November 10


Regency Era Seamstresses

Hi there my loves!

We have all read a book or two, or ten, where our favorite heroine requires a new gown. But have you ever imagined the amount of work it took to make such a gown when everything was hand sewn, and the extremely talented women behind those stitches?

Well imagine that it is the Season in London and young ladies and their mamas are ordering dresses by the dozens for balls and visits. In an age when all sewing and embroidery were done by hand, when lighting was poor and wages were so low that they barely paid for room and board, pity the poor seamstress hunched over her sewing assignments, racing against time to meet a series of deadlines that seem endless, and complying with the exacting standards of a boss and clients who cared not a whit for her comfort.

Let’s take a look at what went on behind the scenes of a modiste’s shop. 

A London modiste would have MANY seamstresses working for her. Around the middle of the 19th century, the average modiste employed around 20 seamstresses. By 1870, when his business was really taking off, Charles Worth employed 1200, turning out thousands of extremely elaborate dresses a year. In an emergency, they could put together a simple gown for an important client in less than a day from scratch. And they would work late into the night, or through the night, if need be, to please a regular client or a client of whom they were very fond.

The amount of work a dressmaker has and the number of seamstresses employed determine how long it took to make a garment. Of course, the trimming and such also matters.  A court dress could well take five days if the seamstresses worked on nothing else. If one needed a garment made expeditiously, one could pay extra, and it could usually be done.

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A London dress maker could usually make one faster than a village  seamstress, though even a village seamstress could finish a simple dress in three days if she had no other work.

There were no printed patterns so the lady and the dressmaker would have to confer on the dress’s style and the choice of fabric. If the lady had never been to the store before, she would be measured  and an unfinished muslin or linen mock up dress would be made and fitted to her.  The most skilled part of the procedure was drawing off the pieces and then cutting them properly. The dressmaker had to be able to see the pattern behind the fashion illustrations.

The muslin pieces would be used as pattern pieces when the material was cut. Then the fabric pieces would be pinned together. Many seamstresses then basted the seams. All this is the time consuming part. The customer was supposed to come for the final fitting wearing the stays she would wear with the dress. Dress makers did not usually make the stays. The dress would be tried on and any final adjustments made.

Small adjustments after a final fitting likely took less than an hour, depending on the amount of work that needed to be done. All measurements would have been made before starting the gown, so there would be only tiny adjustments.

Then seamstresses would sew all the seams and add any trimmings and tidy up the gown. The dress/gown was customarily pressed by the woman’s lady maid, not by the modiste’s workers.

Fingers numb, backs aching, eyes straining to focus on mind numbingly repetitive work meant that burning the midnight oil was no mere phrase. For embroiderers who continued to work well past dusk, lamps were devised that amplified light. Those who sat closest to its source benefited the most. The poor women who sat in the outer circle scarcely benefited from the amplification of lacemaker lamps

Owning a shop was no guarantee of economic stability, for many wealthy women failed to pay their bills on time, if at all. In the 18th century, the enterprising Hannah Glasse ran a dressmaker’s shop in London with her daughter, which eventually went bankrupt. She went on to write one of the most popular cookbooks of her era, but in this venture she too lost money.

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As the century progressed and with the advent of the sewing machine, life did not automatically become easier for seamstresses and dressmakers, who still worked long hours in cramped conditions, their backs bent over sewing machines in factories and piece work shops. Clothing had become more affordable. The rising middle class was purchasing more items than ever, and etiquette dictated that wealthy ladies were required to change their clothes for different functions throughout the day. Thus demand for new and fashionable clothes remained high.

Image source: Pinterest

Can you even imagine all that hard work? My eyes are hurting just thinking about it… I tip my hat to those talented women and their nimble fingers!

If you have any questions and/or comments darlings feel free to write to me below!

All my love,

Written by Emma Linfield


Articles, Regency Romance

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  • My mom, grandmother and aunt were all seamstresses. I’m no slouch. BUT… we all had sewing
    machines for the final stitching. I can actually imagine what those poor women went through
    and it makes my whole body hurt just thinking about it.

  • As it happens,in the early days of my marriage, I did make clothes for my children and myself by hand. Of course, I had good lighting and ate regularly! Jump ahead a few years, my mother gave me my grandmother’s treadle machine – from there I was sewing like a mad woman! A few years later my husband bought me an electric sewing machine – woohoo! I was in heaven – however, I can still manage the hand sewing, even if only to repair a seam that had come undone. I can sympathize with those poor seamstresses – especially considering the fact that they did not have the lighting I had they were not well cared for as I was. I learned how to smock – by hand, embroider, etc.

  • Well Emma I don’t know about you, but I could only work with red.Even with a thimble I’d still keep pricking my finger(s)as I’d obviously have numb fingers.What a sense of accomplishment when a garment was finished though. thanks for sharing.

  • I would assume that poor ladies would make their own clothing themselves. If they were any good at it, I guess they went to the next step as a seamstress somewhere. If they were not very good at it, I guess they really looked bad. Hence the marked differences in classes of people. Material, style, cut, finished product – clearly clothing made the person!

  • And how one could even get into or out of the dress without zippers! And imagine your clothes tying in the back. Ugh. Thanks for reminding us how lucky we are!

  • Well, I know exactly how those women felt because my mother had me doing by hand and machine work, since I was 12 and I am now 68. With those dates you can imagine how old the machinery was back then compared to now!
    Additionally, I was a perfectionist, I convinced the customers and word would spread so the business would also increased but the hours in the day didn’t. That says it all, lol.

  • I’m in my 60s, almost 70s, but sewing has changed SOOO MUCH from when I learned embroidery, hand sewing, and machine sewing! My gosh! Almost everything is computerized these days. I have antique thread that not only CAN’T be used in the modern sewing machines, but is so fragile compared to our modern thread that it’s uses are decorative (as on a shelf to view), not useful for even repairing seams or sewing patches. Then there was the change to stretchy fabrics of present day and my grandmothers 1951 machine will no longer even sew them without puckering, breaking needles, etc! At one point in my life, my grandmother started me towards a goal of sewing a baby layet for my future offspring(s). She started me out on flannel. All the seams were sown by hand and doubled over to prevent as much chafing as possible, on and on! Needless to say, not a lot of baby clothes ever got finished by me. I kept the one and only piece that got finished as too precious to use. And don’t get me started on the changes in buttons, zippers, bonding, rickrack (do they even make such any more?), etc. I do have a few small dish towels made from flour sacks by my grandmothers, but I don’t use them either, the dye fades too badly from automatic washing machines or even had washing these days.

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