When it comes to mid-century sewing, there are so many new terms to learn! It gets even more challenging when multiple techniques all use one basic stitch foundation. Here’s a quick look at some of the easily muddled processes for handling fullness. (You’ll find the techniques explained and used in The Dressmaker’s Guide.)
Each of these techniques uses one or more rows of running stitch as a foundation. These stitches may be completely even, or uneven (usually with a larger stitch taken on the wrong side of the work). The stitches may be long (1/4″, to even so long as 1/2″) or short (1/16″ to 1/8″). There may be one or two rows, or many rows. But generally, the stitches are worked by hand, and taken at the same intervals in each row, stacking up in synchronized sets that, when drawn up, create very controlled, regular “pleats” of fabric. (These are distinct from flat, folded pleats.) There are fine distinctions among the fullness-handling methods as to the exact combinations of these features, so it can be a prime “muddling” point.
Raw Edge Versus Folded Edge
We find our first distinguishing features here: are the running stitches worked along a raw edge, or a folded edge? Gathering, stroked gathering, and shirring are each worked near the raw edge of a garment section. Gauging is worked along a folded edge of fabric, and is typically reserved for the waist treatment of skirts at mid-century.
Any of these methods use hand stitching, which has the potential to allow a high proportion of fabric to be controlled to a relatively small area. The precise density of gathering, stroked gathering, shirring, and gauging is primarily influenced by the prevailing styles of the particular window on the era, so there’s no concrete measurement that applies to the entire mid-century. Rather, it’s important to look at the overall proportion and fashion for your segment of the century, and control enough fullness to get that look in your reproduced styles. (The best way to do that is to examine as many originals and images from the era as possible, and do a bit of math to work out ratios.)
One or two rows of synchronized stitches are worked near the raw edge, and drawn up into gathered pleats. The garment section is sewn right-sides-together with another garment section, binding, or waistband. The raw edge is either visible on the inside of the garment, covered with a facing, or enclosed in the waistband, cuff, or binding. The gathering stitches may be removed.
Stroked gathering begins identically to plain gathering. It is typically used on a garment edge that will have a flat band as a finish (sleeve cuffs, skirt waists), but can be used elsewhere, such as the armscye of men’s shirt sleeves.
Instead of sewing the gathered portion right-sides-together with the flat portion of the garment, the flat band edge is pressed to the wrong side. Then the band and gathered section are arranged, both right-sides-up, exactly as the finished garment should appear. To finish, a tiny whip-stitch secures every gathering pleat to the folded edge of the band. The piece is turned to be wrong-side-up, the band is folded into finished position, and the whipping is repeated on the wrong side of the garment, too.
The raw edge is still enclosed in the band, but the tiny whip stitches produce a very compact, tidy set of “pleats” at the band edge. The gathering stitches themselves may be removed.
Shirring is most often used to control fashionable, or design-element fullness, in bodices and sleeves. Shirred fashions are very popular in the 1840s, and into the 1850s; shirred styles persist into the 1860s, but the precise designs change through the entire era, so it’s important to use shirring as it was used in your particular window of the era.
Many horizontal rows (often at least five, but twelve or more is not uncommon) of synchronized running stitch control fashion-fabric fullness starting at the waist, and reaching into the rib area, and even all the way to the shoulder in some mid-century bodice designs.
While the rows have synchronized “stacks” of stitching, the individual row length may vary, the spacing between rows may vary, and the density to which the shirring is drawn up may vary from waist toward the bust (typically, the shirring controls fullness most densely at the waistline, and “fans” out above.)
Shirring may also be worked vertically on bodices or sleeves, and is sometimes employed in creating trims, as well. Shirred garments sometimes have a row of trim laid along selected shirring lines, covering the shirring stitches and stabilizing the fullness, while adding a decorative element. Whether the shirring lines are embellished or not, shirring is often stabilized by tacking along the shirring line, through to the fitted lining of the garment, and the running stitches foundational to the shirring are generally left in place.
Shirring is different from smocking. With smocking, the rows generally confine the same amount of fullness at the same density, and additional decorative stitches are worked over the rows to stabilize the stitches and fullness. Smocking is not tacked through to a fitted lining. While there is some documentation for a style of smocking used on British and European field-worker’s coverall smocks, this technique does not seem to have been in popular use for American and non-field-work clothing at mid-century.
Gauging is typically reserved for handling skirt fullness, and develops as a common technique in the early to middle 1840s, when increasing skirt circumferences and fashion preference outstrip stroked gathering’s ability to control fullness without increased bulk.
Gauging uses 2-3 rows of synchronized running stitch (even or uneven), but the stitches are worked close to the folded waist edge of a freshly-balanced skirt. The drawn-up gauged pleats are laid right-sides-together with a finished waistband or bodice, and each rounded “valley” that touches the band or bodice is hand-whipped to the finished edge. This creates a “hinge” that pushes the skirt out and away from the body when worn. Because no fullness is enclosed in the waistband, or resting on the inside of the bodice, gauged skirts add zero to very, very minimal bulk at the waist.
(By the mid-1840s, pleated skirts are also pleated along a folded edge, and whipped to the bodice or a skirt band, preserving the no- to minimal-bulk positives of the desired silhouette.)
And What About Cartridge Pleating?
Functionally, “cartridge pleating” is the same as gauging. It’s simply a more modern term for the technique (so don’t look for it in mid-century descriptions, notes, or manuals), and may have its origin in the similarity of the regular, rounded pleats to the rounded loops of cartridge belts that coincided with the development of metal-cased ammunition. Ammunition loops of this nature held paper-wrapped ammunition charges during the 1879 Boer War (South Africa), but metal-cased small arms ammunition wasn’t developed until the Swiss took on the engineering challenge in the early 1880s.
You may also hear the term “organ pleating”, as gauged fullness can bear a resemblance to the vertical pipes of a pipe organ. However, “organ pleating” does not seem to be a mid-century term, either.
So, for mid-century, call it gauging.
Regardless of the technique used, handworked running stitches allow a great deal of flexibility and control in your mid-century clothing. You’ll get the best results if you keep in mind a few basic tips:
1: Use a thimble. The added protection and traction allows you to work more quickly, and with less tissue damage (and unladylike language.)
2: Treat your threads. A bit of beeswax strengthens your sewing thread and helps reduce tangling.
3: Load up. Rock the needle through the fabric to “load” four to ten running stitches on the needle before pulling it through. You’ll get straighter stitching lines, and increase your speed tremendously!
And if you’re working at home:
4: Pop in a BBC costume drama. It sets a mood, and well-dressed historical gents are always good inspiration for quality stitching.