Sewing reference library

I went to a show at Craft Victoria yesterday and was mortified to see that one of the artists had chosen, as his medium, decades-old textile and sewing books. He had carved sewing tools – thimble, scissors, seam unpicker – into the book cover and pages. I had to leave.

Like many sewing geeks, I love old sewing reference books. They contain techniques from an age before adhesive hem tape and velcro; they are often lyrically written and amusingly old-fashioned; more often than not, they are beautiful objects in their own right. I collect any and all I can get my hands on. So to see eight of these books destroyed in the name of art pissed me off, frankly. For example, a book about British textiles that was published around time of the Festival of Britain and a lovely book called Custom Tailoring for Homemakers. Art, schmart. I grieve for those books.

sewing reference library

This is part of my sewing book collection. Inspired by Gertie’s post on building a sewing library, here are books I use all the time for reference.

From top to bottom, with links where I could find them:

  1. How to make pants and jeans that really fit by Barbara Corrigan – nice little 1970s book that explains all those mysterious wrinkles and crinkles.
  2. Shirtmaking by David Page Coffin – nothing I can add here that hasn’t already been gushed by 23,525 other sewing bloggers. Wanna make a shirt? You wanna get this book.
  3. Tailoring by editors of Creative Publishing – I bought this when Gertie was making her coat upon her recommendation. She should take a commission.
  4. Timesaving sewing edited by Janice Cauley and Bernice Mauhren –  features cringeworthy early 90s fashions but dang, in among the dross are some truly handy tips.
  5. Couture sewing techniques by Claire B. Schaeffer – a total contrast to #4, a book that tells you how to do everything the beautiful, luxurious, labourious, time-consuming way.
  6. Practical home mending made easy by Mary Brooks Picken – from 1946. I love the tips on how to rework your frocks during wartime rationing.
  7. Complete dressmaking in pictures edited by Constance Howard – this one’s fascinating for its 1940s conservative dowdiness.
  8. Pattern design by Gloria Mortimer-Dunn – I reckon this must have been the standard text for Australian home ec classes in the 1960s.
  9. Successful dressmaking by Ellen and Marietta Resek – Moggy and I reckon this book is a local secret all you overseas people should know about. It’s published right here in Melbourne-town and is one of my absolute favourites. Beautiful little pictures throughout, and really common sense advice. I’ve seen it for sale a few times on eBay Australia. If you see one, bid high and bid true!
  10. Singer sewing book by Mary Brooks Picken – this is the 1950s edition which is lovely because it has Victoria era illustrations interspersed among more contemporary pictures.
  11. Make your own dress patterns by Adele P. Margolis – this is the Dover reprint of a classic book. Again, the sewing blog world have waxed lyrical about this one, and I agree!
  12. Modern pattern design by Harriet Pepin – this one is brilliant. And, lucky us, it’s available online, it its entirety, at
  13. Dress fitting by Natalie Bray – I’d forgotten I owned this because its slender black spine is easy to overlook. Then after patternmaking class #2, in which the teacher said, “you people all need to go read a book by Natalie Bray called Dress fitting”
  14. Readers Digest complete guide to sewing – the big, fat, friendly bible that will walk you through all kinds of things you need to know with clear instructions and ace diagrams. I have a 1970s edition. The older ones are better for vintage sewers because they describe the fabrics of the era, many of which you just don’t see for sale anymore.

There are a couple more but these are the most-thumbed ones. Did I miss any classics?

I sewed up the new bodice pattern but I’m so discouraged I can’t bring myself to report back yet. Maybe tomorrow.

4 thoughts on “Sewing reference library

  1. Oh no *huge cringe* I can’t stand when people destroy perfectly good objects for the sole reason that they are old and thus no one must want them anymore. Same when I find amazing things in the trash, or the salvage centre (last stop before the dump). It truly makes me sad that we live in a culture with ZERO appreciation for what came before.
    I also had an ex who would buy perfectly working things at the thrift and rip them apart to “refashion” into other, albeit useful, things. Drove me bonkers. I have no qualms if the original object is broken beyond repair or usefulness, but still perfect? *tears*

    Good book collection too! heh.

  2. I love old sewing books, too, and have quite a few of the same ones you have. I’ve been collecting for years, and some of the spookiest moments in my life have occurred in the pursuit of old sewing books, including being guided to one by a dream, and buying another, then finding my maiden name and phone number written in it in someone else’s handwriting.

    Natalie Bray’s books are the foundation of all my drafting, after having tried almost all other methods, including Winifred Aldrich. You can’t simply replace standard measurements with personal ones – you can’t do that with any method, actually, without understanding how your shape differs from standard – but the shapes are so logical once you look at the underlying structure of the skeleton, the addition of flesh, and the way the body moves. And the sleeve is nice.

    And I will probably be pilloried, but I own three copies of Successful Dressmaking, and intend to vandalise one. Please don’t be harsh with me, I am normally deeply saddened by book destruction too. However, this is the book that I used to grab from my Nana’s bookshelf as soon as I walked in her door, and which I have used to develop my personal branding. My beloved Nana was an exquisite dressmaker, and I inherited her tools, equipment, fabrics and Burda magazine collection (from the 1960’s). I intend to use the poorest condition copy as a scrapbook for my memories of her, because it is so meaningful to me. And no, the other one isn’t for sale. I have two studios, so if I have doubles of my books, one can stay at home while the other goes to work.

  3. I have all Natalie Bray’s books too – they remind me of Haynes Car Manuals: solid, practical information and great diagrams.

  4. I happened upon this post by accident when searching for Successful Dressmaking (I’ve linked back to Scruffy Badger’s birthday giveaway post; and I would simply like to endorse your comments regarding it. It was my sewing textbook at school and my aunt’s sewing bible a long time ago and for many, many years (and when I tell you that she made many of our clothes and most of her own nursing uniforms, you’ll perhaps understand why I hold the book in high esteem). I love the little cartoons and I am always pleasantly delighted to find such sensible, helpful, thorough advice for many of my smaller – and some of my bigger – sewing problems. I find it particularly useful for drafting problems. Cheers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s