It seemed only right that I should transport all of the sewing equipment for the Bloomer Making Workshop to LMNH by bicycle, so I hired one of Alix Stredwick’s fantastic Carry Me Cargobikes. It was a serious three-wheeler and I was transporting quite a lot of stuff – sewing machines, a full sized dressmaking womannequin, materials, patterns, scissors, thread, buttons and all the other accoutrements of sewing. I am used to loading my usual touring bike with a lot of stuff. But this was serious.
It all fitted – no problem whatsoever.
The workshop was held in Look Mum No Hands East, a very popular bicycle cafe/workshop on Mare Street. It was a great location – bright open space, friendly supportive staff, delicious salads and cakes, good coffee and warm cycling vibe.
The calm before the storm.
Tools of the trade.
Soon there were ten bloomer-makers in action.
First task was to cut the pattern. Rachel and I prepared 2 x 1896 bloomer patterns: A narrow bloomer designed to be worn under a cycling skirt and a full bloomer to be worn on its own. The former helped to maintain cyclists’ modesty in windy conditions. The latter allowed independent movement of the legs and yet still operated to conceal some of this action through voluminous structure and material.
One of my favourite things about these events are the different materials individuals bring to the project – tweed, denim, spotted jersey, bright cotton drill, Japanese printed silk, corduroy and more. Also, creative interpretations of the garments are fascinating – different lengths, widths, extra openings and facings, different fixtures etc. We may provide set patterns but no bloomer ever looks the same.
Another inspiring part of these events is observing how bloomer-makers help each other. There were a broad range of skills in this group – from proper ‘dressmakery’ people to some who had either rusty or no sewing experience. Much knowledge was shared through talk and demonstrated in practice.
Happily, none of LMNH’s Saturday regulars seemed too perturbed by our messy presence. In fact many people wandered over to find out what we were up to and enquire about joining in next time.
Lunchtime and a well earned break!
Then the sewing started in earnest.
We were using five sewing machines including an 1893 hand cranked Singer.
Throughout the afternoon we talked about women who would have met much like we were to hand make their cycling clothes. This was a time before many of these garments were widely available and prior to a ready-to-wear and off-the-shelf market. This meant that you either needed to have a sympathetic tailor/dress-maker who did not disapprove of women cycling or you made your cycle wear yourself. The late 1890s also marked a flashpoint of new ideas (dress reform, agitation for women’s rights, insights from travel), new technologies (sewing machines, patterns), new media (cycling newspapers and periodicals) and new materials (hygienic wools and the advent of waterproof materials). All of this culminated in a remarkable period of innovation around cycling and cycle wear.
Every maker was given a specially embroidered label for their new garment. (We had a slight hiccup with the date – they read 5.3.14 rather than 5.4.14 – but we figured since they were based on 120year old patterns, what was a month of two in the scheme of things!)
The workshop was meant to finish around 4 but people stayed till almost 7. The sewing stamina on display was pretty impressive. Although they were simple patterns, the fact that makers had to share resources, work in a relatively small space and had the opportunity to talk cycling as well as sewing meant that things took longer than they might have working alone. No one seemed bothered and in fact seemed to relish the collective experience. (Lots of good cake and coffee also may have helped).
Finally, Rachel and I cleaned up, packed everything away and cycled home.
Huge thanks again to Look Mum No Hands for their support of the event and to the ten bloomer makers for their enthusiasm, ideas and stamina.
The worshop was supported by an ESRC Knowledge Exchange grant.
If you want to see some of the bloomers in anger come along to the Bloomer Ride next week!