By Mitch Meador, Fort Sill TribuneAugust 31, 2018
FORT SILL, Oklahoma (Aug. 31, 2018) -- If you think your job is tedious, try sewing an Army uniform the old-fashioned way.
Just ask Steve Abolt, whose 15th uniform for the U.S. Army Field Artillery Museum is now on display in the War of 1812 area of the south gallery. It's an 1814-style uniform for a Corps of Artillery lieutenant and regimental adjutant.
"That's what I do for a living, is I make 19th-century American uniforms and civilian clothing bracketing the years 1810 through 1850. My area of expertise is the American military uniform for that particular time period," he said.
Abolt lives in Georgia and does business as Allegheny Arsenal. He frequently works with Mark Hilliard of Heart of Oak in New Hampshire, as was the case here. Hilliard made the hat, the shoulder belt, the engraved brass plate on the belt, the handmade buckskin gloves, the sash, the watch fob, and the boots. The brass plate depicts an eagle atop a cannon, as this was the insignia of U.S. artillery until the introduction of the crossed cannon in 1833.
Abolt contributed the coats, the false vest, the false shirt-collar, the stock, and the pantaloons.
"The thing that's always fascinated me about this is, it's all hand-work, because today we do so much by machine. But back then, your hands were the machine. It's been a very fascinating journey for the last 30-some years," Abolt said.
Uniforms made in 1814 still exist, and Abolt has had an opportunity to view them. He goes by regulations that spell out what the uniform was to look like, but he also looks at paintings or portraits done of individuals from life and tries to find extant examples whenever possible.
The new uniform was copied from notes taken from several originals, which Abolt reproduced for the Louisiana state museum in its historic New Orleans collection. His past work includes reproductions of the uniform Robert E. Lee wore when he surrendered at Appomattox, the uniform Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans, and Meriwether Lewis's dress uniform. Some were for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also makes clothing for re-enactors and living history people, and he provides the majority of the clothing worn by the interpretive staff at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
Abolt is the first to admit that stitching by hand is extremely time-consuming, but it's his passion. He can put 14 hours a day, seven days a week into it and not grow weary because of the creative rush he gets from turning out a new piece.
There was an element of a production line economy in Army uniforms of his chosen time period.
"In the military, for example, when they would be making uniforms for a large number of troops, there was an assembly line process in the point that they would all be cut at a central location and then issued to individual tailors or seamstresses to assemble," he said.
Officers' garments, on the other hand, were a bespoke piece of clothing, meaning it was custom-made. An officer had to provide his own garment, so he would go to a tailor. The tailor had several people working for him, so one person might do the blind buttonholes, another the structuring of the piece, and so on.
Abolt jokes that he has a staff -- his left hand and his right hand. He said that tailoring a garment to someone is completely different than just assembling something. When he worked on Ringgold's Battery in the Field Artillery Museum lobby, he was given basic measurements for the mannequins and he had to adapt the patterns to that standard size.
"Once we got the fit down, then I was able to keep those patterns and we could make all these other different mannequins and just use the same measurements but tweak the pattern to the style of the time," he said.
His stitches have to be very small and precise to meet the specs. The new uniform has blind buttonholes on its cuffs and colors. As noted on the label, "During the War of 1812 the American uniforms underwent several drastic changes. In May 1813 coats were to be all of dark blue. The red collars, cuffs, and turnbacks were eliminated. The main ornamentation of the coat was the blind buttonholes in dark blue silk twist. This replaced the more expensive ornamentation of gold braid."
The style at the time was to decorate the coat with all kinds of buttons and then trim the buttonholes. Next to the lieutenant wearing the 1814 uniform is a War of 1812 private whose buttonholes are trimmed with a braid of yellow worsted binding. Officers would have had metallic gold lace, which is extremely expensive, because it's real gold plated on copper wire.
"When I do those exhibits, that's the same stuff I use today," Abolt said.
An officer trying to buy some of the earlier, fancy uniforms on his limited pay was, "in modern terms, you working at McDonald's trying to buy a Lexus -- you're just not going to make it on your salary."
Everyone complained that the garments were too costly, so the Army decided to simplify things by getting rid of the metallic braid and replacing it with blind buttonholes. The reason they're called "blind buttonholes" is that they're non-functional. The coat only has 10 functioning buttonholes in front to close it. The others have buttons sewn in place, but they don't button and unbutton.
"What you do is called 'staying' or 'plugging' the button," Abolt explained. "I take an awl, and I punch a hole through the end where the button would be if it actually was button-closed. And then I take the shank of the button, and I press it through that hole. And then take a small scrap of fabric and press it through the shank on the reverse side and stitch it down. So it looks like it's button-closed, but it's just blind."
"The thing is, it takes longer to make those blind buttonholes than it does to frame a buttonhole with lace. But, back then, labor was cheap, materials were expensive, unlike today, which is the other way around," Abolt said.
There are 40 blind buttonholes on the coat. The longest is five inches, the shortest two inches, and there are all sizes in between. The five-inch buttonhole means 10 inches' worth of stitches, top and bottom. Abolt estimates that at a rate of 10-15 knots per half-inch, he had to hand-tie roughly 4,000 tiny knots for this one coat.
"So it will take me approximately 23-30 hours of work just to work the holes in the coat. And nothing has been done at that point. It's just a cut piece of the pattern that just has buttonholes," he said.
In 1992 Abolt was contracted to work on three extant uniforms that saw service at the Battle of New Orleans. He had never worked blind buttonholes before, so a fellow worker priced what an English firm would charge to sew the blind buttonholes. The quote was ?750, more than what he had bid for the entire exhibit. That's when Abolt decided to teach himself how to do it.
He chalks lines on the pattern piece and puts down buttonhole gimp, a stiff cord that's wrapped, then sews it down to serve as a foundation. That takes several hours. But first he has to iron the buttonhole gimp to get the curls out of it.
"It's very simple in its elegance, but partner, it's time-consuming," Abolt said.
He put in 30 hours on the buttonholes, eight hours to do the drafting and cutting, 36-40 hours on all the hand work required for assembly -- almost two full weeks.
"It's a lot of work, and that's why they're expensive," he said.
Sitting hunched over for long hours has given the 5-foot, 3-inch Abolt a "tailor's hump," and he has what he calls "trombone vision" -- "if I hold something far enough away from me, I can actually read it." He uses bifocals to thread a needle. But his hands still work.
Abolt predicted many readers will say, "My God, what a tedious way to make a living. But this is my passion. I'm just enthralled by this. And to look at the artistry, from the work of somebody else's hands, and all that.
"And then the old saying: If you love what you do, it's not work. And I can work seven days a week, continuously, and still be invigorated. Yes, I'm tired, but you're working towards that creative completion. And it's a rush "I can't ever see me not doing this I'm not retiring at age 65. I'll be probably sewing a garment to deliver to a museum while they're trying to screw the lid of the coffin on me."