High-Tech History

January 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

© Ed Nute

Back eons ago when I was in elementary school, one of the few school trips we took was to Plimoth Plantation. Aside from the Swan Boats in Boston Common that was this bloggers favorite school trip.

Located in the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, this plantation may ring a few bells or cause a few memory jogs from your early education learning about American colonization. The plantation is a living museum that reconstructs the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony established in the 17th century by English colonists, some of whom later became known as Pilgrims, being among the first to emigrate to America to avoid religious persecution and to seek religious separation from the Church of England. It currently is a not-for-profit museum supported by admissions, contributions, grants and volunteers. The 1627 English Village is a speculative re-creation of the settlement as it would have appeared about 1627 from the houses and street plots to the tools, furnishings and items of everyday colonial life. The re-creations are sourced from a wide variety of primary and secondary records, accounts, articles and period paintings and artifacts. Interpreters have been trained to speak, act, and dress appropriately for the period. This is known as first-person interpretation, a type of living history that attempts to portray the actual people (or composite characters) and events of a particular time period or region from a first-person perspective. At Plimoth Plantation they are called historical interpreters, and they interact with their ‘strange visitors’ (i.e. the modern general public) in the first person, answering questions, discussing their lives and viewpoints and participating in tasks such as cooking, planting, blacksmithing and animal husbandry. If you ever find yourself in that area, it’s worth a trip.

I was recently sent a newspaper article about the plantation that captured my imagination and fueled the fire for my craftiness. Tricia Nguyen, an MIT-trained engineer who specializes in historic needlework headed up a team who wanted to recreate a 17th century women’s waistcoat. Being no small feat on its own from a manual labor perspective, this waistcoat was to be fully covered in a long-forgotten embroidery techniques, silver gilt threads and hand cut sequins, both of which had gone out of production long ago.

© Ed Nute

While it took them 3 years to complete the project, how it was made was what really got me. Over 250 needle point voluneteers-some with little or no experience-travelled to the town (some came from as far as the other side of the world) to do their part. Nguyen and her assistants decided early on to not turn anyone who wanted to help-even children-away. Many of the volunteers got hooked and came back day after day to sew, even giving the jacket the name Faith, since it took “a leap of faith” to create it. You can check out their blog here.

The jacket is based on two jackets from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and was typical of what an upper class woman would have worn to display her status and wealth. The tightly fitted linen jacket is covered in curling vines, stems and leaves, flowers, birds, butterflies, bees and plants. Because the main materials had gone out of production, Nguyen used her science background and analyzed existing jackets from this time down to a cellular level. Working with a blacksmith at Boston’s MFA and historic manufacturers in Europe, they recreated the silver thread.

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts the exhibition of the jacket at the plantation was canceled. While the plantation still owns the jacket, it is now residing at Winterhur Museum in Delaware. Eventually they hope to bring it back to Plymouth.

How’s that for teamwork?

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