18th C. · Conservation Projects

Historic Reproduction and Conservation Stitch Samples

As usual, I have taken on too much this semester and have been unable to do any posts and non-school sewing. However, I have to make stitch samples for my conservation portfolio, so I thought at the very least I could post about that.

I was surprised to find out that a number of students who set out to study textile conservation aren’t already sewists, weavers, knitters, embroiderers, etc. so there is usually a component of learning hand stitching in the coursework. I had to take the courses backwards because of timing, so I am in the Introduction course now. Since I barely ever embroider I am doing the same embroidery project as everyone else, but I asked to do a different handstitching project. My professor kindly let me choose to make a sampler of 18th century dressmaking stitches. I worked them using mostly the Burnley & Trowbridge Sewing Tutorials on Youtube, and occasionally referenced the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking book.

Photo by author.

I wasn’t just doing this for fun – I believe that learning how to construct the stitches will help me to be better at identifying them when studying extant garments. Not only that, but if only the thread has been damaged in a garment, there is always the possibility (if appropriate) of attempting to re-sew it with the original stitch pattern rather than making new stitching holes. Of course it is also useful if I were to go into historic clothing reproduction (besides personal projects) some day. It was definitely a good learning experience. I am storing the samples in a trading card protector I purchased at Staples.

Photo by author.

The two samples I completed in the more advanced Repair and Stabilization course were Supporting a Hole and using the Laid and Couched Stitch to stabilize a tear. These come from Martha Winslow Grimm’s “The Directory of Hand Stitches Used in Textile Conservation” which can be found in digital form for free on the AIC’s Textile Group Conservation Wiki. So if you’re considering pursuing conservation, you can try out some of the stitches too!

Stabilizing a tear with laid and couched stitch (front), photo by author.
Stabilizing a tear with laid and couched stitch (back), photo by author.

Practicing conservation stitching is actually very tricky if you come form other sewing. You have to unlearn some things, such as knotting at the end of your sewing is a no-no, you want to keep the textile as flat and unhandled as possible so you can’t just pick it up and tension it between your fingers, and once you’ve put your needle in, you shouldn’t backtrack because then you’ve made unnecessary holes in an already fragile item.

Supporting a hole (front), photo by author.

To minimize handling, some conservation sewing is done with very small curved needles, some of which are also used by surgeons. Re-learning to sew with these is no walk in the park!

Supporting a hole (back), photo by author.

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