Wrapping It Up, or, French Ladies Do It In Their Sleep

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?

Messrs Harding Howell & Co., 89 Pall Mall © The Trustees of the British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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.

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Thread papers made from old copy-book pages.

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!

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Here you can see the date “August 15th 1803” at the bottom of the page.

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?

Can you see the little cotton ball? It’s there, really! Science Museum Group. Model of Brunel’s cotton winding machine.. 1858-20. Science Museum Group Collection CC BY-NC-SA Online.https://collection.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/co44937.

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!

Are they the same “Diamond Sewing Cotton”? I guess I’ll never know. But there is certainly a resemblance!

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You can see there is no paper or cardboard center for these. And it does look like this style of wrapping hasn’t survived the years quite as well as an ordinary ball would have. But they were pretty!

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.

wrapping hand spools

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!

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And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:

What exquisite work, and how beautifully preserved! Special thanks to “diggerlee” on eBay for use of the photos!

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.

Where have you been all my life? A workbox tray filled with balls of thread that look like they’ve been there since they were purchased 200 years ago. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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!

A Milliner for Mélisande

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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.

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Preparing to fell the seam on the sleeve and gusset cut-in-one. The first time.

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.

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See the scattering of holes in the sleeve? Maybe I should’ve ignored them and pretended it was a real antique chemise.

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.

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Finished. For the second time. Drawstrings are placed inside both front and back, since I was copying an original that was done the same way.

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Once again, fighting patterns. It takes 3 times as long as the sewing!

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.

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A closeup of the pink silk I used to accent the gores. I managed to erase all trace of the pulled out embroidery fails. I wish my stitches were more even, but shadows and highlights in photographs can hide a multitude of irregularities.

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A view of the inside. You can barely see the little buttonholed slit at the bottom for inserting a busk, if Mélisande ever decides to wear one. Personally, I think her posture is a little stiff already.

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All laced up. Maybe not authentically, but it’s too much work to fuss!

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.

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The petticoat with a bodice. I made the skirt front flat and kept the gathers in the back.

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Yes, I skipped making any fastenings. I will eventually go back and add some ties, but I was just plain tired of the petticoat by this time! I did, however, add some stitches to protect the opening from tearing. Definitely a period technique.

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The finished petticoat.

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All undies on. Ready for the gown!

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.

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Designing and fitting, here we go again. But the “The Heart of the Tree” provided inspiration!

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.

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Can you see how loose the weave is? That meant taking really tiny stitches to prevent fraying and bad-hair-day seams. Ok, the seams were still a little frizzy.

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Here’s the apron/bib front dress opened to show how it’s put together.

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.

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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!

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If only I could make trimmings as pretty as nature! Wildflowers from my yard – can’t do better for inspiration, hmm?

Black Friday Window Shopping

Charity knows that the way to a man’s pocket is through his heart. Business knows that the channel to the same place is through the eye.”

Isn’t that just as true today as it was in 1890?

I was doing some serious Textile Nomenclature Research the other day and once again came across Cole’s 1892 A Complete Dictionary of Drygoods (and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool, and other fibrous substances, … &etc). This time I made it to the end of the book, and ended with my nose pressed against some virtual windows!

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. Cole thread counter“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!

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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.

Methods of puffing, draping, folding, and fanning the goods, to make an artistic display.

Printed cottons require different arrangement than silks. Modes must vary according to the finish in vogue!

This design is for a 3 tier window. You can see that the window dresser has mastered puffing and draping. I’ll take 8 yards of each. And I’ll need lining, buttons, hem tape….

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.)

“Loaded bargains in infants’ wear shooting high prices.”

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.”

Cole Columns Window

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.

Wearing Her Art on Her Sleeve

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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.

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This gown is fairly early, perhaps 1810s? and actually my favorite. The sleeve is cut on the bias, sort of, to suit the drawn thread pattern.

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You can just see the pretty – and simple! – stitches along the hem of the sleeve and the neckline. A variation of this is fairly common on later baby gowns, used along the waistband.

Wearing Her Art 06

This gown was probably not worked professionally. Why do I suspect that? Because it came with a sister! The next gown has the same trim, just a slightly different use of the pattern. It also has a secret….

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Secret revealed: a button! Looping up children’s sleeves was quite fashionable for many decades.

Wearing Her Art 01

Meet the sibling! Also very early and very simple, this little sleeve has tucks and the embroidery is placed differently on the gown itself.

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And this one also came with buttons and loops.

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Just in case you wanted to see how the loop was attached inside.

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Disappointingly simple? Flaws? Yes, it has a bit of damage, and the embroidery centers are only net, not needle lace. But oh my goodness! Look at the photo below of the skirt!

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Here’s a shot of skirt itself, in all its homemade, but elegant, glory! Even with the damage, this one is worth preserving.

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This early gown has points (Vandykes) on the sleeves and several rows on the hem. It comes reeeeally close to my favorite, above. And it’s a dimity stripe, rather than a fine muslin.

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Once again, buttons on the sleeve. Would you believe I didn’t notice the inside loops for ages? That’s why I never play those “observation/concentration” games. Fail.

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Here’s a peek at the inside. It’s also a good shot for seeing how the points are made.

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The loop wrapped around the Dorset button. I think it looks better undone.

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Now for some broderie anglaise! I know it didn’t reach the height of popularity until later, but something about this gown seems to suggest late 20s, early 30s. The sleeves just want to stretch out in that wiiiiide horizontal fashion.

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Could this be… romantic era? You think? It has enough floof for two babies.

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A view from above the extravagance. This is the sleeve at the top of the blog post.

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The collapse of romance; now moving into gothic restraint. Is that an oxymoron?

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I love this. Like a little window valance and ruffled curtains below!

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I’m not sure what to make of this one. Like the one above, it has the narrower sleeve and tight ruffles of 1840s. But the embroidery pattern looks earlier.

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Yes, 4 rows of ruffles. Gothic restraint my eye!

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This sleeve reminds me of the 2 above, but the rest of the gown seems to hint at a later date.

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I love all the elaborate work on this. And especially how the ruffles seem to be pleated (they’re not).

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Ruffles pressed out to flaunt their stuff!

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And now the last sleeve offering. It’s a pretty Ayrshire gown, made before they began to get a little coarser and machine sewn. Well, of course some baby gowns have always been hand sewn, but from the 1860s there were a lot more machine-made.

Wearing Her Art 29

1820s baby gown pattern – from a Dutch magazine? Or sold separately? It has the early classical simplicity of that time.

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.

Wearing Her Art Godey

An illustration from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857. So very mid-Victorian!

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.

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A Working Workbox

Workbox 01

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.

Workbox 02

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.

Workbox 03

You can see the clever way the center compartment was crafted. The wooden support slants down so that you press the lid on that end and the other pops up to be lifted!

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.

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The underside of the tray. It doesn’t look as shabby in person. Really.

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?].

Workbox 05

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?)

Workbox 06

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!

Workbox 07

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.

Workbox 08

Workbox 09

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!

Workbox 10

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.

Workbox 11

Workbox 13

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!

Workbox 12

Workbox 14In the meantime, all the buttons, wax, scissors, bodkins and other requisites for lady’s work can stay tidy in a Useful Box.

 

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Mystery of the Misfit Mitts

Misfit Mitts 01

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.

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The right mitt, palm side up, showing the light gathers of easing for the thumb.

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The inside stitching on the thumb.

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Marks where stitches were removed to make the arm wider.

Misfit Mitts 02

Interior view showing the seamed piecing that was added to give sufficient length, identical on both mitts.

Misfit Mitts 03

Close-up of the above; you can see the silk thread used for seaming and overcasting. Those are actually the same stitch; the seaming is shallow and close over two layers of cloth, and the overcasting is deeper and wider over the single layer to prevent raveling. The long side seams were backstitched and their edges left raw.

Misfit Mitts 05

Inside view of the the one-inch opening at the top of a mitt.

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Small mend or darn on the palm of the left mitt, seen from the right side.

Misfit Mitts 10

Darn at the base of the thumb on the left mitt, seen from the right side.

Misfit Mitts 11

Close-up of the darn at the thumb, seen from the inside – very neat and tidy. The close focus makes the fabric look coarse, but it’s not. It may not be fine, but it is fairly light, tight, and smooth to the touch.

Misfit Mitts 12 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!

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Marking Time

Marking Time 08

“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.”

Marking Time 07

A very early 19th century man’s square-cut shirt, marked “T W.”

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A heavier linen shirt marked “P D.”

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A lady’s cotton nightdress, c. 1830s or ’40s. Miss M.A.S. has marked it neatly below the center opening.

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A pattern from “The Instructor, or Young Man’s Best Companion,” first published in the early 1700s; this American edition is inscribed 1786. Marking was “necessary and useful for training up the younger Sort of the Femal [sic] Kind to the Needle.”

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?

Marking Time 09

Just how bad was this sewing task? Maybe this list from prison records of the City of Boston in 1861 gives a hint. Notice the numbers?

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:

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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.

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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.

Marking Time 06

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.

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Apparently this 1850s cloth stretcher worked pretty well, if its inky condition is any indication. The inner disk rests inside the outer ring; simply place the cloth you want to mark over the center and then place the ring around it – rather like an embroidery hoop.

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!

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From the Franklin Institute, 1859.

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Patented in 1859, this marking pencil has a suspiciously large amount of use left in it. But with later additional patents listed, it must have met with sufficient success.

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:

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But would stencils work with small letters and numbers on linen? Fortunately, we have surviving examples to show that they worked quite well.

Marking Time 03

Miss Hurlbut was probably a Mrs. Hurlbut. A search turned up this bit of genealogy:
“Cena B. Barrett m. Hiram Hurlbut 3 Feb. 1862, West Hartford, CT.”

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.

Marking Time 19

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!

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