Adventures in historical sewing Part 1 – starting out in the 1940s

Back in 2019, while I was constantly on research trips, I started watching a lot of youtube. And while I was doing that, I also decided to pick up crocheting. Since I hate reading kitting patterns, I had no earthly idea how to approach a crochet pattern, and so I also started watching crochet pattern videos on youtube. This combination led me to the world of historical costuming videos, or costube. Since I started watching, costube has become a much bigger phenomenon, to the point that last summer the costube community was able to host an entire conference online where individual virtual sessions were attended by thousands of people at a time. Inundating myself with videos of hand sewing and pattern cutting got me to slowly come back to my old sewing hobby. I spent a lot of time as a teenager involved in various sewing ventures, mostly related to the renfaire and my school’s drama department. My friend N and I spent many weekends in high school hand-sewing costumes while watching Disney movies (we were really wild). But I was mostly self-taught and I had a really hard time making wearable clothing, so my hobby fell by the wayside. But since N still sews and started making herself some very cool wearable pieces right around the time I began watching all these youtube videos, I dipped my toes back into sewing at first, and then plunged in.

My first project was just fixing the sleeves on a shirt, removing elastic cuffs that I found irritating. I started getting some ideas about what I might make – maybe some basic skirts or dresses, especially now that I was struggling with my changing post-pregnancy body. I got a sewing machine in January of 2020. And leading up to it, I started fantasizing about remaking my grandmother’s wedding dress, a circa 1950 tea-length grey lace dress with a pink lining that I wanted to wear for my own wedding but which was crumbling. As I started to research that project, I found and decided to buy myself some patterns. 6 months or so after my first pattern arrived, I’ve replaced the bulk of my daily wardrobe with a few simple pieces and my own versions of 1940s clothing, and it’s been incredibly freeing.

I’ve always liked the idea of making my own clothes. It’s easier to suit my very particular tastes, for one thing. I have described my style as “post-apocalyptic warrior princess professor”, and let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to make things to fit that aesthetic than buy them. Making my own clothes also helps ensure that they fit me right. That’s a big part of why I started sewing for myself, since I’ve always had trouble finding clothes that fit. I was very tall and skinny as a kid, and as an adult I’m still quite long and lean, with some shapes on my body that just don’t tend to fit the way clothes are often made. Typical problems I encounter – armholes are too big, waists are too high, upper hips are too wide, lower hips are too narrow, sleeves are too short, shoulders are too narrow. Sewing also allows me to make clothes using fabrics I prefer, especially now that home garment sewing is picking up as an industry and there are more apparel fabrics available to the consumer. I like to stay away from plastic fabrics – things like polyester and lycra, and so I mostly sew with cotton, linen, and rayon (which is a manufactured fabric that uses a blend of scrap natural fibers). More expensive fibers like silk are also more accessible when I sew my own clothes because I don’t have to pay the retail markup to get them. That way, I can spend $40 and a few hours of labor on a silk shirt, rather than $80. It’s certainly a tradeoff, but to me it’s worth it.

Making my own clothing from vintage patterns has been a fantastic exercise in experimental archaeology. Experimental archaeology is a method of active engagement with historical remains and records, attempting to recreate the actions or methods of the past as a way of understanding them better. It often leads to projects under the heading of historical reconstruction, but it’s a pretty broad concept. Making vintage patterns has put me in the shoes (almost literally) of a middle class woman immediately post-WWII, when resources like fabric were more available in the US and most households had a sewing machine. Making your own clothes was a cost- and resource-effective way to participate in fashion. I haven’t had much experience making clothing from patterns, but the few modern patterns I’ve used I really haven’t enjoyed. I find them incredibly difficult to follow. These vintage patterns are clearly marked and clearly explained. The most amazing thing about them is they teach more advanced techniques as you go, so I’ve learned some tailoring skills from working through these patterns.

Because I bought a bunch of patters all at once, I made a little sewing course for myself to work my way up in difficulty. I planned on making a shirt, a pair of pants, a skirt, a jacket, a dress, and a jumpsuit. I anticipated that the jumpsuit would be the most difficult, since it has a lot of parts that have to fit just right, so I planned on doing that last. I thought the skirt would be the easiest, especially since I’ve made plenty of skirts before. And the shirt would help me learn some of the skills I would need for the dress, jumpsuit, and jacket.

The shirt was my first project, though not my favorite in the end. The biggest thing that makes me not want to wear it much is the armholes. Just about every upper body garment from the ’40s has massive shoulder pads. The women’s silhouette of the period was a dramatic inverted triangle, and so shirts, dresses, and jackets all had pads that extended the line of the shoulder out and up. It took me a few projects to figure out how to remove enough material at the shoulder to make the garments fit right without shoulder pads. I want the general aesthetic of the ’40s, but I don’t want to look like a time traveler. I also have fairly wide shoulders so I don’t really need the help. The shoulders on this shirt ended up just a bit too roomy still, and I hadn’t yet learned how to properly set in a sleeve, so they pull a bit. Good practice, though.

I ended up scrapping my skirt project because the skirt was narrower than I wanted and the fabric I got looked too much like pajamas.

I moved on to pants. This picture is not the best, since I wear these pants often but don’t iron them and the fabric gets pretty crinkly. The pants were quite straightforward, but I learned a few important skills. I learned how to make a button placket and an inset pocket. I’m also proud of the waistband on these, which is snug on the inside but invisible from the outside. These pants are also shockingly massive – I took several inches of width out of the pattern, and they are still super roomy.

My first big challenge was this jacket. I wanted a light blazer in a bright color to mix up my conference-going wardrobe a bit. All my blazers are wool and I’ve been to a few conferences in the summer where I’m boiling but don’t feel comfortable taking off my jacket. The fashion layer is a ruby red cotton-linen twill, and the lining is a cotton voile, so the whole thing is very light. The fit of this jacket is phenomenal. I kept the shoulder pads, which create a great contrast with the nipped-in waist. I could tailor the sleeves to the right length on me, so unlike other jackets I own, my wrists are actually covered. The buttons are salvaged from a vest a friend gave me when we were teenagers – each one is a zodiac calendar with a sun in the middle. The biggest feeling of accomplishment from this one was putting in the lining, which I did entirely by hand using a blind stitch.

Once I tackled the jacket, I felt ready for the shirtdress. I love shirtdresses, but I’ve never found one that fit me right. This particular pattern was not my first choice, and I’ve now made it three times and can safely say it’s quite frustrating. The pattern has a shawl collar that is incredibly finicky to sew. Apart from that, though, I love this dress and I love wearing it. It’s comfortable and flattering – it actually hits me at the waist and doesn’t have two inches of ease. The challenge of this project was the buttons, since there are so many of them and they are so small.

Finally, I made it to the jumpsuit. This pattern was issued to women who served in the war effort. In other words, it’s the mother of all jumpsuits. This has to be the best-fitting thing I’ve ever made. The shaping darts at the shoulder, waist, and hip are perfect for my body and make the whole thing just hug me. But because the armholes are cut high enough, I still have the full range of movement. My proudest moment was the collar, which is really crisp and pointy. This piece also has a cool feature lacking in most jumpsuits – an escape hatch at the waist so I don’t have to completely undress to use the bathroom! The top buttons to the bottom at the back waist and down the sides. I find that it’s not quit open enough, though, so I haven’t gotten much use out of it. Cool in theory.

I’ve made a few other vintage patterns since this original batch, and I’ve also made my own patterns. This first round, though, was a great journey for me. It relit my creative drive, and I relearned a skill I hadn’t practiced in a decade. I got some insight into what clothing in the ’40s was really like (so many more shoulder pads than I would have thought). And proving to myself that I could make and finish all these wearable things gave me a very bad (good) idea. More on that later.

If you liked this post and want to see my sewing projects in process, I have an instagram account dedicated to just sewing @capricornfashions.