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Historian makes, sells historic garments on the side

LAUREN WOOD | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT Toni Avance, the historian at Jefferson Military College, has been sewing clothing for nearly 30 years. She started making historically accurate period clothing for her and husband for reenactments, and others started requesting dresses and waistcoats from her as well. Here she is hand stitching a English sacque back dress from the 1770s for herself. (Photo by Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — When Toni Avance gets some free time from her job as historian at Historic Jefferson College she slides into the chair that faces the window in her office and lets her fingers take her back in time.

“People that have an urge to create know you don’t have much say so when you do it,” Avance said. “You just have to do it when you can.”

For the past 30 years, Avance has worked to create historical garments to sell to customers for a variety of different occasions, but she says it’s really her love of recreating history that keeps her going.

“It’s incredible that you can sit at a sewing machine and a day later have something that no one else has,” Avance said. “There’s just something about making something that you can look in a history book and see on somebody that has been gone so many years.”

Avance’s love for sewing started when she was 6 years old under the tutelage of her grandmother Effi Ferguson.

“She taught (me and my sisters) to knit, crochet, quilt, sew and cook,” Avance said. “She thought every young lady should have homemaking skills.”

By the time Avance was 13 she had already made her first dress. Now she creates approximately 300 to 400 garments a year to sell for reenactments, plays, costume parties and special events like Mardi Gras, she said.

A Revolutionary War wool waistcoat and linen skirt hang next to a 1790s polonaise dress, both created by Toni Avance. Avance does the research to make sure things like seams, fastenings and buttons are all from the correct time period of the piece she is creating, she said. (Photo by Lauren Wood \ The Natchez Democrat)

Avance combines historical research with her ability to sew to attempt to make each of her garments as historically accurate as possible.

“The main thing is for (the customer) to give me a time period about what they want,” Avance said. “A lot of times they see a picture, and they are not sure if it’s correct, and I help them get what they need for that time period.

“If you want to participate in the French and Indian War, and you want a ball gown, I can tell you, ‘No you don’t’, and explain why.”

Avance said, despite her desire to have everything historically accurate, in the end, her customers’ wishes usually supersede her ideals.

“It’s really according to what each person sees themselves doing with it,” she said. “I try not to be a purist. If it’s for a specific period, and they want to put a zipper in it, I would put the zipper in, but I’m not happy about it.”

Avance’s business is a branch of Tennessee Valley Muzzleloading, a company that Avance and her husband, Matt, started in 2000.

Matt recreates historical weapons for the company, while Toni does garments. The couple started their venture approximately 30 years ago as an attempt to make some extra money doing what they enjoy.

“It started as a pastime,” Toni said. “It just blossomed from there.”

Toni said they started by going to reenactments and gun shows to sell their items right off the rack. After a few years the word spread that the Avances had quality products. Now, Toni said, the couple usually attends just one show a year.

“We have a website and printed catalog,” she said. “We use social networking a lot. Most of our business comes through word-of-mouth and return visits.”

Avance said a lot of her business comes from customers that have a design in mind and want her to create the garment.

She said she estimates that it takes her approximately a week to do a simple garment, like a shirt, and two weeks to finish a dress.

“I let myself take an order per day,” she said. “I try not to get too many, because I don’t get to do as good of work. I like quality over quantity.”

Toni said that accepting the job at Historic Jefferson College did not hurt her ability to turn out historical garments, and in some ways it helped.

“This job allows you to express your knowledge of history in a variety of ways,” she said.

Toni said anyone interested in seeing what she has to offer or purchasing a garment can call Tennessee Valley Muzzleloading at 601-445-5482.