Home Dressmaking by Agnes M. Miall

posted in: History of fashion | 6
1944 Pitman book on Home Dressmaking by Agnes M. Miall
1944 Pitman book on Home Dressmaking

I bought this book in a second hand shop in Clitheroe. As its age spots and dilapidated cover attest, it has been around since 1944. If you ever see old dressmaking books do buy them. Much of the advice is just as valuable today as when it was written. But this book, published as it was during the Second World War, has a number of dated attitudes, which I will share with you. You will enjoy the advice a great deal more if you read it out loud in a “Mrs Chomondley-Warner” voice – or as if you are an old BBC type announcer.

“Home dressmaking is an enthralling hobby and a creative one. It satisfies the two-fold, deep-rooted feminine craving – to make something and to add to the beauty of the world. This craft is a personal service – and women are at their best in personal service. If you can make a cushion cover – and who can’t? – then, given a little courage and patience, you can make a dress. Still more easily can you make an undie.”

1940s woman sewing
Drugget, footstool and WPB

Once you have purchased your drugget and rearranged your bedroom thus, you can begin to make a dress or an undie, or a present for one’s mother or sister.

Two pictures from 1940s sewing book on how to create a sewing space
How to convert your bedroom

The first advice given, at the start of Chapter 2  Does Your Pattern Fit suggests you measure the pattern against you (or your measurements). Hurrah. Excellent advice. And as a debate on Mrs Mole’s marvellous blog attests something a number of young “sewists” fail to realise. She writes hilariously and gives amazingly useful fitting advice. Agnes tells us that professional dressmakers “take about twenty measurements, but that would muddle the home needlewoman” and suggests just ten. It gives simple and effective advice on how to alter a pattern – to my mind the most important aspect of making a garment. I can’t understand why anyone would want to make a garment with minimal chance of fitting. My figure is not extreme in any respect but I would normally, to achieve a good fit

  • alter cross chest width
  • back chest width
  • tighten neckline
  • lengthen torso
  • on sleeveless dress drop arm hole
  • shorten sleeve
  • narrow wrist
  • narrow waist
  • increase hips
  • shorten length.

Chapter 3 Cutting out made easy suggests you make a “bracelet pincushion”, and a second one, “which hangs round the neck to just below the bust” made from “Cheap flannel, wound into a roll then covered with ribbon ‘cracker-fashion'”. While I have the former I have never seen the latter, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Tomato pin cushion worn on wrist
“Bracelet” pin cushion

The rest of this chapter gives sensible cutting out advice and provides suggestions on how to save fabric – “cutting to save coupons”. During the war when fabric was hard to come by ideas like facing the hem, or reducing the fullness in a nightie made sense. Chapter 4 takes us on to Tacking and Marking, advising us of the

“Dressmakers jingle” which goes “‘Well basted, No time wasted’, and these five pithy words should be memorised by every woman who makes her own clothes and is inclined to think that “tacking is really too much fag”‘.

Well, there you go. I happen to agree although sometimes marking with washable felt tip, and basting with pins is OK. I often find it “too much fag””, but always regret skipping marking and basting. I completely endorse her suggestion of marking the centre front on most garments as it is very useful in fitting, ensuring symmetry and keeping everything on grain. Agnes usefully gives us four tacking stitches

  • tailors tacks
  • even tacking (where there is strain on the join)
  • uneven tacking (when there is no strain)
  • diagonal tacking (used for holding interlinings)

A further (war time) tip offered is to save your used tacking treads on a used cotton reel and reuse them!

1940s lady fitting a garment on a manequin
Fitting on the stand


Chapter 5 covers A perfect fit, where Agnes suggests that “Home-made frocks look far better because they have been moulded to the person who will wear them. They also wear infinitely longer. No doubt this is because a perfect fit means a minimum of strain on the stuff.” I have found the same thing. In terms of fitting she advises that “all wrinkles, sags, and strains are caused by the weave hanging crooked” at the CF, CB, bust or hips – sage advice that makes fitting more straightforward. Again she has some golden rules that I find helpful and, in my experience, true.

  • most dresses should fit closely from the bust-line upwards (getting a good fit at the shoulder and necklines is very important!)
  • get the back length right to avoid pooling of fabric at the waist line, or the dress riding up
  • a badly fitting sleeve is normally caused by poor sleeve insertion “a sleeve that puff up at the top of the armhole, instead of joining the shoulder nice and flat, is one of the commonest home-dressmaker faults – and one of the worst”.

Hear hear Agnes!

6 Responses

  1. Stephanie

    This is very interesting. I of course have learned most of these things the hard way, instead of reading sage advice. I still could do better. I agree with fitting dresses well at the shoulder and upper bust, neckline – something I used to get wrong when I was younger but where I always start now with a muslin or new pattern.

  2. Gjeometry

    “too much fag”. 🙂 I have a # of old sewing books that I will be blogging about shortly. And, I’ve also purchased them in thrift shoppes. I don’t have this one though, looks like a good one.

  3. Joyce

    me too me too….. I have old sewing books I’ve collected, and find them a thrill to read. I get a big kick out of that bed room turned sewing studio……ha!! — I put extensions (wooden frames which are normally book shelve squares, about 9 inches high) to raise the dining room table up to counter level, throw on top of that the cardboard (foldable) sewing board (complete with inch grids and bias guides ……..and …presto – a cutting table area. I use my dressing room, for a sewing machine station and material storage, and the ironing board goes in the spare bedroom, all within a few feet from each other—- , I use the whole house as one big room! ha.

    • fabrickated

      Our flat is really small. Apart from the bedroom and bathroom we only have one large room that houses the cooking area, the sofa and the dining table. I use the “peninsular” unit for cutting out, and I have my machine and overlocker on a table with “Camilla” my mannequin and the ironing board next to me (fairly squashed in). I thought it was quite revealing in the photograph of the bedroom that there is a single bed – perhaps the assumption that only single ladies have time to sew – and a tiny little area, right in the corner of the room, discretely covered by a curtain, as a wardrobe.

  4. Joyce

    I think a lot of us perhaps are gifted with a sewing studio – in the empty nest stage of life…suddenly, there is a empty room – oh what to do what to do???— I have used my “empty room” for a zillion purposes….but lately it has stayed as a dressing room (this frees up the master with a little more space ) and now I’ve added the sewing machine on my old make-up table .
    I used to sew in the basement, but I”ve traded the convince of shutting the door and walking away for the natural light up stairs.
    Sounds like we have the same layout Kate, as we have open concept Kitchen, dining and living area. :~ ) rooms that multi task…….gotta love it. :~ ) Size isn’t everything.

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