley said, researchers hope this  parchment study method will reveal more information about the economy and trade of past centuries.  You can read the whole story here.

And thank you to Neighbor Liz, for passing on to me the March 2015 issue of The Scientist magazine, where I first saw the DNA article.

*The first part of Ryder’s article on sheep breeds.  Both of these were in The Agricultural History Review in 1964.  Ryder wrote over 200 articles and I look forward to finding more of them!  And here is Ryder’s 1984 update on the two I referenced here.

And here is an excellent history of British wool.


A Productive Spell

It’s a crafter’s dilemma – should I finish each project before starting another?  Or is it okay to have multiple projects going at once?

I like to have multiple projects going, but I like to concentrate on one stage of the process at a time. For example with quilts, my starting point is one or two fabrics that I want to use up.  I have a vague plan, and as I start cutting those feature fabrics, I end up hauling out piles of other fabrics to see what else wants to go in the quilt.  Random scraps and pairings give me new ideas and I want to put those combinations together while they are fresh in my mind.

I have a folding table up in the living room to use for a cutting and pinning table.  I lay the quilts out on the bed in the guest room to choose the next fabric, and then I sew and iron in the sewing room.  I am constantly walking from room to room.  So while all the mess is already out the creativity is flowing, I go ahead and piece multiple small quilts.  These are the four I have done over the last two weeks.

Donation quilts, summer 2015.

Donation quilts, summer 2015.

This first one finishes up the rest of the fabric I used for a baby quilt back in January.   It will be a dedication quilt for the church where our quilt group meets.  (They let us meet for free, and even provide us with the materials for the dedication quilts, so I am happy to do at least one a year for them.)  I put this one together “stitch and flip” so I will add a binding.

Dedication quilt.

Dedication quilt.  The red line down the middle of the central panel is just basting; it will come out.


Here is the back of that quilt.

Here is the back of that quilt.

The blue lap quilt will go to the VA hospital.  They have women patients too so hopefully this will be appropriate for one of them.  I put these layers together “pillowcase style”, so I will just have to quilt lightly and then sew up the top edge.

For the VA hospital.

For the VA hospital.

The next one, very girly, will go to one of the organizations for kids in the hospital.  Most of these fabrics were donated to our quilting group, and I have been meaning to put them together for about three years!  This one went together “pillowcase style” too.

Intended for a child in a hospital.

This last one will go the VA hospital too.  I had only this small piece of fabric with the parrots, and another small piece of batik with blue and bronzy-green motifs.  Then it was a challenge to find other fabrics to put with those two.  The grass green strips nearest the parrots are pretty bright, but I have a lot of this green and it needs to go cheer up someone else besides me.  I put this one together “stitch and flip,” so it will need to be bound.

I really wish I had more of the batik fabric with the big blue octagons.

I did buy the bright pink fabric (but on sale!) but I had the other two backing fabrics on hand.

I did buy the bright pink fabric (but on sale!) but I had the other two backing fabrics on hand.

I really enjoy doing concentrated piecing for a week or two.  Now I can put away the boxes of scraps, and pick up the thread scraps on the floor, and get back to all the tasks I neglected during this quilt blitz.  The next stage will be fitting in an hour or two each evening, to sit quietly in one place and work on improving my machine quilting skills as I bring these quilts to completion.

Dress Diary 1855-1917

A few days ago, when I was looking at the Hollywood costume sketches at the Brooklyn Museum, I noticed this wonderful dress diary in their archives.

The diary’s owner, Ida Jackson, was born in Cazenovia, New York, in 1855, and at some point moved to Boston.  Twenty-five pages are available for viewing online. The earlier pages of this scrapbook have pictures of Ida– not all of them are dated, but they capture her at about ages 7 to 20.  The later pages have dress drawings cut out from fashion magazines, with samples of the fabrics and trims that were used to make them up.



For anyone interested in determining dates of old photos, a resource like this in invaluable.  And it is also a great resource for design ideas.  Look at that black and white trim on the top right of the page above – that design was woven in, not just printed on to the fabric.  I have, of course, printed up everything available (not all the pages are online) so I can study it in detail.

Accompanying this diary is a 7-page commentary that was written in 1946 by someone named Lawrence Romaine of Middleboro, Massachusetts.  It reads like a presentation that he might have given to a historic society, but it has plenty of informal comments in it, such as “My guess is that you may be a bit tired of it too. It is time to close.”  It seems like if these were notes for a presentation, he wouldn’t need to put in little off-the-cuff remarks like that.

It’s ironic that he spends a lot of time decrying the lack of information in the dress diary –“It is too bad that Miss Jackson didn’t write a bit more in detail… Whether mourning was worn for Mother or Father…we shall never know,” and so on — because he never says who he is, nor for what purpose he is writing.  But through the wonder of the internet, I found out that Laurence Romaine was a book antiquarian, and an expert on American trade catalogs, which he used as a source to study American manufacturing history.  He collected 41,000 trade catalogs which are now in Special Collections at UC Santa Barbara Library.  He also collected all sorts of popular culture items, and that must be how he came across this dress diary.

There are 11 boxes of textile information in that UCSB library, 5 boxes of sewing and needlework information, and 30 boxes of clothing information, but sadly, none of it is online.  All those treasures going unseen!  I feel very lucky to have found this delightful dress diary online at the Brooklyn Museum.

Hollywood Sketchbook

Wouldn’t you love to be rummaging around at an auction or thrift store, and discover a box crammed full of costume swatches and sketches?

Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Illustration is the next best thing.


Hollywood sketchbook : a century of costume illustration

This book by Deborah Nadoolman Landis is one of a series she has written to preserve and promote the story of costume design.  While working on a book that matched a famous costume to its design sketch, she and her assistant Natasha Rubin found “an abundance of sketches by unknown designers and illustrators from unknown movies starring unknown actors.”  The sketches didn’t fit the profile for the book they were working on, but were too interesting and attractive to ignore.  They decided to do another book to bring that forgotten work into the limelight.

The result is this giant coffee table book with hundreds of full-color illustrations, showing the work of 71 different illustrators.  Most of them are represented by a few sketches and a quote, some by lengthy profiles, and one or two, by the few sketches that represent the only record of their careers.

I never knew that costume designers did not always illustrate their own designs, but as Nadoolman Landis points out, the talent for fitting a costume to the script and/or the actor is not always accompanied by drawing skill, and in other cases, the size of the cast to be costumed is so huge that assistants have to be brought in.

The illustrations range from iconic —

From My Fair Lady, 1964, by Cecil Beaton.

From My Fair Lady, 1964, by Cecil Beaton.

to unidentified —

Two illustrations by Orry-Kelly, not yet identified with any movie.

Two illustrations by Orry-Kelly, not identified with any movie.

 From flirty —

From Dream Girls, 2006, designed by Sharen Davis, illustrated by Felipe Sanchez.

From Dream Girls, 2006, designed by Sharen Davis, illustrated by Felipe Sanchez.

      to fantastic —

From Forbidden Fruit, 1921, by Natacha Rambova.

From Forbidden Fruit, 1921, by Natacha Rambova.

From intricate —

From The Three Musketeers, 1973. Costumes designed by Yvonne Blake, illustrated by May Routh.

From The Three Musketeers, 1973. Costumes designed by Yvonne Blake, illustrated by May Routh.

to informal —

From For Heaven's Sake, 1950, by Charles LeMaire.

From For Heaven’s Sake, 1950, by Charles LeMaire.

Even animals–

From Cleopatra, 1963, by Vittorio Nino Novarese.

From Cleopatra, 1963, by Vittorio Nino Novarese.

and animated characters —

From Stuart Little, 1999. Costume designed by Joseph Porro and illustrated by Robin Richesson.

From Stuart Little, 1999. Costume designed by Joseph Porro and illustrated by Robin Richesson.

have to have the perfect costumes to help tell the story!

What I like best about this book is the huge range of media, techniques, and artistic styles that are included.  Even if I didn’t love the subject matter, I would still find inspiration on every page.  I look forward to reading all of her other books, too.

Many of the illustrations in the book are now part of digital collections, so if you would like to see more:

Edward Stevenson Collection at Idaho State University Library

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Brooklyn Museum

At the time this book was written in 2012, there was not a museum of Hollywood history, but the Academy Museum is being built now.  They already have some online exhibitions, and here is the one on costume designer Edith Head.

And when you’re done checking out all those great resources, grab some giant sunglasses, have your people call my people, and we’ll do lunch!

Summer Rerun

Summer being known for reruns, let’s look at one of my favorite posts from the past.  In it, I combined my love of old movies and textiles, and made up the kinds of movies I would love to watch, and theater posters to advertise them.  Sadly, in the two years since I posted it, it has had only 9 views.  So let’s try it again and see if it can become a beloved family classic this time around…

One of the things that gets me through the blazing heat of August is Turner Classic Movies and their Summer Under the Stars.  I love to sit in a cool room with some needlework and watch movies all day.  But I can’t help thinking – What if I had been around to make movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood?  What would they have looked like?  (Cue camera dissolve and harp music…)

poster 1The Widow Wore White (1947)
A string of wealthy men die mysteriously within days of their weddings – the only clues are lace-edged handkerchiefs clasped to their lips.  A new husband, Peter Lorre, rushes into Sam Spade’s office after discovering the pattern, to accuse his wife, Lana Turner, and beg for protection.  Turner swears she is innocent.  Can Humphrey Bogart unravel the clues and capture the real killer?
Former husbands seen in flashbacks — Sydney Greenstreet, Charles Coburn, and Edward Everett Horton.

poster 2Captain Dyefast (1937)
Synopsis:  Errol Flynn is unjustly condemned to hard labor in the jungles of Verde Azul, to harvest the Lazuli-wood trees.  He leads a band of men (including Alan Hale, Herbert Mundin, and Eugene Pallette) to freedom aboard a captured ship. They rename her the Mordant, and sail the Seven Seas, seizing cargoes of precious dyestuffs and re-distributing them to poor dyers around the world.


To Catch A Couturier (1956)
Synopsis:  State Department staffer Cary Grant must ferret out which European fashion designer is passing top secret information to the Communists.  A mousy typist, Grace Kelly, is assigned to assist him.  After a quick make-over, she poses as his beautiful society girlfriend.  As they cross Europe to spy in all the leading fashion houses, Kelly quickly realizes that the signal code is based on the way the models arrange their brooches, earrings, and bracelets, but holds off revealing her discovery until her wardrobe is complete!  Will they realize they are meant for each other?
Designers played by Danny Kaye, Eve Arden, and Nancy Walker – with cameos by Audrey Hepburn and Christian Dior!

poster 4

Space Warp (1957)
Synopsis:  Aliens come to earth and cause fear and disorder in society by merely altering the colors of everything from flowers to kittens to food.  This B-movie has achieved a cult following for its use of early op art effects and disorienting colors.  While the plot is supposedly about alien invaders, like many other movies of its time it was a commentary on the public’s disquieting ability to “see red” where it did not actually exist.  Cameos by Bela Lugosi and Michael Caine.

(harp music signals return to reality)  Well, those are some of the movies I wish I could watch!  I could go on and on – I haven’t even gotten to Esther Williams, Red Skelton, or Busby Berkeley yet!

Sources:  all movie star photos are in the public domain and are from Wikimedia Commons.   The background photos and textiles (including the oddly colored prints from the 50s and 60s, seen in Space Warp) are my own.  I’ve had Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 for about ten years, but I learned a lot more about it while creating these posters!

Okay, I now return you to your regularly scheduled blogs.

1880s Favorites

I’m still staying inside out of the heat, cataloging my antique photos. I’ve been working in the 1880s, and here are a few of my favorites.

This is one of my all-time favorites.  When I look at it, I see Meg, Amy, Jo, and Beth from Little Women.

This is one of my all-time favorites. When I look at it, I see Meg, Amy, Jo, and Beth from Little Women.

The 1880s were the decade of buttons and bustles.

The 1880s were the decade of buttons and bustles.

When you look closely, you can see that the area around her mid-section has been re-touched.  It looks to me as if the photographer even redrew the buttons to match up with her new waistline.

That is not wickerwork behind her, that is some judicious retouching.

That is not wickerwork behind her, that is some judicious retouching.

In Dressed for the Photographer, Joan L. Severa gives a description that seems to match this picture, “The bustle size reached its climax in 1886, as the short corset also returned; thus, the fashionable body was confined sharply through the rib cage and released just about the natural waistline into a nearly horizontal deep bustle in the back and fuller hips at the sides…” (p. 378)

I can imagine that when this lady handed her cabinet cards out to her friends, none of them had the courage to say to her, “Why, Minerva, how is it that you looked so much smaller around the waist then than you do now?”  She would give them that look, daring them to say anything, and they just would have swallowed their words.

I have a lot of family photographs, but the one below is one of the few that I can date with certainty.  This is a wedding photo of some very distant relatives — the man is 26 and has just arrived from the Netherlands, and the girl (also born in the Netherlands) is 16!  Family records say the year is 1881.


Teunis Stob, 26, and Janna Lurtesma, 16, in 1881.

Teunis Stob, 26, and Janna Lurtesma, 16, in 1881.

I have created a database to help keep track of all the features of both photo and fashion styles to help me come up with dates.  In case you are thinking of doing something similar, here is a sample page.

A page of my photo database.

A page of my photo database.

I was going to try to sort them by date first and then catalog them, but with the database (in Microsoft Access) I am able to input them randomly and then filter by whatever feature I want.  I really like being able to put the image on the form.

I have also purchased the book 19th Century Card Photos Kwik-guide.  It doesn’t have the detailed fashion information I was hoping for, but it is very helpful with figuring out dates from card characteristics just as borders, photography studio imprints, and so on.  If only all these photographers had read the book, and mounted all their photographs according to trends, this project would be easier!


A Belle and a Wild Child

It’s August, it’s hot, and I have plans to only work on projects that involve sitting still and sipping cooling drinks.  One that fits the bill is cataloging the antique photographs I’ve collected over the last 20 years.

Here’s what I do:   I scan the picture in at 600 dpi, which is as high as my scanner can go.  Then I can look at it enlarged, and I use the editing tools to adjust tone, contrast, and so on so I can see all the details better.  I note down on my spreadsheet the type of collar, sleeve, fabric, etc.  At that point, usually I have a pretty good idea of what decade I’m looking at, and I go hunting in all my costume books for those details that will help me figure out the year.  (Some resources are below.)

On the cabinet cards, which are cardboard, there are often printers’ names and addresses, and I can hunt for those too, to find what years they were in business.

But the earliest pictures I have are tintypes, which are generally not marked, so I have to use the clues from the style of the mat and case if there is one, or just from the picture.  Tintypes are actually thin iron sheets and not tin at all.  They were invented in 1856, and most popular during the 1860s, so, within that small time bracket, it seems like it would be easy to date pictures quickly.  But I am finding out I don’t know nearly as much about 1800s fashions as I thought I did.

This picture seems to be the oldest one I have.

Young belle, circa 1859.

Young belle, circa 1859.

Her dress is made of two different fabrics, a plaid and a small design of three triangles, with white undersleeves.  She has drop earrings, a gold necklace, and what looks to be a pocket watch tucked into her sash.  The full skirt and off-shoulder style puts the picture in the 1850s-1860s, and the hair ornament of needlework circles (possibly tatted) helps me narrow it to about 1859, thanks to a picture in My Likeness Taken by Joan Severa.

Brought to life.

Brought to life with the miracle of Photoshop Elements.

This next picture has me stumped.  It is unusual, because the girl’s dress is so plain and ill-fitting, and yet she has elaborate jewelry.  And I have never seen such cropped and messy hair in any other picture!  The woman seems very neatly and conservatively dressed, and her clothes look to be of good quality.  She does not seem the type to be without a comb.

Tintype of girl with woman, circa 1860s?

Tintype of girl with woman, circa 1860s?

Hoping for clarification

Hoping for clarification


















There is a picture of three girls from 1862-63 on p. 230 of Dressed for the Photographer, and one has a very similar locket, and one has (combed) hair about this same length.  But their dresses have more detailing and much fuller skirts.  So is our girl above wearing something made for someone else?  A charity dress?  Why is it so plain?

While enlarging the pictures gives me a lot of new details for clues, it also sends me on hunts to find out more.  Like in the picture above, I would love to know more about the little bar pins on the woman’s sleeves, and about the textile next to her.  Even when I zoom in, I can’t see any identifiable texture there to tell me what technique was used to make it.  And I can already tell that when I get to my cabinet cards, I will want to find the stories of all the photographers.

If you can help me out with any more information, I would appreciate it!  I’ll be right here down this nice cool shady new rabbit hole.  :)

Resources: Identifying and Dating 19th Century Photograph Types
My Likeness Taken:Daguerreian Portraits in America  by Joan L. Severa
Dressed for the Photographer:Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 -1900 by Joan L. Severa