Victorian Sewing: A Brief History of Plain and Fancy Work

“Light or fancy needlework often forms a portion of the evening’s recreation for the ladies of the household…”  Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.

Portraits in the Countryside by Gustave Caillebotte, 1876.
Portraits in the Countryside by Gustave Caillebotte, 1876.

During the 19th century, women were rarely idle in their spare moments.  Many preferred instead to occupy themselves with a bit of sewing.  This sewing generally fell into two broad categories: plain work and fancy work.  Plain work was used to make or mend simple articles of clothing.  While fancy work—which included knitting, crochet, and embroidery—was used in a more decorative sense.  A young lady skilled at both plain and fancy work could not only repair her current clothing, she could design and sew stylish new pieces to supplement her wardrobe.  As an 1873 issue of Harper’s Bazaar explains:

“…we have met with cases where the frivolity of fancy-work has been turned to excellent profit, where young ladies who had learned its arts in their idle moments practiced it to provide themselves with the wardrobe that their restricted purses could never buy.”

Lady’s magazines of the day featured countless patterns for everything from knitted reticules and petticoats to crocheted corsets and garters.  Patterns for baby clothes were also popular, as were patterns for home goods such as doilies, antimacassars, and accessories for pets.  The end results of sewing these patterns could provide a lady with much needed clothing and household items for herself and her family.  Or, if she was entrepreneurial, it could provide her with a steady income.  Harper’s Bazaar reports:

“We have known of a still more striking case where a widow has paid off the mortgage on her city house, and supported herself and child for many years, almost altogether with her swift crochet needle.”

Knitted Petticoat and Crochet Shoulder Cape, Harper's Bazaar, 1897.
Knitted Petticoat and Crochet Shoulder Cape, Harper’s Bazaar, 1897.

More than just a practical skill, in marriageable young women of the middle and upper classes, fancy work was considered to be an accomplishment.  It was taught to young girls both at home and at school and, by the end of the century, was even being offered in women’s colleges.  According to author Christine Bayles Kortsch in her 2009 book Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction:

“In the latter half of the century, women’s colleges and art schools offered professional instruction in fancy work, particularly embroidery.”

Once wed, the sewing skills learned by middle and upper class girls did not fall by the wayside.  Newly married ladies continued to apply themselves to fancy work or to sewing clothes for the poor.  As for plain work, this usually became the province of the lady’s maid.  In Isabella Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, for example, she writes:

“Plain work will probably be one of the lady’s-maid’s chief employments.”

Embroidered Collar Pattern, Godey's Lady's Book, 1855.
Embroidered Collar Pattern, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855.

For poorer girls, sewing was taught at various working-class day schools, often at the expense of skills such as writing and arithmetic.  The reasoning behind this is best expressed in the following words from the Bampton National School, as quoted by Kortsch:

“Needlework, Knitting, &c. will form part of their constant employment for the purpose of training them up in habits of useful industry, and contributing to the support of the School.”

Godey's Lady's Book, 1876.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1876.

The invention of the sewing machine in the mid-19th century did little to improve the lot of poor working seamstresses.  Instead, it led to mass production of clothing in factories where the working conditions were often quite grim—and sometimes even fatal.  In his 2001 book on Twelve Inventions which Changed America, author Gerhard Falk goes so far as to claim that, for the poor:

“…the sewing machine became a new taskmaster, a slave driver, and an instrument of degradation, misery, and desperation.”

For those middle and upper class ladies at home, however, the sewing machine was a useful tool.  Able to make 250 stitches per minute in its earliest incarnation, it greatly sped up the process of sewing straight seams and was—as author Ella Rodman Church states in her 1882 book The Home Needle—a “valuable aid in lightening the sewing of a household.”  Even so, Church goes on to advise that the sewing machine is no replacement for plain and fancy work, writing:

“…[It] is mechanical in its execution, and done according to rules that have little connection with needle-work.”

Despite many modern advances, plain and fancy work—of the sort so popular in the Victorian era—are still around today.  Countless women all over the world spend their free moments on knitting, crochet, or embroidery.  Not because it makes them more marriageable and not because it is a necessary life skill, but because they enjoy it.  To be fair, I believe there were many who enjoyed it in the 19th century as well, however, I must say that I am quite thankful that it is no longer a prerequisite to being considered an accomplished lady.

I close this article with a few interesting images of Victorian era crochet projects.  You can find the full patterns for all of these items at the links cited below—though I urge you not to inflict a crocheted corset on your baby or a crocheted muzzle on your dog.

Dog Muzzle Crochet, Godey's Lady's Book, 1868.
Dog Muzzle Crochet, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1868.
Crocheted Girl's Corset, Babyhood Magazine, 1887.
Crocheted Girl’s Corset, Babyhood Magazine, 1887.
Crochet Cape for Elderly Lady, Harper's Bazaar, 1871.
Crochet Cape for Elderly Lady, Harper’s Bazaar, 1871.
Crochet Garter, Madame Gouband's Crochet Book, 1871.
Crochet Garter, Madame Gouband’s Crochet Book, 1871.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Babyhood: A Monthly Magazine for Mothers.  Volume 3.  New York: Babyhood Publishing, 1887.

Church, Ella Rodman.  The Home Needle.  New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1882.

Falk, Gerhard.  Twelve Inventions which Changed America.  Plymouth: Hamilton Books, 2013.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. LI.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1855.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. 77.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1868.

Godey’s Lady’s Book.  Vol. 93.  Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, 1876.

Green, Nancy L.  Ready-to-Wear and Ready-to-Work.  Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Goubaud, Mme. Adolphe.  Madame Goubaud’s Crochet Book.  1871.

Harper’s Bazaar.  Vol. 4.  New York: Hearst Corporation, 1871.

Harper’s Bazaar.  Vol. 6.  New York: Hearst Corporation, 1873.

Harper’s Bazaar.  Vol. 20.  New York: Hearst Corporation, 1887.

Kortsch, Christine Bayles.  Dress Culture in Late Victorian Women’s Fiction.  New York: Routledge, 2009.

Savage, Mrs. William.  Gems of Knitting and Crochet.  London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1847.


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31 Comments on "Victorian Sewing: A Brief History of Plain and Fancy Work"

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Sarah Waldock
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I have been told that the crocheted corset, or liberty bodice for little girls is actually both warm and comfortable to wear in winter, especially if made from a cotton yarn or lambswool. My great aunt’s aunt had a sewing machine in the late 80s/early 90s [Singer] which she used in her home business as a milliner. My great aunt inherited it, and now I have it, it’s a treadle, and until I recently got a Singer which will do things like zigzag and overlock, I never used anything else. You can run up a summer frock in an afternoon… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

I bet you’re right about that crocheted corset being warm in winter! I have actually never heard of sewing a bottom drawer in anticipation of marriage. Was it a popular ritual? Sort of like a hope chest?

Sarah Waldock
Guest
I think hope chest might be the American term for it… your 13 nightgowns [the 13th is the shroud and is your best work], well ok, I didn’t do that! Not when nighties were cheap enough in Marks and Sparks; the 4 pairs of sheets – again, why bother when you can get sewn Egyptian cotton sheets – and the quilts. Now the quilts I did make, and I did embellish the best pair of sheets and pillow cases which I appliqued and embroidered. I eschewed tablecloths, because I believe in wipable tops, excpet for one for best which was… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

My gosh, Sarah–I was lucky once to crochet a little blanket for one of my rescue dogs! I wish I had the skills that you have. I’ll bet your knowledge gives you some insight when you’re writing your Regency novels!

Vickie
Guest

Excellent! It seems like such a wonderful hobby now but was probably a necessity then. There must have been something very satisfying for Victorian women in creating something of their own.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Absolutely! There is nothing like completing a sewing project that you can use in day-to-day life.

anneharrison
Guest

Hope you’re taking time off to work on your accomplishments! I particularly like the crocheted dog muzzle. A great post, thank you

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re very welcome, Anne :) The dog muzzle is my favorite too.

Claudia Suzan Carley
Guest

Very interesting! It seems that needlework used to be considered merely a craft or frivolous way to fill women’s time. But it was also an art form. I’m reminded of American quilts made by pioneer women. Those that survive are extremely valuable.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks Claudia :) And you’re very right. It’s also similar to the middle ages when ladies worked on tapestries. Those tapestries are worth a fortune now.

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Guest

My mother used to make quilts and do not only needlepoint but petit point. I even learned that skill for fun. Never could knit but boy could my mother knit like crazy. I was always amazed at her skills.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

It is amazing what the truly skillful seamstresses among us can accomplish! My own sewing skills are minimal, but I always marvel at how gifted others are.

Pam Shropshire
Guest
My mother was born in the Great Depression in Oklahoma, which as anyone interested in US history knows, was a truly desperate time. She learned how to make dresses and aprons from flour sacks, how to crochet warm things for winter, how to can and preserve vegetables and fruits, etc. I grew up in the 1970s and early 80s and my mother passed on to me her knowledge of all the traditional “housewifely” arts. The only things that I have stuck with are the cooking and the crochet – those I truly enjoy doing. Crocheting for me is not only… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much, Pam :) My mother is a crocheter like you and I think it reduces stress for her as well. It’s one of the many benefits of sewing!

nottooshabby
Guest

I so appreciate your posts — thanks so much — wonderful job!

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Thanks so much for your kind words :) I’m so happy that you enjoy my posts!

woostersauce2014
Guest

Woman’s Weekly, which is one of the oldest magazines in the UK always had sewing, knitting and crocheting projects in its pages since the publication was founded in 1911. I did learn sewing and crocheting at school, was decent with the former and rubbish with the latter.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

You’re lucky to have learned it at school. My mom had home economics in school when she was younger, which included some sewing, but when I was in school it had long stopped being offered. I suppose it was not considered to be wholly PC.

woostersauce2014
Guest

I went to a Catholic all girls’ school that’s why. I did wish we had a choice, I would have carried on with sewing but was forced to do crochet as well which frankly I didn’t like.

Plus men did sewing, knitting and crocheting too. Look at Queen Mary as an example – all her sons especially the two oldest were adept at needle, thread and knitting needles.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I think you’ll find The People’s Friend predates Woman’s Weekly… it was founded in 1869 and also has been stuffed with practical projects. I don’t know when they started this but they also run a yearly ‘love darg’ [darg is Scots for a day’s work] in which they ask readers to make something to donate through the magazine to charity.

woostersauce2014
Guest

Many thanks and I stand corrected.

Angelyn
Guest

Long after the Victorian age ended, women must have continued to do a lot of this “fancy” work because I would find it the work baskets of those who lived and passed on mid-20th century.

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Oh absolutely! Fancy work is still a popular pastime today.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I’m actually about to get out my patchwork for the evening. I’ve collected a load of florals on cream, and plain cream, and I’ve created a wreath with the patterened ones. It’s a throw for my sofa/divan in my study

Mimi Matthews
Guest

Sounds beautiful, Sarah!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

I know you don’t take links, but there’s a similar one on my pinterest board of quilts [I pin and write under my own name]

Sarah Waldock
Guest

… the new one is bigger though and is a circle wreath not an oval

Mimi Matthews
Guest

I’ll have a look!

Pam Shropshire
Guest

Thanks for the mention of your pinterest page, Sarah – I’m following. You’re welcome to have a look at mine, as well, also under my real name.

Sarah Waldock
Guest

thank you Pam, I shall!

Sarah Waldock
Guest

hah, we share a love of crochet – and tea.

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