Marked Dislike

January 5th, 2011

I’ve known for some time that buttonholes are not my favorite part of any garment. Sewn by machine or by hand, they always seem to give me trouble. But I think I’ve discovered another sewing task that I dislike as much, or possibly more: marking.

For the first time, I decided to go the distance and mark my recently completed drawers. I couldn’t find any definitive directions for the form which my mark should take, so I just sewed my initials inside the waistband, just behind the buttons. I’m going to keep digging for information on this though, or perhaps I will come up with my own marking system. I haven’t seen many extant mid-19th century undergarments with marks, but perhaps that is because they were inked instead of sewn (read on for an explanation) and simply wore off.

My First Mark

In the mid-19th century, whether the Herculean task of laundry was done at home or sent out, the marking of household linen — towels, sheets, etc. — and to a lesser extent undergarments, served to identify its owner and to aid in the reckoning of the all important laundry list. It was originally executed in a very fiddly kind of free-hand cross-stitch, using colored thread.

“In marking, two threads are generally taken each way. There are three ways in which the needle is passed before the stitch is perfect. One is aslant from you towards the right hand; the second is straight downwards towards you; the third is across or aslant from you towards the left hand, taking care to bring out the needle at that corner of the stitch nearest the one you are going to make. The generality of markers make the first stitch aslant twice over, to make it clearer before proceeding onwards; thus, in Plate 1, Fig. 2, the thread, being brought out at A, passes across to B, and out again at A; again, across to B, and out at C; then, aslant to D, and out again at B, ready to proceed to the next stitch. Where there are two or three letters to be marked, the thread should be neatly fastened off at the end of each letter and not carried on from one to the other. Two or four threads are left between the letters, according to the quality of the article to be marked. In linen, eight threads are generally left. In gentlemen’s families, house linen is either marked with the gentleman’s initials, or else with those of the lady’s christian name added to the gentleman’s full initials, his christian name coming first: thus, supposing Edward Montagu’s wife is named Louisa, the initials would be E. L. M., afterwards the name of the cloth and the number are marked thus:

E. L. M.
G. C.
8 . . 37

signifying, Edward Louisa Montagu, Glass Cloth, Number 8, 1837. There are many pretty marking patterns for samplers, flat canvass pincushions, or needle-books. In noblemen’s families the marks are surmounted by coronets. There are also two other kinds of marking; the one is the same stitch as that above described, but differing in the form of the letters, which are in writing or Italian characters; this may best be done by copying written letters accurately; the other kind of marking is, by making the letters perfectly straight, as in printing, and instead of the marking stitch, working them in small oylet holes.”

The Workwoman’s Guide, 1838

It was not long however before some intelligent 19th-century person realized that sewing all these marks was a miserable way for even a servant to spend their time.

“The marking of linen being connected with the business of the laundress, we shall introduce the subject in this place. Marking has usually been practised [sic] with the needle, and still must be for blankets and woolen articles, but linen and cotton can be more conveniently marked with an ink that is indelible by the ordinary processes of washing; observing, however, that this will be discharged wherever the bleaching liquid is used.”

An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy, 1855

There are countless recipes for indelible marking ink in advice books, household manuals, and magazines of the time. But most of them contain ingredients now considered quite dangerous. So I decided to make my first stab (pun intended) at marking with my trusty needle. Since I am most decidedly a beginner in this discipline, I used this diagram from Peterson’s Magazine, 1859, for a guide. I ended up increasing the number of stitches that formed the height of each letter, since they were turning out rather squat at first.

Peterson's 1859 Marking Alphabet

So we shall see what I decide to do going forward. I promise to bore you with all the details as they emerge.