Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Rayon Blouse from The Brain Watkins House

All images courtesy of Tauranga Historical Society
Hallo my textile loving darlings, today I have a special treat from the Brain Watkins House, the sweet little blouse you see above.  I believe it to be from the 1930's, and made by a skilled seamstress.  In this post I am going to walk you through its construction.  I would love to recreate it myself, and it would be fun to work through it with a group of others interested in learning some sewing skills from days gone by.

First lets take a look at the fabric the blouse is made of.  I think it is a rayon fabric.  Rayon was the first man made fabric, but not a synthetic as it was  made from regenerated and purified cellulose derived from plant sources, from soft woods, or the short fibres (linters) that adhere to cotton seeds.  First patented in 1894 in England, the first commercially produced rayon appeared around 1910, and was called artificial silk, and was a cheap replacement for silk. The fabric later became known as viscose rayon.  

Rayon was the miracle fabric of the 1930's, its versatility of production, as a continuous filament yarn, or as short filaments that could be twisted and spun into a yarn, meant that it could be used to recreate almost any fabric.  Silk, satin, crepes, crepe de chine, velvet, boucle, garbardine: rayon could do almost anything. 

The link below will take you to Tuppence Ha'penny Vintage, a great blog that has so much information on rayon, it is really not worth me trying to repeat it.  If you want to know more it is all there, thanks Charlotte for a great post.

So my dear Watson, from all this, my deduction is that this blouse is made from a lightweight pale apricot rayon crepe.

From a museum perspective the acidic nature of cellulose means the rayon fabric like a cheap paper has a self destructive nature, and this along with the wear on the fabric from perspiration stains, is the cause of the dark staining seen under the arms, and the extensive foxing, (rust coloured spots).  These are a sign that the fabric is degenerating. 

So here is a complete description of the blouse, something you might see on a catalogue card or museum database.

Pale apricot pink rayon crepe blouse with short sleeves, and decorative smocking in triangular shapes on sleeves and both sides of the front of the blouse running from the shoulder seams.  

The shirt has a rounded collar, and front inset that have been worked in a technique similar to tape lace, but using tubes of the rayon, sewn by machine, in place of tape, and hand sewn with a twisted faggoting stitch and spider stitch. 

The collar is cut from a single layer of the rayon crepe fabric, 25mm wide, with rounded ends, and edged with the crepe tube lace, and machine sewn into the neck.  

This neck seam is finished like a French seam with a second row of machine stitching that forms a drawstring tube for the tube of fabric that forms the neck tie to run through, this is threaded through this seam and runs around the neck. The front opening closes at the throat with a bow which ties at the throat, and the lace panel around the opening has a rounded lower edge.  

The edge of the face fabric for this inset has first been finished with a running backstitch turning a 2mm wide raw edged seam, finished and held in place with the loops of the twisted faggot stitch as it has been worked into the front panel.  The work is finely and skilfully done, the stitches difficult to see with the naked eye.  

The smocking is worked with a twisted apricot/pink embroidery thread that has a glossy surface, this may be a rayon, silk or cotton thread.  

The hem of the blouse has an inset of 6mm wide white elastic, set in like a drawstring, with a 17mm wide turn-over of the rayon crepe that would have been gathered by the elastic forming a frill.  
The side seams are set 650mm from into the back of the blouse, rather than running down the true side seam.  The side seams, and sleeve seams are sewn by machine and are French seams.  The elastic is sewn in with two rows of machine stitching. 

The shoulder seams, and sleeve armhole seams are sewn by machine and finished with a running hand stitch.  

The sleeves are only gathered along 70mm at the top of the armhole, (35mm on each side of the shoulder seam), and are 190mm long from the top to the edge of the lower edge. 

The hem of the sleeve is bound with a bias cut strip of the rayon crepe, that has been sewn onto the right side of the sleeve, turned to form a 4mm wide tube, and hand sewn  with a diagonal running stitch on the inside edge.

This blouse is skilfully made, by a professional dressmaker or talented home sewer.  It demonstrates many embroidery and couture techniques.  The style and fabric suggest it was made in the 1930’s the Sear’s Catalogue was showing smocked blouses like this in its 1936 edition.  It was in the 1930's that Dunlop scientists were able to transform latex into reliable elastic thread, and elastic fabrics began to change the form of underwear and clothing.

A little treasure don't you think, and also a reference or archive of sewing techniques, that are being lost because we are not teaching our children to sew, and probably do not know how to sew ourselves any longer either.  

Finally I have to leave you with this link, please go and have a quick look, watch the video, start to think about your clothes and crafts in a different way.


  1. Soooooooooooooooo gorgeous! I'm totally in love! And did you notice that it matches your blog background perfectly? I guess I'm not the only sucker for apricot and mauves ;-)

    How bout you make it and I make it and we can wear matching blouses (and maybe present on them?) for next years textile symposium? I'm not sure peter pan collars are the best on me, but that blouse is worth trying them for!

    I'm going to make mine in silk though. I'm a snob ;-)

  2. I love it, lets do it, I want to do a step by step sewing post, just to see how popular it would be. It would be great to get a group together to make it. I bought some ponytail polyester, a lightweight crepe, exactly the same colour as the blouse, a little bit lighter in weight than the original fabric. I need to take a pattern off the blouse and we are away.