Who doesn’t love to watch a magic trick? I think they can be a lot of fun, at least as long as I’m not the volunteer from the audience. Especially for this trick!
To pull off any Perfon’s Shirt without undreffing him or having Occafion for a Confederate.
This trick requires only dexterity, and nevertheless when I performed it at the Theater-Royal in the Hay-Market everybody imagined that the person whom I had tricked out of his shirt was in a confederacy with me.
The means of performing this trick are the following, only observing that the cloaths of the person whose shirt is to be pulled off be wide and easy.
Begin by making him pull off his stock, and unbuttoning his shirt at the neck and sleeves, afterwards tye a little string in the button-hole of the left sleeve; then, passing your hand behind his back, pull the shirt out of his breaches, and slip it over his head, then pulling it out before in the same manner, you will leave it on his stomach; after that go to the right hand, and pull the sleeve down so as to have it all out of the arm; the shirt being then all of a heap, as well in the right sleeve as before the stomach, you are to make use of the little string fastened to the button-hole of the left sleeve, to get back the sleeve that must have slipped up, and to pull the whole shirt out that way.
To hide your way of operating from the person whom you unshirt and from the assembly, you may cover his head with a lady’s cloak, holding a corner of it in your teeth.
In order to be more at your ease, you may mount on a chair, and do the whole operation under the cloak. Such are the means I used when I performed publicly this trick.
–PHYSICAL AMUSEMENTS and DIVERTING EXPERIMENTS, 1784
That kind of describes what it feels like when I’ve tried to change clothes in the car. Actually, I think this trick would require a good bit of dexterity, as well as a few practice runs. But still not as much as was required to make this little boy’s shirt. A lot of stitches went into it; decorative backstitching on the collar and cuffs measures about 32 per inch. The simple hemming was 12-14 stitches per inch and seaming (like shallow overcasting) was up to 20 per inch!
The boy’s shirt is made like a man’s shirt. There were 20 parts in a “gentleman’s” shirt:
The body, two sleeves, two wristbands, two binders, two shoulder-straps, one collar, two sleeve-gussets, two neck gussets, two side-gussets, two wrist gussets, one for the bosom, and the frill.
This one, however, was made with without the shoulder straps (a strip of linen along each shoulder), binders (lining next to the armscye), wrist gussets, or a “bosom gusset.” It did have a frill and an inserted pleated front made out of finer linen
It was interesting to see that the two separate ruffles were both sewn to the wearer’s left side, and hemmed folded in the same direction, making them look correctly worn when both are folded over toward the right and exposing the pearl buttons. On all the other shirts I have or have seen, the ruffles are hemmed with each side’s hem folded inward toward the front opening.
The SHIRT TRICK was republished in other books over the following decades. It even showed up as late as 1870, but by that time the cut of a man’s shirt was more fitted and complex, and I doubt the stunt would work as easily. Maybe the little fellow who wore this had a copy of the The Boy’s Own Book (1828) and had a go at it? I can’t imagine the maker would have appreciated seeing her work handled so roughly and the “person who was unshirted” might have had to conjure up an explanation!
Not only do I have a weakness for plain sewing, but for miniature things as well. Tiny garments like doll clothes, or the samples that girls made when they were learning to sew are irresistable! That’s why I was thrilled to find this half-size treasure from – can it be the 1820s? At first I thought it must have been made for a doll, but it would have required a pretty large little lady for that time, and the incredible detail seems extreme for a doll. Maybe it was a shop model, or sent from a corset-maker to a client as a style sample? It’s certainly a puzzle, so I’d welcome any expertise!
It’s seven inches in length, 12 around the waist, made of two layers of cotton sateen, bound with twill tape, and of course, hand-stitched. The silk laces are in place as found, laced closed. It’s sewn with very fine silk thread which I believe was originally white, but has now yellowed a little more than the cotton fabric. I can see whalebone inside one of the boning channels where there is a slight separation at the end. I have no idea what the cording is, but the backstitches that hold it in place are worked about 20 per inch!
Compared to earlier 18th century stays that were heavy and heavily boned, or to later corsets that might contort and constrict the female torso, this style – excluding the busk – seems pretty comfy. That didn’t stop the lectures on tight-lacing, even during the early 19th century. The Poughkeepsie Journal opined in 1823:
I deem the corset of the present day to be the perfect engine of torture, and infinitely worse than the stays of days gone by. These last besure were injurious, but they left the resemblance of a female shape; the corset on the contrary presents the waist as regularly round and untapering as a white lead keg. The olden stays I remember were laced with a silken string of the size of the finest twine, but the corset requires a cord equalling the bow-string of a Kickapoo Chief.
What on earth is a white lead keg? Well, I checked. There was such a thing. Like a metal paint bucket today – just don’t use it to draw your well water! The author insists
no other animal could survive it. Take the honest ox, and inclose his sides with hoop poles, put an oaken plank beneath him and gird the whole with a bed cord and then demand of him labor. He would labor indeed but it would be for breath. Splinter and belay a pig in the same way and a whine might be aspirated, but it would be a whine of expiration.
Assuming your ox was honest, it would probably agree with the author. Unfortunately, the belayed pig wouldn’t have a chance! (It’s not often that 19th century prose make me LOL, but that last sentence succeeded.)
In the 1820s, Dr. Godman, a physician, anatomist, and naturalist who lived a remarkably full but too-short life (click here to follow a quick rabbit trail) denounced busks – lengths of flat wood, bone or steel inserted into a channel down the center front of a corset – as especially injurious:
Another instrument of torture is added in the form of a steel or hickory busk, which is pushed into its sheath in the already too tight corset, extending along the whole length of the breast bone… to keep the body from bending forward in the centre, and to prevent the dress and corset from ‘hooping up,’ as it is called.
The following scene occurred at a boarding-house in Philadelphia. The girl of the house … filled the tea-kettle, and brought it to the kitchen hearth, where she placed it on a bench. To place it over the fire required considerable stooping, and this, as it turned out, was impossible to her. Repeated and fruitless were her attempts, by a sort of crouching attitude, to accomplish her object; there was no one present to assist or to relieve her from the restraint which prevented stooping, and in despair she gave up, and stood by the kettle as if debating what she should do. The mistress came to inquire if the water was boiling, and found it not yet on the fire! – to her utter amazement, ‘the young lady’ confessed that she had her ‘long-busk’ on – that her ‘lacing,’ which was excessively tight, was in a ‘hard knot’ and that she ‘could not possibly stoop’ to put on the kettle!
He wasn’t without humor either:
Can anything on earth be more ungraceful than the gait, the walk of a female who is extremely corsetted? From the shoulders down, as stiffly inflexible as the parlour tongs, she can only advance by a sideling shuffle of the feet, which appear to get forward by stealth…
Maybe I’ll never know what this little corset was made for. The workwomanship (assuming it was a female stitcher) is exquisite, which suggests a model, either to exhibit skill or make a sale. But a few signs indicate wear, which makes me think it adorned a doll. Maybe its history included it all: made as a specimen of skill, served as a model or sample, and then retired to spend its later years on a later doll. Of ‘corset’ doesn’t really matter, whatever its past, it’s still a work of art!
Maybe you’ve heard of “l’esprit d’escalier” or “staircase wit.” I hadn’t until recently, even though I’ve suffered from it all my life. It describes that maddening moment when you come up with the perfect, brilliant reply – after it’s too late to be useful. Well, finding the perfect image just a little too late can happen in blogging, too!
It’s been a year since I wrote the last post about sewing aprons. I’d wanted an example to study and to illustrate the post, but in decades of searching and collecting I’d never come across one. Wouldn’t you know, it was only two weeks later that I actually found a real surviving one! It’s obviously not an early nineteenth century apron like I’d really love to find, and I can’t be positive it was used for sewing, but it fits the all the descriptions to a T.
It’s a charming white dimity with pink featherstitching and a waistband that buttons. Late 1800s, early 1900s perhaps? It looks like it could have been made in school, rather than at home. I say that because the stitches seem to be textbook-style hand sewing: precise (if not dainty) hemming, seaming, setting-in, and buttons, combined in a class-projecty sort of way. And a couple of tiny ink spots near the bottom!
Seeing an example close up did answer the hemming question for me: did they fold the side hems face up or face down before turning up the bottom for the pockets? Or did they do a little snip on the edge so that each hem could be folded to the back, the way I did for the doll’s apron? Answer: face up. For this one, anyway. The nice deep pockets are then seamed together so that the folded hems are inside.
I hope the maker was happy with her little apron. I suspect she treasured it since it’s survived all these years. Maybe it proved useful for holding her sewing things while she was climbing stairs – and she had the wit to appreciate it!
I don’t remember where I first came across the term “lap-bag.” It was used in the infuriatingly casual way that long-dead authors have of assuming we know what they’re talking about, and I didn’t give it much thought. But when I recently came across the illustration below, c.1860, my reaction was – in the words of my 4-year-old grandson – “what is the heck of that?”
Of course I pursued the elusive lap-bag, only to discover it wasn’t so peculiar after all. It has a respectable history, especially if you consider it’s only a variation on a very useful, very humble, and very common garment. I think this young emigrant to Australia summed it up perfectly in 1850:
The ladies gave me a nice piece of print to make a lap-bag, which will be very handy on board ship, as it ties round the waist, and has little pockets to hold one’s thimble and scissors.
It’s simply a type of pocketed apron that was used for keeping sewing items handy, something especially helpful for girls’ sewing classes. The pinafore was another variation, recommended as early as the 1810s for plain needlework lessons, both in England and America.
Each girl should be provided with a pin-afore, or slip … taken in at the conclusion of school time…. The pin-afores are marked 1, 2, 3, &c. up to the number of girls that the desk contains: the number of the desk is also marked upon them, thus – 5/3, which would signify that the pin-afore belongs to the 5th girl in the third desk.
In 1858, when Alice Neal penned her reminiscences of Eliza Leslie for Godey’s Lady’s Book, she remembered her own school days.
As long ago as sewing was made a special branch of female education – and we leave our readers to infer the date [she was born in 1828] – the Wednesday afternoons at the school which I attended in Boston were enlivened by reading aloud. The circle of little people, with their pink and blue chintz “lap-bags,” a style of sewing receptacle entirely unique, stitched away on their sheets and patchwork, while the older girls read in turn.
A children’s story from 1871 tells how “The girls all had to be provided with lap-bags, worn like aprons, with the ends brought up and stitched together. These were to keep the work from getting soiled, and hold the thimble, cotton, needles, scissors, etc.” School inventories included lap-bags, and one teacher explained,
These little lap-bags,” remarked the teacher, are the very first articles I teach the children in the Primary class to make; and they use them through all the grades until they graduate from the cutting department. Each bag is labelled, and at the close of the sewing hour the work is neatly rolled up, put inside, then collected in these large baskets.
Some later sources called them sewing aprons, but these matched the description as being aprons “made of extra length to allow the turning up of a quarter yard or so for a pocket.” After reading all about these receptacles, I decided to attempt my own. It’s quicker and cheaper to make things in miniature, so doll size it would be!
But what to use? I found references to brown holland (unbleached linen), calico prints, Scotch gingham (a better quality gingham), and pink and blue chintz. My obsession with charity sewing schools inclined me toward the brown holland, since that was the utility fabric they suggested. I just happily happened to have a bit of it with the original glaze (a glossy sizing) remaining, so the next step was to make sense of the directions that accompanied the illustration. Simple. For most people.
Next came the marking. As much as I wanted to follow advice and place the numbers where they’d show when the work was folded, I couldn’t make it work. But my doll will still take her place as the “fifth girl in the third row.”
Trust writers of the era to impart moral virtue into anything that would hold it. I don’t mind, at least not when they’re praising hand sewing.
If it is best to train the child along aesthetic lines in any phase of art, then let him be trained to appreciate and prefer a piece of true art in needle-work, even plain sewing, over a wholesale manufactured article which may be bought at cheap rates.
Let me illustrate by a school girl’s sewing apron, neatly though plainly made, hand-sewed by herself, and appreciated because she wove into its very stitches her own power and love of doing a thing for herself, and, too, having done it the best she could, over a very elaborate one selected from a whole boxful in a store marked “your choice for 10c.”
As aesthetic development and culture help to make a person a better person, so sewing can be made to help a girl to become a better girl and a more powerful and valuable woman to society.
Why not turn up your nose at that 10¢ store-bought apron, make your own, and become a powerful woman! You’ll be glad you did.
To have to sew your own punishment! Although I suppose to some people sewing is punishment.
Above is my attempt at making a 19th century punishment badge. These were meant to be worn around the head of a schoolchild who was guilty of the named crime, probably made by another pupil. I copied the lettering exactly and have to confess I was torn between the pathos and humor. Inattention?
Public humiliation as a form of discipline is as old as history, but it takes on a particular poignancy when you think of little children wearing a label proclaiming their crime, for all their small world to see.
Remember Jane Eyre?
On reaching the bedroom, we heard the voice of Miss Scatcherd: she was examining drawers; she had just pulled out Helen Burns’s, and when we entered Helen was greeted with a sharp reprimand, and told that to-morrow she should have half-a-dozen of untidily folded articles pinned to her shoulder.
“My things were indeed in shameful disorder,” murmured Helen to me, in a low voice: “I intended to have arranged them, but I forgot.”
Next morning, Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word “Slattern,” and bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment. The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.
Helen wore a paper sign, but it seems some children were made to spell out the crimes by stitching their own badges. The next excerpt is from The Sunday School Teacher’s Magazine and Journal of Education, 1855. The author recalled attending a free school as a small girl. It was taught by Miss Middleton, a lady of independent means who had devoted her life, rather ineffectually it seems, to good works.
Our governess considered it needful to govern by at least a mixture of severity with kindness. Her modes of punishment were various. A rather formidable one was binding a label with a specific crime marked upon it around the forehead, and placing the culprit on a form as an object for the deliberate gaze of the whole school. Most likely these expressive tokens of guilt were originally manufactured by the children’s own hands, and remind one of a murderer erecting his own gibbet.
Once a long row of delinquents was ranged on a form, who had committed some kind of treason during our mistress’s absence; and absent she frequently was from her post. We had then a scholar who was notorious for her unconquerable love of fun… She being amongst the mounted ones, contrived to overbalance the form, and bring all to the ground, producing a scene which very naturally excited the mirth of all who beheld it, and turned our punishment into a frolic.
That must have been a sight! I wonder if they were all wearing their labels when they tumbled to the floor? The author goes on to describe what happened when she was falsely accused of tearing a pinafore and made to “wear her crime.”
But the question with my governess was, ” Who rent [tore] the pinafore?” Somebody must have; though having been perpetrated in the dark, it was probably rather difficult to determine the author. Now I was one of the least, and therefore as likely to be guilty as any one. I suppose by this reasoning Ann brought her mind to the conviction that I was the guilty party, and she unhesitatingly accused me of the crime. I very naturally denied the charge. But I was compelled to wear the most detestable of all the bandages, and mount the form with the word LIAR branded on my brow. Can I ever forget that moment? No! the scar of that wound will not be effaced by time, however long a space be allotted me; and though I have long ceased to bear malice, the memory of this painful circumstance will be for ever connected with the name of Ann W. Surely nothing chafes the soul of a child so much as an unjust accusation, and unmerited punishment. – Maidstone. Christiana Elizabeth.
If you’ve read the Plain Needlework page on this blog, you know about Joseph Lancaster’s contribution to needlework education. However, some of his early comments on class discipline are rather hard to take – at least for modern sensibilities, even when allowing for the times in which he wrote. He also used labels to shame children who offended. From his 1807 manual,
When a boy is disobedient to his parents, profane in his language, or has committed any offence against morality, or is remarkable for slovenliness, it is usual for him to be dressed up with labels, describing his offence, and a tin or paper Crown on his head. In that manner he walks round the school, two boys preceding him, and proclaiming his fault; varying the proclamation according to the different offences.
And another reference,
Labels of Disgrace. When boys are in habits of talking, or being idle in school time, it is common in the free schools under my direction, as variety in punishment, to make an offender stand up and suck his fingers, with the label ‘Idle’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘suck-finger baby.”
These methods were mild compared to others he recommended. Although to be fair, I can’t imagine the task of managing – much less teaching – a single class of over a hundred unruly street children.
What sort of offenses warranted this fate? Thanks to generous help from Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, we can see some of the unacceptable behaviors marked on bands from their museum collection.
I’m probably guilty of all, but the one that caught my attention was INATTENTIOn. That had my name written all over it (ha) so that’s the one I wanted to make. Although from respect – and exhaustion – I left out ‘DURING PRAYERS.’
The bands reminded me of the tiny sewing samples made for needlework lessons, illustrating plain sewing techniques.
The first one needed was marking. Cross-stitch is the basic marking stitch, but these are marked with “oylet” or “eye-let-hole” stitch, which is
quite a fancy stitch, and rarely employed. The oylet holes are formed by working in small stitches round each square, about four stitches in the four corners, and four intermediate stitches between, are necessary to form each oylet hole. -Workwoman’s Guide, 1838
or as directed here, in 1853:
Eye-let-hole Marking is done by making a stitch across two threads from the centre as a fixed point, above, below, on each side, and at each of the four angles.
Well OK, no problem, I could do that. Or so I thought until I tried it on a scrap of old linen. Enter 5 diopter magnification with 60 little LEDs, and voila! Of course my eyes were crossed and my head tilted sideways for a week.
I hadn’t even done the first letter before I realized that the stitches that resembled little stars on the original looked like lumpy knots on mine. Even worse at reading distance than in the close-up photo. Hint: use the right thread. Finer silk worked much better. I also learned that it takes twice as long to unpick an “oy-let” as it does to stitch it!
Finishing the badge was a little easier. I folded the linen back onto itself, and then “seamed” the other three sides. Seaming (also called sewing, oversewing, overhanding in the 19th century) is my favorite stitch to do, and you can see a beautiful example of it around the edges of this tiny specimen from 1820.
The label needed ties, too. I’m amazed that nineteenth century classes even included a “proper” way to do something as simple as sewing on ties or tapes. In the illustration below, the tape has the raw end tucked under and three sides are hemmed to the fabric. Then the tape is folded back against the fabric and the fourth edge is seamed to the fabric. Neat, sturdy, and strong as super glue. Well, theirs were anyway.
I don’t have a purpose for the band I made; I’m not even sure why I felt compelled to make one. Perhaps it was just a way to almost touch the past. It would be a shame to lose its lessons.
It’s a delight to follow the evolution of hand sewing instruction from its earliest days up to more modern times – at least if you consider the 1930s modern!
Thanks to a friend who wanted to share her mother’s dress, I’ve had another chance to peek into a Domestic Economy class, this time in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. The teacher was Miss Gimbel, and she must have been a wonderful sewing teacher – she was certainly very good at understanding what kind of project would please a girl of 13. Fluffy ruffles in dainty white, in a lesson she could wear to her graduation!
The dress needed a little TLC before it could show off. Although in excellent condition for its age, a bath was in order.
I’ve laundered a lot of cotton and linen over the years, and was hopeful that Anna’s dress could be restored. It was made of embroidered organdy and (of course) had been starched. Starch does not age well, in case you haven’t noticed! But a few days of soaking and a lot of water changes, and the frilly frock was refreshed.
Once again I was surprised to see how simple it could be to sew a garment by hand. I’m so accustomed to modern clothing with all the double-stitched and felled seams, finished inside and out, that anything else is startling. I’ve got sportswear so heavily reinforced that the stitches could stand alone if all the fabric were to melt away!
But not here. Anna used very simple basting, running, hemming, and gathering on plain and French seams. The ruffle edge was overcast.
You can see the neatly turned hem, and where she took greater pains with the collar binding than the much longer narrow hem, which I’ve folded up to show.
The armholes have a self-fabric binding, and the dress closes on one side with snaps. The basting thread is still present, perhaps serving to hold the placket in place.
Weekly sewing lessons from the first through the eighth grade were part of a public school education for Anna. Her work was neat and elegant, a skill to be proud of. I think she learned well and wore her reward for a very special occasion!
Knotting was indispensable to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman…and kept her fair self out of mischief….
“Heyday! cousin, ” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
I don’t know what Lord Castlemaine thought about French ladies, but he obviously had issues with knotting – and so do I! All right, he was talking about a different kind of knotting, but I do think thread should behave with propriety, always willing and able to oblige. However, in my search for how thread was “packaged” in the early 19th century, it was behaving knottily.
A few years ago I was trying to assemble a collection of sewing supplies c.1820 for an exhibit, and it occurred to me that the ordinary wooden spools (reels) in my basket were an anachronism. Would a lady of that era have popped into a haberdashery shop for a spool of thread to hem a gown? Or would she have bought a skein? A ball? A length wrapped in paper or wound around a card?
How should I store my thread? It ought to be simple to settle, just ask around or try Google to learn how sewing thread was packaged, sold, and stored in the early 1800s. Nope. It was a knotty problem and I was baffled.
Period merchant accounts mentioned skeins, weights, and quantities of sewing thread, but that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. What would the thread actually look like when Some Lady brought it home from shopping or stuffed it in her workbag at the end of the day? (No, don’t say tangled!) After years of drooling over images of antique sewing boxes, you’d think I’d have spotted quite a few that still had the undoubtedly original working thread stashed inside. But I didn’t. A little more fruitless searching, and I decided to shelve the question.
Until recently. I once saw some lovely antique painted “thread papers” for sale which I always regretted not buying (although I’d have had to sell a body part to do it). These long strips of paper with delicate watercolor floral designs were obviously homemade, perhaps meant for a gift. They contained embroidery silks, not plain sewing thread, but I never forgot their charm. So when I came across some very old, although homelier, thread papers for sale, I couldn’t resist – and that revitalized my quest for thread packaging!
The first mention I came across (in my admittedly limited resources) was in connection with the tragic and mysterious poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Not only was he a literary prodigy, but apparently quite a clever forger as well. He invented a 15th century monk and wrote poetry in his name, then claimed to have discovered these writings on his mother’s parchment thread papers.
…one day his eye was caught by one of these thread papers; that he found not only the writing to be very old and the character very different from common characters; but the subject therein treated was different from common subjects; – that he began to question his mother what these thread papers were; how she got them; and from whence they came; and upon further enquiry was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained. [The rest, according to him, unfortunately having been used by his father to cover students’ books.]
There were other references to thread papers as well.
A witty bit from 1769:
A waggish correspondant informs us, that the Mile-End P—n is to be cut into slips to make thread-papers for the maids-of-honor.
Some self-deprecation from 1775:
…a small number of young ladies do me the inexpressible honour to smooth their tuckers and their ribbands in my book; to make thread papers of it; or to tear it into pieces, or papillots [curl papers], or to make their thimbles fit.
In 1795, a scathing rejection for Miss Sparkes from the Monthly Mirror:
“A Tale of Times past,” would never be read in times present. Would not Letitia Sparkes (who says she works for the shops) have been much better employed in making a dozen shirts, and getting the money for them, than in groping her way through “long galleries and dismal vaults;” and listening to “tales prophetic, from shadowy forms.” However, Letitia, you may send for your “forty leaves:” they’ll make excellent thread-papers.
Court testimony from 1804:
What was in the drawer in which he appeared to expect to find it? There were Five or Six Hens Eggs, Thread Papers, and Things of that Sort Belonging to his Wife.
From Sir Walter Scott in 1815:
…my uncle, the alderman, proposed to me the only daughter of old Sloethorn, the great wine-merchant, rich enough to play at spancounter [old English game] with moidores [Portugese coins], and make threadpapers of bank notes.
A bit of satire in 1815:
Woe unto literature in these days of degeneracy! woe unto the Nine Muses and their suitors! how many epics have stood between the candle and candlestick? how many histories have been employed in twist tobacco? and how many philosophers have been made into thread papers, their arguments into paper kites, and their conclusions into three-penny crackers on a birthday?
A lament from 1838:
Cooks and sedentary ladies addicted to needlework have been Thalabas in this kind of destroying. Your thread-papers have been the very devil! If our old friend Mr. Brunel had invented his pretty little process of putting sewing-thread up in reels and balls a hundred years ago, many a family manuscript, many an interesting scrap, might have escaped the pitiless shears. But it is vain to regret the past! [Ain’t it though?]
Humorous fiction in 1844:
Lady Betty was mightily pleased to see Lord Castlemaine so soon back again, and glanced at Barbara, who was knotting fringe, a species of work about as useless as the tatting, tapetrimming, herring-boning, and, with respect be it hinted, lambs-wooling, which from time to time have employed civilised society with almost as much regularity as the spinning jennies do the poorer classes. (And when we talk of the labours of factory girls, how we overlook those of modern ladies under the banners of Miss Lambert¹!) And knotting was indispensible to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman, who, when not tambouring, knotting, or embroidering, amused her leisure, and kept her fair self out of mischief, by drawing a bandalore [yo-yo] up and down.
“Heyday! cousin,” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
“‘Tis the ton, surely, or Bab would not do it,” said Lady Betty, wishing to set off the dowdy Barbara; “and see the thread papers she paints,” added the old lady, showing up a volume of those useful, discarded, ever to be lamented article, with a bird with a scarlet beak and a blue breast at one end, and a flower, orange, red and purple, at the other, all varnished with a glaze of gum arabic.
Lord Castlemaine praised the as very neat, and saw some sense in those – the knotting he condemned as an extravagant waste of time. But he was so complimentary to the thread papers, that Barbara, with a little persuasion, was induced to show her cousin her collection of…” [of…? If you’re curious, you can always look it up!]
More specifics on these papers from fiction, 1868:
She is able to divert herself most days with her thread-papers, as Madam, her mother, will be mighty glad to hear, for the head and the heart ain’t none of them over-bad when a miss can settle to make thread-papers…. Milly was in the act of making her thread-papers – cutting down strips of gaudy card-board, painted with staring flowers, birds, butterflies, and pasting them together in the requisite shape.
Well, enough of thread papers. They were around before, during, and after my period of interest; whether artsy or functional, they were probably used most often for embroidery threads, although I could certainly add some to my workbox display. What about sewing thread for plain work or dressmaking?
An Encyclopædia of Domestic Econcomy, 1815, states, “Cotton sewing thread, usually called sewing cotton, has of late been made so beautiful by machinery, and its utility and cheapness are so well known, that it has, in a measure, superseded the use of linen thread formerly used. It is used in every house, and in the making of almost every kind of clothing.”
That was helpful in affirming what textile historians tell us, that the change from linen to cotton for sewing thread happened in the late 18th-early 19th century. But how would you find it in a shop?
Now let’s see whether you were just skimming the quotes to be a polite blog reader, or were paying attention. Did you catch the reference to Brunel²?
His biography informs us that, “A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The Machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness.”
They must have been awfully pretty, those little balls of thread, to merit so much acclaim. Rees’s 1819 Cyclopædia agreed, “cotton thread for sewing, mending, and domestic use, is wound into balls of a figure resembling a cask, and the many intersection of the thread are so managed as to produce a very beautiful appearance.”
If the illustration below is an example, I do think they’re lovely! Illustrated ads for sewing cotton wound in a fancier lattice design appeared in periodicals from 1819 to 1827. Here’s one from La Belle Assemblée, 1819. The inventor was Edmund Naish, Quaker, who patented his method in 1818.
I didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing one of these lacy little balls, so maybe you can understand my delight when I saw these!
So it appears that sewing thread, long sold in skeins (or hand-wound balls), was available for purchase as machine-wound balls sometime after 1802, and the fancy patterns in the next decade. But what about wooden spools?
In The Paisley Thread Industry (1907), the author says, “The year 1812 may be taken as the earliest date upon which Clark’s sewing thread was placed upon the market.” He goes on to state
The James Clark of Messrs. J. & J. Clark was the first to introduce spool cotton sewing thread. We are indebted to his son, Mr. James Clark, of Chapel House, for an explanation of the circumstances of this very important and interesting development. Mr. Clark says: – “Originally the cotton thread was sold in hanks or skeins, and then ladies had to wind it into little balls, as they generally wind a cut of wool yarn at the present day. Wishing to convenience his fair customers, James would, on selling a skein of cotton thread, sit down at a weaver’s pirn wheel, and wind the thread upon a spool, for which he charged a half-penny, but that half-penny he refunded when the empty spool was returned to him.
“The spools cost sixpence a dozen, and were ordered by James, to the extent of half a gross at a time, from a wood turner name Robert Paul, which he carried home in his coat pocket, to wind thread thereon by his own hand, if desired, after the sale of a skein had been effected by him.”
So I suppose you could have retail-wound wooden spools shortly after 1812 – if you lived in Paisley, Scotland! However, writing in 1861, William Weild gives a slightly different history.
Previous to the present century, sewing thread was made up for sale in hanks, and it was not till about 1814, that the plan of winding thread on spools or reels, technically called “spooling” was introduced by Mr. James Carlile, of Paisley….The spools commonly used are made of wood, more or less ornamented, and some also of metal, bone, ivory, and other materials. Wood spools were first turned by hand; but the immense demand for them called attention to the necessity for self-acting machinery for producing them in a rapid manner, and this was invented in 1846 by Mr. John Clark of Glasgow.
Here is another (mind-boggling) account of how was thread was made into balls and spools, the greatest problem being constantly breaking thread. From an 1846 SPCK publication:
The writer visited a sewing thread factory at Manchester…. The process of forming the thread into balls or reels is, performed by young women with an almost magical celerity. Each young woman is seated at a kind of turning-lathe; she seizes the end of the thread, and attaches it to a rod of steel, sets this spinning, and in an instant a ball of cotton appears at the end of the rod; the rotation is stopped, a blue ticket is inserted at the end, a further quantity of thread wound to secure the ticket, and the ball is finished. The size of the ball is regulated with extreme accuracy by the eye. The number of balls to the pound varies from 16 to 600; and the young woman being told to produce a certain number to the pound, makes a few, weighs them until she has got the exact size by weight; after this she relies entirely upon her eye, and so accurate is her judgement, that the variation of the balls in weight is very trifling. The cotton is wound on reels with the same surprising celerity…. Reeling is not such rapid work as balling.
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Can you imagine what that must have been like, eye-balling 600 balls of thread? All. Day. Long. Perhaps they could also do it in their sleep. God bless them.
And now, if you’ve made it this far into an excruciatingly arcane subject, I will share my last two discoveries. If I had found them earlier, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all the rest.
The first is an excerpt from Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford.
Everything in the one store which it boasts, kept by Martha Deane, linen-draper and haberdasher, is dear and good, as things were wont to be. You may actually get there thread made of flax, from the gouty, uneven, clumsy, shiny fabric, yclept whited-brown, to the delicate commodity of Lisle, used for darning muslin. I think I was never more astonished than when, on asking, from the mere force of habit, for thread, I was presented, instead of the pretty lattice-wound balls or snowy reels of cotton, with which that demand is usually answered, with a whole drawerful of skeins, peeping from their blue papers – such skeins as in my youth a thrifty maiden would draw into the nicely-stitched compartments of that silken repository, a housewife, or fold into a congeries of graduated thread-papers, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.”
Well, well. She covered it all: paper-wrapped skeins, balls, reels, thread papers, and one I didn’t explore (since they are so well-known already), the silken repository, or housewife (hussif). See Sarah’s charming “repository” of blue and cream below, with matching blue threads all ready for use!
And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:
But the last is an image, c.1810-1815. From the V&A, it’s the picture I’d always hoped to find: a thread-stocked workbox. The little “tickets” are pink, with the thread size stamped on them.
To wrap it all up, I now have a better idea of how to keep thread in my workbox or basket if I want to stay true (sort of) to the times. It’s a relief to untangle the knotty problem – and know that I can sleep peacefully at night.
¹ Miss Lambert was a prolific and popular author of needlework books such as this one.
² For some stranger-than-fiction history, read about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the gold sovereign magic trick – and how it could have killed him!
MILLENER, or MILLINER, one who sells ribbands and dresses, particularly head dresses for women; and who makes up those dresses. Of this word different etymologies have been given. It is not derived from the French. The French cannot express the notion of milliner, otherwise than by the circumlocution marchand or marchande des modes….
Littleton, in his English and Latin Dictionary, published 1677, defines millener, “a jack of all trades;” q. d. millenarius, or mille mercium venditor; that is, “one who sells a thousand different sorts of things.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1823
It’s summer and I’m still here and still sewing a little (not quite a thousand things) although I haven’t posted for months now. Life has been really hard lately, but looking at Mélisande and dreaming of her wardrobe has brought a lot of cheer. Playing milliner (in the broader sense) for Mélisande has been more challenging, but that’s thanks to my penchant for tackling projects labeled “Do not try this at home!”
The exquisitely beautiful Mélisande was created by Kathy Patterson, a brilliant artist and doll maker (her historical dolls are perfection) who made my dream of an early 19th century wooden doll come true. She is a 19″ wooden lady, carved in the Grödnertal or Tuck Comb style of the early 1800s, and perfect for dressing in clothing from the Regency to Romantic eras. Let me qualify that: perfect for doll dressers who know what they’re doing.
As for the rest of us… well, it’s more of an adventure. I did know enough to start with a linen chemise – or shift, if you share Jane Austen’s scorn of “mock modesty.” Using a tattered and weary dresser cloth for fabric, I cut the arm gussets and sleeves in one piece, a little trick learned from looking at an original and which I think is also mentioned in The Workwoman’s Guide.
However, as I was smirking over saving a few stitches on the gussets, time was playing a sneaky trick on me. Hint: check old fabric for flaws BEFORE you sew. That tiny stain may be just a stain when you cut out the sleeve, but by the time it’s been washed and ironed it could deteriorate into a hole. Or two. Or three. And you might not find them until you’re dressing the doll for her final photo session. And you’ll have to unstitch and redo it all. Sigh.
During the years when shifts were becoming chemises, stays were morphing into corsets. There were so many fashion changes over those decades that I didn’t really know which style to go with: long, short, cording, boning, busk? I just picked a look I liked (and had a grownup pattern to go by) and made it. Pink embroidery was a nice idea but mine looked messy so I picked it out. Instead, I limited the pink accents to extra stitching in the gores and was rather pleased with the result.
Next, Meli needed a petticoat and I needed one to copy. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of extant Regency “bodiced” petticoats. But sheer cotton dresses require petticoats, so I used a couple of tiny internet images of originals and my imagination.
Finally (2 years later) it was time for the gown! One cool thing about patterns in books is that while costumers fret over enlarging them, doll dressers find them just right! Kinda sorta. I still had to rely on my old standbys, paper towels and tape, to get the fit.
To make a pretty morning or afternoon gown (I’m not sure how to tell the difference – maybe look at what you’re wearing and then look at the clock?), I used some unusual sheer lilac cotton with a silky sheen on one side. The loose weave made it a bear to sew, though.
The bodice was the hard part. I lined it with glazed linen (I doubt I’ll do that again) and extended the lining so it could fold over to close in the front with tiny pins. The bib front is gathered and then the skirt is attached all around. The puffed sleeves are unlined. I intended to do something a little more creative than a ruffle, but I need some more practice first.
Last of all were the detachable long sleeves. They were sooo easy to make compared to the rest of the wardrobe. I should probably have made them a little longer for authenticity’s sake. Maybe another time.
Next on the list are some white muslin accessories, and then I plan to trim a bonnet, something truly millinerical. I have to say the last part of the definition quoted above really resonates with me, “Jack (or Jane?) of all trades.” And, I could add, mistress of none, but oh how much fun!
I’ll be sewing in Captain Nichols’ room, which will be outfitted for the 1910s with a 1914 hand crank machine, Miss Leah (a 1916 dress form), and an early garment drafting system that looks like a torture device, as well as all the hand sewing accoutrements necessary for a visiting seamstress.
I’ll be making doll clothes from patterns in the Mary Frances Sewing Book. Or at least fudgeling. I’m better at that than sewing!
You’ve probably heard of “writer’s block” before, but I wonder if there’s such a thing as “sewer’s block”? Perhaps for a designer or pattern maker, running out of ideas is not an unfamiliar experience.
Edwardian era lingerie dresses came in numberless variations and played large a part in enticing me into sewing history; my plain sewing passion started out as a fancy for fancy work. The snow-flake variety of designs, using only white fabric, lace, and embroidery, is mind-boggling. No surprise then that an English seamstress of 1900 was troubled by a dearth of ideas as she tried to earn her bread with her needle:
“In ladies’ dress the blouse has become a prominent feature, and it is one that lends itself to home industry…. Recently I visited a maker of blouses who was concocting with much taste and skill blouses of white muslin trimmed with embroidery. These would probably sell in shops for but a few shillings, yet the labour involved was not insignificant, for there was much tucking and trimming. The blouse-maker was a young married woman, and, having a small child to look after, could not perhaps easily go out as a dressmaker. Yet her occupation was fully as laborious. During the months before Christmas, she was obliged by her employer to make none but pattern blouses, that is to say, bodices of her own designing, no two being alike. She told me that she found this business of designing was most trying, and that she often lost her rest at night trying to think of some new style… She could make from three to six blouses a day.”*
Bless her heart, only three to six? When I made a simple one – with a commercial pattern – it took several days to do it! She was using a machine by that date, but those faster stitches meant more elaborate work was expected.
Ladies’ accessories (like collars and cuffs) and baby dresses also showed amazing creativity and variety. The surviving specimens are often the fine work that was done by professionals, but someone had to think up those designs, too!
I thought a sampling of sleeve patterns from infants’ gowns would be fun to compare. They tended to reflect current styles in women’s fashions, but perhaps you’ll notice that, even with a palette of white fabric, white lace, and white thread embroidery, the artists must have been losing some serious sleep.
N.B. The many shades of white are due to differences between the gowns (and how they were laundered), and in the fickleness of the camera, sunlight, and shade while I was trying to photograph them. I’ve tried to order them chronologically using one of my favorite books, Heather Toomer’s fabulous Baby wore white, and my (imperfect) guesses.
Many embroidery patterns were available early in the 19th century, but they weren’t usually specific to baby gowns. The one above is rather rare for c. 1820. Later, as women’s magazines proliferated, designs appeared frequently for gowns which could be ordered or copied for home sewing.
I’m in awe of the prodigious creativity that these designers and needleworkers display on such on tiny bits of cloth. And to think that the babies were oblivious to their splendor! It was left to their mothers, and other adoring fans, to appreciate the art on their sleeves.
*Bateson, Margaret. “Bread-Winning at Home.” The Girl’s Own Paper, 1900.
It’s wonderful when old clothing comes with a provenance and a story, but when those are lacking it requires a deerstalker, a magnifying glass, and powerful reasoning skills. OK, maybe not the hat.
These mitts caught my eye because they are so different from the 18th century linen and silk embroidered beauties that I’ve seen in books and museums. Having never seen anything like them before, I was intrigued by their plain sewing simplicity. Time to look for clues. Ready, Watson?
They were meant for working rather than fashion because they were made of an ordinary quality muslin and show a good bit of wear.
They were worn during the era of very short sleeves (early 19th century) since they are a veeeery long 22 inches from hand opening to upper arm.
The maker knew something about sewing, since she cut them on the bias for a hint (barely a hint!) of stretch.
The stains were made by the lady when she wore them, rather than acquired during their decades in a trunk, since they don’t reflect storage folds.
The owner was thrifty because she mended them.
She was left-handed, since the left mitt has the worst stains, both mends, and the heaviest wear.
The owner either 1) washed them in hot water, 2) gained weight, or 3) didn’t try them on until she finished making them because the seams have been let out.
And here I’ve reached the end of my observations. What do you think, Watson?
Ah. Well. The lady wore them to protect her long sleeves and bedclothes while wearing beauty treatments overnight. The pattern would only fit the material on the bias. The left mitt was torn in the laundry mangle and stained when dropped on the dirty floor. They were darned by the laundress because she didn’t want a scolding from her mistress. And they were a hand-me-down from a sister who had skinnier arms.
Thank you, Watson. I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.
In the last photo, we have a final view of the mitts, as if their ghostly wearer were raising her arms in surrender, palms forward. But if she read Watson’s and my deductions, she’s probably raised her arms while hooting with laughter!
“Marking, as the name implies, is the art of putting some distinguishing sign or mark on body and household linen, so that it may not be lost, especially in the laundry. It is therefore necessary that all washing things are clearly and distinctly marked.”
OK, let’s mark some linen. Find a chart or a sampler for a pattern (see left). Take a sheet or a towel, a shirt or a shift, and a ball of red or blue marking cotton or silk.
Make a cross-stitch, taking the first diagonal stitch over two threads of the fabric, and then another for the other side of the X. Your letters and numbers must each be finished off separately and not connected by a thread on the back. They will be about seven X’s in height.
Depending on how fine your fabric is, that means your A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 might be (gulp) 3/8 of an inch tall! Yes, seven little stacked crosses making your initials only 3/8″ high. I think good eyes and a sunny window would help.
Is it any wonder that marking was considered painfully tedious? Any wonder that any alternative method of defending your linen was highly desirable?
As a student of plain work, I’m in awe of the blindingly tiny stitches that were used for marking. I’ve blogged about it some here and here. But anyone who studies plain sewing will notice that during the 19th century, a new solution was the solution: indelible ink!
Here’s a recipe (one of several) from The New Family Receipt-Book, 1811:
Apparently the new and easier way caught on quickly. By 1833, Lydia Maria Child states in The Girl’s Own Book, “Indelible ink is now so much in use, that the general habit of marking samplers is almost done away.” Letters marked with ink could be very neat and elegant, such as this example on a lady’s chemisette, dated 1860.
Or indelible ink could be somewhat … disappointing. Unlike stitches made with thread, you can’t pick out an uh-oh. Miss Colby probably cringed when she saw how this one turned out – an untidy finish to her corded stays.
But wait! As we move from marking with needle and thread to marking with pen and ink, we’re moving into the decades of innovation: those glorious years celebrated by Great Exhibitions and more new patents than you could shake a stick at. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your cloth held taut while you wrote? A cloth stretcher could handle that.
And if the ink got too messy, well, someone had an answer for that, too. An indelible marking pencil could solve all your linen identity crises. Housekeeper, is your “brain feeling considerably bothered” by directions for using ink? An indelible marking pencil can relieve it!
Indelible ink, cloth stretchers, and marking pencils weren’t the only advances on cross-stitch. Stencils were available from stationers or engravers, and could be had by mail order. Mr. Congdon of Worcester, Massachusetts offered such aids, as seen in his ad from 1856:
But would stencils work with small letters and numbers on linen? Fortunately, we have surviving examples to show that they worked quite well.
And if thread, ink, pencil, and stencil didn’t suit, along came another option: ready-made. The machine embroidered letters came on a length of tape. They even came in Traditional Turkey Red.
The pursuit of convenience was just as fervent in the 19th century as it is in ours today, but there have always been a few voices arguing the superiority of the old ways. They certainly kept marking in the needlework curriculum until the early 1900s. While requiring more skill and more time, marking with needle and thread rendered articles “ornamental, tidy, and finished.” I suppose the tiny marking stitches are the nicest way to make your mark – for all time!
You have to admire the genius of early dressmakers and needleworkers. Trims were expensive in either time or money in the 19th century, and the feminine impulse to embellish even underclothing meant that a lady needed quite a few yards of lace, crochet or tatting. Or… tape.
Years ago I found a beautifully preserved petticoat, c1860, with a meticulously “pointed” edging on the hem – all 144 inches of it. I always meant to figure out how it was done and perhaps even make some myself. So when I came across an illustrated article with directions for “Tape-work Edging” I decided to tackle this embellishment.
Very quickly made, she says? For four days I struggled to come to terms with a strip of paper and a vandyke point. I left little piles of crumpled scraps on every table in the house. Pointless, you say? Belaboring the point? Had I missed the point? (Awful puns and I’m worse in person.) Perhaps. But I was sure it could work because I could see the finished result! It got to the point where I was almost ready to unstitch the petticoat’s trim to see how it was done. The point of no return, as it were.
And that’s where I figured it out. No, I didn’t disfigure a relic. I took a straight pin and explored the folds under a bright light.
If you knit, crochet, or are otherwise gifted at following turns (Origami?), this next part will not be of interest since you have no trouble with Mrs. Weaver’s directions. But just in case there’s another soul out there who wants some extra help, here are photos!
As for what kind of tape Mrs. Weaver recommended, it was “Chinese tape No. 4.” I can’t help with the size, but I did find this on Chinese tape:
“…tape three-eighths of an inch wide, of that kind which, at some shops, is called “twilled tape,” “India tape,” “Chinese tape;” but it is of the kind that will not curl or get hard in the washing, and is rather coarse-looking than otherwise.”
That’s according to Godey’s, 1861, although it was repeated in other periodicals for the next 15 years. This tape must have been fairly inexpensive, because it takes a lot of it to make even a few inches.
“I have been sewing on a chemise for Zona today, it is pointed.” “I finished my pointed chemise about 3 o’clock this evening.” “I sewed some on my pantlets, pointed and tucked one.” “I sewed some on my pointed night cap.” “I cut out myself a chemise this morning, going to trim it with pointed tape trimming, some Dora gave me last summer.”
Of course there are many other ways to make pointed trim, and I’m hoping to write about one that I’ve seen on a Regency era dress. However, I was determined to figure out this particular tape version for myself, and the satisfaction of victory was worth the frustration. I’ve got a suspicion that somewhere, in a book or on the internet, is a brilliant explanation that would have saved me much anguish. If you know where to find it, please be kind and don’t point it out?
What on earth is it? This wildly ruffly confection that conforms to no known human shape? Where would you wear it, on your person or on your lampshade? How? Why? Take a look at the photo above and see if you know.
Fashion history lovers might recognize it right away, but if you haven’t, here are some hints. It’s cotton (obviously), it’s hand sewn (of course), and it’s old (or it wouldn’t be of interest here).
It measures about 10 x 11 – in certain positions, anyway. I mean, how do you measure something shaped like that? It has one button and four loops, and it uses three basic plain sewing techniques: hemming, seaming, and whipping.
Yes, you’re right. It’s one of those crazy caps that were popular during the Regency (to use the term loosely) era, outré beyond belief, and probably subject to a little ridicule. I suspect they were for morning or afternoon wear.
This little cap manages to achieve its frothy excess with an ingenious pattern. There are four points, fairly simple to cut, which are then looped around a single button on the top. The result is lots of muslin bling for the stitching.
And that’s not all. It reminds me a tiny bit of one in the Workwoman’s Guide (see Pl. 9, Fig. 10). The author’s comment reveals its practicality.
This shape is particularly liked by the poor, from the ease with which it is made up and washed, as, upon undrawing the string, it opens readily at the top, and lies quite flat to be ironed.
As an Artifact Rescuer, I certainly appreciate the ease of laundering! But the most surprising thing of all? It doesn’t look so silly, but rather charming when worn. The effect is extremely flattering. So caps off to the creator of this one!
Beulah Hosley did indeed land a job as a sewing instructor – for $30 a month! Her date of assignment was June 17, 1912. But she resigned three days later. What happened to Miss Hosley and why am I curious?
It’s because I found her name inside the cover of a sewing manual from 1911. The textbook is a neat little edition, with all her samples carefully worked and attached to the pages. Most versions of this book that I’ve come across are larger with more samples, but it appears that Beulah learned all that was necessary to become a sewing teacher.
She was, if not exactly ahead of her time, at least up with the times. At age 21, her graduation in Domestic Science from the State School of Agriculture in Canton, New York qualified her to teach or to … keep house very nicely!
“The fourth annual commencement exercises of the State School of Agriculture were held at the opera house yesterday afternoon, and proved intensely interesting. The State School of Agriculture and the Domestic Science department are advancing by leaps and bounds, and the entering class is expected to largely exceed any prior one.” – The Ogdensburg Journal, June 12, 1912.
Beulah Hosley learned how to hem, tuck, herring-bone, darn, mend, gather, and do all the other stitches required for handwork. I would guess that she also learned to use a machine and perhaps some basic garment cutting, but I didn’t find any further information on those classes.
But why so short a tenure at her first job? Homesickness? It was far from her home in St. Lawrence County. Or perhaps it was where she was teaching: the Rome State Custodial Asylum in Oneida County New York. The name conjures Dickensian images of miserable people living in wretched conditions. But when I read more about the early years of the home, I realized that Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly had prejudiced me somewhat. Somewhat.
The institution was founded in 1827 as the Oneida County Poorhouse, and it remained in existence until 1989. As I scanned circa 1910 reports from the Board of Managers, it was evident that much care and effort went into the enormous task of providing for and educating the people who lived there.
They had a dairy, a hennery, a piggery; an orchestra, a baseball team, a choir; a menagerie, fairs, and concerts. Everything was recorded and reported, from the number of cases of tuberculosis to pink eye to syphilis, as well as how many quarts of blackberries and currants were consumed. And of course, sewing classes! Still, to read the reports is to glimpse the struggles, the suffering, and the shame found even in an “enlightened” institution in the early 1900s.
But back to Beulah’s story. I haven’t learned why she didn’t stay there, nor whether she found another teaching job. I do know that she went on to live a comfortable life; she married a couple of years later and had children. Her name appeared in the college alumni publications for many decades after. Did she use her sewing skills at home? Quite possibly. She certainly left a lovely record of the skills she acquired, beautifully preserved for our admiration!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.