Sunday, 22 December 2013

Vintage sewing techniques

The Dreamstress has recently posted a piece on her blog about her entry for the last challenge of the Historical Sew Fortnightly 2013; Celebrate. She has made 1930s dress, which is just adorable. You can read all about it here.

She mentioned in her post that although the pattern is a reproduction of a vintage pattern, the instructions use modern construction techniques; namely a zip, and ordinary (non-lapped) seams.

This got me thinking. Until recently, I’d never even come across lapped seams, and the idea of using press studs/snaps rather than a zip to fasten a dress would never have occurred to me.

Lapped seams were common in the 1930s. The complex shaping of some of the clothes, like the jacket in this Vintage Vogue pattern, meant that normal, right-sides-together seams would be incredibly tricky to do.

1935 fashions

This illustration in “The Art of Needlework” shows how a lapped seam is created.

Constructing a lapped seam

All of the Vintage Vogue patterns in my collection include vintage techniques in the instructions. Some, like Vogue 2787 from 1948, give a choice of vintage or modern methods for fastening. However no alternative is offered for the lapped seams which are used in this and in Vogue 8686 from 1933.

The use of lapped seams continued into the 1950s. Vogue 8851 from 1952 uses them on the bodice.

This 1950s Maudella pattern, although short on instructions (like most Maudella patterns I own), does say to turn under the shaped edge of the bodice panel front and stitch it over the side front bodice. With all of those right angles, it would be a nightmare to do otherwise.

Lovely use of on-grain and bias cutting

As well as the seams and fastens, Vogue 8686 includes instructions for top-stitching the belt which exactly match an illustration in my 1930s “Weldons Encyclopaedia of Needlework”.

Belt illustration centre left

Given that the instructions on early C20th patterns tended to be ‘concise’, it’s easy to see that books such as my 1930s sewing manuals filled a need for more detailed information. The pages on side fastens, snap fastens and hooks and eyes in Weldons would all have been useful for the home dressmaker making Vogue 8686 in its original form.

Skirt plackets

Press studs and hooks and eyes

More plackets, and how to support a pleated section of a skirt

“The Art of Needlework” includes six pages of instructions on how to put together a skirt from a pattern, again presumably because a number of dressmakers would have found the pattern instructions themselves insufficient.

Skirt instructions

The skirt in question (Fig 185) and illustrations for pleats

Both books go into some detail on how to make and sew pleats.

Zips were available to the home dressmaker in the 1930s but may well have been a novelty; Weldons does include a short section on how to use them.

However zips, even in 1950s, were far chunkier and less smooth than modern ones. I bought this dress at a vintage fair, and some day I intend to make a pattern from it. Although there is no label in it, parts of it are beautifully finished inside; I wonder if it was made by a professional dressmaker?

I'll make the skirt longer

But the zip! Not only is it a pale beige (although the side placket is so well constructed that it hardly shows), but the metal teeth are so rough that it was a struggle to get the dress onto the dressform to photograph it: it kept snagging on the fuzzy fabric of the form.

The dress also has one of my favourite period features, pleats at elbows. But that is a whole different technique.

Sleeve shaping


  1. Thank you for posting this! I would love to buy that book!

    1. Thank you Nicole. Most of my old sewing books are charity shop finds.

  2. There are these dresses i see on Pinterest and they have this flower smock on them. How would you go in about doing it? I wish I can show a picture but I can’t seem to copy paste it


    1. What a lovely dress! The shape of the trim and the fact that it's exactly the same colour as the dress makes me think that it is rouleau trim. This is a very narrow fabric tube, made from bias-cut strips of fabric. It's most often used for button loops, but can be applied as well. If you google 'rouleau' you'll find lots of information on how to make the tubing, and I found this post on attaching it to clothing -

      Hope this helps!