Throwback Thursday: Buttons, Bows, and Furbelows

Jefferson County History Center is offering readers a look into Jefferson County’s past. Today, the history of the making of clothing in Jefferson County is highlighted.

[Pictured: There were four children in the Johnson family, two girls and two boys. Charles (left) was old enough for “boy clothes” when this portrait was taken. His younger brother, Malvern, was not. (JCHS Collection)]

(Article submitted by Carole Briggs, Jefferson County Historical Society.)


Imagine stitching by hand a dress made of six or eight yards of Dolly Varden calico. (Dolly Varden is not a variety of trout, but rather a sprightly character in a Dickens novel of 1841.) Thinking about the gathers for the skirt alone makes my fingers ache.

Thankfully those pioneer women had iron needles with eyes for the task. Women on the frontier did indeed stitch those dresses by hand. William W. Reed’s 1849 account book shows purchases from merchants named Vandervort, Espy, or Smith of 2 ½ yards lawn (a thin cotton), 3 yards muslin (a sturdy plain cotton), 1 spool thread, and 1 dozen buttons. A month later, 3 yards of fabric at 12 ½ cents a yard, 1 spool thread, and 6 buttons, and yet another purchase of 2 yards calico, and 6 “spots” of pins.

An interesting entry read “bought from pedlar (sic)” and lists 1 spool floss, 1 bolt tape, 1 cut patent thread, 1¾ yards jaconet (similar to lawn), 1 comb, 2 “spots” pins, and 1 lead pencil.

Whether purchased from a peddler or at a store, once purchased the women of the household had to design and stitch the dresses themselves. Patterns did not exist. Neither did the sewing machine.

Sewing machines arrived in Brookville in 1857. Paper patterns were introduced in 1860, making it much much easier for women at home, and for seamstresses and tailors to cut and sew clothing for people of all ages.

One would think these two inventions, the sewing machine and paper patterns, would have simplified the making of clothing. It did not! Instead, gowns and dresses were trimmed with buttons, bows, and furbelows, as well as embroidery, ribbon, braid, ruching, and tassels. Ruching is a gathered strip of fabric used to trim a garment. Machines, however, made their production faster and more abundant.

Even little boys like Malvern Johnson wore dresses trimmed with furbelows or ruffles!

[email protected] County Historical Society, Inc.

Submitted by the Jefferson County History Center.

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