The act of upcycling, mending and altering clothing is often referred to as being ‘sustainable’, though only a handful of us have the skills to render a tired garment new. Yet historically, these practices were common and would have been carried out by the majority of society due to necessity. In the eighteenth century, for example, it is estimated that 30% of a family’s wealth was spent on a handful of garments. This kind of expenditure meant that people were invested in making garments last. Some clothes would be worn until the cloth could no longer clothe the body, mended as a pair of breech seams split, darned as the shirt holed, or reused to create another garment. The ways in which clothing was made in the past also reveal careful attention to planning, with full widths of fabric used to limit waste. Many such intricate stories of sustainable consumption and production are woven into museum dress and textile collections, but they are seldom told. The resourcefulness of a maker is often attributed, yet the menders who maintained the garments at home are rarely mentioned. With little information about the original wearer or maker, a museum must assume an objects past life. Frequently, these stories relate to the wealthy and the extravagant. This is appealing from an aesthetic point of view, however clothes from the past have much more to offer than just opulence. As a society facing a global climate crisis, can historic garments aid learning if reframed to show everyday practices of sustainability?
Throughout the centuries women, boys and girls would have had a basic understanding of sewing. The decline of sewing skills happened in the late twentieth century. Until then, sewing was a necessary skill that was taught to ensure an individual could run a household. For example, darning and mending were essential to extend the life of a worn garment. Boys joined guilds as apprentices, whilst girls could become low-paid seamstresses. A girl would probably be no older than 10 years old when she was engaging in stitching educational samplers. Such relatively small scraps of linen would be carried around, probably rolled up, acting as an accessible archive of learned stitches and proof of skill. Exhibitions show samplers frequently but rarely do we see these stitches on the garments where they have been put to use. Darning and patches intricately sewn onto a worn garment could ensure a gown or a shirt served for longer. Paying attention to such details means that through the materiality of the object signs of possible biography surface. To mend a shirt is to care for it. Picture a housewife with several children sewing by candle-light in a moderately-sized house, to ensure her husband can continue to wear a fashionable hand-sewn, linen-blend shirt. The small stitches along a rolled hemline indicate precision and accurate attention to detail, yet the darning is somewhat inelegant. Similarly, imagine having only one or two outfits to wear out in public. Envision a hot day in the city, running between rows of hectic, dirty market stalls trying to locate fabrics for the best price. The sweat does not leave the fabric, instead discoloured traces remain deep in the fibres. Rarely, a garment survives that has for example multiple layers of the same striped candycoloured silk sewn to mask the stained underarm. Perhaps this ingenious method was crafted by someone in their home or maybe the wearer returned to their dress-maker, offering a matching remnant to hide the heavily soiled marks. When a true biography of a garment cannot be established, stories of the everyday connect museum visitors to objects, adding to the intrigue, and making the unfamiliar garment more relatable. It is not only the mending of a garment that is noticeable on historic dress; repurposing and remaking are also common. Tell-tale signs of this are when silhouettes appear slightly unusual or a hemline is not quite as expected. A soft women’s waistcoat that would have flared at the hip to fit over a shapely petticoat or skirt might be altered to make it narrower on the waist and hips. Perhaps this is a story of a garment taken in to fit a child or it could be a sign of post-maternity wear.
Transforming an eighteenth-century gown into a fashionable 1830s dress is no mean feat, but these garments, unpicked to an inch of their lives, are frequently seen within museum collections. A woman might be a skilled needleperson but without the money to pay a dressmaker to remake a gown. In that case, it is not unreasonable to assume some remaking of this type was achieved at home. In comparison to the making of a new garment, receipts suggest gowns remade by a dress-maker cost about a quarter of the price. No wonder then that garments were often handed-down through a family as the piece was too good to sell. Or a dress might be acquired through second-hand trade and then remodelled at home. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the second-hand trade was prolific and allowed working or middle class women to adapt beautiful silks as their own. Sleeves were shortened, bodice shapes changed and waistlines altered. The act of literally turning an item of clothing inside out to give the illusion of cleanliness was often carried out by a dress-maker. This would have taken a lot of time and energy but would have saved the wearer a small fortune.
Interpretations of a garment in a museum collection usually equate good stitching with professionals and poor needlework with an amateur. However, needleworks exist in collections with provenance associated to middle and upper class housewives and non-specialist young adults. If an individual had time and resources to practice they could produce the remodelling of garments just as well as a paid professional could. Unfortunately, these women often remain un-named. As well as careful mending, the way garments were cut on the cloth by garment-makers ensured limited waste. The selvedge edge is visible in many garments in the eighteenth century, especially those that are not lined, indicating that the full width of the fabric was used, ensuring economic use of the textile in the making process. Also identifiable is the lack of fully lined garments. In general, it was assumed that what was not seen did not need to be finished completely, reducing labour time and thus the overall cost of a garment. Leftover textile fragments would not be left on the tailor’s workshop floor. The customer would expect to have these returned on completion of the garment. If this did not happen, garmentmakers might find themselves on the wrong side of the law, being deemed ‘felons’ or ‘convicts’ in contemporary newspapers.
The lesser known everyday practices of lives once lived can be revealed through closely studying historic garments. When considering clothing within contemporary narratives of sustainability a myriad of interesting making and mending practices emerge. Garments in museum collections do not just have to represent expensive clothes of elite worlds, so separate to the majority. Instead, clothing can reflect the world we inhabit. When confronted by stories of garments worn, mended and transformed we should consider the usefulness of a bygone era, in comparison with a throw away culture of fast fashion. We should look to the past for tales of sustainability in fashion in order to better know how to treat our clothes in the present.
This article was previously published on issue 102 Mend, available for purchase on our website. Text by Vanessa Jones.