Friday, January 31, 2014

HSF '14: Lowell Mill Girl Dress

In the summer of 2009, I was incredibly lucky to land an internship at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, about an hour north of Boston.  While there, they were preparing for a new permanent exhibition and I got to help with one of the components--in between inventorying their machinery collection and making hat mounts.  That component was a comparison between how many clothes a modern teenage girl has, and how many a mill girl would have owned. The photo below shows their respective closets before the mill girl's one was filled.

You can probably guess the point.

So to help with this, I made three dresses to go in the mill girl's closet, each a version of the Past Patterns Lowell Mill Girl Dress, which was copied from a dress worn by an actual mill girl.  I made two cotton day dresses, and one silk dress for Sundays and special occasions.

At the end of my internship, I wanted to commemorate the experience by making one of these dresses for myself.  But grad school and life intervened, and I never got around to it, until now.

The Challenge: Innovation!  " To celebrate the way inventions, introductions and discoveries have impacted fashion, make an item that reflects the newest innovations in your era. "

The Innovation: This dress actually uses a couple of innovations.  One: roller print textiles were becoming widely popular by the 1820's resulting in a flood of cotton prints available to the home seamstress.  Two: the dress is copied from that of a worker in the Lowell Mills in the 1820's and 30's.  The mills themselves were a new innovation (new to the US anyway) in that the entire cloth making process was done in one mill, and used a lot of new machinery to make the process faster and cheaper.  Three: my actual reason for doing this dress--the Lowell Mill girls!  This dress signifies a new era for female workers.  The first employees in the Lowell mills were mostly farmer's daughters who wanted to earn their own money and discover the world outside the farm.  They saw work as an opportunity for advancing themselves personally, and often to earn economic independence for themselves.  This changed later, as more workers were needed and immigrants began to work in the mills more so wages were slashed leading to some turn-outs and strikes...but the concept that a woman could work outside the home and earn her own money had been established. Wikipedia has a really good article about the factory girls, how the late 20's in the mills was very different from even a decade later.

Fabric: 100% cotton in 'Turkey Red'.  Part of the Sturbridge Village IV collection by Judie Rothermel.  Purchased in 2009 in Shipshewana, Indiana.  When I first bought it, it was the best option, but I always worried it looked a bit holiday-esque.  Like poinsettias everywhere.  But now that I've made the dress, I like it a lot more.  Oh, and sturdy black cotton for the lining.

Pattern: Past Patterns Lowell Mill Girl Dress.

Year: Late 1820's with modifications done in the mid-1830's.  (One of the interesting things about making a copy of a dress that was probably worn for a decade.)

Notions: couple hooks and eyes, around 4 meters of cording, thread.

How historically accurate is it? The pattern is spot-on.  The fabric is as close as I can get.  I hand sewed quite a bit of it, so I'll go with 'very'.

Hours to complete: I want to say 30, but probably more like 35.

First worn: Today for photos.

Total cost: I already had the fabric, the pattern was $36 and I had to buy the cording for about $2, so $38, though I hope to use the pattern again at some point.


  1. Beautiful dresses, and what a great opportunity for an internship!

  2. It's lovely, and not too holiday-esque at all - though it would work beautifully for lots of special occasions (today is Valentine's Day!).

    - AnotherStephanie

  3. love the idea of comparing closets :) Your dress looks lovely

  4. I love it. I love the picture of you in the garden with the daisy. PS- It's Julie. All my comments today are coming up as Anonymous.
    It really can't have been 2009 that you visited me in Delaware.

  5. Ooooh! I LOVE your dress! The color is so fabulous! And your sleeves are awesome! Thank you for the link!

  6. Gorgeous!! So jealous of your internship!!

  7. I followed your post from the FB group on this pattern. Love your fabric choice.

  8. Correction, I followed a link someone shared of your blog on a Facebook group about this pattern. Sorry.