The Historical Sew-Fortnightly – why 1938

People have been asking why the cutoff date for the Historical Sew Fortnightly is 1938, and I realised that while we discussed it in comments, and I’ve mentioned it in posts, I’ve never directly addressed why I picked 1938 as the cutoff date.
The short answer is because it is 75 years ago, but that was really just a convenient bonus.
The long answer is that I wanted to pick a date before which garments would really look distinctly different from what we wear today, and in which the sewing techniques used to make them would be distinctly different from modern sewing techniques.  I also really wanted to make myself sew historical garments for my work, not vintage-historical which I could wear in an everyday context.
When I first conceived the idea of the Historical Sew Fortnightly I set the cuttoff date at pre-1920. The reasoning behind the 1920 cutoff was that anything after 1920 could easily be used in an everyday modern wardrobe, and I really did want this to focus on  really  historical stuff – partly because it is more different and special, and partly because people (me) are more likely to cheat historical accuracy on something for everyday wear.
Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920

Gazette du Bon Ton, 1920

I wanted to keep the date early because there are already many venues on the internet for showing off ‘vintage’ sewing, whereas forums for really historical sewing are much rarer.
However, there was such an outcry about 1920 being too early (or late?) that I agreed to move it later.  As an alternative date I settled on 1938, because post-1938 is the modern era, both in sewing and in world affairs.
McCalls 9296, 1937

McCalls 9296, 1937

1938 is the start of WWII (depending, of course, on where you were in the world), and sewing techniques start to change hugely post 1938. Pre-1938(ish) many of the techniques that are used are quite foreign to modern seamstresses.  Post 1938, and especially post 1948, the way clothes are assembled, and the techniques used, are much more similar to those used today.
For me the HSF was meant to push us to try new techniques, to research more, and to sew as a historical seamstress – post 1938 doesn’t give enough scope for that. I also got my first degree in International Relations, and in political science we speak of WWII as the transition to the ‘modern era’ of politics (though now there is also the ‘post 9/11’ era of politics).
Being slightly obsessive about organization and logic, I also like the symmetry of 75 years, a modern era of politics/world affairs, and a modern era of sewing.
Auckland Observer, Feb 1918

Auckland Observer, Feb 1918

While I like the symmetry, four challenges in to the Historical Sew Fortnightly I’m already a teeny-tiny bit sad about the compromise.  I’ve already sewn one 1930s garment, and have four more planned for upcoming challenges (and, considering we are only at Challenge #9, that’s a pretty high percentage).  These garments are great, because I have and will worn them, and have events to wear them too (Art Deco Weekend), but I know if it was pre-1920 I would have sewn much earlier garments.
My compromise with myself is that I will enter the post-1920s outfits as ‘soft’ easy entries into the HSF and try to sew something more historical (but fairly simple) as well for each entry where I do a post-1920 garment – so for Stripes I’ll be doing a 1934 dress, and an 1880s overskirt, and for Peasants & Pioneers I hope to do a 1930s peasant blouse and an 18th century linen petticoat.  We’ll see if I can accomplish all this!
My compromise to the people who wish that I had set the date later than 1938 – as late as 1960 even, is that I have opened an album on Facebook for stuff that you have sewn and want to show off but that doesn’t qualify for a challenge.
So that was my thought process.  How do you feel about the 1938 date?  What would you call ‘historical’ sewing?


  1. Ultimately it’s all just semantics, but I tend to think of historical sewing as pre-WWI. A vintage look can be made inconspicuous if need be, whereas historical to my mind is more of a commitment – bit harder to queue inconspicuously at the post office wearing paniers 😉 We’ve had garments posted on WeSewRetro from 1920s patterns that appear really very modern and very ‘everyday-wearable’, whereas an outfit from the early 19teens tends to appear a bit more theatrical if worn just to pop out to the shops.

    Regardless of the distinction, I’m enjoying following along.

  2. I agree with you completely! I’ve sewn across all of the ages for historical programs with my kids to do history presentations and I’ve had to do a great amount of research for pre-1940’s. For WWII, we did a USO show. My son used his modern leather bomber jacket, for a dual role as a Corsair pilot and to portray Glenn Miller leading the USO band. I bought an evening gown off the rack on deep discount and added a “beaded” short jacket that I sewed from a modern pattern to be Ginger Rogers. Before the show I put on my husband’s worksuit and tied a bandana around my head to be Rosie the Riveter and sewed dinner in that (just came home from the factory.) When we did the 50’s I told my son to put on his blue jeans and roll up the pant legs, wear white socks, wear a white t-shirt, put on a button up cotton shirt and roll up the sleeves and slick back the hair. Little research, little time, little effort, little sewing. Too easy. However I do want to incorporate more vintage into my sewing/wardrobe because I love the styles. But for historical sewing, I have learned so much by costuming from the Ancients up to 1940 and everything in between. I can see your logic in this. It’s a good cut off to really attempt historical sewing. =)

  3. Teresa says

    I agree with you! I knew I couldn’t/wouldn’t participate once I saw Historical in the name but I was fine with that and instead I was pleased that a forum for older sewing styles was going to become more accessible.
    I consider historical fashion to be fashion from before my grandmother would have started sewing (so my cut off is 1935-after this, it’s all vintage…and anything 1980s onwards is retro). This is probably because of my own training in archaeology but I simply cannot consider things/styles made during the lifetime of living creators to be properly historic. Primarily because these objects endure and while we still have people who learned them as their first style, it’s not quite historical just yet. They are primary resources and they are still alive to ask questions of. Traditional covers the grey area between the older styles taught to these living creators and the living creators but I’m fine calling them historical. Once we hit secondary sources, then I feel very comfortable discussing them as historical crafts/styles. Antique starts after the medieval period (Early Modern) (yeah, I use antique as a huge umbrella). Before that I like to start referencing cultural groups, like Estruscan or Hellenistic or Celtic-Iberian mostly because we’re getting closer to my period of study. I’ve worked closely with prehistoric fashion enthusiasts which always is a conversation full of fascinating references.

  4. Elise says

    Very cool. Although, for the record, I would wear the first 1920 dress anyway.

    Are non-sewers (but active cheerleaders) allowed on the facebook page?

  5. I think it’s a fine deadline. If my life was more settled, I’d be participating. But I’m enjoying reading about the challenges and looking at your projects on your blog.

  6. Considering I’m planning on wearing my 1913 wardrobe items individually and won’t look too out of place I think prior to 1910 might have been a good cut-off for true historical sewing. Admittedly I’m machine sewing mine, but I know that sewing machines were available then and even starting to become relatively common in the middle classes. I’ll be drafting from scratch quite a few of my patterns as it’s too expensive to purchase good quality historical patterns here, I’ve bought a couple, but there won’t be any more. I am finding it hard to get information on some 1913 items like the servants costumes so having to take that directly from Downton Abbey; have no idea how accurate they were.

  7. I think any date you set could be argued for or against, really–to me, 1938 is about perfect because I do see WWII as the transition to the modern era. I can see how some would see it as “vintage” rather than “historical”–but at the same time, you could argue that the Korean War era is just as historical a period for many of today’s seamstresses as the War of the Roes. For me, it’s about whether the techniques you’re using are primarily the same as you’d find in a modern garment or whether they’re different. It’s not like you get a stark date when magically everything changes over, but I think you did a nice job selecting a spot where that transition was happening.

    I just wish this hadn’t been the year of tons of “required” projects for me and my family that don’t fit the themes–but I hope to participate in a couple of challenges soon! Fortunately, I’ve just discovered a crazy love for 1920s and 1930s clothing, so I can enjoy inspiration all the way up through the latest limit on the challenge!

  8. Just found your blog and love the posts. At the moment, I am more of a knitter than sewer. My poor machine came out for the first time in months for Halloween 2012, then went back in the box. I will most assuredly be checking back in for the follow-up. I totally love the first dress and would happily wear it.

    • Just read the original Historical Sew Fortnightly! Woot! I can participate! I will put my thinking cap on and search for appropriate historical knitted garments.

      • Yes indeed! Calling it the Historical Sew and Other Crafty Stuff Fortnightly seemed a bit complicated though 😉 I look forward to seeing your creations!

  9. Claire Payne says

    While I enjoy seeing what everyone has made on the HSF, I felt a bit daunted by the challenges and didn’t consider my sewing skills up to the tasks. Time is also an issue for me so it would have been extremely optimistic to attempt Victorian pieces. A 1920’s frock may be a more hopeful challenge but with a 1950’s wardrobe to create, my efforts are focussed on another era.

    I wish everyone the very best for their creations on the HSF however, and look forward to seeing the finished results.

    • Elise says

      Maybe there ought to be an “auxiliary” for folks like you who can be inspired by the challenges in your own way…

      The whole idea is so interesting already!

  10. Lana D. says

    What an interesting post. My 1986 RX7 daily driver is considered while my 1938 Dodge is an antique. My 1879 sewing machine must be classified as historical.
    I enjoy your blog and quite often drool over your creations and presentations. Thank you for sharing.

  11. LadyD says

    I see 1920’s & 30’s like a nomansland stuck between historical and ‘vintage’ not quite fitting in either. It was so great you included them though. As otherwise I probably wouldn’t be able to join in. (as I can’t afford to have a load of pretty historical dresses and nowhere to wear them, as don’t re-enact).
    Its been useful because its actually made me to look and appreciate the 20’s and 30’s and the subtle changes during the era. I would have dismissed those eras as ‘not for me’ but having to sew them I’m starting to love the 30’s style and the 20’s simplicity.
    That’s not to say I can’t do a few historical ‘accessories’.

  12. Wanda/Dawn says

    I agree with you about your cut off date. If you can stand in a check out line and have people look at your outfit and think “there is a stylish lady” then your are vintage or retro. If they are thinking “Costume Party?” it is historical. To challenge myself, I think I need to have at least one item this year that I can say is historically accurate in terms of fiber content and hand sewing (where they would have hand sewn). I cheat in those areas because of cost and because of an abundance of laziness and loathing when it comes to hand sewing.

  13. I like the cutoff being set at 1938. Partly because I love the 20s, but I also agree with your reasoning about the way techniques have changed since then. For me, technique is maybe the most important part of historical sewing because more than anything else it’s technique that distinguishes a historical piece from a modern one. You can take a historical pattern and make it up the way you’d make up a modern garment, and the garment will look and fit like a modern garment. Getting the historical look and feel is a matter of technique.

  14. Lynne says

    ” Pre-1938(ish) many of the techniques that are used are quite foreign to modern seamstresses. Post 1938, and especially post 1948, the way clothes are assembled, and the techniques used, are much more similar to those used today.”

    This intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about it – hope I’m not too late for an answer. Maybe it would make a post some time. What techniques are so different? I’m a bit of an over-lap person. I learnt to sew from my mother who was a professional dressmaker before WWII. She was much more skilled in tailoring techniques than I am, but I can’t think of any of these skills that would not be employed today by someone trying to make a tailored garment.

    As I see it, there were two great technical changes. The first, was the invention of the sewing machine, which speeded up the sewing of long seams, making a mechanical stitch, looping over a thread. The first sewing machine (1965) I owned was an old second hand electric one that went forwards and backwards. This was an advance on the Singer treadle that just went forwards, but it was still making the same kind of seam. The great leap forward came with machines that sewed zig-zag, followed by separate over-lockers which made a different kind of stitch which revolutionised neatening of seams (oh, frabjous day!), making garments much more durable in the wash.

    It just seems to me that 1938 was not the great watershed in technique – I’d have gone for the 1970s and the overlocker. I would love to have you tell me why you chose that date. (Not for the challenges, but for the difference in techniques.)

    • I posted this on Facebook in answer to a similar question there, so it’s pretty easy to answer!

      1930s sewing, even of the most basic items, has far more in common with couture sewing than it does with modern (including 1950s) sewing. ’30s dresses frequently used lapped seams, ’50s almost never. ’30s dresses are almost never lined, and used bias turnings instead of facings , ’50s always have linings or facings, almost never bias turnings. Most ’30s patterns are meant to be very easily adjusted for size, and are assembled for fitting once most of the assembly is complete, with ’50s you are far more likely to need to do a toile to fit.

      Plus there is fastening and getting into and out of garments – from the invention of the metal grommet to the 1930s fastenings other than buttons tend to be hidden or at least de-emphasised. Suddenly in the late ’30s and early ’40s you get a focus on decorative fastenings, like the zips in hostess robes, and by the ’50s the back zip is just out there, with no attempt to hide how one gets in to and out of a garment. Which brings in the whole question of zips as a fastening. Pre 36 you are unlikely to see zips used. Post 38 you are unlikely to see anything but zips used.

      In addition, there are the materials used – pre 1938, almost no synthetics, just a few processed naturals. Enter WWII, and there is a massive leap in the development of synthetic fabrics. Plus, there is the use of knits, which does begin in the ’20s, but only really takes off as sewn knit fabric in the ’40s & ’50s.

      Both overlockers and zig-zag stitching sewing machines have existed since the 19th century, though most home seamstresses have only had access to the former since the 1970s. Machines with zig-zag functions must have been more common in the US, and certainly were from the 1950s. Sewing machines are one of the places where NZ seemed to have lagged hugely behind (I’d never even heard of a hand crank machine before NZ). To me, neither really makes a huge different in garment construction – there have always been other (pinking, hand overcast, lace, hong kong seams) ways to finish seems, and even in modern sewing many of these will yield a better result. Plus, it wasn’t until weave quality really started declining in the ’60s and ’70s that we needed to finish the seams so much. Older fabrics tend to be so tightly woven that they don’t unravel much.

      My first pick for the cut-off was, of course, 1920. I liked 1920 as a transition point because it is the line between the constricted female form and the unconstricted form (even during the rationing of WWI countries developed ‘austerity corsets’, and when, like Germany, you are starving to death and have no fabric, setting aside precious resources for corsets really tells you how necessary women still thought they were, which is why I don’t think fashion changed with the start of WWI, but with the end of it) , and the line between natural fibres and even the processed naturals, and the point at which knit garments really take off (thought there were examples before that).

      • Lynne says

        Thank you! Wonderfully full answer.

        Re the essential corset: I know it is much later, but my grandmother wore a corset (a big, sturdy, peachy-pink construction) until she died at 96 in 1985. I shared a bedroom with her on holiday, once – I saw, and asked. She said that when you had worn a corset all your life, it was quite painful to go without one. I presume the back and abdominal muscles would have been undeveloped. This might partly account for the German ladies. They’d feel like un-shelled (bad WWI pun) turtles.

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