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What makes it heirloom?

I have had loads of email over the last year from people who want to know more about heirloom sewing. Most of the time people have all of the "sewing know how" they just aren't with it design wise. I have put together a little list of things that make garments "heirloom" which really just means a garment made well enough that you can pass it down for years to come.
  • Heirloom clothing could have been worn 50 years ago, today, and 50 years from now and would be appropriate in every generation. Choose classic styles. The latest flare leg bloomers and halter tops are great for now, but probably won't be passed down for more than a couple of years before it goes out of style, keep that in mind when creating something that you would like to be passed down.

  • Use good quality buttons, beauty pins, or ties; never zippers. I know this is obvious but some people just have never thought about it! Pearl buttons are a little more expensive but they add so much to a garment, I promise it's worth it! Prices on pearl buttons range from $.20-$2.00 each.

  • Use good fabrics, not quilters cottons. I know it is more of an investment, but if you really want it to last for years you have to put the best in it. This is probably the most important one I should have put it at the top! Look at cotton or linen batiste, voile, organdy, dotted swiss (not the knock off swiss- the real thing), silk, any of these fabrics are perfect for little heirloom frocks.

  • Heirloom garments are lined. No facings and stabilizer, fully lined. The yoke dress is probably the most popular, the bodices are almost always (usually the only exceptions are when there is lace inserts or lace at the neck) fully lined.

  • There is usually a good sized hem in heirloom dresses (at least 3"). This serves the purpose of being passed down for different sized children.

  • Hand embroidery, pin tucks, pleats, cotton lace, entredeux, crochet and piping are all timeless embellishments that stand the test of time. Most of these are surprisingly cheap!

  • French seams are very durable, and are best for fine fabrics. On very thin fabrics other finishes show on the right side, a french seam usually blends well.

I know that I'll think of a few other things that I forgot to add but this will get you started! Heirloom sewing is not as scary as you think, I promise. If any of you seasoned heirloom sewers have anything to add PLEASE leave a comment, that way everyone will benefit from it. If there is something that is added that I feel like needs to be added to the post I will copy and paste it later. Feel free to ask questions too, I will answer those in the comment section. I hope you all find something informative about this post, I love to share my passion for heirloom sewing!




Jenn asked " What do you think a good first pattern would be? What is a good source for these patterns and supplies? Thank you for such an inspiring and beautiful post!


Jenn, I would say if you wanted to start in just one place you could get "French Hand Sewing By Machine" by Martha Pullen. I have this book and it is great! She teaches lots of heirloom techniques and a square yoke dress pattern is included. You could also get the magazines"Sew Beautiful" and "Creative Needle" they are full of heirloom sewing techniques and usually offer a free pattern in every issue.

For a good source for patterns and supplies head over to "Creative Smocking".


oliver rain said…
I just love your sewing. So pretty.
Anonymous said…
Such lovely work. You've done a great job of covering the highlights. I love heirloom sewing.
Debbie (just peachy)
Nell said…
Samantha, can very small baby buttons be used decoratively, or must they only be functional? I mean as down the front of a tucked front?

Thanks, Nell
Samantha Caffee said…
YES! There are many heirloom patterns that use three little buttons down the front, that are not fuctional at all.

Anonymous said…
Your work is so beautiful!
I would love to learn how to sew heirloom, what do you think a good first pattern would be? What is a good source for these patterns and supplies? Thank you for such an inspiring and beautiful post! PS so glad your little one is better. That was a horrific thing to have to go through...
Anonymous said…
If you are interested in heirloom sewing you should visit the Martha Pullen Site and go to the message board. There are a vast array of ladies who have posted messages over the years which are very informative. Also, when you go to Martha Pullen look under her picture and pull down and there you will see her vintage collection gallery click on it and take a look. Go to Baltazors, Farmhouse Fabrics and or Peanut Butter and Jelly Kids and they have a vast amount of patterns by designers shown in Sew Beautiful Magazine. Go to some of the designers sites such as Wendy Schoen, Kari Mecca and Debble Glenn of Love and Stitches. Another, magazine you might enjoy is Creative Needle and Ottobre Magazine for Kids and also there is one for Women. Heirloom sewing is using the best possible materials you can afford and being creative in your own way. It doesn't have to be expensive as in the laces you buy instead think of some other kind of finish and I bet it will be just as pretty! Tinkerbell'
Chickie said…
Samantha...I would add to be sure to use a good cotton heirloom weight thread.
Unknown said…

Thank you for all of these wonderful tips! Your sewing really is very beautiful!

Unknown said…
Question: Do you use special machine feet for those tiny tucks and hemstitching or do you sew those by hand?

And out of curiosity: what kind of machine(s) do you have?
Anonymous said…

One of the older issues of Sew Beautiful (from the 90s I think) had a white dress embellished with only tucks, not a stitch of lace as I recall and it was just precious!

I've only made 2 yoke dresses over the years (I tend to lean toward bishops.) I did embroidery only on them, no laces.

My dress dress though is Judith Dobson's Tea Dress from Sew Beautiful. I have the original pattern issue and have nearly wore the cover off looking at it over the years. I need to do it soon as the laces will be much cheaper for a smaller size! :)
Rubyellen said…
this post is fabulous! i would love to work on more heirloom dresses...
Martha said…
Great job of covering so many points of heirloom sewing. I love heirloom sewing and smocking. Someone asked about special feet etc. I made several heirloom dresses on my old Kenmore with no special feet.We fell in love with so many things our greatgrandmothers did on treadle machines. I think the techniques are also what make it heirloom, like you said, tucks, puffing, embroidery, rolling and whipping, entredeux, cotton lace. Heirloom usually uses natural fiber fabrics. For me it is the timeless nature of the designs that also classify them as heirloom. There are so many websites and pattern designers. So many more. My first heirloom project was a nightgown by Margaret Pierce. And the Martha Pullen's Heirloom Party Dress. SOme of my favorites now are Old Fashioned Baby, Collars Etc and some of the older Children's Corner patterns too.
Tyre Gill said…
Do you sell any of your items? I'm looking for someone to make some dresses and possibly a christening gown for my daughter.
Sandy said…
I would love to take an heirloom class, but I can't find one in Austin. What would you suggest?
All of your things are lovely!
Samantha Caffee said…
Sandy, here is a link from a quick google search.

Just search for sewing shops in your area, take one class and learn the basics, and then dive in!

Bunny said…
Smocked garments stand the test of time. You often see them on the children of royalty, no matter the decade.
Anonymous said…
I love doing heirloom its in my blood now im so hooked get A-Z of heirloom sewing
I've been heirloom sewing for almost 30 years. This is a great blog post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Heirloom sewing----love it!
Anonymous said…
Your work is lovely! I've been doing heirloom sewing for several years. I agree with all you've said on what makes a garment heirloom except for the lined garment. While many are lined many are not. One of the styles I love the most is a daygown. While I've no ability to create my own patterns, I do use those available, such as Martha Pullen, as you've mentioned, Old Fashioned Baby and several others. Those that I have sewn, are not lined. Am I missing something from another reproduction pattern maker? Thanks so much for helping to bring the worlds awareness of heirloom sewing. So many people are not aware of this beautiful art form.

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