Plain Needlework

“In order that she may keep perfectly clean, her monitor supplies her with a small piece of paper, in which a hole has been purposely cut; this the child places on her work; and confining it down with her thumb and second finger, stitches in the space which the hole leaves, moving the paper forward when requisite.” – A Manual of the System of Teaching Needlework, BFSS, 1821

Sewing Class

Written almost two hundred years ago, those words may have been a clever solution for the teacher, but they certainly didn’t make learning to sew easier for the poor child. It wasn’t enough that the little fingers must take each stitch over two threads of fabric. Now they must do it through a hole in a piece of paper, lest the perpetually dirty fingers soil the work. But the lessons were important since needlework was considered an essential part of a girl’s education.

J Lancaster Engraving
Joseph Lancaster

One remarkable man would have a profound influence on education worldwide. Born in 1778 in Southwark, England, Joseph Lancaster had a gift for teaching and a passion for helping the poor. A sign over the door of his schoolroom read

All that will, may send their children, and have them educated freely, and those that do not wish to have education for nothing, may pay for it if they please.”

Such generosity soon brought him 800 boys and 200 girls, and no means to hire assistants. He therefore devised (or as some argue, refined) a system whereby the more advanced students taught the newer ones. This “monitorial system” focused on basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. It required special seating arrangements and a rigidly structured incremental curriculum that enabled teachers to maintain control of very large classes of students with diverse abilities and yet effectively teach the basic subjects. The greatest advantage was, of course, the small cost.

Monitorial School
This print from Lancaster’s manual demonstrates the classroom arrangement. Girls’ sewing classes were organized on the same principles.
Lancasterian Medal

Word of Lancaster’s phenomenal success soon spread, and with the support of various charitable organizations and philanthropists – even members of the royal family – he was able to publish, travel, and lecture on education. Lancasterian schools were established from Russia to Madagascar to Peru.

However, he himself declared his basic system wanting in the area of female education. Lancaster knew what other social reformers and benefactors recognized: making and repairing clothing was a hardship for a large portion of society. He acknowledged, “there is no class or condition of mankind, to whom comfortable clothing is an object, that may not be benefited by a simple mode of conveying instruction, and a cheap material for rendering that instruction beneficial in the repair or manufacture of their own clothing.” In his report of the trustees in 1811, Lancaster explained how his system might be applied to girls’ education.

“This has afforded opportunity to bring to perfection, by various experiments, a new plan of instruction in needle-work, which enables girls to instruct each other, acting as monitors…. This undertaking has been entered into, and completed; and as there is not any person in the country yet acquainted with this plan, it is time, for the general good, that it was extensively made known…. This was a work of labor and difficulty, but has now been completely accomplished.”

Although the techniques used in plain sewing may have been consistent for ages, publication of a practical method of instruction was new, and Lancaster was eager to claim credit for himself and his sisters, who had helped develop the plan. They had indeed succeeded in devising an effective method of sewing instruction suitable to large classes. So effective in fact, that it was adopted and adapted by other charitable organizations involved in female education, such as the British and Foreign School Society, the National Society, the New York Free School Society, and the Kildare Place Society.

Their manuals gave directions for teaching sewing incrementally, each stitch a little more advanced, or incorporating a skill learned earlier. Some also included beautifully worked samples, or “specimens,” pasted in the book to demonstrate how each project was to be completed. Most were simply scraps of material fashioned into neatly sewn shapes, but there were also miniature samplers and items of clothing.

According to the original Lancasterian System, there were about a dozen techniques essential to plain sewing. These included fixing the material, hemming, seaming, stitching, herringboning, felling, gathering (along with stroking and setting-in), buttonholes, buttons, marking, darning, and whipping.  The list remained remarkably consistent throughout the course of the nineteenth century, with later publications adding more advanced skills.

Shirt Pattern, 1821By the time a scholar achieved proficiency in each technique, she would be capable of finishing that highest form of plain sewing: The Shirt. This was the supreme example of skill, and “considered the most perfect piece of plain-work, and comprehending in it all the different sorts of work which [the students] have already learned.” An 1821 manual using Lancaster’s system included a pattern and instructions for a man’s shirt, with a catechism-like approach delineating each step:

Q. What length should you cut the body─A. Unless the man were VERY tall, one yard and a nail.

Q. What size are the sleeve-gussets?─A. About three nails square.

Q. The little gussets for the wrist and bosom?─A. About one inch square.

Manuals derived from Lancaster’s system were all that were available on the subject during the first decades of the century. Other sewing instruction books published from about 1840 to 1880 were, with a few exceptions, written for the lady at home, a young wife or mother who wished to make up for a deficiency in her own education, or found herself needing to economize by doing plain work for her family.Buttonhole A close examination reveals a peculiar resemblance among them.  For example, the same small illustration for working a buttonhole enjoyed popularity from the 1838 Workwoman’s Guide through the 1882 Dictionary of Needlework–a curious longevity considering the illustration does not quite match the description, or the instructions given in other period works.

Plain sewing was of tremendous importance in the early years of the century, but the need for proficiency with a needle waned as the century drew to a close. Even as their usefulness declined, curricula, textbooks, and projects grew more elaborate. Something as simple as wearing a thimble became a muli-step process with no less than seven illustrations in the 1901 edition of Longman’s Complete Course of Needlework, Knitting, & Cutting-Out, while buttonholing filled ten pages of Agnes Walker’s Needlework and Cutting-Out.

Blackboard Drawing for Needlework Teachers
Blackboard Drawing for Needlework Teachers

No need was too simple or too obscure to escape the enterprising attention of manufacturers and publishers. They produced charts such as “The Paragon,” a needlework demonstration apparatus, and books with titles like Blackboard Diagram Drawing for Teachers of Needlecraft.

One especially thorough book is A Sewing Course, which was used by Teachers College of Columbia University in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Available in several editions at varying prices, the most helpful is one with exquisitely worked samples, or “models” as they were called, inserted to correspond with each stitch or technique. A rigorous insistence on perfection in the children’s performance had begun to lessen by this time, and the author demonstrated this new sensitivity in her preface when she advised teachers, “The child must not be sacrificed to the model, or garment, by the demand of the teacher for over-accurate work, for neat adjustments at an early age, or for the stupid task.” What relief those words would have brought to the girls of that decades-earlier classroom!

Teaching plain sewing was a worthy ambition, but for some there was a moral imperative that guided their actions: from those who are given much, much will be expected. Skill in plain sewing could allow the affluent to practice benevolence and the less fortunate to survive.

“As long as the wants of the many exceed the means of the few, a wise economy is alike incumbent on rich and poor. Let us never forget, that it was after a feast whose miraculous plenty might have been multiplied without limit and without effort, that its Omnipotent Founder laid the injunction on his disciples,


We are fortunate today to have fragments of the work that belonged to those who lived and learned to sew in the nineteenth century. Plain needlework deserves the same respect accorded to the decorative needle arts, and is worthy of study and preservation, “that nothing be lost.”


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