- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Neal Redmond is a high-tech man in a low-tech profession. A producer of Revolutionary War uniforms, the Maryland man uses a sewing machine to do some of his work. Two hundred years ago and more, garments had to be hand sewn since the first U.S. sewing machine wasn’t patented until 1846.

Mr. Redmond, who doesn’t claim to make museum reproductions, is a mean man with a needle, but finds the machine works best for reinforcing interior seams. He measures, cuts and assembles the thick wool coats for hobbyists called re-enactors who dramatize the customs and scenes of that epic late-18th-century conflict.

One such hobbyist group is the 1st Virginia Regiment, under the command of Carl Gnam of Herndon. The regiment will demonstrate the American side of a mock battle at noon Sunday at Mount Vernon, wearing some of the uniforms — blue coats faced with red — that Mr. Redmond has made for them.

Mr. Redmond’s 14-year-old business, run out of a modern home made of 200-year-old logs on the outskirts of Hancock, Md., is called Druids Oak in homage to his Celtic heritage. Plying his craft in the late-18th-century world, he would be known professionally as a sutler — the Dutch word for the tradesmen and salesmen who followed behind armies to supply soldiers with their needs.

In the 21st-century world, Mr. Redmond and his wife, Margie, an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve, frequently travel to re-enactments to set up business in a tent, where they live while selling standard stock pieces of clothing and taking orders for outer garments such as coats, vests and trousers.

His company produces about 35 custom-made uniforms a year, a relatively small number until one realizes that the stitching on the coats’ edges and pockets is an art form in itself.

“The pick stitch pulls the fabric down onto itself, and when the light hits, it forms a dimple effect,” he says, describing the quality of work so precise that it very nearly resembles work done on a machine.

It’s hardly a simple matter to faithfully reproduce soldiers’ garments, since only two coats worn by soldiers in the Continental Army are known to exist, and only a handful of British, Loyalist and French military coats can be found in private collections or museums. Tracing patterns of the period and understanding the nature of fabrics and their manufacture involves scholarly research and an all-consuming interest in history.

“If you go to a modern sutler, they sell a lot of items that are close but not entirely accurate all the time,” says Bruce Stocking, branch chief of interpretation and visitors service at Valley Forge National Historical Park, who distinguishes between costumes and replicas as well as between historians and what he calls the “powder burners.”

Making historically accurate uniforms is a matter of finding the proper weave, weight and type of material since cut and color often were based on a realistic assessment of what a soldier faced in battle.

“They weren’t looking at camouflage,” Mr. Redmond says. “They look for brightness.”

In terms of design, for instance, full-seated wool breeches, or trousers, were held up by an attached cord tightened over the top part of the hips, according to retired World Bank employee Marko Zlatich of the District’s Northwest. Mr. Zlatich briefly was a re-enactor who went on to author a two-volume set of books on uniforms called “General Washington’s Army,” covering 1775 to 1783.

Heavy wool was preferred by rebel armies, says Mr. Zlatich, because “it was tighter and lasted longer and could hold in body heat.” Buttons and lapels largely were ornamental, but the open coat front could be closed at least partially with hooks and eyes for extra warmth.

James Kochan of Harper’s Ferry, a former curator and director of museum collections at Mount Vernon, is a historian and author as well as a creator of uniforms and hats for museum exhibits and historical artists’ models.

As consultant for Peter Weir’s film, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” he prepared patterns and made prototype garments for studio costumers. He follows period tailors’ drafting systems and techniques and imports wool from England whose manufacture copies as carefully as possible original 18th-century methods.

Tailor and restorer Henry Cooke of Randolph, Mass., another practitioner of what he calls “experimental archaeology,” says the best wool — selling for $60 or more a yard — comes from mills in Manchester, England. It is “made from the same breed of sheep as those known 200 years ago, spun and loomed on machinery 160 years old, and given the same finish that was done 200 years ago.”

Made to specification, the wool has what Mr. Cooke describes as a coarse, cardboard-like texture and a nap finish. The latter is achieved by raising up and then combing down the fibers in the cloth — sometimes with thistles — and then shearing them. The result is a “felted finish to provide protection to the woven yarns — the web,” he says. Reproducers need great technical understanding of dye and knowledge of how the cloth was draped, he adds.

“A raised nap interlocks fiber,” confirms Mr. Kochan, noting that an 18th-century coat is very tight under the arms for good reason.

“The coat was cut with a narrower back — narrow shoulders and wider hips — than you would find today,” he says. “It pulls the shoulder blades back and down and thrusts the chest out, which is a nice military posture.”

Mr. Redmond hesitates to call himself an expert, but he is well-acquainted with the myriad details about styles of the period in which he specializes — 1756 to the end of the Revolutionary War. Standing by his worktable, he picks up a roll of narrow, multicolored wool tape that when cut and squared around a buttonhole was known as regimental lace, worn mainly by British officers. “Benedict Arnold was the only [Colonial] officer to use lace,” he notes.

The lace eliminated the need to hand stitch a buttonhole.

Colors were key, Mr. Redmond says. “British uniforms had different colors for collar and cuffs depending on the regiment, and regimental lace had different stripes so a field commander could look down the battle line and send down a rider to connect with his men,” he says.

George Washington wanted his uniforms to look European with only slight differences, Mr. Redmond says.

“The first sense of uniform that we had was a cross between a sleeved waistcoat — known today as a vest or weskit — and jacket that aren’t pretty but which had a uniform look. And we have a uniquely American garment called a hunting frock that is a fringed jacket and cape dyed in different colors so you could identify various regiments on the field.”

The hunting frocks issued to soldiers often were made of linen, he adds. In place of underwear, shirts were long and made of linen. With them, soldiers wore leggings made of deer skin or wool.

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