Back in the 1980’s when my sister Meg was a young bride, my Nanny Sara pulled her aside and, quietly and without fanfare, presented her with a priceless treasure. Among the bounty of handmade quilts, faded sepia-toned photos, yellowed letters, Nanny pulled out a flat, package and with her arthritic fingers, reverently unwrapped it. Nestled inside was an expertly hand-sewn linen chemise and set of drawers, discolored with age. In her soft, upstate South Carolina drawl, Nanny slowly recited the names of the women who have been charged with the care of these garments for more than a century, burning the names into my sister’s memory. Meg, aware that the names of these women were more important than the garments, wrote down the name of each woman.
It was our matrilineal family tree.
The story starts in Germany in the late 18th century with the births of John and Marianne Rohletter. Their daughter Caroline was born in Hanover in 1832. In 1850, the German Colonization Society, organized by German immigrant John A. Wagner, established a German settlement named Walhalla in South Carolina. John and Marianne were among those early settlers, along with daughter Caroline.
The beautifully crafted garments belonged to Caroline Rohletter.
Caroline was 18 when Walhalla was established. At this time, I don’t know for sure whether she and her parents were among the first wave of settlers who bought in to the Society for the rights to draw lots for land to farm and live on, or whether they came later. I do know that she eventually married Andrew Pickens Cox, also from Walhalla who enlisted with the Confederate Army at the age of 29. Andrew and Caroline raised their family in Walhalla.
Their eldest son John married a local girl named Mary Jane and also raised their family on a farm near Walhalla. Their daughter Pearl fell in love with an outsider, a young man of Irish descent whose father had been killed in a mill accident when he was 8 years old. At the age of 18 in 1906, Pat and Pearl eloped to Pickens County. It was the last scandalous act either of them ever committed. They were both the kindest and most honest people you could ever hope to meet. My Nanny, Sara was their daughter.
For nearly 40 years, Meg has been a diligent caretaker of Great-great-great grandmother Caroline’s unmentionables.
I’ve always been interested in Victorian garments and toyed with the idea for decades of reproducing period clothing for my own amusement. At my high school, prom, I was one of few in the mid-80s to wear a hoop skirt. Since Grandma Caroline’s underwear came into my sister’s keeping, I had only seen them once when they first came into her possession.
Within the past few years, I began studying in earnest, learning historically accurate sewing and cutting techniques. I have made several sets of Victorian unmentionables using commercial patterns. Despite my repeated requests to photograph “the antique underwear,” my sister always said we would…someday.
Well, last week, my husband and I took our children camping near Walhalla, SC. At the time, I was unable to tell my children much about our family, or the history of the town. Quite honestly, the only Victorian underwear on my mind was the muslin pattern for a corset I had brought with me to cut out if it rained as much as the weather report had threatened. While we were in the Upstate, we visited with family, renewed acquaintances, toured homesteads, and went on what I call “the dead relatives tour,” paying respects to my grandparents, extended family, and ancestors I’d never met but heard so much about.
When we returned home, my sister mentioned to my husband about my great-grandmother Pearl’s Aunt Roz who was supposed to be buried in or near Walhalla. This set me “down the rabbit hole.” I spent the next few hours searching the internet for her. Once I finally found her, I found links to a lineage I knew next to nothing about. Distant cousins posted photos I’d never seen before of my great-grandmother’s forebears, among them, the photo of Caroline. I called my sister and asked whether she had ever seen our great-great grandparents, and when she said she thought she had, I asked whether she had ever seen our Great-great-great-grandmother Caroline.
“I have her underwear!” Meg exclaimed. “Let me pull them out. I wrote down everything Nanny told me about who they belonged to?”
“Can I take pictures and make a pattern?”
Within a few minutes, I was at her house armed with phone, pattern paper, pencil, and quilting ruler. While my husband shared pictures of my ancestors with my mother, my sister and I went over Grandma Caroline’s unmentionables like archaeologists who just hit the mother of all discoveries.
Everything I have learned about period clothing came out. I ooh-ed and ah-ed over the flat-felled seams, the precise, even, hand-stitches, the delicately crocheted yoke, the wide lower hem. What amazed me most was the folded placket in the back. Grandma Caroline had a “fine hand” for stitching, and her crochet work, especially the picot border around the arm hole, was exquisite.
I admit, I didn’t bother to make a pattern. Once I got a good look at it, the sheer simplicity of the garment struck me. Grandma Caroline used an economy of design when it came to the cut. It reminded me of the “Pillowcase dresses” I used to teach when my daughter was little. The beauty was in the stitching, finishing, and the crochet.
With a new understanding for Grandma Caroline, I turned my attention to the drawers.
I love making Victorian drawers.
These were cut like none I’d seen before. The waistband was quite simple. Two rectangular strips, joined together at the center front, folded in half, overlapping at the back and held in place with a single button. I was so distracted by the delicate crocheted lace at the hem and the flat-felled seam that joined the legs that I nearly missed something quite amazing.
There was no front seam!!
That rocked me back on my heels for a moment. All of the patterns I’d seen were made up of two separate legs, overlapping in the front and sewn to a waistband that held it all together. These drawers consisted of four pieces, two of them were in the waistband, and the third was a wide band binding the back opening/placket.
I laid out the drawers flat on the tissue paper and was immediately struck by what I found. The arc was unmistakable. I’d made enough of them for my daughter that I recognized it immediately. The basis for these drawers was a CIRCLE SKIRT! A CIRCLE SKIRT OF ALL THINGS!!
Grandma Caroline, you clever, clever woman!!
I was perplexed to find the back sewn closed to just a few inches from the button. Due to the many layers of clothing, from my reading, drawers of the time were left open in the back for ease of relieving oneself. Looking closer, I spotted a parallel layer of stitching along the wide binding. The parallel stitches were obviously machine sewn, executed with less skill than the originals, and a horizontal layer of machine stitches closed the bottom of the placket.
The drawers had been altered for modesty on a machine, and I recognized the stitch pattern as being the same as that of my great-grandmother’s treadle. My sister and I could think of only one person with the temerity to add modern, machine stitches to a garment that was more than 70 years old at the time – our grandmother’s little sister, our Great-aunt Gladys.
Thanks to the photographs and measurements, I was able to divine the order in which the seams, bindings, hem, and waistband were sewn.
In a future post, I’ll actually reproduce these garments, using a modern machine because my hand is not quite as fine as Grandma Caroline’s. I’ll include measurements, instructions, and yardages at that time.
There is nothing like studying an extant garment. I know I’m blessed to have had this opportunity. Online, we historical costumers all see the same patterns and follow the same authorities. Our work doesn’t really deviate all that much from the information that’s available to us. It’s absolutely wonderful when something like this happens and we get a glimpse of something not found in Godey’s or the Delineator, but rather a practical garment, the design of which was simply created out of necessity and personal innovation.
I still love the elegant and frilly designs from Truly Victorian and Laughing Moon, but Grandma Caroline’s use of pillowcase dress chemise and circle skirt drawers delight me like little else.
Gotta love that German settler practicality.