An Interview with Hallie Larkin, At the Sign of the Golden Scissors

A gown by Hallie, on display with the Southcoast
Historical Associates

Today’s interview, and indeed our first interview here at American Duchess, is with Hallie Larkin, a dedicated and highly awesome historical costumer specializing in 18th century attire.  Hallie is the president of the Costume Society of America, Northeastern Region, as well as president of the Southcoast Historical Associates, two organizations dedicated to excellence in historical costuming.  Hallie is also the blogger responsible for both “At the Sign of the Golden Scissors,” and “18th Century Stays,” and if that’s not enough to impress the bloomers off of you, she also makes caps, hats, and stays, offered in her “Sign of the Golden Scissors” shop.

So without further ado…

Miss Hallie Larkin, on her costuming….

1. How did you get started in historical costuming?  What drew you to it?  Why the 18th century?
I began my costuming life as a Civil War reenactor, with the 28th Massachusetts.  This group was extremely focused on historical accuracy and when some of us stepped back in time to the 18th century and started a new group, Harmon’s Snowshoe Company, we all brought that same degree of accuracy to our new home in the 18th century. I loved it, the more I learned the more I wanted to learn, I was hooked.   Big time.

A gorgeous silk sacque by Hallie

2. How do you see yourself as a costumer?  Are you a re-enactor, a theatrical costumer, a just-for-fun type?
I am always creating costume from the perspective of a reenactor,  zooming in with the lens of historical accuracy.  My mentors and guides when I was first starting out are legends in the 18th century museum world, I was extremely fortunate  to have the guidance and friendship of Sally Queen, former director of the Costume Design Center at Colonial Williamsburg, Mark Hutter, tailor at Colonial Williamsburg, Edward Maeder, author and curator at several museums including LACMA, Bata Shoe Museum and Historic Deerfield.  Closer to home, my dear friend Henry Cooke, a well known 18th century tailor has always been encouraging and a wonderful teacher of all things related to the 18th century, but most especially 18th century construction and tailoring.  The world of 18th century costuming is small and large at the same time, and these are the people who set me on my path to strive for excellence in reproducing 18th century garments.   They also steered me into joining the Costume Society of America, a professional organization of museum curators, costumers, and teachers which opened the world of academia that went with studying 18th century dress. I am currently serving as the Northeast Regional President of the Costume Society of America.

For me the challenge of making 18th century clothing is on two levels.  The first is intellectual, finding out all I can about style and construction: the order the pieces were sewed, the stitches used, the method of fitting, fabrics, threads etc. The next and harder  challenge was bringing my own skills to the point where I could incorporate everything that I have learned into actually sewing and fitting a garment.  I never teach a class or make a gown without adding to what  I already know or figuring out something that I didn’t know I didn’t know.

Hallie reproduction of a pair of 17th century stays, on display beside an
extant pair

3. From your blog, we know you hand sew everything.  Have you always preferred hand sewing, or do you sometimes use the machine?
Since I had never been a machine sewer of modern clothing, I had no experience of using a sewing machine aside from making Halloween Costumes for my kids and crafty types of projects.  I was and am clueless about modern dressmaking so for me it was much easier to learn 18th century handsewing techniques right from the beginning.  There are a few long seams in most 18th century garments that can be done on a machine, but since I do so much handsewing, my stitching goes so quickly that I can be done with a long seam before someone else can set up and plug in their machine.   I do use the machine to sew the channels in stays, the rest is all done by hand, since the price of a handsewn pair is not realistic for most re-enactors. My owns stays are completely handsewn.

When teaching my gown classes, I do encourage handsewing, you don’t get better if you don’t do it, there are parts of the gown that require it, and the interpretive value when talking with the public is enormous.  No apologies or explanations required when you present yourself in handsewn garments. The events in my area are uber authentic, we are constantly striving to improve our own impressions and document all of our clothing to  New England and specifically if we can, to the Boston area and handsewn or at the least hand finished is the norm.

Brown silk damask gown

4. What is your favorite type of 18th century garment to sew, and why?
In all honestly I love to make everything except men’s breeches.  To avoid boredom or burn out, I try to rotate projects, gowns, stays, caps, bonnets, hats etc.  That way I am always working on something fresh and can incorporate current research that I have learned in between the last time I worked on those garments.  I also have a rule that I try to follow of finishing one project before starting another to avoid a pile of unfinished whatsis in the corner!  I generally have an ongoing shop project and a hand project for home, but try to limit unfinished work. (aside from embroidery which is always ongoing)

5. Do you have a favorite decade of the 18th century?  What draws you to this particular decade?
I am totally drawn to the gowns of the 1760s with elaborate passementerie and ruffles swirling all over the place, the silks are fabulous.  Who can resist those S curves? I am also fascinated by fringes and gimp trims, my goal this upcoming winter is to weave my own gimp trim and pile on the fly fringe.  I just need to find the right fabric for the project.  Having said that, I also love the 1770s and the change to the vertical and the stripes and the colors!

6. What are your favorite materials to sew with?
I must admit a weakness for fine fabrics, whether it is linen, silk, cotton or wool, the best quality fabrics make the finest products and are generally the easiest to work with.  In my first rush into the 18th century I decided to learn everything, I was going to spin, weave, dye as well as sew all my own clothes.  Very quickly I decided that I was not a spinner, (made a clumpy mess), not a weaver (killed my back), not a dyer (barely passed Chemistry 101), but I could learn about fabric. I started collecting scrips and scraps of 18th century fabrics, and became totally fascinated. So fabrics became one of my particular areas of study, learning about and collecting 18th century fabrics and then finding acceptable substitutes in the modern world. It is never boring, there is always something new to learn, and I love the colors and patterns.   I am always hunting for just the right ones, whether it is online or in a store, and when I find one it is still a rush! and if it is on sale, then I am walking on air for about an hour.

One of several delightful bergere hats made by
Hallie, offered in her shop

7. Do you have interest in other periods of dress?
I am dabbling from time to time in the 17th century, having done a few events at Jamestown, I would like to spend more time researching and creating some more 17th century garments.  I recently completed a reproduction of a pair of 17th century stays, which are currently on display at Pilgrim Hall Museum, in Plymouth, Massachusetts.  It was amazing to me how many of the techniques used in those stays were part and parcel of constructing stays 100 years later. I think there is so much I could learn by studying the earlier clothing that would relate to the how and why of clothing construction in the 18th century.  But I have too much time and energy invested in the 18th century to ever really focus too much on another time period.

If you’d like to get know Hallie better, visit her sites:

Thank you, Hallie!


  • Kristin

    October 10, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    I'm so proud that Hallie is my 18th century mentor (more like my 18th century fairy godmother!), and I consider her my second mother. She is the reason I'm in 18th century reenacting now! A great interview, thanks for posting it!

  • Caroline

    October 11, 2011 at 7:59 AM

    That was an awesome interview. I hope there are more interviews to come in the future. I am always trying to improve my hand sewing and reading this inspires me to put the extra effort in, instead of cheating and using the machine. PS the Georgianas are amazing! I started dying mine tonight. Thank you so much for going that extra mile and creating them! Cheers!

  • ZipZip

    October 12, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    Thank you so for interviewing Hallie Larkin. I read her every post carefully, and have learned a great deal, and am thankful that she is so willing to share what she knows. She is mentoring, in a way, a great number of us, methinks!

    Very best,


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