*NOTE: This was originally two lessons and I have now combined it into one big lesson. If you are so
inclined, you may teach one lesson on fiber production and another lesson on sewing and fashion or
break up the lesson as you see fit. (Girls will probably find the fashion section more interesting than
boys will.)

A. Planning and Activities

1. Visit a local cotton field, gin, or a farm that raises sheep.

2. Try to find a person who spins, or watch a spinning or weaving demonstration on YouTube.

3. Make a home-made drop-spindle.  (See below).   At the very least, you can use your fingers to “spin” a short
thread from a cotton ball.

4)  Introduce children to knitting or crochet.

5)  Purchase different types of fiber from stores (like The Woolery) that cater to hand-spinners.  

6)  Have children cut out simple blocks or geometrical shapes and paste them onto paper to form “quilt blocks.”   
Or, draw or copy quilt block patterns for them to color.

7)  Make a simple loom and demonstrate weaving. (You can also demonstrate
weaving on a bead-loom purchased from a hobby-store.)

8)  Have students look at illustrations of historic costume, or notice historic costume on movies.

9)  Assemble materials for children to do a sewing or leather craft, if desired.  Young children can use sewing

10) Plan a simple sewing project, such as an apron or pillow case.

11)  Purchase some of the Dover historic coloring books or paper doll books. These
are wonderful.

12) If you have extra old fabric, or can buy some sheets cheaply, consider making a braided rug. You can dye
the fabric with Rit dye or even natural dyes if you wish.
Then cut the fabric into long strips and braid them together. When you come to the end of one strip, sew on
another. Braid them until you have a long braid, then
coil them around and sew them into a rug.

13. Enlarge a pattern by hand. (See below in math section.)

14. Draft a simple pattern for a doll skirt or blouse. (See below)

15. Choose fancy initials from those provided below and either color them
(younger children), draw or copy them onto a pillow case and either fabric-paint them or embroider them.

B. Vocabulary


Today most of us buy cloth or ready-made clothing. If we need a new pair of socks, we buy them. If they get a
hole, we throw them away.

In the 19th century, making cloth and clothing took a great deal of time and energy. People did not usually throw
clothing away. They might repair the clothing, or they might make it into something else.

Clothing in the 19th century was sometimes made from wool from the family's sheep.  Some fabric came from a
plant called cotton or another plant called flax.   

If you look at the pictures, you will see that people dressed very differently then than we do today.

Children's Clothing Page

Would you like to dress like that?  


Both men and women worked to harvest fiber, make fabric, and create clothing. Men were professional weavers,
but many women also had looms at home and wove for themselves and their neighbors.

At this time there were no synthetic (man-made) fibers.  Clothing was made from wool, cotton, linen, silk, or exotic
fibers such as alpaca or camel's hair.

Wool comes from sheep. Men usually washed and sheared the sheep. Women carded and spun the wool into
thread, sometimes dying it a different color.  Sheep naturally come in many colors, but many people raised white
sheep so that the wool could be easily dyed either before or after being spun.

Cotton comes from the cotton plant.  Both men and women picked the cotton, and men usually ran the cotton
through a machine called a cotton gin which removed the seeds.  Women or children carded the fiber, and
women spun it into thread. Then the cotton thread might be woven.

Linen fiber comes from the flax plant.  Making flax into linen was a hard job. In some areas, men did the heavy
work of rotting and breaking the outer stalks of the flax plant. Then the women spun the thread, and either sex
might be the weaver who wove it.  Linen thread could be spun very fine, and could be used for extremely fine
fabric or thread for lace-making.

Silk is made from the unwrapped threads from silk-worn cocoons. It was mostly produced in Asian counties,
although there were a few attempts to produce it in the U.S.  Silk fabrics can be extremely thin and delicate, or
very heavy.  Silk was expensive in the 19th century, but most women wanted to have at least one silk dress for

If you had lived in the 19th Century:

1. At least some of your clothing would have been made by a female member of your family, unless you were

2. Until after the Civil War, it would not be uncommon to find people wearing homespun/home-woven fabrics in
rural areas.  

3. People were still spinning yarn for knitting socks and stockings into the 20th century.

4. Your clothing would have been made of natural fibers: wool, cotton, linen or even some exotic fibers such as
cashmere (soft fiber from a goat).

5. Before the Civil War, your clothing probably would have been completely hand-sewn. Few families could afford
a sewing machine.

6. If you purchased your clothing from a catalog house (Sears, Montgomery Ward, etc.)in the later 19th century,  
there is a chance that it was sewn by poorly paid workers in a sweat-shop.

7. If you were a woman, at least some of your time would have been spent in textile production, making or
mending clothing or knitting socks and stockings.

8. Before the Civil War, if you were a woman, you would have had to draft your own patterns, or at least make
them the right size to fit you and your family members.

9. Because fabric takes such a large amount of time and effort, you would use scraps of cloth with great care.

10. Unless you were very wealthy, you might wear clothing that  has been cut down from a larger garment or  a
dress or skirt that has been taken apart, turned, resewn and retrimmed.


Visit the Loom House for more information about textile production.

C. Knitting:  At the
loom house you learned a little about weaving.  Not all homespun threads were
woven, of course.  Some of the homespun thread might also be knit into socks, mittens, caps, etc.  

Some knitting was done with 2 knitting needles.  

Socks and stockings were often knit in the round using multiple needles (3-5) and took several days
to complete.

Note: some old books call knitting needles “pins.”

Here is a sock being knit in the round with 5 steel needles.  In the early part of the 19th century, even
young girls learned to knit like this.

Women knitted lace with very fine thread and thin needles.

FASHIONS   Remember: the c. means "circa"
("around") as in  "around 1850".


Recycle, Remake, Reuse

Today, many people try to recycle bottles, paper, and glass.  Some people are even "upcycling" old clothing or
fabric.  This was nothing new in the 19th Century.  In fact, it was expected.

Clothing was
repaired or mended as much as possible.  "Darning" (mending) fabric was almost an art-form,
because people wanted the repairs to not show.

If possible, clothing was taken apart and
cut down to fit a child or smaller person.

Sometimes, dresses were taken apart,
turned inside-out, perhaps redyed, and then sewn up again and
trimmed with new trimming.  If a bodice was worn out, then a skirt might be made into an apron. Hats and bonnets
were often re-trimmed to make them look new.

When completely worn out, the fabric from old clothes might be torn into strips to make into rag rugs, or cut into
quilt squares.  Of course, there were always calls for bits of fabric for rags and doll clothes.

In some towns and cities,
ragmen came around buying old rags. Some rags were used to make paper.  The
paper at that time had a higher fabric content than paper does today.  That is why some paper from the 19th
Century is in better condition than paper from the 1950s.  Today, paper is largely wood pulp, which is very acidic.
1850s Dresses from Godey's Lady's Book
Ambrotype of Mother and Daughter- 1850s. An ambrotype
is an early photo printed on a glass plate.  The little girl's
hair is cut short, which was not uncommon at the time.
There were few fever-reducers, other than willow bark at
this time.  Sometimes people's hair was cut short when they
were sick, to reduce fever.
wool                cotton                linen                 flax              shear(v.)

carder- a flat wooden paddle studded with wire teeth, used to brush fiber.
card- to brush fiber with a carder to straighten the fiber.
rolag- a soft roll of fiber used in spinning woolen yarn.     
Cotton gin- a machine that removes the seeds from cotton.
gin (v.)- to remove the seeds from cotton
Two carders with rolag of wool.
Flax Wheel
Walking Wheel
Flax Wheel or Little Wheel- A small spinning wheel at which the spinner sat. This wheel is driven by a
foot-pedal, so the worker's hands are free to manipulate the fiber.

Walking Wheel, Big Wheel, or Wool Wheel- A large spinning wheel at which the worker stood, turning the
wheel with one hand and drawing out the fiber with the other. The big wheel has a sharply pointed metal stick
called a  
spindle (i.e. "Sleeping Beauty.") The rotation of the spindle twists the fiber into thread or yarn.

Drop-Spindle- a primitive spinning method using only a spindle suspended by a thread. This method is still
used today in some countries.

hetchel- a tool for breaking flax stalks

distaff- a stick for holding unspun linen fiber.

Reel or clock reel- after thread was spun, it was sometimes rolled onto a clock reel or niddy-noddy to
form a
skein or hank (a large loop) that was practical for dyeing.

weave (v.)


warp (n.)- the threads that are put long-ways on a loom or piece of fabric. These threads must be put on
before the weaving can begin.

warp (v)- to put the warp threads on the loom. This is also called "dressing" the loom.

weft (n)- the threads that run short-ways on a piece of fabric

shuttle- the boat-shaped wooden tool that holds the weft thread when weaving.

harness, heddles, batten, beating board, reed-  these are all parts of the loom through which the warp
threads run.  These items have different names in different areas.

full (v.) to shrink woolen cloth
This is a small, modern, counterbalance
loom. Looms can be quite large and not
every family in the past had one.
Sometimes a family would pay a
neighbor to weave for them.

warp threads run front to back
(they would run from left to right if this
loom was warped.) The warp threads run
heddles, small metal or thread
loops that raise and lower to raise some
threads and lower others.

By raising and lowering certain of the
warp threads, and by using different
colors, the weaver can create an almost
infinite number of patterns.

- a woman who sews

Tailor- a man (or woman, today) who makes carefully fitted garments, such as men's suits or women's
riding habits.

Baste- to sew, usually temporarily, with larger-than-normal stitches.

Pattern- today this usually means a cardboard or tissue paper form for cutting out a garment. In the
19th century, it might also mean enough fabric to make a dress.

Whip- to sew with stitches going over and over the edge of the fabric.

Thimble- a (usually) metal cap put onto the finger to help push the needle through the fabric.

Darn- to mend

Darning Egg- an egg-shaped metal or wooden tool on a handle, used to mend stockings or gloves.


a printed cotton fabric. Expensive in the early 19th century, but very cheap by late century.

Velvet- a thick, plush fabric.

Silk- a fabric made from the threads of the silkworm. In the 19th century there were MANY types of silk
fabric: silk taffeta, silk velvet, china silk, etc.

Cotton- There were also many different types of cottons, some of which we rarely see today: nainsook,
dimity, lawn, organdy, calico, gingham, batiste, muslin, etc.

Woolen fabrics included barege, various twills, suiting fabrics, flannel, etc.

Linsey-Woolsey was fabric made with a linen warp and a woolen weft.

Bustle- a bump or protrusion at the back of the skirt.

Hoopskirt- a skirt that is supported by metal, wood or bone hoops.

Crinoline- a stiff underskirt made of horse-hair and linen, used to make skirts flare out before the

Bodice- the top of a dress

Petticoat- an 18th century petticoat might be a skirt. A 19th century petticoat was usually an

Drawers or Pantalets- The 19th century version of panties or briefs. Most drawers came to the knee.

Union Suit- a knit undergarment that combined a shirt and drawers.

Chemise- ("Shimmy") a woman's undergarment that looked like a knee-length, short-sleeved
nightgown. The chemise was worn under the corset.

Garters- bands to hold up stockings or sleeves.

Train- the back of a woman's dress that drags upon the ground.

Frock Coat- a man's coat with a "skirt" that reaches to the knees.

Waistcoat - a vest

Cravat- a type of neckwear popular in the early 19th century.

Shirtwaist or Waist- a blouse or shirt for women.

Habit- a riding suit, or a nun's clothing
1880s- Tight bodices with high
necklines. Long, tight sleeves.
Skirts with bustles in the back.
Assymetrical trim. This type of
photo is called an
albumen print.
Most albumen prints are a
yellowish-brown (sepia) color. This
style and size of photo is also
called a
carte de visite.
Eli Whitney and his cotton gin.

Although a simple-looking machine the cotton gin had a huge impact.
By allowing the seeds to be quickly removed from cotton, the gin
made cotton a more potentially profitable crop. Slavery, which might
have been on the decline in the South, quickly revived after the
invention of the cotton gin.  Inexpensive Southern cotton fed textile
mills in the U.S. and around the world.  At one point, the U.S. (mostly
the South, was producing 90% of the world's cotton.
CROCHET  is made using a crochet

Sweaters, hats, mittens, and lace can
be crocheted.

Some experts consider the only "true
laces" to be needle lace and bobbin
lace.  They consider tatting, crochet
and knitting to be "trims."

True lace is made either with a lace
pillow and bobbins (different kinds
shown here) OR simply with a needle
and thread.

Early lace was very expensive, as it
was hand-made.
Most commercial lace-makers were
found in Europe.  Many were women
who made lace during their spare time
for extra money.

Lace can be relatively coarse (below)
or very fine (right.)
TATTING  (right) became
popular in the mid to late
19th century. It was
usually made with a
shuttle of wood, metal or
bone. Tatting is made of
sliding knots and is a very
strong and sturdy trim. It
is often found on
children's clothing and on
There were many other types of trim, both home-made and purchased: hairpin lace,
Carickmacross, drawn-thread work, etc.
c. 1820s- High waist. Slim skirt.
Early 1830s- Very large sleeves and hats. Full,
ankle-length skirts. Ballet-type slippers. Hair a
la Giraffe (with tall loops at the back) popular.
1840s- Sleeves puffed at elbow.
Modest bonnets hide the face. Long
skirts. V-shaped bodices and necklines.
1850s. Tight bodices. Round necklines. Very large
sleeves with white undersleeves. Large, round
skirts. Hoopskirt introduced in 1858.  This photo is
ambrotype. Ambrotypes are printed directly on
1860s- Some looser blouses. Long
sleeves tighter at the wrists. Skirts
gored at waist with more fullness at the
Late 1870s- Tight bodices with long waistlines. Tall hats
and hairstyles. Skirts will fullness at back (bustles at
times) and trains.
1890s- Cone-shaped skirts, Large
sleeves, bloused bodices,  tall hats.  
La Mode Illustree
Very early daguerreotype of a brother and
sister. Daguerreotypes have a very silvery
finish, and look like negatives when you shift
them. They're NOT easy to photograph!

The girl is in a plaid dress with a fan-pleated
blouse and long, tight sleeves. Her hair is cut
short.  The boy is in a suit with a high collar.  
This photo is probably 1850s, although the
girls' dress looks late 1840s.
Left: Three children c.

Right: Young girl c.
c. 1890s

Left: Baby in long-clothes and
Brother in a kilt.  Babies were often
dressed in long dresses. These
dresses are not always "Christening
Dresses" although some are.

Little boys wore skirts, kilts or dresses
until they were 3-4 years old. This little
fellow is wearing a kilt, a white blouse
and a black velvet jacket in the Little
Lord Fauntleroy style.  The name
came from a popular book.
To tell a boy from a girl in an early
look at the hair style. Usually a
girl's hair will be parted in the center
and a boy's hair will be parted on the
side. Girls may also carry a kitten or a
doll, and boys a toy horse or a whip.
This tintype photo is of a woman in c.
1902 dress. She has a very large hat
with a veil.  Some tintypes are kept in
cases like the earlier types of photos.
Graduates (possibly 6th grade).
c. 1907-1910

This is a
gelatin silver print.
Whereas albumen prints are yellowish
brown (sepia), gelatin silver prints are
black, gray, and white.
What knitting looks like up close.

Below: Knitted Lace Samples
The sticks that hold
the thread in
lace-making are
Here is a lace pillow set up
with bobbins. Different types
of pillows and bobbins were
used in different areas for
different types of lace.
The lace is secured with
pins while being made.
Needle lace, made only
with a needle and fine
thread, could be extremely
delicate and was extremely

Women's 19th Century Fashion

Women's Fashion Plates

Children's Fashion Plates

Historic Photograph Collection

Children's Clothing Collection