Blickling seamstresses stitch up history

Elegant dresses from bygone days are being brought alive by the nimble-fingered sewing skills of a small band of volunteers.A five-strong sewing circle at Blickling Hall began life a decade ago making humdrum, but important, fitted dustsheets for the stately home's winter cover-up.

Elegant dresses from bygone days are being brought alive by the nimble-fingered sewing skills of a small band of volunteers.

A five-strong sewing circle at Blickling Hall began life a decade ago making humdrum, but important, fitted dustsheets for the stately home's winter cover-up.

But they have now spread their wings to fashion stunning dresses worn by the gentry, and below stairs staff, connected with the historic house.

The creations are already appearing on mannequins around the rooms during special events.


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But with the National Trust moving towards upgrading interpretation to include hearing “ghost” voices from former staff and seeing people dressed in period costumes, the circle's role is set to become higher profile.

Each Monday, the not very famous five, gather in a sewing room deep in the Hall to tackle their stitch-in-times-gone-by tasks.

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Some are still workaday, making bags for the back of room guides' chairs and blinds to fend off fabric-fading sunrays.

But they have also made stunning dresses dating back more than 250 years - after some detective work - using portrait paintings hanging in the hall as their patterns.

Kate Cox, who used to run a modern-day fashion business in the Broads, was the brains behind a peach-coloured dress worn by Henrietta Howard for a fancy dress event in about 1720.

Henrietta Countess of Suffolk, an attractive brunette, was said to have been a mistress to the then Prince of Wales and drew the attention of society figures including writer Jonathan Swift.

Having worked out a pattern from the portrait, the circle set about making the dress over the space of several months during their weekly afternoon sessions.

They have also produced a Tudor dress worn by the Hall's most famous noblewoman - Anne Boleyn, who is believed to have been born there, and is reputed to haunt it, headless onboard a spectral coach and horses, on the date of her execution each year.

She is headless again as the dress by the circle sits on a mannequin at the Hall. But it is a fate shared by all the dresses, until they have a living, breathing human to bring them fully to life.

Another creation is the brown dress worn by Lady Constance Talbot, the 8th Marchioness of Lothian, which she is seen wearing in a large painting in the brown drawing room.

The circle has also made children's dressing-up clothes, including shirts, pinafores, bloomers and bonnets for Victorian and Edwardian education days.

Circle members: Kate Cox, Sue Jay, Janet Attoe, Carol Cowles and Wendy Jones, enjoy their work which expanded to costumes when the Boleyn dress was needed for a Halloween event. They had to learn new skills of adding boning and hoops to create the heavily-engineered costumes of days of yore. They can sometimes be seen at work by visitors taking behind the scenes tours of the Hall, but their work goes mostly unsung and unseen.

Assistant house manager Louise Holmes, praised their work, which on a practical level ranged from special covers to repairing braiding.

But the Trust was moving towards more interactive interpretation - starting with the recorded voices of 1930s below stairs staff in the kitchen area next year, and featuring dressed up characters in the future. Taking dresses from two dimensional paintings to life-sized 3-D versions helped bring the history alive much more vividly, she added.

The sewing circle is always in need of haberdashery quality fabric and roll-ends to help its work. And the Hall is looking to recruit more room guides, and a handyman, for next season. Anyone who can help should contact the house manager, Jan Brookes or administrator Diana Shaw on 01263 738065.

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