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Cover of Harper's Bazar, featuring a romantic image of a woman by the beach, in hues of green, selling for 10 cents a copy
Harper's Bazar Magazine in 1902.

It’s Sew Complicated

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This article also appears in the January-February issue of the Library of Congress Magazine

For 10 cents a copy, Harper’s Bazar magazine opened up a wide world for the modern woman of 1902.

In its March issue, there are essays on the growing women’s movement and advice on husband management. There are European travelogues, bedtime stories, home improvement suggestions, fiction series and spreads illustrating the latest styles (one indelicately headlined “Fashions for Old Ladies”).

For DIYers looking to save a buck on clothing, Harper’s also offered help, tucked between the regular “Recent Happenings in Paris” column and a how-to titled “Poultry Raising as a Vocation.”

There, a large foldout sheet lays out sewing patterns for the thrifty homemaker to use in making clothes for the family — “at the lowest computation,” Harper’s assured readers, a value of $3.50.

Harper’s 1902 foldout sheet with 60 designs for pieces of clothing.

When unfolded, the sheet reveals a bewildering tangle of dots, dashes, lines, X’s and ovals that crisscross a total of 1,134 square inches of paper in an unholy mess covering both front and back. The marks delineate patterns for a whopping 60 different component parts of articles of clothing.

From the chaos, nine outfits could emerge: a girl’s bodice, a baby’s petticoat, a boy’s shirtwaist, a girl’s corset cover, a little girl’s dress, a dress for a girl of about 12, a woman’s lawn waist, a tucked fancy lawn waist and a fancy stock and tie.

The trick, of course, was making them happen. The magazine provided instructions, perhaps easier read than done: Simply place transparent paper over a pattern and trace the lines with a pencil or, alternately, place the pattern itself over a sheet of paper and use a tracing wheel to copy the design. The seamstress then would extrapolate the proper size of each piece, take out the sewing machine and, voilà, the kids have new clothes.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight and easy modern clothing options, we can admire the resourcefulness of any Harper’s reader willing to tackle that job and, then, silently offer up a few words of gratitude: Thank goodness for off the rack.

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Comments (7)

  1. Amazing! I recall going to a fabric store with my mother in the late 1960s and early 1970s where she would buy patterns and fabric. The clothes she made were just as stylish and durable as store-bought attire. And the clothes she made were less expensive, naturally.

  2. Such a great way to teach math, including fractions (scaling up is no mean feat) and geometry!! So much more engaging, and memorable, than work sheets.
    Also, I’m not thanking goodness for off the rack–I hope we can pull back from fast fashion and embrace the sustainability of thrifted, upcycled, fair trade, and handmade clothing. So much better all around!

  3. This blog made me wish I could look into the contents of the Harper’s Bazar from those years. I wish I could have access to digitized issues.

  4. Well, there are still thousands of seamstresses that are making clothes this way, either via buying patterns or copying them from todays journals similar to Harper’s Bazar. Take for example Burda. Vogue Patterns for example made it easier: one pattern in different sizes for one item.

  5. Really fascinating – granted I wouldn’t want to try to unravel that mess but might try just for the fun of it – thanx for the opportunity to go back in time. I’m a quilter now but trying to teach my niece to sew; I will be sure not to show her this cuz I’m sure she would be so intimidated she’d stop trying – fun for me though. I totally agree with the comment about going back to reusing, refurbishing existing clothing and making your own if the inspiration strikes – today’s clothing is for the most part schlock no matter how much you pay for it; quality items are few and far between.

  6. I admire those ladies from long ago who pretty much started from scratch with not much for instruction or pattern. The Seattle Museum of History and Industry has a ladies red dress, very elaborate and completely lopsided. I’d love to see those patterns extracted from the sheet and available again. I still sew my clothes for the pleasure of producing something unique and durable. It costs more than Walmart, but way less than LL Bean. People notice that my clothes are different. Not sure if that is good or bad!

  7. As a military family in the 80’s, we moved to the Netherlands where I discovered a great magazine, “Knip”, which had patterns inserted inside just as described. Tracing them out was not a problem since I had been sewing for years. Bought great fabrics at the local weekly town market in Heerlen.

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