A Stitch in Time: A Documentary Series for Costumers by Costumers

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Historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila and fashion historian Amber Butchart tackle some of the most iconic historical costumes in history in the BBC documentary series A Stitch in Time, which recently aired in the U.K. Assisted by Harriet Waterhouse and Hanna Marples, Ninya demonstrates the process of recreating the clothing of the past, while Amber visits collections and speaks with experts who discuss both the broad and the nuanced aspects of historical clothing in art.

Rather than simply show someone dressed in period costume, talking about the clothing, Amber and Ninya show what’s really interesting to costume history nerds like myself — the research process that goes along with the making process, and finally, the finished product.

Testing construction theories against an extant jupon in Episode 5, “The Black Prince”.

Ninya and Amber discuss the finished jupon in Episode 5, “The Black Prince”.

I think this series comes closest to documenting what historical costumers do in a very accurate manner. It starts with a work of art, then the context surrounding the history of that art object is studied and discussed, then the object is analyzed for construction details (often having to fill in obscure bits and pieces with educated guesses and conjecture based on experimentation and comparison with other contemporaneous art objects), then the fabric is chosen, cut, assembled, and at the end of it all, you have a living, breathing garment that tells a specific story about its place and time.

Amber tries on the finished chemise á la reine, Episode 6, “Marie Antoinette”. Shameless brag: I provided Ninya access to my photos I took of the Manchester chemise gown and research upon which I based my Master’s thesis. She said they were very helpful in figuring out the construction of this chemise gown!

Discussing the experience of wearing the finished garment, Episode 6, “Marie Antoinette.” I do wish there had been some wigs involved to really give the costume presence, but I’ll take what I can get.

All hand-stitched! Episode 6, “Marie Antoinette”.

It’s also really gratifying to see Ninya Mikhaila’s work brought to the forefront. In my mind, she’s always been the historical costumer’s costumer. Watching her career take shape over the last 20 years, I’ve even been lucky enough to get to know her as a person as well as a fellow historical costumer. Getting to live vicariously through her work with Kentwell Hall, the Prince’s Trust, Hampton Court Palace, the development and publication of The Tudor Tailor and establishing her own publishing company, and now with a documentary series featuring her directly working out how a historical costumer does what she does fills me with glee.

Costumer Harriet Waterhouse demonstrates a stitching technique used in an 18th-century pair of stays in Episode 6, “Marie Antoinette.”

An interior shot of Harriet’s stitching showing how the finished pieces of the stays are edge stitched together, Episode 6, “Marie Antoinette.”

The inspiration for Episode 4, “Dido,” was this portrait of Dido Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray by Zoffany. We podcasted about the fictional movie Belle that was loosely based on this painting.

Discussing the possible construction methods of Dido’s robe, Episode 4, “Dido.”

Ninya and Harriet confer on how exactly to go about making Dido’s outfit, when only a tiny bit is actually shown in the reference portrait. Notice the additional reference images and muslin toiles behind them, testing various construction theories. Episode 4, “Dido.”

Dido’s finished silk satin robe, modeled by Amber. Episode 4, “Dido.”

This series is a must-watch for any historical costumer, or anyone interested in the process of being a historical costumer. At this point in time, only the first episode is available on YouTube, and the full series is only available for streaming in the U.K., but I suggest you invest in a VPN and sign up for the BBC’s streaming service no matter where you are in the world.

 

Have you seen A Stitch in Time?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

17 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I’ve seen episode 1 and I want Charles’ outfit in teal. YouTube has episode 2 on the Arnoldfini portrait and possibly others. I’m goingoing to binge on them and my Amazon Prime Ekaterina .

    Reply
  2. Nzie

    pssst when I clicked the link for the first ep, the sidebar showed several more episodes… :-)

    Reply
    • Hespera

      Yes, I just watched all six episodes on YouTube! What a delight…I think the Black Prince episode was my favorite. The beautiful metal armor and all that gold embroidery heart eyes

      Reply
  3. Sharon

    Series has just finished here in the UK, it was lovely, you just want to hang out with Ninja and her team in that wonderful workshop.
    The Arnoldfini dress was my favourite, a ridiculous amount of incredibly expensive material, but so beautiful!

    Reply
  4. Jana Hill

    The full episodes keep going up and being taken down. If you see them up, binge binge binge!

    Reply
  5. Heidi Cochran

    I’ve followed these ladies for a few years, and was thrilled to see their work get a series! I can’t wait until I can watch this in the States!

    Reply
  6. Donnalee

    Thanks for the hint. As a sometimes stage manager for stage shows, I love to learn more and more about what works and what is unlikely to–

    Reply
  7. Jeanne

    last time I checked, the bbc site blocks vpns, but there are more up on youtube now! thank you SplendorSolis, now to go watch the rest of them!

    Reply
  8. Kim

    Thanks for letting us know about this show! I’ve just watched all the episodes on youtube and loved them all! It was fascinating to see how they constructed the garments and the clever techniques they used. I also wish that they had had Amber wear appropriate wigs and jewellery to finish the looks, as her red style cut is very distracting! But still, it was a really fun watch, thanks! :)

    Reply
  9. laBelleNoire

    Thanks for sharing this! The repro of Dido’s gown has a very strong 1910’s flavor to it.

    Reply

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