2 seamstresses win 1990s accolades with Civil War garb for re-enactment groups

December 19, 1993|By JoAnne C. Broadwater | JoAnne C. Broadwater,Contributing Writer

The clothing that seamstresses Valerie Gemmill and Cindy Carr cut and stitch in the sewing rooms of their Harford County homes is out of date.

Instead of sewing the latest styles, the two women make clothes like that worn more than 100 years ago during the Civil War. That's exactly what their customers want.

Their fashions are worn by members of re-enactment groups who want to authentically portray the people and lifestyles of the Civil War period.

Both women have earned a reputation among area Confederate re-enactors for their sewing skills and their efforts to reproduce historically accurate clothing.

Mrs. Gemmill, 34, of Dublin can recite in detail the fabrics, colors, patterns, trims, collars, cuffs, sleeve styles, necklines and waistlines that were used during that era.

"There were all kinds of rules for women's clothing" that reflected standards of social conduct and modesty at the time, she said.

Dresses were made of cotton, muslin, calico or wool. Colors were brown, tan, blue, gray, green and wine red in patterns including small geometrics, dot clusters and stripes.

Dresses were seldom washed, so women wore aprons while cleaning to protect furniture from their dirty clothes.

"I like being creative with the dresses," said Mrs. Gemmill, who designs ball gowns from pictures when no pattern is available.

Reproductions of Civil War patterns can be bought but are difficult to work from, she said.

Mrs. Gemmill's fees for gowns range from $200 to $500.

"I like the idea of sewing Civil War things," said the mother of three, who works while her children are at school. "You learn lots of interesting things, and it's fun to hear all the stories and tales."

In addition to creating the ball gowns, she makes women's skirts, blouses and dresses as well as men's pants, vests and coats. She also sews modern homecoming dresses, doll clothes, horse blankets, riding chaps and Western horse show shirts.

Mrs. Gemmill started making Civil War apparel more than a year ago and has stitched more than 100 period costumes. She works 20 to 25 hours per week, scheduling about 20 hours in a six- to eight-week period to make a ball gown.

Mrs. Carr, 40, of Darlington first sewed men's Civil War clothing ,, several years ago when her 19-year-old son, Timothy, joined a re-enactment group.

"I thought I could save him money by making his uniform," the mother of four said.

She bought patterns from a sutler -- a businessman who travels with re-enactment groups and sells supplies to them just like his 19th century counterparts.

Mrs. Carr has made about a dozen Confederate uniforms,

including the one that her son -- a member of the 37th Virginia re-enactment group -- wore as an extra in several scenes of the movie "Gettysburg."

"I enjoy making the uniforms," she said. "I can whip them up in a day."

She has also repaired Civil War tents and sewed haversacks and gun covers. Her uniforms sell for about $75, including pants, coat and shirt.

Like Mrs. Gemmill, Mrs. Carr says she strives for authenticity, using wool for outer clothing as was the norm for the period and carefully selecting buttons.

"Re-enactors are very touchy about their buttons," she said, explaining that Civil War buttons had two holes, were made from wood, pewter, brass, bone, antler or shell and had a variety of symbols on them.

"I feel that we should do it right if we're going to re-enact," said Timothy, who lived in a tent in Gettysburg for three months in the summer of 1992, working as a re-enactor and set-dresser during filming of the movie about the famous battle. "Things should be ** done as authentically as possible."

Charles Gagliano, the captain of the 1st Georgia re-enactment group, agreed.

"We're re-creating an important era of history," said the 52-year-old Bel Air resident. "Through our re-enactments, we're letting people know what the mid-19th century was like."

His wife, Joann Gagliano, is also a member of the 1st Georgia and buys camp dresses from Mrs. Gemmill.

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