The support of our sewing volunteers for 'A Dress Fit for a King'

A sewing volunteer sitting on a window ledge in eighteenth-century outfit, stitching

As part of our exhibition, ‘A Dress Fit for a King’, our sewing volunteers assisted the team with crucial research, planning and even creating some of the pieces that are now in place as part of the exhibition. They played such a vital role in making ‘A Dress fit for a King’ become a reality, that we wanted to share with you some of their thoughts on the dress, the exhibition and what they did.

In 2016 Berrington successfully gained an original eighteenth-century Court Mantua dress. This dress is a significant part of Berrington’s past, as we believe that it was owned and worn by Ann Bangham. She was the wife of Thomas Harley, Berrington’s original owner.

2018 provided an excellent opportunity to display the dress and it allowed the team the time to receive feedback from specialists about the dress, its condition and how to preserve it. 

One of our dedicated sewing volunteers
A sewing volunteer dressed in an eighteenth-century costume stitching
One of our dedicated sewing volunteers

The exhibition, ‘A Dress Fit for a King’ is centred on the dress and the story surrounding the life of Ann. Berrington’s ‘Volunteer Sewing Team’ played a significant role in helping to make this exhibition become a reality. They worked together with our house team and costume conservator to create items that could be used throughout the exhibition, both as display, and as costumes for our visitors. They also carried out a lot of research about the culture, fashions and Georgian lifestyle.

There's something for everyone to try on
Three orange coats lined up with the quotes on the wall about the exhibition
There's something for everyone to try on

They played such an important role towards creating this exhibition that we thought we would share with you some of their own thoughts, experiences and challenges when working on this project.

The words of the sewing volunteers

"My interest is in the origins of the dress as I have been researching ancestors who were Huguenot silk weavers. The first idea was that Ann's dress used French silk. However, the loss of weaving skill from France to England due to mass immigration made that less likely. Then I spotted a picture and article about an earlier Mantua worn by previous Lady Mayoress of London. It was woven in Spitalfields and covered in glorious embroidery. My family were probably journeymen and not part of a famous "silk house" but since it was a very close French speaking community, they could have known the weavers of these spectacular gowns.

I excitedly await the curator's report." - Diana Emes (descending from Sharpe, Painel and Howard families, all silk weavers in Spitalfields)

You can even try on parts of the exhibition
Three recreated large costume skirts, created by the sewing ladies for the visitors to try on
You can even try on parts of the exhibition

"Thinking about women and power, I have been impressed about the role of women silk weavers. In the case of my families, the census results of the early nineteenth century show widows carrying on the business and being classed as the head of the household even when there were sons of age working with them." - Diana

"Making the hooped skirts using sewing machines was a lengthy process, and it made me think about how long it would have taken to make them by hand. Inserting the rigilene was a pain and, again, I thought about how difficult real boning or wooden hoops would have been to work with. So I think it has helped me feel deep respect for the people making these clothes all those years ago, and why the clothes were so valued, not just because of their intrinsic value, but because few outfits were owned, partly due to the time taken to make them." - Sara

"I’m an expert in grey paint names, and I have sore knees. Not sure I knew beforehand that a hairdryer should be included in my painting kit bag...I enjoyed every moment - well almost" - Margaret

The painting on these fans was a watercolour of Berrington, created by one of the sewing team
The fans that are used as part of the costumes close up
The painting on these fans was a watercolour of Berrington, created by one of the sewing team

"It was great to meet and work with other volunteers involved in the installation of the project, with so many different skills – sewing, research, carpentry, painting, upholstery, art etc. It was also wonderful to have glimpses of the costume and textile experts at work.

I would never know what I was in for – I would come equipped for sewing, with a carpenter’s awl, couple of swords, paintbrush and glue sticks... One day we could be battling to quell a huge hooped skirt with a mind of its own, on another I could be searching for the tiniest of buttons for the pandora fashion dolls, or discovering details about the use of the fan.

I developed a profound admiration for the endurance of the court ladies – who stood for hours in magnificent, but huge, cumbersome gowns, could only sit or withdraw with the Queen’s express permission, and had to have impeccable manners in order that their husband’s careers could be advanced. The ‘front’ had to be maintained, through ill health, or despite the grief of the death of a child, as Ann did in the year that her husband was Lord Mayor of London.

I’ve also learnt that there’s a great echo inside an acrylic display case." - Amanda