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Florence Cole as a child

Making and mending clothes
in the early 1900s

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Women did a lot of sewing, mending and darning when I was a child it in the early 1900s. It was common, for example, to see boys with patched trousers and non-matching buttons.

A working class woman sewing, mending and dressmaking in the early 1900s, showing her clothes, her needlework bag and her wickerwork chair.

 Sewing, dressmaking and mending at home at about the time of World War One. Note the sewing bag, the clothes and the padded wickerwork armchair. This photo is courtesy of Don Billing and shows his grandmother, Alice Long who was born in 1855. It is a detail of a larger photo which illustrates room decor.

My mother would wash and unpick my father's trousers that were no further use to him and cut out a pair of trousers from the less worn parts to make a pair for one of my brothers. I had a winter coat which she made from a soldier's khaki coat that came her way. Other clothes that came her way originated from cast offs from the children in the big houses. These were given to servants who passed them on to us, but my mother invariably had to do some needlework on them to make them fit. She was very industrious.

Lynn Schoeffler's great aunt tells a typical story of receiving a hand-me-down wool coat that was faded and stained. Her mother, Lynn's great grandmother, removed the lining, picked the coat apart at the seams, turned every piece inside out, and then sewed it back together for a coat that looked new.

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The sewing machine

an old treadle type of sewing machine, typical of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

 A sewing machine of the type used in the early 1900s. The working part could be folded under and the lid could be folded.

My mother told us that she had had her sewing machine since the was eighteen - which meant that it was a nineteenth century model - probably very similar to the one in the photo. We never asked how she came by it; it was probably a cast-off from somewhere. It worked by foot power via a foot treadle, and it was in constant use, apart from in the evenings as it was one of the things that annoyed my father. Then the working part of the sewing machine was lifted, a catch was released, and it was folded down and hidden underneath. Once the lid was lowered, the sewing machine made a table of sorts.

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The button box

A 'button box'- an old tin storing odd buttons

A 'button box' which was an old tin in which odd buttons were kept. It was normal to see working class children wearing clothes with odd buttons in Edwardian times.

Apart from sewing on patches and darning, a significant part of mending was sewing on buttons. Buttons were essential for fastening as there were no zip fasteners and no velcro. Buttons fell off with wear, so women always kept a 'button box' in their sewing box, in which they collected odd buttons to use as replacements.

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Photos of more old dressmaking equipment

Victorian dressmaking scissors - tarnished because there was no stainless steel.

 Dressmaking scissors. Note the tarnish because there was no stainless steel in Victorian and Edwardian times.

Victorian or Edwardian sewing box

A Victorian or Edwardian sewing box, currently owned by Rosemary Hampton.

tailor's dummy

Tailor's dummy - for those who could afford one. A properly adjusted dummy saved ages of standing for being fitted.

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