Woman’s Institute: Inspiration and Fashion Service Periodicals. And Mary Brooks Picken on the Muslin!

inspirationflagHappy Memorial Day! Ours was spent battling a broken air conditioner, dealing with a barfing young’un and the compulsory roasting of requisite meats but all in all, a pretty good day. Had some time to play in my ephemera collection, so it was Read-Up-on-Fashion-Service-All-Day Day at our house, too. Well, for the significant other I think it was more Read-Up-on-Vampire-Fiction-Day, but to each his own.

The Woman’s Institute had (to my knowledge) two publications that came out regularly to supplement their educational materials. While the educational books are more general, universal stuff, the supplementary publications are more era-specific, individual fashion content. I’ve been on the lookout for these little marvels lately, and it’s been like a fun, stupidly expensive treasure hunt trying to figure out the print history. (The curse of being incredibly obsessive is tempered by the Indiana Jones-esque thrill of discovery I get from trying to put this all together.)

Bears a striking resemblance to making a credit card payment, yes?
Bears a striking resemblance to making a credit card payment, yes?

One publication they put out is called “Inspiration,” pictured above, illustrations by Alice Seipp as usual, which seems to have been published from the beginning of the Women’s Institute, though it is extremely rare and barely even referenced on the Interwebz. Evidently at one point, Bramcost (who publishes a lot of reproductions) had a few of them available for purchase on Amazon (see here, here and here), and occasionally they must pop up on ebay, but never when I am looking for them, alas. I found a few at Garrison House Books, and Tess, one of the owners was kind enough to send me one as an extra special surprise when I bought another publication from them (<3). While I could probably fall down a hole trying to track down more, one must choose ones white whales carefully. I guess. Sigh.

The other publication the Woman’s Institute regularly offered was the Fashion Service magazine. It seems to have been intended initially as a supplement for students exclusively, but then later offered for subscription to anyone who subscribed. I had been unable to figure out when the Fashion Service began being published, but recently found a horribly water damaged copy of an issue from Winter 1920-1921 with an insert, torn and cockled. (Google tells me that “cockled” means rippling of paper usually caused by water exposure; of course from now on my inner pervert will work that into conversation any way possible.) The magazine is *almost* beyond hope but according to the insert, it’s the first issue. YAY. The insert (and the magazine) are credited to Mary Brooks Picken, who writes in her usual charming, encouraging way. And it also represents one of the only references I think I’ve ever seen in a vintage sewing text to sewing a muslin–most seem to suggest tissue fitting, basting a garment together, or measuring at least 37x to make sure that pattern is going to fit your actual body before you cut. (Burda and Gertie’s Blog discuss here and here, respectively.) So here, transcribed from its cockled wobbly almost-entirety, the insert from the first ever Fashion Service. (Which, for any fashion history junkies/freakish OCD completists like myself out there, I’m in the process of laboring over and cleaning up in order to offer pdf and paper reproductions on etsy. It will take me a bit, as the warping of the pages plays hell on scanned output, but I’ll get it!)

My dear Friend:

One early autumn afternoon, four years ago, just after I had returned from a very elaborate fashion fete, my mind ablaze with the possibilities of developing beautiful garments, I promised myself that the Woman’s Institute should some day have a semi-annual Fashion Service–a service so comprehensive and instructive that every member might know the joy of seeing the new things and have an opportunity to become intimately acquainted with the lines, colors, and fabrics in reign for the season.

At that time the war was on, our student body was small, and there seemed to be a thousand and one reasons why we could not have a Fashion Service immediately. My realization of this meant great disappointment to me. So I have waited, but I never gave up the idea nor allowed anyone at the Institute to forget that some day we should have a really truly Fashion Service–one that we could all be proud of and that our students could be happy about.

In my messages to you through “Inspiration,” I have many times voiced my belief that earnest desire is prayer and that prayers are answered. My prayer for this Fashion Service has been answered. And, now–here it is with this letter.

I believe you will find on every page information and inspiration that will help you make for yourself the prettiest, most becoming clothes you have ever owned. Our Fashion Service differs from fashion descriptions in magazines because we have searched the fashion market and selected styles that we think will please you personally and at the same time are definitely representative of the fashions for this fall and winter.

The Institute desires you to use this book in connection with your studies. In preparing the text we have mentioned the kinds of seams and finishes and the plans of construction. If you are not thoroughly familiar with these from previous study, you will find them distributed throughout your lessons.

If you have any doubt about any part of the construction or the development of any garment in the Fashion Service, refer to your lessons. You will find them ready guides and advantageous helpers, for they teach definite sewing and construction principles applicable to any time or mode.

Before you start to make up any of these beautiful garments, I must […remind?] you of the advantages of muslin models, for they are the […essence of economy?], even with muslin at its present price. If they were not so valuable, it is very certain that the best custom shops would not show them with so much prominence and assurance.

You may want to make one, two, three, or possibly four dresses similar to those illustrated in our Fashion Service. But even if you make only one, it is essential that it be right in every detail. So, before you cut your material, develop in muslin a model guide pattern that will give you lines exactly in the right position for your individual measurements.

Experiment with the muslin model; have it just right. Then when you cut your material you can be certain that the garment will carry lines in a correct position for you. In making a second dress, you can recut the model and by adding a yard or two more, have enough muslin from the first model to develop the second one satisfactorily.

I have found that there are two things which lend to home-made effects in clothes: First, the position of the lines, and second, the hesitancy of thought that the dress sometimes evidences. How often we hear a woman say, “I know now, for my build and this material, that this tunic should have been longer, or the shoulder line should have been shorter, or the waist line a little longer or looser.”

Find these things out first from the muslin model and thus avoid errors in cutting. See from this just how the garment goes together and where trimming will be desirable for your, giving very special attention to the shoulder line, the waist line, the collar and the skirt length. Then sit down and make a dress. Your progress will be more rapid and the finished garment will reward you many times, for it will show skill and ripened though–points always evident in the product of a master hand.

The prominent commercial pattern companies were very kind in cooperating with us in developing this book, allowing us to select from their advanced styles types of patterns that will be helpful to you in developing some of the garments illustrated. The name and number in such instances are given, so that you can purchase the patterns if you desire.

To send this book to you is just like sending a cherished handmade gift to a friend who I feel sure will appreciate it. It has been a great task to prepare so that it would be wholly helpful and entirely reliable, but the hours spent on it have been constantly filled with the belief that it would make you happy and help you–and it is sent with that thought, together with all the good wishes at my command.

Very sincerely yours,

Mary Brooks Picken
Director of Instruction

This makes me ridiculously happy.


Woman’s Institute Sewing Books Editions and More Vintage Library: Designing by Draping, 1936

I feel this maniacal compulsion to make myself expert on all things Woman’s Institute. To shout its wonders to the world. To missionize. Because holy freakin crap do I love these books. And today, discovering minor differences between editions, I was positively mad with book lust. (See: The 9th Gate. It’s what my life would be if I were glamorous, rich, important and in accidental league/sex thrall with the devil. So not like my life at all except for salivating over old books and caressing them lovingly, creepily, way too much for normal people to find comfortable.) There’s a scene where Johnny Depp starts examining illustrations for tiny differences all wide eyed behind his big glasses–that is me, today.


The most fascinating example of this was the lingerie and underwear instruction books and booklets. I have three different versions–a two part paperback booklet set, and two hardback volumes printed in Britain. I assumed they’d have the same content, but it turns out they are all different! One features Edwardian type lingerie (corset covers, brassieres, knickers), one of the undated booklets features 20s era lingerie, and the final one contains 1930s more contemporary styles. It’s a fascinating transformation and I find it so interesting that around the era of suffrage, the silhouette was loose, unrestricted and free.

At least one other book has multiple versions with completely different designs–“Draping and Designing with Scissors and Cloth” (1920s version, later renamed “Designing by Draping”), “Designing by Draping” (1928) and Designing by Draping” (1936). This one is extremely rare, though reproductions are available. (Which I refuse, utterly, to buy. I know that the sellers of these are probably just hoarders like myself trying to fund their addictions, which I respect, but I require a facsimile reproduction or nothing. My compulsions demand the satisfaction of vintage page design, typeface, the exquisite yellowing of pages. And if the cover features any kind of crappily rendered, computer-drafting looking piece of crap line drawing for a book FULL of exquisite period illustrations then, um, NO.) And the Woman’s Institute books are all exquisitely designed–except, it seems, the 1936 version, which is available in PDF, for free, courtesy of the lacouturieredimanche blog (here). The illustrations have a different feel, and the text is typewritten…??? The book is genuinely a production of the Woman’s Institute, as the logo/name printing on the cover looks right, and the subject matter and instruction is definitely their kind of book, but maybe it was a very limited run not meant for wide dissemination or it was produced during the era when they were winding down their correspondence lessons. Not sure. But it’s fascinating. (Did I mention the designs are frickin’ amazing? This is my favorite era to date–the collision of art deco and the coming 40s power suit trend. Love love love.)

designingbydraping1 designingbydraping2 designingbydraping3 designingbydraping4So where was I? Oh, yes. I want to devote vast amounts of time, energy and money toward becoming an expert about something that no one else but me is really that interested in. So kind of like being a philosophy major all over again. Except more people seem to care about vintage sewing and if I want to sew for customers I could, maybe, perhaps, make a decent living at it without suicidiality and/or having to confront daily the silences of the vast empty spaces. Even writing, which I also wasted years of my life and thousands of dollars in formal education for, isn’t a pleasureable existence for me, mining one’s own psyche for arbitrary meaning and all that. My happiness moments have been working with my hands at a craft, baking pies at 7am in a restaurant, staining houses in the middle of the woods, etc. There is such a pleasure in craft work–tangible, puzzle like problems and cultivating a specific skill set seeking mastery even though you know you will never fully get it. (If you’ve never seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Netflix that shit STAT.) *lost in swoony reverie*

My hoard of books is amassing at a ridiculous rate. I’ve happily sort of stalled on amassing sewing machines, though my recent trip to the backwoods of cell-service-black-hole-of-despair Missouri to take Ray White’s AMAZING sewing machine repair course has me dangerously close to backsliding on that. Over the course of his class, somehow I went from being a girl with a hobby to a girl with a dream of her own sewing machine/historical fashions business. That’s some heavy shit, that is.

So for now I’ll have to wait (the old day job beckons) to scribble some annotated bibliographies, which is sort of one of the greatest pleasures of human existence. And to sit waiting by my front door eagerly awaiting the arrival of the mailman (who knows me and my obsessions so well that he actually gave me an old Kenmore–thank god he’s a patient sweetheart, because a lesser person might resent all the things he has had to lug to my house. When I joked about being a hoarder, I think he believed me.) ALSO: in bouncy bouncy news, I just won what looks to be the abbreviated version (shorter books) of the 12 vol. Isabel Conover dressmaking set circa 1921! More on that very soon!