Hundred-Year-Old Directions for Making Seams

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, January 5, 1914:  Tried my hand at some sewing this afternoon. Teased my mother. (She simply has to take it, when I get busy.) So passed the afternoon.

Took a header on the porch tonight, but managed to go no further than my one knee.

Source of drawings: The Dressmaker by The Butterick Publishing Company (1911)

Source of drawings: The Dressmaker by The Butterick Publishing Company (1911)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I’d love to know what Grandma teased her mother about. In spite of the tumble–Was there ice on the porch?–, it sounds like a good day.

Did Grandma sew any seams? Here’s some hundred-year-old advice for making high-quality seams.

The Importance of Seams

When it comes to putting a garment together, many problems face the amateur seamstress, not least among these is the finishing of the joinings.

Here is something that needs almost an intuition to solve. Not only do different garments require different finishings but different parts of the same garment require different treatment.

Suppose for example you are making a princess slip-on with a flounce. Now for the body seams of the garment you will want something at once dainty and durable, something that isn’t “bunching,” and yet will be strong enough to withstand strain. For this then the French seam is best adapted. This you make by joining the pieces with a narrow seam on the right side, then turn and make another seam directly over this on the wrong side. Thus you have the raw edges covered up and have a double sewing to give strength to the seam.

The French seam is used also on lingerie waists and children’s dresses, and may be moderately wide or very narrow, according to its place in the garment and the material used. Care must be taken to trim off ravelings before turning the first seam.

In making up heavier goods such as a petticoat of sateen, you will find felled seams are the best. There are two different kinds of these. One is made by opening out an ordinary seam of three-fourths to one inch on the wrong side, turn under the edges and sew down. This is a good seam for baby’s night-gowns since it is the least bunglesome. However, it is not so strong as the single felled seam which is made as follows. Allow one-edge of an ordinary seam to extend out about one-fourth inch over the other. Turn a small hem on this and basted down over the other edge and sew firmly.

flat fell seam

The bound seam is used to finish joinings in dresses or skirts of heavy material and is made by binding the edges of an ordinary seam with seam binding which comes for this purpose.

bound seam

For baby’s flannel petticoats or woolen shirts baste open an ordinary raw seam and feather stitch on the right side. The raw edges on the inside are left unfinished so that the seam will be as flat as possible and there is no danger of chafing baby’s tender skin.

One of the essential things that many amateurs neglect in finishing a garment is a careful pressing of all seams, as the garment is put together and also when it is a finished product. Many a garment loses that “homemade” look and assumes quite a professional air when treated to a good pressing.

In the Homecraft on the Farm section of Kimball’s Dairy Farmer Magazine (February 1, 1914)

25 Responses

  1. You don’t have to be 100 years old to be familiar with these instructions (and from Butterick too). I’m in my 60s and these are part of my childhood. Is it surprising that I detest sewing?

  2. Interesting to hear her use the term ‘header’. I would have thought that a modern day slang.

  3. Good to be reminded of all these different ways to sew seams and hems.

  4. My Mother and Sister both did a lot of sewing. My Sister even won ribbons at the State Fair. This brings back some good memories.

  5. It’s no wonder that find tailoring is almost impossible to find at any cost today. I remember all the rules we had to learn in 4-H including gussets, bound button holes, etc. When you consider what fine fabric cost plus your time, it has to be something really special for me to consider sewing.

  6. Learning to sew (or doing most tasks for one’s self) seems to have been lost over the past couple of generations. My mother sewed clothes, etc. I learned enough to make my own muppets (I was in 3rd grade when Seasime Street started) and hem pants. My wife sewed often when she was young. Now, letting someone else in a distance factory do the work is the norm. Handcrafts are expensive hobbies. I am reminded, also, of seeing samplers during travels to historical home in the USA and Europe. These were how girls learned to do various stitching techniques, as well as the alphabet, reading, etc. from thier mothers or nannies. Some years back, my mother took a half dozen of thier cross stitch samplers that she did over the years, and made a quilt of them. Included is the first sampler that she did at age 6. It is not 100 years old, yet… only about 26 years to go.

  7. It’s fun to hear Helena sounding so playful!

  8. My mom tried to teach me to sew when I was young, my home ec teacher tried to teach me. But finally, after my son was born, I succeeded in teaching myself! But my mom taught me about French seams, and reading about them today made me smile and think of her. And I remember her doing feather stitches too.
    I had no idea what Grandma meant when she said she “took a header”; I’d never heard that expression before!

  9. There is a sense of humor lurking there in Helena! And she “took a header.” Strange, but I want to say, “I hope our grandma is o.k. after her fall.”

  10. Awful memories of home economics class!

  11. What a playful moment between them! The seam instructions brought back memories of when I used to sew but I don’t even have a sewing machine. Well, I do have my grandmother’s old treadle one.

  12. I like to think that Grandma and her mother shared playful moments once in a while. I have such fond memories of learning to sew in home ec and from my sister (my mother hated sewing). I’m only sorry that I gave it up.

  13. I used to sew a lot when I was a teenager, this makes me want to get going on it again.

  14. This reminds me of the kind of stuff I used to find in my mother’s scrapbooks that just fascinated me. By the way, Sheryl, where do you find your old magazine articles and ads and so on? How do you search for them?

  15. I liked her sense of humor in her post. I wasn’t sure what a header was, either.

  16. I find it interesting that she used the word “header” … I thought that was a completely modern (recent modern) term. Glad she had a good day!

  17. I am continually amazed at the resources you find to support your grandmother’s entries. You do a great job. What you find is always so interesting.

  18. I do try and do french seems too. I like when there’s no ravelling in the laundry. It does take more time but looks so much nicer. I can’t imagine how much work it would be by hand.

  19. It looks like they are sewing all those seams by hand too. whew!

  20. I imagine many people hand-sewed back in those days, as not all women would have had sewing machines.

  21. Thanks. That was easier to understand than what is in my sewing book

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