Historical women, tailoring an ancestral connection

After co-writing the biography of my Irish great-great grandmother (Harriet Susannah Ellis, 1863-1939), I am now writing the biographies of all four of my great-great grandmothers. One was born across Ireland, one was born in Canada, and two were born in U.S. – in the 1840’s – 1860’s.

As I write about female ancestors, I periodically write about my own connection to my ancestors in my effort to learn “skills of yesteryear” – sewing, gardening, etc.

A Twitter post today – from the account of “Women’s Fashionable Tailoring,1750-1920” (@TailoredDress) – reminded me, as I research my ancestors, that my own tailoring today has a historical context.

As the 1800’s became the 1900’s, my Irish great-great grandmother’s rural household in County Wicklow, Ireland was visited every six months by a travelling seamstress who would stay at the house for a week. During that week, the seamstress would make new clothes for everyone in the household. Given that there were ten children, that’s a lot of sewing! A century later, one of Harriet’s daughters – by then a centurian – told me about the travelling seamstress; I seem to recall that the daughter got one or two new dresses every six months.

Later, and on the other side of the pond, the youngest daughter of another great-great grandmother – my maternal great grandmother’s sister Myrtle – never married. Myrtle spent at least parts of her adult life living with relatives. Myrtle – who was born in the U.S. state of Iowa in 1879 and died in Seattle, Washington in 1965 – earned income as a “milliner;” she tailored clothing that would be displayed and sold in local clothing shops.

How many people today make their own clothes? Not as many as there used to be. I am among the people today who make some of their own clothes. This allows me to have clothes I want, rather than having to depend on the whims of fashion designers. Further, tailoring my own clothes means that my clothes will always fit! And, it provides me with a connection – a “make-one’s own clothing” connection – to ancestors of yesteryear.


Kim Burkhardt writes about women ancestors who were born pre-1900.

2 thoughts on “Historical women, tailoring an ancestral connection

  1. Enjoyed this post and the idea of relating what female ancestors did to what we or other family members do. My grandmother made clothing not only for herself and her children but for nieces and nephews (circa 1920). When my Mom grew up, she never ever wanted to have home-made clothing again. Then her daughters grew up and we all had fun sewing our own custom clothing.

    1. Thanks for taking time to read my post and reply. I wouldn’t make clothes just to make clothes, so I can understand your mother. I make clothes that I can make well – that look nice and fit well.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s