A Little Dressmaking

I thought I would have a go at a little dress for my 19th-century-style sampler book. Ellen Mahon’s sampler book contains some truly adorable little dresses:

Samples of dressmaking in Ellen Mahon’s sampler book, V and A Collections

My version has turned out to be a little more three-dimensional than either of these, but I will flatten it later when I attach it to a page. I haven’t decided yet whether I will use paper or cloth pages to display my samples – there are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, but I’ve got a lot more to make so I don’t need to decide yet.

Dress in progress

I decided on a vaguely 1850s-style flounced day dress, using some vintage sari silk fabric and some fine silk thread. The Workwoman’s Guide is quite sketchy on dress patterns, and tends to stick to basic instructions for children’s clothes and plain dresses for servants and the working classes. The anonymous author says that making as much as you can at home will save money, but “it is strongly recommended to all those who can afford it, to have their best dresses invariably made by a mantua-maker, as those which are cut out at home seldom fit so comfortably, or look so well, as when made by persons in constant practice.” I had to make a few concessions, but it has turned out more or less as I intended.

1850s style day dress

There was no way I could make it wearable, but it’s doing a fairly convincing impression. Under the subtitle ‘Order is the best economy of time’, The Workwoman’s Guide advises, very sagely, “it is of great consequence that dresses should be carefully and neatly put away, as their preservation depends much on the attention paid to this: a gown smoothly folded, and laid by directly it is taken off, will last half as long again as one that is thrown about upon dirty chairs, or tumbled and creased in the wrapping up.” I have taken her advice and placed it in the box with the other samples.

Author: Karen

Textile and mixed media artist

10 thoughts on “A Little Dressmaking”

  1. this is absolutely delightful as you have definitely captured the look of a proper 19th century dress … and it caused me to lean in and look at the original dresses all the more closely … what fun

    and now I’m wondering … are the original dresses glued in? or stitched? … which is to say, are the backs as complete as the fronts?

    1. Thanks Liz, it was a challenge and there were a few false starts. Ellen seems to have pasted her samples – you can see glue stains on some of the samples. I’ll be stitching mine in somehow. The dress I’ve made here is very incomplete on the back, it’s all just for show – very smoke-and-mirrors 😉

  2. Lovely color scheme and flounces on your sample. It looks like so much fun. It’s inspiring that they took such care of their clothing because they knew clothing was precious and so time-consuming to make.

    1. Yes, exactly. All that hand sewing… I don’t know how many yards of fabric a dress like this would have taken.

    1. Ha, yes that’s very true! Also I’m guessing relatively few houses had full-length mirrors in 1850…

    1. Ha, I started that way too. Thank you, this was like meeting my past self. I used to draw dresses like this all the time as a child.

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