Documentation – makes clothes talk*


Pernilla Rasmussen
Dr ph Textile Studies University of Lund, ICOM Costume Committee member

Britta Hammar
retired Senior Curator Kulturen Lund, ICOM Costume Committee member


Costume is an inspiring source of knowledge about human life and conditions, of ideas, conceptions and thoughts, of customs and usages, of trade, crafts and fashion in all times everywhere in the world.

A good basic documentation is essential for the understanding of any object and especially of garments. To make clothes really talk demands an even more thorough technical documentation. We suggest that you start to examine the three main technology areas of dress. A more detailed documentation enhances the value of the costume collection e.g. material culture studies, textile/dress history.

Dress has three technology areas: material, cutting and sewing techniques. They all relate to and depend on each other, and together they create the aesthetic expression that represents the ideal fashion of a time. They should be studied together to increase understanding of the biography of clothes and their importance as source material for other studies. Cutting and sewing are often integrated techniques that together can be spoken of as the construction of the garment.

This presentation concentrates on fashionable dress from a certain period but the approach and the examples can be applied to any garment e.g. folk costume as well as to the clothing from later periods.

 A schedule for documentation of clothes

“Antique objects in a museum collection are very much like rare books in a library. […] When we can translate their language, they tell us wonderful stories and reveal volumes about the past.” Linda Baumgarten

Documentation is an extended cataloging of the dress - a base for further research.

Here you find our suggested crib – for use in museums and by textile/dress historians. How close you make your description can depend on question, issue and ambition. It is difficult to know in advance what type of information you will need. Our advice is to be careful – you never know if you can see the object again. Take photos!

A ragged or worn out dress can have much to tell.

  • Information according to the catalogue,, name, dating
  • Provenance, user, donor
  • Brief description
  • Material
  • Cutting
  • Construction including how the material, cutting and sewing techniques together form the construction of the garment.
  • Primary wear and tear or secondary use
  • Secondary changes
  • Notes on cross references between the garments
  • Questions if any e.g. is dating correct?
  • Literature, former exhibitions
  • When and by whom the documentation is made

(See also Identifying fibers, Identifying textile weaves and Identifying lace)

Museums have often collected clothes because of the material they are made of as examples of e.g. weaving, print, lace and embroidery rather than as a costume.

The material tells us about fashion, textile technology, economics, social conventions and economic policy.

In analyzing the fabrics you get information of where (in or outside the country) and when (pattern helps dating) and by whom (craftsmen or homemade) they were manufactured.

The general use of materials has changed over time. A certain material or its use can be an important clue to dating. However it is important to observe that different materials can be dated differently in the same garment. In some periods it was the material not the cut that determined a garment's grade of fashion. But more often the fabric can be older than the cut – due to high quality it was just too valuable not to be used and reused.

Identify and describe all the materials found in the garment: outer fabric, lining, interlining if any, stiffeners, eyes and hooks, braids, strips and bands of linen, silk and cotton, all other decor and the sewing thread(s) used.



Cut and construction
(See also Taking a Pattern)

Museums often collect items because of their cut and construction in order to set up a historical dress gallery.

Cutting is usually considered to be the main technological area of tailoring.

The cutting can tell us about the level of fashion, the view of fashion – the interpretation of fashion, where a garment is made, local / regional variations, dating, the manufacturing process of tailoring technology and its development / change. Cutting method and construction may reveal who made the garment.  New parts in old garments, e.g. in corsets, is a sign of economical thinking.

During the 1700s the wardrobe was divided into linen garments and tailored garments. Fashionable outerwear dress belonged to the latter and were manufactured by educated, specialized craftsmen or craftswomen. Clothes of better quality were made to order. Only exceptionally was fashionable dress homemade. Tailoring consisted mainly of cutting the parts of a garment and joining them. In contemporary sources the cutting is pointed out as the most demanding and characterizing moment for the tailor. The cutter must also have good knowledge about the different materials used.


Documentation of cut and construction

Describe the parts the garment is made of and how they interact. The construction of the garments should always be described in the same order, for example by starting in the back and going forward, then taking the arm and finally the skirt, also from back to front. Relate how the outer fabric and lining cooperate, how the garment was held together when it was worn and how it is decorated. A measurement of the garment is a good complement to the description as are digital photos of details.

Sewing techniques

Sewing techniques have central functions in a garment:

  • Keeping together the cut components, composing the garment, sometimes in multiple layers, and giving it its shape.
  • To maintain the desired shape of a part of a pattern, e.g., a pleat or a gathering.
  • Finish and strengthen raw edges and protect edges against wear and tear.

The stitches are one thing – a sewing technique is another.

The stitch is the smallest component in practical sewing. Several stitches together form a seam. Depending upon how the seams, one or more, cooperate with the arrangement of layers to be stitched together there are more sewing techniques to be chosen. Different sewing techniques give different character to a seam and possess aesthetical qualities, which make the choice of technology important for the general impression of the garment.

Treatment of different layers in a garment and workflow

In the older sewing technique the lining was a doubling of the outer fabric and equally cut. The two layers formed a unit, which was sewn together simultaneously in both layers with timesaving techniques. See examples below. Sometimes in fashionable women’s dress the lining of the bodice served as a basic support to which the outer fabric was formed or draped. The lining had then the function of a bodice. Women’s garments (except corsets) usually lacked interlining unlike men’s coats and jackets.

Documentation of sewing before the sewing machine

To describe the sewing techniques is often the most difficult and the most space consuming part of the documentation. There are no long established conventions, but it is important to be clear and consistent for others to enjoy the documentation. Many of the preindustrial sewing techniques in tailored garments lack a modern terminology or description. The sewing technique can be described in words. A simple drawing of the fabric layers and the seams could be a complement.

  • Note, always in the same order, stitches, sewing techniques, stitch length, tread (sewing direction), the start and end of sewing. Note also all that seems strange and abnormal.
  • Describe the layers involved in the seam and how they relate to each other.
  • Describe finishing of edges.
  • It is important to distinguish between seams belonging to construction and eking pieces (additional pieces of fabric taken from small left over sections in order to be as economical as possible).
  • Note primary and secondary seams.



Closer look at preindustrial sewing techniques

Sewing and economy

Sewing techniques rationalized and facilitated the work, and as well as the cutting the sewing was influenced by economic thinking. In cutting and adding pieces seam allowances were made as narrow as possible but they could also be made wide to allow future changes. Excess fabric was folded and sewn into the garment.

Choice of sewing techniques

The choice of seam depended on the material, if the garment was lined, how intense a strain it should suffer and what qualities it should have; smooth or flat, stiff and supportive, visible or not. The type of garment and the placement of the seam were factors carefully taken into account, as well as wear and tear during washing and future changes. Changes in material and cut also meant changes in sewing technology. Thinner, ductile fabrics and improved cutting during the late 1700s also improved sewing technology.

Sewing techniques during pre-industrial times were by no means static but evolved from the end of the 1600 - century and the early 1700s towards greater diversification.

Investigation by Pernilla Rasmussen of techniques in the female fashionable dress 1770-1830 in Sweden shows that sewing technique is characterized by great diversity and that the tailor’s acquired qualifications in sewing was bigger than previously thought. Tailoring was characterized by both tradition and individuality – within certain frames there was space for a personal approach.

  • Some techniques were valid for the entire period. This applies above all to the simpler methods for assembling patterns, which are the basis of the pre-industrial sewing technique.
  • Other groups of sewing techniques are strongly linked to construction and material such as rational methods for joining two layers of outer fabric and two layers of lining in one or two steps. Cutting could also be replaced by sewing technique - for example pleats or gathering.
  • The techniques could also be influenced by fashion. For example piping and padded rolls contributed strongly to the aesthetic impression of fashion in the 1820s.
  • Fashion was created not only by the use of different materials and cut but also by means of sewing techniques.


Further reading

Janet Arnold, Patterns of fashion I. Englishwomen’s dresses & their construction, c. 1660-1860 (New York: Macmillan Drama Book, 1972)

Janet Arnold, (1975). Decorative features: Pinking, snipping and slashing. Costume. Journal of Costume Society, 9, 1979 p. 22-25

Janet Arnold, Patterns of fashion. The cut and construction of clothes for men and women, c. 1560-1620 (New York: Macmillan Drama Book, 1985)

Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 4. The cut and construction of linen skirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women, c. 1540-1660 (London: Macmillan, 2008)

Linda Baumgarten, Florine Carr & John Watson, Costume close-up: clothing construction and pattern, 1750 - 1790 (Williamsburg, Va: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, in assoc. with Quite Specific Media Group, New York 1999)

Linda Baumgarten, What clothes reveal: the language of clothes in colonial and federal America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)

Nancy Bradfield, Costume in detail, 1730-1930, 1st Costume & Fashion Press ed. (New York: Costume & Fashion Press 1997 [1968]).

Ulla Centergran & Kiki Kirwall, Folkdräkter förr och nu. Tradition och sömnad (Stockholm: Natur & Kultur, LTs förlag 1986) ”Folk costume in the past and present. Tradition and sewing.” Text in Swedish, photos and many useful drawings.

Elisabeth Crowfoot & Frances Pritchard & Kay Staniland, Textiles and clothing c.1150-c.1450 (London: HMSO, 1992)

Esther Grølstedt , Sy folkedragten selv (Copenhagen: Høst & Søn, 1985)

"Sew your own folk costume.” Text in Danish, 28 patterns, good photos, useful drawings of details and seams.

Britta Hammar & Pernilla Rasmussen, Kvinnligt mode under två sekel (Lund: Signum, 2001)

Fashion dresses 1740 – 1860 in the collection of Kulturen, Lund. Text in Swedish, short summary in English, 27 patterns, photos and good drawings of seams.

Avril Hart & Susan North, Historical fashion in detail: the 17th and 18th centuries (London: V&A Publications, 2000[1998]).

Lucy Johnston, Nineteenth-century fashion in detail (London: V&A Publications, 2005)

Eleri Lynn, Underwear: fashion in detail (London: V&A Publications, 2010).

Susan North & Jenny Tiramani (eds.), Seventeenth-century women's dress patterns. Book 1 (London: V&A Publications, 2011).

Susan North & Tiramani Jenny (eds.), Seventeenth-century women's dress patterns. Book 2 (London: V&A Publications, 2012).

Johannes Pietsch & Karen Stolleis, Kölner Patrizer- und Bürgerkleidung des 17. Jahrhunderts. Die Kostümsammlung Hüpsch im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt (Riggisberger Berichte, 15. Riggisberg: Abegg-stiftung, 2008).

Pernilla Rasmussen, Skräddaren, sömmerskan och modet: arbetsmetoder och arbetsdelning i tillverkningen av kvinnlig dräkt 1770-1830 (Diss. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 2010).

P.A. Sykas: ”Rethreading: Notes towards a history of sewing thread in Britain”, in Textiles revealed: Object Lessons in Historic Textile and Costume Research , ed. by Mary M. Brooks (London: Archetype, 2000) pp. 123-136.

P.A. Sykas & Lone de Hemmer Egeberg, Tråden i øjet-noter till engelsk sytråds historie (Copenhagen: Tenen, 2002)

Claire Wilcox & Valerie D Mendes, Modern fashion in detail (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1991).


Book title:
Skräddaren, sömmerskan och modet: arbetsmetoder och arbetsdelning i tillverkningen av kvinnlig dräkt 1770-1830

Pernilla Rasmussen

Stockholm: Nordiska museets förlag, 2010.

ISBN 9789171085382


* All examples and images in this website derive from our own research, mainly based on objects in Swedish collections dated 1700-1850.
The images you find here come from Kulturen , Lund and Textilmuseet, Borås

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