I had an interesting talk with AWA the other day about dressmaking. Why, you ask, were we talking about dressmaking? Well, I was discussing the process of making my 18th century kit for the upcoming season at a local living history museum, which I am a part of. I had to order a pattern for a short gown that I’m making, because my skill level isn’t high enough to fake it for this type of garment. The pattern is somewhat complex, and based off an extant short gown that was disassembled a number of years ago and resides in a museum (in Boston, if I remember correctly, but I’m guessing).

AWA wanted to know why the pattern was considered so complex. After all, garments at the time really weren’t all that fancy, at least for working class women like myself. I explained that, in the 18th century in America (and likely in Europe, though I haven’t looked into it), there were no patterns. Women would simply sew their own clothing. Most women, even of the poorer sort, would have hired a mantua-maker, or dressmaker, to make an outfit for them, from which other items might be sized. A mantua-maker was a traveling dressmaker, who specialized in working with your body in particular. If you’re interested in seeing the process in action, there’s a great video on YouTube. Basically, she would drape your fabric over you, sketch out the pattern pieces for your body, cut them, and then sew them. Sometimes the customer would help with the sewing, and sometimes she’d just pay for the mantua-maker to do it.

The skill level required to draft a dress for someone with nothing more than draping fabric and chalk is huge. This goes back to my article on words, and how the meaning of them changes over time. At one time, someone who could make a dress, a mantua-maker, was considered a highly skilled, sought after person. They were well paid, well trained, and knowledgeable. Today, we say “dressmaker” as if the person is doing something quaint. People don’t make their own clothing, and those of us who do are looked at oddly. We’re just dressmakers, or seamstresses. We’re not considered skilled workmen.

Today, we use patterns. This is a wonderful thing for the majority of women who are shaped… well, like women. Those of us who are shaped more like apples or pumpkins, however, are in a bit of a bind. There are very few patterns that cater to those who are very round, or who are extremely tall or short, or who have very big or no boobs at all. Patterns are there for the average person. I am not average. Very few patterns work well for me. In a perfect world, I’d simply buy myself a dressmaker’s dummy, and do my dressmaking on the dummy. Unfortunately, today the dressmaker’s dummy is also average. Not round.

So before I can make truly well-fitted kit, such as stays (early corsets) or caracao jackets (think Claire from Outlander), I need to make a dressmaker’s dummy that matches my body. Luckily I know how to do that, but it takes a lot of time, several rolls of duct tape, and a lot of stuffing. It’s not something I’m looking forward to, but it needs to be done.

The majority of today’s dressmakers don’t know how to do draping to fit. They punch numbers into a computer program, and a pattern pops out. They cut out the pieces, sew them together, and done. Now, it’s not quite that easy, but it’s not as far off as you might assume. Learning to drape fit isn’t taught in schools, unless you’re going for high end clothing creation. In other words, unless you’re training to be the next Versace, you don’t bother learning it. It would be more accurate to say that today, we have seamstresses, but not dressmakers. And frankly, even those who do take up dressmaking are undervalued, because you can get “something just as good” from Target, pressed out and sewn by a huge machine.

I am attempting to learn just enough of dressmaking that I can draft my own patterns, and fit my own clothes. I am doing this for a number of reasons, but mostly because I like historical reenacting, and I can’t afford to pay someone else to make my outfits. On a more practical note, though, I am learning skills that are salable for the future. Just in case.

If the apocalypse hits tomorrow, I have a number of extremely useful skills that are likely to be in sharp demand. I can bake over a fire/coals, and I have the tools to do so. I can start a fire without a lighter. I know how to keep a fire banked overnight so I don’t need to re-start it tomorrow morning. I know how to sew a skirt, mend a shirt, hem pants, piece together quilts. I know how to grow crops, plan a garden, process food from fresh to shelf-stable storage.

I suspect a lot of people could figure out how to cook, and how to grow a garden. Not so many will know how to make clothes. Fewer will have the means to make cloth that can be made into clothes. Above all, absolutely none of this stuff is trivial, unimportant, or “just” anything. If you don’t know how to cook, and you need to eat, suddenly the person with the skill to do it will not be “just” a cook, they’ll be a skilled person you’ll have to turn to. If you don’t know how to make clothing, the person who does know how is no longer “just” a dressmaker or seamstress, they’re someone you need, with an important skill.  How many times have we lost the meaning of something, because in our world today it doesn’t seem to have the same importance? How many times have we stepped aside and not bothered to learn “the long way” or “the hard way” to make something, and instead used the convenience of modern living?

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By hagar

8 thoughts on “The Dressmaker”
  1. “If you don’t know how to cook”
    Not so many years ago, I would have taken this to be an absurdity. Who, after all, doesn’t know how to cook – at least the basics?
    Now, though… there really *are* people who never learned to cook? Like, at all? And there are a *lot* of them?
    I’m assuming this is a generational thing; kids don’t learn to cook because their parents don’t cook, sometimes because *they* never learned.

    1. Eric, I never learned how to cook when I lived at home. My mother was a horrid cook, for the most part, and we lived about 5 out of 7 days on take-out food my dad brought home. He was a *marvelous* cook, but was so busy doing everything that he didn’t have much time for it, and almost none for teaching me. I could burn water when I first moved out on my own. It’s been a long journey to get to where I am now (being asked to cater large events with 200+ people LOL). I am pleased with my progress. But I am also very aware that not everyone has access to what was offered me… although everyone CAN have access to it. I suspect many simply don’t know to ask.
      But yes, there are a lot of people who have no idea how to do anything but use a microwave. I watched it this weekend where several people at a place I was cooking at used the modern kitchen microwave to “nuke things” rather than simply cook good meals over the fires in their cabins. I didn’t get it. LOL… To me, that’s a travesty. I might re-heat food I’ve made over the fire, by using the microwave… maybe. I’m just as likely to re-heat it in the pot. Yes, it’s generational. It’s also a cycle…

  2. Year after year my mother made the majority of my clothes. Even well into my adulthood I pleaded that mother make my shirts. I stopped asking once I realized her hands were arthritic.

    The last decade or so I have asked that she teach me. I have designs using having fabric but the knowledge and skills are the same. Having created designs of her own, mother is an excellent seamstress and a wellspring of knowledge. A proficient seamstress is part patternmaker. Pattern making is itself an art whether it be metal, wood, or fabric. The tips and tricks are sometimes quite ingenious.

    1. Home Ec is the only class I’ve ever failed. Like… ever. I used to break out in anxiety sweats just being in the same room as a sewing machine. LOL… I’ve gotten better over the years. Now, I make most of my historical clothing for reenacting, and I’ve begun making my own skirts and tops for regular wear. It’s definitely a learning curve, and I’m lucky to be a part of a family who encourages me to learn and grow.

  3. Hagar, I *love* this posting – I come from farmers and have most of these self-sufficiency skills. My biggest fear is that I won’t have time to pass these along to “my” boys, now 6 and 9. . .

  4. We just watched a movie on Netflix where the main character is a dressmaker to celebrity. Forgot the title and Netflix doesn’t have any “history” where I can find it. I remember him measuring the customer 50 different ways to get the fit.
    Come to think of it, this is reminiscent of how jump suits for skydivers are made. Those need a snug fit, and while spandex offers some of that, much of the suit is made from regular non-stretchy fabric. The order form has quite a lot of measurements on it and the result indeed fits very nicely.
    I remember my mother making clothes from (store-bought) patterns. She also did a lot of knitting; I still have a beautiful sweater she made for me. Also one made by my sister, from a pattern she created inspired by an Escher drawing.

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