Vintage sewing manuals, even those not precisely from the period of the garment or textile item that you are studying or attempting to reproduce, are extremely useful in the study of antique textiles. While names for stitches and techniques have changed, and approaches and styles have changed, much of hand-sewing basics carries from one period to another.  Many vintage sewing manuals from the early 19th century through around 1960 are helpful, and available on the internet in digital form. 20th century sewing manuals are also readily available in local libraries and used book stores; they are often illustrated and written with sufficient detail to be understood by a modern sewist, even one without a great deal of experience, whereas 19th century sewing manuals can require some translation.

Many 20th century vintage sewing books are likely to be of use, provided the book in question is thorough, relatively introductory, and well-illustrated. A number of such books, included some from before the turn of the 20th century, are available digitally for free at VintageSewing.info, an excellent resource.

19th century sewing manuals are often less detailed, have fewer illustrations, and expect a high degree of content knowledge and experience from the reader, so they can be difficult to understand at first. These sources have proved quite helpful, but they are by no means the only ones:

Clark, Mrs. (Elizabeth Stewart). The Dressmaker’s Guide To Fit & Fashion; Including techniques for drafting, fitting, and constructing the clothing of the early 1860’s. Learn to make lovely and correct clothing with the help of illustrations, diagrams, and descriptive instructions with the home-dressmaker in mind. Idaho Falls, Idaho: Elizabeth Stewart Clark & Company, 2004.

  • This wonderful little book is focused on the mid 19th century, but many of the techniques presented are relevant for a wider span of time than the book’s focus. Mrs. Clark’s websites are focused on the period of 1840-1865, as is the latest, expanded edition of her Dressmaker’s Guide, which combines her various books as well as newer information into one volume. Because this book is a general, functional resource primarily intended for reenactors, it does not cite sources or really explain how information was obtained. However, Mrs. Clark’s websites, forum posts, and conference workshops make it clear that she is a well-informed expert whose information is gleaned from extensive, detailed research. More information can be found at www.elizabethstewartclark.com and www.thesewingacademy.org. This book covers the construction of undergarments and dresses, as well as some outerwear and accessories, explaining construction methods, pattern-drafting and draping techniques, and tips for achieving a historically accurate and flattering fit. It also contains instructions for creating a custom-shaped dress form using duct tape. This book is instructional. It contains monochrome images. It contains a “Read More About It” further reading list that briefly covers some research concepts and techniques. Mrs. Clark’s websites and other publications are also quite useful for understanding construction techniques and for creating reproductions. While not truly a sewing manual of the period, this book and the others by the author are derivative of period sewing, and very helpful in understanding period sewing instructions.

Lady, A (Anonymous). The Workwoman’s Guide: A Guide to 19th Century Decorative Arts, Fashion and Practical Crafts (A Facsimile Reproduction of the Original 1838 Edition). Guilford, Connecticut: Opus Publications with Old Sturbridge Village, 1986.

  • This is the single most important resource available for the research and reproduction of 1830s clothing, but it is also useful for other parts of the 19th century. Originally published in England in 1838, it is a thorough practical guide to sewing and various handicrafts, intended particularly for middle and upper class women who wished to maintain their own households and also assist the poor and needy. Because of the charity aspect of the book’s aims, many projects and patterns offered are extremely practical, functional, and simple, in addition to a variety of more elaborate, decorative, delicate, or frivolous projects. There is a wealth of information here, but it can be difficult to understand, since the author assumes that the reader is an early 19th century woman who already knows how to sew, knit, etc., and understands the fashions and habits of the period. This leaves many questions unanswered for modern sewists. An annotated version of this book would be extremely useful, but as yet does not exist. However, used in conjunction with other books, and with online resources including images of extant garments or items similar to those depicted in the book, it can be an invaluable resource. It is instructional. It contains plates of line drawn monochrome images with garment and item drawings as well as pattern schematics, which are often not to perfect scale but include measurement information. There is no bibliography. This book is also readily available digitally via Google Books.

Grimble, Frances, Edited, Translated, and with Additional Material by. The Lady’s Stratagem: A Repository of 1820s Directions for the Toilet, Mantua-Making, Stay-Making, Millinery & Etiquette. San Francisco, CA: Lavolta Press, 2009.

  • This massive text is an almost incomparable resource for its period, though Frances Grimble has also published a similar volume for the 1870s. Edited by a recognized expert, it contains six translated and reworked French fashion and beauty instruction manuals, five of which date from the 1820s and one from the 1830s. It is well organized and extremely thorough, including some editorial information incorporated into the text. It helps to fill a gap in costume research resources between the Regency/Empire/Federal period of the very early 19th century, and the Victorian period. The schematic drawings, patterns diagrams, and construction information are extremely thorough and comprehensive. The sheer volume of information is very impressive. This text is highly recommended for the study of early 19th century costume, especially as a contrast and complement to the more utilitarian, and un-edited, Workwoman’s Guide. The book is instructional. It contains monochrome images, though not a great many. It contains a bibliography and “Further Reading list,” as well as a glossary and index.

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