What’s in Your Pocket?

Pocket Book 01

It seems like even hobbies go through seasons, and mine has certainly been in a slow one. However, there’s nothing like a new book to start things stirring again.

Ever since seeing the online Pockets of History exhibit, I’ve been wishing for a book with more on the subject. So of course I was delighted when I learned about this one! The Pocket – A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, was published in May by Yale University Press. I’ve just started to explore it. How could I resist? It touches on all my favorite subjects, not only textiles, costume, and needlework, but fascinating little bits of material culture and stories (sadly too brief) associated with them.

Who knew that a pocket could have a “heart-bit” too? But it makes good sense because the stitching was a decorative way to reinforce an opening.

The book offers a great close-up of a heart-bit on a pocket, which looks much like the one on this muslin child’s gown, circa early nineteenth century.

There’s also discussion of marking and learning to mark, and the importance to women of claiming ownership. The Pocket even touches on needlework education, which thrills my plain sewing pedagogical heart no end!

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Pockets show the same style of marking as other plain sewing items, like this schoolgirl’s practice marking piece (c1850) with an unfinished “H.” The ruler shows how small the marking could be.

The book is full of beautiful photos that reveal the diversity of pockets. I even got a patchwork fix, thanks to these made with colorful prints. Other illustrations include period art, engravings, advertising, and some splendid close-ups of the textiles and embroidery.  And wonder of wonders: doll pockets!

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A section of paper piecing (you might recognize a few from the Flower Patch posts) laid across some of the gorgeous illustrations. I’m always hoping for a pattern match, yet always disappointed.

I think the most delightful part of the book is learning about the little treasures and scraps that were pocketed. Or wait – maybe it’s the stories? The authors’ research reveals fascinating bits of women’s lives, and the pocket contents added to their stories as well. The list is extensive: money, gloves, books, pencils, medicine, “characters” (an employment reference), food, jewelry, handkerchiefs, clothing, charms, combs, cosmetics, tickets, snuff boxes, cutlery, letters, and even pilfered goods. Hmm… barring the last mentioned (one would hope), it’s really the same as you might find in a handbag today. Ok, maybe not the snuffbox.

The only pocket I’ve made is a miniature one for Pharaby. I’ve never made a people-sized one. I rather like the idea of sewing a pocket for myself. No particular purpose, just fun. It would be a terrific way to practice plain sewing skills and experiment with some fancywork as well.

If you find these topics as fascinating too, I highly recommend The Pocket. It provides such a wealth of information that you won’t actually find yourself … out of pocket.

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Too tempting! I gave in and created a collection for a pocket-to-be: scissors, thimble, whist counters, love poem, ribbon, pattern, love token (look closer, it’s really NOT Billy Bones’ black spot!) and a broken coral necklace awaiting repair. Still. Waiting.

 

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!

Cole Color WindowB

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.
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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.
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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.

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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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Mystery of the Misfit Mitts

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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.
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Interior view showing the seamed piecing that was added to give sufficient length, identical on both mitts.
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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.
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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.
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Darn at the base of the thumb on the left mitt, seen from the right side.
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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

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“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.”

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Pointed Remarks

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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.

Here is Mrs. Weaver’s tutorial from Peterson’s Magazine, 1864 (it appeared the same year in Godey’s Lady’s Book):
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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.

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A view of the back of the vandyke, or pointed, edging on the petticoat. This trim, like the petticoat itself, was done completely by hand and not finished with a line of machine stitching.

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!

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I printed and cut out Mrs. Weaver’s pattern, and below it is my 1/2 inch strip of lined paper with the first fold made.
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I made a second fold, with the left (beginning) end of my paper tape still in a horizontal position.
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Same 2 folds, but I repositioned the end of my tape to match the pattern. And behold! It looked like the left side of the first point!
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The next folds were trickier; I twisted the tape into a cone shape, and then flattened it to make the right half of the point.
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To begin the second point, I folded the tape toward the front.
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Then I wrapped the tape around itself, and brought it out horizontally; the left half of the second point was done.
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Again I twisted the tape into a cone and then flattened it to make the right half of the second point.
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To begin the third point, I folded the tape toward the back. The beginning of each point alternates; one folded to the front, the next one folded to the back.
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Here again I wrapped the tape around itself, bringing the long working length out horizontally.
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Then I twisted and flattened a cone to complete the right side of the point. Third point done.
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A view from the back, three and a half points.

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.

These weren’t the only references to points and clothing (circa 1860s) that I’ve read recently. Fear in North Carolina: The Civil War Journals and Letters of the Henry Family is a fascinating look at daily life in the southern Appalachians during the war years. In it, Cornelia Henry mentions pointing several times, although I don’t know if she’s referring to the same technique.

“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?

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Four points completed.
Four points aft.
Four points from the back side, underside, inside, wrong side…

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Poofy, Floofy, and Slightly Goofy

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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.

A view from the rear.
A view from the rear.
With one loop & button fastened.
With one loop fastened to the button.
With two loops fastened. Like we're doing a strip-tease in reverse here.
With two loops fastened to the button. Like we’re doing a strip-tease in reverse.
A peek at the loop.
A peek at the loop.
A peek at the insertion. Notice the embroidery was meant for an edge rather than the center of a pattern. You use what you've got, right? Or maybe she had one of those "Aarrgh!" moments once she sewed it in. I'm familiar with those.
A peek at the insertion. Can you tell that the embroidery was meant for an edge rather than the center of a design? You use what you’ve got available, I suppose. Or maybe the maker had one of those “Aarrgh!” moments once she sewed it in. I’m familiar with those.
poofy-05
A peek at the gathering cord. It’s different from the tiny flat tapes used for the loops. You can also see the “seaming” (a plain sewing term) where two selvages are almost invisibly joined.
A peek at how the tie is tacked on - and by now, you know what this is.
A peek at how the tie is tacked on – and by now, you know what this is.

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!

An easy pattern. And that's saying something, coming from yours truly.
An easy pattern. And that’s saying something, coming from yours truly.

poofy-10

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Deconstruction

Skirt Hook

No, I’m not delving into postmodernism here, I’m talking about sewing – and unsewing! I was sitting on my porch last week, relishing the warm spring breezes and taking advantage of the bright afternoon light to salvage a sad old black silk skirt. As I worked, I realized that most of the sewing had been done by hand, and that I might pay tribute to those hands by sharing pictures before it was gone forever.

Skirt Damage
Silk damaged beyond repair.

Lest you think I cannibalize antique textiles lightly, let me assure you there was no saving this piece. It was a silk faille gored skirt – of such a generic cut that I hesitate even to date it – which had begun to shred and shatter all over. The lining was in excellent condition though, so I wanted to preserve that for reuse.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a picture of the whole skirt before I began. Although it might not have added much to this post since solid shiny black is notoriously hard to photograph! The cut was smooth and somewhat fitted across the front, tapering slightly toward an “A-line” silhouette, with tight gathers in the back. It had a narrow waistband, and two tiers of ruffles trimmed the hem.

Skirt Seam
Side seam of skirt, running stitches with a few backstitches piled on for good measure.

The silk fabric was about 21″ wide with white stripes along each selvage. The skirt was completely lined with the standard brown cotton, and then an extra piece of darker glazed cotton was added to the bottom ten inches. A velvet binding strip protected the edge of the hem. There was one deep pocket which looked like a later, rather clumsy, addition.

Skirt Linings
The extra lining along the lower part of the skirt is neatly hemmed down.
Skirt Pocket
A view of the pocket from inside. Maybe added later?

I hadn’t expected to find hand sewing in this piece, so I was intrigued to note the different types of stitching and thread. The long side seams used a basic running stitch made with a heavy brown cotton thread. Although the finished skirt was nice and sturdy, some of the stitches weren’t particularly neat or even.

Skirt Overcast
The only seam finishing, overcasting, was done where the lining edge was raw. I don’t think the maker was too worried about raveling.

Raw edges of lining were roughly overcast with a light colored thread. The waist was “gauged” in the back. Machine work was limited to the top stitching of the waistband and the hems of the bias-cut ruffles. The only careful handwork was the finishing in some places on the lining. A brass hook and eye were the only fastening, and two loops were attached inside for hanging.

Skirt Gauge Out
The skirt back was tightly gathered using the gauging technique.
Skirt Gauge In
Here’s a view of the gathers from the inside.
Skirt Ruffle Out
The ruffle was hemmed by machine, but gathering stitches were made by hand.
Skirt Ruffle In
And it looks like they were done at high speed!
Skirt Selvedge Finish
The seamstress took extra pains when hemming down the inside of the placket opening with a finer weight thread.
Skirt Velvet Out
It was common in the 19th century to finish skirt hems with a sturdy braid, wool or velvet, to protect them from wear. It could be purchased ready-made, but this velvet strip appeared homemade.

The deconstruction process was predictably tedious, but there was one moment that’s hard to describe. I was working on the old velvet at the hem when out spilled sand and bits of twigs. The debris had obviously been locked inside for a more than a century. It was as if a shadow passed by while I worked. Who was the woman who wore this skirt? Where was she walking, what was she doing, what was she thinking on the day when her shoes kicked up that sand? I don’t suppose I’ll ever know. But I hope her afternoon was as lovely as the one I enjoyed.

Skirt Velvet In
I tried to offer a peek inside the velvet, but it’s too dark to see. I couldn’t hold the crease open with one hand and take a picture with the other!

 

If Mr. Darcy’s Wet Shirt Shrank

Mini Shirt 01

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to the most exciting news I’ve seen all year. Mr. Darcy’s Shirt is coming to the U.S.! Yes, you can forget Tutankhamun’s treasures or the Beauty of Xiaohe. Mr. Darcy’s shirt outranks them all.

Who can forget the (totally not in the book) scene from the 1995 Pride and Prejudice film where Mr. Darcy rises from the lake at Pemberley after his swim, only to run into the startled and stunned Miss Elizabeth Bennett? Be still my heart.

Unfortunately I won’t get to see the celebrity shirt on display, so I’ll have to content myself with a miniature version. This is a tiny “sampler” shirt dated 1838, very much like the square-cut linen one that embarrassed the soggy Colin Firth and melted the rest of us.

It measures 7 inches from the top of the tall collar to the hem. The cuff is 1 and 3/8  by 1/2 inch. The backstitches per inch are so small that I cannot count them. There are microscopic gussets on the collar, the sleeve openings at the wrists, and the side flaps. Oh, and of course there are the underarm gussets that are a whopping 1 inch long.

Mini Shirt 02
The back – notice the “binders” which line the armscyes inside the shirt.
Mini Shirt 03
Here you can see the tiny collar gusset, over which the “shoulder strap” lies.
Mini Shirt 08
A view of the shoulder strap which is backstitched on both edges.

Mini Shirt 05

Mini Shirt 09
The sleeves are set into the body with gathering and stroking.
Mini Shirt 04
You can barely see the diminutive gusset at the end of the sleeve opening. Its purpose was to allow ease, so the shirt would be less likely to tear at that joined seam.
Mini Shirt 10
This cuff has come unstitched, and you can see how tiny the sewn gathers are.
Mini Shirt 07
Here is a view of the gusset for the side flaps of the shirt, also meant to reduce tearing and the seam.

Colin Firth in a wet linen shirt, or a sampler made by tiny fingers in days long gone? I don’t know which one makes my heart beat faster: the man-sized or the miniature. But who would shrink from a closer examination of either?

Alas and Alack, I Take It Back

Alas and Alack
A cotton chemise, unlike either the French or English styles below. I’m going out on a limb here and guessing… American, 1853.

Wouldn’t you know it? Maybe there’s a Murphy’s Law of blogging. Just after proclaiming in my last post that there were no noteworthy distinctions in French and English chemises, I came across the illustrations you see below.

The only difference mentioned in the accompanying text is that the English style is for “skinny persons.” There may be more clues in the cutting directions, but with no knowledge of French, I’ll have to let that pass. The book was published in 1847, and is surprisingly primitive, at least compared to the detailed and beautifully illustrated French magazines of the same period.

However, I still can’t determine that English-made shifts were of one particular pattern, and the French used another. It seems more likely that a lady cut her shift and its gores according to the size of her fabric – and herself! But in the interest of Truth in Blogging, I submit the following:

Chemise Francaise
Chemise Francaise. Of course it looks more complicated – they have a reputation to uphold.
Chemise Anglaise
Chemise Anglaise. No nonsense, for skinny persons.

The Shift to Chemise

Shift to Chemise 1
Shifting from shifts to chemises.

Language is a funny thing. I suppose we’re all guilty of following fads in our choice of words, and we all have particular phrases we find irritating or amusing – in other people.  I recently came across an example by Jane Austen, written in 1817, just as the polite name of a woman’s undergarment was changing.

Your Anne is dreadful – . But nothing offends me so much as the absurdity of not being able to pronounce the word Shift. I could forgive her any follies in English, rather than the Mock Modesty of that french word…’

So presumably Miss Austen was still wearing shifts, when other ladies were beginning to wear chemises. She wasn’t alone, however, in her annoyance with linguistic affectations. Pantalogia, a New Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Comprehending a Complete Series of Human Genius, Learning, and Industry, Alphabetically Arranged; with a General Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Words (1819) has this to say:

CHEMISE, the French word for that article of linen under dress which when worn by men is called a shirt, by women a shift. Some few modern English ladies, with an affected squeamishness of delicacy, restrict the term always so as to denote the article of female dress chemise de femme; but as every one knows what they mean by the expression, and we see no reason why every one should not know what they mean, we recommend the use of the old English term, and the abandonment of the corresponding French word.

Was there really any difference between a shift and a chemise? Well, yes and no. No, because they both referred to the same lady’s undergarment. Yes, because when the word “shift” was used (up until the early 19th century), the garment was usually made of linen and was simpler in cut.  As the word “chemise” became standard, variations in pattern and trimming were increasing and the chemise was more often made of cotton.

So much for the term; now was there any significant difference in the French and English methods of making this garment? I haven’t found anything consistently, unmistakably,  irrefutably, definitively identifiable. When I examine an old chemise, whether in a book, online, or in person, I can’t raise an eyebrow knowingly and say, Ah yes, English, 1832.

But with the interest and expertise I see popping up in blogs and books, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has – or will – come up with a list of distinguishing features.

If you are curious (or courageous) and would like to compare for yourself, below is a pattern and description, 1840, from a French periodical. (Please excuse my awkward translation. If you are fluent in French and English, I beg you to let me know and help me correct it!) English patterns and instructions of the same date are available in the Workwoman’s Guide.

Shift to Chemise 2
A pattern for a lady’s chemise, 1840.

No. 8 is a woman’s chemise. For ten chemises, purchase 25 meters of percale; take off a meter, and cut the rest into ten pieces; fold these pieces into two; on side No. 1, cut the gore that you add to the other side, cut by a thread as shown in No. 2; inside cut two gussets; indent around the neck; this is shown in No. 3; the sleeves are cut on the bias. Gather slightly on top of the arm and hem the bottom with backstitching. The armholes have to be a little curved under the arm. Take the remaining meter, measure a narrow band along the edge, then cut twenty pieces for double shoulder straps; these pieces are indicated by dotted lines; place a narrow piece of tape between the shoulder strap and its lining, there you insert the sleeve and backstitch, and you fold the lining over; gather the top of the chemise, as indicated, and insert a narrow tape of a meter in length; then cover this piece of tape with a band of percale; using backstitching and hemming, then fold under. Mark the chemise over the left gusset.

Up Her Sleeve

Shift 1 Sleeve
Here is the sleeve slipped into the first shift.

As a follow-up to the previous post – and a helpful comment, thank you! – I’ve tried slipping the sleeve (cuff, undersleeve, engageante?) into the sleeve of a linen shift. Well, three different shifts. Above is the first. Very nice fit!

The next one, below, is an even better fit.

Shift 2 Sleeve
Just about perfect! You’ll notice the sleeve length on this shift, unlike the first one above, extends past the gusset.

The last one I tried just for comparison. It’s obviously a wider sleeve, and I have a feeling that the shift was perhaps of an earlier date, and the sleeve was cut off to fit later fashions. And after looking at a few over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was rather common. Although a shift didn’t require as much work as man’s shirt, the tiny stitches worked on fine linen were very tedious to do, and clothing was valuable!

Shift 3 Sleeve
Sorry Cinderella, it’s not quite right. This last shift is in the original “attic find” condition. Can you tell?

Cuff Links – to the Past

The Mystery! Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did She wear them with?
The Mystery. Cuffs? Undersleeves? What the heck are they and what did she wear them with?

It’s summertime, as you can tell by the artfully posed hydrangea, and time for a little mystery. Every now and then I come across examples of plain sewing that are rather puzzling. This pretty pair of sleeves (or cuffs) are not like any I’ve seen before.

They certainly do look early nineteenth century. The gathered section is a very delicate white muslin with stripe pattern. The flat section is an extremely fine linen, the kind of linen used for infant clothing and men’s “shirt bosoms.”

On the muslin end of the sleeve there’s a triple row of gathered cording, a feature that was popular in the early 1800s. The linen end has a narrow hem and is divided all the way to the gathers, almost like it was meant to fold back. The sewing is neat and tiny, with an occasional clumsy stitch, just along the gathers.

Sleeve Cuff 7
Gathers from the inside.

And speaking of the gathers… the method used to attach them is not commonly used for joining a flat to a gathered part in most of the plain sewing I’ve seen – a type of felling? It appears the linen and muslin were half-backstitched together, then felled, with a stitch in each gather.

Gathers from the outside.
Gathers from the outside.

Well, silly me. Of course the usual method of inserting gathers into a band and then sewing them on both the inside and outside wouldn’t work here: there’s only one layer to the band!

The blue cotton marking thread is almost invisible now, but it is miniscule. The height of the letters is .4 centimeter (just over 1/8 inch), and each stitch is made over two threads. Early marking charts and samplers did not have a “J” but used the letter “I” instead. So was the owner “J R” or “I R”?

Sleeve Cuff 2
Blue cotton marking, “I R” – who was she?
Sleeve Cuff 8
It’s easier to see when held against the light.

I think my favorite bit of handwork here is the mending. These sleeves were worn enough to fade the marking, but I don’t know if the repair is due to a worn spot or a tear. Either way, the fix is a work of art.

Sleeve Cuff 5
The mend from the inside.
Sleeve Cuff 4
The mend from the outside.
Sleeve Cuff 9
A cord to tie.

Just above the marking is a fine cotton cord, obviously meant to attach the sleeve to another garment. Both are still in place and appear original.

Well, so much for my observations and (right or wrong) interpretation. On to my questions.

Why are the sleeves so big? The circumference of the linen end is about ten inches, the muslin cording about nine inches. My scrawny wrists are less than five and a half, and so the sleeves look absurdly baggy when I slip them on. And even men’s shirts of the era don’t usually have cuffs that big, so it can’t be just me!

What were they worn with? The total length is about seven inches, so they’re really too long to fit the end of a long sleeve anyway, without some peculiar looking bunching up. Were they not intended for ladies’ apparel? Were they worn with some special type of  clothing, religious or a costume?

Sleeve Cuff 3
Open slit in the upper band.

Why is there a slit in the linen band? It’s configured so that the hems are not meant to be turned back. Why is there no way to adjust the corded gathered end? They are a fixed size.

Hmm. As I was trying them over my hand and onto my wrist, I tried slipping them up my (correspondingly scrawny) arm, past the elbow. Aha! A perfect fit! And the opening in the linen allows for movement or shifting around a bit on my arm. So is that the answer?

I’m so accustomed to seeing the underleeves that were worn in the mid-nineteenth century, or the cuffs that have been worn for centuries, that I wasn’t expecting something different like short sleeves. Were these intended for wear with the short sleeved gowns of the Regency era? I don’t know.

I’m not (always) shy about sharing my costume and sewing blunders and misunderstandings. So if you have the answer up your sleeve, please – do tell!

Nourishing Juices

Diaper 1
Diaper cover, late 19th century. Plain sewing in flannel! Could those red cotton stitches be laundry marks?

There is an odd Notion enough entertained about Change, and the keeping of Children clean. Some imagine that clean Linnen and fresh Cloaths draw, and rob them of their nourishing Juices. I cannot see that they do any thing more than imbibe a little of that Moisture which their Bodies exhale. Were it as is supposed, it would be of service to them; since they are always too abundantly supplied, and therefore I think they cannot be changed too often, and would have them clean every Day; as it would free them from Stinks and Sournesses, which are not only offensive, but very prejudicial to the tender State of Infancy. – Dr. William Cadogan, 18th century author of An Essay upon Nursing

Plain sewing examples are usually cotton or linen, but here’s one of wool flannel:  a baby’s diaper (or napkin) cover. Maybe this one is similar to what Mrs. Bakewell meant in her 1836 Mother’s Practical Guide. “I cannot too strongly recommend the use of a flannel napkin over the diaper for the very young babes, when they are carried out. The chest, too, should be guarded with flannel, especially if there be any constitutional or hereditary predisposition to inflammation.” Wool, the cure for what ails you!

Instead of the herringbone stitch, this has been bound with a cotton facing and trimmed with a blanket stitch in neat scallops. Herringboning, the stitch recommended in period manuals for anchoring seams on heavy material, wouldn’t have been sufficient to secure the edges, considering the laundering required.

Diaper 2
Cotton facings, hemmed with tiny stitches.

In the days before modern heating, wool flannel was often part of a baby’s wardrobe. Although warm, it seems like wool would be awfully heavy and itchy if worn close to the skin. Maybe that’s just my modern-day sensibilities? But at least the wearer of this diaper enjoyed the relative comfort of buttons for fastening, rather than pins. And I don’t mean safety pins! Babies in earlier times weren’t always as fortunate as the owner of this diaper. Advice books often warned against pins and the possibility of terrible consequences when they pinned the baby instead of the clothing! William Buchan, writing in 1808:

It would be safer to fix on the clothes of an infant with strings than pins, as these often gall and irritate their tender skins, and occasion convulsions. Instances have been known, where pins were found sticking above half an inch into the body of a child after it had died of convulsion-fits, which, in all probability proceeded from that cause.

Diaper 3
Closeup of the button and scalloped trim. Better than straight pins, any day!

Unless the fits resulted from trying to scratch the wooly itches!

 

Little Biggin Three

18th C Cap 3a
An 18th century cap for a baby, made of fine linen.

If it’s fair to judge from the advice books of days gone by, enlightened physicians had an uphill battle trying to convince mothers to dress their children sensibly. The following quote is from William Cadogan in his Essay Upon Nursing and the Management of Children, 1750.

I would recommend the following Dress : A little Flannel Waistcoat without Sleeves, made to fit the Body, and tie loosely behind; to which there should be a Petticoat sew’d, and over this a kind of Gown of the same Material, or any other, that is light, thin and flimsy. The Petticoat should not be quite so long as the Child, the Gown a few Inches longer; with one Cap only on the Head, which may be made double, if it be thought not warm enough. What I mean is, that the whole Coiffure should be so contrived, that it might be put on at once, and neither bind nor press the Head at all: The Linnen as usual. This I think would be abundantly sufficient for the Day; laying aside all those Swathes, Bandages, Stays and Contrivances, that are most ridiculously used to close and keep the Head in its Place, and support the Body. As if Nature, exact Nature, had produced her chief Work, a human Creature, so carelessly unfinish’d, as to want those idle Aids to make it perfect.

Out of all the clothing that has survived over the past couple of centuries, it seems like the finer baby garments are some of the most numerous. I guess that makes sense: they possess great sentimental value, exquisite handwork, and hey – they don’t take up much space!

18th C Cap 3b
Baby cap, back view with ties.

This little cap is a classic of 18th century style. It’s made of extremely fine linen (I know it looks coarse in the photos but it’s really not) with a double brim and a narrow linen tape to draw it up to fit at the neckline. There are no ties to fasten it under the chin, nor signs that there ever were.

18th C Cap 3c
Close-up of lace and embroidery.

Even though I’ve laid a ruler across the needlework, the photo doesn’t really show just how minute the embroidery is. And the plain sewing is a staggering 48 backstitches per inch!

The pattern of buttonholed scallops and dots is very common on baby caps and shirts of this era. It also appears on the first “Little Biggin” I wrote about, although this one has tiny eyelets as well as dots. The lace is handmade, but not being a lace person, I can’t identify it. Help??

The brim is about 2 1/2 inches deep, front to back, and 11 inches from side to side. The two layers have been tacked together and the crown gathered and sandwiched between them.

18th C Cap 3d
A “closer”-up of the cap from the inside. Can you make eyelets that measure 1/16″ across? I can’t even SEE them without squinting!

I think this little “Coiffure” is so contrived that it may, indeed, meet with even Dr. Cadogan’s approval!

18th C Cap 3f

18th C Cap 3e

 

Aprons, No Strings

Apron 1854
An apron pattern, c.1850 for the 19th century layette.

At three months old, it is usual to commence the use of aprons, which are made of bird’s-eye diaper, or, just now, brilliante, a firm, close-figured cambric, which will wear nearly as long. These last are bound with cambric, in solid colors, as pink, blue, buff, &tc. Bird’s-eye linen is usually trimmed with tatting or anything that wears well. At present, button-hole scollops, either plain or filled with dots, eyelets, &tc., are much used; they are made in this way ornamental, as well as useful. For an infant, the “bib-apron,” round front, coming a little below the waist, with a little shoulder strap buttoning around the arm (see cut), is the most suitable. From six months to two years of age, a similar front, with back to correspond, cut of bird’s-eye also. A large variety of shapes, however, are constantly to be had. The material and length is our province; no child needs an apron coming to the end of the dress skirt, as we have seen them made.

So says Sarah Hale, in a little instruction book written for new mothers in 1854. It amazes me that such a functional item could survive 150 plus years, but I come across them from time to time.  If you’d like an actual-size pattern of the one below, send an email to me, m at twothreadsback dot com, and I’ll send you a pdf – free. Gratis. No strings attached!

Apron 1A
An apron for a very small baby, made of cotton diaper by a mother who was cutting the pattern with one hand and holding the baby with the other.

The hems are almost invisible, so I assume Mother was able to use both hands for that. The tiny buttons are made of delicately carved mother of pearl.

You can see the tiny mother of pearl buttons.
A close-up of the buttons and narrow hem.
The photo(s) are slightly underexposed because the apron is so white it's hard to see.
The photo(s) are slightly underexposed because the apron is so white it’s hard to see.
Apron 1D
The fabric is still so strong that the fold-down part in the front refuses to fold down – and I refuse to press it that way. Not a good idea for preserving old textiles!

Another common pattern, made for an older child, is like the one pictured below. It’s also made of diaper – but in linen – and trimmed at the armscyes and hem.

Apron 2A
This one is less like a bib and more like what we’d call a pinafore today.
Apron 2B
A view of the back to show the tape threaded through the neckline and the pretty buttonholed trim.

Apron 1854 Thumb