Tag Archives: home sewing

Autobiography of an Old Pair of Scissors: 1875


I was born in Sheffield, England, at the close of the last century, and was like all those who study Brown’s Shorter Catechism, made out of dust. My father was killed at Herculaneum at the time of the accident there, and buried with other scissors and knives and hooks and swords. On my mother’s side I am descended from a pair of shears that came to England during the Roman invasion. My cousin hung to the belt of a duchess. My uncle belonged to Hampton Court, and used to trim the king’s hair. I came to the United States while the grandfathers of the present generation of children were boys.

When I was young I was a gay fellow—indeed, what might have been called “a perfect blade.” I look old and rusty hanging here on the nail, but take me down, and though my voice is a little squeaky with old age, I can tell you a pretty tale. I am sharper than I look. Old scissors know more than you think. They say I am a little garrulous, and perhaps I may tell things I ought not.

I helped your grandmother prepare for her wedding. I cut out and fitted all the apparel of that happy day. I hear her scold the young folks now for being so dressy, but I can tell you she was once that way herself. Did not I, sixty years ago, lie on the shelf and laugh as I saw her stand by the half hour before the glass, giving an extra twist to her curl and an additional dash of white powder on her hair—now fretted because the powder was too thick, now fretted because it was too thin! She was as proud in cambric and calico and nankeen as Harriet is to-day in white tulle and organdy. I remember how careful she was when she ran me along the edges of the new dress. With me she clipped and notched and gored and trimmed, and day and night I went click! click! click! and it seemed as if she would never let me rest from cutting.

I split the rags for the first carpet on the old homestead, and what a merry time we had when the neighbours came to the “quilting!” I lay on the coverlet that was stretched across the quilting-frame, and heard all the gossip of 1799. Reputations were ripped and torn just as they are now. Fashions were chattered about, the coal-scuttle bonnet of some offensive neighbour (who was not invited to the quilting) was criticised, and the suspicion started that she laced too tight; and an old man who happened to have the best farm in the county was overhauled for the size of his knee-buckles, and the exorbitant ruffles on his shirt, and the costly silk lace to his hat. I lay so still that no one supposed I was listening. I trembled on the coverlet with rage, and wished that I could clip the end of their tattling tongues, but found no chance for revenge, till, in the hand, of a careless neighbour, I notched and nearly spoiled the patchwork.

Yes, I am a pair of old scissors. I cut out many a profile of old-time faces, and the white dimity bed-curtains. I lay on the stand when your grand-parents were courting—for that had to be done then as well as now—and it was the same story of chairs wide apart, and chairs coming nearer, and arm over the back of the chair, and late hours, and four or five gettings up to go with the determination to stay, protracted interviews on the front steps, blushes and kisses. Your great-grandmother, out of patience at the lateness of the hour, shouted over the banisters to your immediate grandmother, “Mary! come to bed!” Because the old people sit in the corner looking so very grave, do not suppose their eyes were never roguish, nor their lips ruby, nor their hair flaxen, nor their feet spry, nor that they always retired at half-past eight o’clock at night. After a while I, the scissors, was laid on the shelf, and finally thrown into a box among nails, and screws and files. Years of darkness and disgrace for a scissors so highly born as I. But one day I was hauled out. A bell tinkled in the street. An Italian scissors-grinder wanted a job. I was put upon the stone, and the grinder put his foot upon the treadle, and the bands pulled, and the wheel sped, and the fire flew, and it seemed as if, in the heat and pressure and agony, I should die. I was ground, and rubbed, and oiled, and polished, till I glittered in the sun and one day, when young Harriet was preparing for the season, I plunged into the fray. I almost lost my senses among the ribbons, and flew up and down among the flounces, and went mad amongst the basques. I move round as gay as when I was young; and modern scissors, with their stumpy ends, and loose pivots, and weak blades, and glaring bows, and coarse shanks, are stupid beside an old family piece like me. You will be surprised how spry I am flying around the sewing room, cutting corsages into heart-shape, and slitting a place for button-holes, and making double-breasted jackets, and hollowing scallops, and putting the last touches on velvet arabesques and Worth overskirts. I feel almost as well at eighty years of age as at ten, and I lie down to sleep at night amid all the fineries of the wardrobe, on olive-green cashmere, and beside pannier puffs, and pillowed on feathers of ostrich.

Oh, what a gay life the scissors live! I may lie on gayest lady’s lap, and little children like me better than almost anything else to play with. The trembling octogenarian takes me by the hand, and the rollicking four-year-old puts on me his dimpled fingers. Mine are the children’s curls and the bride’s veil. I am welcomed to the Christmas-tree, and the sewing-machine, and the editor’s table. I have cut my way through the ages. Beside pen, and sword, and needle, I dare to stand anywhere, indispensable to the race, the world-renowned scissors.

But I had a sad mission once. The bell tolled in the New. England village because a soul had passed. I sat up all the night cutting the pattern for a shroud. Oh, it was gloomy work. There was wailing in the house, but I could not stop to mourn. I had often made the swaddling-clothes for a child, but that was the only time I fashioned a robe for the grave. To fit it around the little neck, and make the sleeves just long enough for the quiet arms—it hurt me more than the tilt-hammers that smote me in Sheffield, than the files of the scissor’s-grinder at the door. I heard heart-strings snap as I went through the linen, and in the white pleats to be folded over the still heart I saw the snow banked on a grave. Give me, the old scissors, fifty bridal dresses to make rather than one shroud to prepare.

I never recovered from the chill of those dismal days, but at the end of life I can look back and feel that I have done my work well. Other scissors have frayed and unravelled the garments they touched, but I have always made a clean path through the linen or the damask I was called to divide. Others screeched complainingly at their toil; I smoothly worked my jaws. Many of the fingers that wrought with me have ceased to open and shut, and my own time will soon come to die, and I shall be buried in a grave of rust, amid cast-off tenpenny nails and horseshoes. But I have stayed long enough to testify, first, that these days are no worse than the old ones, the granddaughter now no more proud than the grandmother was; secondly, that we all need to be hammered and ground in order to take off the rust; and thirdly, that an old scissors, as well as an old man, may be scoured up and made practically useful.

Around the tea-table, Thomas De Witt Talmage, 1875: pp 50-52

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is a little strange to find a useful household article so sententious, boastful, and sentimental—all at the same time, but there was a 19th-century vogue for these whimsical first-person “autobiographies” of inanimate objects as we have seen previously in the life-stories of a corset and an old needle-book. In the current era, when nearly everything from fashion to spouses is disposable, one wonders what objects will be left to sell their stories to the tabloids?

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


“A paper pattern so perfect every lady can make it up herself:” 1911, 1874, 1915

"The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making ... Also designing ... embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work .." (1885)

“The international encyclopedia of scientific tailor principles, for all kinds and styles of garment-making … Also designing … embroidery, crocheting, knitting, worsted work, fancy and artistic needle work ..” (1885)

New Phase of the Paper Pattern Business

The newest development of the sartorial business is the manufacture of paper patterns, made to measure and fitted, with the aid of which it is possible for a woman to wear a gorgeous gown of an unimpeachable foreign design at a very small cost as compared with such a garment purchased from a high class dressmaker. The cost of these paper costumes range from about $3.50, although occasionally they are less than this. The average is about $6.00.

“Six dollars does seem a big price for a paper pattern,” admitted the manager of the pattern place referred to, “but the same pattern not cut to measurements or pinned together may be had for $4, and skirts, coats and other pieces separately cost $1 and $2 only, unless cut to measurements.

“Nevertheless the demand for these patterns in New York is so large that there are now two or three places which deal in nothing else. At this time of the year, for instance, our business is so brisk that we do not guarantee to furnish a pattern cut to order in less than ten days.

“By far the largest percentage of our private orders come from women who keep a lady’s maid and can afford to buy imported gowns; who do buy imported gowns. All the same these women come here and send their maid in for certain patterns to be made up at home by the maid and a seamstress.”

At this particular place only paper models are shown, but every one of these is marked with the name of one and another noted French house and is an exact copy, a saleswoman explains, of a recent model put out by that house. But supposing a customer doesn’t care for any of the models on the dummies, she looks over books filled with illustrations of the latest French costumes and it would be strange if any woman with $5 in her purse hesitated about handing it over to the saleswoman and having her measurements taken.

At a Fifth avenue place the procedure is a little different. Here early in the season an exhibition of imported costumes is held for a week or ten days, primarily for the benefit of dressmakers, although outsiders who pay for the privilege are admitted. Models from all the leading European houses, made of various materials and costing up to the $1,000 mark in some cases, are displayed and sold to anybody who cares to buy, and before the sale closes most of the costumes have changed hands. The majority of these in turn before they leave that place are copied in paper, and, after the exhibition of originals closes, the paper duplicates have a show of their own. The most popular of these duplicates are made in several regular sizes and sold for less than those cut to fit. But needless to say it is the chance of getting a pattern of an imported model cut to fit that has spelled success for a branch of the paper pattern business undreamed of not many years ago. Information and advice respecting materials, color, and probable cost are handed out with the pattern.

“Tell your dressmaker,” or “Tell your seamstress not to deviate from the pattern” is included in the advice, and probably this hint is needed, for results have justified the enlargement of show-rooms and the hiring of more expensive quarters since the concern started.

A man long connected with the paper pattern business, old style, said that this was one of the surprises of the business that while the price of ordinary paper patterns had declined steadily since reaching a certain stage of popularity and competition, the newest phase of the business represented prices equivalent to the price charged by old-fashioned dressmakers for making a gown. Said he, “I worked for years for the concern which first put paper patterns on the market nearly fifty years ago. The head of this was a custom tailor who by request cut a paper pattern of a skirt to oblige a customer. By advice of his wife, who herself made her children’s clothes, he made a paper copy of a suit she had made for her little girl and sold it, and after that a wrapper pattern designed by his wife. That was the beginning of the paper pattern business, which grew so tremendously that some other folks started in making paper patterns too and then some more, till now there are a dozen thriving concerns in the field. The output of the original concern, still the largest of all, is 50,000,000 paper patterns a year, nine-tenths of which are for women’s and children’s garments. For some years the lowest price for a pattern was 45 cents. Today no paper pattern of this concern is sold for more than 15 cents.”

This man believed that were the output of the other manufacturers of paper patterns added to that given the figures would be doubled. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 14 May 1911: p. 3

Many magazines such as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Godey’s, and Peterson’s printed patterns for men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. Here is an advertisement from Frank Leslie’s:

Every Lady Her Own Dressmaker

It is now a conceded point that the very best and cheapest mode to dress in Fashion, and with the most admirably fitting dresses, is to send on a stamp to the Pattern Department to Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Journal, with your address in full, when a Catalogue will be sent, which will afford full information of all the fashionable dresses of the day, and how to make them.

Ladies have merely to mark the dress in the Catalog, and to send the exact measurement, taken under the bust, and a paper pattern will be sent for 25 cents, so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress, and make it up herself, thus saving the expense and trouble of a dressmaker.

We receive on every hand the most gratifying testimonials of the superiority of our patterns to all others. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper [New York, NY] 24 January 1874: p. 14

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has, in her capacity of lady’s maid, made up dresses from patterns. She may therefore rightfully claim to be sceptical that there exists a pattern “so perfect that every lady can cut out the dress and make it up herself.”  Gowns in 1874 were not some simple frock one could make at home and repent at leisure, (to use Saki’s memorable phrase) but richly layered confections of a richness and complexity that would do credit to a state bed.

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

The Bunch of Lilacs, James Tissot, 1875

Each generation had its own intricacies in paper patterns. A gentleman describes the perils of a pattern “with instructions” in 1915. He exaggerates, but only a little:

A correspondent of the New York Evening Post says that she wanted to make a plain little white waist, the kind that you pay $9 for in the shop and that are obviously worth about 14 cents. So she bought a pattern with instructions. You know the kind of pattern, at least you do if you are married and know anything at all. They are made of extraordinarily thin yellowish paper that tears if you so much as think about it. It is perforated all over with holes like piano-player music and you get into trouble if you absently use a piece for a cigar-lighter. You must have seen it about. Now the pattern was all right. Any one can make anything with a pattern. In fact we have long cherished the conviction that we ourselves could construct any article of women’s clothing, upper or under, if we only had a pattern, solitude, and the ability to restrain our manly blushes. All you have to do in the case of an undergarment is to lay the pattern firmly upon the raw material, mark the outline with a pencil, leaving a margin for hems and errors. Cut it out. Do it a second time with another piece of raw material, stitch them together along the edges, construct a sort of tunnel for the pink ribbon, stitch on the lace around the lower extremities or the upper edge as the case may be, and there you are.

But to return to the lady who pours out her sorrows on the sympathetic bosom of the New York Evening Post. She has no complaint to make about the pattern. It is the elucidatory instructions that have reduced her to the edge of a gibbering idiocy. And here they are:

“Tuck front creasing on slot perforations; stitch three-eighths inch from folded edges; or omit tucks and gather between double ‘TT’ perforations. Gather back on crosslines of single small ‘o’ perforations, and adjust stay under gathers; centre backs even, bringing small ‘o’ perforations in stay to under-arm seam. Close under-arm seam as notched, terminating at stay. Sew sleeve in armhole as notched, easing any fullness.”

Now in all humility we ask to know: Do these ravings mean anything?  How do you ”adjust stay under gathers” ? What is the process by which you “centre backs even”? Of course you “sew sleeve in armhole.” We should not be likely to sew the sleeve into the neck or into the small of the back. We know enough for that. Even in our own unobtrusive garments we should greatly object to find the sleeve anywhere but in the armhole. That is obviously where it belongs. But when it comes to “easing any fullness” we  may frankly confess that we should be stumped.

And we do not know how to ‘”tuck front creasing on slot perforations.” We have an inner conviction that it cannot be done except perhaps by prayer. If the mysterious hand of destiny should at any time require us to make “a plain little white waist” we believe that we could do it in the way already outlined, but we shall avoid the false aid of the commercial pattern with its insanity-producing “instructions.” The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 3 July 1915

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.