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Old-time dresses offered little comfort

SEAMSTRESS LEE ROSE, modeling a dress similar to those worn during Colonial times, spoke about clothing of that period at a recent meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Rose explained that Colonial women typically had one outfit that included many layers and multiple pieces. All sewing was done by hand with five to nine stitches per inch. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

SEAMSTRESS LEE ROSE, modeling a dress similar to those worn during Colonial times, spoke about clothing of that period at a recent meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Rose explained that Colonial women typically had one outfit that included many layers and multiple pieces. All sewing was done by hand with five to nine stitches per inch. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By SARA ARTHURS
Staff Writer
Acquiring clothing today is fairly easy, but in Colonial times making clothing was a time-intensive process.
Seamstress Lee Rose gave a presentation on Colonial clothing construction at Wednesday’s meeting of the Fort Findlay chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, held at the Hancock Historical Museum.
While most women today have a full closet of clothes, in Colonial days the average person had one outfit, Rose said. This included layers and multiple pieces: women’s and girls’ outfits could include a shift, stockings, shoes, stays, one or two pockets, hoops or an underpetticoat, a gown petticoat intended to be visible, gown, stomacher, cap, mitts and apron, Rose said.
The stays forced a woman to stand up straight.
“You can’t slouch,” Rose said.
She said women pulled in their stomachs and the fashion of the day was a small waist but big hips.
“Men wanted that small waist too,” she said.
She said clothing was not made with pockets the way it is now. Instead, a small, separate pocket was hooked to the clothing.
Rose said those present at the DAR meeting who know how to sew would find Colonial sewing “all different.”
For example, Colonial seamstresses would not cut fabric on the bias.
“They would cut it straight,” she said.
Rose said sewing machines became available to the public in 1858. But the Civil War started shortly afterward and metal had to be used for war-related purposes rather than to make sewing machines. In addition, a sewing machine would have cost $50 to $150 in the 19th century, “a lot of money back then.”
In Colonial times all sewing was done by hand.
Rose said it was an “exciting” time in clothing due to the Industrial Revolution. Before the 1750s to 1770s, cloth was made in the home, but about that time it became possible to spin thread and make cloth by machine. However, Rose said many factories that used a steam-powered “spinning mule” to make their cloth would, because smaller workers were most desirable, use child labor. Many children were killed and maimed by these machines, she said.
Until about 1790, most fabric came from overseas and in particular from England. Of course, during the Revolutionary War the Colonies were at war with England, making it hard to get cloth. At the same time, the United States was England’s primary cotton supplier. Cotton at the time was expensive since it was difficult to spin or weave without the threads breaking, Rose said. Linen, now a more expensive cloth, was cheaper at the time. Also silk, imported from China, was relatively cheap, she said.
When making clothing the seamstresses would use “every scrap they could,” Rose said. When one gown became too worn, it would be used for the lining of another gown or the inside of a quilt but would never just be thrown away, she said.
Everyone wore a shift under their clothing as underwear, Rose said.
With the gown petticoat, only the front would be seen, so often the front was embroidered while the back was left plain, Rose said.
There were no zippers back then and elastic wasn’t invented until 1820 and wasn’t used in garments until 1870. Rose said nineteenth-century women, despite wearing corsets, would think of elastic as too “constricting.”
Buttons were expensive, Rose said. Seamstresses could make handmade cloth buttons and there were some metal ones available. She passed around some handmade buttons carved out of antler. Shell was also used, she said. There were also pins and a type of hook and eye.
Attention was paid to where the buttons were placed. A button in the front of a man’s pair of trousers was considered provocative as it would draw the eyes there, Rose said.
Pinking, a zigzag cut that helps prevent cloth from fraying, was done with a pinking iron and a hammer, a “labor-intensive” process that took many hours.
Rose had attendees at the DAR meeting practice sewing, using a modern needle and thread but trying to get as many stitches per inch as the Colonial seamstresses would have, five to nine stitches per inch with a running stitch or 11 to 15 with a back stitch. She asked those present to imagine doing this with a handmade needle and hand-spun thread.
To illustrate how time-consuming it was to make clothing, Rose said Marie Antoinette was said to have had 100 seamstresses in her employ, a figure that did not count weavers and spinners.
Hair was seldom washed and often had lice, so people would wear hats. Generally there would be a small cap with a larger hat over it.
Rose said the two major causes of death for women in the era were childbirth and fire. Wearing a long dress and cooking over an open fire was dangerous. She said the dresses were designed so they could be tied back with ribbon.
Houses were heated by fireplaces but anyone sitting anywhere but near the fire would be cold, so it was the norm to wear fingerless gloves known as “mitts,” Rose said. She said people today use similar gloves for texting.
Printing fabric was difficult and expensive. However, fabric might be hand painted.
Garments were expensive and would be left from one family member to another in a will, Rose said.
Rose will speak to a DAR group in Fostoria on May 1.
Arthurs: 419-427-8494 Send an E-mail to Sara Arthurs

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