F&M Stories

Alumni Spotlight: Every Stitch Tells a Story

It's not every day you wear hoops skirts, bustles and bonnets to work — let alone hand-stitch them. But for Franklin & Marshall College alum Rachel Sheffield, it's just another day on the job.

Sheffield, a 2020 graduate, is the lead interpreter and historic clothing coordinator at First State Heritage Park in Dover, Del.

A Natchitoches, La., native, Sheffield "wanted to give the north a try" when she applied to F&M.

She quickly found herself immersed in colonial America's Northeast history during the "Intro to American Studies" class with Alison Kibler, professor of American studies and women's, gender & sexuality studies.

An American studies major and Italian minor, Sheffield's sewing talents helped her land a Marshall Fellows grant. The scholarship enabled Sheffield to investigate her hometown's history at Northwestern State University's Cammie G. Henry Research Center and create traditional Southern gowns.

"Giovanna Lerner (professor of Italian) helped me figure out how to frame clothing as an investigation into 1860s classism, colorism, feminism — all of these things that clothing is going to represent on a human body," Sheffield said.

Below, see what advice Sheffield has for fellow history students.

What's a day on the job like for you?

Most days are behind-the-scenes at our office building, rather than out in the field at our historic building or capitol building. While there, I'm doing research for upcoming events, helping other interpreters or partners try on and check out historic clothing, or helping the rest of our staff prep for events that could be as small as a pop-up exhibit to as big as recreating a multi-day, 18th-century market that usually draws in about 3,500 people! Once or twice a week, I am stationed at our historic building, the John Bell House, to lead historic tours of the Dover Green.

Any advice for students interested in your career field?

Start creating things for fun. Watch the YouTube videos, get involved in local theater or in your local historical society, and just start. There are amazing resources online for folks wanting to learn, and you don't have to spend a ton of money on materials, especially if you start with hand-sewing.

Find an internship or summer job that's at least tangentially related and see if your bosses will let you expand. I was lucky enough that I started in a historic textiles position, but since then, my bosses have encouraged me to follow my passions and continue getting better. Their philosophy is that if I get better, it will make the park as a whole better, so they've let me propose whole new projects just so I could make bustle dresses or swing dance. Those events were so successful that we get to keep doing them!


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