You’ve probably heard of “writer’s block” before, but I wonder if there’s such a thing as “sewer’s block”? Perhaps for a designer or pattern maker, running out of ideas is not an unfamiliar experience.
Edwardian era lingerie dresses came in numberless variations and played large a part in enticing me into sewing history; my plain sewing passion started out as a fancy for fancy work. The snow-flake variety of designs, using only white fabric, lace, and embroidery, is mind-boggling. No surprise then that an English seamstress of 1900 was troubled by a dearth of ideas as she tried to earn her bread with her needle:
“In ladies’ dress the blouse has become a prominent feature, and it is one that lends itself to home industry…. Recently I visited a maker of blouses who was concocting with much taste and skill blouses of white muslin trimmed with embroidery. These would probably sell in shops for but a few shillings, yet the labour involved was not insignificant, for there was much tucking and trimming. The blouse-maker was a young married woman, and, having a small child to look after, could not perhaps easily go out as a dressmaker. Yet her occupation was fully as laborious. During the months before Christmas, she was obliged by her employer to make none but pattern blouses, that is to say, bodices of her own designing, no two being alike. She told me that she found this business of designing was most trying, and that she often lost her rest at night trying to think of some new style… She could make from three to six blouses a day.”*
Bless her heart, only three to six? When I made a simple one – with a commercial pattern – it took several days to do it! She was using a machine by that date, but those faster stitches meant more elaborate work was expected.
Ladies’ accessories (like collars and cuffs) and baby dresses also showed amazing creativity and variety. The surviving specimens are often the fine work that was done by professionals, but someone had to think up those designs, too!
I thought a sampling of sleeve patterns from infants’ gowns would be fun to compare. They tended to reflect current styles in women’s fashions, but perhaps you’ll notice that, even with a palette of white fabric, white lace, and white thread embroidery, the artists must have been losing some serious sleep.
N.B. The many shades of white are due to differences between the gowns (and how they were laundered), and in the fickleness of the camera, sunlight, and shade while I was trying to photograph them. I’ve tried to order them chronologically using one of my favorite books, Heather Toomer’s fabulous Baby wore white, and my (imperfect) guesses.
Many embroidery patterns were available early in the 19th century, but they weren’t usually specific to baby gowns. The one above is rather rare for c. 1820. Later, as women’s magazines proliferated, designs appeared frequently for gowns which could be ordered or copied for home sewing.
I’m in awe of the prodigious creativity that these designers and needleworkers display on such on tiny bits of cloth. And to think that the babies were oblivious to their splendor! It was left to their mothers, and other adoring fans, to appreciate the art on their sleeves.
*Bateson, Margaret. “Bread-Winning at Home.” The Girl’s Own Paper, 1900.
When Winnie the Pooh ate all the honey from the jar he had intended for Eeyore’s birthday present, he decided to give him a Useful Pot instead. I’ve always loved that story. Everybody needs a “Useful Pot to put things in.”
Like Eeyore, I’m awfully fond of Useful Pots – and boxes, and bags, and – well, anything that will hold red balloons or other Stuff. I found this pretty little box a long time ago, and even though it was missing any contents, the workmanship was neat and the condition was wonderful – and it had a key! My plan was to make period appropriate Stuff to go inside. Stuff I could actually use instead of conserve. And like all my projects, it’s taken a whooooole lot longer than I thought.
It probably dates mid- to late 19th century, although I tend to think later. I don’t know if it was professionally made and sold, but it seems to have a hint of “home-made” about it. It’s smaller than average, but everything about it is sturdy, smooth, and fits together perfectly. There was no need to refinish or even re-paper it.
There are three kinds of paper lining: the orange you see above (which was a added in its youth), the blue on the underside of the tray, and traces of an original gold-stamped pattern in deep pink, just peeking out from under the orange in places, all typical of the era.
What went in a workbox? It seems pretty obvious, but I like Useful Lists as well as boxes. The Workwoman’s Guide, c1840, devotes a paragraph to the subject.
A work-box, or basket, should be large enough to hold a moderate supply of work and all its requisites, without being of such a size as to be inconvenient to carry about, or lift with ease. There should be in it divisions or partitions, as they assist in keeping it in order; but some persons are apt to run into the extreme of over-partitioning their boxes, which defeats its own purpose and becomes troublesome; this should be carefully avoided. A work-box should contain six or eight of the useful sized white reel sewing cottons, black cotton, and silks, white, black, and coloured, both round, and for darning; a few useful tapes, bobbin, galloon, buttons of all kinds, including thread, pearl, metal, and black; also, hooks and eyes. An ample needlebook, containing a page of kerseymere for each sized needle, not omitting the darning, glove, stay, and worsted or carpet needles. There are various kinds of scissors; the most useful are, A large pair, for cutting out linen; A medium size, for common use; A small pair with rounded points; A smaller pair with sharper points, for cutting out muslin work &c.; Lace scissors with a flat knob at one of the points; Button-hole scissors. A pincushion, an emery cushion, a waxen reel for strengthening thread, a stiletto, bodkins, a thimble, a small knife, and a yard measure, made like a carpenter’s foot rule, only with nails instead of inches marked upon it….”
And in 1848, with true Victorian prolixity (but who am I to scoff?), The Seamstress advises
The materials employed in the construction of articles, which come under the denomination of plain needlework, are so various, that a mere list of them would occupy more than half our space; and they are so well known, that no necessity exists for naming them in detail. [She then proceeds to do so.] We shall therefore proceed, at once, to give plain directions, by which any lady may soon become expert in this necessary department of household uses, merely observing, that a neat work-box, well supplied with all the implements required – including knife, scissors (of at least three sizes) needles and pins in sufficient variety, bodkins, thimbles, thread and cotton, bobbins, marking silks, black lead pencils, india rubber, &c., should be provided, and be furnished with a lock and key, to prevent the contents being thrown into confusion by children [mea culpa], servants [don’t I wish], or unauthorized intruders [like a cat?].
The empty thread compartments were my first challenge. Finding authentic period spools was impossible, so if I wanted a matched set of “reels” I’d have to make my own. I found a swan design that I liked, and invented “Swann’s Best Cotton” and “Swann’s Finest Silk.” I pasted them on wooden spools and can now wind any thread I like onto them. (We know how soon that’s gonna happen, right?)
While the inventor’s genius was flaring within me, I decided to patent some hooks and eyes as well. A little research turned up Mary Jenkins, a widow, who actually DID patent her superior hooks and eyes in the 1840s. (Wouldn’t you love to know her story?) I have an antique box of hooks and eyes with no “brand,” so I just added her name to make my own version. A salute to female ingenuity!
Now what about female persistence in the face of adversity? Idiot that I am, I also wanted some silk winders. A “homemade Victorian craft look” was what I was aiming for, not easy when you have no talent for art. I drew a pattern and my helpful husband cut them out of matboard for me. An 1840s French needlework magazine supplied the floral graphics which I scanned and tidied up. I added them to the winders and watercolored the flowers. Yes, I can color pictures! So far, so good. But then I thought they needed gold edges – mistake! It took forever to paint them all on, both sides, straight, and I will never try that again.
No self-respecting workbox could be useful without a needlebook. Punched paper was all the rage mid to late century, and I thought that would suit the style of the box better than something fancier in silk. The floral pattern is from the Antique Pattern Library. The interior has wool flannel for holding needles, and the letters are from a Victorian marking pattern. Ok, the letters weren’t much different, but it allowed me the illusion of historicity!
One more project was on my list. I love the little walnut sewing trinkets that were popular, from fancy etuis to those made-at-home with scraps – which now sell for a small fortune as primitives! So I took a half shell and stuffed it with velvet covered wool, and then trimmed it with a green silk ribbon to complement the other colors. It kind of looks like I’ve turned a walnut into a strawberry disguised as a pincushion. Maybe I was hungry at the time.
A tassel for the key helps keep track of it. I’m also playing with the idea of a (removeable) label for the top and/or a card tucked inside. I’ve seen an antique with “Work-Box” on the lid which really caught my fancy but was out of my budget. The graphics I experimented with above are all authentic designs (Ackermann’s Repository, etc.). But I may not bother, since I’m debating taking it to the next heritage festival with a FOR SALE sign. This one took me so long that now I’ve got another box waiting its turn at rehab and I’m running out of room!
In the meantime, all the buttons, wax, scissors, bodkins and other requisites for lady’s work can stay tidy in a Useful Box.
It’s wonderful when old clothing comes with a provenance and a story, but when those are lacking it requires a deerstalker, a magnifying glass, and powerful reasoning skills. OK, maybe not the hat.
These mitts caught my eye because they are so different from the 18th century linen and silk embroidered beauties that I’ve seen in books and museums. Having never seen anything like them before, I was intrigued by their plain sewing simplicity. Time to look for clues. Ready, Watson?
They were meant for working rather than fashion because they were made of an ordinary quality muslin and show a good bit of wear.
They were worn during the era of very short sleeves (early 19th century) since they are a veeeery long 22 inches from hand opening to upper arm.
The maker knew something about sewing, since she cut them on the bias for a hint (barely a hint!) of stretch.
The stains were made by the lady when she wore them, rather than acquired during their decades in a trunk, since they don’t reflect storage folds.
The owner was thrifty because she mended them.
She was left-handed, since the left mitt has the worst stains, both mends, and the heaviest wear.
The owner either 1) washed them in hot water, 2) gained weight, or 3) didn’t try them on until she finished making them because the seams have been let out.
And here I’ve reached the end of my observations. What do you think, Watson?
Ah. Well. The lady wore them to protect her long sleeves and bedclothes while wearing beauty treatments overnight. The pattern would only fit the material on the bias. The left mitt was torn in the laundry mangle and stained when dropped on the dirty floor. They were darned by the laundress because she didn’t want a scolding from her mistress. And they were a hand-me-down from a sister who had skinnier arms.
Thank you, Watson. I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.
In the last photo, we have a final view of the mitts, as if their ghostly wearer were raising her arms in surrender, palms forward. But if she read Watson’s and my deductions, she’s probably raised her arms while hooting with laughter!
“Marking, as the name implies, is the art of putting some distinguishing sign or mark on body and household linen, so that it may not be lost, especially in the laundry. It is therefore necessary that all washing things are clearly and distinctly marked.”
OK, let’s mark some linen. Find a chart or a sampler for a pattern (see left). Take a sheet or a towel, a shirt or a shift, and a ball of red or blue marking cotton or silk.
Make a cross-stitch, taking the first diagonal stitch over two threads of the fabric, and then another for the other side of the X. Your letters and numbers must each be finished off separately and not connected by a thread on the back. They will be about seven X’s in height.
Depending on how fine your fabric is, that means your A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 might be (gulp) 3/8 of an inch tall! Yes, seven little stacked crosses making your initials only 3/8″ high. I think good eyes and a sunny window would help.
Is it any wonder that marking was considered painfully tedious? Any wonder that any alternative method of defending your linen was highly desirable?
As a student of plain work, I’m in awe of the blindingly tiny stitches that were used for marking. I’ve blogged about it some here and here. But anyone who studies plain sewing will notice that during the 19th century, a new solution was the solution: indelible ink!
Here’s a recipe (one of several) from The New Family Receipt-Book, 1811:
Apparently the new and easier way caught on quickly. By 1833, Lydia Maria Child states in The Girl’s Own Book, “Indelible ink is now so much in use, that the general habit of marking samplers is almost done away.” Letters marked with ink could be very neat and elegant, such as this example on a lady’s chemisette, dated 1860.
Or indelible ink could be somewhat … disappointing. Unlike stitches made with thread, you can’t pick out an uh-oh. Miss Colby probably cringed when she saw how this one turned out – an untidy finish to her corded stays.
But wait! As we move from marking with needle and thread to marking with pen and ink, we’re moving into the decades of innovation: those glorious years celebrated by Great Exhibitions and more new patents than you could shake a stick at. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your cloth held taut while you wrote? A cloth stretcher could handle that.
And if the ink got too messy, well, someone had an answer for that, too. An indelible marking pencil could solve all your linen identity crises. Housekeeper, is your “brain feeling considerably bothered” by directions for using ink? An indelible marking pencil can relieve it!
Indelible ink, cloth stretchers, and marking pencils weren’t the only advances on cross-stitch. Stencils were available from stationers or engravers, and could be had by mail order. Mr. Congdon of Worcester, Massachusetts offered such aids, as seen in his ad from 1856:
But would stencils work with small letters and numbers on linen? Fortunately, we have surviving examples to show that they worked quite well.
And if thread, ink, pencil, and stencil didn’t suit, along came another option: ready-made. The machine embroidered letters came on a length of tape. They even came in Traditional Turkey Red.
The pursuit of convenience was just as fervent in the 19th century as it is in ours today, but there have always been a few voices arguing the superiority of the old ways. They certainly kept marking in the needlework curriculum until the early 1900s. While requiring more skill and more time, marking with needle and thread rendered articles “ornamental, tidy, and finished.” I suppose the tiny marking stitches are the nicest way to make your mark – for all time!
You have to admire the genius of early dressmakers and needleworkers. Trims were expensive in either time or money in the 19th century, and the feminine impulse to embellish even underclothing meant that a lady needed quite a few yards of lace, crochet or tatting. Or… tape.
Years ago I found a beautifully preserved petticoat, c1860, with a meticulously “pointed” edging on the hem – all 144 inches of it. I always meant to figure out how it was done and perhaps even make some myself. So when I came across an illustrated article with directions for “Tape-work Edging” I decided to tackle this embellishment.
Very quickly made, she says? For four days I struggled to come to terms with a strip of paper and a vandyke point. I left little piles of crumpled scraps on every table in the house. Pointless, you say? Belaboring the point? Had I missed the point? (Awful puns and I’m worse in person.) Perhaps. But I was sure it could work because I could see the finished result! It got to the point where I was almost ready to unstitch the petticoat’s trim to see how it was done. The point of no return, as it were.
And that’s where I figured it out. No, I didn’t disfigure a relic. I took a straight pin and explored the folds under a bright light.
If you knit, crochet, or are otherwise gifted at following turns (Origami?), this next part will not be of interest since you have no trouble with Mrs. Weaver’s directions. But just in case there’s another soul out there who wants some extra help, here are photos!
As for what kind of tape Mrs. Weaver recommended, it was “Chinese tape No. 4.” I can’t help with the size, but I did find this on Chinese tape:
“…tape three-eighths of an inch wide, of that kind which, at some shops, is called “twilled tape,” “India tape,” “Chinese tape;” but it is of the kind that will not curl or get hard in the washing, and is rather coarse-looking than otherwise.”
That’s according to Godey’s, 1861, although it was repeated in other periodicals for the next 15 years. This tape must have been fairly inexpensive, because it takes a lot of it to make even a few inches.
“I have been sewing on a chemise for Zona today, it is pointed.” “I finished my pointed chemise about 3 o’clock this evening.” “I sewed some on my pantlets, pointed and tucked one.” “I sewed some on my pointed night cap.” “I cut out myself a chemise this morning, going to trim it with pointed tape trimming, some Dora gave me last summer.”
Of course there are many other ways to make pointed trim, and I’m hoping to write about one that I’ve seen on a Regency era dress. However, I was determined to figure out this particular tape version for myself, and the satisfaction of victory was worth the frustration. I’ve got a suspicion that somewhere, in a book or on the internet, is a brilliant explanation that would have saved me much anguish. If you know where to find it, please be kind and don’t point it out?
Lost somewhere between Lizzy Bennet’s spencers and Scarlett O’Hara’s hoops, the Romantic Era is woefully unappreciated. Maybe it’s because fashionable women resembled over-frosted cupcakes wearing hats like Rose Bowl parade floats. But oh my goodness. All that delicious feminine extravagance! This pattern from a French fashion magazine is typical for its time, and I thought I’d share it for Christmas.
After scanning and cleaning, I tried to add some holiday red and green to my copy for a photo. Unfortunately, the red looks pink. New color pencils are on my wish list!
Want to print a pattern to tuck in your workbox? If you’d like a free (meaning all you have to do is ask) actual-size pdf of this one, just email me. I’ll send it to you. Merry Christmas!
You’re never too old for dolls at Christmas! At least I’m not. I’d like to introduce Jessamine, a lovely doll made in the style of Izannah Walker, by the incomparably brilliant artist Paula Walton.
I’ve always longed for a doll like this lovely girl, and waited years before I was able to bring her home. I’ve had her for a while now, but that practice waiting has served me well – because it’s taken over a year to dress Jessamine in her first (hand sewn by me) outfit! But Christmas is here and she is ready.
The chemise came first, and I tried to make it with the same details that a real mid-19th century young lady’s might have had: gussets, gores, and binders. I know, unless you’re used to period costume terms, they sound like instruments of torture. I guess they were, actually, for me! It would have been a lot easier to make a simple doll chemise, and from now on any others will be quite plain. They’ll have to be; this one is so bulky that a dress has to be specially cut to fit over it. Live and learn.
Next came the drawers. Since Jessamine is an older girl, I decided she would have split rather than closed ones. Well, really I just wanted to make them that way. Of course that means it’s trickier for her to pose with them while retaining her modesty. But we managed. I suppose you can tell from the photo that this wasn’t taken in December? And surprise – it wasn’t this year, either!
A petticoat was essential, and this one is so full that she wouldn’t need another. It was made from the embroidered ruffle of an early 20th century, mass-produced, low quality, damaged piece. The elderly lady I purchased it from was apologetic over its condition, saying she was told that her great aunt had stood too close to the fire. While it’s sad to take apart anything, thereby tearing it from its history, some things wouldn’t survive at all otherwise. (I’m sounding rather apologetic myself, hmm?) But now this scorched phoenix has a future and a past!
Every young lady would need a corset, or if she wasn’t quite ready for that, a corded waist or stay-waist (or some other term for the same garment). Even though there are a zillion doll corsets out there for inspiration, I went exploring Cassell’s for a likely pattern.
I adapted it to Jessamine’s age (@150 or so) and used the fabric from a c1900 scrapped doll corset. What girl wouldn’t love lilac stays? There was a lapse of time between the modeling session below and the actual completion of the corset. Months, maybe? But I eventually finished the eyelets and added the straps.
After many more months (Pharaby was taking all my time) I began Jessamine’s dress. The fabric was a happy accident: an online store sent the wrong print years ago, and it’s been in my stash ever since. I made so many mistakes that I lost count. Yep, sleeves again; one went in upside down. Aaaalll the seams and gathers had to be picked out and redone. What’s so embarrassing is that I didn’t even notice it was upside down until I’d done all that unstitching for another reason – to make the gathers match the other side. Duh. Maybe that was why they weren’t even?
If you spend any time looking at 19th century portraits and daguerreotypes of children, you’ll notice that many (most?) girls wore coral necklaces. I was delighted to find a bargain to finish her ensemble. It was sold as a doll necklace but looks suspiciously like a bracelet. No matter. The graduated coral pieces make it look enough like a necklace to suit us just fine.
I wish I could claim credit for the pretty red shoes, but that goes to the her incredibly talented maker. Here’s a peek at Jessamine’s feet – too sweet! Transported back to 1860 as a child, I would have been sooo tempted to take her wading in the summer! (My dolls suffered worse.) But it’s December, I’m grown up, and there’ll be no such mischief. We wouldn’t want St. Nicholas to leave only a lump of coal, would we?
Old stereoviews have such intriguing sets. They show many articles of everyday life, such as you find today in antique stores or see artfully displayed in historic sites. But there’s nothing quite like seeing them surrounded by the people who originally used them.
I can get lost on Flickr or Pinterest, just playing voyeur. But of course it’s pictures that show sewing that are especially fascinating! The theme of this 1860s photo, an exasperated mother mending her child’s torn pants, was a favorite for humorous stereoviews and postcards for many decades.
What do we find here? Mother sits on a stool by the fire with her sleeves pushed up while she works, wearing one of those pretty headdresses that fill the pages of Godey’s and Peterson’s. She’s mending the pants which already have one patch (badly done to be obvious, since no neat seamstress would ever flaunt that), and glancing sternly at the culprit.
The little boy waits shame-faced on the table, wearing only his shirt, stockings and shoes. His little sister sits on the floor against a three-legged stool, playing with her doll. The older brother is wearing a suit and lying on the floor with a whirly wooden toy.
Clothes are drying over the fire, and the mantel holds candlesticks, plates and an unidentifiable object. Bowls are stacked on the table and the bellows hang below dippers and a frying pan.
But wait! There’s more! Why waste the carefully staged scene on a single card? A quick search turned up a superior version, which was also tinted. The photographer captures more of the props in this one.
Here the family has moved a bit. Now Mother’s pagoda sleeves are down (no visible undersleeves), little sister has recrossed her legs, and older brother is sitting on a crate. You can clearly see the saw by the door, and a lamp and dried vegetables (?) hanging from the ceiling. A wooden bucket waits under the table for slops (or perhaps a trip to the well), a colander hangs by the chimney, and a covered dish just shows behind the bowls.
What have I missed? Something, I’m sure. Or just my time-traveling self, peeking in the door to say hello!
I haven’t forgotten the plan to keep adding early prints to the Flower Patch collection here at Two Threads Back. I just lost sight of it for a little while. Literally.
Occasionally I get hit by a frantic cleaning frenzy and start to clear out and organize everything, almost compulsively. Yet every time I do, I forget where I’ve moved stuff. Out of sight, out of mind. The “out of mind” part is especially fitting.
Anyway, I opened a box today and there they were, the quilt pieces, waiting reproachfully for some attention. So I selected a wild little print, an early calico reminiscent of an animal pattern: leopard, amoeba, tortoiseshell? Hmm. I prefer the feline. Like the others, it dates to the first quarter of the 19th century, probably c.1810.
But really, what Regency lady would dare to wear it? It’s certainly not for the fainthearted, a milk-and-water miss. Or am I being too…catty?
What on earth is it? This wildly ruffly confection that conforms to no known human shape? Where would you wear it, on your person or on your lampshade? How? Why? Take a look at the photo above and see if you know.
Fashion history lovers might recognize it right away, but if you haven’t, here are some hints. It’s cotton (obviously), it’s hand sewn (of course), and it’s old (or it wouldn’t be of interest here).
It measures about 10 x 11 – in certain positions, anyway. I mean, how do you measure something shaped like that? It has one button and four loops, and it uses three basic plain sewing techniques: hemming, seaming, and whipping.
Yes, you’re right. It’s one of those crazy caps that were popular during the Regency (to use the term loosely) era, outré beyond belief, and probably subject to a little ridicule. I suspect they were for morning or afternoon wear.
This little cap manages to achieve its frothy excess with an ingenious pattern. There are four points, fairly simple to cut, which are then looped around a single button on the top. The result is lots of muslin bling for the stitching.
And that’s not all. It reminds me a tiny bit of one in the Workwoman’s Guide (see Pl. 9, Fig. 10). The author’s comment reveals its practicality.
This shape is particularly liked by the poor, from the ease with which it is made up and washed, as, upon undrawing the string, it opens readily at the top, and lies quite flat to be ironed.
As an Artifact Rescuer, I certainly appreciate the ease of laundering! But the most surprising thing of all? It doesn’t look so silly, but rather charming when worn. The effect is extremely flattering. So caps off to the creator of this one!
Pharaby, all 16 inches of her, is finally dressed. And contrary to my original intentions, this may be her only outfit! No Pharaby, it’s not you, it’s me.
Since I haven’t posted our progress on the gown and final accessories, I decided to say it with (mostly) pictures. For the gown, I’d purchased a red and white cotton that proved not to be colorfast. Guess who has a cute little pink spotted ironing board cover now? However, I’m so in love with the fabric that I’d choose it again. It reminds me of the dress on the Dudmaston doll, seen here.
With the gown and petticoat finished, I moved on to her apron. I wanted to use some original 1770s patterns for the embroidery. However … with my limited fancywork repertoire, I had to choose REALLY SIMPLE designs that could be done in a couple different stitches. Like chainstitch. Buttonhole. Running.
Next came her handkerchief (or fichu, or half-handkerchief). I didn’t do any lace or embroidery on it, since she planned to wear it tucked in. It’s made of the same lovely muslin as her apron. It’s different from her sleeve ruffles, which were salvaged from an antique piece. The older stuff just can’t be matched today, although this came pretty close!
Last of all were the shoes. I hadn’t a clue how to do them and I’m afraid it shows. This time I didn’t even bother reading or watching tutorials. I just jumped in with both…hands. Pharaby’s poor little feet are only an inch and a half long, and unique. I don’t mean compared to other doll feet, I mean compared to each other. So I made paper ones for patterns, and then used silk scraps and lined them with linen. They’re green because that’s what I had, and I happen to adore green shoes. They’re bound with blue ribbon because the only ribbon wide enough was some left from her cap!
So Pharaby’s finished, for now anyway. She’s very dear to me, after this long adventure. And she’ll always be a reminder of my father’s love of fun – and love for me.
Beulah Hosley did indeed land a job as a sewing instructor – for $30 a month! Her date of assignment was June 17, 1912. But she resigned three days later. What happened to Miss Hosley and why am I curious?
It’s because I found her name inside the cover of a sewing manual from 1911. The textbook is a neat little edition, with all her samples carefully worked and attached to the pages. Most versions of this book that I’ve come across are larger with more samples, but it appears that Beulah learned all that was necessary to become a sewing teacher.
She was, if not exactly ahead of her time, at least up with the times. At age 21, her graduation in Domestic Science from the State School of Agriculture in Canton, New York qualified her to teach or to … keep house very nicely!
“The fourth annual commencement exercises of the State School of Agriculture were held at the opera house yesterday afternoon, and proved intensely interesting. The State School of Agriculture and the Domestic Science department are advancing by leaps and bounds, and the entering class is expected to largely exceed any prior one.” – The Ogdensburg Journal, June 12, 1912.
Beulah Hosley learned how to hem, tuck, herring-bone, darn, mend, gather, and do all the other stitches required for handwork. I would guess that she also learned to use a machine and perhaps some basic garment cutting, but I didn’t find any further information on those classes.
But why so short a tenure at her first job? Homesickness? It was far from her home in St. Lawrence County. Or perhaps it was where she was teaching: the Rome State Custodial Asylum in Oneida County New York. The name conjures Dickensian images of miserable people living in wretched conditions. But when I read more about the early years of the home, I realized that Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly had prejudiced me somewhat. Somewhat.
The institution was founded in 1827 as the Oneida County Poorhouse, and it remained in existence until 1989. As I scanned circa 1910 reports from the Board of Managers, it was evident that much care and effort went into the enormous task of providing for and educating the people who lived there.
They had a dairy, a hennery, a piggery; an orchestra, a baseball team, a choir; a menagerie, fairs, and concerts. Everything was recorded and reported, from the number of cases of tuberculosis to pink eye to syphilis, as well as how many quarts of blackberries and currants were consumed. And of course, sewing classes! Still, to read the reports is to glimpse the struggles, the suffering, and the shame found even in an “enlightened” institution in the early 1900s.
But back to Beulah’s story. I haven’t learned why she didn’t stay there, nor whether she found another teaching job. I do know that she went on to live a comfortable life; she married a couple of years later and had children. Her name appeared in the college alumni publications for many decades after. Did she use her sewing skills at home? Quite possibly. She certainly left a lovely record of the skills she acquired, beautifully preserved for our admiration!
Nineteenth century ladies, the ones who were fortunate enough to have time for crafts, didn’t only do needlework. The local “Ladies’ Warehouse” must have been as packed with goodies as our craft stores today. Just scanning a list of genteel amusements is pretty overwhelming: shell work, bead work, feather pictures, seaweed art, leather flowers, potichomanie (I dare you to guess that one!), wax fruit, plaster casting, Japan painting, fern printing, glass staining, and countless other projects kept hands busy.
For this project, I was inspired by the little paper boxes that have survived, usually rather tattered and worn, and the quaint phrases that commonly appeared on souvenirs and gifts. Suitable for buttons, needles, etc., it only required a papier-mâché box, glue, paint, Dresden trim, and patterned paper. Oh, and I used a purchased label, gussied up with a gold pen.
At first I thought I’d hit on something fun to sell at craft fairs, but like all my endeavors, this one took at least five times longer than expected. Assuming I sold any, I’d be making a few cents an hour – probably less than this woman did. The picture is from Harper’s Bazar, 1868, and illustrates various occupations of modern women.
“A large number, 1400 or 1500 females, are employed in the manufacture of paper-boxes. These are mostly very young persons, and the average of wages paid is about $50 per week. The work is simple and requires little practical knowledge, and girls are worth as much to an employer in their second week as in their second year at this work.”
Well, I’d like to think my worth would increase with my practice, but I doubt I’ll find out. This box will serve decorative rather than functional purposes, and express my esteem rather than enhance it – I hope!
In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d share one of my happiest memories. I don’t have many things saved from my childhood, but I do have this beloved dress made by my mother. Barbie was the doll when I was growing up, and oh how my sister and I loved playing with ours!
We put them through the tortures and triumphs of every book or TV plot we knew – and invented even more. They pioneered across raging rivers, got lost in space, and escaped drowning in birdbaths. Once we discovered that flour paste hardened into the perfect cast for a broken limb, our poor Barbies fell out of so many trees that they looked like mummies on crutches.
But best of all was dressing them. You hadn’t really played Barbies until you’d changed their clothes at least a dozen times. One special Christmas my mother made Barbie clothes for us – and if you have two little girls close in age, you don’t make a few different ones for each child. You make two of everything, both alike.
To a seven year old, surprises just happen. I never wondered how the splendid array of doll costumes came to be under the tree. But my mother told me later that she had to sew late at night, after we were asleep. Two. Of. Everything.
Here’s the skating costume that she made out of red satin, lined with white flannel. She couldn’t have known the night she sewed this that her work would still mean so much, so many years later. I’ll be sure to tell her today.
Actually, that should be “Pharaby Sets Her Cap Aside” – for now, anyway. I haven’t completely neglected Pharaby all these months, but sometimes remembering to take photos, and then remembering where I saved them, delay my writing about her wardrobe’s progress.
This project also took longer than I thought it would. It was hard figuring out what I wanted her to wear. Most surviving Queen Anne dolls just have little bits of lace and silk gathered and stuck atop their heads, or if they’re wearing more constructed caps, the photos don’t show sufficient details for me to copy. And sometimes the surviving headwear is not original to the doll, being so obviously 19th century that even I can tell!
In the end I decided on this style, because it was easy to make a pattern and I’m familiar with the sewing techniques. The cap is formed from a simple half circle gathered at the base of the neck and the crown and trimmed with plain frills.
I did experience one of those aha moments when attaching the headpiece/band/brim to the crown. It was easy to “set in” the little gathers on the top thanks to the fact that the band was double. It worked just the same way as setting a gathered sleeve into a cuff! Maybe that’s why they so often had double brims?
My attempt at narrow hems was a flop, at least compared to what 18th century women could do. But I did manage a very nice tiny eyelet for the back drawstring. It would have been nicer if I’d also remembered to put in the strings and tack them in place before I hemmed the casing down! Did you know that you can thread a large needle and retro-fit a string into a casing?
Perhaps you’ve noticed none of these pictures show Pharaby wearing the cap? That’s due to my inadequacies as a perruquier. Every time I place something on her wig and then remove it, a few mo-hairs (groan) come loose from the carefully arranged style. In order to keep it all together until her final dressing, I had to limit the try-on’s. Pharaby won’t be modeling her cap for a while, so I let a wineglass serve as a mannequin – and then serve to celebrate one more project done!
Perhaps I should have titled this “What Do You Do When Old Looks New?” These stripes are from the same early 19th century quilt as all the other Flower Patch samples, but they look so modern to me that if I weren’t completely sure about their age, I’d think someone was sneaking in new fabric. However, I’m convinced that all the different fabrics date to within the same few years. (Any fabric experts passing this way are welcome to call and opine!)
I could easily see this pattern on a man’s shirt today. But what would it have been used for then – gowns, aprons, children’s clothes? These have the same glazed finish that many of the others do, and I’ve added the very last picture to try to show that.