Tag Archives: JASP2020

Panel preview: A Q&A with historical costume builder Samantha Bullat

Samantha Bullat/The Couture CourtesanRegency Era fashion is a popular topic among Jane Austen fans, and this year we’re offering two turban-making workshops led by Samantha Bullat, known online as the Couture Courtesan. She is a professional tailor and historical costume builder for the Jamestown/Yorktown Foundation in Williamsburg, VA. Attendees of the 2018 Jane Austen Summer Program on “Northanger Abbey” and “Frankenstein” might remember Bullat’s presentation on gothic elements in Regency clothing. We wanted to catch up with her to see what she has been up to since then.

This will be your second JASP. We’re so happy to have you back! What are you most excited about doing this year at JASP?

I am most excited about attending the ball! I was unable to last time and was very sorry to have missed it. I love English country dancing, and it’s such an important part of socialization in Jane Austen’s world. 

[Read our 2018 interview with Samantha Bullat here.]

This year, you’ll be talking about global and Ottoman influences in Regency fashion. What are some examples of those influences — visual cues people should look for to spot these influences? How do you even go about researching such a topic?

The turban is undoubtedly the most iconic fashion element to come from Ottoman influence. I’m looking forward to sharing about the origins of such a quintessential look. The paisley shawl also has Eastern origins, even though we so strongly associate it with 19th-century England. There actually is quite a large body of scholarly work on the subject of “Turquerie”, “Egyptimania,” and European appropriation of Eastern style because it was such a phenomenon during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

You also will be leading our turban-making workshops. What should we expect from those?

My workshop[s] will focus on how to use pashmina shawls to create beautiful turbans to finish your Regency look, ornamented with feathers and jewels. While turbans of the period were also made by sewing fabric together, I wanted to teach something that anyone could do, even if they didn’t know how to sew. 

What advice do you have for a first-time attendee of JASP?

I was so heartened by how friendly and welcoming everyone was to me as a newcomer. It helps to know that everyone in attendance shares your interest in Jane Austen, so there is always something to talk about!

Samantha Bullat as Isabella Thorpe and Trey Heath as James Morland from the Northanger Abbey Musical (Courtesy of Samantha Bullat/The Couture Courtesan)

Tell us about a recent costuming project you have worked on that you really enjoyed.

Last year I made a Tudor lady’s ensemble from the skin out, which fulfilled a childhood dream of having a gown like Anne Boleyn! I spent a few years sourcing the materials and doing research, and I’m very happy with the finished product. 

What advice do you have for others who would like to get into historical costuming?

I think it’s important when getting started to remember that everyone was a novice once and not to get discouraged! It is okay to make mistakes. The next time you try something, it will only get better. It’s so easy to compare yourself to more experienced costumers and feel discouraged. But everyone is on their own journey. Just make what brings you joy!

Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel? If so, which one and why?

I don’t think I do! But I have always felt most kindred with Marianne Dashwood…

Samantha Bullat as Isabella Thorpe and Trey Heath as James Morland from the “Northanger Abbey” musical (Courtesy of Samantha Bullat/The Couture Courtesan)

You performed in the “Northanger Abbey” musical as Isabella in Williamsburg last fall during the annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America. What can you tell us about that experience? 

It was such an honor to be a part of bringing a friend’s lifelong dream to life on stage and with so many other dear friends as part of the cast. It was a lot of hard work but also made us like a family. I developed such a soft spot for Isabella Thorpe and have a lot of sympathy for her! But it was also terribly fun to play the “bad girl”!

Did you help with or have input into the costumes? And how did the costumes give actors insight into their characters?

There were a fair number of us in the cast who could sew, so we were in charge of our own costumes. I was grateful that Amy [Stallings, writer of the production] agreed with the direction I went with Isabella’s costume, which was a very pink and ostentatious gown. Emma Cross, who portrays Eleanor, chose to wear a lot of white to reflect Eleanor’s innate goodness.

Bullat is scheduled to give her plenary talk Friday, June 19, at 9 a.m. Her workshops (which require additional fees) are scheduled for 12:30 to 2 p.m. June 19 and 12:45 to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 20. REGISTER HERE. (If you have already registered for JASP and wish to add on the workshops, you do not need to re-register for the program; you may sign up for only the turban-making workshops.)

How to embroider

The education of young girls was neither reliable nor consistent in the early 19th century, and the same might be said of the education of Jane Austen. Claire Tomalin’s “Jane Austen: A Life” biography describes not only the schools Jane and her sister attended but also a few other examples of schools ranging in quality from well rounded to worthy of the gothic novels parodied in “Northanger Abbey.” Many girls did not go to school and learned at home instead. Yet regardless of where and how they obtained their education, young girls were expected to learn the skills that would help them to maintain their homes as grown women. One of those skills was the ability to sew, and in the days before sewing machines everything was sewn by hand.

“Girls School” by Jan Josef Horemans the Younger, 18th Century

In “Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels,” Deirdre Le Faye describes how girls would create samplers and cross-stitch patterns to demonstrate their stitching skills that would later be used for larger projects. She also says embroidery continued to be a popular pastime on rainy days for middle- to upper-class families. Mrs. Norris scolds Fanny in “Mansfield Park” for not better applying her time to such projects when she says: “Why cannot you come and sit here, and employ yourself as we do? If you have no work of your own, I can supply you from the poor basket.”

Thankfully Mrs. Norris is not here to nag us about how we spend our time. Instead, let us imagine that Jane herself is wishing to join us as she did with her sister in 1808 when she wrote: “I wish I could help you in your needlework, I have two hands & a new thimble that lead a very easy life.” If you have ever wanted to learn how to embroider, here are a few basic techniques.

You will need:

  • A bit of fabric (I use linen in this example)
  • An embroidery hoop
  • Embroidery threads (I use crewel, which is a fancy way to say “wool”)
  • Needle
  • Needle threader (optional – if the eye of your needle is big enough, you may not need a threader)

You could also hold the hoop this way, if you choose. This style is called “in the well.”

As you can see, the tapestry needle has a wide enough eye that I do not need a threader. The so called “embroidery needles” are very small and are designed for a fine cotton thread or beading work. If you are choosing to use this type of needle and thread, you will need to use a threader.

Once the thread is in the needle, leave one tail of the thread longer than the other. You do not need to knot the end.

Let’s learn three basic stitches:

First to learn is the Back Stitch.

You begin from underneath the fabric.

Then pull the needle through.

Keep pulling until there is only one thread going through the fabric.

Leave just a little bit behind. Here is what it looks like from the back.

This is the beginning of any embroidery stitch. For the back stitch, you will be moving along a line. Move the needle in the direction you wish to go and point it back to the first stitch.

Notice I am placing the needle below the other thread. You could do above the thread instead so long as you are consistent in every stitch. Pull the needle through and stop before the thread becomes taught.

Then, do the same thing. Move the thread further down the line you wish to make and point it back to the last stitch.

Continue in this fashion

After a while you will have a lot of little stitches creating a line.

Second to learn is the French Knot.

Again, we begin the stitch from underneath. This time we will place the needle close to where the thread comes out.

Then, wrap the thread around the needle once.


Three times. Then close to the hole where the thread comes out we will push the needle in through the fabric and gently pull it through.

Here are a few French Knots together.

The final stitch here is the Satin Stitch.

If you are left-handed, you may find it easier to go from the other direction but as I am right-handed, I begin the stitch on the far left side of the area I wish to fill.

Then I will push the needle in to the fabric on the far right side of the area I wish to fill. When I do this I will be poking the needle out just above where the first stitch came out and pulling the needle out from above the fabric.

These stitches will fill a small area.

If you wish to fill a larger area, you can do so with overlapping the smaller satin stitches because if you make it too big, it will not keep its shape well.

Confused by these instructions? Here is a quick instructional video to demonstrate the exact same stitches.

Now that we have learned some basic stitches, we need a project! A new book is coming out in May (March for the UK) full of project ideas based on 18th-century embroidery by Jennie Batchelor and Alison Larkin called “Jane Austen Embroidery” (from Dover Publications).

In the meanwhile, however, I free-handed a design based upon a shawl attributed to Jane Austen herself. You can see an image of the original here.

Here I have drawn the stars in pencil. I will be using satin stitches and French knots.

After a little bit of progress……

A close up of a French knot in progress:

Here is the completed hoop.

I needed something in the middle so I drew a silhouette of Jane Austen based on an image search online and filled it in with black satin stitches.

Hope you enjoyed this miniature lesson on basic embroidery stitches!