My dear reader, it can be daunting to stand at the precipice of beginning a new hobby, looking over the edge at all of the possibilities that lay before you, and freezing up because you don’t know what path to take and are afraid of messing things up from the start. Hello analysis paralysis, our untimely friend. (I’m currently suffering from this ailment in terms of getting my first garden off the ground, BUT that is a story for another time.)
When I first began historical sewing, I was just a baby sewist in 2016 trying to cobble together an 18th century dress inspired by Claire’s wedding dress from the TV series Outlander. The patterns I Frankensteined together was more 17th century pirate wench with lots of sparkly metallic machine embroidery. The petticoat wasn’t even properly hemmed and the raw edges were fraying like crazy. I had weird gapping in the bodice around the neckline. And let’s not mention how much I was lacking in the appropriate foundational garments department (i.e. my corset was a fashion corset I purchased online, my chemise was a nightgown, and I was definitely wearing yoga pants underneath it all).
As you can imaging, it was overwhelming and a bit of a hot mess, but at the time I was absolutely thrilled with result and wore it proudly to the Renaissance fair. Through this endeavor, I learned a handful of new techniques and skills that I still use in my projects today even though I don’t have the dress anymore.
As a sewing novice, you may read the above anecdote and think to yourself, ‘There’s NO WAY I’m going to tackle a project like that! There’s too much going on and quite a bit of investment in time and money.’ And that is perfectly fine.
In the place of a giant project like the one above, I would like to guide you towards a handful of relatively small sewing projects that are historical, involve a low investment of money and time, teaches you new hand sewing skills without overwhelming you, and are absolutely useful for a modern homemaker.
1. The Housewife or Hussif
A housewife or hussif is simply a small sewing kit made from scraps of fabric that were commonly made for soldiers and sailors by their loved ones as well as the for the homemaker. The beauty of this project is that there isn’t any one ‘right’ way of making one, you can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish, and you can customize the interior to fit your sewing needs. Leimomi Oakes, from The Dreamstress blog, has a wonderful post detailing the history of the housewife and delves into an exploration of a housewife she picked up in one of her favorite op-shops back in 2015.
The example shown to the right is one made by Sarah Iles in 1856 as a gift for Edward Buckler (presumably a mariner from the UK). It is a “mosaic patchwork huswife made from printed and plain cottons in a diamond design. The patchwork has been hand sewn by piecing over papers, and there are three main compartments with semicircles of wool at the bottom to hold needles.” (The Quilters’ Guild Collection)
Below is another example of a simple hussif sewn up by Nan from the Threadwork Primitives blog for her friend. It has just a touch of cross-stitch at the top, but the overall construction is very simple with 4 pockets to squirrel away any of your sewing accoutrement.
Patterns and Tutorials for Sewing a Housewife/Hussif
- 18th Century Housewife Pattern Digital Download PDF by WilloughbyAndRose on Etsy (This is the pattern I used to sew my own Housewife)
- The HUSSIF detailed step by step tutorial and embroidery by Elefantz on Etsy (This is another digital pattern on Etsy. This includes 2 different versions and has lots of pockets to store your sewing goodies)
- Making an 18th Century Hussif (Sewing Kit) by Dances with Wools (This is a FREE tutorial on how to sew a hussif)
2. The Pocket
The next beginner friendly sewing project is the quintessential pocket. The internet is currently rife with examples of the 18th century pocket, thanks in large part to the wonderful CosTube community on YouTube. Just last month, the lovely Bernadette Banner released a video on YouTube giving us a brief history of the pocket, which I highly recommend you give a watch. Along with this video, I was reminded at how useful a tie-on pocket can be when I had the pleasure of wearing one while volunteering at the Lincoln’s New Salem village (set in the 1830’s). So of course, I had to make one for wearing at home!
As with the hussif, you can make your pocket as simple or as elaborate as you please. There are examples of beautifully embroidered pockets, sturdy utilitarian pockets, and economically friendly patchwork pockets.
When I made a pair for myself, I used leftover cotton fabric from sewing a housedress and leftover linen from sewing a shift. I followed the directions from The Workwoman’s Guide by A Lady (1838) to draft the pattern and sew up a pair. This pocket is absolutely ginormous and I’m head over heels in love with it!
Patterns and Tutorials for Sewing a Pocket
- Victoria and Albert Museum: Make your own pocket tutorial (This is a free tutorial to follow for making a pocket.)
- Kanniks Korner Stockings, Pockets, and Mitts Pattern (This is a paper pattern and includes 5 pocket variations along with patterns for mitts and stockings)
- Burnley and Trowbridge Pocket Sew Along Series Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (This is an incredibly informative tutorial on how to sew 18th century pockets. It is a 3 part video series on YouTube. HERE is the link to download their FREE ePattern for their pocket)
3. The Apron
Last, but not least, is the humble apron. This garment is a piece of fabric worn on the front of the body and tied around the waist to help protect the wearer’s clothing beneath it. The beauty of the apron is that even though it is very practical and useful, it can also bring your modern or historical garment up a notch by adding an extra layer of pattern or texture. And if you’re a fan of the CottageCore aesthetic, like I am, you get all of the cozy cottage feels when wearing an apron over your dresses. 🙂
As with the other two projects, your apron can be customized to suit any of your needs and it can be as fancy or simple as you like. This can range from the everyday hardworking cotton apron to the gauzy embroidered confection of a tea apron.
Patterns and Tutorials for Sewing an Apron
- Burnley and Trowbridge Apron Sew Along Series Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 (This is another incredibly informative FREE tutorial on how to sew an 18th century apron. It is a 3 part video series on YouTube.)
- Edwardian Apron ePattern from Sense and Sensibility Pattern
- The Workwoman’s Guide by A Lady (1838) on Aprons
When it comes to finding the materials you need to complete your hand sewing projects, there are many places you can turn to. When sewing my pocket and hussif, I went looking through my basket of scrap material for suitable pieces. My hussif is pieced together using leftover fabric from the two dresses I made my daughter this year, two house dresses for myself, hand stamped fabric from a few years ago, felt wool from a cape, plaid flannel from a petticoat, printed cotton from an apron, and green cotton sateen from a walking skirt.
I love how this small sewing kit is a reminder of a handful of projects I have completed in the past few years. The same can be said for my pocket as well, as it uses checked cotton from a house dress and linen from a shift. As for my apron, I did purchase material specifically for it, a medium weight herringbone linen.
To aide you in finding your materials, here is a brief list of a few of my favorite online stores for purchasing fabric and notions for my historical sewing.
- Burnley and Trowbridge – provides reproduction textiles, notions, sewing tools, and accessories
- Renaissance Fabrics – purveyor of fine historical fabrics
- The Historical Fabric Store – a Swedish shop with that specialize in historical textiles and supplies
If you have a budget to stick to or not ready to make a big investment in fabric, you can purchase fabric from your local craft store, thrift bed sheets, or organize a fabric swap amongst crafty friends.
I hope, dear reader, that you are able to come away from this rather lengthy post with a good idea of at least one project that can get you started on the path of hand sewing (or sewing in general) and the confidence and support to take that first step. It is so very rewarding to know that you can use your two hands, some fabric, a needle, and some thread to bring to life a piece of historical clothing that our modern society has left to the wayside. Not only are you bringing the back this small bit of history, but you are also improving your own sewing skills, and giving yourself a very practical tool to use in your homemaking.
If you do decide to make one of the beginner friendly sewing projects listed above, please tag me in your photos on Instagram (@historicalhomemaker), I would absolutely love to share in your sewing success and cheer you on! 🙂