Maybe you’ve heard of “l’esprit d’escalier” or “staircase wit.” I hadn’t until recently, even though I’ve suffered from it all my life. It describes that maddening moment when you come up with the perfect, brilliant reply – after it’s too late to be useful. Well, finding the perfect image just a little too late can happen in blogging, too!
It’s been a year since I wrote the last post about sewing aprons. I’d wanted an example to study and to illustrate the post, but in decades of searching and collecting I’d never come across one. Wouldn’t you know, it was only two weeks later that I actually found a real surviving one! It’s obviously not an early nineteenth century apron like I’d really love to find, and I can’t be positive it was used for sewing, but it fits the all the descriptions to a T.
It’s a charming white dimity with pink featherstitching and a waistband that buttons. Late 1800s, early 1900s perhaps? It looks like it could have been made in school, rather than at home. I say that because the stitches seem to be textbook-style hand sewing: precise (if not dainty) hemming, seaming, setting-in, and buttons, combined in a class-projecty sort of way. And a couple of tiny ink spots near the bottom!
Seeing an example close up did answer the hemming question for me: did they fold the side hems face up or face down before turning up the bottom for the pockets? Or did they do a little snip on the edge so that each hem could be folded to the back, the way I did for the doll’s apron? Answer: face up. For this one, anyway. The nice deep pockets are then seamed together so that the folded hems are inside.
I hope the maker was happy with her little apron. I suspect she treasured it since it’s survived all these years. Maybe it proved useful for holding her sewing things while she was climbing stairs – and she had the wit to appreciate it!
To have to sew your own punishment! Although I suppose to some people sewing is punishment.
Above is my attempt at making a 19th century punishment badge. These were meant to be worn around the head of a schoolchild who was guilty of the named crime, probably made by another pupil. I copied the lettering exactly and have to confess I was torn between the pathos and humor. Inattention?
Public humiliation as a form of discipline is as old as history, but it takes on a particular poignancy when you think of little children wearing a label proclaiming their crime, for all their small world to see.
Remember Jane Eyre?
On reaching the bedroom, we heard the voice of Miss Scatcherd: she was examining drawers; she had just pulled out Helen Burns’s, and when we entered Helen was greeted with a sharp reprimand, and told that to-morrow she should have half-a-dozen of untidily folded articles pinned to her shoulder.
“My things were indeed in shameful disorder,” murmured Helen to me, in a low voice: “I intended to have arranged them, but I forgot.”
Next morning, Miss Scatcherd wrote in conspicuous characters on a piece of pasteboard the word “Slattern,” and bound it like a phylactery round Helen’s large, mild, intelligent, and benign-looking forehead. She wore it till evening, patient, unresentful, regarding it as a deserved punishment. The moment Miss Scatcherd withdrew after afternoon school, I ran to Helen, tore it off, and thrust it into the fire: the fury of which she was incapable had been burning in my soul all day, and tears, hot and large, had continually been scalding my cheek; for the spectacle of her sad resignation gave me an intolerable pain at the heart.
Helen wore a paper sign, but it seems some children were made to spell out the crimes by stitching their own badges. The next excerpt is from The Sunday School Teacher’s Magazine and Journal of Education, 1855. The author recalled attending a free school as a small girl. It was taught by Miss Middleton, a lady of independent means who had devoted her life, rather ineffectually it seems, to good works.
Our governess considered it needful to govern by at least a mixture of severity with kindness. Her modes of punishment were various. A rather formidable one was binding a label with a specific crime marked upon it around the forehead, and placing the culprit on a form as an object for the deliberate gaze of the whole school. Most likely these expressive tokens of guilt were originally manufactured by the children’s own hands, and remind one of a murderer erecting his own gibbet.
Once a long row of delinquents was ranged on a form, who had committed some kind of treason during our mistress’s absence; and absent she frequently was from her post. We had then a scholar who was notorious for her unconquerable love of fun… She being amongst the mounted ones, contrived to overbalance the form, and bring all to the ground, producing a scene which very naturally excited the mirth of all who beheld it, and turned our punishment into a frolic.
That must have been a sight! I wonder if they were all wearing their labels when they tumbled to the floor? The author goes on to describe what happened when she was falsely accused of tearing a pinafore and made to “wear her crime.”
But the question with my governess was, ” Who rent [tore] the pinafore?” Somebody must have; though having been perpetrated in the dark, it was probably rather difficult to determine the author. Now I was one of the least, and therefore as likely to be guilty as any one. I suppose by this reasoning Ann brought her mind to the conviction that I was the guilty party, and she unhesitatingly accused me of the crime. I very naturally denied the charge. But I was compelled to wear the most detestable of all the bandages, and mount the form with the word LIAR branded on my brow. Can I ever forget that moment? No! the scar of that wound will not be effaced by time, however long a space be allotted me; and though I have long ceased to bear malice, the memory of this painful circumstance will be for ever connected with the name of Ann W. Surely nothing chafes the soul of a child so much as an unjust accusation, and unmerited punishment. – Maidstone. Christiana Elizabeth.
If you’ve read the Plain Needlework page on this blog, you know about Joseph Lancaster’s contribution to needlework education. However, some of his early comments on class discipline are rather hard to take – at least for modern sensibilities, even when allowing for the times in which he wrote. He also used labels to shame children who offended. From his 1807 manual,
When a boy is disobedient to his parents, profane in his language, or has committed any offence against morality, or is remarkable for slovenliness, it is usual for him to be dressed up with labels, describing his offence, and a tin or paper Crown on his head. In that manner he walks round the school, two boys preceding him, and proclaiming his fault; varying the proclamation according to the different offences.
And another reference,
Labels of Disgrace. When boys are in habits of talking, or being idle in school time, it is common in the free schools under my direction, as variety in punishment, to make an offender stand up and suck his fingers, with the label ‘Idle’ or ‘noisy’ or ‘suck-finger baby.”
These methods were mild compared to others he recommended. Although to be fair, I can’t imagine the task of managing – much less teaching – a single class of over a hundred unruly street children.
What sort of offenses warranted this fate? Thanks to generous help from Christ’s Hospital, Horsham, we can see some of the unacceptable behaviors marked on bands from their museum collection.
I’m probably guilty of all, but the one that caught my attention was INATTENTIOn. That had my name written all over it (ha) so that’s the one I wanted to make. Although from respect – and exhaustion – I left out ‘DURING PRAYERS.’
The bands reminded me of the tiny sewing samples made for needlework lessons, illustrating plain sewing techniques.
The first one needed was marking. Cross-stitch is the basic marking stitch, but these are marked with “oylet” or “eye-let-hole” stitch, which is
quite a fancy stitch, and rarely employed. The oylet holes are formed by working in small stitches round each square, about four stitches in the four corners, and four intermediate stitches between, are necessary to form each oylet hole. -Workwoman’s Guide, 1838
or as directed here, in 1853:
Eye-let-hole Marking is done by making a stitch across two threads from the centre as a fixed point, above, below, on each side, and at each of the four angles.
Well OK, no problem, I could do that. Or so I thought until I tried it on a scrap of old linen. Enter 5 diopter magnification with 60 little LEDs, and voila! Of course my eyes were crossed and my head tilted sideways for a week.
I hadn’t even done the first letter before I realized that the stitches that resembled little stars on the original looked like lumpy knots on mine. Even worse at reading distance than in the close-up photo. Hint: use the right thread. Finer silk worked much better. I also learned that it takes twice as long to unpick an “oy-let” as it does to stitch it!
Finishing the badge was a little easier. I folded the linen back onto itself, and then “seamed” the other three sides. Seaming (also called sewing, oversewing, overhanding in the 19th century) is my favorite stitch to do, and you can see a beautiful example of it around the edges of this tiny specimen from 1820.
The label needed ties, too. I’m amazed that nineteenth century classes even included a “proper” way to do something as simple as sewing on ties or tapes. In the illustration below, the tape has the raw end tucked under and three sides are hemmed to the fabric. Then the tape is folded back against the fabric and the fourth edge is seamed to the fabric. Neat, sturdy, and strong as super glue. Well, theirs were anyway.
I don’t have a purpose for the band I made; I’m not even sure why I felt compelled to make one. Perhaps it was just a way to almost touch the past. It would be a shame to lose its lessons.
It’s a delight to follow the evolution of hand sewing instruction from its earliest days up to more modern times – at least if you consider the 1930s modern!
Thanks to a friend who wanted to share her mother’s dress, I’ve had another chance to peek into a Domestic Economy class, this time in Brooklyn, New York, in 1934. The teacher was Miss Gimbel, and she must have been a wonderful sewing teacher – she was certainly very good at understanding what kind of project would please a girl of 13. Fluffy ruffles in dainty white, in a lesson she could wear to her graduation!
The dress needed a little TLC before it could show off. Although in excellent condition for its age, a bath was in order.
I’ve laundered a lot of cotton and linen over the years, and was hopeful that Anna’s dress could be restored. It was made of embroidered organdy and (of course) had been starched. Starch does not age well, in case you haven’t noticed! But a few days of soaking and a lot of water changes, and the frilly frock was refreshed.
Once again I was surprised to see how simple it could be to sew a garment by hand. I’m so accustomed to modern clothing with all the double-stitched and felled seams, finished inside and out, that anything else is startling. I’ve got sportswear so heavily reinforced that the stitches could stand alone if all the fabric were to melt away!
But not here. Anna used very simple basting, running, hemming, and gathering on plain and French seams. The ruffle edge was overcast.
You can see the neatly turned hem, and where she took greater pains with the collar binding than the much longer narrow hem, which I’ve folded up to show.
The armholes have a self-fabric binding, and the dress closes on one side with snaps. The basting thread is still present, perhaps serving to hold the placket in place.
Weekly sewing lessons from the first through the eighth grade were part of a public school education for Anna. Her work was neat and elegant, a skill to be proud of. I think she learned well and wore her reward for a very special occasion!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
Folding 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!
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!
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?
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!
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.