Dressmaking in Detail by Ann MacTaggart


I own a great many books on dressmaking. Most of them assume construction knowledge or simply don’t cover it at all as they assume that the dressmaker will be using a commercial pattern, which will come with instructions which explain how to put the garment together and in what order. True, my older books do cover this but the emphasis is on hand sewing; if a machine is used at all, it is mainly for the long seams and the rest is very much hand-finished.

For those who seek to design their own garments and machine sew them, this leaves a frustrating gap in know-how and this is where this book really comes into its own.

As I mentioned, I do own a LOT of dressmaking books but this one really does have the best and clearest illustrations of complicated seam finishes that I have seen anywhere. Where some books use a series of stepped illustrations to demonstrate a technique, this one, by clear and well-thought-out diagrams, manages to make the entire process clear in a single picture. I can – at last – say that I understand a Mantua-Maker’s Seam…

So, if you need to know how to insert an under-arm, diamond-shaped gusset or the proper method of inserting godets, this is the book you need.

Fly fastenings, collars, plackets, cuffs and zips… it’s all here.

I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading this. It has a really good ratio of text to diagrams, the text is well written and easy to follow – not pitched too high – and it has a good index. It’s a handy reference for design students, home dressmakers and professionals alike.

Garment Making, the cutting-out and making-up of common-sense comfortable clothing for children by Jane A. Fleming


Definitely one for the girls as there are no boys’ garments included here. As a mother of a boy this was naturally a little disappointing but other volumes of similar era exist which do include boys so I was not entirely bereft.

The text is clearly written, the subject matter covered comprehensively and the line drawing diagrams are particularly well drawn, showing clearly the needle position, stitch sequence or whichever detail or method is being illustrated.

I am always impressed by the amount of practical and sensible tuition contained, so succinctly, in these older volumes. All the basic rules are here, with thorough explanation and examination of techniques, stitches and materials and – more pertinently, in my opinion – on how to choose which to use in a given circumstance.

Returning to the diagrams, those relating to the pattern cutting are especially clear. The method used in this book is especially suitable for the inexperienced or unconfident pattern cutter. The starting point is a piece of paper of set proportions and by folding this paper a number of times both vertically and horizontally, the resultant grid is used to plot the pattern according to the accompanying diagram. (Those interested in this method should also seek out the book “Pattern-Making by Paper Folding”, by Miss F Heath, published by Longmans, Green and Co in 1910.)

Unlike many contemporary needlework volumes, there is no mention of mending; it is purely making.

I do not think that the patterns lend themselves to modern interpretation quite so readily as the simpler garments covered by “Simple Garments for Children” by M B Synge but with suitable modification (slight modification to side seam silhouette, fullness arranged as pleats rather than gauged gathers, etc) there is plenty of scope for practical application and even if one ignores the patterns altogether the explanation and illustration of technique makes this book a very worth while purchase.

There is a section specifically covering dolls’ clothes and bedding which, whilst originally intended as reduced scale practice pieces, will appeal equally to those interested in producing dolls’ clothes from patterns which are correct for the era of the doll.

Modern Dress Design – Harriet Pepin (1942)

Large format, hardback book measuring 11″ tall x 8″ wide x 1″ thick. Green boards (1945 reprint of 1942 original), 253 pages.

I have an increasingly extensive library of vintage sewing and needlework books and confess that this has to be just about the best I have seen.

Not only is it beautifully presented but unlike Mme Trois Fontaines’ Dress Design and Margaret Ralston’s Dress Cutting (who both cover a similar era and similar subject matter) Pepin goes one step further and gives a proper discussion to the matters of proportion and good design and encourages experiment and the development of a well-trained eye.

Pepin is also extremely comprehensive – more so than Fontaines and Ralston. She is similar in content to Natalie Bray except that she gives more consideration to the process of good design and the illustrations are, to my eye at least, more pleasing and easy to interpret. Unlike Bray, Pepin is also contained in a single volume.

The front bodice draft is a very simple, single-dart pattern which is easily adapted and lends itself very well to experimentation.

The chapter headings are:
1) Pattern Designing
2) Slopers
3) Hip Length Patterns
4) Sleeve Patterns
5) Adapting Patterns
6) Capes, Ties, Neckwear and Scarves
7) Collars
8) Skirts
9) Slacks, Shorts, Culottes and Bathing Suits
10) Lingerie
11) Coats
12) Children’s Clothing

I had to wait a long time to find a hard copy for a reasonable price but would certainly recommend this book to anyone wanting to study not just pattern cutting but clothes design as a whole.

Practical Home Mending Made Easy – Mary Brooks Picken

Published by Odhams in 1946 this is a hardback book with a grasscloth cover, measuring ten by 7 inches and printed on quite thin but good quality, silky paper. The text is well written and is liberally scattered with pen and ink diagrams, very well drawn and clearly illustrating the techniques they demonstrate.

Some of the text is amusingly obsolete – my husband and I were equally amused by the “When You Mend for Men” section which commences with the observation that “every new husband is happy about the first button that comes off. His bride will sew it on for him and he will revel in this special attention” and which later, mentioning the sense in putting a price on one’s time and keeping a notebook of time spent and money saved sets as an example the “one woman with husband and three children to sew for learned to mend, took the necessary time to learn to do it well. At the end of a year she showed her husband she had really saved enough to warrant his buying a piano for her”.

Anyone familiar with the author won’t be surprised to hear that this really is an excellent and very comprehensive book and whilst the skills taught herein are hardly exclusive, the pleasing layout of this book together with the clarity of the diagrams makes it easily one of the better books I have encountered.

It truly does start with the basics. This is certainly the first time I have seen close-up diagrams showing how to thread a needle but each of us has to start somewhere and with people less likely than ever before to have learned these skills from a relative or at school it is not inappropriate to have them mentioned here.

Indeed many of the finishings and techniques covered as standard subject matter here now find themselves promoted to the lofty status of “couture” techniques and are overlooked by many ordinary sewing books whose aim is to use the sewing machine almost exclusively. The example of factory-produced goods too frequently leads us to believe that items are “homespun” and inferior unless made entirely by machine and it is time we debunked this.

Even though this is a book specifically about mending there must necessarily be some overlap with books on dressmaking and general needlework so seams, hems, embroidery stitches, darts, gathers, tucks and ruffles, pleats, godets, neckline and sleeve finishes, plackets, fasteners and buttonholes are all covered here but often with a slightly different bias – bound buttonholes are, for example, promoted as being an excellent way to refurbish a buttonhole frayed out of shape too badly to be simply reworked in buttonhole stitch.

There is a handy section dealing with how to recognise the fibre content of cloth and also a good introduction to the sewing machine and its attachments.

In keeping with a sense of proper economy and foresight there is discussion about reinforcing areas prone to wear and tear and also the particular method used in mending each of a variety of different tears – invisible darn, slashes, reinforced darn, one-way darn, corner tear, runs in knitwear, cross-wise splits in knitwear, stocking grafting and irregular machine darn.

Patches are shown in variety; including some which are cunningly designed to look like a design detail whilst in fact hiding a stain or a tear.

Underpinnings receive a lot of coverage; the reinforcement and renewal of straps and fastenings, how to disguise minor repairs, mend frayed edges, deal with broken fagotting, seams and worn elastic, reinforce where bones and wiring pushes though.

Some things, like repairs to cuffs, collars and pockets I have seen before but others, such as gloves, ties and belts are less common as is the very comprehensive coverage given to the repair of blankets, pillowcases and sheets, including the hemstitched variety which often tears along the hemstitching.

Laundering is also mentioned: stain removal, washing, ironing, cleaning and pressing, as well as an area akin to dry cleaning referred to here as “Freshening” but  do indeed treat this with caution as the chemicals are indeed eye-watering and the reader must be responsible in his or her own research into the chemicals involved before attempting to follow any of the advice in this section.

The final part of the book deals with refashioning clothing – of refreshing worn areas, updating them and in picking them apart and reusing the cloth. It advises the seamstress to look carefully at each garment and assess its merits before deciding upon its fate: first considering whether some refurbishment, recutting or readjustment could do anything for it. Next consider whether, when done the garment would do anything for you!

If that seems hopeless, either give it away or else rip it apart at the seams and reuse the material for something different. I have to say I snorted somewhat at the part where the author advises against the home sewer attempting to draft her own patterns, opining that it “requires equipment and experience beyond the home sewer’s ken.” I do happen to have had the benefit of professional training in pattern cutting but certainly don’t agree that it is beyond a home sewer to learn the same skill.

Ideas follow as to the sorts of project which could be attempted for different garments – evening coats into skirts, jackets, even boudoir cushions! Men’s shirts are particularly prized as being a suitable basis for children’s shirts, blouses, aprons and pinafores. The author sets a pretty tight schedule, mind: to produce a pair of trousers or a dress from reclaimed fabrics will take six hours by her estimate: one for ripping and pressing, one for cutting, one or possibly two for basting, half an hour for fitting, half and hour for adjustments after fitting, one for stitching, half an hour for buttons and buttonholes and half an hour for a complete pressing. The author does concede that this represents a highly concentrated schedule, as she puts it “making every stroke count”.

Coats merit a section all their own – trimming with new fabric on pockets and revers, recutting, remodelling and relining.

Dresses also receive a chapter all their own: suggestions being made to sew in entirely new sections of fabric where areas are looking worn and to use even the smallest piece of fabric to add a cheerful touch to cuffs, pockets and other small details. Eyelet embroidery, velveteen and taffeta are all shown used in a variety of ways to liven up old items as are lace, tassels and ribbons.

When cutting down garments to be remade for children the author suggests using the following checklist:

1) Is the fabric worthy of my time?

2) Is it easy to wash and keep in repair?

3) Is it worth the expense of needed new material?

4) Is it in suitable colour and weave for a child?

5) Is it right for the child who is to wear it?

One caveat – this section advises using tie fasteners of narrow tape or ribbon or wider ties of material for baby’s first garments and tot’s dresses. Please be aware of strangulation risks when having any tie on clothing intended for babies and small children.

American Dressmaking Step by Step – Lydia Trattles Coates

A well written book illustrated clearly with black and white photographs showing a very comprehensive range of stitches, techniques and articles.

This is not a book which includes patterns which may be scaled up and used but it does include line drawings which provide sufficient visual information about fullness, style lines etc for a competent pattern maker to draft a similar garment – this being especially true of the childrenswear, which examples are particularly engaging, especially the middy blouse and rompers.

One of the peculiar strengths of these older volumes is the particular attention give to construction. Possibly because of the weightiness of full-length skirts cut from woollen cloth the waists were not simply set into a modern style of waistband but were instead often hung from a strong, internal waistband of shaped petersham or similar rigidly woven tape which allowed the weight of the skirt to be carried not by the fabric of the costume but by the abdomen of the wearer.

Similar attention is given to the fitting of a corset cover – the care with which the garment is quartered by twin rows of gathering threads which are then gently pulled up and shepherded into the correct position is a study well worth revising today for any garment in which gathers are to form the main shaping over the bust.

Suffice it to say that all of the usual hems, stitches and seam finishes are described and illustrated and good suggestions made for correcting and disguising ill-fitting portions of garments such as a sleeve too long above the elbow or tight across the forearm.

In conclusion this is another very comprehensive volume and one I would not wish to part with.

Practical Home Dressmaking Illustrated – Lynn Hillson

A highly informative volume introducing a full introduction to the sewing machine and its attachments, including a demonstration of using a veining foot to make picots which I have never seen before and am very glad to know. The book lists suggested items of equipment for sewing, pressing and the mending basket. As well as the usual, ubiquitous instructions on where and how to measure, instructions are given for padding out a dummy and fastening a padded arm thereto, all valuable lessons when trying to achieve a good fit either in shop-bought, or home drafted patterns.

Given that this book is not written as a drafting book the instructions for creating and adapting basic blocks are really very good; simple to follow but easily comprehensive enough to form a firm basis for most dressmaking and furthermore, patterns are shown throughout the book, drafted against a grid for easy transferral. 

A good appraisal is given to fabrics, their widths, quantities and qualities as well as their suitability to various styles. 

Reading the chapter on pressing I was again struck at how sensible and comprehensive was the advice given. Clear illustrations showed real-life examples of what was being discussed, including the use of a pressing cloth, using a padded rolling pin to press open seams and the use of the tailor’s ham in pressing sleeveheads. You will certainly learn all the correct methods here and your sewing will be the better for it.

The chapter on fitting is equally clear. I can’t claim that it covers any more or less than other books on the subject but somehow the diagrams get right to the very heart of the matter and make it simple to compare the problem in hand with the issues illustrated and find out how to solve it. 

The chapter on sewing details once again cuts through the unnecessary and gets right to the heart of the matter – namely how to deal with all those awkward, non-standard fastenings like leather buttons and the bone ones which need to be removed before washing. I have also never seen such a neatly illustrated description of inserting zips – truly this book is an absolute gem. 

The Lingerie chapter supplies patterns for some truly elegant and timeless pieces – a bias cut nightdress, a long sleeved nightdress, a princess slip, camiknickers, brassiere and knickers but be warned that the bra in question is a dainty little number best suited for nothing beyond a B-cup and of a simple, rounded shape. You won’t learn how to draft a bullet bra here (although in truth that would not be hard to do, simply by straightening the vertical seam lines a little and reinforcing with the requisite concentric stitch lines).

This book truly does attend to precisely the right things. Rarely have I ever seen bound buttonholes, tucks, pleats, piping, rouleau loops, cuff openings and bound hems so nicely and plainly described.

The same applies to pockets. Bound pockets, welt pockets, slot pockets, patch pockets, flap pockets. All well described and beautifully illustrated.

How to make a belt? It’s here, with many pretty ideas on how to finish and fasten.

The chapter on collars shows very clearly how the different types are drafted from the bodice blocks laid together at the shoulder seam. Each has a particular profile, depending on how high or flat it is to lie and the different shapes are very well shown here.

Sleeves are quite narrow and sculpted, as to be expected from this particular era but other types are discussed also. Useful tips such as the application of interlinings, stiffeners and special tight linings into the sleevehead of a puffed sleeve to prevent it migrating down the arm are again all subjects new to me and very welcome. Another new tip for me was that of how to cut and attach a shaped interlining into a sleeve; cut half the breadth of the sleeve, rounded at the top and sewn into the lining it provides extra warmth.

Pattern diagrams are given for the following garments, with extremely detailed instructions for cutting, fitting and making up: one-piece dress, princess style; cardigan suit (a neat suit with shaped jacket and straight skirt with kick pleat); blouse with rever collar and bishop sleeves and the items of underwear mentioned earlier.

The childrenswear chapter is truly a delight as it covers a far better range than the usual rompers, dress and knickers. There are proper instructions for the drafting and making of a woollen blazer, suggested to be best suited to a boy of ten to twelve years but easily adapted to other sizes besides. Knee-length trousers to match are also covered here and the photo is simply delightful – the shorts are shown knee-length and fastened with a snake belt. This is such a timeless accessory I have photos of my father (born in 1919) wearing one when he was about ten and my own little boy, aged four wears one even now. For girls, a neat, pleated skirt with inverted box pleats is shown for a schoolgirl. It is cut a couple of inches above the knee similar to gym shorts and is worn with a blouse made to the same pattern as the boy’s shirt but fastening the other way of course. Also for girls, a pair of ‘School Knickers’ which resemble athletic shorts, being of a simple shape gathered onto a band of elastic at the waist. It is suggested that these can be made in a thinner fabric for wearing under party frocks in which case the leg edges could be finished with a fabric frill or with lace. There follows a plain, cotton print frock with a high neck, simple collar, elbow length sleeves and waist sash, cut above the knee and very ‘youthful’!

There is just the one dress for a baby – a classic, knee length design with short puffed sleeves and a skirt gathered onto a yoke under the arms. 

The final articles of childrenswear are again refreshingly practical – a darling set of unisex pyjamas. The jacket is made to the same pattern as the blazer, but fastened up to the neck and the trousers made from the shorts draft, lengthened accordingly. A modified pattern is described wherein the bodice and trousers may be combined and feet added to make a sleepsuit for a younger child.

The final chapter deals with mending, patching, darning and the setting in of the small triangular gussets into the bottom of side seams.

This is, in my opinion one of the most comprehensive texts I have read and should you buy only one book on home dressmaking, this would be a very good one to choose.

A Textbook of Needlework, Knitting and Cutting Out with Methods of Teaching, by Elizabeth Rosevear

A lovely little volume, hardbacked, measuring about 7″ x 5″ and with good quality, silky paper. It is a comprehensive volume, quite wordy compared to others of its type but the descriptions are clear and good and the diagrams, where they do appear are well drawn and easily understood.

I often measure the usefulness of a book by how well it covers the subject of gussets. I laugh whenever I write that but it’s true. I often make little garments with square-set sleeves which require a gusset set into the seam yet many books – thankfully not this one – deal only with the setting in of the triangular type commonly found as a reinforcement at the bottom end of a side seam on garments having a curved hem, such as a shirt with shirt tails.

It covers the absolute basics such as the correct way to use thimbles and needles, basic seams and hem stitches, casting on two and three knitting pins, darning, patching, the use of tapes and other reinforcements, buttonholes, turning a heel on a sock or stocking, working with pleats, tucks and gathers as well as decorative stitches.

The cutting out section happily contains workable patterns (illustrated upon grids and with dimensions clearly labelled) and useful hints about cutting out such as to caution against cutting a curved seam too deep as once cut out the curve cannot be made tighter whereas to cut away excess is comparatively simple.

Line drawings are also included of some of the finished articles, nicely drawn and with good attention to the detail and neatness which best tempts the reader to attempt the item. Shirts (both day shirts and nightshirts) for men and boys are covered here together with chemises, petticoats, night dresses, aprons, pinafores, combinations and drawers (knickerbockers) are all covered as are the techniques required for finishing them, for example the working and neatening of plackets, false hems (facings), sleeves, collars and bands. A wide selection too of infants’ garments together with example costings and suggestions as to suitable materials make this a useful resource for anyone interested in infantwear as with some obvious exceptions such as stomach bands much of these little garments are timeless.

It is also worth noting how unusual it is to have any boyswear covered in dressmaking books. As previously mentioned, boys shirts are covered here. I have often been disappointed to find that books purporting to cover the subject of childrenswear indeed concentrate purely on infantwear and beyond that, dresses for little girls; boys being seemingly forgotten. I’m not making the mistake of thinking that little boys didn’t wear dresses as toddlers either; one such book was published in the 1950s.

The third part of the book deals with the knitting or articles such as stockings and socks, knitted vests, petticoats and jackets, hoods, scarves and muffatees (a long, knitted cuff worn over the wrist and hand with a hole for the thumb), shawls and muffs, quilts, blankets and fringes. Netting, crochet, straw weaving and plaiting are also given a brief mention towards the end of the book.

In conclusion another very comprehensive but eminently usable book, well worth space on the bookshelf and not one I will be in a hurry to part with.

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