Thursday, January 14, 2016

How Many Handsewn Stitches in an 18thc Man's Shirt?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Isabella reporting,

In the 18thc, a man's linen shirt was perhaps the most democratic of garments. Every male wore one, from the King of England to his lowest subjects in the almshouse, and though the quality of the linen and laundering varied widely, the construction was virtually the same.

Contrary to the modern belief that the people of the past were dirty slobs (a bugaboo we NHG are always trying to banish), Georgian men were fastidious about their shirts. Men were judged by the cleanliness of their linen. From laundry records of the time, it's clear that the majority of men changed their shirts daily, and in the hot summer months, it wasn't unusual to change twice a day. This wasn't just a habit of wealthy gentlemen, either. Tradesmen, shopkeepers, and others of the "middling sort" had a good supply of shirts in their wardrobes, a dozen or so on average.

While most of these shirts were purchased from tailors, shirts were one of the few garments that women could make at home for their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons. Eighteenth century shirts were loose-fitting, geometric garments, all precise squares and rectangles with straight seams. They weren't difficult for the average seamstress to construct - keeping in mind that everything was being sewn by hand before the invention of the sewing machine. The precision of that seamstress's stitching would make them not only more attractive, but also more long-wearing through the rough-and-tumble laundering (no gentle cycle) of the time. But how long would it take to make such a shirt? And how many stitches must be taken in the process?

When I was visiting the Margaret Hunter millinery shop in Colonial Williamsburg last month, the mantua-makers (whose seamstresses can make men's shirts just as readily as the tailors) were pondering this exact question. A chart in the July, 1782 issue of The Lady's Magazine, right, calculated the "number of stitches in a plain-shirt", perhaps to provide the amateur seamstresses among their readers with a number to impress the home-stitched shirt's wearer. The Magazine's estimated total was an impressive 20,619 stitches for a man's shirt.

The Margaret Hunter seamstresses took these calculations a step further. Working an average of 30 stitches per minute at a gauge of 10 stitches per inch, it would take approximately eleven and a half hours to stitch a shirt. Of course that doesn't take into account the time for cutting threads, finishing a thread, or threading needles, nor for cutting out the pieces to be sewn, and it also doesn't make allowances for the individual seamstress's speed. While the needles in the Margaret Hunter shop seem to fly, the ladies freely admit that they'd probably be considered slow in comparison to their 18thc counterparts who sewed from childhood.

More about 18thc shirts here and here. Many thanks to Janea Whitacre, mistress of the mantua-making trade, Colonial Williamsburg, for her assistance with this post.

Left: Shirt, maker unknown, linen, probably made in America, c1790-1820. Winterthur Museum.
Photograph © 2014 by Susan Holloway Scott.
Below: Excerpt from The Lady's Magazine, July, 1782.


Lillian Marek said...

Now that is truly fascinating information. I love getting into the little details of people's lives.

dinazad said...

I wonder what stitches would be used. Backstich? Running stitch? Mattress stitch? It would make quite a difference in speed and amount of thread used.

Heather said...

As a reenactor, I have sewn many items, but, I have not done a complete shirt by hand but have finished all shirts, bed gowns, chemises,petticoats, wrap skirts by hand...(hems, edging, sleeve cuffs)

I have many friends,(mostly men!), who have sewn entire hunting shirts/frocks and works shirts completely by hand! (even finishing the fringe off with a 'mouse tooth' stitch!) My husband has sewn leather
breeches entirely by hand also..I think they have more patience than me....

Sarah said...

Before I had a treadle sewing machine I used to do all my sewing by hand [and I now have an electric one as well which seems an almost sinful luxury] and that sounds about right in time. And a lot of that would be swearing over setting on the collar! 10 stitches to the inch? That's a little coarse for a fine linen lawn, I used to pride myself, when I had better eyesight, on twelve to the inch on fine fabrics, though a sewing machine rarely manages better than 10 to the inch. I'd never do a hem of anything except night attire by machine; top stitching is so ugly when it's almost as quick and much nicer looking to hem. Unless you shell edge in lieu of lace which is a &$@$!!!! to do. I did my last mob cap with shell edging and that's quite enough for the next year or so. No, I'm not in re-enactment, I just find night caps supremely practical garb for flyaway hair. It's fascinating to read about what people have recreated using original techniques. I'd use backstitch for the seams and then French seam them to enclose the raw edges, but I suppose you could forward-and-backstitch them tailor-fashion if you were making a hard-wearing shirt for a labouring man, which made of Holland would be heavier fabric and would probably even bear eight to the inch if the sewing was that much stronger with the essentially double stitching of forward and backstitch. Not sure if I can still do it, I've never had much cause to use it, but it's mentioned in the tailor's manuals. Incidentally, I've seen extant farmers' smocks, most of which were french-seamed, unless the selvedge was the seam, when it was left, and a [very] few held at the edges with herringbone.

Caroline Clemmons said...

This is very helpful information for authors of historicals. I can't imagine the time and stitches required to construct a ball gown. Thanks for sharing.

QNPoohBear said...

I work at a former textile museum and we're told to tell visitors that before the mill and water-powered spinning machines, it took a year or more start to finish to make a linen garment at home by hand. I have no idea if this estimate is true but I can see a team of dedicated people taking a day to make a whole shirt not counting making the thread.

Sarah said...

if that covered the weaving as well, yes, QNPoohBear, but I handstitched all my son's Viking gear, and embroidered the tunic and it took me 2 weeks

Maggie Craig said...

Fascinating post. Absolutely agree with you about this erroneous idea that people in the past didn't wash very often or do their laundry frequently. If that were true, we wouldn't see all those scenes with a laundress in them or the washing flapping in the breeze, would we? My current 18th century hero is very fastidious about his clothes. It's more comfortable to be clean. There's a reference somewhere to a man going off with the Jacobite army taking 16 shirts with him.

Two Threads Back said...

I love this and wrote about it, too! On my one attempt at a fine shirt, I found the number of stitches depended on which part I was sewing. I managed about 30/in. only on the backstitched parts, the rest weren't nearly as fine. I nearly went blind, though - maybe you can see why here,
Never again! :)

Colleen said...

There don't seem to have been french seams in the. 18th C. But flat seams are common. I just learned they were slightly different from what we call flat felled, but, instead you turn each raw edge onto the RS one to the WS (since we don't have good selvedges to use for one of them) and overlap them to encase the raw edges, and then whip/hem each fold down, separately.

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