Monday, April 16, 2018

From the Archives: How Many Handsewn Stitches in an 18thc Man's Shirt?

Monday, April 16, 2018

Susan reporting,

Since Loretta's last post featured men's neckcloths, it seemed like a fine time to share this post from the archives about the shirts worn with those neckcloths.... 

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 hereMany 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.


Sarah said...

I've lately been doing research into tailors and seamstresses advertising in the British papers, and stuck to London as I'd be at it for years otherwise. One tailor and woollen merchant said that a suit of clothes was sewn every 5 hours. That has to be using many tailors and apprentices at once; I couldn't make a decent pair of trousers in 5 hours without a sewing machine, and I've been sewing for longer than I can remember. Also the ads debunk the myth that there were no readymades!

Brenda Knox said...

Awesome. I make these for guys of my acquaintance. Sometimes they bat their eyes when I say I need to charge $125 plus cost of fabric. I am saving this. I don't charge enough, do I? Besides the quantity of stitches, I do mice teeth on the collar, back stitch for the body, buttonhole stitch, prick stitch, running stitch, hem stitch, re-inforcement diamonds on the sides and cuffs, top stitches, etc. So much work.

Brenda Knox
21st U.S. Infantry, camp follower/laundress
War of 1812

Anonymous said...

Love your blogs, love your books, and can't wait for the next one. Don't ever quit writing, ok?

Sheila M.

Liss said...

Two of my favorite authors also write a nerdtastic blog about historical clothing, art, and music?!? I'm in heaven. I just hand-sewed a boy's shirt for my 7-year-old (we do historical interpretation at a local living history farm) and that was plenty of stitches. But not 20,000! No way!

Colleen said...

I wish mice teeth were accurate for the 18th C! They are *just* past my period. I love them, and can’t use them. One of the things you are lucky for :-)

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