Sampler shirt

Of all the examples of fine needlework in Ellen Mahon’s sampler book, it’s the tiny clothes I find most fascinating. One of my favourite stories as a child was ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ because I loved the idea of making tiny clothes for elves.

Here is a page showing Ellen’s example of a basic shift and a more complex shirt:

Page from Ellen Mahon’s sampler book

The shirt in particular is impossibly detailed. I have emailed the V and A to ask them for the dimensions of this book but haven’t had a response yet, so I can’t tell how big (or small) these examples might be. As I mentioned in my last post, it is often difficult to get a sense of scale just from looking at pictures – this book might be foolscap or bigger, or it might be much smaller than that and more like a pocket exercise-book. I’d like to know, just out of interest.

I’ve been using The Workwoman’s Guide as my main source for nineteenth-century sewing. Written by ‘A Lady’ and published in 1838, it has a baffling amount of information about what, and how, women were expected to sew. Most daily needlework would have been functional rather than decorative. I am astounded every time I think about how much sewing there would have been for a household before people had access to sewing machines. Every item in the house made of cloth would have been cut and sewn by hand – so that’s everyone’s clothes, towels, sheets, curtains, table linen, bed covers and quilts. The Workwoman’s Guide gives cutting instructions for six shirts, as it’s more efficient to cut and sew six shirts than one. That’s about 22 yards of fabric, all to be cut by hand.

Plate 17 from The Workwoman’s Guide, showing cutting layouts for shirts

Measurements are given in nails (a nail is 2.5 inches), and the book lists the nineteen useful parts of a shirt. Apart from the body, sleeves, cuffs and collar, there are various kinds of gusset, plus binders and shoulder straps.

It was therefore with quite a sense of trepidation that I embarked on an example of my own.

miniature shirt in progress with cuffs pinned on

In the end my poor effort only has 7 parts – a back, a front, two sleeves, two cuffs and a collar. I used a bit of vintage cotton sheet and in this scale it looks and feels like fine wool or flannel, so definitely a labouring man’s garment rather than anything a gentleman would consider suitable. The sleeves are rather too voluminous, on reflection, and the body is probably too short, but as a sample, and as a learning experience, it’s as good as it’s going to get. I did manage to get a few little pintucks into the front, and I found some very tiny beads that will do as buttons.

Cotton shirt sample, about 3″ x 4″

Don’t zoom in, it doesn’t bear close inspection. It is kind of cute though.

Author: Karen

Textile and mixed media artist

10 thoughts on “Sampler shirt”

    1. I know, and that’s just the shirts! Unimaginable. I don’t know how they made the space to manipulate and cut out 20-odd yards of linen, for one thing, never mind sit and sew them all. Truly mind-boggling. Thanks for the encouragement 🙂 Looking forward to starting the tiny dresses…

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      1. It’s just occurred to me – maybe this sort of thing happened in a village hall or in the vicar’s parlour or something, It might be efficient to cut out six at once, but few people could afford all that cloth at once, so maybe it got shared out?

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        1. I bet you’re onto something there – it would make perfect sense to have communal space for cutting out etc and also sharing between households.

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  1. what I love is how not a shred of cloth is wasted in the cutting of each garment … and your replica is amazing

    I’m also intrigued by the graphed alphabet in the background … surely the promise of more good-ness to come

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    1. Thank you, yes I was intrigued by the no-waste cutting too. And yes, the chart in progress is also for the sampler book – more of that later 🙂

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      1. P.S. So of course I zoomed in … and glad I did … I’m always especially intrigued by the “other sides” like the tiny bit of hem peeking out at the bottom (I gave up calling them “wrong sides” a long time ago)

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        1. Ha, of course you zoomed in 🙂 Likewise, I never think of the wrong side, just the other side. In this scale a double hem was impossible and would have made the bottom edge too stiff, so a single turn up will have to do.

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  2. Hi Karen, nice to see you blogging here. I found the link to your blog on Jude’s Ragmates list. I recognize your sweet bird pincushion from Instagram! ~Catherine (@cednie)

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    1. Ah how lovely to see you here 🙂 thanks for dropping by. Yes, I decided I needed somewhere a bit quieter and slower than Instagram.

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