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UNIFORM CLOTH AND KIT VENDORS
THINGS I LEARNED THE HARD WAY
By Charlie McCulloh and Glen Milner

Looking at the sutlers row uniforms when I first began this all consuming lifestyle/hobby/disposable income bottomless pit, I soon became convinced of the fact that I, with my limited skill could reproduce  a uniform like the sutlers sold. After all, when I was in the Army, I had removed and resewn on my stripes enough to make a prom dress. So I felt confident with the knowledge that “I could do that”.

Well...I rounded up some cheap brown checked wool material from Hancock Fabrics and used a pair of sutler pants I had already purchased to provide a pattern....sort of. I received a quick lesson on the quirks of our particular Kenmore sewing machine from my  wife.....and I was off! Sewing, cutting, stitching, basting.....and quite often having to, (as Milicent Yeager says in her best deadpan).....”rip it out and do it again”.  After expending enough energy and materials to build a wing on to my house, three days later I was finished. The results were....how can I say this....hilarious. They were clown pants.........the circus had come to town, and I was the star attraction. They were a one leg shorter than the other, six inch tall waist band, fly that didn’t line up, mismatched weak seamed, huge wood button nightmare. I wore them once for about 10 minutes at an event but it was hard to walk bent over on one side so my cuff seams would match. They now make great rifle cleaning rags.

It is now many years later, and I have been fortunate in being able to examine several original uniforms in detail. This experience, combined with purchasing cloth from several sources, trying a variety of patterns, making several Federal and Confederate uniforms, and listening to pards who have purchased kits, cloth, buttons and thread from all over the country....leaves me with a sum of current knowledge. OR....Things I Learned The HARD WAY.
Glenn Milner has also contributed some tips from his vast storehouse of knowledge (i.e. fixin’ his own mistakes). These comments have been included and will be very useful. Glenn’s comments will be in brackets...>GM-...<.

WOOL AND JEANS

The best overdyed jeans cloth I have seen that comes closest to the Confederate jackets I’ve examined is  Ben Tart’s material. It is overdyed with (supposedly sumac) dye that oxidizes to butternut like the originals you see now, 135 years later. The majority of the Jeans depot jackets I have seen, although originally gray, are now a light brown color. Bobby McKay and Glenn Milner have this material in their RD II jackets.....it is about as good as you’re going to find right now. The catch is it’s about $27-$30 a yard. It takes about 2-2 1/2 yards to do a jacket and 1 1/2-2  yards to do a pair of pants. Depending on your size and shape.

Family Heir-Loom (get it?) Weavers out of Pennsylvania makes, for the money, the best cloth I’ve found. The Confederate Jeans they sell comes in many dyed colors of cotton warp (vertical fiber) combined with a wool weft (horizontal fiber).> GM-The woolen weft should be horizontal to the ground when you cut your garment, the direction of the fabric weft should be the same for all cuts...when you look at a pair of pants, the wool fiber should go around your leg and not from the waist to the cuff.<  This is a   popular Jeans and you see several of the sutlers using this. It’s a great price at $16.50 a yard for most types and $14.00 a yard if you buy 10 or more yards. This is good material and I have seen uniforms (Chancellorsville Museum) made of material that is very close to this type, although the majority of the Jeans uniforms I have looked at were over dyed and solid gray or brown. The Union dark blue wool and sky blue kersey they make is  about the best I’ve  seen lately, the warp and weft are excellent....at about $24-$25 a yard it’s cheaper by a couple of dollars over other suppliers. Check out their website.

County Cloth, which is Charlie Childs, also has excellent Federal fabric.....but, once  again, the price is pushing $30 a yard. So any of these suppliers would provide good quality, correct, cloth.

>GM-I recommend that you “set” (soak in water) your jeans before you cut it. Even if the supplier says they’ve already done it. I also recommend that you set it by hand and not in the washing machine. The  agitator will give the fabric a “hairy” look that is not period correct. You can dry it in a dryer but that will also contribute to that “hairy” look. Dry on a sweater rack if possible because if you hang dry it the fabric will stretch. I’ve never found an original Confederate Uniform anywhere  that looks “hairy”. Remember...jeans cloth likes to unravel after it’s cut. Apply a little “Stop Fray” to the cut edges. The seams will be hidden by the lining and the “Stop Fray” will never show.<

Contacts that will be glad to provide you with a catalog with samples.

Tart, Brantly, and Benjamin
PO Box 28
Spring Hope, NC 27882
252-478-7668

Family Heir-Loom Weavers
775 Meadowview Drive
Red Lion, PA 17356
717-246-5797
www.familyheirloomweavers.com  

County Cloth ($5 for catalog)
13797-C Georgetown St. NE
Paris, OH 44669
330-862-3307  

PATTERNS AND SEWING

I have been collecting patterns over the last five years and have settled on either County Cloth patterns,  Homespun Patterns (formally Great American Pattern Emporium- AKA GAPE), Homespun are now sold by James County Mercantile.....or (some swear by) Past Patterns. PP have the endorsement of Les Jensen on their web site.....and I consider Les Jensen (former curator of the Museum of the Confederacy) to be “THE MAN” for Confederate uniforms. As with anything that is sewn, a little fitting and tailoring will be needed. Remember though that all depot system uniforms (both North and South) were sized on a number system, this system was set for the most common sizes and the soldier himself did any revisions. In period photos you will see big jackets on small men and large men in small jackets. You will also see pants cuffs rolled up and sometimes even bloused.

There is no more economical way to produce a uniform for yourself than cut yardage from a pattern. A little sewing sweat equity will net you a fine uniform at a reasonable cost. If you don’t sew yet don’t start out on a full uniform. Try hand stitching a few small things first. A housewife or Confederate haversack is a good way to get started. Work on your top stitching on small items. Top stitching is the edge, cuff and collar stitching that reinforces the garment. Don’t get in a hurry, you’ll get better the more you practice. It is very important to examine correct made garments or better yet ORIGINALS to see the finer points of construction and stitching. One of the things I have noticed on original issue uniforms is that the depot stitching is very small and close together. Some is so evenly done that it appears to be machine stitch...but closer examination of the reverse stitch proves to be very fine hand work. A good rule of thumb would be to try and get at least 6 stitches per inch. Also, when you look at originals you will notice that the thread is larger than sewing thread of today. It resembles embroidery thread....not the thick stuff but a medium weight. Several of the sutlers listed sell sewing thread that is correct. Textile Reproductions sells Logwood dyed thread done in the original method. Ask them about it when you order your catalog.

Past Patterns
PO Box 2446
Richmond, IN 47375-2446
http://www.thepoint.net/~pastpat/  

Kathleen B. Smith
Textile Reproductions
PO Box 48
West Chesterfield, MA 01084
(413) 296-4437

UNIFORM KITS

Once you feel comfortable with sewing you might want to start with a kit uniform instead of cutting your own pattern from scratch. A uniform kit comes already cut out in pieces of fabric that you stitch together. Most kits come with thread, buttons and detailed instructions. You might make a few mistakes but it seems like a great way to learn. Some sutlers like Ben Tart sell what is called  uniform blanks, these are the basic pieces of the uniform stitched together with the remaining finishing work to be done by you. You complete the lining, pockets, top stitching and button holes. These are very reasonably priced. Charlie Childs at County Cloth has a very good kits for a great price.  You might want to look into this as a first real sewing project.

Finally here are some things I’ve found out the HARD WAY and through examination of original garments:

1. I guess you have to decide firstly what you’re aiming for....if you‘re shooting for that 100 yard look, where a spectator across a 100 yard field with his glasses off, would mistake you for a Civil War Soldier....you should have a sufficient kit. If you are trying for the 10 foot look.....where when you pass in column buy a ‘tater’ and you look pretty good.....you probably have what you need already. If you want to look like the photographs of soldiers in the field, or your uniforms to look like  actual examples....well.....you might want to do some research and start working. The one thing I have learned from research is “the more I know, the more I have to learn”.

2. The wool you get at the local fabric store has no resemblance to the fabrics I’ve seen in period garments. Although I have found a 100% wool flannel at Hancock fabrics, the weave is much tighter than original material I’ve seen. You will want to go to a specialty supplier for fabric as close to original as can be obtained. The reproductions I’ve cited are not perfect, but are very close to original fabrics, at least as close as modern production methods allow.

3. BUY SOME CHEAP FABRIC FIRST......and try your pattern out before you cut up expensive material. Sewing is an acquired skill and if you are a novice you can practice on some “on sale” gray, brown or blue wool. >GM-Muslin works very well for this<.

4. Use your iron to crisp up the seams.....this trick helps define and sharpen the look of your garment. This is a very useful trick when dealing with wool uniforms and was taught to me by a very old and wizened tailor.>GM-Use a well worn color fast damp cloth under your iron<

5. Button holes are the absolute hardest part of the garment......and that is where your skill and patience will show up. If you can examine originals, you will see that enlisted soldiers buttonholes were still well done. Officers coats , of course, are stitched beautifully and the buttonholes look machine stitched. I have never seen a machine stitched buttonhole on a uniform, they have all been done by hand. Use reinforcing thread around the hole (layed around the edge and basted in place) and try and keep the stitches close but not tight enough to bunch the fabric.

6.Buttons...all that glitters is not gold. I have seen blackened wood buttons, cloth covered buttons,  Goodyear rubber buttons and cast pewter “Block I” buttons on original garments. Do a little research on where and when you are trying to reenact. Also several of the curators I’ve talked to have said that the museum staff or they believe the owner added (post war) different (or in some cases a complete different set) of buttons. In some cases gold eagle/CSA/star/state seal buttons are not appropriate to the time or place.

7. All of the Confederate uniforms I have seen have hand top stitching. I have seen lining in some Georgia jackets that is machine sewn. These jackets had machine sewn interior pockets also. The sewing machine was also used on the interior and exterior of several contract Union Sack Coats (more lined coats were produced than unlined). The sewing machine was invented prior to the Civil War and evidently was used commercially in some instances. There are several examples of machine sewn Columbus Depot uniforms in museums, these would be perfectly correct. Using a machine on the interior of garments can be acceptable, but with the Depot system set up to supply uniform kits to women in their homes for completion...the evidence suggest that the majority of exterior and finish stitching was by hand. AND.... their stitching was close and tight, done by practiced hands. The idea being not to draw attention to the sewing thread.

Don’t be afraid to jump in and start stitching, go slow and ask for help. Research and experiment. After all.....ALL tailors were men in the 19th century.