HSF #2 – Innovation Though Periodicals and The Wine Muff

Due to my own personal looming deadline of early February, I’m focusing (at least for now) on the early 1860’s. But being the kind of person I am, of course I didn’t go for the easy research of aniline dyes or even the invention of a flexible steel that could be used for hoop skirts. Instead I doodly dooed around the internet looking for something more intriguing. I briefly toyed with the fashion and accessories carried by ladies on locomotive trips. I found several intriguing leads, such as the fabulous digital history project at Railroads and the Making of Modern America. Then I also considered trying to somehow construct my own aluminum jewelry, but found that most of the tutorials and pieces for study that were out there were out of my current skill range. I briefly considered researching the history of the sewing machine, if only to help myself feel better about the fact that I sew practically everything by machine. In the end I ran across a random snippet about the fact that the first paper patterns were invented in the 1860’s.

Before paper patterns came along, one of the only ways the home sewer could get a new pattern was to get it through one of the many ladies’ periodicals, such as Peterson’sGodey’s, or one of the many others that were published. When these patterns appeared, they looked nothing like the patterns we’re familiar with today. Instead they looked something like pieces of a puzzle stacked on top of each other. Interestingly enough this was also how seamstresses and tailors got new patterns as well, except theirs were in highly specialized trade magazines. Just to give you an idea, here’s an example of what those jigsaw puzzle patterns looked like.

bodice pattern 2

The idea that, not only did periodicals communicate ideas about fashion, recipes, and technology (such as the sewing machine), but that periodical publishers also came up with their own patterns to help lure subscribers, fascinates me.

There are several versions of who first came up with the idea for paper patterns, but I prefer the version that begins with Ellen Louise Curtis.


Ellen Louise Curtis opened her own millinery shop at the age of 18. In 1858, she married William Demorest, a widower who owned a dry goods store, ironically he already owned a shop named Madame Demorest’s Emporium of Fashion. One can only assume it was run by the first Mrs. Demorest.

Ellen came up with the idea for creating paper patterns to make fashion more accessible to the average woman. The story goes that Ellen got the idea for paper patterns after watching her maid cut out a pattern on a paper bag. To help promote this new item her husband started publishing Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashions, which included the usual fiction pieces, embroidery designs, fashions plates, and the lovely bonus of a simple paper pattern with each edition. The designs mostly came from Europe and were then adapted to suit their American clientele by her sister, Lucy, who worked closely with Ellen as business grew. Below is the only example I could find online of one of these paper patterns that were sent along as freebies. There don’t seem to be any identifying marks, so I can’t say, “Yes, this is absolutely an example from Mme. Demorest’s Mirror of Fashion.” But it is definitely a good example of the types of patterns that would come along in ladies’ periodicals.

bodice pattern

Ellen and William were abolitionists, who continued their work after the war by hiring and paying workers in their shop for the same salary, regardless of color.

Fun fact, she also designed the wedding dress of Lavinia Warren Stratton, also known as Mrs. Tom Thumb. In fact, when Lavinia and her new husband went to Europe, Ellen designed the reception dresses that Lavinia wore to meet royalty.

As an interesting (and completely unrelated) aside, she paired up with Susan A. King, got together a group of women, and became part of the first group of women to own a ship for commercial purposes. They shipped tea, which as my students will tell you, is my favorite beverage.

But back to Ellen’s life in fashion, somehow in the whirlwind, Ellen and her husband never quite got around to patenting their paper pattern idea. So when Butterick created his own process for paper patterns and patented his version, they discovered that they were losing more money than they could afford. They decided to close up their businesses in 1887 and focus on their other great passion, causes such as suffrage and temperance. Of course Butterick is a name that we’re all familiar with today, but I originally had no idea that the company had been in existence for so long.

Through periodicals, fashion was able to travel throughout the country at a much faster rate, so that a women who lived in Podunk, Georgia could be as fashionable as one in New York City. Well, relatively speaking, there was still the small issue of time for mail travel.

When I originally started this post, I fully intended to put my not so awesome math skills to work and make a pair of authentic drawers from an awesome pattern book I got from my sister at Christmas. The patterns are based on periodical patterns, those jigsaw ones. I thought, “What better way to honor the innovation of paper patterns by going back and doing it the hard way?”  Sadly my math and talent for eyeing things just wasn’t up to the challenge. At the end of my struggle, I ended up with a pair of drawers that were about 9 inches too small in the hip and 4 inches not tall enough in the waist. At this point I’m frustrated enough that I’m ready to put this idea aside and come back to it later.

I really love the idea of how periodicals tied women across the country together, sharing ideas and innovations in fashion. So while I was ready to let go of the drawers, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of my innovation topic, although I did shift it a bit (twice).

I was determined to make the next deadline on time. So when the drawers failed, I decided I’d make a pair of gloves with the material of my failed drawers. Then my gloves acquired complications of their own (a.k.a. I had trouble turning the fingers right side out). And honestly I’m ready for something that is relatively simple and less fiddly. Because I really hate fiddly bits. It’s my least favorite part of sewing even if it is the part that makes everything look fabulous.

I’ve been wanting to make a muff, because they’re awesome. There isn’t really a reason to wear one in my everyday life and my middle schoolers would probably think I had finally lost it. My hands are always cold, but a muff will give me a perfect place to hide a handwarmer at a reenactment. So I used the advice and tips from Time Traveling in Costume, to construct my own muff.

I decided to follow her lead and make a muff base that I could use with interchangeable covers. Since I wanted the inside to be warm but not scratchy, I decided to steal an old flannel pillowcase from my parents’ closet. First I cut the pillow case in half, because I wanted to carry something smaller than a pillow.

DSCN0080Then I trimmed off the seams, which left me with a piece of flannel about 28″x19.5″.


The I folded the piece in half, using the bottom of the pillowcase to guide my fold. I French seamed the 14″ side together, which gave me only one side to worry about sewing up after filling it up with stuffing.

DSCN0088I used some leftover polyfiber stuffing my mom had to fill it up. Between the flannel and my less than perfect stuffing, my poor muff looked like some weird lumpy worm. But I persevered, after I stuffed it as full as I could, I whipstitched it closed, stuffing little bits in as I went to fill out the sewn end.

DSCN0097Lesson learned, next time I’ll be a bit less enthusiastic with the stuffing portion of muff making. My hands will have no choice but to be snuggly because they’ll have to wiggle their way in.

DSCN0095Now that I had a workable muff base it was time to get started on the muff cover. There isn’t a proliferation of pictures to go from, you mostly have to wade through images that are tagged with things other than “muff”. However I did find a few that served as inspiration.

muff2 muff

I have a lovely piece of faux fur that I picked up a month or so ago, with the purpose of turning it into a muff. Of course, once I got it home I realized that all of the historic clothing I currently have has black trim. Which isn’t going to stop me from using it, I just have to find an equally as rich looking black fabric to combine it with. So instead of fur, I took a look at my small, but ever growing stash for help. My Almost Finished Double Bodice Wine Dress is…well almost finished. And now that I have a hat to go with it, I decided to make another accessory to match it so completely that I’ll have to work to make it go with anything else. After all, it is a removable muff cover. So I pulled together all of the bits and pieces I had left of my fabric from the Almost Finished Double Bodice Wine Dress.

DSCN0102It may look like a lot, but there was no one piece that was going to big enough to cover my muff. There were however a few pieces that were largish that I was saving for an Oh-No-What-Have-I-Done moment.


I cut them into four pieces that would fit around the circumference of my muff, including the seam allowance. Thankfully my math did not desert me this time. I decided to overlap the pieces and incorporate the selvage into the design because I liked how the slightly frayed, but going nowhere element looked. The middle sections got trimmed a bit to fit the muff and were then sewn onto the lining down the middle. Braid was sewn down the middle seam to hide the piecing and once more on either side. Then I turned over the lining along one end to given me a less bulky base to sew the other end onto (and also to help with the fraying that braid does and because I didn’t want to stop what I was doing to let fray check dry)

DSCN0106This is about the time when my math skills failed me again. I didn’t quite cut my lining fabric wide enough to have a channel sewn into it for the ribbons to gather the fabric around the ends of the muff base. So I pulled out some black blanket binding to extend the area. I sewed it a little under the wine fabric so that after things were pulled tight the seam wouldn’t pop up and draw attention to itself.

DSCN0107I actually how this looks much better than if I had just the lining to cover the ends. The blanket binding is much more luxurious looking than the lining was. I used a thin cord instead of ribbon because I like how it gathers things more attractively than a ribbon would in this instance.

I stitched the cover closed, only then realizing how lucky I was that I managed to line up the braid almost perfectly to match at either end.




Here is where you can see the slightly frayed selvage edges.

DSCN0119Overall I’m very pleased with how this project turned out. It ended up being much less fiddly than I expected. Now I just have to work on the Almost Finished Double Bodice Wine Dress so that I’ll have something to wear with my lovely new muff.

The Challenge: Innovation

Fabric: A wine bottom weight material, black polysatin lining, and a cotton flannel pillowcase.

Pattern: No pattern except for the help from Time Traveling in Costume.

Year: The early-mid 1860’s, even though fur was more popular, I have to assume that there were some ladies who wanted to keep their hands warm in a muff who didn’t have fur.

Notions: black braid, thread (in wine, black, and light blue), thin cord, polyfiber fill, black satin blanket binding

How historically accurate is it? I’d say it’s accurate in concept, especially the tassels that I intend to put on the cording eventually, but just about everything I used had some form of polyester blend.

Hours to complete: It took me three evenings so I’d say about 15 hours.

First worn: Not yet, but it’s first outing will be to Olustee.

Total cost: This challenge was absolutely free because I ended up only using things in my stash. And my parents’ linen closet.


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3 thoughts on “HSF #2 – Innovation Though Periodicals and The Wine Muff

  1. […] A Modern Needle Through Time wrote a fabulous blog post on Ellen Louise Curtis and the development of paper sewing patterns.  Sadly, she didn’t get to use that particular innovation it in her finished Challenge item, but the story is a joy in and of itself. […]

  2. Carol Barclay February 14, 2014 at 12:45 am Reply

    Such interesting history! Your muff is a work of art.

  3. […] rudimentary math skills to create a garment from printed instructions. My lack of success with the Drawers That Weren’t certainly didn’t boost my confidence in this area, but I was determined. So, I followed the […]

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