Seeing Dots.
By Sue Neikirk

Well I am sure I am going to get some scathing notes back on this one but here goes; I have been doing research for the past ten years (but then haven’t we all). For the past four years I have been researching the polka dot that everyone loves to wear. I have talked to several textile museums and they cannot tell me when the polka dots came into being. Yes, I know, there are polka dots in 18th-century fabrics but they were most often within the patterns of the prints not alone by themselves. I also contacted Williamsburg–they are checking but so far they have found nothing.

I have looked in painting and textile books and anything else you want to think about. After years of searching I should have found tons of info on the polka dot. Since everyone is telling me dots are documented and were such an easy print to create why can’t they be found?
Because they are not there.

I have checked with the French textile collections also but cannot find the polka dots there either. My friend Wayne Ransbottom, our late indian scout, loved to wear the polka dot until I pointed out the pattern couldn’t be documented. He took up the challenge to find the elusive polka dot many French impressions love to wear and could not find it. After that he never wore any of his dotted shirts again. He kept searching, but found nothing.
I have found three examples of dotted fabric in a patchwork bed hanging shown in The Victoria and Albert’s English Printed Textiles, 1750-1850. I was excited about it but as I searched for more I found nothing else. Some might call the small swatch in the bed hanging proof enough that dots were available. However, out of the hundreds of fabric swatches that comprise the bed hanging, there are only THREE dot patterns and all feature small, quarter-inch dots–not the huge, gaudy dots we often see being worn at events.

When I question people’s dotted garments, most point to the sketches in the book Historic French Colonial Dress as their documentation. I found many things wrong with the illustrations in that publication, especially the polka dots. The French Canadians loved, no, adored the gaudy dress and that is why I chose French Canadian impression (which is different than just French). Just because polka dots would be the easiest design to print does not mean that it was done. The people that claim the French loved the polka dots have not done their research, they are only following what the others are wearing–it is NOT correct.

Now if any of you want to show me then please, please show me your documentation and I will be happy to wear polka dots.
Happy hunting!

How about another little problem that can’t be documented but that everyone loves to wear–the shawl. The shal (correct spelling for the garment) was brought back to England with the Scottish soldiers in the late 18th century from the middle east and they were exclusively worn by men there.

If you search for documentation for the shawl you will not find it until the late, late 18th century. Shawls were usually made of expensive fabric and are not really seen in major use until the early 19th century. I have found many of the shawls in photos and museums.

I have been told by many re-enactors of the 18th century that it is a simple garment so it “would have” been used. Please– that is like saying “if they would have had it they would have used it.”

I have a book called The Paisley Pattern (paisley is another pet peeve of mine), by Valerie Reilly in which she supports the problem I have with shawls. She states:

“From the middle years of the 18th century a new garment began to enter the world of fashion in Europe, initially in Britain and then somewhat later in France and the other Continental countries. It is ironic that it became an essential part of the wardrobe of fashionable ladies because in the country of its origin, Kashmir, it had been a garment worn by men…”

The kerchief is a small thing worn around the shoulders not the large wrap that we have all grown to know and love. They probably put on a warmer one during the cold months, but think about this, if you had a nice, large piece of fabric yardage, would you just leave it for a wrap or would you make something more useful out of it, for instance a small cape (or large one depending on the amount of the yardage) to be in fashion not just to wrap up in it. Also a cape you tie or hook together and you can work with it on while a shawl you have to hang on to.

Believe me, if I could find documentation for the shawls or the polka dots I would be thrilled to use them, after all, a good French Canadian would love the color and flash! But so far my years of research have failed to turn up proper documentation for either item.


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