April 25, 2011

fabric and sewing

Sorry for the late post. Our power has gone out twice today, so I've had to rewrite the latter part of this post twice already. This is what I get for typing posts in MS Word before posting them here.

So, for the upcoming Renaissance Faire in Muskogee, Oklahoma (which we’ll be delaying due to the terrible weather we’ve been having), I’m sewing costumes for me and my friend. This got me to realize how awesome sewing machines are. Without mine, these costumes would take much longer than I’m willing to spend on them. If I wanted to be true to the historical era, I’d be sewing them by hand, but I’m only interested in looking historically accurate. Sewing an entire outfit by hand would be pure torture for my uncoordinated fingers, but sewing was pretty much a housewife’s profession before the 20th century.

Could you imagine sewing an entire wardrobe for you, your husband, and your however many children, all by hand? I can't. I don't have the attention span to sew a single garment in one sitting, even with a sewing machine. Besides, I'm a terrible housewife. Thank goodness the perspective of the housewife has changed. I don't think I could devote my entire life to cleaning the house, cooking, and laundry. I can barely commit thirty minutes a day to it.

So, for those of you that write historical fiction... sewing machines didn’t exist until the early Victorian Era, and they weren’t affordable until the 1850s when companies offered sewing machines on installment plans. The original cost of a brand new sewing machine in the Victorian Era was comparable to the cost of a car today. They were powered by a hand crank, and Singer machines had nearly all the same features of sewing machines today. Electric sewing machines were introduced at the turn of the 20th century. (Let me take a moment to geek out about a recent find in my grandfather’s antique shed… He has a Singer electric sewing machine from the early 20th century, and I totally called dibs on it. I wish I had the specifics about it, but it currently resides in a shed 250 miles from my house. It looks very similar to the picture.)

Recently, as in the past few months, a blogger posted about the historical prices of fabric, and the article was illuminating. If someone knows who wrote it and where the post is located, please link to it in the comments. It really was a fantastic article. I wish I could remember where I read it. Fabric nowadays is relatively inexpensive, especially if you buy it in bulk. I'd like to think that women bought or traded for fabric in bulk hundreds and even thousands of years ago, paying maybe two pounds of grain instead of three, or four gold pieces instead of five. I imagine their wardrobe was rather dull, but, if I were in the same situation, I would be fine wearing different styles of the same fabric if it saved me money.

Now, there isn't much of a point to this post other than the value of the sewing machine, but I fear that my power will go out again very soon. It's thundering like crazy out there. So, this post can just be a little peek into clothesmaking over the course of history, and how awesome the sewing machine is. It is definitely one of the greatest household inventions in my mind.

Now to shut down my computer before it's fried for a third time...


  1. No way! My mom has that exact model of old-fashion Singer sewing machine! I think she inherited it from her grandmother, but I'm not sure. It sill works too, just not as fast as the modern kind.

  2. Ooooh, sounds like a cool article about fabric cost--I'm not sure I've read it, but I can back up that fabric was very expensive. The labor on clothes--the hours a woman might put into stitching by hand--was the cheap part :) Clothes were made and remade over and again to keep using the fabric, reworking old styles to stay current on fashion on the cheap.

    Also fascinating--how sewing methods have changed with the sewing machine. Hand-sewing was more than just running stitches in a straight line by hand--there was a lot of folding, catching, finishing seams. The inside of historic garments are as fascinating as the outsides!

    I can't wait to see your progress, Brooke!

  3. I'm glad you pointed that out about reusing old clothes. I have a scene in my current work in progress where the main character is sewing the hem on a dress for her younger sister that had once belonged to another sister.

    I once tried to hand-sew a vest. It was a nightmare!

  4. My grandmother used to have the most amazing sewing machine in her house. She never used it ("What, me? Sew? Pah!"), but she kept it from when her own mother was alive. It was beautiful and ancient. I used to sit at it and play on it as a child. The only time I ever really sewed was when I help my mom make a Pocahontas costume for Halloween.