Anna’s Dress

Anna’s graduation photograph, 1934. Isn’t she lovely?

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.

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A good soak works wonders.

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.

Anna 01

Restored to glory!

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.

Anna 04

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.

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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!

P.S. A special thank you to I.I.!

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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The fold on the second piece.

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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!

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.

 

Shepherd of the Lambs

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!

Bethany Orphanage Boys

Bethany Orphanage Boys

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.”

Picture This

Sewing Lesson 1934

The Sewing Lesson, 1934

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 Ubiquitous Cuff

Cuff 1820

Sample of a cuff from an 1820 sewing manual.

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!

Cuff IH

Illustration of a pattern for a sample cuff, 1850.

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.

Cuff1851

Another sample of a cuff from a mid-19th century manual – see how tiny the stitches are!