Sunday, January 15, 2023

Vintage Little Boy's Britches for Bobbie + Brandon's Breeches (Just for Fun!)

Hello, my lovelies!  Now that I've wrapped up both of my Christmas quilt projects, I've resumed working on my FrankenWhiggish Rose needle turn appliqué project and I'm continuing to weigh my options for a new machine piecing project.  At the moment, I'm feeling wickedly inspired by a vintage hand pieced quilt top that my client Bobbie rescued from abuse and neglect and brought to me recently for longarm quilting.

Rescued and Redeemed: Bobbie's Vintage Little Boy's Britches Quilt

98 x 98 Little Boy's Britches (Vintage) with Basketweave E2E

Bobbie isn't a quilter; she's an interior designer who loves and appreciates vintage quilts.  When she spied this quilt top in a secondhand shop, she says it was black with filth and they were using it to wrap motor parts in or something like that!  Can you imagine anyone doing that to a quilt top that somebody spent hours and hours piecing by hand?!  I feel like the cops ought to have been called, or Social Services, or at least the Quilt Police!  

Quilt historian Barbara Brackman wrote about the Little Boy's Breeches/Little Boy's Britches quilt block in this blog post from 2012.  ("Britches" is a variant spelling in the United States for the older British word "breeches;" I found both spellings used for this quilt block in my research and am using both spellings in this post to help quilters find it no matter which spelling they put in their search engines).  I didn't immediately see it when I first looked at the block -- I saw stars or flowers -- but if you look at just a quarter of the block you can see a pair of those "short pants" boys used to wear that came down to just below the knee, like the costumes in the musical Newsies!

Four Little Pairs of Britches Per Quilt Block

The Historical Significance of Little Boys' Breeches

And from there, I went down a historical rabbit hole, because that's what I do...

Gender-Neutral Children's Clothes in 1884: Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Did y'all know that, from the 16th century up until World War I, both male and female children in Europe and the United States were habitually clothed in all-white dresses and both genders wore their hair long until they were anywhere from 4-8 years old?  The obsession that we have today with dressing baby boys and girls so differently is a fairly recent phenomenon.  That's former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the photo above, aged two and a half years old in 1884, and his outfit and hairstyle were considered to be gender neutral and totally appropriate for little boys at the time.  The dresses worn by small boys and girls were practical for diapering in the centuries before Zippers, Velcro or snap tape closures had been invented, and white was considered a practical and sanitary color for little ones' clothing because cloth diapers leaked and white dresses could be bleached clean right along with the diapers.  After toilet training, the continued wearing of dresses for both sexes made it easier for little boys to make it to the bathroom without mishaps in the days when grown men's trousers had complicated buttons and drawstring fastenings that would be too difficult for very young children to manage on their own.  When little boys had developed sufficient dexterity and were finally deemed old enough to graduate to Big Boy Breeches, it was a BIG DEAL and a major rite of passage at all class levels.  You can read more about the breeching ceremony and what it meant to families here on the Jane Austen Centre's web site.

"Breeching" a little boy -- getting him his first pair of pants and a haircut -- meant that he was leaving his nursery days behind to enter the world of men, and it must have been an emotional transition for mothers.  On the one hand, in times with devastatingly high infant mortality, a breeching ceremony was a time to celebrate raising a child successfully through those perilous early years.  However, the change in dress was generally accompanied by other changes -- the newly-breeched little boy would now spend more of his time with his father, learning and helping with "manly pursuits", and less time in the company of his mother and sisters.  I imagine that a mother might feel the same bittersweet mixture of emotions around the breeching ceremony that mothers today feel when a little one steps onto the school bus for the first time and rides off to kindergarten.  It's an exciting beginning, but also the end of something special.

Random Little Boy Wearing Breeches, 19th century, New York

Oh, and why do you suppose those first breeches worn by little boys were "short pants" rather than full-length trousers such as their fathers were wearing?  Two reasons, both having to do with economy: before mass production, clothing was both expensive and labor intensive to make.  Shorter pants required less fabric than long pants, and short pants would not be outgrown as quickly as long pants, either.  Cue Angela Lansbury in the musical Auntie Mame: 🎶 "...and why did I ever buy him those damn long pants?" ðŸŽ¶

Okay, why am I sharing all of this pants trivia with you today?  Because I was amazed by how much more significance a "little boys' britches" would have had to mothers and grandmothers when this quilt pattern was first devised, or to the woman who first saw this pattern called by some other name and thought "that looks like my little boy's britches."  The names of historic quilt patterns are often a little window into social history, giving us hints about what mattered to women in an era when history books were written primarily by and about men.

And now, back to the quilt!  

Blocks Combine Machine Piecing with Hand Pieced Center Patches

The maker of Bobbie's vintage quilt top used a sewing machine for most of the block seams, but the center circles are hand pieced -- not hand appliquéd, mind you, because the stitches are straight rather than slightly slanted.  I can't tell for certain whether the center shape was meant to be a circle or an octagon, either; they are kind of a hybrid of the two shapes, like a lumpy circle or a rounded octagon.  Although I usually recommend quilting a fragile vintage top prior to attempting to launder it in order to minimize fraying of the seam allowances, Bobbie washed this one first because it was really gross and she was afraid no long arm quilter would be willing to touch it in its state she found it in.

Using the Parallel Frame Rails to Straighten Rows and Sashing

Bobbie added borders of plain muslin and plaid to enlarge this quilt top to fit a modern King size bed in her home.  Although in great condition overall post-laundering, there was plenty of "piecing personality" and fullness in the quilt top, and I did my best to straighten the sashing and work in that fullness as I was quilting it.  Bobbie elected to use lofty Dream Wool batting and that was a big help in combating and disguising piecing irregularities, too.

Basketweave E2E on Vintage Little Boy's Breeches Quilt

Side note: One of my favorite things about this quilt is the way the original maker positioned the grain/plaid pattern on each little pair of "pants" so it would run vertically up and down each "leg" in the same way that a plaid fabric would be laid out on an actual garment.  I think that makes them look even more like little pants than they would have if the plaid fabrics had been cut up randomly or with any other different grain orientation, don't you?  She did not, however, attempt to match the plaid pattern at the "center back seam."

In recommending an appropriate edge to edge quilting design for this project, I was inspired by the quilting on a client's vintage Economy quilt that I had in for repair two years ago (please note, I am no longer able to accept quilt repair work)

Vintage Economy Quilt, Brought to Me for Repair in 2021

That vintage pink and white quilt was hand quilted with an irregular wavy pattern that wasn't quite a Baptist fan but may have been similarly marked on the quilt as the quilter went along, tracing the arcs from some household object.  The digital design Basketweave that I used on Bobbi's Little Boy's Britches quilt gives a very similar effect.  There's enough quilting to secure the fragile vintage fabrics to the batting and backing for functional purposes, yet the quilting design is subtle and doesn't draw attention away from the unique piecing design.  And it is a unique piecing design these days, with its y-seam corners and set-in center patch.  If you find a pattern for this block today, I guarantee the modern version will have been "simplified" by adding a diagonal seam through the corner squares and appliquéing the center shape by machine.  

Here's what Bobbi's vintage quilt top looked like before I quilted it (but after she'd laundered it):

Little Boy's Britches Quilt Top Before Quilting

Thank you for partnering with me to rescue this vintage treasure, Bobbi!

And Now, Meet Brandon's Breeches!

My EQ8 Design Using Kaffe Fassett Collective Fabrics

You know I couldn't help myself, right?  So yes, I had to play with this block in my EQ8 software and see what I could come up with.  In the version above, I've used a solid navy background fabric to set off an assortment of wildly colorful Kaffe Fassett Collective prints from Free Spirit Fabrics.  I'm calling this version "Brandon's Breeches" after Kaffe's partner Brandon Mably because, when Kaffe and Brandon came to Charlotte to do a lecture and workshops sponsored by Sew Much Fun, they came dressed in shirts made from their colorful printed fabrics.  

As I played with the design, I realized that the blocks look more like stars or flowers and less like little pants when my fabrics aren't evocative of menswear like the plaids used in Bobbi's vintage quilt.  That made me think about appliquéing little back pocket patches on some of the "britches" to make them look more like pants...  But then they would look too literal and too cute for my taste.  Hmmm...  Here's another, smaller version of the Little Boy's Britches pattern using a white background and reproduction 1930s print fabrics:

Another Version in 1930s Prints

I kind of feel like making ONE of these blocks, but not sure I feel like making a whole bed quilt of them right now.  So no, this is probably not my next patchwork project...  Unless I made just one 6" Little Boy's Britches block and added it to my stack of abandoned Farmer's Wife blocks.  Ugh -- I just looked at those again and my idea of randomly picking fabric from my stash and hoping it would all go together in the end is NOT working out.  Some of those blocks don't even belong in the same room, let alone the same quilt!

Alright, alright...  Carried away with a too-long blog post yet AGAIN!!  I'm linking up today's post with my favorite linky parties, as listed on the left sidebar of my blog.  Have a great week, everyone, and happy Quilting!


Karin said...

That was fascinating, Rebecca. I love reading about unusual quilt blocks and definitely had not come across this one before. No way would I have thought of little pants looking at that! Of your EQ8 versions, I like the quilt in the thirties fabric but probably only so because I now have read about its history.

Linda @ kokaquilts said...

So interesting to read all about the little boy's britches quilt! And I see you got happily sidetracked making up those EQ8 versions, I'm team 'brandon's breeches' ... love the contrast between the Kaffe fabrics and the navy! said...

What a save! The stories that top could have told! Now it is going to be used as it was intended to be. . .terrific! I liked both of your EQ designs. . . . so many opportunities and so little time to fit it all in. . . sigh. . . .I understand where you are coming from!

Preeti said...

Absolutely stunning - the pattern, the attention to detail and your recounting of the history. Thank you for pointing out that each pair of britches looks like a correctly sewn pair of britches. Even before I scrolled down, my mind had started to remake the pattern. Even if I attempt the pattern, trust me I won't be using plaid. But I am fascinated by the pattern. Your EQ8 mock-ups don't help. insert eyeroll here.

Hubblebird said...

I love the original best of all. If I were ever to attempt it (not likely … too many other projects) I would try to use plaids. Is tartan a plaid? Wouldn’t it be amazing in Scottish tartans!

Gwyned Trefethen said...

My father was born in 1919. There is a picture of him looking similar to the young boy you featured in your blog, wearing a white dress, is wavy hair past his shoulders. I remember asking whose picture it was, never dreaming it was my father. However, I hadn't realized the rational behind the dress. Thanks for another very informative post.

loraine everard said...

Thank you Rebecca that was very interesting. I had seen pictures of little boys wearing dresses, and always wondered at it, so it was great to have an explanation. Your blog is always great!

Sylvia@Treadlestitches said...

What a wonderful post! It's such an unusual pattern, I've only seen one or two "in the wild".

Melva said...

The quilting is great on that vintage little britches quilt. Thanks for joining TGIFF.

Nann said...

What a great rescue, Rebecca! I read and re-read Little Lord Fauntleroy which popularized the long-locks and fancy short-pants suits. (Worlds away from my life in the 1960s, let alone today.)

Frédérique - Quilting Patchwork Appliqué said...

Wow, such a great story! It's fun and interesting to read all about the pattern, and the story of this rescued quilt! Your version tests are beautiful too!
Well done with the quilting, as usual ;))
Thank you so much for sharing, and linking up!