Wearing Her Art on Her Sleeve

Wearing Her Art 14

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.

Wearing Her Art 18

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

Wearing Her Art 08

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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Merry Christmas, Jessamine

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You’re never too old for dolls at Christmas! At least I’m not. I’d like to introduce Jessamine, a lovely doll made in the style of Izannah Walker, by the incomparably brilliant artist Paula Walton.

I’ve always longed for a doll like this lovely girl, and waited years before I was able to bring her home. I’ve had her for a while now, but that practice waiting has served me well – because it’s taken over a year to dress Jessamine in her first (hand sewn by me) outfit! But Christmas is here and she is ready.

The chemise came first, and I tried to make it with the same details that a real mid-19th century young lady’s might have had: gussets, gores, and binders. I know, unless you’re used to period costume terms, they sound like instruments of torture. I guess they were, actually, for me! It would have been a lot easier to make a simple doll chemise, and from now on any others will be quite plain. They’ll have to be; this one is so bulky that a dress has to be specially cut to fit over it. Live and learn.

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Next came the drawers. Since Jessamine is an older girl, I decided she would have split rather than closed ones. Well, really I just wanted to make them that way. Of course that means it’s trickier for her to pose with them while retaining her modesty. But we managed. I suppose you can tell from the photo that this wasn’t taken in December? And surprise – it wasn’t this year, either!

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A petticoat was essential, and this one is so full that she wouldn’t need another. It was made from the embroidered ruffle of an early 20th century, mass-produced, low quality, damaged piece. The elderly lady I purchased it from was apologetic over its condition, saying she was told that her great aunt had stood too close to the fire. While it’s sad to take apart anything, thereby tearing it from its history, some things wouldn’t survive at all otherwise. (I’m sounding rather apologetic myself, hmm?) But now this scorched phoenix has a future and a past!

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Every young lady would need a corset, or if she wasn’t quite ready for that, a corded waist or stay-waist (or some other term for the same garment). Even though there are a zillion doll corsets out there for inspiration, I went exploring Cassell’s for a likely pattern.

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I adapted it to Jessamine’s age (@150 or so) and used the fabric from a c1900 scrapped doll corset. What girl wouldn’t love lilac stays? There was a lapse of time between the modeling session below and the actual completion of the corset. Months, maybe? But I eventually finished the eyelets and added the straps.

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After many more months (Pharaby was taking all my time) I began Jessamine’s dress. The fabric was a happy accident: an online store sent the wrong print years ago, and it’s been in my stash ever since.  I made so many mistakes that I lost count. Yep, sleeves again; one went in upside down. Aaaalll the seams and gathers had to be picked out and redone. What’s so embarrassing is that I didn’t even notice it was upside down until I’d done all that unstitching for another reason – to make the gathers match the other side. Duh. Maybe that was why they weren’t even?

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If you spend any time looking at 19th century portraits and daguerreotypes of children, you’ll notice that many (most?) girls wore coral necklaces. I was delighted to find a bargain to finish her ensemble. It was sold as a doll necklace but looks suspiciously like a bracelet. No matter. The graduated coral pieces make it look enough like a necklace to suit us just fine.

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I wish I could claim credit for the  pretty red shoes, but that goes to the her incredibly talented maker. Here’s a peek at Jessamine’s feet – too sweet! Transported back to 1860 as a child, I would have been sooo tempted to take her wading in the summer! (My dolls suffered worse.) But it’s December, I’m grown up, and there’ll be no such mischief. We wouldn’t want St. Nicholas to leave only a lump of coal, would we?

 

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A back view of the cap.

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Little Biggin

 

18th C Cap 1a

18th century linen cap for a baby.

Babies look so sweet in caps, and once upon a time they wore them from the time they were born. They wore a lot of things actually, as Thomas Jarrold wrote in this 1736 excerpt:

18th C Cap 1b

Infant’s linen cap, lace insertion on brim.

Formerly, the dress of an infant was cumbersome and oppressive, it is now much simplified, but still it admits of improvement; many parts are unnecessary, and even injurious, and require an experienced person to adjust them, and, in dressing the infant, so much time is consumed and so much toil occasioned as must greatly exhaust and weary it; to this it ought not to be subjected, that cannot be proper which distresses the child …. its dress should be light and warm, and so constructed, that the time occupied in dressing may not be greater than the capacity of the child to bear it.

18th C Cap 1fIndeed! The Foundling Museum’s record books also list a great variety of garments, and those for the head include cap, bonnet, biggin, forehead-cloth, and head-cloth – not necessarily worn simultaneously. I’m particularly fond of these little caps because they show such exquisite stitching. I don’t think anyone today does plain sewing so fine and dainty.

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A measure to illustrate just how fine the work is – can you see the backstitching?

This elegant example is made of linen, and it measures about 10 inches across the double brim. From the front to the back hem is about 8 inches. The lace insertion is on the upper brim only. (If you can identify the lace, please let me know!)

The embroidery worked along the edge of the insertion and where the crown is gathered to the brim is typical of 18th century whitework on infant clothing.

Closeup of lace insertion on cap.

Closeup of lace insertion on cap.

One puzzling feature is the running thread along the hem of the brim. On the under layer, it terminates a couple of inches short of the center on each side. It appears to function as the familiar “stay stitching” of today. However, on the upper layer, it continues from both sides, meeting in the middle. And the threads are left hanging!

The back is finished simply, with two tiny cords to draw for a closer fit. There are no ties (or pin marks) on the cap, another feature that was common into the early 19th century. Does that suggest that another head covering was worn with it? I don’t know of a baby today who could keep such a hat in place.  And “that cannot be proper which distresses the child!”

18th C Cap 1d

Little ties to adjust the fit of the back.