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!
The measurement around the brim, including the ruffle, is about 12 inches; the center front to the back is about 9 inches.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Indeed! 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.
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.
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!”
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 more about Dorset knob buttons, I realized the material must be horn.
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.
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, there is a lot of serious research available online now. And for everyone else… well, there’s always velcro.
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. 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.
However! 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.
Next 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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
Um, 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.
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.
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, givesa 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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
In spite of my plain shirt obsession, it took me forever to finally reproduce one myself. I have a tendency to procrastinate, and it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s something I really love or not.
I’ll start with enthusiasm, and then the motivation fizzles and the project goes on the UFO shelf. So it’s been with the fine linen shirt I’ve been playing with for the proverbial seven years.
But then last year I had to make one for a local history event, and a Deadline With People Waiting On Me provided the necessary spark.
This square-cut shirt wasn’t made of fine fabric, but of worn-out linen, since it was to dress an interpreter at a historic slave cabin. It was easier to do since I was replicating an old and tattered garment: all my stitches didn’t have to be perfect, thread could be mismatched, patches were expected.
The hard part was working on a heavier material that still contained prehistoric starch, as well as making the shabby parts fit the pattern in the right places. Working over two threads on lumpy and uneven material made the finished product look a bit coarse. Um, not my fault… right. However, I made the deadline although both the shirt and I were worn out!
Once upon a time, folks from all over would gather, bringing their best work to show off, to compete for prizes, and to sell. These were the agricultural fairs, a tradition whose roots go back many centuries and places. Nineteenth century America saw their development as a way to encourage innovation. By mid-century, agricultural societies were flourishing.
Today their records are a rich source of information on agricultural and domestic history of the era. The premiums, which ranged from a few cents (female enterprise) to substantial sums (men’s categories!) must have been the source of great pride, outrage, bickering and boasting – oh to have been there to hear the drama! I spent a happy afternoon several years ago in a university library poring over the books full of juicy details. Yes, that was before google books.
“An embroidered map of Savannah… best collection of fall peaches … beautiful specimens of sewing silk … second best profane landscape … woolen counterpane, maker’s name unknown … from the crowded state of the room, and the great number of articles present, several paintings could not be found … second best cow “Eloise” … the committee exhibited a marked partiality for apple pies, and awarded with singular unanimity fifty cents each to Mrs. … a basket of superb wax flowers, which the chairman of the committee on flowers pronounced superior to any in his department of natural ones … S. D., 7 years of age, worsted work executed while lying on his back with a broken thigh, .50 … worsted quilt, said to contain 9765 pieces; ingenuity and labor … lemons of enormous size, preserved in alcohol…” – the list fills volumes.
Crackers, lightning rods, stoves, plows, false teeth, butter, Muscovy ducks, headstones, cologne, down tippets, dog’s hair socks, essays, fishing boots, parsnips, daguerreotypes, golden pippins, rocking chairs, canaries, grain bags, gold pens, baby-tender. Was there anything they didn’t show?
To paraphrase one report, I am greatly embarrassed on account of the limited means placed at my disposal to mention such a large number of exhibits, and I wish to say, that I doubt not there are many articles not noticed which are as well worthy of premium or gratuity as some which have been thus honored. I am reluctantly compelled to pass them over.
One category is especially interesting to me: plain sewing (surprise!). Here are some examples from the Sandy Creek, Richland, Orwell, & Boylston Agricultural Society of New York, c1860.
The chemises are exquisite, and it’s easy to see why their maker entered them in competition. I regret to say that I don’t know if they won a prize or not. There was no record of one with them. Nonetheless, they are fine work and perhaps the maker would be even more pleased if she knew how much, and how long, they would be admired!
By the way, check the calendar and visit your own state or local fair. If you’ve never toured the exhibits before, you’ll be amazed!
For those who would like more detail and patterns that they can easily use today, there is another book, The Lady’s Economical Assistant, which has been reproduced after the 1808 edition, available from Kannick’s Korner.
I came across this one day while surfing for children’s print dresses.
It is a simple child’s gown dating to 1803 that has a story, one I could never imagine. Made of a shabby, sweet calico print, it is typical for its day: simple in cut, with a little frill around the high collar. The tragedy lies in the last day it was worn. John Marsden was two years old when he died after being scalded in an accident at home.
The Marsden family were among the earliest to arrive from England to live in New South Wales and the Powerhouse Museum website has more information on the family and this collection.
I don’t need to create imaginary stories for this dress, since his mother said enough, “The loss of those I have parted from weighs so much on my mind that at times I am as miserable as it is possible to be – outwardly I may appear cheerful but I am very far from being happy – indeed happiness and me seem long since to have parted and I have a presentiment that peace will never more be an inhabitant of my bosom.”
In 1863, a missionary named Emmanuel Boehringer was traveling north from Virginia when he passed through Sharpsburg in September. There he met with a scene of devastation and misery. He stayed to help tend the wounded of the Battle of Antietam and was haunted by the thought of so many new orphans, a forgotten casualty of war. Inspired to make a home for them, he founded the Orphan’s Home of the Shepherd of the Lambs.
The name was later changed to Bethany Orphans’ Home, and hundreds of children were cared for and educated over the years. Boys also learned farming and girls learned domestic arts. But wait! Sewing is not just for girls!
Apparently it was deemed practical for boys to learn to stitch, too. And although rare in those days of division of labor, it wasn’t unheard of – I occasionally come across references in old sewing manuals to boys being taught sewing. According to Emily Jones, who wrote a manual in 1884, “Every infant schoolmistress who has tried the teaching of needlework to boys, speaks most warmly in favor of it.”
And the skill can be so useful! She goes on to give one of my favorite quotes, spoken in a Winnie-the-Pooh-sort-of-way:
“A Waterloo veteran said to me the other day, “I don’t know much about sewing, except putting on buttons, and I don’t know whether you would consider mine the correct way, but they used to stick on, and that is a good point in a button.”
I’m naturally drawn to images of sewing, and I come across a little treasure now and then. There’s something very touching about a pose like this. The scene is perfect in its way. The little girl with her tiny sewing basket and doll, little brother wearing suspenders and holding the thread, and mother carefully fixing the work! It makes me wonder about their lives – who were they?
Well, in this case I do know their names because they’re written on the back of the photo. Iva Fuller, Jean Ray and Charlie Ray. So I suppose she’s not their mother, maybe an aunt or grandmother? I guess it’s a lesson to me about creating stories around pictures and objects. But I doubt it will stop me from doing it!
A quick search did not help me identify the people or place. Do you know them? The year was “about 1934.” And I’d love to hear from someone who can identify the type of doll!
Just when I get complacent, thinking I’ve found a bit of information and can safely pack it away, something comes along to surprise me. As Seen on TV advertising is not new to our generation. Well, maybe the TV part, but not the advertising! About 150 years ago readers of Godey’s Lady’s Book were told how much easier their lives would be if they only had that new invention, The Sewing Machine.
Value Of A Sewing-machine.—The following curious calculation of the number of stitches required in making a man’s shirt, gives us a realizing idea, as a Yankee would say, of the value of the sewing-machine in one single branch of needlework. As a household aid this invention is invaluable to women. Is it not pitiful that more than twenty thousand stitches have often been required to make one single shirt, for which the poor seamstress received, probably, not over seventy-five cents or one dollar:—
“Stitching the collar, four rows, 3,000; sewing the ends, 500; button-holes, and sewing on buttons, 150; sewing the collar and gathering the neck, 1,204; stitching wristbands, 1,228; sewing the ends, 68; button-holes, 148; hemming the slits, 264; gathering the sleeves, 840 ; setting on wristbands. 1.468; stitching on shoulder-straps, three rows each. 1880; hemming the bosom, 393; sewing the sleeves, 2,532; setting in sleeves and gussets, 3,050; tappiug the sleeves, 1,526; sewing the seams, 841; setting side gussets in, 424; hemming the bottom, 1,104. Total number of stitches, 20,620.”
In true journalistic tradition, Harper’s presented, almost word for word, the same thing in 1869. Only their math was a little different.
The following curious calculation of the number of stitches in a shirt, which somebody has had the patience to make, we mean the calculation, not the shirt, by any means, may induce some gentleman to present his wife with a good sewing machine.Stitching the collar, four rows, 3000; sewing the ends, 500; buttonholes and sewing on buttons, 150; sewing the collar and gathering the neck, 1204; stitching wristbands, 1228; sewing the ends, 68; buttonholes, 48; hemming the slits, 264; gathering the sleeves, 840; setting on wristbands, 1468; stitching on shoulder straps, three rows each, 1880; hemming the bosom, 393; sewing the sleeves 2335; setting in sleeves and gussets, 3050; tapping the sleeves, 1526; sewing the seams, 848; setting side gussets in, 424; hemming the bottom, 1104. Total number of stitches 20,530.
Apparently this “curious calculation” didn’t begin life as a sewing machine ad. It appeared in the years after, but also in the years before the sewing machine. Note how the article was borrowed and adapted (just like the blogs we’re writing now – ha!)
Now come the long evenings with devices for amusing them. In the intervals of recreation there is “work to do.” This word “work” is significant of an employment which astonishes men, and seems never to tire the fingers of their industrious helpmates and daughters; except that, with an expression which we are at a loss to take for either jest or earnest, because it partakes of each, they now and then exclaim, “women’s work is never done!” The assertion is not exactly the fact, but it is not a great way from it. What “man of woman born” ever considered the quantity of stitches in a shirt without fear that a general mutiny among females might leave him” without a shirt to his back?” Cannot an ingenious spinner devise a seamless shirt, with its gussets, and wristbands, and collar, and selvages as durable as hemming? These inquiries are occasioned by the following Letter from a Lady:— “To the Editor of the Every Day Book.—
Sir, I assure you the Every Day Book is a great favourite among the ladies, and therefore I send for insertion a calculation, furnished me by a maiden aunt, of the number of stitches in a plain shirt made for her grandfather: —Stitching the collar, four rows, 3,000; sewing the ends, 500; button-holes, and sewing on buttons, 150; sewing on the collar and gathering the neck, 1,204; attaching wristbands, 1,228; sewing the ends, 68; button-holes, 148; hemming the slits, 264; gathering the sleeves, 840; setting on wristbands, 1,468; stitching shoulder-straps, three rows each, 1880; hemming the neck, 390; sewing the sleeves, 2,554; setting in sleeves and gussets, 3,050; taping the sleeves, 1,526; sewing the seams, 848; setting side gussets, 424; hemming the bottom, 1,104—Total number of stitches 20,646 in my aunt’s grandfather’s plain shirt, as witness my hand, —Gertrude Grizenhoofe.—Cottenham, near Cambridge, Sept. 1825.”
It was great fun tracing the path of these “curious and significant” calculations, although a bit confusing because sometimes a publisher would acknowledge the source (quite helpful), sometimes not (greater challenge), and sometimes it was a reprint from their own magazine (I got lost). Not to mention, their math could be as wobbly as mine! The trail of the tale was pretty typical for 19th century publishing.
However, I was astonished to finally come across the same calculation in another magazine – from 1782! So this stitchery factoid was much older than I had supposed, even more exciting!
As a plain-sewing-square-cut-shirt devotee, I’m fairly familiar with the terms used in their construction. I know about the “nineteen pieces in a shirt, twenty in a trimmed one.” But I was puzzled by “tapping the sleeves.” After finding the other versions I assumed it was a typo for “taping.” And behold! In The Lady’s Magazine, the word was clearly ‘taping’ – but what did it mean? Tapes in the early garments were usually what we call drawstrings today. Hmm… Ideas, anyone?
The little wristband appears in English, European, and American school samplers throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. Girls were first taught the basic stitches and expected to master each one. But of course the purpose of learning stitches is to make something!
When they were accomplished in running, stitching, and seaming, the time had come to assemble parts of a garment. This was often how they learned to stroke and gather tiny pleats into a band – each side gathered and the pleats attached separately on both sides. The ends of the band were seamed (overcast) with very tiny stitches. What could be more suitable than a little cuff? It only required a scrap of fabric and was easy to handle.
This method of inserting and fixing the sleeve in the band is also a clue when examining a garment to determine its age (or whether it’s a good reproduction!). I’ve noticed that almost all early pieces of plain sewing use this method for cuffs, collars, and waistbands, anything gathered and set into a band.
After the sewing machine became common later in the century, construction methods adapted to its use. Even though some plain work was still taught using the old method, the new way became standard – to the point where today we rarely know any other.