Great Leap Backwards: Vintage Home-Sewing Techniques

I’m obsessed with the 30’s at the moment.  Art Deco style haunts me by night, I’ve been sleeping with a little moleskin by the bed for those moments when I wake up dreaming of the perfect piping position to set off architectural lines of a garment or with an insight how to alter a pattern without compromising the integrity of the style.

I approach patterns from the era as an intellectual puzzle- instructions are vague and sparse at best.  The surviving instructions strike me as arcane and counter-intuitive. Yet a few years later, in the 1940’s, patterns and methods become simpler.  It nearly takes place overnight, anyone who sews from both times can attest.  The cut is in some ways less imaginative for a 40’s frock than one from the 30’s.  Additionally,  while 1940’s instructions assume some sewing knowledge on the part of the sewist, the construction goes forward in a straight-forwad way.  Since the first time I picked up a 1930’s pattern (about a year ago), I keep asking myself “Why?”.  Why such a change in clothes, why the change in patterns and the instructions?  I thought perhaps I was over-thinking, but every new 30’s pattern I work with is that way, and the 40’s are very different.

I think I have connected the dots to answer that question.

Of course, the War comes into play.  I’ll come back to that.  But why not start with a 1930’s tailoring manual:


“Time was when the word tailoring called to mind heavy, woolen materials and heavy-appearing seams and finishes. But today, silks, lawns, dimities, and even voiles and Georgettes, have tailored seams and edges, so that tailoring, as it is known now, is one of the vital parts of dressmaking.
This book treats of the subject of tailoring in its broad, present-day meaning…

Tailoring is one of the foremost of the sewing arts, because more than two-thirds of the garments worn require some form of tailoring. It really is a recognized trade followed by many hundreds of people, men especially. Time, patience, and a knowledge of both garment construction and materials are essential in one’s training for tailoring.

Until about a half century ago, many materials were of a very heavy quality, so that much care had to be given to their assembling, basting, steaming, and pressing to obtain good-looking results. Today, with the weaver’s art so perfected that exquisite fabrics are offered on all sides, very inexpensively priced in proportion to quality, the responsibility is reversed. Now, one needs not so much to beautify the fabric by careful sewing as to do justice to its beauty by sewing it as perfectly as possible…

Many persons, in thinking of tailoring, think only of suits with padding and heavy seams, braid-trimmed skirts, and linings throughout. But today, one tailors a silk, machine-made blouse, a sports skirt, or a simple frock of linen or flannel. Sheer materials, fine silks, and laces are generally reserved for lingerie sewing or dressmaking, but all other moderately firm fabrics that require the friendship of sponge cloth and iron and that demand basting and straight, perfect stitching, may safely be classed with tailoring materials.” (emphasis mine)

I find this revelatory; this introductory passage sheds a great deal of light on the home-sewing techniques discrepancy I noticed.  It also informs my own sewing technique: I am a novice tailor more than a dressmaker.  I always associated tailoring with suits and coats.  This will change how I approach patterns and my own personal style in the future.  Don’t you just love understanding yourself a little better?  (“Know Thyself,” and “Nothing to Excess,” sayings of Delphi)

(From What I Found’s series on Paris Frocks)

Back to vintage home-sewers.   From reading books like the tailoring manual above and the Paris Frocks manual, as well as from my own experience working with patterns, it seems to me that the sewists of the 1930’s were into sewing for the same reason I sew- quality of the finished garment, perfect fit, and stylistic control.

How many of us complacently viewed our perfectly adequate and good-looking clothes line in our dress closet some months ago and felt reasonably content? Then what happened? Fashions changed—seemingly over night. …all these perfectly wearable and hitherto undeniably chic clothes suddenly became discards.

But suppose our budget didn’t permit of wholesale discards—and most of us have that kind of budget—what then? We shopped, hopefully, to see what we could do to rejuvenate the discouraged wardrobe. We tried on the new dresses. Did they fit? No, they didn’t, and we looked like somebody else whom we had seen in bad dreams but never in real life.

The dresses had waistlines, but not where we had ours. They had moulded hips which failed to mould ours. They had long dipping hemlines which dipped excruciatingly. Moreover, as we surveyed the series of calamities, we realized that that dress couldn’t be made to really look, even with dollars worth of fitting, like our very own dress.” (Paris Frocks, Lesson 1)

I have been there.  Have you?  Exactly that experience clinched my decision to sew 100% of my own clothes.  Paris Frocks continues:


“Confronted with this situation, most really smart women repair to a dressmaker with a reputation and a collection of chic models. The dressmaker and madame go into consultation, in fact many consultations, for really smart women have a very great deal to say about just how they wish their clothes made. Even if M. Poiret or someone equally gifted is their couturier, the best dressed women like to select their own materials… After all, we women know more of the real truth about our build than anyone else. We have certainly looked at ourselves more often. {certainly}

Most of us, however, cannot {afford to} patronize the French couturiers or their American contemporaries. The only sure way for us to dress individually is to make our own clothes.

What must we have to do this? A good range of fabrics from which to choose our own individual one, a good pattern with clear cutting, fitting and sewing directions, a sewing machine, intelligence and common sense, some patience, and above all, the spirit of adventure.

You know on the face of it, that with these aids you can have a much better costume for fifteen dollars than you could buy for thirty-nine fifty, and it will be your dress. Mrs. Lady-Next-Door cannot possibly have it too.

…You do not have to be an expert. The manufacturer who produced your pattern is one. If you do as he tells you, using your own good judgment, you will be thoroughly well turned out in the best type of custom-made attire.

Your new costume is expressed and expresses you in your favorite color, your best lines and your most coveted fabric. Has that ever happened to you in a “ready-made”? Somewhere among these things there was a compromise, I’m sure.” (Paris Frocks, Lesson 1, with some notes in {} by me.)

My own personal taste is more expensive than my pocket book (not to mention a little more eccentric than the norm).  I strive for fine finishes, classic or interesting cuts, and fine details which are the hallmark of designer RTW.   I get the feeling from reading and working with patterns that the same might be said of these 30’s seamstresses who came before.

People sew for many reasons, and those reasons vary depending on the individual and also on the society in which they live.   The 30’s followed the 20’s, which is a decade notorious for its excesses, including the mercurial temperament of fashion.  The 20’s saw disposable fashion (neither for the first nor last time) – you can pick this up from looking at the dresses year by year.  Hemlines, silhouettes, and waistlines change so quickly you would need a new wardrobe almost every season.  This becomes especially noticeable towards the end of the decade.

 (Check out Pauline Weston Thomas’ website.  She does a great job.)

Then came the crash.  Many people found they couldn’t afford “fashionable” clothes anymore, and some must have turned to sewing for themselves in order to maintain their aesthetic taste.  Perhaps the educated post-20’s generation found themselves a little under-employed- working in lower level jobs than their education prepared them for, or not working enough hours.  This leaves a potentially well-educated, intelligent person with some discriminating sartorial taste and excesses of time to pursue clothing construction as a way to dress very well for less money.  The same person probably also welcomed the occupational aspect of carefully tailoring their clothes.

This sounds very familiar to me.  Perhaps I project, perhaps not.  At any rate, I know this is a common modern reason to sew.  Empty pockets, discriminating taste.

Yes, I generalize.  I don’t pretend to construct a universal version of the 30’s.  I’m thinking about people like me taking up the same type of sewing I do for the same reasons I did and doing it in enough numbers that traces of their movement shows through books, patterns, and fashions.   You must generalize to be able to examine the bigger picture.  I think it is fascinating.

This is all well and fine, but what about the change between sewing in the 30’s and sewing in the 40’s?

The war and rationing.  Susannah provided the missing piece of my puzzle with her excellent post of rationing primary-source material she dug out of the Parliament archives.  Thank you!  You made my day!

With the war, people snapped to attention.  Most men went to fight, the women made sure the country kept running.  Everyone had something to do, somewhere to go, not enough time and their clothing choices were severely limited by rationing.  Of course!  Eureka!  That’s why I noticed such a sharp change in a short time on pattern instructions.  People needed tough, simple, utilitarian clothes- the hallmarks of 40’s fashion and why we love the era.   Many of the frills and tailored lines so dear to the 30’s had to give way.  Susannah said

“The government’s intention was to prevent labor and materials from being diverted to the civilian clothing industry. On the other hand, home seamstresses could make whatever they wanted if they could find the fabric and time.”  (emphasis mine)

Exactly! They usually could find neither fabric, nor time.  I frequently run across wistful WW2 references to the better fabrics available before the war.   I always thought of the 30’s universally as a dark time of want, but I am slowly changing my ideas.  My first quote above talks about fine, inexpensive fabrics widely available.

Consider Brideshead Revisited (my current before bedtime read)- a story about the 20’s and 30’s written from the perspective of wartime Britain.  The author, Evelyn Waugh, describes how a minor injury and sympathetic commanding officer afforded him a chance to write in the middle of the war:


“It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster- the period of soya beans and basic English- and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful…But it would be impossible to bring it up to date without totally destroying it.  It is offered to the younger generation of readers as a souvenir of the Second World War rather than of the twenties or of the thirties, with which it ostensibly deals.” (Brideshead Revisted, Penguin Books, Preface)

It was a stark, lean time.  Consider that in the 40’s, even if you had the time and fabric stash to sew your own clothes, the simple fact that most people wore tough, simple clothes would dictate you must as well.  To wear something extravagantly tailored or flowing or time-consuming subtly implied waste- waste of resources and waste of time when everyone had to pitch in for the country. Before the war, inexpensive fabric and underemployment fostered these arts.  But in wartime,  such sewing could be viewed as unpatriotic.  No one wants to be unpatriotic in wartime.

 (Trick of the 40’s- simplicity, nothing extra, yet attractive.  Notice emphasis on good grooming to lend prettiness and polish to your person, rather than through the actual clothes you wear.)

I think it is very interesting.  Clothes, fibres, styles from the past deepen my understanding of history.  Literature, film, and happenings of the time show up in sharper focus, brighter color in my mind through creating the fashions in which all those things happened.

The ability of regular people to handle difficult, frustrating times in a gracious manner (though dressing well and living as gracefully as means allow) draws me to the 1930’s.  People could be poor in money without being poor in taste.  If you could make just one coat, you made it to the very best of your abilities, and you made it to last for years.  But you also made it beautiful through details and drape.  This works out as an investment in the future: in subsequent winters your funds may be diverted to other necessities; the coat issue would not trouble you.  I rather like that philosophy towards clothes.


2 comments

  1. Wow, such an interesting meditation on how historical conditions play out in something as seemingly simple as the cut of a coat. I knew the lines of the 1940s emphasized simplicity and durability, but I didn't know what a contrast it was with what went before until I started to notice how sophisticated the cut of some 1930s clothing was — mostly thanks to your posts on your coat and the New Vintage Lady's blog. Stay tuned for the austerity restrictions on men's clothing, which were far more controversial and changed the silhouette of the male suit definitively. Talk about a line in the sand.Other random thoughts: During WW2, the well-to-do in the UK, male and female, often turned to their tailors to make their forces uniforms especially for them. (Well, we don't want to die in badly cut clothes.)It has been said that the austerity years, by simplifying clothing so drastically and eliminating frou-frou, provided a greater awareness of the basic principles of cut, line and color among the British population at large. And finally, you're right about the emphasis on grooming — since I've been on the ration, because I can't buy new clothes, I've been scrambling to prettify myself using grooming and accessories… which in turn makes me gravitate towards simpler clothing.Good stuff!


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