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A stitch in time


WORLD Radio - A stitch in time

A living history interpreter in Colonial Williamsburg brings a new approach to teaching the history of the milliner’s trade

Janea Whitacre in her Colonial Williamsburg millinery shop Photo by Hannah Henderson

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, May 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: stepping back in time.

Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is the premiere living history museum for early American History. But the way its interpreters showcase that history has changed.

REICHARD: WORLD Senior Writer Kim Henderson now with the story of a woman who teaches dressmaking by making dresses.

JANEA WHITACRE: This gown was made in 17, or the original was made in 1778.

KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR WRITER: That’s Janea Whitacre. She’s on staff at Colonial Williamsburg, the largest U.S. history museum in the world. Right now, she’s describing a gown they’ve reproduced in the millinery shop she runs.

WHITACRE: We realized that the trim that's on the gown is done with a pinking iron, which we did not have.

So Whitacre went to the blacksmith next door. He made a new old-fashioned tool.

WHITACRE: So before a pair of scissors, there was actually a tool that you hammered into the fabric, so it makes a lot of noise. [laughing]

Whitacre is working an 18th century trade in an 18th century building in 18th century lighting.

WHITACRE: So to protect our counter, we put a piece of fabric, a woodblock, a nice quarter-inch thick piece of leather. And we'll lay the silk on it, and that should cut the raw edge.

Janea Whitacre in Colonial Williamsburg

Janea Whitacre in Colonial Williamsburg Photo by Hannah Henderson

Making the trim of a dress look just like it would have looked 300 years ago is a skill. It’s a skill Whitacre has perfected over the course of a long career. She arrived at Colonial Williamsburg’s millinery shop in 1982, and she never left.

WHITACRE: As a milliner, I make the ornaments to your wardrobe—aprons and kerchiefs and men's shirts and their neckcloths and handkerchiefs and cloaks and robes. So the unfitted clothing of the wardrobe.

But colonial milliners often possessed two sets of skills. They learned two trades.

WHITACRE: The second one is mantua-making, or dressmaking.


More than half a million people visit Colonial Williamsburg each year. This morning, a school group from Florida is in the shop. Whitacre tells them about apprenticeship in the 18th century.

WHITACRE: It's only 12 hours a day, six days a week.

STUDENT: Did you say only?


The way Whitacre interacts with visitors has changed over time.

WHITACRE: We were career interpreters when I first started. So we talked. But we didn't make, particularly.

Now she wears things she makes. Her handmade gowns are hanging on pegs on the walls. The kids ask questions about them.

WHITACRE: I wanted to get those antiques out from under the glass, because you could point to the antiques, but you couldn't obviously touch them or hand them to a guest to feel and experience. And so we wanted to make things, and I didn't know how much there was to learn at the time.

One of Whitacre’s biggest accomplishments at Colonial Williamsburg is the apprenticeship program she started in 1995.

WHITACRE: It took about 11 years to figure out: one, what we needed to know, and then figure out how it could be taught. Many of the apprenticeships at the time were number-oriented. And I wanted it to be project-oriented. Things that I could see.

Since then, seven milliners have finished an apprenticeship with Whitacre. It’s a rare opportunity to learn a craft in one of Williamsburg’s workshops using period tools and techniques.

Whitacre’s current apprentice is E. Katherine Hargrove.

KATHERINE HARGROVE: This job is really sort of in triplicate. We do the work. We are tradespeople and we work vocationally. We're academics. We do extensive work behind the scenes. And then we have that educational bent. We're sharing this information with people on a day to day basis.

Apprentices Katherine Hargrove (left) and Rebecca Godzik

Apprentices Katherine Hargrove (left) and Rebecca Godzik Photo by Hannah Henderson

There’s another woman in the shop named Rebecca Godzik. She finished her apprenticeship in four and a half years, which is typical for trades at Colonial Williamsburg. Now Godzik is a journeywoman. That means she’s trained but still working for someone else. Godzik tells me about one of her projects.

REBECCA GODZIK: Was to take a portrait and reproduce the gown and all of the pieces of millinery, all the accessories that were worn in that particular portrait.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts loaned them the portrait. Godzik kept it on display next to her own work in the shop.

GODZIK: People could see the gown taking shape, and the cloak and the ruffles. And our wig makers reproduced a wig so that the lady who we made the gown for could actually sit and be arranged exactly like she was in the portrait. That was so much fun to see it literally come alive.

Godzik is quick to sing her mentor’s praises. She says it’s not just Whitacre’s 40 years of expertise in the field.

GODZIK: She actually invented the field.

That meant Whitacre had to convince others that millinery and dressmaking has value beyond the obvious.

GODZIK: There's economics, there's social history, there's cultural history, and that's something that I think a lot of traditional academics don't understand. That there's more to it than just making and wearing pretty clothes.

But the clothes are pretty. And Whitacre says visitors still ooh and ahh over them, just like they did when she started.

WHITACRE: Everyone I have the pleasure of talking with is pretty much on vacation. So there’s a joy in doing something different. And I have fun, and hopefully they leave with a smile and have fun. And that hasn’t changed at all in the last 40 years.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Williamsburg, Virginia.

REICHARD: To read the full print feature story, look for the June 3 issue of WORLD Magazine. We’ll post a link to the digital version of the story in the transcript of this episode.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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