At three months old, it is usual to commence the use of aprons, which are made of bird’s-eye diaper, or, just now, brilliante, a firm, close-figured cambric, which will wear nearly as long. These last are bound with cambric, in solid colors, as pink, blue, buff, &tc. Bird’s-eye linen is usually trimmed with tatting or anything that wears well. At present, button-hole scollops, either plain or filled with dots, eyelets, &tc., are much used; they are made in this way ornamental, as well as useful. For an infant, the “bib-apron,” round front, coming a little below the waist, with a little shoulder strap buttoning around the arm (see cut), is the most suitable. From six months to two years of age, a similar front, with back to correspond, cut of bird’s-eye also. A large variety of shapes, however, are constantly to be had. The material and length is our province; no child needs an apron coming to the end of the dress skirt, as we have seen them made.
So says Sarah Hale, in a little instruction book written for new mothers in 1854. It amazes me that such a functional item could survive 150 plus years, but I come across them from time to time. If you’d like an actual-size pattern of the one below, send an email to me, m at twothreadsback dot com, and I’ll send you a pdf – free. Gratis. No strings attached!
The hems are almost invisible, so I assume Mother was able to use both hands for that. The tiny buttons are made of delicately carved mother of pearl.
Another common pattern, made for an older child, is like the one pictured below. It’s also made of diaper – but in linen – and trimmed at the armscyes and hem.
This little cap is a favorite. Yes, the linen is coarser than the lovely smooth cambric in most of the other really old baby things I’ve found. The slubs are noticeable, and they show even more due to washing and wearing. But there’s just something about that little ruffle around the brim. And the extra gathers right in the center – can’t you just see them sticking up, stiff with starch? Rather like a little plume or crest!
The measurement around the brim, including the ruffle, is about 12 inches; the center front to the back is about 9 inches.
It seems like every time I examine a garment to write about it or list it for sale, I find something I’d overlooked before. And sometimes it’s unusual, a feature I haven’t seen before. That happened here, too.
The little crown was stroked and gathered and attached to the upper brim with backstitches, the same way cuffs or collars were attached to shirts. Then the under-layer-brim was hemmed to the crown from beneath. That does make the technique look like “setting in,” a construction process taught from (at least) the 18th to the early 20th centuries – if you’re one of the rare people who’ve seen my book Plain Needlework, you know what I’m talking about.
The strangest thing though, is how the upper layer is hemmed. It’s backstitched! But not securely on the folded hem itself; instead the stitching rests along the very edge. In fact, I really don’t see how it holds. I’ve looked at it with magnification because it’s so different from what I’m used to seeing. But that’s right. The hem is barely caught with the backstitches.
The under layer is normal – if you can call a 1/16 inch hem normal; it’s simply hemmed. Then the ruffle is whipped and gathered on both. The back of the cap is gathered and set in a narrow band, also with backstitching.
Like last cap I wrote about, this one is in remarkably fine condition and there are no vestiges of ties. Unlike many other fine linen bits, it’s lost its starch. I think the wearer would have approved. Floppy ruffles are more comfortable.
Babies look so sweet in caps, and once upon a time they wore them from the time they were born. They wore a lot of things actually, as Thomas Jarrold wrote in this 1736 excerpt:
Formerly, the dress of an infant was cumbersome and oppressive, it is now much simplified, but still it admits of improvement; many parts are unnecessary, and even injurious, and require an experienced person to adjust them, and, in dressing the infant, so much time is consumed and so much toil occasioned as must greatly exhaust and weary it; to this it ought not to be subjected, that cannot be proper which distresses the child …. its dress should be light and warm, and so constructed, that the time occupied in dressing may not be greater than the capacity of the child to bear it.
Indeed! The Foundling Museum’s record books also list a great variety of garments, and those for the head include cap, bonnet, biggin, forehead-cloth, and head-cloth – not necessarily worn simultaneously. I’m particularly fond of these little caps because they show such exquisite stitching. I don’t think anyone today does plain sewing so fine and dainty.
This elegant example is made of linen, and it measures about 10 inches across the double brim. From the front to the back hem is about 8 inches. The lace insertion is on the upper brim only. (If you can identify the lace, please let me know!)
The embroidery worked along the edge of the insertion and where the crown is gathered to the brim is typical of 18th century whitework on infant clothing.
One puzzling feature is the running thread along the hem of the brim. On the under layer, it terminates a couple of inches short of the center on each side. It appears to function as the familiar “stay stitching” of today. However, on the upper layer, it continues from both sides, meeting in the middle. And the threads are left hanging!
The back is finished simply, with two tiny cords to draw for a closer fit. There are no ties (or pin marks) on the cap, another feature that was common into the early 19th century. Does that suggest that another head covering was worn with it? I don’t know of a baby today who could keep such a hat in place. And “that cannot be proper which distresses the child!”
The Dorset Button! Not the more common flat disk with thread spokes, but a “high top,” a tiny sphere wrapped in a spider’s web of thread. I mentioned in the Love Shirt post that I would explain how I made the buttons for the shirt – a non-documented, unauthenticated version for the directionally challenged: me. Believe me, before I finished the trial button, it did look more like a Dorset Knot. But I persevered.
The originals I wanted to copy are pictured above. They seemed to be stuffed with a kind of fiber, but the base was a black substance with a greenish-yellow cast and waxy look. It had puzzled me for years. Then after reading more about Dorset knob buttons, I realized the material must be horn.
I didn’t have horn buttons, so I used shell instead, about 1 cm in diameter. I cut a little square of linen, about 3.5 cm, and on that I traced and cut out a circle larger than the button. The scraps served as stuffing for the knob. Waste not, want not.
Next I ran a gathering stitch around the circle, put the scraps in the center with the flat button on top, pulled the gathers tight, and stitched them closed. Voilà! The mold!
Then I wrapped thread around the button in a compass rose pattern and anchored it. Beginning at the top, I circumnavigated the button, taking a backstitch around each “spoke” and moving on to the next. It was a bit fiddly, having to smush the lumpiness of the mold and realign the spokes as I worked toward the base.
Once I had made a final pass around the base, I took a few stitches to anchor it all. And then I had to make four more.
For those who like pictures better, see below. For those who want a more authentic method, there is a lot of serious research available online now. And for everyone else… well, there’s always velcro.
I’ve always loved order and simplicity. That sounds awfully smug, but I shouldn’t commend myself since it’s probably because my brain can’t handle very much at one time. This craving for minimalism is getting worse as I get older. Try googling the minimalist lifestyle and maybe you’ll see the attraction! Or not.
A conversation the other day started me thinking about simplicity in plain sewing. Hmm. What was the most basic stitch? Well, anyone who uses old sewing machines knows you can do just about anything with a straight stitch, which is closest to a backstitch in hand sewing.
But backstitching wasn’t the primary stitch in 19th century sewing manuals, nor was running, as I learned when I studied plain needlework instruction. It was hemming. That’s the little slanted stitch that you would use to (surprise!) hem something. Once your hemming was neat enough, you could learn to work other stitches.
By the way, I’ve noticed that most costume historians, or at least ones I’ve heard and read, call this same stitch “whip” instead of “hem.” For example, “the edge is folded back and whip stitched in place.” But then, why shouldn’t they? I understand perfectly what they mean. If you’ve seen my post on muslin you’ll know I’ve come to terms with terms!
Getting back to simplicity. I decided to go closet diving for something that used only that one stitch, hemming, to construct a garment. And I found it! A Regency era calico baby dress. Granted, it didn’t have enough pattern pieces to warrant many stitches. But the whole gown was made by hemming!
Or was it? Well, in my eagerness to find what I was looking for, I didn’t look close enough, and I didn’t think it through.
The skirt was made of one piece and hemmed, check. The casings for the strings were hemmed, check. The tiny ruffles on the sleeves were hemmed, check.
The bodice was hemmed to the skirt – whoa! Wait a minute. That wasn’t right. Things were unraveling. I mean my clever discovery, not the little frock.
Yes, the stitches looked the same at first glance, but any experience (or a practical mind) would tell you that you have to hold those two pieces face to face and sew them together. That makes it seaming, as they would have said, or overcasting, as we’d say today. Same thing for the ruffles attached to the sleeves.
And there was more. The tiny bodice sides, all three-quarter inch of them, were running stitch. As were the sleeves to the body – and then overcast!
So much for that, no single stitch here. I confess it doesn’t really bother me too much that it’s not pure minimalist stitching. I’m learning to slow down and look closer. And it’s still a wonder of simplicity!
Ta da! After ten grueling years (ok, I don’t really know how long, but it has been years) I finally finished a 19th century gentleman’s square-cut shirt of fine linen. Complete with all twenty parts, including the frill. And Dorset knob buttons.
Where did the name come from? Well, a long time ago a friend and I (I miss you, Janet!) were studying one of these shirts, one that had a heart-bit (see that blog). We reached frantically for our vinaigrettes, trying not to swoon on the artifact, as visions of Mr. Darcy flitted around the room. Somehow we started calling that handsome relic The Love Shirt. So it has been to me, ever since. And I wanted to make one myself.
That type of linen is impossible to find nowadays. However, a dear friend (thanks, Dianne!) provided the closest thing possible, and with a pattern from an 1820 book, I commenced.
Unfortunately I have a memory like Dory, so every time I put away the project for a spell, I’d have to practically learn how to do the next step all over. A 19th century seamstress would have been appalled to see me.
Um, do I sew both ends of XYZ before I ABC? Do I cut or fold first? Did I sew the sleeve on backwards? Oops. Front and back are the same before the collar goes on, right? Not if you hemmed them first. Oh right, I was supposed to check that I was putting the slit in the front. Well… I’ll just cut the back shorter and make it be the front. And my g-g-g-g-great-grandmother could make one of these in a day or so? How embarrassing.
I did learn a lot. I learned how hard it is to backstitch over two threads without going blind. I learned that there is NO not-shiny sewing thread available today. I learned that linen thread breaks, other people’s buttonholes always look nicer than mine, knots are usually unnecessary, even poor work looks better when ironed, and a drawn thread is no guarantee you’ll sew a straight line. I learned that you had to love your man, or love survival to make one of these. And I learned how to make Dorset knob buttons, my own way! Maybe I’ll write about that next time.
Heart-bit? No, I don’t mean smitten with love, phrased in a folksy sort of way. I mean a little bit, or piece, in the shape of a heart! Worn right over the heart.
That perfect specimen of plain sewing, The Shirt, has a romantic soul. Back in days when shirts were only slit down the front, and not buttoned closed the full length, that end of the opening was vulnerable to tearing. There were various ways to prevent it, and I came across references to this lovely way when researching early sewing instructions. For example, Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor, 1789, givesa description of cutting linen for shirts:
This half overplus being a quarter of a yard in length, serves to cut out hearts for the bosoms.
Or a sewing manual from 1833:
Before commencing the shirt, small pieces of muslin are given to each girl, for the purpose of learning to settle in, and work the breast-gusset.
Of course not all shirts had them. Some had a triangular gussets, or a buttonholed reinforcement, or a tiny rectangular piece to prevent a tear, and some had nothing at all. But you have to love linen with a heart!
If I kept my attention only on plain work, I suppose I would be very limited indeed. And truly, the impulse to add ornamentation seems timeless and universal. Often the pretty pieces I study reveal high standards in the basic plain stitches, but also have considerable fancywork on them.
Here is one example which just seems to shout Baby Version of Mommy’s 1870 Upholstered Look! Notice the dropped shoulders, two-piece sleeves and sort of tabbed lower edge, with its allowance for a wee bustle? I doubt baby wore one, but the cut of the sacque would have suited it! The pattern is a match for women’s garments of the late 1860s and early 1870s.
It’s made of a very fine muslin – a previous owner must have bleached it white again – and uses basic hemming, running, and stitching (called backstitching today). It shows some of the earliest use of (what we call today) a french seam on the sides and shoulders. The sleeve seams are overcast.
The sacque has a high collar with hand-embroidered trim and fastens with a single mother of pearl button and thread loop. There’s a buttonhole hiding under the trim on the collar, but Mother must have decided it was too tight or difficult to fasten. The same trim edges the front, hem, and cuffs. There’s even a bit of piping.
The cuffs were taken up with a hidden tuck to fit shorter arms, and they also have tiny thread tassels. I thought at first the threads were drawstrings for the cuffs, but closer examination shows them to be attached separately and knotted around… a bit of wool? …held with glue? I can’t see it well enough to tell, but it has yellowed over time.
The trim down the front is turned toward the center, the opening. This is typical of 19th century clothing, although my modern expectation is to see tucks or trims folded or facing outward (toward the arms).
In all, it’s plain made fancy. And enough to make me swoon over the tiny confection!
Once upon a time, folks from all over would gather, bringing their best work to show off, to compete for prizes, and to sell. These were the agricultural fairs, a tradition whose roots go back many centuries and places. Nineteenth century America saw their development as a way to encourage innovation. By mid-century, agricultural societies were flourishing.
Today their records are a rich source of information on agricultural and domestic history of the era. The premiums, which ranged from a few cents (female enterprise) to substantial sums (men’s categories!) must have been the source of great pride, outrage, bickering and boasting – oh to have been there to hear the drama! I spent a happy afternoon several years ago in a university library poring over the books full of juicy details. Yes, that was before google books.
“An embroidered map of Savannah… best collection of fall peaches … beautiful specimens of sewing silk … second best profane landscape … woolen counterpane, maker’s name unknown … from the crowded state of the room, and the great number of articles present, several paintings could not be found … second best cow “Eloise” … the committee exhibited a marked partiality for apple pies, and awarded with singular unanimity fifty cents each to Mrs. … a basket of superb wax flowers, which the chairman of the committee on flowers pronounced superior to any in his department of natural ones … S. D., 7 years of age, worsted work executed while lying on his back with a broken thigh, .50 … worsted quilt, said to contain 9765 pieces; ingenuity and labor … lemons of enormous size, preserved in alcohol…” – the list fills volumes.
Crackers, lightning rods, stoves, plows, false teeth, butter, Muscovy ducks, headstones, cologne, down tippets, dog’s hair socks, essays, fishing boots, parsnips, daguerreotypes, golden pippins, rocking chairs, canaries, grain bags, gold pens, baby-tender. Was there anything they didn’t show?
To paraphrase one report, I am greatly embarrassed on account of the limited means placed at my disposal to mention such a large number of exhibits, and I wish to say, that I doubt not there are many articles not noticed which are as well worthy of premium or gratuity as some which have been thus honored. I am reluctantly compelled to pass them over.
One category is especially interesting to me: plain sewing (surprise!). Here are some examples from the Sandy Creek, Richland, Orwell, & Boylston Agricultural Society of New York, c1860.
The chemises are exquisite, and it’s easy to see why their maker entered them in competition. I regret to say that I don’t know if they won a prize or not. There was no record of one with them. Nonetheless, they are fine work and perhaps the maker would be even more pleased if she knew how much, and how long, they would be admired!
By the way, check the calendar and visit your own state or local fair. If you’ve never toured the exhibits before, you’ll be amazed!
For those who would like more detail and patterns that they can easily use today, there is another book, The Lady’s Economical Assistant, which has been reproduced after the 1808 edition, available from Kannick’s Korner.
I came across this one day while surfing for children’s print dresses.
It is a simple child’s gown dating to 1803 that has a story, one I could never imagine. Made of a shabby, sweet calico print, it is typical for its day: simple in cut, with a little frill around the high collar. The tragedy lies in the last day it was worn. John Marsden was two years old when he died after being scalded in an accident at home.
The Marsden family were among the earliest to arrive from England to live in New South Wales and the Powerhouse Museum website has more information on the family and this collection.
I don’t need to create imaginary stories for this dress, since his mother said enough, “The loss of those I have parted from weighs so much on my mind that at times I am as miserable as it is possible to be – outwardly I may appear cheerful but I am very far from being happy – indeed happiness and me seem long since to have parted and I have a presentiment that peace will never more be an inhabitant of my bosom.”
Ah, the quest to identify the delicate fabric! So many surviving caps, collars, aprons, and gowns. Mull, book, or clear muslin; longcloth, cambric, nainsook, lawn, batiste. Not to mention spotted, sprigged, flowered, figured, checked, worked, striped, and embroidered!
Because so many of the textiles that fascinate me are white cotton or linen, my inquiring mind wanted to know what to call that pretty little antique baby gown – mull? Cambric or jaconet? Swiss, Indian, or Scottish manufacture? Surely something more than white cotton!
So many names show up in period writing. Some of the adjectives are unambiguous: spots are spots, then and now. But for years I puzzled over terms and asked any textile historian I came across (ok, there weren’t many) to explain how to identify each kind. Silly me.
I searched novels and dictionaries, magazines and swatch books, sewing textbooks and inventories galore. And guess what? Even more confusion. My eyes became as “glazed muslin.” There was no consistency or authoritative answer to what was what. Or at least not enough for me to astonish my friends with my blindfold fabric naming tricks.
Yes, lawn and cambric were once only linen, names denoting origin; voile came rather late for my area of interest. And often the context of the term (especially when it was attached to a dated sample!) was extremely useful. But I was looking for an answer that wasn’t. I mean, there isn’t one definitive answer, consistent for all times and places. The evolution of the stuff, as well as language, has seen to that!
After all, a maker who calls a fabric by one name, the wearer half a world away who calls it something else, and the lucky one who finds it in an attic 200 years later and doesn’t know what to call it – may all refer to the same thing. It all depends on Who, Where, and When. So I guess I’ll just call it all muslin!
Speaking of books and muslin … the V&A published a book last year, Muslin, by Sonia Ashmore, and it’s my latest chair-side companion. Superb research, gorgeous photos – a must-have for any historic costume/textile enthusiast.
And anyone who wants more information on period textiles will find Florence Montgomery’s Textiles in America, 1650-1870, Sally Queen’s Textiles for Colonial Clothing, Textiles for Clothing of the Early Republic by Lynne Basset (the whole series, actually), and All About Cotton by Julie Parker to be excellent resources – and all but the first have samples!
From The New Encyclopaedia, 1807, a hint of how muslin compared, Cotton Goods are divided into different classes, each proportionally lighter than the other. The heaviest of these are, 1st. Shirtings, 2d. Cambrics, 3d. Cossias, 4th. Jaconetts, 5th. Lawn grounds, 6th. Mulls, 7th. Books.
Is there anything more trying than trying to remember how to insert a gusset? So many ways! The fabric and the placement of this little triangle may incline us toward one method or another, but for someone as construction-challenged as I am, it means once again pulling out a sample to go by – or some instructions.
We’ve all heard the story of the roast that was cut before roasting because “Mother always did it that way.” Perhaps the point (no pun intended) may be applied to gussets in this case as well. We know that some garments required gussets for fit and ease of movement, particularly those of a “square-cut” pattern. They were very effective and often quite beautifully executed.
Well here is an example of roasted gussets: have you ever seen anything so tiny, so exquisitely worked – and so unnecessary? I ask you, what use were these lovely little bits of linen to the baby’s comfort? None at all, I daresay. But shirts and shifts had gussets, so there they are. Oh my goodness, what inspiration for a clumsy novice like me! And as you can see below, I was willing to try. Unfortunately my efforts didn’t quite measure up. At least the baby will never notice!