Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Library of Dressmaking from the Interwar Period Part 3


For the third part of my exploration of my 1920s “The Care of Clothing” book, I’m taking a look at the chapter on Remodelling. This is probably my favourite chapter in the whole book since it provides a good insight into both the fashions of the 1920s and also the incredible extent of needlework that women would have done at that time.

The beginning of the chapter expounds (I’m imagining lecturing tones here!) on the virtues of the wise homemaker and the skills required for remodelling a garment. “There is nothing clever in wastefulness” and “Extravagance in dress conveys to thinking  persons a feeling of doubt as to the woman’s intelligence” – strong words, but in an age when clothing and textile were considered far more precious than they are today, such economies would have been a necessity rather than a choice.


The first step advised by the book is to make a critical survey of all the clothing you have “at the beginning of each season”, trying on each garment in turn and observing its lines in relation to current fashion. Thankfully today the laws of fashion are quite relaxed, but I would imagine that at the time this book was written, being fashionable held far more importance, signifying good taste, status and an outlet for women’s creative flair. From this wardrobe audit, garments were to be classified as good, possible and impossible, with the “possibles”, picked out for remodelling. It then suggests studying prevailing styles perhaps looking for inspiration in current fashion magazines. Publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair would have been influential at this time. As an example, I found this article from Vogue about sleeve fashions in 1921 and a Vanity Fair article about hats.

The next part of the chapter details some specific remodels. There are instructions on how to make a boy’s suit from a man’s suit

Making boys' suits

The various pieces of the boys’ coat are cut from the corresponding parts of the large coat. Small trousers are cut from the larger ones.

Boys' suit

A boys’ suit.

There are also toys that can be made from old socks, like this hobby-horse head. It’s amazing just how much knowledge would have been assumed, since the instructions just state “The little horse head is made from a baby’s short sock or a cut-off stocking, stuffed with cotton, tissue paper or cloth and ornamented with buttons and a little red embroidery thread or yarn”. I wonder how many of us can make a toy with those brief instructions?

Hobby-Horse Head

Hobby-Horse Head

My favourite remodelling advice though, comes from the sections on how to modify women’s clothing. Here are some tips on lengthening a dress –

“Common means of lengthening a dress are as follows:

Adding contrasting bands at the bottom or inserting them becomingly through the body of the skirt

Adding a section of dress material and concealing the joining under a tuck, a band of trimming, or a touch of embroidery.

Using the old skirt as a tunic and wearing it over a longer, narrower skirt.

Adding hip-yokes when in vogue.

Ripping the hem and adding a facing if the skirt is not a great deal too shirt.”

Making one dress from two dresses

These two dress designs were developed using from the combination if two dresses. The book suggests – “as a general rule, use the heavier-weight material for the skirt or lower portion of the design.”

For centuries most women wouldn’t have had the luxury to buy a new outfit for every occasion, but would have had to have made do with remodelling older dresses, either their own or others. Updating the look of a dress by revamping the style or hemline was considered an important and commendable skill. The “Care of Clothing” particularly acknowledges that “there is no doubt…it takes more brain power and work to produce a successful make-over than it does to make a lovely gown from sumptuous new material”. Thankfully, the book contains several pages with illustrations of necklines, waistlines and sleeves for inspiration. For necklines, it suggests that a high neck line can be changed by cutting it lower. A low neckline may be built up by inserting fitted pieces and covering them with a collar, or by filling it with a yoke of lace or chiffon. The addition of a scarf can change the neckline too. Not forgetting that you should choose the style which is has the most “becoming shape” on yourself.


Sleeves can be changed by cutting off long ones, narrow sleeves may be increased in width by slashing them and inserting material that matches or contrasts or made longer by the addition of fabric in “bishop effect” (apparently, a long sleeve, fuller at the bottom than the top, and gathered into a cuff).


Some of the these modifications seem so labour-intensive to me, that I could only imagine doing them as the book suggests, “where economy is an absolute necessity”, but some ideas still appeal. I like the advice on changing skirt width, simply because skirts are often simpler in construction and an increasing waistline seems like an alteration that I always need advice for! It suggests inserting a circular godet or a panel or if long enough raising the skirt to supply more room! Do you refashion older items? Where do you draw the line where time and effort are concerned?


Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

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

  1. Wow, super interesting. I am so determined to increase my sewing skills (and then spend an evening watching Grease! – and wonder where the time goes!). Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sewers were so skilled back then. I always enjoy getting new ideas for makeovers: it adds spice to hunts in charity shops! I particularly like the idea for increasing the width of skirts; so often I find them in too small sizes. I only draw the line at refashions I don’t think will look good and at things that are too worn out.

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