She Sews Sea Shells

An original Victorian era pin cushion, courtesy of AmericanaAntiques.

An original Victorian era pin cushion, courtesy of AmericanaAntiques.

Summer will be coming to an end soon, although temperatures here in the south will be summery for many weeks yet. Collecting keepsakes to remind ourselves of happy places is nothing new. Victorians made it into quite an art. Literally!

I was browsing an 1860 book of toys for little girls, and came across these directions for a charming pin cushion. Hmm … a new project? Victorian shell art reached heights that defy description, but this little trinket is so simple and sweet that every workbox deserves one!

Shell Pin Cushion 1Shell Pin Cushion 2

PSPSROM

The reward of merit: a token of our appreciation.

P.S. If you make one, please share a picture? You will receive a token of gratitude (inscribed with your name) from the Plain Sewing Preservation Society!

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Scamp-work

Felling 05

And now back to plain sewing, in excruciating detail. A teacher’s sample of felling, dated 1900.

Do you know how to write instructions in such a simple, straightforward, concise manner that anyone can follow them perfectly? I wish I did.

I was working on a project that required an explanation of “felling,” and reached the point where a little testing of the prototype was in order. I found a Reluctant Victim, and with mild apprehension, gave her the draft to read and check for clarity. She read, pondered, frowned, sighed.

Fail.

Felling 12

The fabric prepared for the first line of sewing: either running or backstitching.

Felling 07

The fabric after it has been sewn together, and the fell is being hemmed down.

After some discussion, I realized that there was more to this little bit of plain sewing than could be covered in my one-sentence description. Why? Because there are a couple of variations, as well as some similar stitches that our g-g-grandmothers used (e.g., French seam, counter-hem, German hem, mantua-maker’s hem) to confuse things. Too much info for a sound bite project.

Sure, felling is just a method of joining two pieces of fabric so that the raw edges are enclosed and hemmed down. But there wasn’t only one way to fell a seam: it was that first line of sewing that made the difference.

The first line of sewing joins the two pieces of fabric. The second one (it was always hemming in hand work)  fastens down the folded edge. So for the first line,

You could use a running stitch.
You could use a backstitch (called stitching in early English texts).
You could use a half-backstitch (variation of the above).
You could use a very shallow overcasting stitch (called sewing or seaming in early English texts).

This difference in the first line of stitching made all the difference in understanding period instructions on how to fold it and how to hold it. (Sorry, Kenny.) That’s what gave me real problems when trying to condense my instructions.

Methods that use a running stitch or a backstitch are easier to explain, and they’re the ones most people use today when hand sewing. You place the pieces right sides together and sew. Then spread the work open, fold the edge over, and hem it down.

Seaming

It’s the last method that gets a little tricky, the one that uses seaming (I’ll use that term since that’s what I called it in Plain Needlework) for the first line of sewing.

Felling 11

The work held properly for seaming, from a period manual.

Seaming was a sturdy method of joining two pieces that utilized every inch of fabric. When you spread the seam open, the edges look butted together.

Linen used for underclothing early in the century had nice selvages that could be joined this way. Therefore, it’s easy to see how a seamstress would be inclined to use the same stitch if she had to join two “cut” (non-selvage) edges. Because you should never use selvages that have unsightly little holes!

An excerpt, dated 1821:

SECOND CLASS.

Q. How should you fix a seam? – A. I turn one paper down once, and the other once on the right side, and turn it back again the same width to form the fell.

Q. What do you do next? – A. I pin the two pieces together.

Q. What should you do before you fix two selvages together? – A. Examine them, to see if there are any little holes in them.

Q. If there are, should you sew them together? A. No, cut them off, and fix a fell seam.

How do you prepare and hold the fabric if you want to use seaming? Most of the old manuals say the fabric is held wrong sides together and worked on the right side. And that’s how all the illustrations show it. After all, if you’re turning down the edges before you seam them, you don’t want those pesky folded parts in the way while you work, right?

But there are a few sources that say otherwise. A Sewing Course for Teachers advises placing right sides together for seaming, because the slanted bits of thread will then be inside, and the straight bits will be hidden in the grain of the fabric on the right. (See the pics in the Flower Patch post for an example.)

And in that venerable text, The Workwoman’s Guide, A Lady states

The work for sewing is thus prepared: the two selvages are placed together, or if there are no selvages, the raw edge of one piece is turned down once, and the edge of the other piece is turned down double the width, and then half the width is turned back again for the fell. The two pieces are pinned or basted together, with the parts turned down face to face and held firmly between the finger and the thumb…

At first I assumed she meant to place both whole pieces of fabric face to face. But after considering a century’s worth of other sources, I think “A Lady” meant that only the folded down parts are face to face. The two pieces of fabric are actually wrong sides together.

So what was “the rule” back then? I believe that seaming without felling was done either on the right or wrong side of the fabric – assuming there was a difference in the right and wrong sides! And I think seaming for felling was usually done on the right side with the little folds tucked inside. But does it really matter? Maybe I’m the only soul on earth who finds it interesting?

Felling 06Folding for Felling, the old-fashioned way:

If, however, you also like picayune sewing trivia, below are some images showing the method of folding for felling.  I’m really surprised that such consistent, detailed instructions and examples have survived. And very, very grateful!

 

Felling 01

Children learned by first folding paper in preparation for felling. Lancaster’s manual, 1821.

Felling 02

A close-up of the folded paper that has come unglued.

Felling 03

Even closer-up! You can just barely see the double fold in the top paper.

Felling 08

This 1890s manual illustrates the fold on the first piece.

Felling 09

The fold on the second piece.

Felling 10

The pieces aligned and basted together for seaming.

Now, what method do I use? Mostly run-and-fell. But sometimes I use seaming because it’s my favorite stitch to work. I recommend doing what suits your project or suits your fancy. Anyone who sews two left sleeves on a blouse, twice!!, can’t be too snooty about setting standards.

Although some 19th century sewing teachers were! Writing in 1884, Miss Jones insists,

“Run-and-fell is not allowable in plain needlework. It must be called ‘scamp-work.’ If properly done, it takes as long as the seaming and even then is not very secure….”

Tackling this topic helped my muddled mind, and made me decide to simplify that project. Run-and-fell only for that one. I guess that makes me a shameless promoter of scamp-work!

Googling Poonah in 1907, or What’s in Your Workbox?

Theorem Painted Box 1

19th century paper box with theorem-painted velvet lid. At least I think that’s what it is, I don’t know for certain. Additional information welcome!

I’ve always had a thing for little boxes, and when I came across this one I was delighted. I’m not sure why, because it’s not especially pretty now. It probably wasn’t a whole lot better in its own day! But it’s just the sort of trinket I like to put in a workbox to add, um, character.

The painted velvet on top was intriguing, and it didn’t take a lot of searching before I began to see the term “theorem painting” pop up. Apparently it was all the rage with crafty ladies in the early to mid-nineteenth century. It was a type of stenciling that was supposed to be very easy to do, although it wasn’t held in high esteem by the Genuinely Artistic.

While browsing some ladies’ magazines of the era, I finally made the connection between theorem and Poonah painting. And I learned that it doesn’t take long for a fad to fade! What on earth was a body to do in the days before search engines?

Well, in 1907 J. A. H. Murray of Oxford went to the Google of his day, Notes & Queries, a Medium of Communication for Literary Men (cough cough), General Readers, Etc. 1907.

Poonah Painting—I want information about this. I can remember that there was something so called in vogue about 1856, but have quite forgotten what it was. I find the following references:—

1821, Examiner, p. 272: “To Ladies—The Poonah Taught in a superior style, Ladies instructed in the above Elegant Art, together with a variety of Fashionable and Ornamental Works.”

1829, ‘The Young Lady’s Book,’ 469: “A piece of tracing-paper, of a peculiar manufacture, which is sold at the stationers’ shops as Poonah-paper.”

1840, Thackeray, ‘Paris Sketch-Book’, 153: “What are called ‘mezzotints,’ pencil drawings, ‘poonah-paintings,’ and what not.”

1861, Sala, ‘Twice Round the Clock.’ 179: “An eight-day clock, two pairs of silver grape-scissors, a poonah-painted screen, a papier-mache workbox, an assortment of variegated floss-silk.”

1889, Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin, II. 48: “If the plate be a large one, it may be applied by using a strong hog-hair or poonah brush charged with vermillion.”

After all this, the word does not, so far as I see, occur in any dictionary, and is even entirely missed by ‘ The Encyclopedia Britannica ’ and The Times Supplement. What were poonah painting and poonah paper? What is a poonah brush? Speedy information is desired.

J. A. H. MURRAY. Oxford.

Don’t you just love how he came up with the same kind of snippets that Google does? What on earth would he think of how fast “speedy” is now! His search wasn’t over, however. Readers speedily came to his aid with more information, just like a special interest forum today.

POONAH PAINTING- ​Two well-remembered accessories of my golden age were a tubby little copy of ‘ The Boy’s Own Book,’ inherited from an earlier generation, and a smart, red-coated, gilt-edged volume which offered itself as ‘The Girl’s Own Book,’ and was, compared with the other, “ as moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine.” It was, however, of it that I thought when I saw Dr. Murray’s question, for I believed that it conveyed the mystery of Poonah painting; and, having obtained the loan of the book from a working nursery, I am glad to find that I was right. I have before me a copy of the fourteenth edition of ‘ The Girl’s Own Book,’ by Mrs. Child (author of ‘ The Mother’s Book,’ ‘ Frugal Housewife,’ ‘ Mother’s Story Book,’ 820.), which was published by William Tegg & Co., Cheapside, in 1848.

The directions for Poonah painting are set forth on pp. 208-9. I read :—

POONAH PAINTING. This style of painting requires nothing but care and neatness. The outline of whatever you wish to paint is drawn with the point of a needle on transparent paper, and then cut out with sharp scissors. No two parts of the bird, or flower, which touch each other, must be cut on the same piece of paper. Thus on one bit of transparent paper I cut the top and bottom petal of a rose; on another piece I cut the leaves at the two opposite sides, &c. Some care is required in arranging the theorems, so that no two parts touching each other shall be used at the same time.

It is a good plan to make a drawing on a piece of white paper, and mark No. 1 upon all the leaves you can cut on the first theorem, without having them meet at any point; No. 2 on all you can cut in the same way on the second theorem, and so on. After all the parts are in readiness, lay your theorem upon your drawing paper, take a stiff brush of bristles, cut like those used in velvet colours, fill it with the colour you want, and put it on as dry as you possibly can, moving the brush round and round in circles, gently, until your leaf is coloured as deep as you wish. Where you wish to shade, rub a brush filled with the dark colour you want, carefully round and round the spot you wish to shade. Petal after petal, leaf after leaf, is done in this way, until the perfect flower is formed.

No talent for drawing is necessary in this work; for the figure is traced on transparent paper, and then the colours are rubbed over the holes, in the same manner they paint canvass carpets. In the choice of colours, you must be guided by the pattern you copy. The light colour which forms the ground-work is put on first, and the darker colours shaded on after it is quite dry. Green leaves should be first made bright yellow; then done all over with bright green; then shaded with indigo. A very brilliant set of colours in powder have been prepared for this kind of painting; if these be used, they must be very faithfully ground with a bit of glass, or smooth ivory.If the colours are put on wet, they will look very badly. The transparent paper can be prepared in the following manner: cover a sheet of letter-paper with spirits of turpentine, and let it dry in the air; then varnish one side with copal varnish; when perfectly dry, turn it, and varnish the other side.

I hope the above description of Poonah-painting method may satisfy DR. MURRAY, but I should require something more lucid if I wished to practise the spurious art. The part about the paper is clear enough. I possessed some which I inherited with an old paint-box. They were round, flat ended, and perhaps from a quarter to half an inch in diameter. I think DR. MURRAY postdates the vogue of Poonah painting by about twenty years. It was not fashionable in 1856. ST. SWITHIN.

Do I detect a slightly snippy tone in the last paragraph? The comment about the date is certainly interesting. Here’s one more response:

My recollection of Poonah painting as a boy is that it was a kind of stencilling. Poonah paper was a sheet of some rather thick, semi-transparent substance. Out of this were cut the shapes of leaves, petals of flowers, &c. The Poonah paper was laid on the paper to be ornamented, and colour applied to the cut-out spaces with a stiff brush cut flat at the end. The apertures were moved about till a perfect flower had been formed. SHERBORNE.

Sherborne House, Northleach.

So concluded my search for Poonah painting. Of course I had to locate a piece of white velvet to add to my stash, and maybe one day I’ll make an attempt at it myself. After all, “no talent for drawing is necessary in this work,” although “I should require something more lucid if I wished to practise the spurious art!”

Theorem Painted Box 2

Another view with the flowers turned the other way. I’m not sure what kind they are, and I don’t know which is right side up! Maybe it doesn’t matter.

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.

 

Tick Tack Tocking, No Clocking on Her Stocking

Stockings

“A Lady’s Leg is a dangerous Sight in whatever Colour it appears; but shewing us your Legs in White, is next to shewing us them naked.”

It’s fun how a search for one thing can lead to other quirky discoveries. That’s what happened when I looked for information on stockings for Pharaby. Who knew that clocked stockings were the subject of a racy little song in 1902? (Will F. Denny, on archive.org)

I’m sure ornamented stockings were worth a peep in the 18th century as well! And did you know that wearing silk stockings could be hazardous to your health? At least during a thunderstorm.

Met Stocking

A late 18th century stocking, metmuseum.org.

According to the Scots Magazine in 1773, a lady in Switzerland nearly suffered a shocking fate:

Her disease, like all others which the doctors can make nothing of, was decided to be a nervous one; but it was afterwards discovered to be owing to her wearing silk stockings, and wires in her cap. How little do our ladies imagine, when they surround their heads with wire, the most powerful of all conductors, and at the same time wear stockings, shoes, and gowns, of silk, one of the most powerful repellents, that they prepare their bodies in the same manner, and according to the same principles, as electricians prepare their Conductors for attracting the fire of lightning.

Ladies may laugh at all this, but it is too serious a matter to be made a joke of. A very amiable lady, a Mrs Douglas of Kelso, had nearly lost her life by one of those caps mounted on wire. She was standing at an open window during a thunder-storm: the lightning was attracted by the wire, and the cap was burnt to ashes. Happily her hair was in its natural state, without powder, pomatum, or pins, and prevented the fire from being conducted to her head.

A good strong head of hair, if it is kept perfectly clean, and dry, is probably one of the best preservatives against the fire of lightning. But so soon as it is stuffed full of powder and pomatum, and bound together with pins, its repellent force is lost, and it becomes a conductor.

Hmm… personally (and modern-tastefully) I find the “loaded” hairstyle more repellent!

But I digress. Pharaby most certainly wanted stockings, and I wanted to make them. Well, I wanted her to have them. To be honest, I was at a loss for how to make stockings, so first I spent some time searching for ready-made.

What would fit her? Her limbs are not exactly the same size and shape (well neither are mine), and her feet are shaped to stand flat on the ground. Or table. So off-the-rack doll stockings, unless I was willing to accept nylon tubes, were not an option.

Stocking Foot

I know what it’s like to have baggy socks around my ankles.

I decided I’d have to make them after all. Knitting was out of the question since I don’t know how. The stockings would have to be cut and sewn. Pondering a source for slightly-aged stretchy silk one day, I experienced a flash of brilliant resourcefulness. Gloves! With silk lining! Ebay! I found a worn vintage pair that were just right and managed to extricate the lining from the leather.

Next I found and adapted a pattern on this lovely site and practiced fitting it, using an old t-shirt so I wouldn’t waste the silk. That took a while, but once I settled on the size, I had another idea. Why not embroider clocks on her stockings? My brilliant ideas are often followed by some real flops, and so this one proved.  I made three attempts to embroider a half-inch design on thin stretchy silk. It looked horrible, no matter what thread or stitch I tried. There would be no clocks this time.

Fortunately Pharaby didn’t know I was even trying, so she suffered no disappointment; she was pleased to have any stockings at all. They may be her only pair. We have a lot of thunderstorms.

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