What is heirloom sewing anyway? - Sew Vintagely

What is heirloom sewing anyway?

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!

4 thoughts on “What is heirloom sewing anyway?”

  1. After many years absence, I would like to return to smocking but alas have no young children I can smock for. Because I loved smocking so much I dream of just embarking on a smocked Christmas or Easter dress project and maybe upon completion finding a buyer.

    Anyway in addition to children’s smocked patterns that are readily available (in addition to the numerous patterns and books I’ve collected over the years), I’ve been searching for adult smocked patterns, preferably contemporary. Does anyone know of a source of those?

    1. Hi! Glad you found my blog! 🙂 The only adult smocked dress patterns I’ve seen are from the 80s and earlier. Maybe there is a contemporary pattern you could adapt smocking? Perhaps this is a good topic for a future blog post! 🙂

  2. Have never sewed before in my life, but after stumbling upon your blog on Pinterest I think it could be worth a try in my lifetime!

    Thank you for the inspiration!

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