Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Barbara Johnson Online

The fabulous resource of the Barbara Johnson Album is now online for all to see at the V and A website.  The pages are there in entirety, but I was somewhat disappointed to see how small the images were and how difficult it is to read the text, so I came up with the idea of exploring some of the pages in more detail.

Victoria and Albert Museum

First, what is the Barbara Johnson Album and what is the big deal?

Barbara was the child of a minister, she was born in 1738 in England.  The date of her birth is important as her entries are dated and we can tell how old she was as the book progresses. If my math is right, in 1777 the date on this page, she is 39 years old.

She was a clothes hog.  And a scrapbook fiend.  Perfectly preserved in her swatch book, she kept pieces of the fabrics and trims purchased for her, along with notations beside each, noting yardage, price and often the width of the fabric and the intended project for that fabric.  We in turn can extrapolate from all this, some amazing facts for our own use.  

Very difficult to read online, the text describes "blue and white strip'd lutestring".  Lutestring or lustring as it is also spelled, is a very crisp silk taffeta, glazed for extra shine and even more crispyness.  Lutestring is perfect for the late 1770s new style of gown, with small tight waist pleats, and narrowing back pleats, a total departure from the heavy brocaded silks of earlier decades.  

She is using this silk to make a "nightgown" a rather old fashioned term to describe an English gown or in costume terms a "robe a la Anglaise".  She is buying 11 yards and 3 quarters, at one half ell wide.  The width of this fabric could be anywhere from 19.5 -21 inches.  A true half ell is 22.5 inches wide. Our modern fabrics are still often sold at the ell width of 45 inches.  So let's translate to modern fabrics at 45 inches wide. 

 She bought (and I am going to round up the 3/4 to a yard). 

6 yards of 45 inch wide fabric

That is the amount of fabric required by most of us today to make an English gown.  

Notice the shading of the silk stripe, hard to tell by this image, because there is no scale, but the stripe in the book can be measured and it is 3/8 inch wide from dark edge to dark edge.  Somewhat small but perfect for the the narrowing pleats of the later English gowns.  This purchase was made in 1777, at a cost of "three and sixpence a yard".  ( I am going to let some other math loving soul, figure out the total cost in pounds and shillings!) 

This advertisement from the Connecticut Courant, August 31, 1779, has for sale a "striped Lutestring", so we can definitely tie in this type of fabric from the Album to our own American Colonies.

For Costume and Historical Clothing purposes we can often find this type of shaded stripe in the home dec department. Now you can document its use and go for it when you find one in a suitable color!  Happy Shopping.  


  1. I'd forgotten how labored calculating the cost of yardage used to be! I grew up in England as was 21 in 1971 when they converted to decimal currency. So I had to do this all my teen years.
    The mental arithmetic calculation goes like this!
    10 yards at 3/6 would be 30 shillings from the "3" and 5 shillings from the sixpences, thats 35 shillings. add another yard, thats 38 shillings and 6 pence. The ¾ yard would cost.. um..a bit under 3 shillings, so total cost approx 42 shillings; thats 2 pounds 2 shillings.
    or in older money, still occasionally used at that time, 2 guineas!

    1. I knew someone would do it! thank you!

  2. You know....if you register with the web site, you can download free high-res copies of the pics. You can only do 20 at a time, so it takes a little while to get all of them. But they look really good. And thanks for letting us know about it being online!