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personalized history of sewing articles

kathyc | Posted in Talk With Us on

I’d be interested in reading articles, personal stories, about the history of sewing. It is incredible to me how women (mainly women I think, though probably a few men too) in the past sewed virtually all their family’s clothing and household articles with limited resources and primitive equipment.

I think of my mom (who did not sew) telling me about her mom who sewed all their family’s clothing on a treadle machine along with some hand sewing. She said her mom could just look at a dress in a store window and go home and sew it, making her own patterns out of aluminum foil. My mom and I were in awe of that kind of talent and resourcefulness (those genes apparently didn’t get passed on to us.)

My mother-in-law told me about her grandmother who was a professional traveling seamstress. She would go stay in the homes of well-to-do families and sew up entire new wardrobes for them while she was there. I had never heard of this practice and was fascinated.

Once when I was visiting a fabric store, a very old lady came in to buy supplies and started talking about how she never did trust these new-fangled sewing machines. She still sewed everything by hand!

I’d love to read articles along these lines. How people used their sewing skills to get through the tough times of the Depression and World War II, or any other tough time.

How they came by those advanced sewing skills in the first place. Those old patterns look HARD! Especially considering they didn’t have modern equipment.

I hope I’m not the only one interested in this type of thing since I’d like to read those kinds of stories more.


  1. carolfresia | | #1

    We love these stories, too, and are delighted that so many of our readers choose to share them with us through submissions for the "Closures" department. Unfortunately, though, we can publish only 6 of those a year, so we don't get the chance to share them all with you. However, if you'd like to start a discussion thread on this here in Gatherings, that would be great--I think we'd all enjoy reading the stories.


  2. User avater
    Simply2Dev | | #2

    Articles like that would be terrific. My grandmother, too, was one of those remarkable ladies who could just look at something and go home and replicate it - IN THE CORRECT SIZE! I can't do that when I have a pattern and measurements!

    1. carolfresia | | #3

      See, I always thought that skill was a myth. Can anyone tell me how to do it??!!


      1. becksnyc | | #4

        I've met alot of women from the Carribean islands that can whip up a garment without a pattern.  These gals have moxie!  Can we find one of these talented ladies, and interview them?

        Patterns have spoiled us, giving us simple access to a predetermined "look", but they've taken away from us many a creative opportunity and the confidence that comes from a "risk" rewarded by a successful garment. 

        On the subject of ideas for articles, why not interview someone who sews for Broadway plays or professional ballroom dancers?  I am fascinated by the way these gorgeous costumes hold up to such rigorous wear!  Surely there is something useful in the way these costumes are designed/sewn for the average sewer? 

        I'd also love to know how they manipulate the fabric with paint, etc, to get so many amazing visual effects.


        1. FitnessNut | | #5

          Yes, yes and yes! You have wonderful ideas here! Please listen, Threads.

          BTW, welcome back, Becks. Nice to hear from you again. We've been wondering where you have been.


          1. becksnyc | | #12

            Thanks for the welcome back!  I've been lurking from time to time, but being asked my opinions on Threads was irresistable!

          2. FitnessNut | | #13

            *Large grin*


            PS I've been restraining myself lately......

        2. Elisabeth | | #7

          Those ballroom dance gowns are pretty amazing, aren't they!  I took lessons at a studio for some years and we had shows and went to amateur competitions.  Most of the ladies rented gowns from a professional ballroom dress maker for about $100 per dress.  I thought is was rather wasteful to spend that kind of money on a dress I would never see again so I made a few after studying the rented ones.  Basically they are leotards with skirts.  Heavy duty lycra, sometimes two layers.  And some of them weighed a ton if you can believe that after seeing the ladies dance so lightly!  I like the lighter ones and the one I liked best that I made had a charmeuse skirt. 

          The most fun sewing "trick" that I picked up from my gown study was putting 100 lb. fishing line in a hem for a wonderful fluted effect.  I will use that again somewhere.  (The guys at the fishing store didn't know what to say when I told them what I wanted 30 yards of line for!)  E.     

          1. rjf | | #8

            "The most fun sewing "trick" that I picked up from my gown study was putting 100 lb. fishing line in a hem for a wonderful fluted effect."

            How did you do that?  Was the fabric stretched around it?  It doesn't sound as if you sewed with it. 

            Those dresses are mind-boggling!  Once in awhile I see the contest from New York (I forget which newspaper sponsors it).  The designers are very clever about making the back really interesting and pretty.  No wonder little girls like dress-up.      rjf 

          2. Elisabeth | | #9

            It really is the ultimate in dress up play!  Lots of fun.

            The hem was the edge of a triple full circle in one layer so a nice big curve which helped create the fluting.  I did sew it, I folded the hem maybe 3/4" over the fising line tucking the line into the fold.  Then I zigzagged over the fishingline edge going outside the edge of the fabric on one side.  I used a presser foot with a channel that would give the line space to pass underneath.  Then I trimmed off the excess hem fabric close to the zigzag stitch.

            It is not the prettiest hem to look at up close but it's not bad and it hides the fishing line.  I found that the ballgowns were often made with simple techniques that looked good out on the floor dancing and not so couture and clean up close.   

          3. rjf | | #10

            A TRIPLE circle skirt?  Wow!  Did you put it on there or did you try to get it all tucked into a front seat?  No....you wouldn't want to wrinkle it.  Do you have pictures to post?    rjf

          4. Elisabeth | | #15

            Here is patient old Matilda modeling my ballroom dress.  Usually the bodices have a crazy number of rhinestones glued on but I took the bargain route with sequin braid.  The skirt "spins" well, I'm sorry I can't find my dress-in-motion pictures, they were packed for moving and I can't think of where now.  The hem would probably look neater if done with a serger but I don't have one and out on the dance floor it is not really noticable.E.

          5. rjf | | #16

            Oh boy!  That's gorgeous!  Love the color and thanks for the close-up of the hem.  You didn't get whiplash from the fishing line, did you?  If you find the dancing pictures, please post some.  I'd love to see them.  The back is great with the teeny straps.  Most elegant!  I've always wondered whether anyone has trouble with those dresses and loses a strap at the wrong time or gets the skirt caught in something.  It must be hard to keep concentrating on the dance if you're worrying about the dress holding up.       rjf

          6. FitnessNut | | #17

            Lovely work. I bet it is a dream to dance in that skirt ;-)

            One question for you, now that I think of it. I understand that ballroom dresses are very sturdy. Tell us about the construction of the bodice, please. I'm sure it would be enlightening to hear what goes into it.


          7. Elisabeth | | #18

            Thanks!  Yes, dancing in a cloud of charmeuse is rather nice.

            The bodices are generally made of something stretchy.  Mine is a medium weight lycra with a lace overlay for interest sewn as one layer with elastic sewn around the arm/back.  The straps are lycra.  Often the lycra is a heavier weight that will support a heavier skirt.  Usually the dance pants, matching lycra, are sewn to the bodice so that one needs to step into the dress.  I didn't attach mine but it would be better because it holds the bodice to the body nicely all the way to where the skirt is attached.

            Most gowns have some sort of bra support sewn in.  Zippers are preferably metal, they are under stretch stress and zipper failure on the dance floor is not a good idea.  Some dresses are more like leotards without zippers and you just pull them on.  Hooks and eyes are strong and big and can be in pairs turned opposite ways for extra security.  Skin colored stretch illusion or translucent lycra (glistenet?) is used sometimes to create the illusion of a lower cut.  What appears as a pretty decollete at a distance is most likely a gown with high necked skin tone insert back and front. 

            There is a difference between International dance style and American dance style dresses too.  In the International style the dance couple stays pretty much glued together and in American the partners separate for spins and things.  My dress is American style, hence the full skirt that moves in a turn.  International dresses are still full but the design tends towards fullness a little lower just creating room for big steps. 

            This was all a few years ago.  Now you are renewing my interest, I think I will go see the fresh styles in the ballroom world for this year.  E.

          8. FitnessNut | | #19

            Thanks for all the information. Obviously there is much more to these dance dresses than meets the eye. I've often watched the competitions on television and wondered about the technical aspects of the costumes. You've done a terrific job on yours. Are you still dancing?


          9. bellefille | | #21

            I took a class that Baby Lock does in different locations to demonstrate the different feet you can get for their sergers.  The fishing line technique was shown using a white gauzy fabric, and the implication was that it would make a lovely bottom to a long wedding veil.

            Linda 03052

          10. carolfresia | | #20

            I always wondered why costume-type dresses for dance had metal zippers, which seem so cold and scratchy. Makes sense that they're stronger and can handle the stress better.


          11. GoodFibrations | | #14

            I have applied 100 lb fishing line to hems by serging a rolled hem over it. I fed the line with the fashion fabric through the serger (some practice is helpful).  By using WoolyNylon thread, the line becomes invisible and the hem looks great.

            Edited 3/17/2004 4:58 pm ET by vsewz

          12. becksnyc | | #11

            Thanks for the inside scoop--fishing line!?  That's really clever!


      2. rjf | | #6

        It's in the genes.    rjf

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