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

Little Biggin Two

18th C Cap 2a
Another 18th century baby’s cap – with frills.

This little cap is a favorite. Yes, the linen is coarser than the lovely smooth cambric in most of the other really old baby things I’ve found. The slubs are noticeable, and they show even more due to washing and wearing. But there’s just something about that little ruffle around the brim. And the extra gathers right in the center – can’t you just see them sticking up, stiff with starch? Rather like a little plume or crest!

18th C Cap 2b
A perfect frame for a baby’s face.

The measurement around the brim, including the ruffle, is about 12 inches; the center front to the back is about 9 inches.

18th C Cap 2f
Baby’s cap with the two-part brim folded open.

It seems like every time I examine a garment to write about it or list it for sale, I find something I’d overlooked before. And sometimes it’s unusual, a feature I haven’t seen before. That happened here, too.

The little crown was stroked and gathered and attached to the upper brim with backstitches, the same way cuffs or collars were attached to shirts. Then the under-layer-brim was hemmed to the crown from beneath. That does make the technique look like “setting in,” a construction process taught from (at least) the 18th to the early 20th centuries – if you’re one of the rare people who’ve seen my book Plain Needlework, you know what I’m talking about.

The strangest thing though, is how the upper layer is hemmed. It’s backstitched! But not securely on the folded hem itself; instead the stitching rests along the very edge. In fact, I really don’t see how it holds. I’ve looked at it with magnification because it’s so different from what I’m used to seeing. But that’s right. The hem is barely caught with the backstitches.

The under layer is normal – if you can call a 1/16 inch hem normal; it’s simply hemmed. Then the ruffle is whipped and gathered on both. The back of the cap is gathered and set in a narrow band, also with backstitching.

18th C Cap 2c
A closer view of the “plume” – and you can see the backstitched hem.

Like last cap I wrote about, this one is in remarkably fine condition and there are no vestiges of ties. Unlike many other fine linen bits, it’s lost its starch. I think the wearer would have approved. Floppy ruffles are more comfortable.

18th C Cap 2e
A back view of the cap.

18th C Cap 2d

A Dorset Knot – I mean Knob – Button

Dorset Knob 1
Dorset Knob Buttons, c1800

The Dorset Button! Not the more common flat disk with thread spokes, but a “high top,” a tiny sphere wrapped in a spider’s web of thread. I mentioned in the Love Shirt post that I would explain how I made the buttons for the shirt – a non-documented, unauthenticated version for the directionally challenged: me. Believe me, before I finished the trial button, it did look more like a Dorset Knot. But I persevered.

The originals I wanted to copy are pictured above. They seemed to be stuffed with a kind of fiber, but the base was a black substance with a greenish-yellow cast and waxy look. It had puzzled me for years. Then after reading about Dorset Knobs in 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make (you want this book!), I realized they must be made of horn.

Dorset Knob 3
You can see the horn button base on the original.

I didn’t have horn buttons, so I used shell instead, about 1 cm in diameter. I cut a little square of linen, about 3.5 cm, and on that I traced and cut out a circle larger than the button. The scraps served as stuffing for the knob. Waste not, want not. (Although you might get a smoother result with cotton or wool batting.)

Next I ran a gathering stitch around the circle, put the scraps in the center with the flat button on top, pulled the gathers tight, and stitched them closed. Voilà! The mold!

Then I wrapped thread around the button in a compass rose pattern and anchored it. Beginning at the top, I circumnavigated the button, taking a backstitch around each “spoke” and moving on to the next. It was a bit fiddly, having to smush the lumpiness of the mold and realign the spokes as I worked toward the base.

Once I had made a final pass around the base, I took a few stitches to anchor it all. And then I had to make four more.

For those who like pictures better, see below. For those who want a more authentic method, see the book mentioned above. And for everyone else… well, there’s always velcro.

Dorset Knob Supplies
All you need to make a Dorset Knob Button. That’s a Bohin needle by the way, my new most fave!
Stuffed and gathered.
Stuffed and gathered.
Thread laced in spokes around the mold.
Thread laced in spokes around the mold.

this next

Dorset Knob Weaving
Circumnavigating the globe: backstitching around each spoke before going on to the next. Or back one, forward two.
Dorset Knob Done!
Dorset Knob Done!

 

A One Stitch Wonder

Calico Full

I’ve always loved order and simplicity. That sounds awfully smug, but I shouldn’t commend myself since it’s probably because my brain can’t handle very much at one time. This craving for minimalism is getting worse as I get older. Try googling the minimalist lifestyle and maybe you’ll see the attraction! Or not.

A conversation the other day started me thinking about simplicity in plain sewing. Hmm. What was the most basic stitch? Well, anyone who uses old sewing machines knows you can do just about anything with a straight stitch, which is closest to a backstitch in hand sewing.

But backstitching wasn’t the primary stitch in 19th century sewing manuals, nor was running, as I learned when I studied plain needlework instruction. It was hemming. That’s the little slanted stitch that you would use to (surprise!) hem something. Once your hemming was neat enough, you could learn to work other stitches.

Hemming
“Simple hemming is the first step on the road to proficiency in needlework.”

By the way, I’ve noticed that most costume historians, or at least ones I’ve heard and read, call this same stitch “whip” instead of “hem.” For example, “the edge is folded back and whip stitched in place.” But then, why shouldn’t they? I understand perfectly what they mean. If you’ve seen my post on muslin you’ll know I’ve come to terms with terms!

Getting back to simplicity. I decided to go closet diving for something that used only that one stitch, hemming, to construct a garment. And I found it! A Regency era calico baby dress. Granted, it didn’t have enough pattern pieces to warrant many stitches. But the whole gown was made by hemming!

Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.
Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.

Or was it? Well, in my eagerness to find what I was looking for, I didn’t look close enough, and I didn’t think it through.

The skirt was made of one piece and hemmed, check. The casings for the strings were hemmed, check. The tiny ruffles on the sleeves were hemmed, check.

Calico Hem
Hem.
Calico Sleeve
Casings for drawstrings.
Sleeve ruffles.
Sleeve ruffles.
Calico Back
Back opening.

The bodice was hemmed to the skirt – whoa! Wait a minute. That wasn’t right. Things were unraveling. I mean my clever discovery, not the little frock.

Yes, the stitches looked the same at first glance, but any experience (or a practical mind) would tell you that you have to hold those two pieces face to face and sew them together. That makes it seaming, as they would have said, or overcasting, as we’d say today. Same thing for the ruffles attached to the sleeves.

And there was more. The tiny bodice sides, all three-quarter inch of them, were running stitch. As were the sleeves to the body – and then overcast!

So much for that, no single stitch here. I confess it doesn’t really bother me too much that it’s not pure minimalist stitching. I’m learning to slow down and look closer. And it’s still a wonder of simplicity!

The Love Shirt

Love Shirt Cuff
The Love Shirt, a replica by Yours Truly

Ta da! After ten grueling years (ok, I don’t really know how long, but it has been years) I finally finished a 19th century gentleman’s square-cut shirt of fine linen. Complete with all twenty parts, including the frill. And Dorset knob buttons.

Where did the name come from? Well, a long time ago a friend and I (I miss you, Janet!) were studying one of these shirts, one that had a heart-bit (see that blog). We reached frantically for our vinaigrettes, trying not to swoon on the artifact, as visions of Mr. Darcy flitted around the room. Somehow we started calling that handsome relic The Love Shirt. So it has been to me, ever since. And I wanted to make one myself.

That type of linen is impossible to find nowadays. However, a dear friend (thanks, Dianne!) provided the closest thing possible, and with a pattern from an 1820 book, I commenced.

Darned little gussets, all the work I did backstitching was mostly hidden when assembled.
Darned little gussets, all the work I did backstitching was mostly hidden when assembled.

Unfortunately I have a memory like Dory, so every time I put away the project for a spell, I’d have to practically learn how to do the next step all over. A 19th century seamstress would have been appalled to see me.

Love Shirt FullUm, do I sew both ends of XYZ before I ABC? Do I cut or fold first? Did I sew the sleeve on backwards? Oops. Front and back are the same before the collar goes on, right? Not if you hemmed them first. Oh right, I was supposed to check that I was putting the slit in the front. Well… I’ll just cut the back shorter and make it be the front. And my g-g-g-g-great-grandmother could make one of these in a day or so? How embarrassing.

I did learn a lot. I learned how hard it is to backstitch over two threads without going blind. I learned that there is NO not-shiny sewing thread available today. I learned that linen thread breaks, other people’s buttonholes always look nicer than mine, knots are usually unnecessary, even poor work looks better when ironed, and a drawn thread is no guarantee you’ll sew a straight line. I learned that you had to love your man, or love survival to make one of these. And I learned how to make Dorset knob buttons, my own way! Maybe I’ll write about that next time.

Love Shirt Cuff
You can see the backstitching that nearly blinded me. And you can see the gauging thread I used to hold the stroked gathers in place. I’m going to leave it there a loooong time.

Plain Meets Fancy

Infant Sacque
An infant’s sacque: a miniature version of Mother’s.

If I kept my attention only on plain work, I suppose I would be very limited indeed. And truly, the impulse to add ornamentation seems timeless and universal. Often the pretty pieces I study reveal high standards in the basic plain stitches, but also have considerable fancywork on them.

Infant Sacque, left
The profile reflects women’s styles of the same era.

Here is one example which just seems to shout Baby Version of Mommy’s 1870 Upholstered Look! Notice the dropped shoulders, two-piece sleeves and sort of tabbed lower edge, with its allowance for a wee bustle? I doubt baby wore one, but the cut of the sacque would have suited it! The pattern is a match for women’s garments of the late 1860s and early 1870s.

The Look, c1870
Pretty fussy back! But I love it.
The Look, c1870
The Look, c1870

It’s made of a very fine muslin – a previous owner must have bleached it white again – and uses basic hemming, running, and stitching (called backstitching today).  It shows some of the earliest use of (what we call today) a french seam on the sides and shoulders. The sleeve seams are overcast.

Infant sacque, right
I’d love to see this with a poofy baby bustle! Not likely, sigh.

The sacque has a high collar with hand-embroidered trim and fastens with a single mother of pearl button and thread loop. There’s a buttonhole hiding under the trim on the collar, but Mother must have decided it was too tight or difficult to fasten. The same trim edges the front, hem, and cuffs. There’s even a bit of piping.

Infant sacque collar
Close up of the collar & fastening.

The cuffs were taken up with a hidden tuck to fit shorter arms, and they also have tiny thread tassels. I thought at first the threads were drawstrings for the cuffs, but closer examination shows them to be attached separately and knotted around… a bit of wool? …held with glue? I can’t see it well enough to tell, but it has yellowed over time.

Infant sacque, cuffs
Close-up of the little cuffs – you can just see the tassels.
Infant sacque, back view
A view of the back, showing the pattern.

The trim down the front is turned toward the center, the opening.  This is typical of 19th century clothing, although my modern expectation is to see tucks or trims folded or facing outward (toward the arms).

In all, it’s plain made fancy. And enough to make me swoon over the tiny confection!

All’s Fair

S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860
S.C., R., O. & B. Agricultural Society Fair 1860

Once upon a time, folks from all over would gather, bringing their best work to show off, to compete for prizes, and to sell. These were the agricultural fairs, a tradition whose roots go back many centuries and places. Nineteenth century America saw their development as a way to encourage innovation. By mid-century, agricultural societies were flourishing.

Today their records are a rich source of information on agricultural and domestic history of the era.  The premiums, which ranged from a few cents (female enterprise) to substantial sums (men’s categories!) must have been the source of great pride, outrage, bickering and boasting – oh to have been there to hear the drama! I spent a happy afternoon several years ago in a university library poring over the books full of juicy details. Yes, that was before google books.

“An embroidered map of Savannah… best collection of fall peaches … beautiful specimens of sewing silk … second best profane landscape … woolen counterpane, maker’s name unknown … from the crowded state of the room, and the great number of articles present, several paintings could not be found …  second best cow “Eloise” … the committee exhibited a marked partiality for apple pies, and awarded with singular unanimity fifty cents each to Mrs. … a basket of superb wax flowers, which the chairman of the committee on flowers pronounced superior to any in his department of natural ones … S. D., 7 years of age, worsted work executed while lying on his back with a broken thigh, .50 … worsted quilt, said to contain 9765 pieces; ingenuity and labor … lemons of enormous size, preserved in alcohol…” – the list fills volumes.

Crackers, lightning rods, stoves, plows, false teeth, butter, Muscovy ducks, headstones, cologne, down tippets, dog’s hair socks, essays, fishing boots, parsnips, daguerreotypes, golden pippins, rocking chairs, canaries, grain bags, gold pens, baby-tender. Was there anything they didn’t show?

To paraphrase one report, I am greatly embarrassed on account of the limited means placed at my disposal to mention such a large number of exhibits, and I wish to say, that I doubt not there are many articles not noticed which are as well worthy of premium or gratuity as some which have been thus honored. I am reluctantly compelled to pass them over.

Fair Chemise 2
Hand Sewn Chemise

One category is especially interesting to me: plain sewing (surprise!). Here are some examples from the Sandy Creek, Richland, Orwell, & Boylston Agricultural Society of New York, c1860.

The chemises are exquisite, and it’s easy to see why their maker entered them in competition. I regret to say that I don’t know if they won a prize or not. There was no record of one with them. Nonetheless, they are fine work and perhaps the maker would be even more pleased if she knew how much, and how long, they would be admired!

By the way, check the calendar and visit your own state or local fair. If you’ve never toured the exhibits before, you’ll be amazed!

The UFO

UFO
The UFO

I am referring to an Unidentified Fabric Object. From eBay to flea markets, mystery objects abound, and this one is often misidentified. No wonder, it’s not something that is used today, and it was probably a bit of a nuisance to the wearer in its own time!

Take a small rectangle of cotton or flannel, and gather or pleat a much longer rectangle to it, neatly finish the edges and there you have it: a tiny apron/skirt/slip/unfinished sleeve for a skinny short person! Or not. What you really have is a barrow, barrie-coat, barra-coat, barrar coat, pinning blanket, night flannel, or petticoat.

These skirts were worn by babies in days gone by, layered somewhere between the shirt and diaper (clout or napkin) and outer petticoats or gowns.

UFO Catalog Illustration
From an 1895 Montgomery Ward Catalog

According to The Nursery Basket, published in 1854, the night petticoats

“are nothing more nor less than the old-fashioned open pinning blanket, or the English barrar coat. In the simplest form, a night petticoat has a skirt of one breadth, three quarters of a yard in length. Turn a hem as shown above, of two inches, at the bottom, less than half an inch or the sides, and cross-stitch, as on the bands, with white silk. Gather it slightly into a double linen waist (waistband fashion), 22 inches in width, and 6 in length, which will allow for seams.

Choose the same quality as for the bands, finer rather than coarser, as it comes next to the shirt and at first completely wraps the delicate limbs of the infant. The real flannel petticoat is not usually put on until the child is six weeks old. The pinner is then used for the night, six weeks longer, when most babies of spirit kick themselves fairly out of its narrow limits.

We have found this sufficient for all ordinary purposes. There is another style, now in use, where the band and skirt are made to lap at the side, and the skirt is tied over by tape strings, instead of being pinned up, as in the first instance. This will require two breadths, of flannel, a yard in length, to keep the child’s feet and limbs sufficiently warm, and is more cumbersome to infant and nurse. The waist can be made in the same fashion as the second band, to tie over.”

The author, Sarah Hale, goes on to describe possible trimmings and ornamentation, but suggests that “as the garment is only for transient use, it would seem a waste to expend much time or labor upon it.” And after all, most “babies of spirit” wouldn’t appreciate it.

Mulling it Over

Ah, the quest to identify the delicate fabric! So many surviving caps, collars, aprons, and gowns. Mull, book, or clear muslin; longcloth, cambric, nainsook, lawn, batiste. Not to mention spotted, sprigged, flowered, figured, checked, worked, striped, and embroidered!

Cross-barred Muslin
Gossamer-thin collar of cross-barred muslin with a sheer muslin frill.

Because so many of the textiles that fascinate me are white cotton or linen, my inquiring mind wanted to know what to call that pretty little antique baby gown – mull? Cambric or jaconet? Swiss, Indian, or Scottish manufacture? Surely something more than white cotton!

Muslin Pink Spotted
Infant gown of pink spotted muslin.
Spotted Muslin
Cap of spotted muslin with edging of plain muslin embroidered with scallops and eyelets.
Muslin Cap
Three different types of cotton in one piece: airy frill, ribbed body, and a sturdier foundation for the embroidered insertion.
Muslin Apron
Apron of thin cotton, Dresden embroidery.

So many names show up in period writing. Some of the adjectives are unambiguous: spots are spots, then and now. But for years I puzzled over terms and asked any textile historian I came across (ok, there weren’t many) to explain how to identify each kind. Silly me.

I searched novels and dictionaries, magazines and swatch books, sewing textbooks and inventories galore. And guess what? Even more confusion. My eyes became as “glazed muslin.”  There was no consistency or authoritative answer to what was what. Or at least not enough for me to astonish my friends with my blindfold fabric naming tricks.

Yes, lawn and cambric were once only linen, names denoting origin; voile came rather late for my area of interest. And  often the context of the term (especially when it was attached to a dated sample!) was extremely useful. But I was looking for an answer that wasn’t. I mean, there isn’t one definitive answer, consistent for all times and places. The evolution of the stuff, as well as language, has seen to that!

After all, a maker who calls a fabric by one name, the wearer half a world away who calls it something else, and the lucky one who finds it in an attic 200 years later and doesn’t know what to call it – may all refer to the same thing. It all depends on Who, Where, and When. So I guess I’ll just call it all muslin!

Muslin
Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore,
image courtesy V&A

Speaking of books and muslin … the V&A published a book last year, Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore, and it’s my latest chair-side companion. Superb research, gorgeous photos – a must-have for any historic costume/textile enthusiast.

And anyone who wants more information on period textiles will find Florence Montgomery’s Textiles in America, 1650-1870, Sally Queen’s Textiles for Colonial Clothing, Textiles for Clothing of the Early Republic by Lynne Basset (the whole series, actually), and All About Cotton by Julie Parker to be excellent resources – and all but the first have samples!

Oh! And then there’s A Lady of Fashion, Dating Fabrics, Clues in the Calico

Post scriptum (ancora imparo and all that):

From The New Encyclopaedia, 1807, a hint of how muslin compared,
Cotton Goods are divided into different classes, each proportionally lighter than the other. The heaviest of these are, 1st. Shirtings, 2d. Cambrics, 3d. Cossias, 4th. Jaconetts, 5th. Lawn grounds, 6th. Mulls, 7th. Books.