Early 20th Century Sewing: Woman’s Institute Course

dressmakingmadeeasycoverAs part of my recent obsession with the Woman’s Institute courses and trying to figure out what books are part of which set and how to HOARD THEM ALL, I bought this. I wasn’t sure what it was or how it fit into the series, but it turns out it’s a kind of advertising pamphlet that gives an overview of the WIDAS courses.

Some history of the Institute from the first few pages:

The Woman’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences is an educational institution for women. It teaches dressmaking, millinery, and cookery by the home-study method…

The first student enrolled February 26, 1916, and the number of students is now more than 150,000. No other educational institute has grown to such usefulness in so brief a time; no other renders to womankind so practical and unique a service. It is preparing school girls for useful lives and teaching grandmothers the things they have longed to know but never learned…It copes with cold facts by making one dollar serve for three and reveals anew the virtues of thrift. It teaches helpless hands the useful arts, puts the color tints of joy into dull, drab lives, and gives the humblest home a new vision of happiness. It has ushered in a new dawn for the homes of the nation, a new day in the lives of its womanhood.”

It might sound pompous to modern ears, but given that the sewing machine had only been around for 50-70 years and probably not at all for those without a lot of money to invest in such an high cost appliance, clothes would have been sewn at home, by hand. Women weren’t typically working outside of the home. Suffrage was still a contentious issue. For a woman to learn a trade that could provide an income and some independence would have been huge. HUGE.

The booklet explains that there were two courses of instruction offered by their Department of Dressmaking and Tailoring:

Complete Dressmaking and Tailoring (with Drafting and Tissue Paper Patterns)

Dressmaking (With Tissue Paper Patterns)

The dressmaking course was designed for women who want to learn to sew for home use, for themselves, with pre-made patterns.  The course in dressmaking and tailoring was intended for those who wanted a complete knowledge of sewing, dressmaking, tailoring and drafting and was intended as a comprehensive education that would serve the woman seeking to design her own garments and pursue professional work as a sewist. The booklets for each course would have been sent in the mail in order, as the lessons are intended to build upon each other.

For the Dressmaking with Tissue Paper Patterns course, the following 25 booklets would have been sent (order is my best working guess; I intend to keep researching until I get this figured out!):

1 and 2. Essential Stitches and Seams (2 parts)

3 and 4. Tissue Paper Patterns (2 parts)

5. Plain Dressmaking

6. Tight Linings and Bonings

7. Laces, Silks and Linens

8 and 9. Embroidery Stitches (2 parts)

10. Plain Undergarments

11. Harmony of Dress

12. Woolen Materials and Tailored Plackets

13. Skirts

14 and 15. Tailored and Lingerie Blouses (2 parts)

16 and 17. Dresses (2 Parts)

18. Tailored Pockets

19. Tailored Buttonholes and Buttons

20. Remodeling and Renovating

21. Maternity and Infants’ Garments

22. Children and Misses’ Garments

23. Miscellaneous Garments

24. Ribbon Trimmings and Flowers

25. Tailored Suits, Coats and Capes

The Complete Dressmaking and Tailoring Course with Drafting and Tissue Paper Patterns would have included 38 lessons (order is my guess):

1 and 2. Essential Stitches and Seams (2 parts)

3 and 4. Tissue Paper Patterns (2 parts)

5. Pattern Drafting

6, 7, 8 and 9. Drafting and Plain Dressmaking (4 parts)

10. Corsets and Close Fitting Patterns

11. Tight Linings and Bonings

12. Laces, Silks, and Linens

13 and 14. Embroidery Stitches (2 parts)

15. House Aprons and Caps

16. Fancy Aprons and Sunbonnets

17. Patterns for Underwear and Lingerie

18 and 19. Underwear and Lingerie (2 parts)

20. Harmony of Dress

21. Woolen Materials and Tailored Plackets

22. Tailored Skirts

23. Patterns for Blouses and Dresses

24 and 25. Tailored and Lingerie Blouses

26 and 27. Dresses (2 Parts)

28. Tailored Pockets

29. Tailored Buttonholes and Buttons

30. Remodeling and Renovating

31. Patterns for Children and Misses Garments

32. Maternity and Infants’ Garments

33. Children and Misses’ Garments

34. Ribbon Trimmings and Flowers

35. Miscellaneous Garments

36. Patterns for Coats and Capes

37. Tailored Suits, Coats and Capes

38. The Dressmaker and Tailor Shop

This would have been a complete list as of 1921, though there appear to be other very rare drafting and draping related booklets around. I’m collecting them and trying to assemble a full set of all of the home study materials (millinery, you’re next!). They’re filled with gorgeous illustrations:


I’m considering scanning them and listing pdf copies on Etsy, not because I want or expect to fund my retirement and buy an island with proceeds from them (ha!), but because if I’m obsessed with 1920s/30s fashion, I’m sure other people are too, and these books are a great resource. Buuut paying $100 or more for a rare edition is a bit cost prohibitive, yes? It would be fun to work through them all. Even more so to start an online sewing circle to do so together. Please let me know if you’re interested–I might just be a lone obsessive shuffling through sewing ephemera, but these books are pretty amazing.

There are gorgeous hardback versions and another 4 volume dressmaking library by the Institute as well–more on those as I figure out if they’re just repackaging of the same information in different format or what the relationship is.


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