Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Library of Dressmaking from the Interwar Period Part 1


One of my finds recently in a charity shop is a book from the 1920s called “The Care of Clothing”. It’s a pretty detailed manual published by the Women’s Institute. The chapters include advice on laundering, dyeing, remodeling and mending clothes. It is very thorough and just goes to show just how much care people used to take with their wardrobes. Sewing is one of those eternal skills and I found a lot of practical tips in this manual. There is a well-meaning, but slightly condescending tone to the whole book, but for its age I think that’s what you have to expect! It reminds me a little of Harry Enfield’s Mr Cholmondley-Warner.

Mr Cholmondley-Warner

Is that too complex for my little brain, Mr Cholmondley-Warner?

With no further ado, I’ll take you through the chapter on dyeing. In the words of the book, “There is nothing experimental or difficult about it [dyeing], as many seem to think … it is a simple matter to grasp the few points that must be known to apply the art of dyeing in a practical way”. It starts with some really handy uses for dyeing – renovating old clothes,  rejuvenating faded household items such as curtains and cushions and matching trims with fabric.

I read the section called “Considering Nature of Fabric” and realised that in the 1920s there were no care labels in clothing, to let you know what the fabric was made from. Therefore, before dyeing you would have to perform a burn test on a small piece of the fabric to work out what it was. You definitely needed dedication in that era!

There’s lots precautionary advice too. The author recommends using lots of water and a large receptacle. Perhaps I should invest in a larger saucepan? My last  dyeing attempt was with 2 metres of fabric and I was struggling to cover that with the dye in the saucepan. To prevent streaked or spotted dyeing, it advises squeezing out excess moisture from the dyed fabric so that it doesn’t drip as it dries and never hanging dyed fabrics in the sun. Perhaps this is how I managed to get streaked dyeing in this garment?


There is extensive detail on the different makes of dye, which is somewhat obsolete since most of the manufacturers are long gone. There is also a listing of the finished colours you can get when over-dyeing fabric that has already been dyed. This section reminds me a little of mixing paint as it seems to follow the same rules.

The most interesting part for me is the treatment of special dyeing processes at the end of the chapter. The instructions are quite simple, and I think it may be possible to use them to reproduce the bunch of grapes motif using the batik technique. Sadly there are no colour photos, but it is described as being in three colours – light purple, bottle green and deep blue-purple.  The original colour, light purple is in the grapes, so this was covered with the wax from the outset. The fabric was then dyed green. Next, wax was applied to the leaves and stems of the pattern and dyed in a deep purple bath.


I’m particularly keen to try the border design scarf below. I’ve tried a little shibori / tie-dyeing before , but this involves more than just folding and securing in place before dyeing. A tacking thread is run around the square. The thread is then drawn up and before it is too tight a cotton reel (or something similar) is inserted and the thread is wound around the reel to hold it in place. The dye will dye the scarf without penetrating the gathers. It looks very effective.


I only noticed today, since the cover is rather worn and faded, that the book is Volume 3 in a set of books published by the Women’s Institute called “Library of Dressmaking”. It would be interesting to find the other books. They are there on ebay… at a price! Think I got a bargain in the charity shop!

Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

3 thoughts on “Library of Dressmaking from the Interwar Period Part 1

  1. Really interesting – I hadn’t come across this book but I’ll look out for it. I love reading about making and caring for clothes in earlier eras.

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