Profile Series: Deb Salisbury

We’re pleased to present the second author Five Rivers published, Deb Salisbury, editor of Elephant’s Breath & London Smoke: Historical Colour Names, Definitions & Uses.

Q: As a little girl, you used to make dresses for your sister’s dolls, which led to an adult love of historic fashion and the recreating of it, so that in 1994 you established Mantua-Maker Historical Sewing Patterns. Was that journey a conscious one, or something that simply evolved over time?

DEB: My costuming career evolved over a few years. In the 1980’s a boyfriend took me to BayCon, a Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, where I fell in love with the costumes and decided to make my own. A couple of years later I discovered CostumeCon and historical costuming. I was hooked. I love the research involved with historical clothing, and I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned.

Q: So how does one go about establishing oneself as an historical pattern maker? How do you develop those patterns? And how do you then bring them to market?

DEB: After I had completed my first five patterns, I contacted a historical pattern retailer, AlterYears, and Janet Wilson-Anderson agreed to carry my patterns. As the reviews came in, more retailers asked to carry the patterns.

To develop a pattern, first I research the garment I want to recreate. Originally I relied solely on books like Janet Arnold’s wonderful series, Patterns of Fashion, and the Dover reprints of historical catalogues. I slowly gathered a collection of Victorian fashion magazines and garments. Now I also pour through original sources scanned into Google Books and through costume collections that museums offer online.

After the research stage, I draft up the garment in my size and test it. And retest it until it is as perfect as I can make it, at which point I grade it up and down – and start begging for testers. Meanwhile, I write sewing instructions, incorporating as much historical data and construction detail as possible.

After testing, and after any problems are corrected, I put the new pattern on my website and offer it to my wholesale customers.

Q: The research involved in such an endeavour must be monumental, which, I believe, led to you becoming a collector of Victorian and Edwardian garments. How extensive is that collection, and how on earth do you go about storing and caring for antique textiles?

DEB: I am a fairly small-scale collector – I own about thirty garments. Most of my collection consists of damaged clothing, for two reasons: 1) I can’t afford pristine garments, and more importantly, 2) a damaged garment allows me to examine between the layers to see more construction details. I have a large dresser and a closet dedicated to storing historical garments. In the drawers, the garments are wrapped and stuffed with acid-free tissue and laid out flat. In the closet, each garment is hung on a padded coat hanger and covered with an unbleached cotton muslin bag. Some of these garments are on loan from another collector who didn’t have space to store them.

Q: Where do you look for antique textiles?

DEB: When I have spare cash, I haunt the older, messier antique shops – the fancy shops never have anything I can afford, but the beautiful garments are fun to examine from a distance. Occasionally I’ll find something at a vintage clothing fair, a damaged garment that the owner hates to throw away, but hasn’t been able to sell.

Q: Do you often have an opportunity to examine extant garments outside your collection?

DEB: Not as often as I’d like. When I travel, I watch for small, local museums. They often have a few dresses they will let me examine. Universities also have collections available for examination, by appointment. They have been very generous with their time.

Q: It is a well-known fact you’re a great fan of CostumeCon, and have often walked away with prizes for some of your elaborate concoctions. How much time and research do you put into those entries?

DEB: I usually start planning the day after CostumeCon. It can take a whole year to complete a costume because I research and build it from the skin out. Unfortunately, the economy has put a crimp on my travel, including CostumeCon.

Q: And, of course, you put together a remarkable and important dictionary of historical colour names and terminologies, Elephant’s Breath & London Smoke. Such a work must have been years in the making. Tell us about that journey.

DEB: Elephant’s Breath & London Smoke started as part of a glossary for a Victorian Fancy Dress book. That work went on hold – it has more illustrations than is technically feasible – but Lorina encouraged me to finish the glossary. As that grew to monstrous size, I broke out the colors and finished that section first. I was amazed at how fashions in color changed over the years, and had a great deal of fun in documenting those changes.

Q: It would seem the publishing flu has infected you and that you recently had published a short story, Amber Profits, in the SF&F e-zine, Aurora Wolf, and are now working on a fifth novel, Rose Blue. Why switch gears from costuming to author?

DEB: I’ve been writing fiction off and on since I was twelve. When Five Rivers published Elephant’s Breath & London Smoke, my mom thought they’d published my fiction and was disappointed. To make her happy, I reread my first novel and decided it was worth revising. Three and a half novels later, I’m still learning the craft.

Q: And for the future – where do you see Deb Salisbury going in the next decade?

DEB: I plan to continue working on my fiction and patterns, but right now I’m writing a glossary of Regency and Romantic fashion terms. I plan to eventually cover the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and if I can find enough sources, Georgian fashions. In the background I’m working on Samite and Satin, but I expect it will take a few years to produce a work on the fabrics in English-speaking history. It’s rather a large subject, and fashionable names changed frequently, even five hundred years ago.

Deb Salisbury can be found at:

Elephant’s Breath & London Smoke: Historical Colour Names, Definitions & Uses
Author: Deb Salisbury
ISBN: 9780973927825
Publisher: Five Rivers Chapmanry
Trade paperback 7″ x 10″, 300 pages
$40.95 CDN
Available directly from the publisher, and online retailers internationally in both print and eBook format.