Historical Dabbling


Old sewing books

I am not, in any way, a historical seamstress. I don’t even think of myself as a particularly “vintage” one, though I definitely have leanings in that direction (I may be in denial.) The Dreamstress I ain’t. However, back in my hometown, I have Connections. In particular, a local history site my mom has been involved with for yonks, has some antique machines that I wanted to play with. They were amenable to me playing around, and wondered was I amenable to doing a program or two on Victorian sewing? (The house, the oldest in my hometown,* does low-stress, small-scale historical programming, everything from Victorian laundry to kids games. Strictly speaking the time period is 1880s**, but they’re not particularly picky about that.)

Originally I had hoped to play around with some antique attachments on the actual machines in the house. There’s a National machine that fits this set of attachments, and a singer Model 12 that’s, frankly, a caveperson of the treadle world. Sadly, the National is missing part of the tension apparatus so isn’t currently usable (although I have hopes of fabricating a replacement piece in the longer-term), and the Model 12 needs some new needles before I can assess whether it’s skipping stitches because it’s old and gunky or whether it’s just that the needle that’s currently in it is about as thick as a tree stump and equally sharp.



Anyway, not having the treadle option, I packed up my Featherweight (which has the look and the attachments, even if it’s far from the genuine article) and set about sampling some examples of Victorian embellishment, at least as it occurs on linens and underthings. I figured my goal for the day would be making some samples and, if all went well, starting on a pair of Victorian drawers, which you can see part of in the picture above. To go with the corset I haven’t made yet, you know.

(And to those who are justifiably appalled that I, having just professed myself Not A Historical Sewist, am doing educational programs on historical sewing, well, I did know a tiny bit more than anyone else who showed up that day, and I did read about five different Victorian sewing manuals in the days leading up to the event. If a real re-enactor shows up, though, I’m sunk.)

Drawers draft

Drawers draft

It made for a lovely, low-key afternoon, anyway. I’m oddly thrilled by the experience so far. There’s a lot I could babble on about the styles, my research, and the individual techniques, but a) I didn’t take any good pictures (I did some totally killer lace insertion on a sample, doods. OK, not actually killer, but I’m stoked) and b) I have to go to bed, so I’m going to hit publish and bore you with the obsessive details some other night.

*On its original foundation, which has to be the most annoying footnote to always have to add to a “oldest X” claim.

** People reading in the many, many parts of the world where established human settlement stretches back more than a century and change, feel free to laugh your asses off.



Filed under Sewing

17 responses to “Historical Dabbling

  1. TinaD

    Lace insertion: too cool. Is this project a one-off, or will you reenact again? : love it. Another town with delusions. The Dinky Little Beach Town I currently live in has 5 flags because it was “owned” by 5 different nations/political entities. Technically, it has been a settlement since 1600 and change, but the settlers seemed unusually willing to relinquish it to any random invader (or passerby). (I’m serious. The Confederacy held it for, like, 2 days before handing it over, lock stock and barricades, to the Union navy. I’m not even sure a shot was fired.) Anything in the “historic district” predating about 1875–except the cemetery, which is full of yellow fever victims, which may explain a lot–is a reconstruction of the ruins left in the wake of hurricanes and successive waves of abandonment. (I would imagine, in 1880, our towns looked much alike, all shiny and new and cutting-edge-Victorian.)

  2. There is nothing like going to Europe to realize how young Canada is, and the prairies is just a baby compared to Quebec city even. I think it’s part of our charm, like a gangly teenager compared to a graceful woman in her 50’s who knows her own power and loves her skin.

    It sure sounds like you had a good time and it’s nice to contribute to the community.

    • Yeah, every east-coast city I’ve been to has way more history hanging around than out here.

      I must confess, I think I was expecting Europe to be all castles and fifteenth-century cottages… when I got there and discovered plenty of modern construction, I was a wee bit disappointed. But you’re right, the weight of history there is so massive.

  3. I love that you are doing historical sewing demos! I believe that you never truly know something until you have to teach it to someone else. You will learn so many new things (and retain them!) just because you are teaching others.

    And who cares if you aren’t a professional reenactor? You won’t take everything too seriously because of that, and your excitement about the subject will be the best inspiration to others! You will have the chance to get other people hooked on sewing and history! So cool!

  4. LinB

    I accompanied my husband on a business trip to Rimini, Italy. One of the Ugly Americans in our tour group spouted on and on about how long his family had been in the ascendancy in his little hometown (say, since about 1840 or so). Later, our host privately confessed his amusement at said U.A. to me, and told me, “The floor in the house where I grew up was over 2,000 years old.” I daren’t laugh at you for the relative youth of your town, as my own relatives didn’t have anything but dirt floors in their houses until about the 1900s.

    To the historical purists among us who criticize others for inaccuracies and anachronisms, I say, “Pooh, pooh!” Yes, we DO need persons who are willing to maintain eternal standards of purity and historicity; and yes, it can be annoying to notice anachronisms being committed; but it is a sin to deliberately dim the joy and enthusiasm of another human being. Better to smile quietly to oneself, and lead the next generations gently over to the side of goodness and light and (where possible) historical accuracy — in those precious few places where it even matters a whit, tra la tra la tra la.

  5. If it makes you feel any better NZ aint earlier then Canada either …. so no laughing here either!

    Very interesting books – I’d be all over them too just because they tickle my. I dunno about wearing drawers though πŸ™‚ .

    • Hehe! Some of my ancestors came to Canada from England via New Zealand (and Australia… I regularly ask myself what on earth they were thinking…)

      I promise I won’t wear the drawers except as part of a costume. Assuming they even work out, of course. πŸ˜‰

  6. lucy

    My house is one of hundreds upon hundreds of Victorian terraces in Birmingham, UK and was built around 1863… But we don’t appreciate it much most of the time! In the city centre, you have to look up over the modern shop facades to see the original buildings, with the exception of one or two nicely kept Victorian shopping arcades. And in any case, there aren’t that many really old places in Birmingham, in comparison to other places, so I wouldn’t be sniggering into a daintly embroidered antique handkerchief, either. I really like the civic pride in more recently settled places, people seem to pay more attention to local history and to know more about their family histories than we tend to bother with here a lot of the time, which is rather a shame.
    Also – did you dress up?! Surely that’s the best bit! ; )

    • You have the privilege of taking history for granted!

      I didn’t dress up period, although I did wear a slightly retro dress. I have to make my outfit first! πŸ˜‰

  7. That sounds pretty cool! I think you prepared rather well for a “not a historical seamstress” if you read three manuals. Most of the people I meet consider sewing a bit of a black art anyway, so I can imagine you knew a lot more than any of the visitors.
    And I also want to know: Did you dress up?

    Living in the Netherlands, I do laugh at the “oldest building” being from the 1880’s… But I don’t know any old places near me where they take the effort of dressing up and/or reenacting, so who should be laughing? πŸ˜‰

    • I wore my picnic dress, kinda retro but definitely not 1880s. I will dress up once I’ve made the clothes to do it! (I do have some pieces that would be vaguely appropriate but they were all too hot to contemplate wearing, since summer has finally, belatedly, arrived around here.

  8. Gem

    This reminds me of when my American friend in the UK needed to know how old her house was for her insurance. I said Victorian and estimated 50s; she assumed I meant 1950s as all houses where she’s from are reproduction. She’s never been allowed to live it down πŸ™‚ I always forget that some countries don’t have as long histories, we tend to take it for granted

    • Haha! She just skipped over the “Victorian” part. Funny, I could peg most of the houses in town to within a decade or so, but I’d have no clue how to distinguish different phases of Victorian… (Even though founded in the 1880s, the city didn’t really boom until the 1910s, when they finally developed a strain of wheat that grew fast enough to farm here reliably.)

  9. Pingback: Wrestling with a New Family | Tanit-Isis Sews

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