I learned how to use a sewing machine as a kid, but never had any desire to sew by hand. It was cumbersome and slow and too hard to make even stitches. I always wanted sewing to go faster than it did, even with a machine. I would try to cut corners which usually led to mistakes and frustration. It wasn’t until I took a class at FIT in Manhattan a few years ago that I learned to enjoy the process of cutting out the pieces, and ironing seams as the project progressed. I learned that it isn’t about finishing quickly, but enjoying each step along the way.
More and more, every time I go to sew something on my machine, I think about what it would take to sew it by hand. Not only that, but I have an urge to try. Ideally I’d work my way up to sewing an entire outfit by hand; probably a dress or skirt and shirt. I’m considering doing it, and making it the subject of this blog for as long as it takes to complete. That or setting aside a chunk of time, say six months or a year, in which to do the project from start to finish.
The other day I did a little research online about pre-sewing machine clothing construction (basically pre 1850-ish). Nowhere in what I found on line was pattern making mentioned. There are a lot of mentions of the first pre-printed dress patterns, the earliest of which showed up in ladies magazines in the mid 1850′s. Prior to that? All I found was one blog that reminded readers that bodies were made to fit the clothes (through corsets, etc) and not the other way around. But there must have been patterns, even so. Part of the project for me will be delving into the history of hand-sewn clothing from colonial times to the advent of the sewing machine.
I remember my grandmother (the grandmother for whom this blog is named because she always called green bell peppers “mangoes”) telling me that her mother was an accomplished seamstress and that she often sewed clothes by hand, even after purchasing a treadle Singer. I find this remarkable, given the types of dresses and petticoats women wore. What is not remarkable is that, unless they were quite wealthy, people generally owned two outfits; one for every day and one for “good”. Think about it – how many outfits would you have in your closet if you had to sew them by hand? And if you are a woman, you’d be sewing not only your own clothes but the clothes for your husband and all of your children. No wonder girls learned to sew almost before they could walk, and often learned their letters by sewing a “sampler” where they would practice various stitches. Sewing by hand was not a creative diversion but a necessary survival skill.
For me this is going to be a cathartic, fun, somewhat romantic project. If the clothes don’t turn out well it won’t adversely affect my ability to be seen in public. If they do turn out well, it will be more than satisfying. In either case, I imagine I will learn a lot and gain a greater appreciation of the skill of my ancestors.