Narratives Embedded

“Each artifact has a narrative embedded within…”

  • Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim

Vintage baby dress.

Earlier this year, I got an email from the Texas Historical Commission, asking me if I would like to write about an anonymous donation they had received, a package of baby clothes.

I was thrilled to have the chance to contribute, and the article I wrote was just published in the magazine Texas Heritage.  But as there doesn’t seem to be an online version, I am going to post my original version here.  They had to edit for length, and they published just a few of these photos, in black and white, so this version here will fill in a little more information.  But they came up with a much better closing sentence than what I had, so I am going to borrow theirs.  🙂 So here is the article:

Contents of the package of donated items.

A package is sent in with a note — “Not knowing what to do with these family items, I am sending them to you…. The baby clothes are from the early 1950s. My brother and I were extremely small at birth.  I believe these clothes were patterned after dolls’ clothes.”

The contents:

  • 1 pair of soft cloth baby shoes with lace edges and ribbon ties
  • 1 Bakelite and sterling teething ring and rattle
  • 1 brass link necklace, with hearts spelling out “Ilabelle”
  • 3 old photos, one dated 1926 (a photocopy), the others from the 1800s
  • 8 items of white cotton baby clothing

From a grouping like this, how do we begin to extract the story?

The teething ring and necklace.


The baby clothes from the package.

I am a hobbyist who loves to preserve everyday textiles.  I have learned a method of analyzing textiles from the book The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-Based Research in Fashion, by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim.   This resource can guide us in taking a close look at these garments, and the method could be adapted for other objects as well.

The authors recommend three steps: Observation, Reflection, and Interpretation; and provide checklists for consistent, thorough analysis.  I’m going to summarize their procedure in italics, and then note some of my observations.

First, observe.  “What is the evidence at hand?”  Slowly and thoughtfully, go over the garment and answer basic questions.  What are the fibers used?  What construction methods were used, and what is the level of craftsmanship?  What stands out as unique?

Documenting the item in some form helps you observe more closely. Note measurements, draw sketches, take photos to reveal details not otherwise visible.

On these cotton baby garments, what stands out to me is the quality of the craftsmanship.  The seams were stitched by machine, and they are French seams, which means that all the raw edges of the fabric are enclosed, as in a man’s shirt, so no raw edges would irritate a baby’s delicate skin.

Construction detail.

Lace trims and embroidery were added, perfectly proportioned to the small scale of the clothes.

Notice the tiny white-on-white embroidery.


Looking at the four little vests, I notice that two of them have a little pocket on the front, which amuses me – did they expect the baby to carry around a little pocket watch?  Or was that for its pacifier?  I love that someone took the time to add these details.

The other two have the colored embroidery stitches, and a little pleat at the center back neck.  I think that the embroidery and buttons go on the front, but I am not positive.

Cotton vests.

As I study closely, I notice blue embroidery stitches on one vest, so tiny that for a minute I think they could be a decorative machine stitch; but on the underside, there are no bobbin threads, just minuscule dots of thread, showing that these stitches were worked by hand.   Hems and buttonholes were also worked by hand.

Tiny blue stitches.

Blue embroidery.

Only one dress has a label, which says “Handmade in the Philippines.”  Another is handmade but has almost identical tucks and embroidery to the Philippine dress – was the maker inspired by the commercially made dress?

Two dresses, one imported and one homemade.

Second, reflect.   “How does the garment relate to the period and society in which it originated?” Consider the provenance if you know it.  Use your background knowledge, gather information from other sources, compare to what you know about current garments.

The note that came with the items, brief as it is, helps us analyze these garments.  Without it, I might assume the smallest clothes were indeed doll clothes.

Also, the fact that a brother is mentioned gives me a clue about those pockets.  Taking what I know about our current culture and how even the smallest baby clothes signal gender (in today’s world, boys’ clothes are limited to a few colors, and prints consisting mostly of sports equipment, vehicles, or dinosaurs), I wonder if pockets signified boy’s clothing back then.

Vest with a pocket.

If we did not have the note, I would have to rely on features of the garments to help me date them.   The rickrack edging on one vest would be one clue I could research.

Third, interpret.  “Why did you consider it important to study this object?”  Link together the evidence, and analyze its meaning.  Does the object reinforce or oppose information in other resources?  Does the artifact support or refute a research hypothesis?

This step can be taken to great depth.  If I were a fashion historian, I think I would pursue what those little pockets could tell me.  Were they a gender-related feature in children’s clothes?  If they were, could I use that feature to help me distinguish boy babies from girls in old photographs?  If pockets were trend, when did they first appear?  When did they disappear?

But I am not a researcher, trying to find a professional niche, or prove a theory.  My answer to the question, “Why did you consider it important to study these objects?” is that I believe that examining them honors in a small way the people who painstakingly created these delicate pieces.

The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion, by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.

Okay, back to present day.

The hardest part of all this was taking the photos.  My camera just did not want to focus on the subtle whites and creams of the clothing, and I tried all kinds of lighting – outdoors, lamps, flashes.  At first the Historical Commission was going to use my writing for a blog post, so I got some pictures that I thought would look okay in low resolution on the web, but then they decided to put it in the magazine and needed high resolution photos.  So it took a long time but it helped me notice a lot more details on the clothing.

The story I imagine from these items is of a pair of twins born a little prematurely, maybe a new mom understandably a little overwhelmed, and a loving grandmother or aunt using skills she had honed over the years to quickly create items perfect for the babies, items that reassure the mom with the message, “Yes, this was unexpected, but we are going to handle it.   So all the baby clothes you got ready are way too big for these babies, and you were ready for a cool weather delivery so those clothes would be too warm — we will just make them some of the right size and weight right now. Yes, there is only one christening dress for two babies, so we will just whip up a copy. These babies will not suffer for want of attention.  It will all be fine.  You just sit and rock those babies and enjoy them while they are little.”