Exit Interview: The Tailor Who Handmakes Fort Ticonderoga's 18th Century Clothes Each Year - Atlas Obscura
Join us on an Atlas Obscura Trip in 2019 »

Exit Interview: The Tailor Who Handmakes Fort Ticonderoga’s 18th Century Clothes Each Year

Fort Ticonderoga's "artificer tailor" in clothes he sewed himself.
Fort Ticonderoga’s “artificer tailor” in clothes he sewed himself. Gibb Zea

You wouldn’t imagine a military installation from the 1700s to need a tailor, either then or now, but it does. Gibb Zea is Fort Ticonderoga’s artificer tailor, “artificer” being an 18th century term for a skilled soldier who had a trade prior to joining the army, like carpentry, tailoring, or shoemaking. In its time, Fort Ticonderoga was a critical juncture during both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, Now, it’s a non-profit that hosts museum exhibitions, daily programs, and reenactments. The staff at Fort Ticonderoga make a great effort to get all the details just right—and clothing often provides the first impression to visitors.

Zea, who is 26 and originally from Norwich, Vermont, sews all the reenactors’ outfits by hand, using historical research to make each one as accurate to the given time period as possible. While manning the recreated military tailor shop, he also talks to visitors and explains to them what he’s working on.

How did you first become interested in clothes-making and reenactment?

My dad brought me to a reenactment when I was about five years old and from there I always wanted to do it, though I didn’t get a chance to until I was about 10 years old. A friend of mine who had been reenacting for a little while brought me to one of these reenactments, and basically from there, I just got more and more obsessed with reenacting the American Revolution and reading about it, and researching, and that sort of led to a different part of my hobby, which isn’t necessarily going to reenactments, but it’s making the clothing, or the accoutrements, or even the food.

From the age of 16 or 17, I became more interested in the actual material culture, which is the everyday items they would have had in the 18th century, whether that be clothing or, you know, flint and steel, tinderboxes, all the everyday stuff that we’ve replaced with lighters, so on so forth.

And so from there I began spending more of my time when I wasn’t going to these reenactments making my own clothes. Which was also cheaper—when you are in high school and don’t have any money anyway.

So with that in mind, I got better and better, and made more and more, and made some really good connections. Fort Ticonderoga had a sort of shift in command, and a friend of mine who’s my boss asked me and some of my friends if we wanted a summer job, and when college ended, it became a full-time job and because I had the most sewing experience out of our crew, I was asked to basically make the clothing for our staff. And I’ve been doing this for two years. This’ll be my third winter here.

The recreated military tailor’s shop. (Photo: Gibb Zea)

Do you remember the first thing you made?

Yeah, it was a really shitty blue coat with white lapels, cuffs and collar—an American regimental coat that was atrocious. I think I still have it somewhere.

How did you go about making it?

I found some patterns that my mom had used to attempt to make me one when I was a little kid. I then found blue wool cloth in my dad’s closet that I think he was saving for something, so I stole that, and took the pattern, and sort of tried to figure it out over the course of probably four or five months. They’re not too difficult to put together—if you look at pictures of them it’s kind of self-explanatory—and then when you actually get into the nitty-gritty details it usually becomes a little more complicated, but usually modern patterns are much harder for me than putting these ones together.

When you first started making clothes, were you basically teaching yourself?

It was all self-taught for the first couple years until I started going to college. Then in college I became part of the costuming department staff, and specifically, the guys who would make all the clothing, not only for the coordinated dance works but all the plays, which taught me a lot about the difference between costumes and real clothing. But then at the end of each year I would go to Colonial Williamsburg and hang out with their tailors, for anywhere between a week and a month and a half. So that’s when I started to really learn the technical parts and the order of construction. And then when I started working here, my boss probably taught me the most of what I know now. Tailoring, which is the hard part, is how you make patterns that fit people well, and then, you know, the appropriate stitches and then the construction.

How do you go about it now?

We have patterns based off a variety of things, originals in our collection, or on the shape of a man’s torso or legs, which you can not only fit to an individual, but also alter to make a simple waistcoat into one that’s more elaborate or one that is lapeled, or one that is a style that’s 20 years older.

And so, with this variety of patterns, we basically do the same sort of thing. We typically cut out uniforms in batches of three and sew them together using an assembly line. When you build, say, three garments simultaneously, you can focus on say, just buttonholes, and go much much faster and consequently you can build more. Most of the sewing is by hand. We use the sewing machines for the seams, in some cases, but most of it’s by hand. It feels like typing, really. It’s muscle memory; when you do more of it, it gets faster.

Every button, carefully researched and stitched to the last detail. (Photo: Gibb Zea)

Do you make all of the outfits for Fort Ticonderoga?

I’m part of a system that gets most of this done. A coworker does most of the patterning; she went to school for that. She does some of the seam construction and then gives it to me, and then I do the rest of it by hand. We have three volunteers or so that come in and help out with stuff because, say, a soldier’s coat takes 25 hours, there’s only 40 hours in a week, and there’s only a winter’s worth of time to get everything done, so our volunteers help out to get a lot of the simple stuff done. And then my boss, Stuart Lily, comes in frequently to help out as well.

What are you generally working on?

This summer, we are recreating 1777. We do a different year every year, so we can be really specific with our research and talking about the distinct group of guys. Which is great job security for me, ‘cause that means every year we need a new uniform. That’s the reason why I have a job every year—because of that system, in essence.

So 1777, the Americans, they have captured the fort from the British, but then by July 5th, the British retake it. So, from basically, May 8th and 9th, to July 5th we’ll be recreating American troops that are here. And then post-July 5th to closing, we’ll be doing British troops. So most of the American stuff is sort of quasi-done, because we’ve done similar events in the past, so there’s some of the clothing. My main project is making, basically, 11 musician’s coats for the 2nd drum corps that we have here, who are high schoolers who as a summer job recreate the music of an 18th century army. And those uniforms are really elaborate, so that’s 11 coats. We have all sorts of trimming and lace, so and on and so forth, and then waistcoats, and then breeches, basically.

How do you make the outfits accurate?

British military music is a hard topic to nail down because it’s not really recorded. So we looked at three main examples, one of which was an original musician’s coat from about 30 years later. So some of the construction techniques are the same, such as the positioning of the lace. There’s a lot of details that while it’s a later coat it still pertains to what we’re talking about. And then there were two images we used from some regiment that was serving in Gibraltar at the time—to get the details about where the pockets should be, you know, how the lapel should be constructed, so on so forth. So in that case it was an original garment, and then two other images of musicians. And then also there were a couple documents that were basically inventories, purchase lists for the lace for musicians—so we could get an idea of how much lace on these coats was wide as opposed to narrow, and then the cotton of it too, an important thing to consider.

We’re the best in the nation, by far. No one portrays a group of soldiers every year in a way that we do. Not to toot our own horn, so to speak, but I can’t think of anyone who comes close to nailing it like we do.

Busy tailoring when visitors aren’t around—hence the open laptop. (Photo: Gibb Zea)

What are the differences between different military outfits of these eras?

We have three main groups that we’ve done at this point—American troops, British troops, and then French soldiers from the French and Indian War. The uniforms from the French and Indian War are drastically different from American and British ones. The French are really old-fashioned when it comes to their uniforms in the 1750s. They look like their grandfathers did in the 1720s. They were really out of date.

How were they out of date?

It’s a tricky question, because when you say “out of date,” you’re looking back to 200 some-odd years, whereas at the time, you didn’t know where fashion was going to go, so you can’t really say out of date. But if you look at how military uniforms progressed, you can see the French were really old-fashioned. So for example, their coats have buttons that go up the front that join the garment together, whereas British and then American uniforms have lapels that button over, which by the American Revolution, that’s pretty much how all uniforms were being made. Then there’s little details—like in continental Europe, the sleeve linings were always wool, whereas English and American ones are always linen. Linen is a hell of a lot better cause there isn’t as much friction, and you can actually get your arm into your coat. Otherwise it’s a huge pain in the ass.

Everything’s different from the French, 1750s, to the Americans and the British later on—it’s almost incomparable except for the stitching that puts them together. They’ve got very elaborate uniforms. A French soldier’s uniform has over six yards of cloth in it, whereas an American soldier’s uniform has, like, a yard and three-quarters. It’s drastically different; it’s a reflection of time and what cloth was available.

What kinds of changes do you see over time?

Typically they get shorter, so they’re not as encumbering, but in many cases, aspects of the uniforms become fake to not only produce more uniforms, but also because it’s cheaper that way. For example, lapels on the soldier’s coat in the Revolution—all the original ones that we know survived or we have pictures of—the lapels don’t work; they’re simply stitched to the body of the coat and the buttons go through it. But in this way you can make them much, much faster. And they’re typically a little bit shorter, not only to save cloth but also it becomes fashionable.

You know how pants get baggy and then skinny, then back-and-forth back-and-forth back-and-forth? Same sort of thing. By the Civil War, you find that uniforms are long again. But in the Revolution and the Napoleonic War, they’re very short, ‘cause that’s what’s the fashion at the time.

A group of reenactors. That’s a lot of outfits to sew. (Photo: Gibb Zea)

So did style and fashion influence these changes more than practicality?

Yes, interestingly enough. It’s all about fashion. It’s kind of a different time. When the army follows civilian fashion, as it does in the 18th century, you find that fashion replicated in the uniform. So that’s why they’ll wear, you know, the tri-cornered hats, which wasn’t very practical, but that’s the fashion. Whereas, today, we are much more about practicality when it comes to our army, because of how much warfare has progressed. So now you find that the civilian population follows army fashion. So that’s why you see people wearing cargo pants—a t-shirt actually comes from the Navy and was used by the Army in World War Two. Leather jackets—those were originally flight jackets.

What do students think when they visit the tailor shop?

A lot of the time, the kids who are the most interested are the ones who have the pre-arranged concept of history. A lot of the time it’s the younger girls who are more interested in sewing, but every now and then you’ll get this 12 year-old kid who’s just super excited about the American Revolution and hangs out in the tailor shop for three or so hours, just sort of watching you sew and just absorbing it, and that’s really rewarding. Inevitably, 60 year-old women who like quilting are most drawn to making clothes, which is always interesting.

You know, you don’t really see people doing stuff with their hands all that often, especially up close and personal. So I think a lot of the time you can really latch onto someone’s interest, especially if they’re really young and haven’t really seen it yet—who’ve encountered it so personally.

Is the reenactment clothing comfortable?

I wear them enough to definitely be extremely comfortable in them, but as soon as I get home—no, I don’t want to wear waistcoats. Mostly because it’s just really sweaty by the end of the day. While most of it’s wool and it’s tough to wear wool when it’s 90 degrees, you always have a layer of linen, and in this way, its relatively comfortable. The body also acclimatizes to wearing wool all day, that’s for sure. I like to hope that I make comfortable clothes.

I’ve got some friends who’ve converted and they don’t wear modern clothes anymore. They’ve gone off the deep end, so to speak; I try to avoid such scenarios. My friend Adam, he goes through airport security in 18th century clothes. Adam’s a very distinct example, but it’s an immersive job, for sure.

Life at Fort Ticonderoga: soup from 1755, and endless buttons. (Photo: Gibb Zea)

What’s the hardest part about being an artificer tailor?

Probably doing the same thing, every day all day for large projects. Last year we had to make gaiters for everyone who worked on staff, just like a modern hiking gaiter, so it’s around your shoe, but these go all the way up over your knee. And consequently, one pair had 50 buttonholes, which when you have to do 50 buttonholes per pair, and then do twenty-plus of them, I don’t know how many, we lost track. That was all of December and January for me and a couple others. So that was pretty monotonous—but at that point you really just zone out, and let muscle memory guide your hands.

I don’t want to spend the rest of my life here, because living in upstate New York can be kind of dreary at times. But this is a dream job for me. It’s what I have been interested in since I was five and what I’ve been sort of striving to do since I was 17, and what I studied in college. You look at so many other people who studied history, or you know, something extremely interesting to them. And as soon as they got out of school there was no job as specific to their interests as what I have here. So I count myself very lucky. I’m trying to spend as much time here as I can.