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A return to Renaissance

Staff Writer

Published: Friday, March 30, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 15:02



Dress and mannequin maker Astrida Schaeffer is in the process of designing materials for an exhibit on Victorian dresses that will open in Dimond Library in September.

A homemade dress from 1890s New Hampshire is standing in storage. It is made of faille fabric – a woven, ribbed cloth. The maker used a machine with chain stitching – new technology for the time – to hold it together. If one string is pulled, the entire piece comes apart. Standing next to it is a dress from 1890s Paris made of wool and silk with intricate rose details on the skirt.

Both historic dresses are being worn by mannequins made specifically for them by Astrida Schaeffer, a dress and mannequin maker who has spent decades exploring history through clothing.

 “Everyone wears clothes, and we kind of inherently understand what clothes are for, and to see something that walked around on someone else 200 years ago is an intuitive way to get that person on some level,” Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer is currently working on 24 mannequins for a show opening in September called “Embellishments: Victorian Detail,” which will be in the University of New Hampshire Museum on the first floor of Dimond Library. She is writing a book for the same show with 10 of her mannequins in it.

Schaeffer found her passion for historic clothing while taking part in Renaissance reenactments about 30 years ago. During that time, there were very few sources to find these clothes other than learning how to sew.

As she researched, Schaeffer found British costume historian Janet Arnold, an author of many books that look at clothing after the Renaissance. Arnold made her way to the United States for a speaking tour, where Schaeffer went to hear her and was inspired to expand her work.

“I’m sitting there in this room full of other people who were just as in love with this weird thing as I was. It dawned on me that this was something I could actually do,” Schaeffer said.

Among those people were representatives from Plimoth Plantation, who were looking for volunteers to work on their clothes. Schaeffer accepted and stayed in the position for a year.

She soon looked for how she could expand more on her craft and decided to go back to school for a master’s degree in history from UNH, focusing on “history as told by objects,” as Schaeffer put it.

During her studies, she went to different museums to look at actual clothing versus the photographs she was used to looking at, leading to more volunteer positions, including Strawbery Banke, which turned her focus toward late 18th and 19th century clothing.

 “No one makes mannequins like Astrida,” Elizabeth Farish, chief curator at Strawbery Banke, said. “She understands the form that the garment is trying to achieve.”

Schaeffer was also involved with the UNH Museum, where Dale Valena – then the curator – asked her to guest-curate “Tailored to Teach,” a textile collection that stayed in the museum for almost 10 months in 2000.

"She does beautiful work,” Valena said about Schaeffer. “They [the clothes] hang the way they were supposed to have been made.”

The class led Schaeffer to learn how to make mannequins in 1998. While Schaeffer was volunteering at the University Museum, Valena told her about a mannequin-making workshop she could take at the Textile History Museum in Lowell, Mass. This brought new techniques to the museum, where the clothing used to be stuffed with tissue paper.

“She’s amazing, very passionate about history and textiles,” Valena said. “She tells history through a dress [and] sort of unravels history through clothing.”

Schaeffer also worked with the University Museum of Art – separate from the University Museum – for 10 years before she talked with her husband, figured out numbers and decided to open Schaeffer Studios, where she makes mannequins and reproduction clothing full-time in her basement in North Berwick, Maine.

“I could be flipping burgers in a year,” she said. “The reason I thought I could make a go at this is there are so many tiny little museums in the area, and historical societies, but they’re volunteer-run.”

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