I don’t remember where I first came across the term “lap-bag.” It was used in the infuriatingly casual way that long-dead authors have of assuming we know what they’re talking about, and I didn’t give it much thought. But when I recently came across the illustration below, c.1860, my reaction was – in the words of my 4-year-old grandson – “what is the heck of that?”
Of course I pursued the elusive lap-bag, only to discover it wasn’t so peculiar after all. It has a respectable history, especially if you consider it’s only a variation on a very useful, very humble, and very common garment. I think this young emigrant to Australia summed it up perfectly in 1850:
The ladies gave me a nice piece of print to make a lap-bag, which will be very handy on board ship, as it ties round the waist, and has little pockets to hold one’s thimble and scissors.
It’s simply a type of pocketed apron that was used for keeping sewing items handy, something especially helpful for girls’ sewing classes. The pinafore was another variation, recommended as early as the 1810s for plain needlework lessons, both in England and America.
Each girl should be provided with a pin-afore, or slip … taken in at the conclusion of school time…. The pin-afores are marked 1, 2, 3, &c. up to the number of girls that the desk contains: the number of the desk is also marked upon them, thus – 5/3, which would signify that the pin-afore belongs to the 5th girl in the third desk.
In 1858, when Alice Neal penned her reminiscences of Eliza Leslie for Godey’s Lady’s Book, she remembered her own school days.
As long ago as sewing was made a special branch of female education – and we leave our readers to infer the date [she was born in 1828] – the Wednesday afternoons at the school which I attended in Boston were enlivened by reading aloud. The circle of little people, with their pink and blue chintz “lap-bags,” a style of sewing receptacle entirely unique, stitched away on their sheets and patchwork, while the older girls read in turn.
A children’s story from 1871 tells how “The girls all had to be provided with lap-bags, worn like aprons, with the ends brought up and stitched together. These were to keep the work from getting soiled, and hold the thimble, cotton, needles, scissors, etc.” School inventories included lap-bags, and one teacher explained,
These little lap-bags,” remarked the teacher, are the very first articles I teach the children in the Primary class to make; and they use them through all the grades until they graduate from the cutting department. Each bag is labelled, and at the close of the sewing hour the work is neatly rolled up, put inside, then collected in these large baskets.
Some later sources called them sewing aprons, but these matched the description as being aprons “made of extra length to allow the turning up of a quarter yard or so for a pocket.” After reading all about these receptacles, I decided to attempt my own. It’s quicker and cheaper to make things in miniature, so doll size it would be!
But what to use? I found references to brown holland (unbleached linen), calico prints, Scotch gingham (a better quality gingham), and pink and blue chintz. My obsession with charity sewing schools inclined me toward the brown holland, since that was the utility fabric they suggested. I just happily happened to have a bit of it with the original glaze (a glossy sizing) remaining, so the next step was to make sense of the directions that accompanied the illustration. Simple. For most people.
Next came the marking. As much as I wanted to follow advice and place the numbers where they’d show when the work was folded, I couldn’t make it work. But my doll will still take her place as the “fifth girl in the third row.”
Trust writers of the era to impart moral virtue into anything that would hold it. I don’t mind, at least not when they’re praising hand sewing.
If it is best to train the child along aesthetic lines in any phase of art, then let him be trained to appreciate and prefer a piece of true art in needle-work, even plain sewing, over a wholesale manufactured article which may be bought at cheap rates.
Let me illustrate by a school girl’s sewing apron, neatly though plainly made, hand-sewed by herself, and appreciated because she wove into its very stitches her own power and love of doing a thing for herself, and, too, having done it the best she could, over a very elaborate one selected from a whole boxful in a store marked “your choice for 10c.”
As aesthetic development and culture help to make a person a better person, so sewing can be made to help a girl to become a better girl and a more powerful and valuable woman to society.
Why not turn up your nose at that 10¢ store-bought apron, make your own, and become a powerful woman! You’ll be glad you did.
I know what lappets are, costumely speaking, and with regard to women’s millinery. They’re those long, lacy, streamer things that hang down from a headdress. The fanciest ones were made of fine lace and could be terribly expensive. They were popular in the 18th century but seemed to fade by 1800 when the classical look was in vogue, and then regained favor, at least with “mature” ladies, in the middle to late 19th century. Early ones were usually found in pairs, or occasionally joined slightly shaped in the middle, while 19th century ones could be . . . more creative.
But what have I got here? Two different long strips of fine white muslin, neatly (but probably not professionally) embroidered with whitework. Are they one-piece lappets, or something else?
They appear to date to the late 1700s or early 1800s, judging by the materials and floral patterns. One is 58″ x 4″ and the other is 63″ x 3.” The design on the wider one is mirrored on both edges, while the other is worked along one edge only. All edges are scalloped, and there’s a join on both at 20 inches (not the middle) from one end which the embroidery carries right across. Found together + like patterns + like materials = same maker? The design was embroidered to fit, which indicates they weren’t cut from another garment. They seem too fragile for a sash and too narrow for a scarf.
So how in the world would you wear them? It seems like draping across the top of your head would be a bit awkward. I’d feel about as graceful wearing a length of toilet paper.
The most fabulous book on accessories of this era is Heather Toomer’s Embroidered with White, and I searched it for clues. It has beautiful photos of lappets. In pairs. With dense embroidery. Sigh. In her book on the next time period (just as brilliant), lappets appear as extensions of other accessories, such as fichus and pelerines. So I’m still wondering what these were for. Help!
While on the subject of long narrow textiles, I’ll present my next puzzle: tuckers. I’m wandering into dangerous territory when discoursing on 18th century costume, since I know so little. However, I had no trouble finding period references to tuckers. Their wearing location on female anatomy guaranteed attention, one way or another.
Tuckers, as defined in 18th century dictionaries:
TUCKER, tuk’-ur. f. A small piece of linen that shades the breasts of women.
-A Slip of Linen or Lace, pinned along the Top of Women’s Stays -A border of linen or lace on the bosom of a shift -A fine piece of lace, cambrick, &c. pinned or sewed round the neck of a woman’s shift, gown -A shred of linen &c., about the neck of a woman’s shift -A slip of fine linnen, run in a small kind of ruffle, around the uppermost verge of the women’s stays -A strip or ornament of linen worn by women at the uppermost verge of the stays
Then we have Garsault’s 1771 L’art de la lingère, where I’m up to my tucker in speculation:
Tour de gorge en mousseline festonnée. Il se fait d’une aune de long sur un seizieme de large. Painfully translated: Scalloped muslin tucker. It is made one [≈yard] long by one sixteenth wide. A 1788 French-English dictionary defines “tour de gorge” as “tucker,” and “tour de dentelle” as a lace tucker.
This post is already too long to include Joseph Addison’s slightly naughty essay on the tucker – although if you’re curious, you can find one of many reprints here.
There’s no lack of period illustrations of tuckers, but it’s the logistics that have me baffled. Sure, you can tuck a straight band of fabric around the top of your stays – but then all but a few inches in front is hidden under a gown. You can tuck a straight length around the neckline of your gown – but then you have to negotiate the curves, and my mystery pieces seem awfully wide to do it without looking rumpled.
Many paintings show gathered ruffles at the neckline, whether lace or embroidery, although the Lady’s Maid Soaping doesn’t look very frilly. Of course you could always adorn your own tucker, if you were good with a needle.
Now here are the four long strips of linen that perplex me, ornamented along one edge, all owned by a woman who lived from 1760-1805, in France. They measure a bit over 40″ long and the linen is @3.5″ wide. If they’re not tuckers, what the heck are they and how did she wear them? Maybe they were part of a headdress. Folk costume. Dresser scarf. Tourniquet with feminine flair.
I’ve called these pieces lappets and tuckers, but I truly don’t know. Research didn’t settle anything for me this time, so any help is welcome. Maybe someday in the future our descendants will ask the same questions about our garments. I know I’ve shopped for workout clothes and been just as confounded – these strappy scraps of spandex go how?!
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.
If you have a nose for rabbit trails, even the simplest search can make you lose your way – if not your head! I was trying to pinpoint a date for the common use of machine-made pins, but ended up following the trail from factories to inventories to short stories. The stories were the most fun, and I thought I’d share this (edited for length!) one.
THE HISTORY OF A PIN. (The Portland Transcript, 1863)
BY EDWARD P. WILSON.
“Est natura hominum novitalis avida.” [People crave new stuff.]
While walking down the street other day, something bright, embedded in the dirt between the bricks, attracted my attention; and stooping I extracted from the sand an old headless pin. It was not one of the family of pins with which we are now familiar – pins never lose their heads now a days – but one of the old style, whose head was originally formed of fine coiled brass wire; but now it was headless, crooked, rusty and worn: one of those sort of pins which in my school-boy days we were wont to call “old maids’ pins,” and which every single lady felt in duty bound, on the penalty of endless celibacy, to throw over her left shoulder.
As I sat in my arm-chair after dinner enjoying my cigar, I drew it leisurely from the lapel of my coat – a bachelor’s invariable pin cushion – and examined it more minutely. What would I give to hear the history of this old pin!
As I continued to smoke, the pin seemed to grow strangely bright, as seen through the incense which curled around me; and then it seemed to increase in size until it resembled some old, sallow man, whose back was bent by the cares and sorrows of three-score years, who stood twinkling at me through the smoky vapor; and at length I became so accustomed to regard it as human, that I was not surprised when it addressed me as follows:
“Many years have passed away since I was young and bright. I remember the day, when by a clip of a huge pair of shears, I first received a distinctive existence. Pins were worth something in those days, and were not turned out upon the world by machinery, as they are now in Connecticut, at the rate of ten tons per week. We were all made elaborately by hand, going through fourteen different processes in our construction. It was in the old Greenwich Prison, New York, where the first pins were made on this continent. We were all nicely arranged by hand in our papers, like files of soldiers. Fortunately for me, I occupied the position of captain in the first row of my paper, and stood the best chance of being soonest called into the active duties of life. After being duly packed, we were removed to a little store on Broadway, near Castle Garden. I well remember the looks of my first master. He was a little wizen-faced man, who kept a small variety store in those days.
Many long months I laid upon his dark shelves, fearing that I should spend my days in rest and inaction. But at length my days of imprisonment were over. One day a young woman came into my master’s store and made several small purchases of ribbon and edging, and just as she had started to go out, she turned back and asked for a paper of pins. How I thrilled with joy as my master placed the paper in which I had been so long imprisoned in her hand.
My young mistress took me to her home on one of the short streets in the vicinity of the East River. I had scarcely entered the house, which was a neat tenement of the Dutch style, before I became convinced that preparations were being made for some great event in the household. Judge of my surprise when I ascertained by the gossip of the servants that it was the marriage of my young mistress.
All day the household was in commotion, in baking, dusting, and arranging for the happy occasion; and when in the evening my mistress came to her room where I had been lying upon her dressing table, to put on her wedding dress, I was made happy by being called into service. Having otherwise completed her attire, which was elaborate for those days, although it might provoke the mirth of the fashionable belle of the present day, she took from her drawer a beautiful silk zone or belt, which she clasped around her waist, and fastened it with me.
As she stood before her glass to adjust her dress before making her appearance in the drawing room below, I could not help feeling a silent pride in her beauty. I had not thought her pretty when I had first seen her, but as she stood there, I could not but pronounce her beautiful. When the guests had all retired, and my master and mistress were left alone, I listened, as I stuck in a pin-cushion upon her dressing-table, to all their plans of life and happiness.
It was indeed a bright and beautiful scheme; but I am sorry to say that I lived to see many of their pretty plans fade away, and smiles give place to tears. I remained in this family nearly twenty years, occupying various places in the attire of the different members of the family; sometimes idly dropped upon the floor, and then again picked up to fasten some article of clothing.
When at length there were little ones around the hearth, I fastened their tiny garments, and sometimes, unwillingly, scratched their little chubby bodies [!!!], causing many a kick and scream, which were attributed either to colic or anger, according to the disposition of the person who had them in keeping.
One day as their eldest daughter was out shopping, I fell noiselessly from the bosom of her dress, where I had been carelessly stuck, upon the sidewalk of Broadway. It may be thought that a pin is incapable of feeling, but I felt the deepest regret when by this unlucky accident, I was severed from this family in whose service I had spent so many days; and I could not but feel a silent resentment against my mistress for fastening me so carelessly, as I had been a faithful and uncomplaining servant of hers from the very day of her birth.
I remained many weary days lying upon the sidewalk unseen, although thousands of people walked over me daily; and I sadly feared that I should be trodden into the dirt, and thus remain entombed the remainder of my days. But my fears proved groundless.
One day, after I had almost given up hope of being discovered, a little, short, dried up old man came along with his eyes upon the sidewalk, as though in search of pins, and deliberately picked me up and placed me in the lapel of his rusty coat.
I soon discovered that my new master was an old bachelor, of most eccentric manners and mode of living, who lodged in an attic on the Bowery. Once I heard him say mournfully, that he should not have been there alone, aimless in life, if it had not been for her, from which I inferred that some unhappy attachment in early life had made him misanthropic.
I remained in his service many years, sometimes fastening ugly rents in his garments; and at length he removed to Boston, where he naturally enough became more morose than ever. [!!!]
One day as he was walking upon the Common, he attempted to fasten his collar, which had an ugly habit of creeping up over his ears, when he pricked his finger with me, and threw me spitefully upon the ground, where I remained about one week.
One day a little girl on her way to school, came along and picked me up, repeating to herself the childish couplet—
‘Tis a sin to steal a pin But ‘tis a greater to steal a tater
and took me to her home where I remained several years, being used principally to fasten the clothing of her doll.
One day in summer, her brother was sent off on a vacation to a little town in the State of Maine, and I was brought into requisition to fasten his collar. I remained in his service but a few weeks, but this was the most trying period of my life. Sometimes I soared to enormous heights in the tail of his kite, sometimes I was used to pierce flies and other innocent insects, and at length he used me to fish for minnows in a beautiful bay which indents the town where he was stopping.
There I received that ugly bend which you see in my back, being bent to resemble a fish-hook. After he had thus cruelly treated me, my young master threw me carelessly upon the beach, with a piece of cotton thread which he had used as a fishing line, tied around my throat. Here I lay in the sun many long days, and as the place was not frequented, I well-nigh despaired of ever attracting the attention of any living being. But I was not doomed to spend the remainder of my days in inactivity.
One moonlight night in autumn, a lady and gentleman came upon the beach to court the cool breeze, engaged in earnest conversation, over the sand where I was lying. The lady was young and pretty, and dressed in weeds which betokened widowhood. Her drapery was long and flowing, and at length as she passed over me, I, being bent, caught in some point-lace on her skirt, and was taken along with her. Her companion was a large, well-formed man, whom she called Judge Jones.
They walked together a long time, arm in arm, but at length the Judge, very much to my surprise, withdrew his arm, and placed it around the widow’s waist, who very properly remonstrated against such a proceeding; but I observed that she made no effort to remove it, although she stated very emphatically that it should not remain there. Just then the couple approached a large rock embedded in the sand, and the widow complaining of being fatigued, they sat down there to rest.
Here the Judge not only retained his arm in the position which was so offensive to his companion, but even ventured to kiss her, an impropriety which I cannot but condemn, although I must confess that I have been an unwilling spectator to many such a scene.
At this moment his companion grew very indignant, shedding tears and declaring that she was certain that the Judge meant to offend her, which imputation he very warmly denied, although I observed that he repeated the offense.
At this, my mistress grew still more indignant, and dropping her head upon her companion’s shoulder, emphatically demanded the meaning of such conduct. Here the Judge drew her still more closely to him, and said in a subdued and tremulous voice, “My dear madame I have long wished for an opportunity to tell you that — ”
Here the writer’s head fell heavily upon an adjoining table, and gathering himself up he found that his cigar had gone out, and that he himself had been idly napping, with the old rusty pin between his fingers.
It has ever since been a question of great interest to him, what it really was that the Judge was going to tell to his companion, and how the old pin lost its head—and finally came to be lying in the streets of Cambridge, but he has vainly striven to solve them, as the old pin has ever since maintained a most unbroken silence.
Should these facts ever come to the knowledge of the writer, however, they will be duly chronicled in the columns of the Transcript.
What an original idea: a story written by a pin! Well … not exactly. See this snippet from an 1835 English composition manual on suggested topics.
As for pinning down a date for the common use of machine-made pins, there is good information out there – if you want to stick to the subject and not wander around. Here is a good place to start for a more serious approach.
So when might I have found machine-made pins in a sewing basket or on a dressing table? It seems that by the late 1830s technology and economics combined to phase out skilled labor in favor of automation. Pins were no longer likely to lose their heads. And if I could just stay focused, I might not either. But where’s the fun in that?
It seems like even hobbies go through seasons, and mine has certainly been in a slow one. However, there’s nothing like a new book to start things stirring again.
Ever since seeing the online Pockets of History exhibit, I’ve been wishing for a book with more on the subject. So of course I was delighted when I learned about this one! The Pocket – A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900, by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux, was published in May by Yale University Press. I’ve just started to explore it. How could I resist? It touches on all my favorite subjects, not only textiles, costume, and needlework, but fascinating little bits of material culture and stories (sadly too brief) associated with them.
Who knew that a pocket could have a “heart-bit” too? But it makes good sense because the stitching was a decorative way to reinforce an opening.
There’s also discussion of marking and learning to mark, and the importance to women of claiming ownership. The Pocket even touches on needlework education, which thrills my plain sewing pedagogical heart no end!
The book is full of beautiful photos that reveal the diversity of pockets. I even got a patchwork fix, thanks to these made with colorful prints. Other illustrations include period art, engravings, advertising, and some splendid close-ups of the textiles and embroidery. And wonder of wonders: doll pockets!
I think the most delightful part of the book is learning about the little treasures and scraps that were pocketed. Or wait – maybe it’s the stories? The authors’ research reveals fascinating bits of women’s lives, and the pocket contents added to their stories as well. The list is extensive: money, gloves, books, pencils, medicine, “characters” (an employment reference), food, jewelry, handkerchiefs, clothing, charms, combs, cosmetics, tickets, snuff boxes, cutlery, letters, and even pilfered goods. Hmm… barring the last mentioned (one would hope), it’s really the same as you might find in a handbag today. Ok, maybe not the snuffbox.
The only pocket I’ve made is a miniature one for Pharaby. I’ve never made a people-sized one. I rather like the idea of sewing a pocket for myself. No particular purpose, just fun. It would be a terrific way to practice plain sewing skills and experiment with some fancywork as well.
If you find these topics as fascinating too, I highly recommend The Pocket. It provides such a wealth of information that you won’t actually find yourself … out of pocket.
Knotting was indispensable to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman…and kept her fair self out of mischief….
“Heyday! cousin, ” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
I don’t know what Lord Castlemaine thought about French ladies, but he obviously had issues with knotting – and so do I! All right, he was talking about a different kind of knotting, but I do think thread should behave with propriety, always willing and able to oblige. However, in my search for how thread was “packaged” in the early 19th century, it was behaving knottily.
A few years ago I was trying to assemble a collection of sewing supplies c.1820 for an exhibit, and it occurred to me that the ordinary wooden spools (reels) in my basket were an anachronism. Would a lady of that era have popped into a haberdashery shop for a spool of thread to hem a gown? Or would she have bought a skein? A ball? A length wrapped in paper or wound around a card?
How should I store my thread? It ought to be simple to settle, just ask around or try Google to learn how sewing thread was packaged, sold, and stored in the early 1800s. Nope. It was a knotty problem and I was baffled.
Period merchant accounts mentioned skeins, weights, and quantities of sewing thread, but that didn’t tell me what I wanted to know. What would the thread actually look like when Some Lady brought it home from shopping or stuffed it in her workbag at the end of the day? (No, don’t say tangled!) After years of drooling over images of antique sewing boxes, you’d think I’d have spotted quite a few that still had the undoubtedly original working thread stashed inside. But I didn’t. A little more fruitless searching, and I decided to shelve the question.
Until recently. I once saw some lovely antique painted “thread papers” for sale which I always regretted not buying (although I’d have had to sell a body part to do it). These long strips of paper with delicate watercolor floral designs were obviously homemade, perhaps meant for a gift. They contained embroidery silks, not plain sewing thread, but I never forgot their charm. So when I came across some very old, although homelier, thread papers for sale, I couldn’t resist – and that revitalized my quest for thread packaging!
The first mention I came across (in my admittedly limited resources) was in connection with the tragic and mysterious poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770). Not only was he a literary prodigy, but apparently quite a clever forger as well. He invented a 15th century monk and wrote poetry in his name, then claimed to have discovered these writings on his mother’s parchment thread papers.
…one day his eye was caught by one of these thread papers; that he found not only the writing to be very old and the character very different from common characters; but the subject therein treated was different from common subjects; – that he began to question his mother what these thread papers were; how she got them; and from whence they came; and upon further enquiry was led to a full discovery of all the parchments which remained. [The rest, according to him, unfortunately having been used by his father to cover students’ books.]
There were other references to thread papers as well.
A witty bit from 1769:
A waggish correspondant informs us, that the Mile-End P—n is to be cut into slips to make thread-papers for the maids-of-honor.
Some self-deprecation from 1775:
…a small number of young ladies do me the inexpressible honour to smooth their tuckers and their ribbands in my book; to make thread papers of it; or to tear it into pieces, or papillots [curl papers], or to make their thimbles fit.
In 1795, a scathing rejection for Miss Sparkes from the Monthly Mirror:
“A Tale of Times past,” would never be read in times present. Would not Letitia Sparkes (who says she works for the shops) have been much better employed in making a dozen shirts, and getting the money for them, than in groping her way through “long galleries and dismal vaults;” and listening to “tales prophetic, from shadowy forms.” However, Letitia, you may send for your “forty leaves:” they’ll make excellent thread-papers.
Court testimony from 1804:
What was in the drawer in which he appeared to expect to find it? There were Five or Six Hens Eggs, Thread Papers, and Things of that Sort Belonging to his Wife.
From Sir Walter Scott in 1815:
…my uncle, the alderman, proposed to me the only daughter of old Sloethorn, the great wine-merchant, rich enough to play at spancounter [old English game] with moidores [Portugese coins], and make threadpapers of bank notes.
A bit of satire in 1815:
Woe unto literature in these days of degeneracy! woe unto the Nine Muses and their suitors! how many epics have stood between the candle and candlestick? how many histories have been employed in twist tobacco? and how many philosophers have been made into thread papers, their arguments into paper kites, and their conclusions into three-penny crackers on a birthday?
A lament from 1838:
Cooks and sedentary ladies addicted to needlework have been Thalabas in this kind of destroying. Your thread-papers have been the very devil! If our old friend Mr. Brunel had invented his pretty little process of putting sewing-thread up in reels and balls a hundred years ago, many a family manuscript, many an interesting scrap, might have escaped the pitiless shears. But it is vain to regret the past! [Ain’t it though?]
Humorous fiction in 1844:
Lady Betty was mightily pleased to see Lord Castlemaine so soon back again, and glanced at Barbara, who was knotting fringe, a species of work about as useless as the tatting, tapetrimming, herring-boning, and, with respect be it hinted, lambs-wooling, which from time to time have employed civilised society with almost as much regularity as the spinning jennies do the poorer classes. (And when we talk of the labours of factory girls, how we overlook those of modern ladies under the banners of Miss Lambert¹!) And knotting was indispensible to the happiness of womankind in Barbara’s days, as well as to the reputation of a modish woman, who, when not tambouring, knotting, or embroidering, amused her leisure, and kept her fair self out of mischief, by drawing a bandalore [yo-yo] up and down.
“Heyday! cousin,” was Lord Castlemaine’s ejaculation; “at that work, too? They tell me the French ladies do it in their sleep.”
“‘Tis the ton, surely, or Bab would not do it,” said Lady Betty, wishing to set off the dowdy Barbara; “and see the thread papers she paints,” added the old lady, showing up a volume of those useful, discarded, ever to be lamented article, with a bird with a scarlet beak and a blue breast at one end, and a flower, orange, red and purple, at the other, all varnished with a glaze of gum arabic.
Lord Castlemaine praised the as very neat, and saw some sense in those – the knotting he condemned as an extravagant waste of time. But he was so complimentary to the thread papers, that Barbara, with a little persuasion, was induced to show her cousin her collection of…” [of…? If you’re curious, you can always look it up!]
More specifics on these papers from fiction, 1868:
She is able to divert herself most days with her thread-papers, as Madam, her mother, will be mighty glad to hear, for the head and the heart ain’t none of them over-bad when a miss can settle to make thread-papers…. Milly was in the act of making her thread-papers – cutting down strips of gaudy card-board, painted with staring flowers, birds, butterflies, and pasting them together in the requisite shape.
Well, enough of thread papers. They were around before, during, and after my period of interest; whether artsy or functional, they were probably used most often for embroidery threads, although I could certainly add some to my workbox display. What about sewing thread for plain work or dressmaking?
An Encyclopædia of Domestic Econcomy, 1815, states, “Cotton sewing thread, usually called sewing cotton, has of late been made so beautiful by machinery, and its utility and cheapness are so well known, that it has, in a measure, superseded the use of linen thread formerly used. It is used in every house, and in the making of almost every kind of clothing.”
That was helpful in affirming what textile historians tell us, that the change from linen to cotton for sewing thread happened in the late 18th-early 19th century. But how would you find it in a shop?
Now let’s see whether you were just skimming the quotes to be a polite blog reader, or were paying attention. Did you catch the reference to Brunel²?
His biography informs us that, “A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The Machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness.”
They must have been awfully pretty, those little balls of thread, to merit so much acclaim. Rees’s 1819 Cyclopædia agreed, “cotton thread for sewing, mending, and domestic use, is wound into balls of a figure resembling a cask, and the many intersection of the thread are so managed as to produce a very beautiful appearance.”
If the illustration below is an example, I do think they’re lovely! Illustrated ads for sewing cotton wound in a fancier lattice design appeared in periodicals from 1819 to 1827. Here’s one from La Belle Assemblée, 1819. The inventor was Edmund Naish, Quaker, who patented his method in 1818.
I didn’t hold out much hope of ever seeing one of these lacy little balls, so maybe you can understand my delight when I saw these!
So it appears that sewing thread, long sold in skeins (or hand-wound balls), was available for purchase as machine-wound balls sometime after 1802, and the fancy patterns in the next decade. But what about wooden spools?
In The Paisley Thread Industry (1907), the author says, “The year 1812 may be taken as the earliest date upon which Clark’s sewing thread was placed upon the market.” He goes on to state
The James Clark of Messrs. J. & J. Clark was the first to introduce spool cotton sewing thread. We are indebted to his son, Mr. James Clark, of Chapel House, for an explanation of the circumstances of this very important and interesting development. Mr. Clark says: – “Originally the cotton thread was sold in hanks or skeins, and then ladies had to wind it into little balls, as they generally wind a cut of wool yarn at the present day. Wishing to convenience his fair customers, James would, on selling a skein of cotton thread, sit down at a weaver’s pirn wheel, and wind the thread upon a spool, for which he charged a half-penny, but that half-penny he refunded when the empty spool was returned to him.
“The spools cost sixpence a dozen, and were ordered by James, to the extent of half a gross at a time, from a wood turner name Robert Paul, which he carried home in his coat pocket, to wind thread thereon by his own hand, if desired, after the sale of a skein had been effected by him.”
So I suppose you could have retail-wound wooden spools shortly after 1812 – if you lived in Paisley, Scotland! However, writing in 1861, William Weild gives a slightly different history.
Previous to the present century, sewing thread was made up for sale in hanks, and it was not till about 1814, that the plan of winding thread on spools or reels, technically called “spooling” was introduced by Mr. James Carlile, of Paisley….The spools commonly used are made of wood, more or less ornamented, and some also of metal, bone, ivory, and other materials. Wood spools were first turned by hand; but the immense demand for them called attention to the necessity for self-acting machinery for producing them in a rapid manner, and this was invented in 1846 by Mr. John Clark of Glasgow.
Here is another (mind-boggling) account of how was thread was made into balls and spools, the greatest problem being constantly breaking thread. From an 1846 SPCK publication:
The writer visited a sewing thread factory at Manchester…. The process of forming the thread into balls or reels is, performed by young women with an almost magical celerity. Each young woman is seated at a kind of turning-lathe; she seizes the end of the thread, and attaches it to a rod of steel, sets this spinning, and in an instant a ball of cotton appears at the end of the rod; the rotation is stopped, a blue ticket is inserted at the end, a further quantity of thread wound to secure the ticket, and the ball is finished. The size of the ball is regulated with extreme accuracy by the eye. The number of balls to the pound varies from 16 to 600; and the young woman being told to produce a certain number to the pound, makes a few, weighs them until she has got the exact size by weight; after this she relies entirely upon her eye, and so accurate is her judgement, that the variation of the balls in weight is very trifling. The cotton is wound on reels with the same surprising celerity…. Reeling is not such rapid work as balling.
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. Can you imagine what that must have been like, eye-balling 600 balls of thread? All. Day. Long. Perhaps they could also do it in their sleep. God bless them.
And now, if you’ve made it this far into an excruciatingly arcane subject, I will share my last two discoveries. If I had found them earlier, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all the rest.
The first is an excerpt from Our Village, by Mary Russell Mitford.
Everything in the one store which it boasts, kept by Martha Deane, linen-draper and haberdasher, is dear and good, as things were wont to be. You may actually get there thread made of flax, from the gouty, uneven, clumsy, shiny fabric, yclept whited-brown, to the delicate commodity of Lisle, used for darning muslin. I think I was never more astonished than when, on asking, from the mere force of habit, for thread, I was presented, instead of the pretty lattice-wound balls or snowy reels of cotton, with which that demand is usually answered, with a whole drawerful of skeins, peeping from their blue papers – such skeins as in my youth a thrifty maiden would draw into the nicely-stitched compartments of that silken repository, a housewife, or fold into a congeries of graduated thread-papers, “fine by degrees, and beautifully less.”
Well, well. She covered it all: paper-wrapped skeins, balls, reels, thread papers, and one I didn’t explore (since they are so well-known already), the silken repository, or housewife (hussif). See Sarah’s charming “repository” of blue and cream below, with matching blue threads all ready for use!
And the accompanying little bag with her name embroidered on the front:
But the last is an image, c.1810-1815. From the V&A, it’s the picture I’d always hoped to find: a thread-stocked workbox. The little “tickets” are pink, with the thread size stamped on them.
To wrap it all up, I now have a better idea of how to keep thread in my workbox or basket if I want to stay true (sort of) to the times. It’s a relief to untangle the knotty problem – and know that I can sleep peacefully at night.
¹ Miss Lambert was a prolific and popular author of needlework books such as this one.
² For some stranger-than-fiction history, read about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the gold sovereign magic trick – and how it could have killed him!
MILLENER, or MILLINER, one who sells ribbands and dresses, particularly head dresses for women; and who makes up those dresses. Of this word different etymologies have been given. It is not derived from the French. The French cannot express the notion of milliner, otherwise than by the circumlocution marchand or marchande des modes….
Littleton, in his English and Latin Dictionary, published 1677, defines millener, “a jack of all trades;” q. d. millenarius, or mille mercium venditor; that is, “one who sells a thousand different sorts of things.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1823
It’s summer and I’m still here and still sewing a little (not quite a thousand things) although I haven’t posted for months now. Life has been really hard lately, but looking at Mélisande and dreaming of her wardrobe has brought a lot of cheer. Playing milliner (in the broader sense) for Mélisande has been more challenging, but that’s thanks to my penchant for tackling projects labeled “Do not try this at home!”
The exquisitely beautiful Mélisande was created by Kathy Patterson, a brilliant artist and doll maker (her historical dolls are perfection) who made my dream of an early 19th century wooden doll come true. She is a 19″ wooden lady, carved in the Grödnertal or Tuck Comb style of the early 1800s, and perfect for dressing in clothing from the Regency to Romantic eras. Let me qualify that: perfect for doll dressers who know what they’re doing.
As for the rest of us… well, it’s more of an adventure. I did know enough to start with a linen chemise – or shift, if you share Jane Austen’s scorn of “mock modesty.” Using a tattered and weary dresser cloth for fabric, I cut the arm gussets and sleeves in one piece, a little trick learned from looking at an original and which I think is also mentioned in The Workwoman’s Guide.
However, as I was smirking over saving a few stitches on the gussets, time was playing a sneaky trick on me. Hint: check old fabric for flaws BEFORE you sew. That tiny stain may be just a stain when you cut out the sleeve, but by the time it’s been washed and ironed it could deteriorate into a hole. Or two. Or three. And you might not find them until you’re dressing the doll for her final photo session. And you’ll have to unstitch and redo it all. Sigh.
During the years when shifts were becoming chemises, stays were morphing into corsets. There were so many fashion changes over those decades that I didn’t really know which style to go with: long, short, cording, boning, busk? I just picked a look I liked (and had a grownup pattern to go by) and made it. Pink embroidery was a nice idea but mine looked messy so I picked it out. Instead, I limited the pink accents to extra stitching in the gores and was rather pleased with the result.
Next, Meli needed a petticoat and I needed one to copy. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of extant Regency “bodiced” petticoats. But sheer cotton dresses require petticoats, so I used a couple of tiny internet images of originals and my imagination.
Finally (2 years later) it was time for the gown! One cool thing about patterns in books is that while costumers fret over enlarging them, doll dressers find them just right! Kinda sorta. I still had to rely on my old standbys, paper towels and tape, to get the fit.
To make a pretty morning or afternoon gown (I’m not sure how to tell the difference – maybe look at what you’re wearing and then look at the clock?), I used some unusual sheer lilac cotton with a silky sheen on one side. The loose weave made it a bear to sew, though.
The bodice was the hard part. I lined it with glazed linen (I doubt I’ll do that again) and extended the lining so it could fold over to close in the front with tiny pins. The bib front is gathered and then the skirt is attached all around. The puffed sleeves are unlined. I intended to do something a little more creative than a ruffle, but I need some more practice first.
Last of all were the detachable long sleeves. They were sooo easy to make compared to the rest of the wardrobe. I should probably have made them a little longer for authenticity’s sake. Maybe another time.
Next on the list are some white muslin accessories, and then I plan to trim a bonnet, something truly millinerical. I have to say the last part of the definition quoted above really resonates with me, “Jack (or Jane?) of all trades.” And, I could add, mistress of none, but oh how much fun!
The first part of the book is the reference section, 400+ pages of information on textiles, right down to illustrations of the looms used to manufacture them. But the last sections are the most fun to read.
Appendix “A” has charts with sizes: home linens, gloves, buttons, corset covers, thimbles, and whalebones. There’s even a chart with yardage suggestions for most garments, rather like the back of pattern envelopes today. “B” has yardage, weight, and thread count. “C” is an appendix of tariffs, not particularly interesting except that it’s really cool to see what was being imported: human hair (unmanufactured), cotton quilts, artificial flowers, and hair of hogs for mattresses! “D” was, of all things, a German pronouncing dictionary – included because sales clerks who spoke German could command a higher salary!
But the best was last: Window Trimming (or How to Attract Women). The author sizes up his target.
“There are two classes of feminine buyers to whom the trimmed window appeals most strongly: the lady who has nothing to do looks round at the store windows through mere womanly curiosity; the lady who wants a dress or other article looks round for something to take her fancy: both are certain to be attracted by goods prettily displayed.”
I feel like I should feel offended. But I’m not. Sometimes I really do shop the first way, and sometimes the second! Cole advises on basic design elements and techniques, starting with conventional color theory. His comments are practical and pithy, “Red and orange are not pleasant companions.” Perfectly tasteful when arranging a shop window in 1890, right? However… “Divorce blue and violet forever.” Seriously? This time I am offended!
He continues with advice on the background of the window, and then goes on to arrangement. Time for some puffery! Did you know that heavy silk makes lovely displays when puffed just right? Window artists are directed to move their arms like exuberant conductors, raising armfuls of fabric and hammering down on the counter, jerking the selvedges outward and hitting the floating folds a sharp cut with the hand. But woe unto the artist who attempts to puff a flimsy silk “as it generally caves in, and so discloses the poverty of the fabric!” I hate it when that happens.
That reminds me, did I mention the free gifts with every purchase? Well, these extras (see left) are “usually given away with dress patterns of expensive materials.” I don’t suppose there are any new marketing tricks left. However, there are some old ones that have been forgotten. When was the last time you saw a Canning Apron Window? What, never?
Well, that was one suggestion for a theme window. “Many a lady who seldom finds time to enter into the hardships of housekeeping, just ‘pitches in’ during the canning season. It is taking time by the forelock simply to suggest that in this feature there is a grand opportunity for a realistic window display… A display of aprons, which are proper for such a time, and the arrangement of fruit in baskets and about the floor will be a change from old ways.” It certainly will.
But what about special events? This one’s a kicker: A Grand Army Window. “For occasions of Grand Army encampments or re-unions a window devoted to a representation of camp life is very appropriate.” By the time you’ve sodded the floor, added a tent complete with faux legs encased in army boots sticking out from it, knapsacks, and a coffee kettle over the fire, well, there you are in the good old days. But the description ends there, and I’m still trying to figure out – how the heck are you supposed to display any dress goods with that?
Wait, there’s more! Here are some illustrations of themes used to decorate windows. Let’s start with handkerchiefs.
And if you only want to do a few Easter lilies instead of a whole window, try this one.
What about something a little more creative, something to inspire thoughts of dressing children? Try a Loaded Cannon for infant’s wear. (If you’ve ever tried to dress a resistant toddler, this might not be so inappropriate.)
Now if you have a whole lot of prints that you want to showcase, here’s the perfect solution. Quilt shops, take note of these columns. This one “can be carried out with no more expense than that of a few hours labor.”
We all need reminding that it’s time to brush our teeth and comb our hair. And blow our noses.
And now to wind it all down, we have a spool display of gargantuan proportions. I want one.
More ideas include a May-pole, Toboggan Slide, Button Wheel, Parasol, Lace Fountain, and – are you ready? – a Bridge made of cuffs, 5-plaited shirts, canes and umbrellas, narrow black ties and white ones, carded cuff buttons, and pongee handkerchiefs. Mr. Cole would have loved decorating floats for parades!
He finishes with some excellent advice for the sales clerk, just as applicable today as it was then.
1. Be ready to receive customers with a gracious, cordial, and friendly address.
2. Never, under any circumstances, assume to know the business of your customers better than they do.
3. Treat your customer with respect, in fact, honor him in every way possible, since he has honored you by calling.
4. Use diligence and perseverance in showing goods and their merits in a scientific manner.
5. The crowning point is to fill the bill with a true artist’s eye, and sober, candid judgment… for future sales are at stake.
Thus with frankness, honesty and uprightness in every particular… the ambitious salesman will have lasting, satisfied customers, and have sold far more than anticipated.
Always remember that you needn’t be big to excel. “Don’t be discouraged if your window is small or badly constructed. Make the best of it, and carefully think out what kind of display will best suit the circumstances. You need a very small space to prove your taste and originality, and to make a show which people will cross the street to look at.”
I think we could apply that moral to a lot more than a shop window.
You’ve probably heard of “writer’s block” before, but I wonder if there’s such a thing as “sewer’s block”? Perhaps for a designer or pattern maker, running out of ideas is not an unfamiliar experience.
Edwardian era lingerie dresses came in numberless variations and played large a part in enticing me into sewing history; my plain sewing passion started out as a fancy for fancy work. The snow-flake variety of designs, using only white fabric, lace, and embroidery, is mind-boggling. No surprise then that an English seamstress of 1900 was troubled by a dearth of ideas as she tried to earn her bread with her needle:
“In ladies’ dress the blouse has become a prominent feature, and it is one that lends itself to home industry…. Recently I visited a maker of blouses who was concocting with much taste and skill blouses of white muslin trimmed with embroidery. These would probably sell in shops for but a few shillings, yet the labour involved was not insignificant, for there was much tucking and trimming. The blouse-maker was a young married woman, and, having a small child to look after, could not perhaps easily go out as a dressmaker. Yet her occupation was fully as laborious. During the months before Christmas, she was obliged by her employer to make none but pattern blouses, that is to say, bodices of her own designing, no two being alike. She told me that she found this business of designing was most trying, and that she often lost her rest at night trying to think of some new style… She could make from three to six blouses a day.”*
Bless her heart, only three to six? When I made a simple one – with a commercial pattern – it took several days to do it! She was using a machine by that date, but those faster stitches meant more elaborate work was expected.
Ladies’ accessories (like collars and cuffs) and baby dresses also showed amazing creativity and variety. The surviving specimens are often the fine work that was done by professionals, but someone had to think up those designs, too!
I thought a sampling of sleeve patterns from infants’ gowns would be fun to compare. They tended to reflect current styles in women’s fashions, but perhaps you’ll notice that, even with a palette of white fabric, white lace, and white thread embroidery, the artists must have been losing some serious sleep.
N.B. The many shades of white are due to differences between the gowns (and how they were laundered), and in the fickleness of the camera, sunlight, and shade while I was trying to photograph them. I’ve tried to order them chronologically using one of my favorite books, Heather Toomer’s fabulous Baby wore white, and my (imperfect) guesses.
Many embroidery patterns were available early in the 19th century, but they weren’t usually specific to baby gowns. The one above is rather rare for c. 1820. Later, as women’s magazines proliferated, designs appeared frequently for gowns which could be ordered or copied for home sewing.
I’m in awe of the prodigious creativity that these designers and needleworkers display on such on tiny bits of cloth. And to think that the babies were oblivious to their splendor! It was left to their mothers, and other adoring fans, to appreciate the art on their sleeves.
*Bateson, Margaret. “Bread-Winning at Home.” The Girl’s Own Paper, 1900.
When Winnie the Pooh ate all the honey from the jar he had intended for Eeyore’s birthday present, he decided to give him a Useful Pot instead. I’ve always loved that story. Everybody needs a “Useful Pot to put things in.”
Like Eeyore, I’m awfully fond of Useful Pots – and boxes, and bags, and – well, anything that will hold red balloons or other Stuff. I found this pretty little box a long time ago, and even though it was missing any contents, the workmanship was neat and the condition was wonderful – and it had a key! My plan was to make period appropriate Stuff to go inside. Stuff I could actually use instead of conserve. And like all my projects, it’s taken a whooooole lot longer than I thought.
It probably dates mid- to late 19th century, although I tend to think later. I don’t know if it was professionally made and sold, but it seems to have a hint of “home-made” about it. It’s smaller than average, but everything about it is sturdy, smooth, and fits together perfectly. There was no need to refinish or even re-paper it.
There are three kinds of paper lining: the orange you see above (which was a added in its youth), the blue on the underside of the tray, and traces of an original gold-stamped pattern in deep pink, just peeking out from under the orange in places, all typical of the era.
What went in a workbox? It seems pretty obvious, but I like Useful Lists as well as boxes. The Workwoman’s Guide, c1840, devotes a paragraph to the subject.
A work-box, or basket, should be large enough to hold a moderate supply of work and all its requisites, without being of such a size as to be inconvenient to carry about, or lift with ease. There should be in it divisions or partitions, as they assist in keeping it in order; but some persons are apt to run into the extreme of over-partitioning their boxes, which defeats its own purpose and becomes troublesome; this should be carefully avoided. A work-box should contain six or eight of the useful sized white reel sewing cottons, black cotton, and silks, white, black, and coloured, both round, and for darning; a few useful tapes, bobbin, galloon, buttons of all kinds, including thread, pearl, metal, and black; also, hooks and eyes. An ample needlebook, containing a page of kerseymere for each sized needle, not omitting the darning, glove, stay, and worsted or carpet needles. There are various kinds of scissors; the most useful are, A large pair, for cutting out linen; A medium size, for common use; A small pair with rounded points; A smaller pair with sharper points, for cutting out muslin work &c.; Lace scissors with a flat knob at one of the points; Button-hole scissors. A pincushion, an emery cushion, a waxen reel for strengthening thread, a stiletto, bodkins, a thimble, a small knife, and a yard measure, made like a carpenter’s foot rule, only with nails instead of inches marked upon it….”
And in 1848, with true Victorian prolixity (but who am I to scoff?), The Seamstress advises
The materials employed in the construction of articles, which come under the denomination of plain needlework, are so various, that a mere list of them would occupy more than half our space; and they are so well known, that no necessity exists for naming them in detail. [She then proceeds to do so.] We shall therefore proceed, at once, to give plain directions, by which any lady may soon become expert in this necessary department of household uses, merely observing, that a neat work-box, well supplied with all the implements required – including knife, scissors (of at least three sizes) needles and pins in sufficient variety, bodkins, thimbles, thread and cotton, bobbins, marking silks, black lead pencils, india rubber, &c., should be provided, and be furnished with a lock and key, to prevent the contents being thrown into confusion by children [mea culpa], servants [don’t I wish], or unauthorized intruders [like a cat?].
The empty thread compartments were my first challenge. Finding authentic period spools was impossible, so if I wanted a matched set of “reels” I’d have to make my own. I found a swan design that I liked, and invented “Swann’s Best Cotton” and “Swann’s Finest Silk.” I pasted them on wooden spools and can now wind any thread I like onto them. (We know how soon that’s gonna happen, right?)
While the inventor’s genius was flaring within me, I decided to patent some hooks and eyes as well. A little research turned up Mary Jenkins, a widow, who actually DID patent her superior hooks and eyes in the 1840s. (Wouldn’t you love to know her story?) I have an antique box of hooks and eyes with no “brand,” so I just added her name to make my own version. A salute to female ingenuity!
Now what about female persistence in the face of adversity? Idiot that I am, I also wanted some silk winders. A “homemade Victorian craft look” was what I was aiming for, not easy when you have no talent for art. I drew a pattern and my helpful husband cut them out of matboard for me. An 1840s French needlework magazine supplied the floral graphics which I scanned and tidied up. I added them to the winders and watercolored the flowers. Yes, I can color pictures! So far, so good. But then I thought they needed gold edges – mistake! It took forever to paint them all on, both sides, straight, and I will never try that again.
No self-respecting workbox could be useful without a needlebook. Punched paper was all the rage mid to late century, and I thought that would suit the style of the box better than something fancier in silk. The floral pattern is from the Antique Pattern Library. The interior has wool flannel for holding needles, and the letters are from a Victorian marking pattern. Ok, the letters weren’t much different, but it allowed me the illusion of historicity!
One more project was on my list. I love the little walnut sewing trinkets that were popular, from fancy etuis to those made-at-home with scraps – which now sell for a small fortune as primitives! So I took a half shell and stuffed it with velvet covered wool, and then trimmed it with a green silk ribbon to complement the other colors. It kind of looks like I’ve turned a walnut into a strawberry disguised as a pincushion. Maybe I was hungry at the time.
A tassel for the key helps keep track of it. I’m also playing with the idea of a (removeable) label for the top and/or a card tucked inside. I’ve seen an antique with “Work-Box” on the lid which really caught my fancy but was out of my budget. The graphics I experimented with above are all authentic designs (Ackermann’s Repository, etc.). But I may not bother, since I’m debating taking it to the next heritage festival with a FOR SALE sign. This one took me so long that now I’ve got another box waiting its turn at rehab and I’m running out of room!
In the meantime, all the buttons, wax, scissors, bodkins and other requisites for lady’s work can stay tidy in a Useful Box.
It’s wonderful when old clothing comes with a provenance and a story, but when those are lacking it requires a deerstalker, a magnifying glass, and powerful reasoning skills. OK, maybe not the hat.
These mitts caught my eye because they are so different from the 18th century linen and silk embroidered beauties that I’ve seen in books and museums. Having never seen anything like them before, I was intrigued by their plain sewing simplicity. Time to look for clues. Ready, Watson?
They were meant for working rather than fashion because they were made of an ordinary quality muslin and show a good bit of wear.
They were worn during the era of very short sleeves (early 19th century) since they are a veeeery long 22 inches from hand opening to upper arm.
The maker knew something about sewing, since she cut them on the bias for a hint (barely a hint!) of stretch.
The stains were made by the lady when she wore them, rather than acquired during their decades in a trunk, since they don’t reflect storage folds.
The owner was thrifty because she mended them.
She was left-handed, since the left mitt has the worst stains, both mends, and the heaviest wear.
The owner either 1) washed them in hot water, 2) gained weight, or 3) didn’t try them on until she finished making them because the seams have been let out.
And here I’ve reached the end of my observations. What do you think, Watson?
Ah. Well. The lady wore them to protect her long sleeves and bedclothes while wearing beauty treatments overnight. The pattern would only fit the material on the bias. The left mitt was torn in the laundry mangle and stained when dropped on the dirty floor. They were darned by the laundress because she didn’t want a scolding from her mistress. And they were a hand-me-down from a sister who had skinnier arms.
Thank you, Watson. I confess that I have been as blind as a mole, but it is better to learn wisdom late than never to learn it at all.
In the last photo, we have a final view of the mitts, as if their ghostly wearer were raising her arms in surrender, palms forward. But if she read Watson’s and my deductions, she’s probably raised her arms while hooting with laughter!
“Marking, as the name implies, is the art of putting some distinguishing sign or mark on body and household linen, so that it may not be lost, especially in the laundry. It is therefore necessary that all washing things are clearly and distinctly marked.”
OK, let’s mark some linen. Find a chart or a sampler for a pattern (see left). Take a sheet or a towel, a shirt or a shift, and a ball of red or blue marking cotton or silk.
Make a cross-stitch, taking the first diagonal stitch over two threads of the fabric, and then another for the other side of the X. Your letters and numbers must each be finished off separately and not connected by a thread on the back. They will be about seven X’s in height.
Depending on how fine your fabric is, that means your A, B, C or 1, 2, 3 might be (gulp) 3/8 of an inch tall! Yes, seven little stacked crosses making your initials only 3/8″ high. I think good eyes and a sunny window would help.
Is it any wonder that marking was considered painfully tedious? Any wonder that any alternative method of defending your linen was highly desirable?
As a student of plain work, I’m in awe of the blindingly tiny stitches that were used for marking. I’ve blogged about it some here and here. But anyone who studies plain sewing will notice that during the 19th century, a new solution was the solution: indelible ink!
Here’s a recipe (one of several) from The New Family Receipt-Book, 1811:
Apparently the new and easier way caught on quickly. By 1833, Lydia Maria Child states in The Girl’s Own Book, “Indelible ink is now so much in use, that the general habit of marking samplers is almost done away.” Letters marked with ink could be very neat and elegant, such as this example on a lady’s chemisette, dated 1860.
Or indelible ink could be somewhat … disappointing. Unlike stitches made with thread, you can’t pick out an uh-oh. Miss Colby probably cringed when she saw how this one turned out – an untidy finish to her corded stays.
But wait! As we move from marking with needle and thread to marking with pen and ink, we’re moving into the decades of innovation: those glorious years celebrated by Great Exhibitions and more new patents than you could shake a stick at. Wouldn’t it be nice to have your cloth held taut while you wrote? A cloth stretcher could handle that.
And if the ink got too messy, well, someone had an answer for that, too. An indelible marking pencil could solve all your linen identity crises. Housekeeper, is your “brain feeling considerably bothered” by directions for using ink? An indelible marking pencil can relieve it!
Indelible ink, cloth stretchers, and marking pencils weren’t the only advances on cross-stitch. Stencils were available from stationers or engravers, and could be had by mail order. Mr. Congdon of Worcester, Massachusetts offered such aids, as seen in his ad from 1856:
But would stencils work with small letters and numbers on linen? Fortunately, we have surviving examples to show that they worked quite well.
And if thread, ink, pencil, and stencil didn’t suit, along came another option: ready-made. The machine embroidered letters came on a length of tape. They even came in Traditional Turkey Red.
The pursuit of convenience was just as fervent in the 19th century as it is in ours today, but there have always been a few voices arguing the superiority of the old ways. They certainly kept marking in the needlework curriculum until the early 1900s. While requiring more skill and more time, marking with needle and thread rendered articles “ornamental, tidy, and finished.” I suppose the tiny marking stitches are the nicest way to make your mark – for all time!
Lost somewhere between Lizzy Bennet’s spencers and Scarlett O’Hara’s hoops, the Romantic Era is woefully unappreciated. Maybe it’s because fashionable women resembled over-frosted cupcakes wearing hats like Rose Bowl parade floats. But oh my goodness. All that delicious feminine extravagance! This pattern from a French fashion magazine is typical for its time, and I thought I’d share it for Christmas.
After scanning and cleaning, I tried to add some holiday red and green to my copy for a photo. Unfortunately, the red looks pink. New color pencils are on my wish list!
Want to print a pattern to tuck in your workbox? If you’d like a free (meaning all you have to do is ask) actual-size pdf of this one, just email me. I’ll send it to you. Merry Christmas!
You’re never too old for dolls at Christmas! At least I’m not. I’d like to introduce Jessamine, a lovely doll made in the style of Izannah Walker, by the incomparably brilliant artist Paula Walton.
I’ve always longed for a doll like this lovely girl, and waited years before I was able to bring her home. I’ve had her for a while now, but that practice waiting has served me well – because it’s taken over a year to dress Jessamine in her first (hand sewn by me) outfit! But Christmas is here and she is ready.
The chemise came first, and I tried to make it with the same details that a real mid-19th century young lady’s might have had: gussets, gores, and binders. I know, unless you’re used to period costume terms, they sound like instruments of torture. I guess they were, actually, for me! It would have been a lot easier to make a simple doll chemise, and from now on any others will be quite plain. They’ll have to be; this one is so bulky that a dress has to be specially cut to fit over it. Live and learn.
Next came the drawers. Since Jessamine is an older girl, I decided she would have split rather than closed ones. Well, really I just wanted to make them that way. Of course that means it’s trickier for her to pose with them while retaining her modesty. But we managed. I suppose you can tell from the photo that this wasn’t taken in December? And surprise – it wasn’t this year, either!
A petticoat was essential, and this one is so full that she wouldn’t need another. It was made from the embroidered ruffle of an early 20th century, mass-produced, low quality, damaged piece. The elderly lady I purchased it from was apologetic over its condition, saying she was told that her great aunt had stood too close to the fire. While it’s sad to take apart anything, thereby tearing it from its history, some things wouldn’t survive at all otherwise. (I’m sounding rather apologetic myself, hmm?) But now this scorched phoenix has a future and a past!
Every young lady would need a corset, or if she wasn’t quite ready for that, a corded waist or stay-waist (or some other term for the same garment). Even though there are a zillion doll corsets out there for inspiration, I went exploring Cassell’s for a likely pattern.
I adapted it to Jessamine’s age (@150 or so) and used the fabric from a c1900 scrapped doll corset. What girl wouldn’t love lilac stays? There was a lapse of time between the modeling session below and the actual completion of the corset. Months, maybe? But I eventually finished the eyelets and added the straps.
After many more months (Pharaby was taking all my time) I began Jessamine’s dress. The fabric was a happy accident: an online store sent the wrong print years ago, and it’s been in my stash ever since. I made so many mistakes that I lost count. Yep, sleeves again; one went in upside down. Aaaalll the seams and gathers had to be picked out and redone. What’s so embarrassing is that I didn’t even notice it was upside down until I’d done all that unstitching for another reason – to make the gathers match the other side. Duh. Maybe that was why they weren’t even?
If you spend any time looking at 19th century portraits and daguerreotypes of children, you’ll notice that many (most?) girls wore coral necklaces. I was delighted to find a bargain to finish her ensemble. It was sold as a doll necklace but looks suspiciously like a bracelet. No matter. The graduated coral pieces make it look enough like a necklace to suit us just fine.
I wish I could claim credit for the pretty red shoes, but that goes to the her incredibly talented maker. Here’s a peek at Jessamine’s feet – too sweet! Transported back to 1860 as a child, I would have been sooo tempted to take her wading in the summer! (My dolls suffered worse.) But it’s December, I’m grown up, and there’ll be no such mischief. We wouldn’t want St. Nicholas to leave only a lump of coal, would we?
Old stereoviews have such intriguing sets. They show many articles of everyday life, such as you find today in antique stores or see artfully displayed in historic sites. But there’s nothing quite like seeing them surrounded by the people who originally used them.
I can get lost on Flickr or Pinterest, just playing voyeur. But of course it’s pictures that show sewing that are especially fascinating! The theme of this 1860s photo, an exasperated mother mending her child’s torn pants, was a favorite for humorous stereoviews and postcards for many decades.
What do we find here? Mother sits on a stool by the fire with her sleeves pushed up while she works, wearing one of those pretty headdresses that fill the pages of Godey’s and Peterson’s. She’s mending the pants which already have one patch (badly done to be obvious, since no neat seamstress would ever flaunt that), and glancing sternly at the culprit.
The little boy waits shame-faced on the table, wearing only his shirt, stockings and shoes. His little sister sits on the floor against a three-legged stool, playing with her doll. The older brother is wearing a suit and lying on the floor with a whirly wooden toy.
Clothes are drying over the fire, and the mantel holds candlesticks, plates and an unidentifiable object. Bowls are stacked on the table and the bellows hang below dippers and a frying pan.
But wait! There’s more! Why waste the carefully staged scene on a single card? A quick search turned up a superior version, which was also tinted. The photographer captures more of the props in this one.
Here the family has moved a bit. Now Mother’s pagoda sleeves are down (no visible undersleeves), little sister has recrossed her legs, and older brother is sitting on a crate. You can clearly see the saw by the door, and a lamp and dried vegetables (?) hanging from the ceiling. A wooden bucket waits under the table for slops (or perhaps a trip to the well), a colander hangs by the chimney, and a covered dish just shows behind the bowls.
What have I missed? Something, I’m sure. Or just my time-traveling self, peeking in the door to say hello!