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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Nourishing Juices

Diaper 1

Diaper cover, late 19th century. Plain sewing in flannel! Could those red cotton stitches be laundry marks?

There is an odd Notion enough entertained about Change, and the keeping of Children clean. Some imagine that clean Linnen and fresh Cloaths draw, and rob them of their nourishing Juices. I cannot see that they do any thing more than imbibe a little of that Moisture which their Bodies exhale. Were it as is supposed, it would be of service to them; since they are always too abundantly supplied, and therefore I think they cannot be changed too often, and would have them clean every Day; as it would free them from Stinks and Sournesses, which are not only offensive, but very prejudicial to the tender State of Infancy. – Dr. William Cadogan, 18th century author of An Essay upon Nursing

Plain sewing examples are usually cotton or linen, but here’s one of wool flannel:  a baby’s diaper (or napkin) cover. Maybe this one is similar to what Mrs. Bakewell meant in her 1836 Mother’s Practical Guide. “I cannot too strongly recommend the use of a flannel napkin over the diaper for the very young babes, when they are carried out. The chest, too, should be guarded with flannel, especially if there be any constitutional or hereditary predisposition to inflammation.” Wool, the cure for what ails you!

Instead of the herringbone stitch, this has been bound with a cotton facing and trimmed with a blanket stitch in neat scallops. Herringboning, the stitch recommended in period manuals for anchoring seams on heavy material, wouldn’t have been sufficient to secure the edges, considering the laundering required.

Diaper 2

Cotton facings, hemmed with tiny stitches.

In the days before modern heating, wool flannel was often part of a baby’s wardrobe. Although warm, it seems like wool would be awfully heavy and itchy if worn close to the skin. Maybe that’s just my modern-day sensibilities? But at least the wearer of this diaper enjoyed the relative comfort of buttons for fastening, rather than pins. And I don’t mean safety pins! Babies in earlier times weren’t always as fortunate as the owner of this diaper. Advice books often warned against pins and the possibility of terrible consequences when they pinned the baby instead of the clothing! William Buchan, writing in 1808:

It would be safer to fix on the clothes of an infant with strings than pins, as these often gall and irritate their tender skins, and occasion convulsions. Instances have been known, where pins were found sticking above half an inch into the body of a child after it had died of convulsion-fits, which, in all probability proceeded from that cause.

Diaper 3

Closeup of the button and scalloped trim. Better than straight pins, any day!

Unless the fits resulted from trying to scratch the wooly itches!

 

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

 

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

Little Biggin

 

18th C Cap 1a

18th century linen cap for a baby.

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:

18th C Cap 1b

Infant’s linen cap, lace insertion on brim.

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.

18th C Cap 1fIndeed! 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.

18th C Cap 1e

A measure to illustrate just how fine the work is – can you see the backstitching?

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.

Closeup of lace insertion on cap.

Closeup of lace insertion on cap.

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!”

18th C Cap 1d

Little ties to adjust the fit of the back.