Who doesn’t love to watch a magic trick? I think they can be a lot of fun, at least as long as I’m not the volunteer from the audience. Especially for this trick!
To pull off any Perfon’s Shirt without undreffing him or having Occafion for a Confederate.
This trick requires only dexterity, and nevertheless when I performed it at the Theater-Royal in the Hay-Market everybody imagined that the person whom I had tricked out of his shirt was in a confederacy with me.
The means of performing this trick are the following, only observing that the cloaths of the person whose shirt is to be pulled off be wide and easy.
Begin by making him pull off his stock, and unbuttoning his shirt at the neck and sleeves, afterwards tye a little string in the button-hole of the left sleeve; then, passing your hand behind his back, pull the shirt out of his breaches, and slip it over his head, then pulling it out before in the same manner, you will leave it on his stomach; after that go to the right hand, and pull the sleeve down so as to have it all out of the arm; the shirt being then all of a heap, as well in the right sleeve as before the stomach, you are to make use of the little string fastened to the button-hole of the left sleeve, to get back the sleeve that must have slipped up, and to pull the whole shirt out that way.
To hide your way of operating from the person whom you unshirt and from the assembly, you may cover his head with a lady’s cloak, holding a corner of it in your teeth.
In order to be more at your ease, you may mount on a chair, and do the whole operation under the cloak. Such are the means I used when I performed publicly this trick.
–PHYSICAL AMUSEMENTS and DIVERTING EXPERIMENTS, 1784
That kind of describes what it feels like when I’ve tried to change clothes in the car. Actually, I think this trick would require a good bit of dexterity, as well as a few practice runs. But still not as much as was required to make this little boy’s shirt. A lot of stitches went into it; decorative backstitching on the collar and cuffs measures about 32 per inch. The simple hemming was 12-14 stitches per inch and seaming (like shallow overcasting) was up to 20 per inch!
The boy’s shirt is made like a man’s shirt. There were 20 parts in a “gentleman’s” shirt:
The body, two sleeves, two wristbands, two binders, two shoulder-straps, one collar, two sleeve-gussets, two neck gussets, two side-gussets, two wrist gussets, one for the bosom, and the frill.
This one, however, was made with without the shoulder straps (a strip of linen along each shoulder), binders (lining next to the armscye), wrist gussets, or a “bosom gusset.” It did have a frill and an inserted pleated front made out of finer linen
It was interesting to see that the two separate ruffles were both sewn to the wearer’s left side, and hemmed folded in the same direction, making them look correctly worn when both are folded over toward the right and exposing the pearl buttons. On all the other shirts I have or have seen, the ruffles are hemmed with each side’s hem folded inward toward the front opening.
The SHIRT TRICK was republished in other books over the following decades. It even showed up as late as 1870, but by that time the cut of a man’s shirt was more fitted and complex, and I doubt the stunt would work as easily. Maybe the little fellow who wore this had a copy of the The Boy’s Own Book (1828) and had a go at it? I can’t imagine the maker would have appreciated seeing her work handled so roughly and the “person who was unshirted” might have had to conjure up an explanation!
Not only do I have a weakness for plain sewing, but for miniature things as well. Tiny garments like doll clothes, or the samples that girls made when they were learning to sew are irresistable! That’s why I was thrilled to find this half-size treasure from – can it be the 1820s? At first I thought it must have been made for a doll, but it would have required a pretty large little lady for that time, and the incredible detail seems extreme for a doll. Maybe it was a shop model, or sent from a corset-maker to a client as a style sample? It’s certainly a puzzle, so I’d welcome any expertise!
It’s seven inches in length, 12 around the waist, made of two layers of cotton sateen, bound with twill tape, and of course, hand-stitched. The silk laces are in place as found, laced closed. It’s sewn with very fine silk thread which I believe was originally white, but has now yellowed a little more than the cotton fabric. I can see whalebone inside one of the boning channels where there is a slight separation at the end. I have no idea what the cording is, but the backstitches that hold it in place are worked about 20 per inch!
Compared to earlier 18th century stays that were heavy and heavily boned, or to later corsets that might contort and constrict the female torso, this style – excluding the busk – seems pretty comfy. That didn’t stop the lectures on tight-lacing, even during the early 19th century. The Poughkeepsie Journal opined in 1823:
I deem the corset of the present day to be the perfect engine of torture, and infinitely worse than the stays of days gone by. These last besure were injurious, but they left the resemblance of a female shape; the corset on the contrary presents the waist as regularly round and untapering as a white lead keg. The olden stays I remember were laced with a silken string of the size of the finest twine, but the corset requires a cord equalling the bow-string of a Kickapoo Chief.
What on earth is a white lead keg? Well, I checked. There was such a thing. Like a metal paint bucket today – just don’t use it to draw your well water! The author insists
no other animal could survive it. Take the honest ox, and inclose his sides with hoop poles, put an oaken plank beneath him and gird the whole with a bed cord and then demand of him labor. He would labor indeed but it would be for breath. Splinter and belay a pig in the same way and a whine might be aspirated, but it would be a whine of expiration.
Assuming your ox was honest, it would probably agree with the author. Unfortunately, the belayed pig wouldn’t have a chance! (It’s not often that 19th century prose make me LOL, but that last sentence succeeded.)
In the 1820s, Dr. Godman, a physician, anatomist, and naturalist who lived a remarkably full but too-short life (click here to follow a quick rabbit trail) denounced busks – lengths of flat wood, bone or steel inserted into a channel down the center front of a corset – as especially injurious:
Another instrument of torture is added in the form of a steel or hickory busk, which is pushed into its sheath in the already too tight corset, extending along the whole length of the breast bone… to keep the body from bending forward in the centre, and to prevent the dress and corset from ‘hooping up,’ as it is called.
The following scene occurred at a boarding-house in Philadelphia. The girl of the house … filled the tea-kettle, and brought it to the kitchen hearth, where she placed it on a bench. To place it over the fire required considerable stooping, and this, as it turned out, was impossible to her. Repeated and fruitless were her attempts, by a sort of crouching attitude, to accomplish her object; there was no one present to assist or to relieve her from the restraint which prevented stooping, and in despair she gave up, and stood by the kettle as if debating what she should do. The mistress came to inquire if the water was boiling, and found it not yet on the fire! – to her utter amazement, ‘the young lady’ confessed that she had her ‘long-busk’ on – that her ‘lacing,’ which was excessively tight, was in a ‘hard knot’ and that she ‘could not possibly stoop’ to put on the kettle!
He wasn’t without humor either:
Can anything on earth be more ungraceful than the gait, the walk of a female who is extremely corsetted? From the shoulders down, as stiffly inflexible as the parlour tongs, she can only advance by a sideling shuffle of the feet, which appear to get forward by stealth…
Maybe I’ll never know what this little corset was made for. The workwomanship (assuming it was a female stitcher) is exquisite, which suggests a model, either to exhibit skill or make a sale. But a few signs indicate wear, which makes me think it adorned a doll. Maybe its history included it all: made as a specimen of skill, served as a model or sample, and then retired to spend its later years on a later doll. Of ‘corset’ doesn’t really matter, whatever its past, it’s still a work of art!
Maybe you’ve heard of “l’esprit d’escalier” or “staircase wit.” I hadn’t until recently, even though I’ve suffered from it all my life. It describes that maddening moment when you come up with the perfect, brilliant reply – after it’s too late to be useful. Well, finding the perfect image just a little too late can happen in blogging, too!
It’s been a year since I wrote the last post about sewing aprons. I’d wanted an example to study and to illustrate the post, but in decades of searching and collecting I’d never come across one. Wouldn’t you know, it was only two weeks later that I actually found a real surviving one! It’s obviously not an early nineteenth century apron like I’d really love to find, and I can’t be positive it was used for sewing, but it fits the all the descriptions to a T.
It’s a charming white dimity with pink featherstitching and a waistband that buttons. Late 1800s, early 1900s perhaps? It looks like it could have been made in school, rather than at home. I say that because the stitches seem to be textbook-style hand sewing: precise (if not dainty) hemming, seaming, setting-in, and buttons, combined in a class-projecty sort of way. And a couple of tiny ink spots near the bottom!
Seeing an example close up did answer the hemming question for me: did they fold the side hems face up or face down before turning up the bottom for the pockets? Or did they do a little snip on the edge so that each hem could be folded to the back, the way I did for the doll’s apron? Answer: face up. For this one, anyway. The nice deep pockets are then seamed together so that the folded hems are inside.
I hope the maker was happy with her little apron. I suspect she treasured it since it’s survived all these years. Maybe it proved useful for holding her sewing things while she was climbing stairs – and she had the wit to appreciate it!
I don’t remember where I first came across the term “lap-bag.” It was used in the infuriatingly casual way that long-dead authors have of assuming we know what they’re talking about, and I didn’t give it much thought. But when I recently came across the illustration below, c.1860, my reaction was – in the words of my 4-year-old grandson – “what is the heck of that?”
Of course I pursued the elusive lap-bag, only to discover it wasn’t so peculiar after all. It has a respectable history, especially if you consider it’s only a variation on a very useful, very humble, and very common garment. I think this young emigrant to Australia summed it up perfectly in 1850:
The ladies gave me a nice piece of print to make a lap-bag, which will be very handy on board ship, as it ties round the waist, and has little pockets to hold one’s thimble and scissors.
It’s simply a type of pocketed apron that was used for keeping sewing items handy, something especially helpful for girls’ sewing classes. The pinafore was another variation, recommended as early as the 1810s for plain needlework lessons, both in England and America.
Each girl should be provided with a pin-afore, or slip … taken in at the conclusion of school time…. The pin-afores are marked 1, 2, 3, &c. up to the number of girls that the desk contains: the number of the desk is also marked upon them, thus – 5/3, which would signify that the pin-afore belongs to the 5th girl in the third desk.
In 1858, when Alice Neal penned her reminiscences of Eliza Leslie for Godey’s Lady’s Book, she remembered her own school days.
As long ago as sewing was made a special branch of female education – and we leave our readers to infer the date [she was born in 1828] – the Wednesday afternoons at the school which I attended in Boston were enlivened by reading aloud. The circle of little people, with their pink and blue chintz “lap-bags,” a style of sewing receptacle entirely unique, stitched away on their sheets and patchwork, while the older girls read in turn.
A children’s story from 1871 tells how “The girls all had to be provided with lap-bags, worn like aprons, with the ends brought up and stitched together. These were to keep the work from getting soiled, and hold the thimble, cotton, needles, scissors, etc.” School inventories included lap-bags, and one teacher explained,
These little lap-bags,” remarked the teacher, are the very first articles I teach the children in the Primary class to make; and they use them through all the grades until they graduate from the cutting department. Each bag is labelled, and at the close of the sewing hour the work is neatly rolled up, put inside, then collected in these large baskets.
Some later sources called them sewing aprons, but these matched the description as being aprons “made of extra length to allow the turning up of a quarter yard or so for a pocket.” After reading all about these receptacles, I decided to attempt my own. It’s quicker and cheaper to make things in miniature, so doll size it would be!
But what to use? I found references to brown holland (unbleached linen), calico prints, Scotch gingham (a better quality gingham), and pink and blue chintz. My obsession with charity sewing schools inclined me toward the brown holland, since that was the utility fabric they suggested. I just happily happened to have a bit of it with the original glaze (a glossy sizing) remaining, so the next step was to make sense of the directions that accompanied the illustration. Simple. For most people.
Next came the marking. As much as I wanted to follow advice and place the numbers where they’d show when the work was folded, I couldn’t make it work. But my doll will still take her place as the “fifth girl in the third row.”
Trust writers of the era to impart moral virtue into anything that would hold it. I don’t mind, at least not when they’re praising hand sewing.
If it is best to train the child along aesthetic lines in any phase of art, then let him be trained to appreciate and prefer a piece of true art in needle-work, even plain sewing, over a wholesale manufactured article which may be bought at cheap rates.
Let me illustrate by a school girl’s sewing apron, neatly though plainly made, hand-sewed by herself, and appreciated because she wove into its very stitches her own power and love of doing a thing for herself, and, too, having done it the best she could, over a very elaborate one selected from a whole boxful in a store marked “your choice for 10c.”
As aesthetic development and culture help to make a person a better person, so sewing can be made to help a girl to become a better girl and a more powerful and valuable woman to society.
Why not turn up your nose at that 10¢ store-bought apron, make your own, and become a powerful woman! You’ll be glad you did.
I know what lappets are, costumely speaking, and with regard to women’s millinery. They’re those long, lacy, streamer things that hang down from a headdress. The fanciest ones were made of fine lace and could be terribly expensive. They were popular in the 18th century but seemed to fade by 1800 when the classical look was in vogue, and then regained favor, at least with “mature” ladies, in the middle to late 19th century. Early ones were usually found in pairs, or occasionally joined slightly shaped in the middle, while 19th century ones could be . . . more creative.
But what have I got here? Two different long strips of fine white muslin, neatly (but probably not professionally) embroidered with whitework. Are they one-piece lappets, or something else?
They appear to date to the late 1700s or early 1800s, judging by the materials and floral patterns. One is 58″ x 4″ and the other is 63″ x 3.” The design on the wider one is mirrored on both edges, while the other is worked along one edge only. All edges are scalloped, and there’s a join on both at 20 inches (not the middle) from one end which the embroidery carries right across. Found together + like patterns + like materials = same maker? The design was embroidered to fit, which indicates they weren’t cut from another garment. They seem too fragile for a sash and too narrow for a scarf.
So how in the world would you wear them? It seems like draping across the top of your head would be a bit awkward. I’d feel about as graceful wearing a length of toilet paper.
The most fabulous book on accessories of this era is Heather Toomer’s Embroidered with White, and I searched it for clues. It has beautiful photos of lappets. In pairs. With dense embroidery. Sigh. In her book on the next time period (just as brilliant), lappets appear as extensions of other accessories, such as fichus and pelerines. So I’m still wondering what these were for. Help!
While on the subject of long narrow textiles, I’ll present my next puzzle: tuckers. I’m wandering into dangerous territory when discoursing on 18th century costume, since I know so little. However, I had no trouble finding period references to tuckers. Their wearing location on female anatomy guaranteed attention, one way or another.
Tuckers, as defined in 18th century dictionaries:
TUCKER, tuk’-ur. f. A small piece of linen that shades the breasts of women.
-A Slip of Linen or Lace, pinned along the Top of Women’s Stays -A border of linen or lace on the bosom of a shift -A fine piece of lace, cambrick, &c. pinned or sewed round the neck of a woman’s shift, gown -A shred of linen &c., about the neck of a woman’s shift -A slip of fine linnen, run in a small kind of ruffle, around the uppermost verge of the women’s stays -A strip or ornament of linen worn by women at the uppermost verge of the stays
Then we have Garsault’s 1771 L’art de la lingère, where I’m up to my tucker in speculation:
Tour de gorge en mousseline festonnée. Il se fait d’une aune de long sur un seizieme de large. Painfully translated: Scalloped muslin tucker. It is made one [≈yard] long by one sixteenth wide. A 1788 French-English dictionary defines “tour de gorge” as “tucker,” and “tour de dentelle” as a lace tucker.
This post is already too long to include Joseph Addison’s slightly naughty essay on the tucker – although if you’re curious, you can find one of many reprints here.
There’s no lack of period illustrations of tuckers, but it’s the logistics that have me baffled. Sure, you can tuck a straight band of fabric around the top of your stays – but then all but a few inches in front is hidden under a gown. You can tuck a straight length around the neckline of your gown – but then you have to negotiate the curves, and my mystery pieces seem awfully wide to do it without looking rumpled.
Many paintings show gathered ruffles at the neckline, whether lace or embroidery, although the Lady’s Maid Soaping doesn’t look very frilly. Of course you could always adorn your own tucker, if you were good with a needle.
Now here are the four long strips of linen that perplex me, ornamented along one edge, all owned by a woman who lived from 1760-1805, in France. They measure a bit over 40″ long and the linen is @3.5″ wide. If they’re not tuckers, what the heck are they and how did she wear them? Maybe they were part of a headdress. Folk costume. Dresser scarf. Tourniquet with feminine flair.
I’ve called these pieces lappets and tuckers, but I truly don’t know. Research didn’t settle anything for me this time, so any help is welcome. Maybe someday in the future our descendants will ask the same questions about our garments. I know I’ve shopped for workout clothes and been just as confounded – these strappy scraps of spandex go how?!
A few days ago, my husband and I went for a drive in the mountains of North Carolina to visit a very special lady. She’s a master wood carver with an international reputation and a long-time instructor at the John C. Campbell Folk School. At age 11, she learned wood carving from her mother, as well as other famous folk artists.
We met several years ago, and I was excited to learn that she had also carved dolls – Hitty dolls – although she wasn’t doing them any more. She promised to let me know me if she ever did, so I was thrilled (maybe you could call it the happy version of a hissy fit!) when she called to say that while clearing out her workshop she’d found a couple, one was the first one she ever carved – and was I interested? Was I? What a question!
The original doll was only lightly sanded and faintly painted with color, while her later work was more detailed and finished. But it was the first one that stole my heart. So Mehitabel has come home with me and is awaiting her wardrobe. It was delightful to visit and see the artist’s workshop and other examples of her carving. Sadly, she suffered a stroke earlier this year, so she’s not doing as much now. I did have the pleasure of seeing one especially stunning doll (it’s for sale! contact me for her info if you’re interested) which I’ve posted below.
And here’s a glimpse of the beautiful work on a similar one waiting to be dressed.
And one last peek at a project that really took my breath away –
I’m so excited to have a new doll to dress. It’s not easy for me to sew tiny things, so I’ll have to take care that it’s one my Hitty fits!
To have to sew your own punishment! Although I suppose to some people sewing is punishment.
Above is my attempt at making a 19th century punishment badge. These were meant to be worn around the head of a schoolchild who was guilty of the named crime, probably made by another pupil. I copied the lettering exactly and have to confess I was torn between the pathos and humor. Inattention?
Public humiliation as a form of discipline is as old as history, but it takes on a particular poignancy when you think of little children wearing a label proclaiming their crime, for all their small world to see.
Remember Jane Eyre?
On reaching the bedroom, we heard the voice of Miss Scatcherd: she was examining drawers; she had just pulled out Helen Burns’s, and when we entered Helen was greeted with a sharp reprimand, and told that to-morrow she should have half-a-dozen of untidily folded articles pinned to her shoulder.
“My things were indeed in shameful disorder,” murmured Helen to me, in a low voice: “I intended to have arranged them, but I forgot.”
Next morning, Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word “Slattern,” and bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment. The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.
Helen wore a paper sign, but it seems some children were made to spell out the crimes by stitching their own badges. The next excerpt is from The Sunday School Teacher’s Magazine and Journal of Education, 1855. The author recalled attending a free school as a small girl. It was taught by Miss Middleton, a lady of independent means who had devoted her life, rather ineffectually it seems, to good works.
Our governess considered it needful to govern by at least a mixture of severity with kindness. Her modes of punishment were various. A rather formidable one was binding a label with a specific crime marked upon it around the forehead, and placing the culprit on a form as an object for the deliberate gaze of the whole school. Most likely these expressive tokens of guilt were originally manufactured by the children’s own hands, and remind one of a murderer erecting his own gibbet.
Once a long row of delinquents was ranged on a form, who had committed some kind of treason during our mistress’s absence; and absent she frequently was from her post. We had then a scholar who was notorious for her unconquerable love of fun… She being amongst the mounted ones, contrived to overbalance the form, and bring all to the ground, producing a scene which very naturally excited the mirth of all who beheld it, and turned our punishment into a frolic.
That must have been a sight! I wonder if they were all wearing their labels when they tumbled to the floor? The author goes on to describe what happened when she was falsely accused of tearing a pinafore and made to “wear her crime.”
But the question with my governess was, ” Who rent [tore] the pinafore?” Somebody must have; though having been perpetrated in the dark, it was probably rather difficult to determine the author. Now I was one of the least, and therefore as likely to be guilty as any one. I suppose by this reasoning Ann brought her mind to the conviction that I was the guilty party, and she unhesitatingly accused me of the crime. I very naturally denied the charge. But I was compelled to wear the most detestable of all the bandages, and mount the form with the word LIAR branded on my brow. Can I ever forget that moment? No! the scar of that wound will not be effaced by time, however long a space be allotted me; and though I have long ceased to bear malice, the memory of this painful circumstance will be for ever connected with the name of Ann W. Surely nothing chafes the soul of a child so much as an unjust accusation, and unmerited punishment. – Maidstone. Christiana Elizabeth.
If you’ve read the Plain Needlework page on this blog, you know about Joseph Lancaster’s contribution to needlework education. However, some of his early comments on class discipline are rather hard to take – at least for modern sensibilities, even when allowing for the times in which he wrote. He also used labels to shame children who offended. From his 1807 manual,
When a boy is disobedient to his parents, profane in his language, or has committed any offence against morality, or is remarkable for slovenliness, it is usual for him to be dressed up with labels, describing his offence, and a tin or paper Crown on his head. In that manner he walks round the school, two boys preceding him, and proclaiming his fault; varying the proclamation according to the different offences.
And another reference,
Labels of Disgrace. When boys are in habits of talking, or being idle in school time, it is common in the free schools under my direction, as variety in punishment, to make an offender stand up and suck his fingers, with the label ‘Idle’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘suck-finger baby.”
These methods were mild compared to others he recommended. Although to be fair, I can’t imagine the task of managing – much less teaching – a single class of over a hundred unruly street children.
What sort of offenses warranted this fate? Thanks to generous help from Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, we can see some of the unacceptable behaviors marked on bands from their museum collection.
I’m probably guilty of all, but the one that caught my attention was INATTENTIOn. That had my name written all over it (ha) so that’s the one I wanted to make. Although from respect – and exhaustion – I left out ‘DURING PRAYERS.’
The bands reminded me of the tiny sewing samples made for needlework lessons, illustrating plain sewing techniques.
The first one needed was marking. Cross-stitch is the basic marking stitch, but these are marked with “oylet” or “eye-let-hole” stitch, which is
quite a fancy stitch, and rarely employed. The oylet holes are formed by working in small stitches round each square, about four stitches in the four corners, and four intermediate stitches between, are necessary to form each oylet hole. -Workwoman’s Guide, 1838
or as directed here, in 1853:
Eye-let-hole Marking is done by making a stitch across two threads from the centre as a fixed point, above, below, on each side, and at each of the four angles.
Well OK, no problem, I could do that. Or so I thought until I tried it on a scrap of old linen. Enter 5 diopter magnification with 60 little LEDs, and voila! Of course my eyes were crossed and my head tilted sideways for a week.
I hadn’t even done the first letter before I realized that the stitches that resembled little stars on the original looked like lumpy knots on mine. Even worse at reading distance than in the close-up photo. Hint: use the right thread. Finer silk worked much better. I also learned that it takes twice as long to unpick an “oy-let” as it does to stitch it!
Finishing the badge was a little easier. I folded the linen back onto itself, and then “seamed” the other three sides. Seaming (also called sewing, oversewing, overhanding in the 19th century) is my favorite stitch to do, and you can see a beautiful example of it around the edges of this tiny specimen from 1820.
The label needed ties, too. I’m amazed that nineteenth century classes even included a “proper” way to do something as simple as sewing on ties or tapes. In the illustration below, the tape has the raw end tucked under and three sides are hemmed to the fabric. Then the tape is folded back against the fabric and the fourth edge is seamed to the fabric. Neat, sturdy, and strong as super glue. Well, theirs were anyway.
I don’t have a purpose for the band I made; I’m not even sure why I felt compelled to make one. Perhaps it was just a way to almost touch the past. It would be a shame to lose its lessons.
If you have a nose for rabbit trails, even the simplest search can make you lose your way – if not your head! I was trying to pinpoint a date for the common use of machine-made pins, but ended up following the trail from factories to inventories to short stories. The stories were the most fun, and I thought I’d share this (edited for length!) one.
THE HISTORY OF A PIN. (The Portland Transcript, 1863)
BY EDWARD P. WILSON.
“Est natura hominum novitalis avida.” [People crave new stuff.]
While walking down the street other day, something bright, embedded in the dirt between the bricks, attracted my attention; and stooping I extracted from the sand an old headless pin. It was not one of the family of pins with which we are now familiar – pins never lose their heads now a days – but one of the old style, whose head was originally formed of fine coiled brass wire; but now it was headless, crooked, rusty and worn: one of those sort of pins which in my school-boy days we were wont to call “old maids’ pins,” and which every single lady felt in duty bound, on the penalty of endless celibacy, to throw over her left shoulder.
As I sat in my arm-chair after dinner enjoying my cigar, I drew it leisurely from the lapel of my coat – a bachelor’s invariable pin cushion – and examined it more minutely. What would I give to hear the history of this old pin!
As I continued to smoke, the pin seemed to grow strangely bright, as seen through the incense which curled around me; and then it seemed to increase in size until it resembled some old, sallow man, whose back was bent by the cares and sorrows of three-score years, who stood twinkling at me through the smoky vapor; and at length I became so accustomed to regard it as human, that I was not surprised when it addressed me as follows:
“Many years have passed away since I was young and bright. I remember the day, when by a clip of a huge pair of shears, I first received a distinctive existence. Pins were worth something in those days, and were not turned out upon the world by machinery, as they are now in Connecticut, at the rate of ten tons per week. We were all made elaborately by hand, going through fourteen different processes in our construction. It was in the old Greenwich Prison, New York, where the first pins were made on this continent. We were all nicely arranged by hand in our papers, like files of soldiers. Fortunately for me, I occupied the position of captain in the first row of my paper, and stood the best chance of being soonest called into the active duties of life. After being duly packed, we were removed to a little store on Broadway, near Castle Garden. I well remember the looks of my first master. He was a little wizen-faced man, who kept a small variety store in those days.
Many long months I laid upon his dark shelves, fearing that I should spend my days in rest and inaction. But at length my days of imprisonment were over. One day a young woman came into my master’s store and made several small purchases of ribbon and edging, and just as she had started to go out, she turned back and asked for a paper of pins. How I thrilled with joy as my master placed the paper in which I had been so long imprisoned in her hand.
My young mistress took me to her home on one of the short streets in the vicinity of the East River. I had scarcely entered the house, which was a neat tenement of the Dutch style, before I became convinced that preparations were being made for some great event in the household. Judge of my surprise when I ascertained by the gossip of the servants that it was the marriage of my young mistress.
All day the household was in commotion, in baking, dusting, and arranging for the happy occasion; and when in the evening my mistress came to her room where I had been lying upon her dressing table, to put on her wedding dress, I was made happy by being called into service. Having otherwise completed her attire, which was elaborate for those days, although it might provoke the mirth of the fashionable belle of the present day, she took from her drawer a beautiful silk zone or belt, which she clasped around her waist, and fastened it with me.
As she stood before her glass to adjust her dress before making her appearance in the drawing room below, I could not help feeling a silent pride in her beauty. I had not thought her pretty when I had first seen her, but as she stood there, I could not but pronounce her beautiful. When the guests had all retired, and my master and mistress were left alone, I listened, as I stuck in a pin-cushion upon her dressing-table, to all their plans of life and happiness.
It was indeed a bright and beautiful scheme; but I am sorry to say that I lived to see many of their pretty plans fade away, and smiles give place to tears. I remained in this family nearly twenty years, occupying various places in the attire of the different members of the family; sometimes idly dropped upon the floor, and then again picked up to fasten some article of clothing.
When at length there were little ones around the hearth, I fastened their tiny garments, and sometimes, unwillingly, scratched their little chubby bodies [!!!], causing many a kick and scream, which were attributed either to colic or anger, according to the disposition of the person who had them in keeping.
One day as their eldest daughter was out shopping, I fell noiselessly from the bosom of her dress, where I had been carelessly stuck, upon the sidewalk of Broadway. It may be thought that a pin is incapable of feeling, but I felt the deepest regret when by this unlucky accident, I was severed from this family in whose service I had spent so many days; and I could not but feel a silent resentment against my mistress for fastening me so carelessly, as I had been a faithful and uncomplaining servant of hers from the very day of her birth.
I remained many weary days lying upon the sidewalk unseen, although thousands of people walked over me daily; and I sadly feared that I should be trodden into the dirt, and thus remain entombed the remainder of my days. But my fears proved groundless.
One day, after I had almost given up hope of being discovered, a little, short, dried up old man came along with his eyes upon the sidewalk, as though in search of pins, and deliberately picked me up and placed me in the lapel of his rusty coat.
I soon discovered that my new master was an old bachelor, of most eccentric manners and mode of living, who lodged in an attic on the Bowery. Once I heard him say mournfully, that he should not have been there alone, aimless in life, if it had not been for her, from which I inferred that some unhappy attachment in early life had made him misanthropic.
I remained in his service many years, sometimes fastening ugly rents in his garments; and at length he removed to Boston, where he naturally enough became more morose than ever. [!!!]
One day as he was walking upon the Common, he attempted to fasten his collar, which had an ugly habit of creeping up over his ears, when he pricked his finger with me, and threw me spitefully upon the ground, where I remained about one week.
One day a little girl on her way to school, came along and picked me up, repeating to herself the childish couplet—
‘Tis a sin to steal a pin But ‘tis a greater to steal a tater
and took me to her home where I remained several years, being used principally to fasten the clothing of her doll.
One day in summer, her brother was sent off on a vacation to a little town in the State of Maine, and I was brought into requisition to fasten his collar. I remained in his service but a few weeks, but this was the most trying period of my life. Sometimes I soared to enormous heights in the tail of his kite, sometimes I was used to pierce flies and other innocent insects, and at length he used me to fish for minnows in a beautiful bay which indents the town where he was stopping.
There I received that ugly bend which you see in my back, being bent to resemble a fish-hook. After he had thus cruelly treated me, my young master threw me carelessly upon the beach, with a piece of cotton thread which he had used as a fishing line, tied around my throat. Here I lay in the sun many long days, and as the place was not frequented, I well-nigh despaired of ever attracting the attention of any living being. But I was not doomed to spend the remainder of my days in inactivity.
One moonlight night in autumn, a lady and gentleman came upon the beach to court the cool breeze, engaged in earnest conversation, over the sand where I was lying. The lady was young and pretty, and dressed in weeds which betokened widowhood. Her drapery was long and flowing, and at length as she passed over me, I, being bent, caught in some point-lace on her skirt, and was taken along with her. Her companion was a large, well-formed man, whom she called Judge Jones.
They walked together a long time, arm in arm, but at length the Judge, very much to my surprise, withdrew his arm, and placed it around the widow’s waist, who very properly remonstrated against such a proceeding; but I observed that she made no effort to remove it, although she stated very emphatically that it should not remain there. Just then the couple approached a large rock embedded in the sand, and the widow complaining of being fatigued, they sat down there to rest.
Here the Judge not only retained his arm in the position which was so offensive to his companion, but even ventured to kiss her, an impropriety which I cannot but condemn, although I must confess that I have been an unwilling spectator to many such a scene.
At this moment his companion grew very indignant, shedding tears and declaring that she was certain that the Judge meant to offend her, which imputation he very warmly denied, although I observed that he repeated the offense.
At this, my mistress grew still more indignant, and dropping her head upon her companion’s shoulder, emphatically demanded the meaning of such conduct. Here the Judge drew her still more closely to him, and said in a subdued and tremulous voice, “My dear madame I have long wished for an opportunity to tell you that — ”
Here the writer’s head fell heavily upon an adjoining table, and gathering himself up he found that his cigar had gone out, and that he himself had been idly napping, with the old rusty pin between his fingers.
It has ever since been a question of great interest to him, what it really was that the Judge was going to tell to his companion, and how the old pin lost its head—and finally came to be lying in the streets of Cambridge, but he has vainly striven to solve them, as the old pin has ever since maintained a most unbroken silence.
Should these facts ever come to the knowledge of the writer, however, they will be duly chronicled in the columns of the Transcript.
What an original idea: a story written by a pin! Well … not exactly. See this snippet from an 1835 English composition manual on suggested topics.
As for pinning down a date for the common use of machine-made pins, there is good information out there – if you want to stick to the subject and not wander around. Here is a good place to start for a more serious approach.
So when might I have found machine-made pins in a sewing basket or on a dressing table? It seems that by the late 1830s technology and economics combined to phase out skilled labor in favor of automation. Pins were no longer likely to lose their heads. And if I could just stay focused, I might not either. But where’s the fun in that?
Tiny pin cushions have a special charm, particularly the disk shape, with pins inserted around the perimeter. I always considered it an impractical design though, for sewing. Then one day I came across Mrs. Child’s comment in The Girl’s Own Book (1833) and my dim light bulb clicked on:
What are called “bachelor’s pin-cushions” are made very thin so that gentlemen can carry them in their pockets…. Two round pieces of paste-board are covered with silk, and neatly sewed together, with one or two thin pieces of flannel between them. Of course only one circle of pins can be put in.
Well, of course! They were meant to be portable and keep pins securely tucked away, likely for use in one’s toilette, and not necessarily handy for needlework.
Maybe I fixated on this design because it’s extremely pretty, or maybe because it’s unusual to find that many of the same homemade craft surviving. However, according to a knowledgeable source, this particular one is not uncommon. Even a rare mutation – pink beaded! – has been sighted.
Hmm. Were they made by a single crafty lady? Several crafty sisters? A craft class? Who knows. But I did feel like there was probably a pattern that they all followed; the resemblance was quite striking. So I did what any good researcher does these days and hit Googlebooks.
Aha! It looked like Godey’s Lady’s Book could have been the source. But wait. As you know if you read the history of this sewing machine ad (or maybe you knew it anyway), if it was published once, it was quite likely “borrowed” by – or from – someone else, too.
Sure enough, it seems that Mrs. Jane Weaver of Peterson’s Magazine provided the same pattern the year before! Yep, word for word. Did Sarah borrow from Jane? Or did they both copy another pattern?
Even though I’d found American patterns for the pin cushions, it was unlikely that they were the source for the antique ones. Notice the numbers? Roman vs. Arabic numerals. The antique pin cushions I saw had Arabic; the published American patterns used Roman.
Perhaps they thought a little change would deflect any accusation of plagiarism. With almost everything in print copied by somebody,somewhere, who would even notice? The surviving examples were English – I think – so perhaps the original pattern was also.
Back to Googlebooks for an English source. And indeed, I located another pattern published earlier, in England. The Boys’ and Girls’ Companion featured the watch pin cushion, this time credited to Madame Eugenie, in 1857. And that’s where I met a dead end.
Madame Eugenie? I haven’t been able to locate a needlework author by that name, so maybe it was a pseudonym. There were quite a few frantically creative women trying to survive by publishing needlework books and magazines during those years, so she may remain anonymous.
For now anyway, the pattern for the antique “watches” with numbers and star design remains unidentified. Well then, back to creating my own (economy) version. Since I couldn’t find materials exactly like the originals, I had to do some contriving.
Silk satin > silk taffeta
India ink and pen > Micron 005 pen
Tiny gold and turquoise beads > the smallest Hobby Lobby carried
Card-board > cardboard (yay!)
Wool flannel > wool flannel (yay again!)
Compasses for drawing circles > washers from my husband’s toolbox
Gold cord > embroidery floss + threads pulled from the fabric + upholstery braid unwound
Silk ribbon > a strip of fabric
As per usual, the whole project turned out to be an excruciating exercise in “making things up as you go along.” What I learned:
Compromise when it comes to materials.
Make a pattern first. MAKE A PATTERN FIRST.
Line the silk.
Practice writing on paper. Then on fabric. Then give up and use a font on the computer and trace it.
Press gathers flat.
Use tinier stitches than seem necessary.
Beads unpick faster than expected.
The result will be bigger than expected.
Beads roll over no matter how carefully anchored. It’s their nature.
Did I mention make a pattern FIRST?
It was actually a lot of fun doing everything but the pen work since I’m not good with handwriting, and I couldn’t “ask an older brother or a papa.” Even unpicking beads (when they didn’t fit because I didn’t draw a pattern FIRST) was rather enjoyable; hearing the tiny taps when they fell off and hit the tray was ridiculously entertaining.
And just about the time I was finishing the little ring on the top, I chanced upon an even earlier pattern – and I wasn’t even looking for it!
Sadly, there were no pictures. And it was for the needle-book/pin cushion version. But it gives me hope that another pattern is out there, just waiting to be discovered. I’ll keep a watch.
It’s a delight to follow the evolution of hand sewing instruction from its earliest days up to more modern times – at least if you consider the 1930s modern!
Thanks to a friend who wanted to share her mother’s dress, I’ve had another chance to peek into a Domestic Economy class, this time in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. The teacher was Miss Gimbel, and she must have been a wonderful sewing teacher – she was certainly very good at understanding what kind of project would please a girl of 13. Fluffy ruffles in dainty white, in a lesson she could wear to her graduation!
The dress needed a little TLC before it could show off. Although in excellent condition for its age, a bath was in order.
I’ve laundered a lot of cotton and linen over the years, and was hopeful that Anna’s dress could be restored. It was made of embroidered organdy and (of course) had been starched. Starch does not age well, in case you haven’t noticed! But a few days of soaking and a lot of water changes, and the frilly frock was refreshed.
Once again I was surprised to see how simple it could be to sew a garment by hand. I’m so accustomed to modern clothing with all the double-stitched and felled seams, finished inside and out, that anything else is startling. I’ve got sportswear so heavily reinforced that the stitches could stand alone if all the fabric were to melt away!
But not here. Anna used very simple basting, running, hemming, and gathering on plain and French seams. The ruffle edge was overcast.
You can see the neatly turned hem, and where she took greater pains with the collar binding than the much longer narrow hem, which I’ve folded up to show.
The armholes have a self-fabric binding, and the dress closes on one side with snaps. The basting thread is still present, perhaps serving to hold the placket in place.
Weekly sewing lessons from the first through the eighth grade were part of a public school education for Anna. Her work was neat and elegant, a skill to be proud of. I think she learned well and wore her reward for a very special occasion!
It seems like even hobbies go through seasons, and mine has certainly been in a slow one. However, there’s nothing like a new book to start things stirring again.
Ever since seeing the online Pockets of History exhibit, I’ve been wishing for a book with more on the subject. So of course I was delighted when I learned about this one! The Pocket – A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, was published in May by Yale University Press. I’ve just started to explore it. How could I resist? It touches on all my favorite subjects, not only textiles, costume, and needlework, but fascinating little bits of material culture and stories (sadly too brief) associated with them.
Who knew that a pocket could have a “heart-bit” too? But it makes good sense because the stitching was a decorative way to reinforce an opening.
There’s also discussion of marking and learning to mark, and the importance to women of claiming ownership. The Pocket even touches on needlework education, which thrills my plain sewing pedagogical heart no end!
The book is full of beautiful photos that reveal the diversity of pockets. I even got a patchwork fix, thanks to these made with colorful prints. Other illustrations include period art, engravings, advertising, and some splendid close-ups of the textiles and embroidery. And wonder of wonders: doll pockets!
I think the most delightful part of the book is learning about the little treasures and scraps that were pocketed. Or wait – maybe it’s the stories? The authors’ research reveals fascinating bits of women’s lives, and the pocket contents added to their stories as well. The list is extensive: money, gloves, books, pencils, medicine, “characters” (an employment reference), food, jewelry, handkerchiefs, clothing, charms, combs, cosmetics, tickets, snuff boxes, cutlery, letters, and even pilfered goods. Hmm… barring the last mentioned (one would hope), it’s really the same as you might find in a handbag today. Ok, maybe not the snuffbox.
The only pocket I’ve made is a miniature one for Pharaby. I’ve never made a people-sized one. I rather like the idea of sewing a pocket for myself. No particular purpose, just fun. It would be a terrific way to practice plain sewing skills and experiment with some fancywork as well.
If you find these topics as fascinating too, I highly recommend The Pocket. It provides such a wealth of information that you won’t actually find yourself … out of pocket.
Knotting was indispensable to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman…and kept her fair self out of mischief….
“Heyday! cousin, ” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
I don’t know what Lord Castlemaine thought about French ladies, but he obviously had issues with knotting – and so do I! All right, he was talking about a different kind of knotting, but I do think thread should behave with propriety, always willing and able to oblige. However, in my search for how thread was “packaged” in the early 19th century, it was behaving knottily.
A few years ago I was trying to assemble a collection of sewing supplies c.1820 for an exhibit, and it occurred to me that the ordinary wooden spools (reels) in my basket were an anachronism. Would a lady of that era have popped into a haberdashery shop for a spool of thread to hem a gown? Or would she have bought a skein? A ball? A length wrapped in paper or wound around a card?
How should I store my thread? It ought to be simple to settle, just ask around or try Google to learn how sewing thread was packaged, sold, and stored in the early 1800s. Nope. It was a knotty problem and I was baffled.
Period merchant accounts mentioned skeins, weights, and quantities of sewing thread, but that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. What would the thread actually look like when Some Lady brought it home from shopping or stuffed it in her workbag at the end of the day? (No, don’t say tangled!) After years of drooling over images of antique sewing boxes, you’d think I’d have spotted quite a few that still had the undoubtedly original working thread stashed inside. But I didn’t. A little more fruitless searching, and I decided to shelve the question.
Until recently. I once saw some lovely antique painted “thread papers” for sale which I always regretted not buying (although I’d have had to sell a body part to do it). These long strips of paper with delicate watercolor floral designs were obviously homemade, perhaps meant for a gift. They contained embroidery silks, not plain sewing thread, but I never forgot their charm. So when I came across some very old, although homelier, thread papers for sale, I couldn’t resist – and that revitalized my quest for thread packaging!
The first mention I came across (in my admittedly limited resources) was in connection with the tragic and mysterious poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Not only was he a literary prodigy, but apparently quite a clever forger as well. He invented a 15th century monk and wrote poetry in his name, then claimed to have discovered these writings on his mother’s parchment thread papers.
…one day his eye was caught by one of these thread papers; that he found not only the writing to be very old and the character very different from common characters; but the subject therein treated was different from common subjects; – that he began to question his mother what these thread papers were; how she got them; and from whence they came; and upon further enquiry was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained. [The rest, according to him, unfortunately having been used by his father to cover students’ books.]
There were other references to thread papers as well.
A witty bit from 1769:
A waggish correspondant informs us, that the Mile-End P—n is to be cut into slips to make thread-papers for the maids-of-honor.
Some self-deprecation from 1775:
…a small number of young ladies do me the inexpressible honour to smooth their tuckers and their ribbands in my book; to make thread papers of it; or to tear it into pieces, or papillots [curl papers], or to make their thimbles fit.
In 1795, a scathing rejection for Miss Sparkes from the Monthly Mirror:
“A Tale of Times past,” would never be read in times present. Would not Letitia Sparkes (who says she works for the shops) have been much better employed in making a dozen shirts, and getting the money for them, than in groping her way through “long galleries and dismal vaults;” and listening to “tales prophetic, from shadowy forms.” However, Letitia, you may send for your “forty leaves:” they’ll make excellent thread-papers.
Court testimony from 1804:
What was in the drawer in which he appeared to expect to find it? There were Five or Six Hens Eggs, Thread Papers, and Things of that Sort Belonging to his Wife.
From Sir Walter Scott in 1815:
…my uncle, the alderman, proposed to me the only daughter of old Sloethorn, the great wine-merchant, rich enough to play at spancounter [old English game] with moidores [Portugese coins], and make threadpapers of bank notes.
A bit of satire in 1815:
Woe unto literature in these days of degeneracy! woe unto the Nine Muses and their suitors! how many epics have stood between the candle and candlestick? how many histories have been employed in twist tobacco? and how many philosophers have been made into thread papers, their arguments into paper kites, and their conclusions into three-penny crackers on a birthday?
A lament from 1838:
Cooks and sedentary ladies addicted to needlework have been Thalabas in this kind of destroying. Your thread-papers have been the very devil! If our old friend Mr. Brunel had invented his pretty little process of putting sewing-thread up in reels and balls a hundred years ago, many a family manuscript, many an interesting scrap, might have escaped the pitiless shears. But it is vain to regret the past! [Ain’t it though?]
Humorous fiction in 1844:
Lady Betty was mightily pleased to see Lord Castlemaine so soon back again, and glanced at Barbara, who was knotting fringe, a species of work about as useless as the tatting, tapetrimming, herring-boning, and, with respect be it hinted, lambs-wooling, which from time to time have employed civilised society with almost as much regularity as the spinning jennies do the poorer classes. (And when we talk of the labours of factory girls, how we overlook those of modern ladies under the banners of Miss Lambert¹!) And knotting was indispensible to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman, who, when not tambouring, knotting, or embroidering, amused her leisure, and kept her fair self out of mischief, by drawing a bandalore [yo-yo] up and down.
“Heyday! cousin,” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
“‘Tis the ton, surely, or Bab would not do it,” said Lady Betty, wishing to set off the dowdy Barbara; “and see the thread papers she paints,” added the old lady, showing up a volume of those useful, discarded, ever to be lamented article, with a bird with a scarlet beak and a blue breast at one end, and a flower, orange, red and purple, at the other, all varnished with a glaze of gum arabic.
Lord Castlemaine praised the as very neat, and saw some sense in those – the knotting he condemned as an extravagant waste of time. But he was so complimentary to the thread papers, that Barbara, with a little persuasion, was induced to show her cousin her collection of…” [of…? If you’re curious, you can always look it up!]
More specifics on these papers from fiction, 1868:
She is able to divert herself most days with her thread-papers, as Madam, her mother, will be mighty glad to hear, for the head and the heart ain’t none of them over-bad when a miss can settle to make thread-papers…. Milly was in the act of making her thread-papers – cutting down strips of gaudy card-board, painted with staring flowers, birds, butterflies, and pasting them together in the requisite shape.
Well, enough of thread papers. They were around before, during, and after my period of interest; whether artsy or functional, they were probably used most often for embroidery threads, although I could certainly add some to my workbox display. What about sewing thread for plain work or dressmaking?
An Encyclopædia of Domestic Econcomy, 1815, states, “Cotton sewing thread, usually called sewing cotton, has of late been made so beautiful by machinery, and its utility and cheapness are so well known, that it has, in a measure, superseded the use of linen thread formerly used. It is used in every house, and in the making of almost every kind of clothing.”
That was helpful in affirming what textile historians tell us, that the change from linen to cotton for sewing thread happened in the late 18th-early 19th century. But how would you find it in a shop?
Now let’s see whether you were just skimming the quotes to be a polite blog reader, or were paying attention. Did you catch the reference to Brunel²?
His biography informs us that, “A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The Machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness.”
They must have been awfully pretty, those little balls of thread, to merit so much acclaim. Rees’s 1819 Cyclopædia agreed, “cotton thread for sewing, mending, and domestic use, is wound into balls of a figure resembling a cask, and the many intersection of the thread are so managed as to produce a very beautiful appearance.”
If the illustration below is an example, I do think they’re lovely! Illustrated ads for sewing cotton wound in a fancier lattice design appeared in periodicals from 1819 to 1827. Here’s one from La Belle Assemblée, 1819. The inventor was Edmund Naish, Quaker, who patented his method in 1818.
I didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing one of these lacy little balls, so maybe you can understand my delight when I saw these!
So it appears that sewing thread, long sold in skeins (or hand-wound balls), was available for purchase as machine-wound balls sometime after 1802, and the fancy patterns in the next decade. But what about wooden spools?
In The Paisley Thread Industry (1907), the author says, “The year 1812 may be taken as the earliest date upon which Clark’s sewing thread was placed upon the market.” He goes on to state
The James Clark of Messrs. J. & J. Clark was the first to introduce spool cotton sewing thread. We are indebted to his son, Mr. James Clark, of Chapel House, for an explanation of the circumstances of this very important and interesting development. Mr. Clark says: – “Originally the cotton thread was sold in hanks or skeins, and then ladies had to wind it into little balls, as they generally wind a cut of wool yarn at the present day. Wishing to convenience his fair customers, James would, on selling a skein of cotton thread, sit down at a weaver’s pirn wheel, and wind the thread upon a spool, for which he charged a half-penny, but that half-penny he refunded when the empty spool was returned to him.
“The spools cost sixpence a dozen, and were ordered by James, to the extent of half a gross at a time, from a wood turner name Robert Paul, which he carried home in his coat pocket, to wind thread thereon by his own hand, if desired, after the sale of a skein had been effected by him.”
So I suppose you could have retail-wound wooden spools shortly after 1812 – if you lived in Paisley, Scotland! However, writing in 1861, William Weild gives a slightly different history.
Previous to the present century, sewing thread was made up for sale in hanks, and it was not till about 1814, that the plan of winding thread on spools or reels, technically called “spooling” was introduced by Mr. James Carlile, of Paisley….The spools commonly used are made of wood, more or less ornamented, and some also of metal, bone, ivory, and other materials. Wood spools were first turned by hand; but the immense demand for them called attention to the necessity for self-acting machinery for producing them in a rapid manner, and this was invented in 1846 by Mr. John Clark of Glasgow.
Here is another (mind-boggling) account of how was thread was made into balls and spools, the greatest problem being constantly breaking thread. From an 1846 SPCK publication:
The writer visited a sewing thread factory at Manchester…. The process of forming the thread into balls or reels is, performed by young women with an almost magical celerity. Each young woman is seated at a kind of turning-lathe; she seizes the end of the thread, and attaches it to a rod of steel, sets this spinning, and in an instant a ball of cotton appears at the end of the rod; the rotation is stopped, a blue ticket is inserted at the end, a further quantity of thread wound to secure the ticket, and the ball is finished. The size of the ball is regulated with extreme accuracy by the eye. The number of balls to the pound varies from 16 to 600; and the young woman being told to produce a certain number to the pound, makes a few, weighs them until she has got the exact size by weight; after this she relies entirely upon her eye, and so accurate is her judgement, that the variation of the balls in weight is very trifling. The cotton is wound on reels with the same surprising celerity…. Reeling is not such rapid work as balling.
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Can you imagine what that must have been like, eye-balling 600 balls of thread? All. Day. Long. Perhaps they could also do it in their sleep. God bless them.
And now, if you’ve made it this far into an excruciatingly arcane subject, I will share my last two discoveries. If I had found them earlier, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all the rest.
The first is an excerpt from Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford.
Everything in the one store which it boasts, kept by Martha Deane, linen-draper and haberdasher, is dear and good, as things were wont to be. You may actually get there thread made of flax, from the gouty, uneven, clumsy, shiny fabric, yclept whited-brown, to the delicate commodity of Lisle, used for darning muslin. I think I was never more astonished than when, on asking, from the mere force of habit, for thread, I was presented, instead of the pretty lattice-wound balls or snowy reels of cotton, with which that demand is usually answered, with a whole drawerful of skeins, peeping from their blue papers – such skeins as in my youth a thrifty maiden would draw into the nicely-stitched compartments of that silken repository, a housewife, or fold into a congeries of graduated thread-papers, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.”
Well, well. She covered it all: paper-wrapped skeins, balls, reels, thread papers, and one I didn’t explore (since they are so well-known already), the silken repository, or housewife (hussif). See Sarah’s charming “repository” of blue and cream below, with matching blue threads all ready for use!
And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:
But the last is an image, c.1810-1815. From the V&A, it’s the picture I’d always hoped to find: a thread-stocked workbox. The little “tickets” are pink, with the thread size stamped on them.
To wrap it all up, I now have a better idea of how to keep thread in my workbox or basket if I want to stay true (sort of) to the times. It’s a relief to untangle the knotty problem – and know that I can sleep peacefully at night.
¹ Miss Lambert was a prolific and popular author of needlework books such as this one.
² For some stranger-than-fiction history, read about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the gold sovereign magic trick – and how it could have killed him!
MILLENER, or MILLINER, one who sells ribbands and dresses, particularly head dresses for women; and who makes up those dresses. Of this word different etymologies have been given. It is not derived from the French. The French cannot express the notion of milliner, otherwise than by the circumlocution marchand or marchande des modes….
Littleton, in his English and Latin Dictionary, published 1677, defines millener, “a jack of all trades;” q. d. millenarius, or mille mercium venditor; that is, “one who sells a thousand different sorts of things.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1823
It’s summer and I’m still here and still sewing a little (not quite a thousand things) although I haven’t posted for months now. Life has been really hard lately, but looking at Mélisande and dreaming of her wardrobe has brought a lot of cheer. Playing milliner (in the broader sense) for Mélisande has been more challenging, but that’s thanks to my penchant for tackling projects labeled “Do not try this at home!”
The exquisitely beautiful Mélisande was created by Kathy Patterson, a brilliant artist and doll maker (her historical dolls are perfection) who made my dream of an early 19th century wooden doll come true. She is a 19″ wooden lady, carved in the Grödnertal or Tuck Comb style of the early 1800s, and perfect for dressing in clothing from the Regency to Romantic eras. Let me qualify that: perfect for doll dressers who know what they’re doing.
As for the rest of us… well, it’s more of an adventure. I did know enough to start with a linen chemise – or shift, if you share Jane Austen’s scorn of “mock modesty.” Using a tattered and weary dresser cloth for fabric, I cut the arm gussets and sleeves in one piece, a little trick learned from looking at an original and which I think is also mentioned in The Workwoman’s Guide.
However, as I was smirking over saving a few stitches on the gussets, time was playing a sneaky trick on me. Hint: check old fabric for flaws BEFORE you sew. That tiny stain may be just a stain when you cut out the sleeve, but by the time it’s been washed and ironed it could deteriorate into a hole. Or two. Or three. And you might not find them until you’re dressing the doll for her final photo session. And you’ll have to unstitch and redo it all. Sigh.
During the years when shifts were becoming chemises, stays were morphing into corsets. There were so many fashion changes over those decades that I didn’t really know which style to go with: long, short, cording, boning, busk? I just picked a look I liked (and had a grownup pattern to go by) and made it. Pink embroidery was a nice idea but mine looked messy so I picked it out. Instead, I limited the pink accents to extra stitching in the gores and was rather pleased with the result.
Next, Meli needed a petticoat and I needed one to copy. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of extant Regency “bodiced” petticoats. But sheer cotton dresses require petticoats, so I used a couple of tiny internet images of originals and my imagination.
Finally (2 years later) it was time for the gown! One cool thing about patterns in books is that while costumers fret over enlarging them, doll dressers find them just right! Kinda sorta. I still had to rely on my old standbys, paper towels and tape, to get the fit.
To make a pretty morning or afternoon gown (I’m not sure how to tell the difference – maybe look at what you’re wearing and then look at the clock?), I used some unusual sheer lilac cotton with a silky sheen on one side. The loose weave made it a bear to sew, though.
The bodice was the hard part. I lined it with glazed linen (I doubt I’ll do that again) and extended the lining so it could fold over to close in the front with tiny pins. The bib front is gathered and then the skirt is attached all around. The puffed sleeves are unlined. I intended to do something a little more creative than a ruffle, but I need some more practice first.
Last of all were the detachable long sleeves. They were sooo easy to make compared to the rest of the wardrobe. I should probably have made them a little longer for authenticity’s sake. Maybe another time.
Next on the list are some white muslin accessories, and then I plan to trim a bonnet, something truly millinerical. I have to say the last part of the definition quoted above really resonates with me, “Jack (or Jane?) of all trades.” And, I could add, mistress of none, but oh how much fun!
The first part of the book is the reference section, 400+ pages of information on textiles, right down to illustrations of the looms used to manufacture them. But the last sections are the most fun to read.
Appendix “A” has charts with sizes: home linens, gloves, buttons, corset covers, thimbles, and whalebones. There’s even a chart with yardage suggestions for most garments, rather like the back of pattern envelopes today. “B” has yardage, weight, and thread count. “C” is an appendix of tariffs, not particularly interesting except that it’s really cool to see what was being imported: human hair (unmanufactured), cotton quilts, artificial flowers, and hair of hogs for mattresses! “D” was, of all things, a German pronouncing dictionary – included because sales clerks who spoke German could command a higher salary!
But the best was last: Window Trimming (or How to Attract Women). The author sizes up his target.
“There are two classes of feminine buyers to whom the trimmed window appeals most strongly: the lady who has nothing to do looks round at the store windows through mere womanly curiosity; the lady who wants a dress or other article looks round for something to take her fancy: both are certain to be attracted by goods prettily displayed.”
I feel like I should feel offended. But I’m not. Sometimes I really do shop the first way, and sometimes the second! Cole advises on basic design elements and techniques, starting with conventional color theory. His comments are practical and pithy, “Red and orange are not pleasant companions.” Perfectly tasteful when arranging a shop window in 1890, right? However… “Divorce blue and violet forever.” Seriously? This time I am offended!
He continues with advice on the background of the window, and then goes on to arrangement. Time for some puffery! Did you know that heavy silk makes lovely displays when puffed just right? Window artists are directed to move their arms like exuberant conductors, raising armfuls of fabric and hammering down on the counter, jerking the selvedges outward and hitting the floating folds a sharp cut with the hand. But woe unto the artist who attempts to puff a flimsy silk “as it generally caves in, and so discloses the poverty of the fabric!” I hate it when that happens.
That reminds me, did I mention the free gifts with every purchase? Well, these extras (see left) are “usually given away with dress patterns of expensive materials.” I don’t suppose there are any new marketing tricks left. However, there are some old ones that have been forgotten. When was the last time you saw a Canning Apron Window? What, never?
Well, that was one suggestion for a theme window. “Many a lady who seldom finds time to enter into the hardships of housekeeping, just ‘pitches in’ during the canning season. It is taking time by the forelock simply to suggest that in this feature there is a grand opportunity for a realistic window display… A display of aprons, which are proper for such a time, and the arrangement of fruit in baskets and about the floor will be a change from old ways.” It certainly will.
But what about special events? This one’s a kicker: A Grand Army Window. “For occasions of Grand Army encampments or re-unions a window devoted to a representation of camp life is very appropriate.” By the time you’ve sodded the floor, added a tent complete with faux legs encased in army boots sticking out from it, knapsacks, and a coffee kettle over the fire, well, there you are in the good old days. But the description ends there, and I’m still trying to figure out – how the heck are you supposed to display any dress goods with that?
Wait, there’s more! Here are some illustrations of themes used to decorate windows. Let’s start with handkerchiefs.
And if you only want to do a few Easter lilies instead of a whole window, try this one.
What about something a little more creative, something to inspire thoughts of dressing children? Try a Loaded Cannon for infant’s wear. (If you’ve ever tried to dress a resistant toddler, this might not be so inappropriate.)
Now if you have a whole lot of prints that you want to showcase, here’s the perfect solution. Quilt shops, take note of these columns. This one “can be carried out with no more expense than that of a few hours labor.”
We all need reminding that it’s time to brush our teeth and comb our hair. And blow our noses.
And now to wind it all down, we have a spool display of gargantuan proportions. I want one.
More ideas include a May-pole, Toboggan Slide, Button Wheel, Parasol, Lace Fountain, and – are you ready? – a Bridge made of cuffs, 5-plaited shirts, canes and umbrellas, narrow black ties and white ones, carded cuff buttons, and pongee handkerchiefs. Mr. Cole would have loved decorating floats for parades!
He finishes with some excellent advice for the sales clerk, just as applicable today as it was then.
1. Be ready to receive customers with a gracious, cordial, and friendly address.
2. Never, under any circumstances, assume to know the business of your customers better than they do.
3. Treat your customer with respect, in fact, honor him in every way possible, since he has honored you by calling.
4. Use diligence and perseverance in showing goods and their merits in a scientific manner.
5. The crowning point is to fill the bill with a true artist’s eye, and sober, candid judgment… for future sales are at stake.
Thus with frankness, honesty and uprightness in every particular… the ambitious salesman will have lasting, satisfied customers, and have sold far more than anticipated.
Always remember that you needn’t be big to excel. “Don’t be discouraged if your window is small or badly constructed. Make the best of it, and carefully think out what kind of display will best suit the circumstances. You need a very small space to prove your taste and originality, and to make a show which people will cross the street to look at.”
I think we could apply that moral to a lot more than a shop window.
I’ll be sewing in Captain Nichols’ room, which will be outfitted for the 1910s with a 1914 hand crank machine, Miss Leah (a 1916 dress form), and an early garment drafting system that looks like a torture device, as well as all the hand sewing accoutrements necessary for a visiting seamstress.
I’ll be making doll clothes from patterns in the Mary Frances Sewing Book. Or at least fudgeling. I’m better at that than sewing!