Dating, buying and restoring


A few years ago, I thought that shoes - being hidden under skirts- were hard to research, but I have found that despite their potential visibility, parasols are even more difficult. I have yet to find a trustworthy source on the subject. Moreover, historically correct parasols for re-enactment purposes are much harder to find than historically correct shoes. Of course you can find parasols in antique shops, but you'd have to be lucky to find an affordable one. Mind you, I'm writing all this from a Continental European perspective, so if you live in the UK ir the US, it may be easier for you. But what to do if you find an original with an undamaged cover? Should you use it, thus exposing it to further degradation? That is a question that every re-enactor has to answer for themselves. The alternative of using a modern look-alike parasol has its drawbacks as well: The modern varieties often are cheap plastic stuff with likewise cheap and usually superfluous plastic lace. Depending on which era you're going for, restoring an original parasol may be the best option.


If you go way back in history, you find Egyptian canopies that may well be regarded as the early ancestors of the parasol. But actually one thinks of something foldable, like modern umbrellas. Foldable parasols did exist at least from the 17th century on; in fact someone invented an early predecessor of the pocket parasol/umbrealla late in that century, as proven by contemporary newspaper ads. For some reason, they were forgotten for 250 years. Originally, the spokes consisted of wood, from the 18th century on of whalebone, and from about the mid-19th century of metal. The length of the handle and shaft, the number of spokes and the diameter varied, depending on fashion. For instance, fashion plates of the early 1800s show parasols the size and shape of a handkerchief with only four spokes and a shaft about 80 cm long. Until around 1800, green seems to have been the main colour for the cover, maybe because green is the complementary colour to red, so that a pinkish or reddish face appeared fashionably pale in its shade. The same is thought of calashs, which also tended to be green.

The mid 19th century saw parasols whose shafts could be folded in half. That variety tended to be small (40-50 cm in diameter and 50-60 cm long) and covered in silk with a fringe or ruffle. Towards the end of the 19th century, shafts grew longer and decoration simpler. The maximum shaft length of up to 115 cm was reached around 1910-1915, when they went up to breast level of an average-height lady of the time. Diameters also grew in proportion. Until well into the 20th centry, bent handles as we know them from umbrellas were not used for parasols: Straight handles were predominant and more or less made up the distinction between parasol and umbrella, along with the cover, which tended to be black and undecorated for umbrellas, and the length/diameter ratio, which was about 1/1 for parasols and closer to 1/2 for umbrellas.

A propos umbrellas: I was told (or read, I don't remember) once that the first one was used in London in the 1790s and created quite a stir. Well, it may have been the first to be used in London or the first to be used by a man, but it was not the first umbrella ever, as the aforementioned ad for foldable parasols and umbrellas proves.

Dating and shopping

It is quite difficult to date parasols because a) there aren't that many extant ones, b) there is hardly any literature on the subject and c) there were lots of vartiations. As a rule of thumb, spokes made of whalebone point to an early, pre-1850s period, i.e. a rare specimen. A very long shaft, combined with a very small diameter and whalebone spokes points to the early 19th century. An overall small parasol with whalebone spokes would be mid-19th century or slightly earlier. Long fringes, a foldable shaft or a pagoda shape are also typical for the mid-19th century. Metal spokes come in around 1850. Originally, they had a round cross-section. If the shaft is up to 90 cm long, the spokes made of metal and with a U-shaped cross-section, I would date it to the late 19th century; if the shaft is longer, it would probably be of the early 20th century, up to 1920. The latter varieties - with metal spokes - can still be found on flea markets.

When shopping for parasols, the most important thing is the condition of the spokes: They must be straight, free of corrosion except for some superficial rust, the joints must be functional, all of the tips present and the stoppers along the shaft present and functional. The fabric is of minor concern as it can be replaced as long as at least one triangle survives intact. Parasols with damaged covers can be relatively cheap, while those with undamaged covers tend to be on the expensive side, especially if the cover sports ruffles, fringes or lace. Handles made of ivory, ebony or silver may also raise the price. If the dealer tries to prevent you from opening the parasol, assume that it is so damaged that it will be hard to restore, i.e. buy at the price of a parasol that has not a single undamaged panel left. I'm afraid I can't give you any hints on what price would be reasonable for each type and condition of parasol since that tends to vary from country to country.


Ever since I found signs of early habitation in one parasol and living inhabitants under the metal cap of another, I have been of the opinion that one should remove the original cover as soon as possible and store the parasol outside the living quarters until then.

If the structure as such is in good condition and at least one segment of the cover left whole, restorig the parasol is quite simple: The fabric is the part that is most easily replaceable if you can sew. If the spokes are damaged (bent, broken, joints damaged), restoring them is best left to specialists. But beware: Very few people nowadays really know how to repair umbrellas, let alone antique parasols. A friend of mine has had a pagoda parasol (a very rare kind) repaired by an alleged specialist and ended up with a normal, non-pagoda one. So if you have managed to snag a rare vartiety such as a pagoda, a foldable shaft or whalebone spokes, make sure that the specialist you're entrusting it to really knows their business, not just modern umbrellas. If in doubt, approach the nearest fashion museum for advice. My credo is: Try to do it yourself. If you mess the cover up, you can always try again and again until you get it right. It's cheaper.

To make a new cover, start with a test: Open the parasol and check how much tension there is. Do you feel a lot of resistance when opening the parasol? Do rips in the fabric threaten to grow longer? If the cover is already damaged, the tension will of course be less because the rips will readily give. Be very careful if the fabric is brittle: If the last undamaged segment shows any sign of ripping, call off the experiment at once. Without at least one undamaged segment, restoration will be very difficult indeed.

Anyway, if at least one panel survives the experiment, all is well. Try to remember the level of tension: When the new cover is applied, the tension must not be greater than what you have originally felt; the spokes may break otherwise.

The tip of the cover is often hidden under a metal clamp which is attached to the shaft by means of a small nail. Try to carefully pull out the nail so that you can later re-use the clamp to cover the tip of the newly sewn cover. Carefully pull off the cover, cutting any threads that attach it to the structure. Remember where the cover was attached to what. It's a good idea to take pictures and/or make notes. If you're dealing with a pagoda, that's almost imperative... and if you've managed to restore a pagoda, I'd be very interested in having those pictures and notes. Maybe you'd be interested in publishing a guest article here? *hint, hint* Select the best-preserved panel and detach it from the others by either opening the seams (preferable) or cutting very closely along the seams. Place the preserved panel flat on a piece of paper and take the pattern as exactly as possible. If the parasol has an inner lining (i.e. a second cover attached from the inside, hiding the spokes), threat it the same as the outer cover.

Taking the pattern is not as easy as it seems: Decades of use may have distorted the panel. You, however, should recreate the panel as it originally was. The base line of each triangle is usually bent, which may either be due to decades of tension or to having been cut into a bent shape. If you look closely at the base line, does the grain run parallel to it? If yes, the shape is due to tension. In any case it is up to you whether you cut triangles with a straight or bent base line. But remeber that the spokes may not be up to the tension created by triangular panels, even if they apparently once were: The metal is something like 80-120 years older now than it was when the cover was first applied. So, if there was a lot of tension during the original test, bent base lines may be advisable.

When you have taken the pattern off the surviving panel, you can cut as many panels as needed. Give only a small seam allowance along the side lines or cut if off later. Now the results of the original tension test come into play: If it is necessary to take stress off the spokes, add a bit at the sides - more at the bottom, less at the top. A few millimetres each should do the trick. In case you have added too much, you can always cut that off later.

Since both sides of the fabric are visible, the seams must be neatened, unless the parasol has a lining. The best (both modern and historically correct) method is to use French seams with a very narrow allowance (2-3 mm). If the parasol is meant for a post-1850s portrayal, both seams may be machined. For an earlier period, at least the second, outer seam must be done by hand. This requires some skill in making small, regular and above all strong backstitches as it is this outer seam that takes all the stress. The seams should be very straight and exact as minor inexactitude will multiply with the number of seams to create major inexactitude, thus resulting in either too high or too low tension or warped fabric. Before neatening the base lines, try on the cover. When attaching the ends of the seams to the tips of the spokes, pull on them just enough to make the seams lie straight, but don't put any stress on them. If you try to open the parasol now, does the structure groan threateningly if you try to open the parasol? (Never mind if the fabric groans: It probably will, but since it's new, it'll have to survive that.) If yes, the base lines of the panels are probably too short. First, re-attach the ends of the seams a bit (just a few millimetres) further down their length. If that doesn't help, let out the allowance if possible, and/or cut the base lines into curves. If that doesn't help or has already been done, I'm afraid that you'll have to cut new panels. If all is well, neaten the base line with a narrow, double-turned or rolled hem. Attach the cover to each spoke tip and replace the clamp that covers the top. Sometimes the top looks somewhat sloppy - in that case, cut out a circle of fabric with pinking shears and place it over the top before applying the clamp. If the clamp has been lost, cut a rectangle about 7cm high and 10 cm long and fold the long sides inwards by 1.5-2 cm. Gather the strip about 1 cm inward of each long side and once or twice within, at regular intervals. Place the strip around the tip of the shaft, shorten it if necessary, and affix it there. Attach the cover to the spokes near the joints.


The Japanese Alternative

If your goal is not to have a restored orignal, but a good substitute for reenactment, the "Japanese Alternative" may help. Unfortunately it probably requires either a trip to Japan (maybe also other places in East Asia) or a friend who lives there.

In Japan, many ladies (especially elderly ones) still use parasols at the height of summer. I am not referring to the traditional Asian bamboo parasols, mind you, but objects made like modern umbrellas. Some of them look a lot like the parasols we know from 19th century paintings, except for modern mechasnisms and fabrics and the curved handle commonly associated with umbrellas. At least it is possible to find some with cotton covers, wooden shafts and spoke tips, quite unlike the all-plastic rubbish with Battenberg lace sometimes sold as "historical" parasols. If you don't mind that there is machine embroidery on the cotton cover, it is easy to adapt a Japanese parasol: All you need is a straight handle which you can sometimes find at flea markes, on eBay, or have it made.

Apart from being curved, the handles of Japanese parasols are also too short in relation to the length of the spokes. So when you remove the handle, see to it that you leave as much of the shaft as possible. Usually it is set into the handle, so try to remove it not by sawing through the shaft, but by sawing through the handle, then cutting open the leftover top of the handle until you can remove it. If you've ever peeled the outer layer off a carrot to reveal the core, the process will be familiar. This preserves as much as the shaft length as possible while at the same time giving you a narrow shaft end that can be inserted into the "new" handle. Now hopefully the "new" handle is thick enough round the top so that you can insert the shaft into its hole. It may be necessary to carve the lower end of the shaft thinner to do so. When it fits snugly into the handle, apply a generous amount of glue, insert the shaft, remove all superfluous glue, see that it's straight and let the glue dry out.


Wednesday, 24-Apr-2013 21:47:21 CEST



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