Monday, 22 December 2014

Modern History

The current Historical Sew Fortnightly challenge is Modern History, defined as
Make something historical or historically inspired that is wearable in an everyday context.

It’s safe to say that my entry for this one also takes in a previous challenge which I didn’t enter, Alternative Universe, as it is rooted firmly in whimsy. And to make it a hat-trick of Historical Sew Fortnightly references, the inspiration came from my research for the Black and White challenge.

For that challenge I made a 1940s dress, and in the process researched the CC41 regulations, which controlled manufacturing of civilian goods in Britain during World War II. CC41 or “Utility” items were identified by this logo.

The CC41 logo, designed by Reginald Shipp

The logo itself was adapted to be used on buttons on this suit.

1942 Digby Morton suit (detail) © Victorian and Albert Museum, London

From this image I got the slightly mad (OK, entirely mad) idea of making a pair of earrings using the same adaptation.

The earrings were made from ‘silver clay’; a modelling compound which consists of powdered silver, water, and a binding agent. The clay can be used like any other modelling material, and is then fired to burn off the other ingredients and create a piece of pure silver. I bought a silver clay ‘starter kit’ ages ago, but never got round to doing anything with it. Fortunately although the clay dries out over time, it can be revived with the addition of a little more water.

First of all, I needed a template for my earrings. Although the logo and the button both look as though they are based on three-quarters of a circle, the solid part of the logo is actually slightly more than three-quarters, and the solid part of the button is slightly less - which gives more space to fit in the “41”.

My design sketches based on the original images

I drew out the logo, and then resized it to the size I needed, bearing in mind that the silver clay shrinks by up to 10% when it is fired. Then I cut a stencil for the shaded part of the logo.

The clay was rolled out to 1mm thick and two circles cut out. I used the stencil to mark the section to be cut away, then very carefully cut out slivers of the clay, and tried to smooth out the bottom of the cut-away section. Then I left the pieces to dry. This is an important part of the process; if the clay is fired while it is still damp, the piece will shatter.

The dried pieces -  the one on the left got slightly distorted

The clay itself doesn’t look silver; it is a very pale grey, and goes slightly lighter as it dries. The dried pieces can be sanded to remove any rough edges, and to smooth the surface a bit before firing.

Firing can be done in a kiln, with a blowtorch, or on a gas hob (which was the method I used). A metal mesh sheet is placed on the gas ring and heated to identify the hottest spots, then the item to be fired is placed in the hot spot, and fired for abut five minutes. It’s not a particularly exciting picture, but there was so much heat being given off that I didn’t want to lean right over the ring!

Firing the earrings

The end result didn’t look much different from the dried pieces, but when I dropped them into cold water to quench them there was a satisfyingly metallic clink as they knocked together. When I laid one of them on my original design, it was apparent how much they had shrunk.

Fired, whiter and smaller

The next step was to brush the pieces with a stainless steel brush. This is the stage where the white coating comes off and finally you get something which begins to look like silver. It was also the stage where I discovered a problem with my design, as it was really tricky to clean the cut-away parts. Polishing with flexible sponge polishing pads of different grades brought a real shine to the silver.

Blurred shot (sorry) of one brushed and one polished earring

The final stage of the process was the smelliest, but necessary to get the contrast in the logo. A substance called liver of sulphur is used to oxidise the silver. Mixed with water, it smells like rotten eggs. Each earring was held in the liquid with tweezers until it went black, then it was rinsed in cold water to stop the oxidisation, and polished. This brought the main part of the earring back to silver, and left the cut-away section dark. Finally, I glued on some earring posts.

The finished earrings, and the stencil

Because I'd forgotten to take any photos with a measuring tape

The small print:
The Challenge: Modern History
Fabric: Silver metal clay
Pattern: Digby Morton button based on the CC41 logo
Year: 1942
Notions: Earring posts, glue
How historically accurate is it? Let’s face it, not remotely. There would be absolutely no reason for anyone to waste precious resources making a pair of silver earrings in wartime. The only accurate thing is the logo, so say 5%. They were immense fun to do, though!
Hours to complete: Including drafting the pattern about three, plus drying time
First worn: Not yet
Total cost: I’ve had the kit for so long that I can’t remember the price. The earring posts were 60 pence.

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