If you already know what the rattle is or how to scoop, you’re way ahead of most of us. The history of sewing dates back almost to Adam and Eve and has given rise to a vast array of tools, techniques and terms.
There are at least two dozen different stitches, a dozen or more methods, and so many notions that it boggles the mind. Unless you’re assembling your own clothes with tape and glue, you probably have a closet full of examples. Let’s look at a patch or two on the quilted history of notions.
First of all, the term “notions” describes the tools and accessories used in sewing. This includes all the things you use to mend your socks (needle, thread, thimble) as well as anything used by garment factories and bespoke tailors.
In England, a haberdashery vendor is a haberdashery, although in America the word haberdashery more often refers to a men’s clothing store. Former President Harry Truman ran a failed haberdashery before he entered politics, but things turned out well for him in the end.
The earliest notions ever found were needles dating back around 25,000 years. These were made of bone and were almost certainly used to sew clothing and fur blankets. Ancient thimbles from this era have also been discovered, indicating that prehistoric sewers were not immune to sticking their fingers from time to time.
The idea of buttons and buttonholes originated in Europe during the Crusades when invading Christian armies swept through distant lands and encountered strange new practices. Some 500 years later, machine-made cotton yarn was introduced to England, paving the way for sewers around the world.
Indeed, the 18th century was a pivotal time for the practice of sewing. The first sewing needle factory was founded in Germany in 1730, followed 25 years later by the development of the mechanical needle. Although no sewing machine dating from this period has been found, such a device was clearly in the works.
Then, in 1776, Betsy Ross made her way into the history books by building the first American flag with her five-pointed stars…or maybe she didn’t. That’s the problem with apocryphal history: no one really knows. Nevertheless, it is true that she made many flags during her long career as a seamstress, many of them through government contracts. Her status in the sewing room of heroes is assured.
And, of course, a lot happened after that. Brass buttons became the fasteners of choice during the War of 1812, spurred on by the opening of the Waterbury Button Company. The development of twisted cotton thread followed a few years later, and then the sewing machine came into being in the middle of the century.
Isaac Singer began its run in 1851, and the Singer sewing machine empire was on the way. Today, early couture notions are great items for collectors, having both history and utility on their side. Galleries like ours often have vintage couture artifacts from around the world, and wonderful assemblages can be collected on the most limited budgets.
For just a few dollars invested, your very own Betsy Ross moment can be just around the corner.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiquities column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Write to him at [email protected].