Wearing Her Art on Her Sleeve

Wearing Her Art 14

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.

Wearing Her Art 19

This gown is fairly early, perhaps 1810s? and actually my favorite. The sleeve is cut on the bias, sort of, to suit the drawn thread pattern.

Wearing Her Art 20

You can just see the pretty – and simple! – stitches along the hem of the sleeve and the neckline. A variation of this is fairly common on later baby gowns, used along the waistband.

Wearing Her Art 06

This gown was probably not worked professionally. Why do I suspect that? Because it came with a sister! The next gown has the same trim, just a slightly different use of the pattern. It also has a secret….

Wearing Her Art 07

Secret revealed: a button! Looping up children’s sleeves was quite fashionable for many decades.

Wearing Her Art 01

Meet the sibling! Also very early and very simple, this little sleeve has tucks and the embroidery is placed differently on the gown itself.

Wearing Her Art 02

And this one also came with buttons and loops.

Wearing Her Art 04

Just in case you wanted to see how the loop was attached inside.

Wearing Her Art 04

Disappointingly simple? Flaws? Yes, it has a bit of damage, and the embroidery centers are only net, not needle lace. But oh my goodness! Look at the photo below of the skirt!

Wearing Her Art 05

Here’s a shot of skirt itself, in all its homemade, but elegant, glory! Even with the damage, this one is worth preserving.

Wearing Her Art 015

This early gown has points (Vandykes) on the sleeves and several rows on the hem. It comes reeeeally close to my favorite, above. And it’s a dimity stripe, rather than a fine muslin.

Wearing Her Art 016

Once again, buttons on the sleeve. Would you believe I didn’t notice the inside loops for ages? That’s why I never play those “observation/concentration” games. Fail.

Wearing Her Art 17

Here’s a peek at the inside. It’s also a good shot for seeing how the points are made.

Wearing Her Art 18

The loop wrapped around the Dorset button. I think it looks better undone.

Wearing Her Art 08

Now for some broderie anglaise! I know it didn’t reach the height of popularity until later, but something about this gown seems to suggest late 20s, early 30s. The sleeves just want to stretch out in that wiiiiide horizontal fashion.

Wearing Her Art 09

Wearing Her Art 10

Wearing Her Art 11

Could this be… romantic era? You think? It has enough floof for two babies.

Wearing Her Art 13

A view from above the extravagance. This is the sleeve at the top of the blog post.

Wearing Her Art 21

The collapse of romance; now moving into gothic restraint. Is that an oxymoron?

Wearing Her Art 22

I love this. Like a little window valance and ruffled curtains below!

Wearing Her Art 23

I’m not sure what to make of this one. Like the one above, it has the narrower sleeve and tight ruffles of 1840s. But the embroidery pattern looks earlier.

Wearing Her Art 24

Yes, 4 rows of ruffles. Gothic restraint my eye!

Wearing Her Art 25

This sleeve reminds me of the 2 above, but the rest of the gown seems to hint at a later date.

Wearing Her Art 26

I love all the elaborate work on this. And especially how the ruffles seem to be pleated (they’re not).

Wearing Her Art 27

Ruffles pressed out to flaunt their stuff!

Wearing Her Art 28

And now the last sleeve offering. It’s a pretty Ayrshire gown, made before they began to get a little coarser and machine sewn. Well, of course some baby gowns have always been hand sewn, but from the 1860s there were a lot more machine-made.

Wearing Her Art 29

1820s baby gown pattern – from a Dutch magazine? Or sold separately? It has the early classical simplicity of that time.

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.

Wearing Her Art Godey

An illustration from Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857. So very mid-Victorian!

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.

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X Marks the Spot

Pharaby's shift is now marked.

Pharaby’s shift is now marked.

“The art of marking was brought to perfection many years ago, and if our great grandmothers could but see the meagre attempts made by us now-a-days, I fancy they would have some contempt for the system by which our needlework abilities are tested.”

– A. K. Smith, 1892

They would certainly have some contempt for how long it took me to mark Pharaby’s shift, regardless of the quality of my work! I should have tended to this little essential when I first made it, but better late than never. We can’t have her single shift getting lost in the laundry, can we?

X Marking 2

A lovely linen baby shirt marked with Turkey red cotton; note the quarter next to it for size. I’ve kept the image full size, for anyone who wants to view beautifully done original marking up close – just click the image.

First I had to do some practice stitching. Sampler collectors and makers would laugh at how astonished – and intimidated – I am by the miniscule cross-stitches made during the past 200 years. You can see from this little baby shirt (last quarter 19th C) how blithely they marked countless linens. I’m guessing at the “blithely” part, but since I have many shirts from this baby, somebody was doing a lot of marking!

Making it to Pharaby’s scale would be impossible, since barely matching ordinary period work would be the best I could hope for.

I used a pretty little c1900 linen collar to experiment on (damaged – I wouldn’t inflict my needle on it otherwise), as you can see in the picture.

X Marking 3

A linen collar marked with ink that I used for practice. “No textiles were harmed during the making of this experiment.”

Since the threads in linen are not all exactly the same size, my stitches over two threads looked a bit messy. I tried sewing over four (too big) or over however many made a perfect square (too awkward). By this time I was just about ready to use ink, like the collar owner! But hey, I’m all about plain sewing, right?

A lot of trial and error showed that to be small enough, I’d have to work over two threads, no matter how lumpy my letters looked. I found that just like many projects, things that look pretty awful as I’m working, look a little better when I’m done. Or maybe I’m just cross-eyed by then!

X Marking 5

The baby shirt, Pharaby’s shift, and the practice piece, all together. The little birds I tried were from a pattern by the most knowledgeable sampler collector I’ve ever met. Maybe Pharaby will make a sampler one day….

 

Little Biggin Three

18th C Cap 3a

An 18th century cap for a baby, made of fine linen.

If it’s fair to judge from the advice books of days gone by, enlightened physicians had an uphill battle trying to convince mothers to dress their children sensibly. The following quote is from William Cadogan in his Essay Upon Nursing and the Management of Children, 1750.

I would recommend the following Dress : A little Flannel Waistcoat without Sleeves, made to fit the Body, and tie loosely behind; to which there should be a Petticoat sew’d, and over this a kind of Gown of the same Material, or any other, that is light, thin and flimsy. The Petticoat should not be quite so long as the Child, the Gown a few Inches longer; with one Cap only on the Head, which may be made double, if it be thought not warm enough. What I mean is, that the whole Coiffure should be so contrived, that it might be put on at once, and neither bind nor press the Head at all: The Linnen as usual. This I think would be abundantly sufficient for the Day; laying aside all those Swathes, Bandages, Stays and Contrivances, that are most ridiculously used to close and keep the Head in its Place, and support the Body. As if Nature, exact Nature, had produced her chief Work, a human Creature, so carelessly unfinish’d, as to want those idle Aids to make it perfect.

Out of all the clothing that has survived over the past couple of centuries, it seems like the finer baby garments are some of the most numerous. I guess that makes sense: they possess great sentimental value, exquisite handwork, and hey – they don’t take up much space!

18th C Cap 3b

Baby cap, back view with ties.

This little cap is a classic of 18th century style. It’s made of extremely fine linen (I know it looks coarse in the photos but it’s really not) with a double brim and a narrow linen tape to draw it up to fit at the neckline. There are no ties to fasten it under the chin, nor signs that there ever were.

18th C Cap 3c

Close-up of lace and embroidery.

Even though I’ve laid a ruler across the needlework, the photo doesn’t really show just how minute the embroidery is. And the plain sewing is a staggering 48 backstitches per inch!

The pattern of buttonholed scallops and dots is very common on baby caps and shirts of this era. It also appears on the first “Little Biggin” I wrote about, although this one has tiny eyelets as well as dots. The lace is handmade, but not being a lace person, I can’t identify it. Help??

The brim is about 2 1/2 inches deep, front to back, and 11 inches from side to side. The two layers have been tacked together and the crown gathered and sandwiched between them.

18th C Cap 3d

A “closer”-up of the cap from the inside. Can you make eyelets that measure 1/16″ across? I can’t even SEE them without squinting!

I think this little “Coiffure” is so contrived that it may, indeed, meet with even Dr. Cadogan’s approval!

18th C Cap 3f

18th C Cap 3e

 

Aprons, No Strings

Apron 1854

An apron pattern, c.1850 for the 19th century layette.

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!

Apron 1A

An apron for a very small baby, made of cotton diaper by a mother who was cutting the pattern with one hand and holding the baby with the other.

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.

You can see the tiny mother of pearl buttons.

A close-up of the buttons and narrow hem.

The photo(s) are slightly underexposed because the apron is so white it's hard to see.

The photo(s) are slightly underexposed because the apron is so white it’s hard to see.

Apron 1D

The fabric is still so strong that the fold-down part in the front refuses to fold down – and I refuse to press it that way. Not a good idea for preserving old textiles!

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.

Apron 2A

This one is less like a bib and more like what we’d call a pinafore today.

Apron 2B

A view of the back to show the tape threaded through the neckline and the pretty buttonholed trim.

Apron 1854 Thumb

Little Biggin Two

18th C Cap 2a

Another 18th century baby’s cap – with frills.

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!

18th C Cap 2b

A perfect frame for a baby’s face.

The measurement around the brim, including the ruffle, is about 12 inches; the center front to the back is about 9 inches.

18th C Cap 2f

Baby’s cap with the two-part brim folded open.

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.

18th C Cap 2c

A closer view of the “plume” – and you can see the backstitched hem.

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.

18th C Cap 2e

A back view of the cap.

18th C Cap 2d

A One Stitch Wonder

Calico Full

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.

Hemming

“Simple hemming is the first step on the road to proficiency in needlework.”

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!

Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.

Calico Baby Gown, c 1815.

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.

Calico Hem

Hem.

Calico Sleeve

Casings for drawstrings.

Sleeve ruffles.

Sleeve ruffles.

Calico Back

Back opening.

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!

A Grief Preserved

Because most plain sewing items (at least those I study and collect) are white, I confess I sometimes get weary of plain white! I love the variety of early cotton prints, the charming patterns and colors. Children’s dresses from the early 1800s are a good example of garments that could be very simple to make with only plain sewing skills. In fact, there is a very early book called Instructions for Cutting Out Apparel for the Poor; Principally Intended for the Assistance of Patronesses of Sunday Schools and Other Charitable Institutions, but Useful in All Families that describes the process.

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.

John Marsden Dress

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.”