Old sewing manuals are fascinating to me. People have been sewing clothes forever, and writing about the process for just as long, and I’ve always loved the way sitting at my sewing machine makes me feel connected to my mother, aunts, grandmother, great-aunts, and all the generations of women who have gone before, making clothes for themselves all the way. Through vintage sewing guides, I can peer back and see exactly how things worked out, back then.
And often I find that very little has changed. One of my favorites is The New Butterick Dressmaker, published in 1927. As I read the introduction, written by Jacques Worth, of Paris’s “House of Worth”, I am struck by how accurate it is to me, 85 years later, embarking on my “make all my own clothing” wardrobe project.
It is, as suits its time, both patronizing and stuffy. But it’s also charming in how many similarities there are from one generation to the next of the work (and industry’s view) of “women who make clothes”. I’ll excerpt the best parts for you, here:
I have been asked to write out of my experience in making smart clothes for women something that would be helpful and illuminating to women who want to make smart clothes for themselves. The world is always seeking a formula–for happiness, for making gold from base metals, for getting thin on sweets and cream sauces, for youth, for chic. Here, at last, is something tangible, for one can at least lay down certain rules by which chic may be attained.
There was a time when interest in clothes was supposed to be the sign of a silly woman. To-day it is the woman of supreme intelligence who is well dressed. There are as many lines of character in your clothes as in the palm of your left hand. It takes intelligence to study and keep yourself so well informed that you can choose the superlatively good things that you need each season. It takes character to buy nothing else, to forego charming but unnecessary, unsuitable and inappropriate things. It takes energy an foresight to keep your clothes neat, fresh, and orderly…American women are making a study of their homes and are learning to cultivate their gardens…the time will come when the cultivation of your appearance and decorative qualities will be considered an unescapable part of your business and social obligations.
This book will be read only by women who make clothes, and since making clothes is half of my business–the other half is designing them–I can give you the formula for success. The smart style. The new material in an unimpeachable quality. The chic color. Perfect workmanship.
The choice of style…depends on your own capacity for study, observation, and a perfect understanding of your personal needs, both physical and social…The new material is as important as the new style. A shoddy material makes a shoddy costume. The wrong material–one that is too heavy or too flimsy, too soft or too stiff, one that won’t drape where drapery is required, one that won’t plait where plaits are needed, a material, in short, that will not give exactly the right expression to the particular style you are using–will ruin it utterly.
In choosing the chic color you must rely on your own study of the latest fashion news and your choice must depend on what is new, what is suitable, and what is becoming. Black, which is almost always smart in town, is never chic in the country…Color is as complicated a matter as style. It requires constant study, for it not only changes each season but you and your make-up and your physique are changing, too.
I put workmanship last, not because it is the least important, but because it follows logically the choice of style, material and color. Some one asked me once what made a French dress French. At the moment I had a frock over my arm. “This,” I said, and turned it inside out to show the beautiful, the exquisite workmanship that had woven together as if in one fabric the countless, intricate bits of material that make one of my frocks.
Most women who make their own clothes do not make it their sole profession. They have their homes, their children, their social life and their sports. Their clothes making, therefore, must be done as expeditiously as possible. One must eliminate mistakes, for they mean delay and extra work. For such women a book like the New Butterick Dressmaker is absolutely essential to good workmanship in making clothes. It should be within easy reach when you are working…Some of it you will never use. Whatever you need you can turn to as you work. ..It will give your clothes the chic air of clothes that are not only well but smartly made. Discard whatever dressmaking guide you have been using, for these books are not made for the ages but for the day of the current fashion. When fashions change, methods of dressmaking change with them and you must have the new methods. The only things that do not change are dead things.
Clothes are exceedingly vital and alive.
And while Mr. Worth’s manual should be, by his own instruction and in spite of its lovely diagrams, discarded today for the newest methods, I think he’s exactly right about many things, from desires to get thin on sweets and cream sauces, to my not-coincidentally ever-changing physique, to the frustration and delay mistakes cause, and particularly that clothes, as well as the arts involved in making them, are, indeed, “exceedingly vital and alive”.