Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Complete Book of Sewing (1943)

Wouldn't you love to be one of the stylish ladies in the illustration above? Pocketbook that doubles as a vertical file, netting trailing the back of your Easter Sunday hat, bow tied just so... I found The Complete Book of Sewing: Dressmaking and Sewing for the Home Made Easy by Constance Talbot on the Open Library website... and was just bowled over by the colorful fashion illustrations on each page. I want to be that stylish gal!!

Lately I've been thinking more and more of committing myself to picking up dressmaking as a hobby... it certainly would solve the length and width issues I keep butting heads with when buying vintage clothes. Also, the problem of scarcity in items made before the 1960's, at least in terms of the estate sales and thrift stores I go to, could be addressed by the relative abundance of PATTERNS of pre-Kennedy manufacture. I could make well-fit, wear-resistant everyday clothes in the styles I like!

I found myselfwalking to the old work-stead this morning and thinking of the 60's, mod-flower-patterned, shift dress I'd put over skinny black pants (I think it was meant to be a mini on a person of slightly below average height? Which means without pants it would in no way preserve my modesty?) in terms of construction-- what was to keep me from making ten of this ultra flattering tunic, except an inch or five longer? Only my own inexperience, which, seeing as I work in a library FULL OF HOW-TO BOOKS all day, should be a point begging for remediation.

One of the sections of the book that particularly impressed me concerned itself with re-making items suffering from flaws of fit and/or style... if you click on any of these pictures, you can see a slightly larger version in which the print might just be readable. See how a strip set into a narrow sleeve can save you from constrictingly tight arms, or how a yoke and sleeve can change your torn dress into a new endeavor altogether.

I love the practical nature of these repairs. From the viewpoint of less handy or hardy times, I can tell you it would have never occurred to me to restructure a dress because of a flaw... buying 95% of my clothes from Goodwill, I would just pass up an item that didn't fit quite right or didn't seem "beltable", being as belting and pinning are pretty much the only two fixes I'm currently capable of putting into use. That said, look at the kitten the author encourages you to embroider on children's mittens! Why leave it to the kidlings? I'm all over that.

To the left, great collars. Great ones! Look how stylish a dickie or a collar can make just about any outfit. In the middle, early 40's style tips by month. April's tip? "Bring back your January boutonniere ["a huge boutonniere of violets or gay, vari-colored felt flowers"], or make a new smaller one in daisies. Sew matching flowers around the brim of your hat. Repeat the color of your flowers in linen touches on your dress or suit". Yes'm, ma'am! In my opinion, fake and felt flowers in this, the early twenty-first century, are a woefully underrepresented fashion choice.

I once read that our Joan-Crawford-who-art-in-Heaven would buy an extra bolt of matching fabric when buying dresses in the 50's and 60's, in order to have a matched pair of shoes made up with the goods. This is a similar idea for 40's hats... how much greater would it look to have a MATCHED hat rather than simply one in a similar or complementary color?

The picture on the left is from a chapter entitled "Teaching Your Daughter to Sew". First thought? "My hair! My hair! Yay, she's got my hair!" (the braids that swept the nation...uhh... seventy years ago!!). On the right, my favorite fixer upper to an ill-fitting dress... notice how the addition of an inverted panel takes you from "this dress is too tight" to "I look like later career Joan Bennett", which, is to say, like an immaculately dressed lady of taste. I love it!

A turban, a pill box, and a drape coat that reminds me of an estate sale snafu this weekend... did I, under the fashion influence Mildred Pierce (the JC one, not the also excellent, albiet fur-coat-less new mini-series), fall deeply under the sway of a massive fur coat in a similar boxy-shouldered, draped style? I did. Did I try it on and look uncannily like Grizzly Adams? I did. Did an estate saleswoman follow me around for at least ten minutes trying to tell me what a bargain the (admittedly, more than half off) coat was, how the brown, yellow-rhinestone encrusted clasps were Bakelite and probably worth the price of the coat alone? She did. Needless to say, the coat and I parted ways, but I sure am still looking for a full length fur coat that DOESN'T make me look like a mink trapper, so much as a mink wearer. It irks my sweet little vintage loving heart to try something on, that's a DEAL, that just doesn't look well on me, but I have to remind myself that no one will ask "What was your inspiration when choosing this coat? What kind of a deal did you get on it? How old is it?" so much as they will ask "What was she thinking?!" Le sigh.

Though, frankly speaking, if I found the net skirt and three different bodices in the left hand picture, or either styling of the evening dress to the right, I can't say I would exercise such lengths of buyer's restraint. I often forget how much easier it would be to follow the fashion mindset of buying two or three fine dresses and a ton of switch-it-up accessories in order to have twenty, varied outfits, as opposed than scrambling around trying to find twenty new dresses, each different. Ah, well.

Tailored evening dress? Tailored suit? One of each, please.

A Brenda Frazier lookalike and her interesting cuffs and shoulder embellishment combo... how do you like that semi-transparent hat? She looks like a million dollars cash. Also, in the illustration, at last! A woman with measurements that would enable her to wear all these vintage wedding gowns I've been trying on! Seriously, I can't seem to find anything with a waist allotment of larger than, say, 25 inches. Which would make me...almost inverse. Le sigh. Pour la deuxième fois.

The yoke set in the upper left hand corner at right is making me see stars. Cape effect! Give me that cape effect! The fan tucks remind me of the designer Adrian.

Pretty embellishments and collars.


Any kind of early 40's collar you could possibly think of are in the above illustrations. I mean wow. Can you choose your favorite? I choose the large bow and the lady on the right's hair.

To the upper left hand corner, the kind of morning coat you wear over your nightgown if you wake up and you're Loretta Young. That said, I want to wake up and be Loretta Young.

I really need a stylish jumper dress like the ones to the right... one that makes you look more like a 40's movie and less like a kindergarten teacher circa 1992. I keep seeing 80's and 90's dresses that are styled very 1940's, but the fabric and the buttons tend to remind one more of said kindergarten teachers, and it puts me off them. Is that wrong? I just can't quite get past it.

Last but not least, the best advice you could get for pulling of a style with grace and aplomb... stand up straight! How underrated the virtue of good posture is these-a-days! Mine could use some improvement.

Which of these did you like the best? Where do you go for vintage patterns or style inspiration? If you sew, did you start out simple, or just jump in the deep end right off the bat? Let me know!

You can read the whole book online at HERE, but as it's a check-out via Open Library, you might have to wait until I get my 40's sewing fill of it first. :)


  1. What a great resource! Thanks for sharing!

    P.S. I hear that Grizzly Adams is "in" for F/W 2011. ;-)

  2. I like the scarf-looking collar!
    Dressmaking would make an excellent hobby, and it's definitely a solution to solving fit issues! I've recently started taking sewing lessons, and I'm so excited at the possibilities opening up to me :D I started out with easy practice-stuff like practicing seams on scraps, then potholders, then fabric flowers, and now I'm up to a skirt :D This summer I want to practice by making aprons so I can learn embellishment!
    This book looks like a fantastic resources, especially with all the delish illustrations. Good luck with your newfound hobby, go for it!
    M xo

  3. my grandma could sew like a champ! Sadly, nobody else I know can compete....including myself! haha

  4. @Lauren: That comment cracked me UP! :)

    @Zombie + Mitzi: I should totally learn, right? I keep telling myself that where there's a will, there's a way. And with all these books, it seems a way more attainable goal!

    @MRanthrope: Both of mine, too! They had to, as they were both super tall ladies (I didn't have a chance in that gene lottery to be a petite anything, ha ha). I wish they'd taught me! Or saved any of their old duds! But c'est la vie. I might make them proud yet!

  5. Have had this book for years and surprised people still using it. Glad I kept it.



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