History's Mirror Project: Needlecraft

Twentieth Century

People have sewn and woven threads for thousands of years, but in the 20th century there have been particular developments.


Hand sewing continues to be a popular hobby activity with people (usually women) showing interest in embroidery, needlepoint, weaving, spinning and patchwork. This is often seen as a social group activity. However, as far as clothes are concerned making by hand gave way to machine sewing in the late Victorian age.

Domestic machines were developed from those in factories and mills in the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Companies like Singer developed domestic machines and sold them for affordable prices. Families were able to buy fabric and make the clothes they needed in a much quicker time than with hand sewing. Stitching was strong and lasted a long time. From that time on it was possible for dressmakers and tailors to set up businesses where they could not only make customised clothing but also to eventually produce off the peg items. This is how the clothing retail industry started.

Today domestic sewing machines are sophisticated. They are able to produce a wide range of stitches and can sew on buttons and make buttonholes. Increasingly they are becoming electronic and involve computerised programs.

Dressmaking patterns

With the increase in home-made clothing came the development of the sewing pattern, to aid the cutting and tailoring of garments for the unskilled dressmaker. Butterick and McCall were both tailors in Victorian times. Butterick graded his patterns and printed them on tissue paper and McCall printed instructions on his patterns and was the first to give full colour illustrations. Vogue magazine printed patterns and in 1961 gave permission for Butterick to print these, so getting them to a wider audience.

Simplicity was started in 1927 and by 1946 was probably the most popular brand of pattern. Today, home dressmaking is not as popular as it once was, but it is still possible to purchase a wide range of patterns in a variety of sizes. These are still on tissue paper with colour illustrations.

Knitting and crochet

The word knit comes from the word knot, and knitting and crochet are ways of knotting yarn together. This craft came from the Middle East in the 12th century. The rise of the wool industry in the British Isles in the Middle Ages enabled the skill of knitting to increase. Knitting needles started as bone or wood but today are plastic or lightweight metal.

In World War II there was a shortage of wool and rationing and a movement 'Knitting for Victory' was started. People were encouraged to unravel unwanted knitted items and re-make them into new garments. Knitting patterns were given out so people could knit balaclavas and gloves for soldiers and sailors. In the 1950s and 60s new colours and yarns were in the shops and there was a huge increase in knitting patterns for clothing for babies, children, men and women.

There were also patterns for many other non clothing items. Every woman's magazine had weekly knitting patterns. In the 60s and 70s crochet became popular, with crochet dresses, jackets and shawls about.

In the 1980s there was a decline in home knitted clothing as industrial machine knits were low cost and could be made in the latest fashions. However, in the early 21st century there has been a revival as people are now interested in using the wide range of yarns, especially natural ones, to create garments. This has been helped along by photos showing glamorous celebrities knitting. With the change in male and female domestic roles, there has been more men taking up knitting. During the 20th century this was very much a women's area of interest.

Make do and mend

This started in the Second World War in 1943, brought on by clothes rationing from 1941 onwards. The ration per adult was 66 points per year, and as a new blouse was 12 points, it was imperative that people re-used outgrown or outworn items. The wartime population became creative and adept at making the most of everything. There were parachute silk wedding dresses, which were later dyed and shortened and used for dance dresses. Jackets were made into skirts and vice versa and hats were re-trimmed and decorated.

After the war there was, a reaction against this and everyone wanted new things. The huge growth in the fashion and clothing industry post war meant that was achievable for all. The increase in cheap labour now means basic clothing is extremely cheap and plentiful. Everyone has far more clothes than they actually need. However there is a growing reaction to this disposable approach and there is a move, partially brought on by the economic crisis, towards developing sewing, knitting, darning and mending skills again. Some of this is for economic necessity and some is for leisure interest. Either way it is a welcome return of age old skills.