I’ve been doing a lot of hand stitching as I work my way through “The Couture Dress” online class on Craftsy. It’s mostly been basting (and more basting and even more basting) so far, but I’m now in the “catch-stitch” phase (controlling the raw edges), and that’s always been one of my favorite stitches to do. All this hand stitching got me thinking about how I learned to do certain stitches – and I think I just taught myself by following directions on pattern instructions and from diagrams in sewing books and magazines. There were lots of articles on perfecting one’s hand stitches when I was growing up, such as this representative page from Vogue Sewing Book, c1958, The Conde Nast Publications, Inc.:
Five years later, another article in Vogue Sewing Book, c1963, The Butterick Company, Inc., featured the same basic stitches.
It seems there can never be too much of a good thing, as evidenced by a February/March 2008 article in Threads magazine, by Kenneth D. King, entitled “Master the Hand Stitch: Learn the fine, invisible stitches that are the hallmarks of couture sewing.” This article is especially informative, with photographs and expert tips, all of which serve the modern amateur dressmaker so well.
So – how did our grandmothers and great-grandmothers learn the stitches and sewing techniques that are so readily available to us? Many of them made their own sewing/stitching “example” books in “finishing school”. My husband’s grandmother was one such young woman. I am so fortunate that her “Sewing” book, dated November 1, 1907, is in my possession now. She would have been fourteen years old in late 1907.
Ethel filled her book with 35 pages of examples of stitches, types of seams, and sewing techniques. Every example was made by her, with a brief description in her handwriting. Here are a few pages from her remarkable book (click on the photos to see them up close).
Some of the stitches represented are:
She has examples of many types of seams:
And numerous sewing techniques:
Although Ethel died before I had the opportunity to meet her, I understand that she was not a particularly great fan of sewing, but nevertheless, she thought enough of her sewing book to save it. In learning her “stiches”, she was quite clearly carrying on a tradition that generations before her had also done. Consider this quote from Catherine E. Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1843: “Every young girl should be taught to do the following kinds of stitch, with propriety [my emphasis]. Overstitch, hemming, running, felling, stitching, back-stitch and run, button-stitch, chain-stitch, whipping, darning, gathering and cross-stitch.”
Although I know not every young girl now would be interested in learning such things – I suspect there are lots who would proudly make their own “sewing” book if given the opportunity. (Maybe without the darning stitch – does anybody darn anymore?)
One interesting omission in Ethel’s book: that catch stitch I like to do so much.
No matter what stitch you are doing – may it look happy, unpuckered and definitely not home-made!