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Sewing Nighties and Handkerchiefs

More memories from my Mum. This time about sewing nighties and handkerchiefs.

I learned to sew with the best teacher in our boarding school. She tolerated only the best of sewing by hand (no sewing machines then) and looked very stern if work was not carried out well, which meant we had to unpick the work which did not meet up with her approval and do it all over again. This instilled me the desire to always sew well, partly because I enjoyed sewing and partly because I did not want to have to unpick it and do it again – thus getting behind and being among the last to finish.

Handkerchiefs were among the things I liked sewing. Drawing four threads on each 4 sides of the linen square about 3/4 of an inch from the edges was to make it look prettier. The edges were then neatly folded and hemmed and the corners were then neatly hemmed to fasten down the fold.

All our hemming stitches were to be ‘invisible’, meaning that no large or irregular stitches were tolerated. If they did not pass her approval the teacher pulled the sewing thread out and yes, it had to be hemmed all over again. I am pleased to say that did not happen to me. To give it that pretty finish to the handkerchief we had to gather four loose strands of the threads that remained (after the cross threads had been first pulled), twist the sewing thread around the back, around to the front and pin it together with a small stitch. This was done all the way around on the four sides so that there was this little pattern of Xs all the way around under the hem. Finally, to finish off, we had to embroider our own initials in one corner with the teachers chosen colour. Again, if not done neatly, it was unpicked by the teacher and it had to be embroidered again.

Hand-drawn thread-work handkerchief. Image from Little House in the Suburbs. Click on image for blog tutorial.

You can imagine that we all worked very hard to meet the approval of the teacher with our stitching and end up with a handkerchief we were proud of. We had to make three handkerchiefs each as making just the one was of no use when it was at the laundry. It was always the rule to have one in the wash, one in use and one clean.

It was the older girls in the boarding school who were expected to make their own nighties. That was much harder work sewing it all by hand and having to make ourselves three each. The same rule applied of having one at the laundry, wearing one and having a clean one. Each nightie was cut out by the teacher and were plain-dyed materials of brushed cotton, but of three different colours. Again, the sewing had to be invisible – very small stitches. The short sleeve and body of the nightie was all in one piece but consisting of a back and front.

We had to ‘run and fell’ the shoulders and then down the sides. Doing the sides always took such a long time. Again, if the stitching was not up to the teacher’s standard it was unpicked to be done again. The sewing of the sides was very tiring and by the end of the lesson our sewing hand was stiff and sore. Still, we did it because we were expected to and we wanted those nice warm nighties for the winter months. Then came the sewing of bias that would finish off the neck and sleeve edges. Strips of material were cut on the bias for each nightie, in the same colour of the nightie, which we then sewed together to make one long piece. The front neck was cut out as a v-neck – this did not make it easy to sew the bias around the actual V bit. It was with this bias binding, as we knew it, that we sewed onto the neck and sleeves, folded it over the edges and neatly turned it over to the outside and hemmed. Finally, we had to turn up the bottom hem and (still using those invisible stitches) sew the length of the hem. It was far harder to make those garments because there was so much stitching to do. But, again we did it because they were going to be warm to wear. We earned a ‘well done’ from our headmistress when she inspected all our finished handmade nighties. We felt proud of our achievement as girls of 14-15 years of age.

Those sewing lessons served me well when I married after the war. I made all my babies and toddler’s clothes by hand as I could not afford a sewing machine and was so grateful that I had been taught how to sew and knit by that determined teacher.

To learn more about how to make a hand-drawn thread-work handkerchief, take a look at this blog tutorial: Little House in the Suburbs

To learn about a run-and-fell seam (also known as a flat-felled seam), I’ved added this YouTube tutorial.