A Stitch in Time

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.:

Sewing in 1958: including tips and new ideas even for the experts!

This is just one page of many detailing stitches and seam finishes.











Five years later, another article in Vogue Sewing Book, c1963, The Butterick Company, Inc., featured the same basic stitches.

The introduction to this page gives this advice: “If it’s the custom-look you’re after, hand-stitch all details including zippers. But keep your stitches fairly loose or you’ll end up with that unhappy, puckered home-made look.”

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.

There is a label inside the book which tells me that she purchased this book of blank pages at L. B. Herr, Bookseller, Lancaster, PA.

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:

Basting stitches – three kinds!


Running and a back stitch – notice that she spells it “stich”.

All buttonholes were made by hand in 1907 – and Ethel had to learn how to make them as well.  She finally spelled “stitch” correctly – although it looks like it was struggle!

She has examples of many types of seams:

Here is a gathered seam.

And numerous sewing techniques:

Here is Ethel’s example of Honey-combing or smocking.

She even learned how to make a gusset!

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.

Here is one of my seams in my “couture dress” with the seams properly catch-stitched!

No matter what stitch you are doing – may it  look happy, unpuckered and definitely not home-made!


Filed under The Conde Nast Publications, Uncategorized, underlinings

16 responses to “A Stitch in Time

  1. Cissie

    I love handstitching, but like you, the catch stitch is one of my very favorites, tied with the fell stitch! Can’t wait to see your dress from Susan’s couture dress class!

  2. Every young girls may not be interested in learning these stitches, but who do these young girls turn to when stitching needs to be done?

    • It’s quite amazing when you realize that there are many people who can’t sew on a button or do a hem! But there seems to be a growing and widespread interest in sewing – and that’s a great thing!

  3. I learned most of my basic hand-sewing by experimenting as a kid, but apparently, I did okay with figuring it out because I’ve been complimented many times on my stitches. I didn’t learn the “catch-stitch” until my first job when the costume shop draper/cutter had everyone invisibly hem almost everything using that stitch (in theatre, people usually call it a “cross-stitch”). I wish I had had a stitch book to look at when I was a kid!

    I can’t wait to see your dress!

    • I would have loved to have had the chance to make my own “stitch book” when I was young. The emphasis was more on learning to use the sewing machine, which, of course, was equally exciting!

      • Me too! I think I was only allowed to handsew for the first year because my mom was a little afraid to let me use the machine at first. When she saw that I didn’t poke myself full of holes with a hand needle, she finally felt comfortable letting me try the “power tool”, hehe.

  4. Carol

    Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) in her book Eight Cousins (1875) writes in Chapter 16 (Bread and Buttonholes) about 13 yr. old Rose learning how to make bread and buttonholes from her great aunts.

  5. I love Ethel’s book! I have a similar one from a teen girl of the 1930s. Those skills were very valuable.

  6. I wish I could show every page from Ethel’s book – all 35 of them!

  7. What a treasure to have her sewing book. That’s awesome!!!!

  8. I was fortunate enough to be taught to sew by hand by my grandmother when I was very young (6). What I would give to have a “stich” book by my grandmother or great grandmother.. Both were very good at what they did. You are so very fortunate to have your husband’s grandmother’s book.

    • My husband’s grandmother’s stitch book could have easily been put in the trash heap, so I do, indeed, feel so fortunate to have it. I intend for one of our granddaughters to have it eventually. It is representative of a life passage that is now obsolete but which needs to be recognized and remembered as one of importance and value. Thank you for your lovely and touching comment.

  9. Linda

    How fascinating to have this! Such an example of how our times have changed…..maybe not so much for the better in terms of our ‘disposable ‘ clothes culture. Think how proud your grandmother in law would be, knowing you are sewing and cherishing this book!

    • I feel very fortunate to have this sample book. What has impressed me the most is how comprehensive it is, including stitches and techniques which are really couture in practice. Thank you for your comment, Linda!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.