There is this darling little shop in town run out of a woman’s house that sells vintage clothes, shoes, jewelry, and a mishmash of other unique items. I go in every now and again just to see what is there and have scored a marvelous pair of Edwardian shoes, gloves, scarves, and a poor little beat-up, broken down, sadder than sad Victorian carriage parasol.
When I first saw it, I could not even believe what I was seeing. What was this dainty, dusty jewel doing here and how much was it? It had no price tag and to be honest, I was too nervous to even ask, thinking it would be way out of my price range at the time. I left the shop, my heart already breaking a bit from being parted and decided I would come back in a few days, and if it was still there, purchase it – after asking about the price, of course.
Two days later, the tattered silk parasol was still there, closed and folded, left in the same place from when I last saw it and still without a price tag. I took it to the owner and asked, nearly afraid to learn the answer, how much the bedraggled beauty was.
She took a look at it, noticed the abundant tears and rips in the silk canopy, the broken furrule (the tip of the parasol), and the strange break in the handle where it looked as though the tip had been sheered off. I kind of gathered from her blank expression she had no idea she even had this parasol in her shop, yet alone, how much to sell it for. I, on the other hand, was holding my breath.
“How about five dollars?”
Picture an outrageously happy grin.
She either had no clue what she was selling…or didn’t really care. I felt a little guilty taking this ragged but of history home for only a Lincoln, but hey someone had to do it.
Once home, I cleaned it up a bit – took some Old English to the wood shaft and polished it till it glimmered, gently patted away the dust from the silk, and checked for further structural issues.
It opened and closed as though it were new, the hinge in the shaft was sturdy, the furrule looked as though it had been gnawed off would need a new finding, and the handle looked a little strange. The wooden ribs and internal spokes were still strong and completely lacking in fractures, which was a great surprise.
I did a little research to try to date the parasol and based on the size and the lack of metal in the skeleton, and based on numerous sources, I found that I could potentially have a parasol dating from the 1840-50’s.
The canopy is small; perfect for a carriage but enough to shade a lady’s face without compromising the show of her much smaller bonnet (in comparison to the previous bonnet years). As the parasol lacks any metal mechanisms, the ribs and spokes could either be made of cane or baleen. Painted steel would later be used closer to the 1860’s.
During the 1850’s the handle tips commonly had a finger-sized hook. Mine could possibly have had a similar hook at one time that had been broken and later sanded down in lieu of replacing. Another clue to pre-1860, this little beauty was au natural. No ruffles, lace, fringe…. nada, and was a common color of green (unfortunately, you can’t tell that from the pictures) that was popular between 1840 and 1850. However, the rib tips, which I do not think are made of ivory, could possibly be made of celluloid. The challenge with this is celluloid did not come into existence until the late 1860s and it was created to be a substitute for ivory. The tips are certainly not made of bakelite (c. 1900) unless they had been replaced at some point during that era.
Now, I could be entirely wrong with my date matching but the clues are there and things do match up. A professional would know better but I still like to think I am the proud owner of a parasol that is roughly 160 plus years old. And all for five bucks.
The only substantial damage was to the canopy. I was justifiably hesitant in dismantling this little piece of history but if it were ever to be used, the fabric would need to be replaced, and quite honestly, it was in too perfect condition otherwise to not try to bring it back to life.
Carefully, I took the old silk off by removing the top pin and ruffle. This small little pin works as a type of stopper, securing the metal washer and fabric cushioning that keeps the spokes and ribs from coming off the handle, thus creating the beautiful arch. Without the pin holding everything together, all tension would be lost and the ribs would open out straight.
Note: lose this very valuable, very tiny pin, and you are done for.
Many sections of the silk were still very strong but had too many small tears and rips to be used effectively. The threads, however, were still in wonderful condition, the stitches neat, strong, and done completely by hand.
The section I chose was the least damaged with only a single tear down the center but otherwise in good condition. It held firm while I warily stretched it out, pinning it down on my cutting board like a butterfly specimen.
Tracing around the edges, I made a few modifications where the fabric looked as if it had been stressed from use, and made my pattern. I decided to add a ½ seam allowance to allow for error and to account for the parasol seam method I would employ. Yes, there is actually a particular seam used for the stressed edges of the canopy. A parasol seam is similar to a French seam, except you sew through four layers of fabric to give the seam strength. This left with a little excess fabric, which I later cut down with pinking sheers to about ¼ width.
My fabric choice was of a black dupioni silk. Usually parasols would be made of silk taffeta, brocade, perhaps even satin. For some reason the dupioni spoke to me in the fabric store. Usually it says, “make me into a dress!” But that time it said, “ummm….hello. Parasol please.”
After all of the triangular panels were sewn together, I hand stitched the canopy to the spokes in the same locations and slowly opened her up. And yes, I did make a mock-up before testing the pattern on the actual dupioni.
The canopy needed only a few minor adjustments: a bit of tugging here, some finagling there. It fit well, not entirely perfect, but suitable for my first try. It looked lovely with the sharp arches and nubby texture of the fabric, but a little plain.
I had thought of using fringe but did not like what I found in the fabric store, nor the braided trim. Instead, I was lucky again. A trip to another small antique shop found me scored with another find: vintage six inch fringe, just enough to go around the edges at a “can’t say no to that price.” At a different shop, I found white and black vintage crochet ribbon trim that could be used to cover the fringe braid.
Canopy open, I set to work hand stitching the fringe (after I had trimmed it to a seasonable three inches). I debated using the white and black trim as at that point I had decided to debut the renewed parasol with an 1870’s mourning dress. I decided to leave it off, knowing it could be added later.
Finding a fitting furrule was another matter. I tried a few craft stores for a final that could work. A few had some options but they did not seem to match the style of the parasol. After a bit more research, I decided to go with a rather simple design: the cap of an old make-up pencil (c.1980). Don’t ask me where it came from or why I had it, but I did, and it fit perfectly, and after coating it several times with gold paint, and finally a coat of sealant, I added it the tip of the parasol. It fit so well that I did not need to glue it down. The fit was snug enough I knew it would not come off without personally removing meaning at some point down the road, I can replace it with something more historically accurate than an 1980’s eyebrow pencil cap.
Needless to say, I learned a lot from this project: a new seam technique, new skills, a bit of history, and most importantly, I conquered that nagging thought of, what if this becomes a great disaster and I completely ruin and destroy this parasol! Especially after I lost that oh, so precious pin. Don’t know how. I put it in the same container as the points and the leather ruffle and metal washer, but when it came time to put the parasol back together, it had mysteriously disappeared.
Enter the paperclip. That small and sometimes annoying little office supply was fitted and cut, the size just a tad bit snug but not so much that it didn’t fit to work well.
Crises averted – panic over.
Thank you to whoever invented paper clips – you saved my parasol.