Thursday, November 21, 2013

Stitch by Stitch

Under Tyler's tutelage, I have been sewing a hunting shirt for myself. Hunting shirts, as former Colonial Williamsburg journeyman tailor Neal Hurst has written in his thesis and as several bloggers such as Tyler and Kitty Calash have explained recently, were worn on the early American "frontier" and were adopted as a uniform by Revolutionary War soldiers.

A detail of the right pleated sleeve on my hunting shirt
I'm not going to bore you with too many details of my hunting shirt sewing experience (though I have been tweeting about it periodically if you'd like to follow my musings), but I will tell you that every time Tyler gives me a new command--back stitch to the end! fell your seam! that's a half back stitch, not a regular back stitch!--I wish I had my own reference sheet of stitches I had made myself. Well, historically, I am not alone.

For hundreds of years, women and schoolgirls (but not this girl) have been compiling their own bound collections of reference and bragging rights stitches into books. Labored over in a variety of settings from elite private homes to working-class home economic classrooms, these sewing sample books typically include a series of plain-sewing sample stitches and other standard sewing practices such as patching. Some include miniature completed examples of clothing, an exercise meant to train young sewer's before executing the full-sized piece. Check out this 1850s beauty completed by Ellen Mahon, currently in the Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood, which features not only plain sewing but also decorative embroidery and needlework. It's hard to argue with the pronouncement that these gems are at once charming and informative, giving us tantalizing glimpses into how stitchers learned about making stuff.

Here's an early twentieth-century example of a sewing book a school girl made in a Reading, Pennsylvania, sewing class, which Tyler kindly brought home for me after a recent solo antiquing adventure.

Cover of Miss Ethyl G. Yanster's sewing sample book, 1912 (Nicole Belolan's Collection)
As you can gather from the cover, the book belonged to Ethyl G. Yanster. Ethyl was born around 1901 in Pennsylvania to Louis and Annie. In 1925, Ethyl married Dr. Irwin Samuel Lape, a physician. By 1930, the family had moved from Reading to Lebanon, PA. They had two children, Sally and Samuel. Irwin died in 1965 after a short stay at the Lebanon Sanitarium. Ethyl died in January of 1975 and was buried at a cemetery in Newmanstown, Pennsylvania, about a 40-minute drive from where she grew-up in Reading.

What can we learn from the book about the nature of education for girls in early twentieth-century America? How might have this sewing book served Ethyl in her childhood? And why the heck aren't your kids coming home with these today?

First, sewing was part of a curriculum that, according to the list on this sample book, coverered some of the usual suspects, with boys meeting separately from girls: English, "General," History, Civil Government, and Physics. Based on the "general directions" Ethyl pasted at the front, we know that, at least in Ethyl's case (if we assume school is where she learned to sew first), she learned how to sew among her peers (and not alone). It was meant to be completed systematically, but it's hard to say whether Ethyl followed the "system" to the T. The progression of work roughly follows what printed contemporaneous guides such as Anne Loden Jessup's The sewing book: containing complete instructions in sewing and simple garment-making for children in the primary and grammar grades (1913) prescribed.

Excerpt of "General Directions" for completing the sewing sample book, 1912 (Nicole Belolan's Collection)
An array of colorful woolens, cottons, and silks, worked with a variety of stitches executed by hand, all labeled neatly by Ethyl, were pasted into the notebook after the instructions. Not only did this show that Ethyl "mastered" a given stitch, but now she could reference these samples whenever she needed to recall a particular sewing method.

Basting and back stitches on wool, Ethyl's G. Yanster's sewing sample book, 1912 (Nicole Belolan's collection) 
The work is far from perfect, but it's better than anything I could have done at the age of eleven. It includes enough stitches and mending techniques to keep anyone busy making and mending a very adequate wardrobe--and that of their family. Indeed, Jessup noted in her introduction that "the most important factor" of teaching children in public school is "training [them] for the efficiency in the family and in home life." She went on to explain that "Lessons in domestic economy will enable the pupils in later life to solve the question of wise and judicious expenditure." And so the question this raises for me is, when did parents stop (assuming they ever) taught their children these skills and the philosophies behind them?

"Sewing gather on a band" and "Sewing embroidery with facing band," Ethyl G. Yanster's sewing sample book, 1912 (Nicole Belolan's Collection)
Sewing may have faded out of the school curriculum (or a "home" curriculum, for that matter) for any number of reasons (though I did have to make a gym bag when I was in junior high), but I would suspect one of the primary reasons was the fact that so much ready-made clothing became more and more accessible for the ordinary individual. Why learn to sew if you can get your outfits from a local store and think nothing of donating your worn clothing to the local Salvation Army or Goodwill?

(Despite the rise of ready-made clothing (or "industrialized" anything, really), we need look only as far as Etsy to gauge the ever-increasing popularity of the textile-related DIY movement and the related polarity of purchasing "handmade" stuff for everyday use.)

I'll probably never know if Ethyl kept up with her sewing, but I'll try to keep this manifestation of her early effort at the skill safe and sound. Maybe I'll even use it as finish my hunting shirt and start new projects.

The Winterthur Library has several examples of these sewing books in its collection. When I visit for research over the next few weeks, I'll take a few photos and share them with you. I'll scan Ethyl's book in its entirety and post it when I get a chance.

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