When my grandmother took her high school sewing class in the early 1900s, she was learning necessary hand sewing skills to make and repair her limited wardrobe of the times. Lessons on patching, invisible darning, decorative hemming, fashioning a work bag and more filled her school journal.

1900s McCalls Pattern
1960s McCalls Pattern

When I took Home Economics in the 1960s, I was sewing for fun, making culottes, sundresses, pantsuits – even a pair of ruffled “jellies” to go with my bathing suit!

Here’s a photo of my Mom and I in the parking lot of the Indiana University Memorial Stadium one fall Saturday in 1969, my senior year in high school. I’m wearing a pale grey & light blue wool plaid jacket (fully lined & with inset pockets, I might add…) that I made in Home Ec. It took forever to match the plaid at every seam! So I did create many pieces in my wardrobe, just not out of necessity.

Isabelle’s journal begins with seven “Rules for Sewing,” and continues for seven more pages. Strict! After reading number 6 (“Never put pins, thread or needles in the mouth”), I’m pretty sure she would take issue with some of my “techniques”…

Many pages are filled with notes on a variety of subjects – cotton, flax, silk, wool, needles, emery (for sharpening needles), thimbles, scissors, and buttons. Did you know, “About the fourteenth century buttons were first used as ornaments, but later a button with a shank was introduced, making it useful as a fastener.” Or, “Thimbles were originally called thumb bells having first been worn on the thumb.”

My Aunt Jane gave me her mother’s sewing journal when I was in junior high taking my first sewing class. Toward the back of the journal, there are several pages with small work samples and descriptions of specifications and techniques my grandmother used in her processes. I was fascinated with these pages! My absolute favorite was “Apron No. 7” – a small, intricately hand sewn doll apron. Tiny tucks, open work and Swiss embroidery! If it hadn’t been stapled to the page, I’m sure my Barbie would have worn it…

Here are the other project samples included in the journal.

Basting Model No. 1
Work Bag No. 2
Tape Model No. 3
Catch and Feather Stitch No. 4
Flannel Patch
Cashmere Model (with “Invisible Darning”)

In between the pages of the journal, I found a folded copy of a Royal Society advertisement. In addition to ads for their instruction books, and a description of their quality materials, seventeen embroidery stitches are illustrated for easy reference.

Project “No. 4 Corset Cover” intrigued me. More necessity sewing for the appropriately modest young lady in the early part of the 20th century – and there were eleven pages of notes on how to make one! We would call the garment a camisole today, but here’s a pattern folder of the day.

If you’re interested in beautiful vintage clothing, check out Forty Treasures‘ etsy shop. Here’s a photo of a 1900s corset cover from their online store.

If you’re interested in the clothing fabrication process and what it would have been like to work with the actual patterns of bygone times, you might enjoy Angela Clayton’s YouTube series Sewing through the Decades. Here’s a video of Angela making a 1908 skirt pattern. Truly, those old patterns were a lot trickier than the ones we have today!

Even though my grandmother’s sewing was primarily out of necessity, the artistic way she stitched showed not only her skill, but her love of fine hand sewing. Her journal is an incredibly special treasure and a life-long inspiration to me. Check out some of her beautiful ribbon embroidery in my post I Have a Thing for Embroidery.

Note about the blue & white quilt background in several photos.
When my Aunt Jane passed away in 2013, my cousin John gave me a quilt top made by our grandmother, Isabelle. The top was completed, but the quilt was never finished. I’m not sure how it was stored, but it was badly stained. On the recommendation of Margie Auxier of Madison, Indiana’s Margie’s Country Store, I treated the top with Retro Clean. Because the dark blue fabric would probably bleed (and it did), I also used Shout Color Catcher to prevent the blue from staining the ecru colored blocks. I was amazed and thrilled to see the beautiful results! I chose “historic collection” backing & binding to complement the vintage fabric of the quilt top, and Quilters Garden in Lawrenceburg, Indiana finished the quilt for me in 2015.

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One thing that makes my journey unique is that all of my interests are driven by a joyful and genuine curiosity. I delight in finding less expensive ways to make something or creative ways to enjoy something longer. Finding and creating joy - and sharing it - is core to who I am.