What is heirloom sewing? - Sew Vintagely

What is heirloom sewing?

Heirloom sewing is a style that incorporates fine fabrics and delicate couture sewing techniques like lace insertion, tucks and embroidery, historically referred to as French hand sewing. Looking at pictures of Edwardian era fashion, especially undergarments and children’s clothing, you’ll see where the inspiration for heirloom sewing comes from.

1980s Fashion Trends

Heirloom sewing regained popularity within the sewing community when fashion trends in the late 1970’s and 1980s were inspired by the Victorian and Edwardian eras. (Google Gunne Sax dresses.) Smocking was also a trend in the 70s and 80s; although, smocking wasn’t especially popular in the Victorian/Edwardian era. Today, you’ll often see heirloom sewing and smocking in the same sentence when describing classic sewing styles.

Fun fact: Examples of smocking can be found in garments over 200 years old.  An October 1887 edition of Godey’s Lady’s Book says this about smocking:

Smocking is a very favorite needlework for the clever lady who can perform miracles of grace with thread and needle and stuff. It is too long to describe here, but you know it as the revived embroidery on the farmer’s linen smocks, which is to be seen in the rural districts of England

 

Martha Pullen

Martha Pullen published her book French Hand Sewing by Machine in 1983. She and other talented seamstresses built successful commercial enterprises to teach techniques and sell specialty supplies. Children’s Corner patterns were first designed and printed in the 1980s.

Several companies, including Martha Pullen, began manufacturing mechanical pleaters for smocking. Pleating “machines” have been around for over 100 years, but the new designs were made with smocking in mind.

Classic Sewing Today

Heirloom sewing and smocking as we know them today continue from the trends and styles that became popular in the 1980s. Today’s computerized sewing machines have features that refine methods for French hand sewing by machine. The only company that continues to make mechanical pleaters is Read in Australia.  Another fun fact: the design hasn’t changed much since 1947. You can read the interesting history on their website. Are you wondering why there isn’t a computerized pleater for the home sewer? So am I.

Fabric for Heirloom Sewing

Fabrics preferred for heirloom sewing are plain weave, lightweight, natural fiber fabrics like cotton batiste, voile and linen. Preferred trims are cotton lace and silk ribbon. Fabrics that gained popularity in the 1980s and are still favorites today are Spechler Vogel’s famous Imperial batiste, Imperial broadcloth and Nelona batiste. The premier batiste for fine sewing was and is Bearissima I and Bearissima II by Bear Threads Ltd.

Lace for Heirloom Sewing

Cotton laces suitable for heirloom sewing are French Valenciennes and French maline lace, as well as English cotton bobbinet. These laces do not come gathered. They are gathered by pulling a thread in the header. See my Youtube video about how to do this.

The Next Generation

Are you part of the new generation of sewers eager to learn heirloom sewing or smocking? If there is any question of its current popularity, check out Vogue Magazine’s February 2020 edition:  The New Edwardian.

There are a couple of great books if you’re just getting started in heirloom sewing or smocking. A to Z of Heirloom Sewing and A to Z of Smocking.

Happy sewing everyone!

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