Her needlework both plain and ornamental was excellent, and she might have put a sewing machine to shame.
~James Edward Austen-Leigh about Jane Austen
Hand sewing was a way of life for every female in the early 1800’s, just as it was for all women who came before them. The skill was passed down from mother to daughter at a very early age. During the early 19th century, girls as young as twelve years of age were very accomplished. Not only could they sew and mend garments, but they were capable of making decorative arts as seen in the samplers of the time period and doing fancy work such as embroidery.
The seamstress of yesteryear had to take care in protecting their sewing implements. Items made of steel such as needles, pins, scissors and bodkins (tape/ribbon threaders) had to be wrapped as exposure to the air caused rust. Oil from the hair was used on needles by running the needle through you hair. This not only protected the needle from rust, but also made it easier to pass through fabric. It should be remembered that people did not wash their hair on a regular basis, as we do today.
Buttons, hooks and eyes also had to be wrapped to protect them from rusting and tarnishing. Even thread, especially colored threads, had to be wrapped in brown paper as the air caused decay and the light caused fading. Sewing silks were given special care and wrapped in soft wash leather. Beeswax also played an important roll in the preservation of the seamstresses’ tools, being used to coat thread to protect and strengthen it as well as to keep it from tangling.
The 19th Century seamstress had a basket or sewing box large enough to hold her sewing implements as well as a small amount of work. In it would be various threads made from cotton, linen and silk; buttons of all kinds made from a variety of materials including wood, metal, cotton thread, shells and even acorns; a needle book with an ample supply of precious needles ranging in size from the smaller sewing needles used regularly to the larger darning, stay and carpet needles. (In a period before the vacuum cleaner, carpets were hand stitched together about every 12 inches. During Spring and Fall cleaning, they were snipped apart, taken outside, hung on a line and given a good beating, and then brought back in and re-stitched together by hand before being laid down again.)
The sewing basket or box also boasted a variety of scissors from button hole to large shears, pin cushion and emery cushions, bees wax, tapes and a folding wooden yardstick used for measuring cloth with units of nails on one side and inches on the reverse. At this time cloth was measured in nails:
2 1/2 inches = 1 nail
4 nails = 1 quarter
4 quarters = 1 yard
5 quarters = 1 English ell.
6 quarters = 1 French ell.
Other personal items were added to the sewing box such as tambour lace making implements or a square cord maker known as a lucet. The sewing box was also considered to be a very personal or private possession of the 19th century lady. Therefore, one might find a love letter from a sweetheart in a lady’s sewing box, a small book of romantic poetry or even a miniature of a husband or betrothed.
Armed and ready, the 19th Century seamstress started and ended her sewing without a knot. Knotting was a sign of poor sewing as it caused lumps. Much like the modern sewing machine, the 19th Century lady used back and forth stitching, with additional, stitches being careful not to let the end of the thread show, or worse, pull out. The seamstress of yesteryear made twelve stitches per inch, just like the modern sewing machine (invented in 1841).
With the advent of the sewing machine, life for the 19th Century woman became easier and she found herself with more pleasure time. Hand sewing dwindled as an art form and in modern times is looked upon as a highly prized skill.
Enjoy sewing? Then you will enjoy our ‘Jane Austen Sewing Box‘ book which has lots of projects and history!
Adapted from The Historic Village at Allaire, “New Jersey’s Premiere Historic Site”, feautring working 1830’s village life with costumed interpreters.