Cuff Links – to the Past

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

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

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

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

Sleeve Cuff 7
Gathers from the inside.

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

Gathers from the outside.
Gathers from the outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleeve Cuff 3
Open slit in the upper band.

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

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

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

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

Nourishing Juices

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

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

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

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

Diaper 2
Cotton facings, hemmed with tiny stitches.

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

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

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

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

 

It Seams French

French Seam 1

Once upon a time, I thought every seam that was sewn, by hand or machine, had to be finished. By that I mean it could have no raw edges. Raveling? Horrors! Unthinkable. What would happen when the garment was worn? When it was washed? And so I zig-zagged, overcast, or French-seamed every seam so thoroughly that I might as well have used Super Glue.

I also assumed, when I first started to explore the history of hand sewing, that French seams must have been part of the basic sewing repertoire. After all, they didn’t have Super Glue back then, did they?

However, as I studied antique clothing I quickly learned that all seams weren’t finished. The only seams to match my hermetically sealed standard were felled, like those in shirts and shifts, and felling was used because underwear (or family linen, as they called it) had to withstand tortures that would have impressed Vlad the Impaler.

After scrutinizing sewing techniques in antique clothing, it also dawned on me that French seams didn’t show up in anything older than late-nineteenth century. Hmm. So when did French seams become common? I don’t know for sure, but out of all my sewing instruction books, the earliest (definite) explanation of the method I could find appears in a French dressmaking manual, circa 1860s, as shown above. Ah, French!

Perhaps it was used earlier in particular garments, by particular seamstresses, or in particular countries. My experience and resources are pretty limited, so if I come across more information on this stitch, I’ll certainly update.

But by the early 1900s, the French seam was common enough to appear in most sewing manuals. It was well-suited to the ubiquitous sewing machine, sheer waists and dresses yearned for neat seams, and it was soooo easy to do. Or teach. Or learn. And since efficiency was so very, very modern … pourquoi pas?

French Seam Sample
This sample by Miss Beulah H., early 1900s, shows a bias-cut French seam.
French Seam  Woolman 1
Instructions from Beulah’s book for making the sample…
French Seam Woolman 2
… and the conclusion.

 

Picking a Pocket

Pocket 1

Pharaby’s pocket’s been picked!

(If you expected the Lucy Locket quote on this one, maybe I succeeded in surprising you?)

There are so many images available online that it was hard to choose a model for her pocket. I finally settled on “the look” of a sweet little doll version in the online Pockets collection at the VAD. (Click the link and then search for “doll´s pocket Nottingham.”) It resembled a couple of others, also worked in yellow thread, that were made for women rather than dolls. And it only required a backstitch!

The pattern: traced, pricked, and pounced. The fluff of canary-colored silk is the remains of
The pattern: traced, pricked, and pounced. The fluff of canary-colored silk is the remains of my fight with the floss.

The design I used was loosely based on an 1770s pattern from The Lady’s Magazine. I scanned the original pattern and scaled it down to Pharaby-size. Then I raided a stash of old 1890s embroidery silks. I tried using the thread as it came from the skein, but it was way too thick – using only one ply made it almost small enough. And I can tell you that it did NOT work like the illustration on the wrapper!

Pocket 4As you can see from the remaining yellow fuzz, it was a struggle. But once that was done, it was pretty simple to cut out the front and back, then bind them with some matching yellow silk.

Pocket 6
I tried. It didn’t work like the picture.

To finish the pocket, I added narrow tapes on the ends. Yes, one MORE thing to go around her waist. But now she has a place to carry her handkerchief – when I make her one.

Pocket 5Oh! And while she was showing off her pocket, I took a picture of her wearing her marked shift. I neglected to do that in the last post, and she let me hear about it.

Pharaby's Marked Shift

X Marks the Spot

Pharaby's shift is now marked.
Pharaby’s shift is now marked.

“The art of marking was brought to perfection many years ago, and if our great grandmothers could but see the meagre attempts made by us now-a-days, I fancy they would have some contempt for the system by which our needlework abilities are tested.”

– A. K. Smith, 1892

They would certainly have some contempt for how long it took me to mark Pharaby’s shift, regardless of the quality of my work! I should have tended to this little essential when I first made it, but better late than never. We can’t have her single shift getting lost in the laundry, can we?

X Marking 2
A lovely linen baby shirt marked with Turkey red cotton; note the quarter next to it for size. I’ve kept the image full size, for anyone who wants to view beautifully done original marking up close – just click the image.

First I had to do some practice stitching. Sampler collectors and makers would laugh at how astonished – and intimidated – I am by the miniscule cross-stitches made during the past 200 years. You can see from this little baby shirt (last quarter 19th C) how blithely they marked countless linens. I’m guessing at the “blithely” part, but since I have many shirts from this baby, somebody was doing a lot of marking!

Making it to Pharaby’s scale would be impossible, since barely matching ordinary period work would be the best I could hope for.

I used a pretty little c1900 linen collar to experiment on (damaged – I wouldn’t inflict my needle on it otherwise), as you can see in the picture.

X Marking 3
A linen collar marked with ink that I used for practice. “No textiles were harmed during the making of this experiment.”

Since the threads in linen are not all exactly the same size, my stitches over two threads looked a bit messy. I tried sewing over four (too big) or over however many made a perfect square (too awkward). By this time I was just about ready to use ink, like the collar owner! But hey, I’m all about plain sewing, right?

A lot of trial and error showed that to be small enough, I’d have to work over two threads, no matter how lumpy my letters looked. I found that just like many projects, things that look pretty awful as I’m working, look a little better when I’m done. Or maybe I’m just cross-eyed by then!

X Marking 5
The baby shirt, Pharaby’s shift, and the practice piece, all together. The little birds I tried were from a pattern by the most knowledgeable sampler collector I’ve ever met. Maybe Pharaby will make a sampler one day….

 

Flower Patch 4

Flower Patch 4
Early 19th century English paper pieced patch – with ugly leaves.

I chose another pattern for the season, and in honor of Thanksgiving week, it’s one with leaves! But to be quite frank, it’s pretty much… not pretty. Perhaps the whole pattern was nicer, and it’s only this snippet that is less than attractive to me.

The maker was certainly wanting to use it though, because she had to piece the piece. You can see just how tiny the scraps were, and it amazes me that she made the effort. Keep in mind the whole hexagon is only 2 inches across!

Flower Patch 4 Back
A view from the back, showing part of an  old copybook page that was used for the pattern.

Something else that I find surprising in these sections is just how many of them have their original glazed finish, or sizing. Perhaps they were only cutting scraps, not from worn out garments. Even though times were changing, fabric itself still had more value than the average worker’s time. And it’s not just the fact that the scraps retain their glazing, I’m really surprised that so many of the pieces have it at all, enough to make them very shiny. I have to angle the photo “just so” to limit the reflection. Hmm… something to reflect on….

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

Save Ye Whales

Save Ye Whale Placard
Pharaby Protests Whaling

It’s been a whale, er, a while, since Pharaby had an update in her wardrobe. Stays were next on the list since no 18th century female would be caught dead without them. I dreaded it though, not only because I’m not a staymaker, but because Pharaby is so feisty and I feared she would not be very accommodating.

I was right.

Pharaby comtemplating violence.
Pharaby comtemplating violence.

It wasn’t hard finding some period glazed linen, and stitching was tedious but not difficult. The challenge was making a pattern and making it fit. Hooboy. I have no talent for patterns to begin with, and Pharaby was utterly unyielding. Her curves would not give an inch. I must have drawn two dozen versions before we came to terms. I think she herself came close to desperation, because late one night I caught her reaching for the seam ripper when she thought I wasn’t looking.

Pharaby Stays Boning
Pharaby plays well with knives.

Well, between tracing and taping and heavy use of aluminum foil, we made it. The next part was finding appropriate boning. My first thought was to use old whalebone, but the idea of cutting them to fit was rather daunting. And Pharaby feels strongly about whaling – see above. I experimented with plastic ties (too soft), wooden skewers (too hard), cardboard (too bendy), and even some perfectly shaped plastic applicators I found in a cosmetic box (too thick). I decided on reeds, and Pharaby and I spent considerable time shaving them to size. I think she rather enjoyed that part, but I can tell you I had to get new blades for my Exacto knife before we were finished!

Eleventy weeks later, they were done. All but the lacing holes. It looked so simple to do and there were plenty of nice images available to help. But if I thought pattern making was a chore, figuring out the spacing for spiral lacing required three afternoons. Gee, the back of the stays is only 3 inches, how hard could that be? For me? Ha.

Persistence pays, however, and she is now laced in her stays. I’ve sewn a little pocket inside the lining so I can make her a busk. And I think, despite her protests, it may be made of baleen. She’s now ready for the next garment: I expect it will be a petticoat.

P.S. I did add buttonholes to the shift cuffs, so she could wear pink silk ties. Have you ever tried sewing buttonholes to fit within 1/8 of an inch? I recommend a nice Pinot Blanc.

P.P.S. If you haven’t read ye etymology of “Ye Olde,” you might enjoy it.

Pharaby Stays Front 1
A Queen Anne wooden doll gets new stays – shorter than originally intended since her hips were more than I could cope with.
Pharaby Stays Front 2
Doll stays, front view.
Pharaby Stays Back
Doll stays, back view.
Pharaby Stays Side
Doll stays, side view.
Pharaby Stays Full
Pharaby speaks her mind.

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.

18th C Cap 1e
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.

 

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!

 

Shiftless

Shift Full
Maybe Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless – but not Shiftless!

Shiftless no more! Pharaby can compost the fig leaves now.

To make her shift, I used some fine old linen with a silky feel, and  I scaled a pattern in Costume Close-Up (is there anyone who doesn’t use that pattern?). Then I proceeded to sew up the gores, body, and neckline. Shift Hem When it came to the sleeves, though, I was perplexed. What was typical, plain or gathered? I reeeeally wanted to do gathered.

Not being an eighteenth-century-fashionista, I pulled out costume books and scoured the internet for guidance (see this awesome study). Most of the images of extant shifts I found – there were a few exceptions – had sleeves without gathers at the armscye, or shoulder. But period art seems to imply that  shifts did have them; otherwise, how so fluffy? That means that 1) I didn’t look in the right places,  2) I couldn’t see details and misinterpreted the pictures, 3) they didn’t survive as often, or 4) some dates were wrong. Maybe all four, plus some more reasons I haven’t thought of yet.  Oh well.

Shift Left ShoulderHowever! I found two or three images of exquisite little shifts on early wooden dolls in museums, and those had sleeves that were gathered at the armscye. I think. Anyway, I love setting in gathers and it’s my toy, so that’s what I did.

Now another dilemma. To stitch or not to stitch, that was the question. I was so accustomed to seeing the stitching (now called backstitching) on the wristbands of men’s shirts, that her little cuffs looked as bare as she did.   But, duh for me, I’d already set in the gathers. Could I do it, post hoc stitching?  Why not – if there’s a harder way, I’ll find it. You don’t see any close-up photos of the cuffs here, do you? Ha.

Shift RightNext came the binders, those reinforcing strips that are a standard feature in men’s shirts. I can only guess how common they were in women’s shifts, because they don’t usually show in photos, nor are they noted in descriptions. But I’ve long speculated that originally binders were there just for “setting in” gathers – support for a stress area was just a bonus. So in they went.

Now the question you’ve been too polite to ask: did it fit? Pharaby said it would do. She’s not fussy. Any doll destined to wear fashions spanning a century or so – at the same time – can’t afford to be.

Oh, but she does expect me to mark her shift and add ties for her cuffs. She hasn’t decided about frills.

Shift Pharaby

Shift Gathers

Shift Right Shoulder

Shift Neckline

Shift Gores

Shift Sleeve

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

A Heart-bit for St. Valentine’s Day

Heart-bit? No, I don’t mean smitten with love, phrased in a folksy sort of way. I mean a little bit, or piece, in the shape of a heart! Worn right over the heart.

Heart Bit Shirt
Heart-bit with decorative knots on an early 19th century man’s fine linen shirt. The shirt was rescued from captivity where it had been altered and abused with scissors, sewing machines, and synthetic trim!

That perfect specimen of plain sewing, The Shirt, has a romantic soul. Back in days when shirts were only slit down the front, and not buttoned closed the full length, that end of the opening was vulnerable to tearing. There were various ways to prevent it, and I came across references to this lovely way when researching early sewing instructions. For example, Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, 1789, gives a description of cutting linen for shirts:

This half overplus being a quarter of a yard in length, serves to cut out hearts for the bosoms.

 Or a sewing manual from 1833:

 HEART-BIT

Before commencing the shirt, small pieces of muslin are given to each girl, for the purpose of learning to settle in, and work the breast-gusset.

Of course not all shirts had them. Some had a triangular gussets, or a buttonholed reinforcement, or a tiny rectangular piece to prevent a tear, and some had nothing at all. But you have to love linen with a heart!

Heart Bit Shirt 2
Another early 19th century man’s fine linen shirt, with a beautifully worked heart-bit. Unlike the shirt above, this lucky gentleman spent his retirement carefully packed away.
Heart Bit Chemise
An early 19th century woman’s chemise made of muslin, showing she had a heart, too.
Heart Bit Manual
A girl’s sewing manual from the mid-19th century displays an alternative shape for the gusset, but still called in the instructions a Heart-piece.

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!