STITCHES AS USED BY TAILORS IN 1800

Intoftailorshop

When I began researching into 18C gentlemen’s tailoring a couple of years ago I keenly felt the need to find an elementary book to help me to understand the basics.  I found several treatises, but they were all either too high-level  or the wrong date.  Now, rather late in the day, I have found what I was looking for – a slim anonymous volume from about 1801, just called ‘The Tailor’, published in London by Houlston and Stoneman.  Being aimed at the fifteen-year-old apprentice it is a marvel of simplicity and clarity, such that even I could understand it.  Here is the section that describes all of the stitches in use at the time and how to perform them.  To those who understand and carry out hand-sewing all the time there may be little that is new, but even they may find it useful to know the subtle distinctions between stotting, rantering and fine-drawing, for instance.  Interesting to my untutored mind was the combination of fore- and back-stitching, as well as the method for making cloth-covered buttons.  Some people may even enjoy this!

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And here it will be proper, before giving directions for sewing, first to enumerate the different kinds of stitches, and then to explain, as clearly as may be possible, the manner in which each of them is done.   And, first, as to the different sorts of stitches, which are the basting-stitch, the back and fore-stitch, the back-stitch, the side-stitch, and the fore-stitch; also the back-pricking stitch, the fore-pricking stitch, the serging-stitch, the cross-stitch, and the button-hole stitch; besides which there is a distinct kind of stitch for hemming, filling, stotting, rantering, fine-drawing, prick-drawing, over-casting, and also for making what are called covered buttons. (The only difference between the pricking stitches, and the back-stitch and fore-stitch is, that the needle is not, as in them, turned up, and brought back through the cloth, but is first put entirely through, and then passed back again, so as to ensure a thorough hold being taken of the cloth on each side.  It is used in thick fabrics, where great strength of workmanship is required) . 

The basting-stitch is a long and slight stitch, intended to be merely temporary, or to fasten together some of the inner and concealed parts of the garments.   It is commonly used to keep the work in its proper position while being sewed.

The back and fore-stitch is made, as the name implies, by the union of back- stitching and fore-stitching; in this stitch the needle is first put through the cloth, and turned up in as short a space as is possible, so as to make a neat and strong stitch when completed; it is then put through the cloth again in the same place as at first, and again turned up, taking care that it passes through the cloth as nearly as possible within the same space as before.  This being done, the first back-stitch is completed.  The second stitch is made by passing the needle forward upon the surface of the cloth, but without taking hold of it, over a space equal to the length of the first stitch; the needle is then again put through the cloth, turned up, and brought back to the place where it was last put through, so as to form another back-stitch; which is followed by another putting of the needle forward, or, in plainer terms, another fore-stitch, and so on, in the same order, until the seam is finished.  This kind of stitch is used for sewing linings, pockets, flannel garments, and other thin fabrics.  There is no need to say much respecting the back-stitch, as this may be understood from what is said above respecting the first stitch in back and fore-stitching.  This stitch is used for seams where strength is required; it is also sometimes used for ornament, instead of the side- stitch, but in this case it must be very neatly and regularly made.

The side-stitch is used for the edges of garments, to keep them from rolling over, or from being drawn out of shape.  It is always intended for ornament as well as use, and requires a very quick eye and a careful hand to do it well.  In this stitch the needle is passed through the cloth a little above or below the place from which it came out in the former stitch, but it must be at a very little distance from this place, or the sewing silk will be visible on the surface of the cloth, which is a great blemish, and yet it must be far enough away from where it came out to prevent its breaking through, in which case the stitch is lost, both as to use and ornament.  Care must also be taken, that the stitches are at regular distances from each other, and that the whole of them are placed at the same distance from the edge of the cloth.  In the fore-stitch, as has been already hinted, the needle, when drawn out from the seam, is always put forward, so that an equal quantity of thread, or a stitch of the same length, is visible on each surface of the cloth.

Serge-stitching is done by passing the needle through the cloth, from the under to the upper piece, throwing the thread over the edges of the cloth so as to keep them closely together.  It is also used to join selvages together, as also to prevent taking up more space for seams than can be spared, when the pieces are barely large enough for the required purpose.  It is not, however, much used by tailors, except where no great degree of strength is required.

The cross-stitch is formed by two parallel rows of stitches, so placed as that the stitch in the upper row is opposite to the vacant space in the lower one, the thread passing from one stitch to the other in diagonal lines.  It is used for keeping open the seams of such garments as require washing, and also for securing the edges from ravelling out, in such fabrics as are too loosely made to allow of their edges being fastened down by the filling-stitch.

In the button-hole stitch, the needle is first put through the cloth from the inner to the outer surface, and before it is drawn out the twist is passed round the point of the needle, and kept in that position till the needle be drawn out to the full extent of the twist; this forms a kind of loop, called by tailors the “purl”, at the top or edge of the opening, and, when regularly made, is both useful and ornamental.  To increase the strength of this stitch, and also to aid in making it true or exact, a “bar” is formed on each side of the opening, before the hole is begun to be worked.  This “bar”, as it is called, is made by passing the needle from one end of the opening to the other (one, two, or more times), so as that there is a layer, if it may so be called, of twist stretching along its whole length (and on each side), upon which the whole is worked, the workman taking care to keep the “bar” as near to the edge of the opening as is possible, without allowing it to come over, in which case the button-hole will be neither strong nor neat.

There is not much need to say any thing about the hemming-stitch, as almost every lad will have had opportunities of seeing this used by his mother, his sisters, or other females.  It may, therefore, suffice for this to say, that care must be taken to set it regularly, and also as closely together as may be either convenient or sightly.  It must also be observed, that the needle is not to be deeply inserted, as it is necessary that the stitch should be as little visible as is possible on the other side of the cloth. The hand moreover must not be drawn in roughly, or by a snatch, but so gently as to prevent contracting the hem.

The filling-stitch is similar to that used in hemming; the chief difference being in the direction given to the needle.  In hemming, its point is directed outwards, or from the workman, but in filling it is directed inwards, or towards him, and in each should be a little, but only a little slanted, in order to give the sewing a neat appearance.  This stitch is used for sewing on facings, and when made with neatness, and without showing itself much on the outer side of the cloth, is considered to be ornamental, as well as useful.

Stotting (pronounced stoating) is the stitch used for joining pieces of cloth so neatly as that the join shall be but little visible, and yet strong enough to prevent the pieces from being easily parted.  In this kind of seam the pieces of cloth are not laid the one upon the other, as in back-stitching, but are placed side by side, the edges being carefully fitted, so as to prevent any irregularity or roughness in the work.  They are then sewn together by passing the needle half through the thickness of the cloth. Care must be taken to keep the stitches as near to each edge of the cloth as can be done without incurring the danger of its breaking through.  The needle is put in on the nearest edge of the two, and must not be slanted in the direction given to it, but put as straight forward as possible.  The stitch should be drawn close enough home to prevent the silk thread from showing itself on the right side of the cloth, but yet not so close as to draw the edges into a ridge.  If the join be as neatly made as it may be, it will, when properly pressed, be barely perceptible.  This stitch is used for joining the pieces of cloth of which facings, collar-linings, and other fillings-up of the inner sides of garments, are made, and also in other cases to preventing the taking up too much of the cloth by making a back-stitched seam.

Rantering, like stotting, is intended to conceal a join in the cloth.  Here, however, it is requisite to make a strong as well as a neat joining; and, therefore, a seam is first sewn with a fore-stitch, and then the rantering-stitch is worked upon or over this seam.  It should he worked with a very fine silk thread, or with twist that has had one of the strands taken out.  The needle should be both long and slender, and must be passed forwards and backwards over the seam, so as to catch hold of its two sides, and draw them closely together; but, in doing this, care must be taken not to take a deep hold of the cloth – the nap or wool is all that should be taken hold of, and this must be done with a light hand, while the stitches must be placed close to each other, so that the seam may be well covered with wool; when this is done, the seam has to be “rubbed up”, that is to say, it must be held between the fore-finger and thumb of each hand, these being placed upon the fore-stitching, and its two edges brought as closely together as possible.  The rantering must then be slightly carded or scratched, backwards and forwards, with the point of a needle, in order to bring the wool out again where it has been drawn in with the stitch; the seam is then ready for pressing, and, if this operation be properly performed, will be as much concealed as may be necessary; while it will be much stronger than if it had been merely back-stitched.

In fine-drawing, the stitch is formed in the same manner as in rantering, but there is a difference in the way of placing the pieces that are to be joined, i.e., if they be separate pieces, for this stitch is mostly used to close up places that have been accidentally cut, or torn; the two edges of the place requiring to be fine-drawn are first trimmed by cutting away the loose threads or ends of the cloth which may be upon them; they are then placed and kept in as level or flat a position as is possible, either with the fingers, nearest edge of the two, and must not be slanted in, or by fastening them to a piece of stiff paper.  The needle should be both very small and long, and the thread used, whether it be of silk or twist, should be very slender.  Greater care is here necessary than in rantering, to avoid taking a deep hold of the cloth; the needle should be passed forwards and backwards, over the opening, and the thread should be drawn no closer or tighter than is quite needful, in order to hide it in the wool.  The stitches must be placed as near to each other as is possible, so as to prevent the edges of the cloth from being visible between them; if it be needful to make a strong as well as a neat joining, the fine-drawing should be repeated on the under side of the cloth, but here it will not be needful to put the stitches so close together.  When the fine-drawing is done it must be pressed, but with as light a hand and in as short a time as is practicable, otherwise the sewing, however neatly done, will be visible, and so far as it is so, the design of the fine- drawing stitch will not be answered.

The stitch called prick-drawing is now but seldom used, yet it may be proper to notice it briefly. When this stitch is intended to be employed, the edges of the cloth are first stotted together, after which the needle is passed backwards and forwards in diagonal lines, under the stotting, so as to make the join more strong and durable, than it can be made by merely stotting the pieces together. This stitch is used where the cloth is very thick, or hard and unyielding, and, consequently, where the stotting-stitch would quickly give way without this support.  It is also better than a back-stitched seam for cloths of this description, inasmuch as it can be made to lie more flat, and thus to be more neat in its appearance than a common seam.

Overcasting is used merely to secure the edges of thin and loose fabrics from “ravelling out”.  In using it, the edges of the cloth, whether it be woollen, linen, or cotton, are first trimmed clear of the loose threads; the needle is then passed through the cloth in a forward direction, at about the distance of one-eighth part of an inch from the edge of the cloth, and when drawn out it is carried (from the left to the right, and not, as in other stitches, from the right to the left) about a quarter of an inch; it is then again put through, and on being drawn out it is made to pass over the thread leading from the preceding stitch, so as to form a kind of loop on the edge; which loop secures the edge from becoming too much frayed, or ravelled.

In making cloth buttons, which formerly were almost universally worn, and probably will be again, it is necessary to see that the bone moulds over which the cloth is to be drawn, are all of the same size and thickness.  Very thick moulds should be thrown aside, as also should such as are very thin; for the first will make the button too clumsy, and the last will – most likely – soon break.  The coverings should then be cut in as near to a circular shape as is easily practicable, and should be cut of that size which will allow of the edges, when turned over the mould, nearly meeting each other. They are then to be slightly sewn round near the edge, and with a running stitch, either a serge or a fore-stitch, according as the material used may require; for if it be likely to ravel much it will be necessary to use the sergeing stitch.  When this is done, the edge is gently drawn together, but no farther than will allow room for inserting the mould, which is then put in, as nearly in the middle of the covering as possible.  The thread is then drawn tight, so as to bring the edges of the cover close together, and then the needle is passed over the gatherings from the near edge of the button to the opposite one, the maker taking care to keep regularly turning the button round with the forefinger and thumb of the left hand, so as to carry the sewing over every part of the gatherings. The bottom of the button will thus be composed of thread, and therefore may be far more strongly sewn on the garment than if it were fastened on by sewing it merely through the covering.

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4 Responses to STITCHES AS USED BY TAILORS IN 1800

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    Fascinating; only some of the names have changed to protect the innocent. Though I have to say I haven’t used all these stitches – I’ve certainly never stotted. It’s nicely clearly put though and is easy enough to follow, if one wished to do so. I can see that the foreward-and-back stitch was essential for some of the woollen fabrics for suits though generally back stitch does me well enough for most things if I’m hand sewing. The sewing machine is a wonderful machine however, even my faithful hand cranked three-quarter sized Jones [by appointment to Queen Alexandra]. I wonder what Louis would have thought of it…..

  2. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Thank you, Sarah. Thought you might find this interesting.I don’t expect there are many stotters left out there, no. Just as the last lady who could do invisible mending (much like fine-drawing but harder) passed away some years ago, taking some of its secrets with her…There were a few prototype sewing machines that had been made by the time Louis died in 1830 but I expect he would have taken a dim view of them.

  3. Kathryn Kane says:

    This was wonderful!!! Thank you for taking the time to post it!It is clear that even though hand-sewn, tailor’s seams were just as sturdy, if not more so, than the seams made by machine today. I wish a similar book for dressmakers would turn up. It would be interesting to know if there were any differences in the stitches they used for making women’s clothes as opposed to those used by tailors for men’s garments.I have made many button-holes in just the way described and they are quite neat and sturdy when done correctly. The "pricking stitch" is still used in haute couture to this day, as it is the stitch used when putting zippers in high fashion garments.The description provided of stotting sounds to me very like the modern blind stitch, by which a seam can be sewn invisibly with the two edges folded back and the folds butted together. The making of covered buttons was certainly much more labor-intensive than it is today, when one can buy the forms over which the cloth is stretched and a backer is provided to secure it in place. The backer is also conveniently equipped with the shank which the eighteenth-century tailors had to make by hand, with thread.I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks!Kat

  4. Charles Bazalgette says:

    Dear Kat,I must be absent-minded, or perhaps just absent because I didn’t see your comment until now. The need for stronger stitches was probably because clothes were made tighter at the time, parrticularly in the sleeves. Also many modern synthetic fabrics and thread are much stronger then their natural equivalents.As far as your other comments arer concerned I have to just try to look as if, as a mere male (but not, of course a taylor), I grasp the niceties of what you are talking about ;-).Your visits are always welcome, Kat. Thank you.

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