Often when traveling by plane, the person sitting next to me asks what I do for a living—perhaps that’s happened to you. When I briefly describe my job, the common response is, “Oh, my grandmother used to sew!” I nod and smile, knowing that the notions and machines used by grandma were a far cry from what we’re using today. Getting that same question asked with practically the same response for tens of times, caused me to pause . . . wouldn’t it be a great idea to compare sewing and quilting machines, books, and notions used in the past to what we use now?

Sew Then and Now became a 2-part Sewing With Nancy TV series.  My new book, Nancy’s Favorite 101 Notions served as the new notion reference and several antique sewing/quilting books for the “then” side of the story. Here are two of my findings.

Back in 1917, Lydia Trattles Coates wrote the book, American Dressmaking Step by Step, published by The Pictorial Review Company in NY. Paging through this 94-year-old book, I was amazed—both at how different and then again, how comparable sewing in 1917 is in 2011.

The book is filled with photographs. When looking at a technique page, you’d hardly guess at the age of the book—the photos look four decades old, not 94 years. A fashion photograph tells another story!

The technique that I’d like to compare is how to “Cover a Cord.” Lydia’s technique, clever for the day, was as follows:

•           Sew a fine cord to the end of the cording, which is to be covered.

•           Cut a bias strip wide enough to cover the cable cord, allowing for seams.

•           Fold the bias strip wrong side out, over the cover.

•           Tack the bias strip firmly to the joining of the fine cord and cable cord.

•           Stitch from the folded edge a sufficient distance to allow the cable cord to be drawn through.

•           Then draw the facing right side out over the cable cord by pulling the fine cord and drawing the facing over the cable cord. (We followed her directions and, sure enough, it works just fine. But the time spent was, well . . . )

Today, we’d approach the process slightly different. Using a Fasturn, the process is slick!

•           Stitch a bias tube; thread it onto the cylinder portion of the Fasturn Set.

•           Insert the turning hook inside the lower edge of the tube and turn the wire until it appears on the opposite end through the fabric.

•           Slightly pull the wire hook, encouraging about a ½” of the bias strip to lower into the cylinder. Stuff the cording in the end and continue pulling the hook. Presto, its turned inside out and the cord is inside!


Ruth Wyeth Spears, who mainly wrote about sewing, also featured home decorating projects. In her Sewing Book 4 (cost of $.10 in 1940), featured “an unusual design for quilt lovers.” The quilt pattern is detailed on page 16  & 17, with most of the copy detailing how she came about seeing the quilt for the first time, “driving 40 miles from NYC in the hills of Westchester County . . . winding along a dirt road we stopped before a fine old white house. There was a crowd in the yard for an auction. We edged our way through and found the center of attention, not antique silver or a rare old piece of furniture but what seemed to be a simple American quilt. Already the price had soared beyond our reach, so we contented ourselves with sketching the pattern and making notes of the colors.”

The instructions are found in the last paragraph—three sentences in length. Not for the quilting newbie!

Rather than cutting triangles to create the quarter-square triangle blocks, I like to use the Quick Quarter, beginning with squares of fabric. The directions are found in Quilt with Confidence.

•           Use one dark and one light square to make two half-square triangles.

•           Join the half-square triangle blocks to make quarter-squares.

-                Meet two half-square blocks right sides together, meeting opposite colors of the two blocks.

-                Mark a diagonal line from one corner to the opposite corner and mark ¼” seam allowances on each side of the diagonal line. Use a Quick Quarter for speed.

-                Stitch on each of the marked seam allowance lines. Cut apart. Presto!

What’s your favorite sewing or quilting “then” technique. Perhaps, you, too have a collection of vintage sewing books that feature rather unique applications. Please share!

Bye for now!

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