A stitch in time

November 12, 2021


While most college students wouldn’t want to live without Wi-Fi or electricity, junior Sarah Pixley does it every chance she gets.

“It’s therapeutic and fascinating to see the 18th-century woman as she was — an inventor, an innovator, a problem-solver,” said Pixley, who’s studying English, visual and media arts, and archaeology. She spent her summer stepping back in time. 

Pixley interned this past summer at Pottsgrove Manor, an 18th century historic house and museum in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Pixley designed and made a dress that one of the children who lived there, Martha Potts, would have worn in that time period. Pixley pursued this project because the family records from June of 1752 included the purchase of a dress pattern and chintz fabric for Martha.

“For a historian, this level of specificity is relatively uncommon,” she said. “It presented me with a unique opportunity to explore avenues of Martha's life and development through the clothes that she wore.”

Pixley worked tirelessly throughout the summer hand sewing the gown and hand embroidering the bodice. It is now on display at the museum. She says the project taught her the value of public history as a career field.

“It wasn't until that I had a needle in my hand, and was hunched over a table for 8 hours a day did I begin to recognize the time, patience, and labor that went into ordinary life,” she said. “I began to appreciate the ingenuity and humanity of the past.”

Pixley’s interdisciplinary education at the University of Richmond made the internship possible, she said. She’s taken Introduction to Costume, and a first-year seminar on microhistory, which she used regularly in this process.

“This project was heavily researched-based, and without a strong foundation for how to research, I wouldn't have been able to do it,” she said. “I was able to understand the complex network of trade, international relations, gender roles, social expectations and class that make up the social framework around the woman who wore a gown such as this.”