The Culture of Sewing, edited by Barbara Burman

by Erin on February 21, 2007

In my prowls through the library I came across this title, and I have to say I learned an enormous number of things from it, including:

  • Vogue, Butterick, and McCalls produced more than 600 patterns a year each in the 1930s and early 1940s, dropping to an average of 500 patterns a year thereafter. (And when you put it that way, I hardly have any patterns at all! Let's see, the 10 years of the 1950s times three pattern companies times 500 … and that doesn't even count Advance or the newspaper pattern companies … or modern patterns … )
  • McCalls were the first printed patterns, patenting them in 1919. When the patent expired in 1938, most of the other pattern companies started using them, except for Vogue, which continued to use hand-cut patterns until 1956. McCalls was also the first company to produce patterns that were licensed copies of Paris designs.
  • The price of a Singer sewing machine in the 1860s was $100 — $50 if you were the wife of a minister (which should tickle the writer of this funny and useful blog; thanks to Sendhil for the link!).

The Culture of Sewing also led me to this book (which I'll have to try to get from interlibrary loan), and this one, which I can't believe I didn't have, and will now have to buy.

All in all a successful read … although some of the essays (it's a collection) were much too theoretical for my enjoyment, most of them were very good reads. One even had a word I can't find anything else about: humby, in this context:

Household duties — worried over new poplin dress, bought last winter which is a perfect humby — looking as if it were rough dried. Pressed it.

This is from the diary of a Susan McManus, in Philadelphia, in 1869. There was an actress named Humby about that time (it's a commonish surname) but I can't make any links or find evidence of other uses like this. Yet.

Is there anything more pleasurable than reading a good book about a subject you're fascinated by? (If there is, don't tell me, I have enough trouble keeping up with all I have to do already.)

[No cover image, as it's NSFW. It's an arresting and beautiful image, but I have to say that one of the New Laws of the Internet should be that if you want people to blog about your book, it helps to not put nekkid people on the cover.]

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Betty February 21, 2007 at 8:15 am

I read this book when it first came out. I found it at the library. The librarian chuckled at the cover. :) The naked lady is sewing a tulle or something similarly sheer, and she said, “I don’t think that’s going to keep her warm.” As for the book, it changed the way I think about sewing. Although it’s very academic-type writing, I agree, it’s definitely worth reading or at least browsing through.


Cathy February 21, 2007 at 10:24 am

So of course I had to look at the cover, because I was surprised that a book about sewing would need to have a naked person on the cover.-And if you can’t find out what a humby is, with your skills and knowledge, I won’t bother using that method of work avoidance!


Bottom February 21, 2007 at 10:27 am

Humdinger? I’ve been reading your blog for some months now. What a delight it was to hear you on the CBC’s ‘And Sometimes Y’ a few days ago. Such interesting work! Thank you for your lovely words.


Andrea February 21, 2007 at 11:43 am

Having just bought a brand new Singer for $300 today, this very morning, I was interested what that $100 Singer would cost in today’s dollars.If that was an 1860 price, today’s adjusted price would be about $2500. If that was an 1865 price, today’s adjusted price would be about $1200. Lots of inflation during the war, eh?


Andrea February 21, 2007 at 11:45 am

By the by, the inflation calculator I used is located at


Anonymous February 21, 2007 at 12:18 pm

Well, that makes my collection of a couple of hundred vintage patterns less remarkable. Especially since the age ranges from the teens through the 1960’s. Thanks for the perspective. I think.Amy


john February 21, 2007 at 3:32 pm

interesting that when i click on the link for this book, what comes up has the name of a town just 20 miles from me-can’t figure out what that has to do with this book- !


oracle February 21, 2007 at 5:37 pm

Gad zooks. You were on the CBC a few days ago, and I missed it! I’d have been all excited! Dag nab it.On another note, can anyone help me with this? I’m going to be in Chicago nearly all of next week, and want to go to fabric stores. I’m staying in the Loop, and will be using public transportation to get around — am travelling to Chicago by train! I’ve never really “been” to Chicago before, so know little about it. I love cottons and rayons and linens and blends of the same and gauze and crinkle and stuff, and am not into dressy or couture fabrics or styles. If any of you Chicago types have any advice to offer, I’d appreciate it!Or is it too late in the day to hope for an answer in today’s comments?


KayY February 21, 2007 at 6:46 pm

I can’t resist adding this – Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and John Lloyd collaborated on a little “dictionary” of definitions made up for different place names, one of which was Humby. The entire text (I think) can be found at – it’s rude but hilarious (as is the entire book).


Mary Beth February 22, 2007 at 6:35 am

Thanks for the great links today!


Maureen February 22, 2007 at 5:40 pm

Okay, Chicago fabric stores:Vogue Fabrics, on Roosevelt and… Canal, is it? Not precisely sure; if you’re staying downtown, take the Red or Green or Orange Line to the Roosevelt Stop, then take the #12-Roosevelt bus westbound. I’ve been there only once, but it. Is. Awesome.There’s also a small fabric store on Monroe between Wabash and Michigan; the selection is sort of eclectic.


Erin February 22, 2007 at 7:01 pm

The “better” Vogue is in Evanston, on Main Street west of Chicago Avenue; the Purple Line stops right at Main, so it’s pretty easy to get there from the Loop (although it would take about 45 min to an hour, depending on the time of day).It’s much bigger than the Roosevelt Road one …


Laura February 23, 2007 at 12:24 am

Oh, I love Mary Brooks Picken. The local university library has several of her books, which I’ve devoured. And, it looks like they have The Culture of Sewing, so off I go…John, the link for the book is to Worldcat, which is an online service that looks to see if a book is available in a library location near you.


oracle February 23, 2007 at 4:55 pm

Maureen and Erin, thanks so much for the fabric store recommendations! I’m leaving Ontario on Monday (Feb 26), but I’ll check this line of comments until then in case anyone else adds. I do appreciate it.


quiltyknitwit February 25, 2007 at 3:18 pm

It seems to me I’ve heard that expression before – but I thought it meant “humm bee” – and is supposed to be something really great.


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