Book Review: The Workwoman’s Guide by A Lady, 1838

Hey there you lovely costuming creatures, you!

As many of you know, Lauren and I are currently up to our eyeballs in all things 1830s. Yep, we’re both busy ladies trying to bust out entire 1830s ensembles for our little adventure out to San Francisco for the Dickens Faire in mid-December.

Me sporting my new “Bustle” that I made using the descriptions and guidelines from WWG (Plate 11)

While the 1830s is a relatively new time period for us (Lauren’s made one other 1830s dress, and I’ve randomly done a lot of research into the 1830s over the years), figuring out construction techniques and pattern shapes has been relatively easy because of a little pink bible that has all the answers. Seriously. All. Of. Them.

The slightly obnoxious pink cover of the best book, ever. 

The Workwoman’s Guide by A Lady (1838) is a primary source on all things sewing in the 1830s, and is easily accessible for us modern wannabes today. I was first introduced to the book a few years ago, during my time at Colonial Williamsburg. There, I was lucky enough to buy myself a hard copy in the museum book store, and it has become a well loved, highlighted, and dog ear’d addition to my costuming book collection.

While hard copies are a bit difficult to find (seems like the publisher went out of business?), you can easily look through WWG on Google Books (bonus: it’s free!).

In the book you’ll discover extensive information regarding everything from basic stitches, shopping practices, sleeve patterns, and bed hangings. While some of the information isn’t all that helpful, (like I will never need to know how to make church seats.) the information on dressmaking and accessories is a damn gold mine!

Here’s a quick breakdown on dressmaking and millinery items in the book –

1. Corsets and Bustles (Plate 11)

2. Caps, Bonnets, Hats (Plate 15, 19, 20)
3. Collars, Collarets, Pelerines (Plate 13)
4. Sleeves! (Plate 12)
5. Gowns (Plate 14)
The Workwoman’s Guide, Google Books
Gown information from The Workwoman’s Guide, Google Books.

With most of these plates there are follow up instructions on how to draft your own, except gowns, because, at this time, gowns were custom made to the person. However, while they don’t give drafting instructions, they do provides directions on how to drapes or create the different bodice styles that you see in the plate (and yeah, it’s basically every gown you’ve ever seen in a portrait or fashion plate), information on grain lines, design choices, trimmings, and construction. It’s all there. And let me tell ya, all the information provided has been so incredibly useful on making our 1830s gowns. Who would have ever thought side pieces were such a big deal? Or how important grain is for the shoulders? (Spoiler Alert: Grain line is everything.)

Lauren’s simple wrap-front bodice, based on instructions from Workwoman’s Guide

There are a couple of drawbacks to the drafting instructions to be aware of:

1. They use nails, quarters, half yard, and yard measurements. It’s not the biggest deals – so long as you know that 1 nail = 2.25 inches. Just keep your calculator at hand, cause you’re gonna math all over this thing. The author addresses this in Chapter 2 of the book.

2. There can be patterning issues, I had some issues with one of the bonnets in the book, and while I take part of the blame (I have a big head) part of the issue was a 180 year old patterning mistake.

The good: The bonnet looked just the like one in the plate. The bad? It hurt my head and didn’t really fit once it was made up in buckram and pasteboard. :/ 

The Workwoman’s Guide  is an incredible historical resource for any historian or costumer, as the information is useful for time periods outside of the 1830s. Just reading the chapters on stitches, fabric, and shopping practices creates the sensation of time travel and secret knowledge that so many of us are hungry for.

So, if you’re wanting to join us on our 1830s caravan of fluffy puff n stuffs, check out The Workwoman’s Guide, and you’ll be set to get started!

Until next time!
Abby (& Lauren) 🙂

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