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Sewing Archaeology: Deconstructing Clothes To Learn More About Them

August 29, 2017
One modern-day dress. Made of synthetic polyester at first glance you see it’s full length and sleeveless but doing Sewing Archaeology helps us understand where it fits into the culture and history of sewing and to learn more than first appears. Draping was first made popular in the 1920s by designer Madeleine Vionnet.

Sewing Archaeology: the study of garments from the past in order to learn about the culture and practice of sewing

See also:  The History of Fashion and Clothing, Material Culture, The History of Design.  


The history of sewing 

Sewing has been around since our ancestors stitched with bone needles and sinews for thread; it’s as old as we are.

Our forebears used every last bit of the animal to keep warm and clothed but these days being practical means something different.

From electric sewing machines to mass production making clothes is less about ‘one hand one needle’ and more about fast fashion – the quick turn around of trends in the retail marketplace.

Deconstructing clothing

Deconstructing clothing is nothing new; Fashion Historians examine the in’s and out’s of clothes to learn about their manufacture and their place in history and culture – the ‘context.’

The bodice: it’s constructed with a circular neckband stitched at the shoulder. The heavily draped bodice is gathered into it at the neck, left open at the side seam and draped into the waistband at the front and back. The neckband and side seams are machine stitched.

Whether a dress was made in a particular fabric or designed in a specific way adds to the understanding of the piece.

From that we learn about the past because they are interconnected.

It’s same with clothing from the House of Mirelle.

What is Sewing Archaeology

Historians look things up and Archaeologists dig things up, right? – not exactly.

Historians research the past using all sorts of documents and archives. Archaeologists look at physical evidence of the past often digging it up to do so.

One thing they have in common is looking at objects from the past and interpreting them.

With clothes from the past that’s where Sewing Archaeology comes in.

Sewing Archaeology involves examining the clothing item inside and out, cataloguing and recording what’s found and then setting that into an historic context.

Sewing Archaeology and The House of Mirelle

Doing Sewing Archaeology with clothing from The House of Mirelle means looking at the item inside and out like Fashion Historians do.

The interior bodice is stitched to the interior bodice shell. Made of cotton polyester the second layer of draping over the bodice front hides the construction. The side seam is machine stitched into the interior bodice. Using a sewing machine to make this dress is commonplace these days but at the turn of the 19th to 20th century when it was not widely adopted this dress would have been made entirely by hand.

It’s then measured and drawn and photos are taken to catalogue it, like Archeologists do.

The diagrams produce an historic record similar to archaeological drawings.

They are technically accurate and allows someone to examine and interpret the clothing item itself.

Documents and archives from the past are then looked at to see how it fits into the historic context.

All those are viewed alongside what’s known about the Mirelle Sewing Workroom.

Through that more is learned about a Mirelle clothing item than what can be seen by looking.

Sewing Archaeology helps us understand The House of Mirelle too

Sewing Archeology helps us understand fashion, what went into making it and what happened at The House of Mirelle too.

We can’t pull an historic item apart to examine it but we can look at it under a different sort of microscope.

So, how does Sewing Archaeology work?

Sewing Archaeology and the modern purple dress 

Using Sewing Archaeology techniques we can examine this purple modern dress.

Through that we understand more about its context than you can see by looking.

We know the dress was found in the UK and on first glance it appears to be a youthful design for a prom dress maybe.

Despite the majority of this dress being machine made, the waistband is set into the bodice using hand stitches. This and the absence of the modern legal requirement for a manufacturer’s label including fabric care instructions suggests that this dress was custom made.

Formal wear for teenagers 

The prom dress is an iconic piece of formal wear exclusively worn by teenagers at a school prom.

Very much an American phenomena, the 1990s saw the British adopting the rites of passage as our own.

Young, fresh and modern the dress could have been created for such an occasion.

Standard sizing 

It’s made to a 34 inch bust, 28 inch waist and 36 inch hips.

Standard sizing i.e. an agreed set of measurements that all manufacturer’s use has not existed in the UK since the 1970s.

Roughly equivalent to a size 10 we need to look at the rest of the dress to see what it tells us about the design and the maker.

Fabric care labels

Since the 1980s the EU has required that a fabric care label is inserted into all manufactured garments.

This is a modern dress made more recently than the 1980s.

The lack of a fabric care label or evidence that one was stitched in and removed says that this was a bespoke, one-off or home-made item.

Interior lining showing how it is attached at the neckband, but not the armhole giving the dress more fluidity and suiting the draped fabric also. The inside darts are machine finished and uniform throughout, suggesting this pattern was not made to the wearer’s specific body measurements. The mixed machine and hand stitching and rough cutting suggests it was probably made from a sewing pattern.

Evidence of hand stitching – a couture technique 

Looking closely the waistband is stitched onto the bodice by hand.

Long slip stitches – stitches that are easily hidden – have been used to close the gap between the front of the waistband and the bodice.

The slip stitches are even and run all the way round.

Whoever made this dress knew how to finish the front properly and planned it into the way the cloth was layered and finished from inside to out.

This dress couldn’t have been made so well without it.

The hem 

It’s all change at the hem. Roughly turned up by 3 cms or 2 inches the synthetic fabric is fraying around the cut edge.

It’s been machined in a running stitch all round.

This would never be acceptable in a couture garment where the finish is expected to be perfect from shoulder to hem.

What we’ve learned

By using Sewing Archeology we’ve learned a great deal about the design and construction of this dress.

Looking at it critically we can think about the skills of the maker and what historic context it fits into.

The back bodice shows the clever construction. The fabric is synthetic but semi-transparent. With the interior lining in white it enables the wearer to hide underwear and skin. The draped fabric retains its structure by attaching it to the lining underneath. The designer and maker really knew what they were doing in making this garment effortless for the owner to wear.

Associated to this dress are ideas about Madeleine Vionnet, formal prom wear, modern clothes sizing, couture sewing techniques, home sewing and the sewing machine.

Quite a lot to think about inspired by one purple dress!

Talks and Lectures

You can hear more about Sewing Archeology in the talks and lectures about The House of Mirelle.

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Sewing Archaeology logo and terminology © Carrie Henderson. All rights reserved.