Recently we were working on some new 1860s dresses and looked into the subject of hem facings. A hem facing is the strip of material sewn onto the back of the skirt hem to protect it and save dress fabric (since you didn’t have to cut the skirt longer in order to turn it up for a hem).
Hem facings sound pretty mundane when you’re considering the parts of a dress, but a delightful little story by Louisa May Alcott proves that hem facings can be of great import! Miss Alcott began publishing books in 1849 and wrote up until her death in the 1880s. Her novels often contain detailed accounts of clothing, food preparation, and other bits of historical trivia. I love reading her works because they give me insight into the daily life of the 1860s era.
The particular story I’m thinking of that speaks of hem facings was published in 1882. It is a short story called “Kitty’s Class Day.” Kitty and her sister, Priscilla, are poor but Cousin Jack (for whom Kitty secretly has romantic feelings) invites her to his college’s Class Day. In order to prepare for the event, Kitty and Priscilla’s budget is strained to provide a new outfit for Kitty. How the fabric is chosen, the making of the bonnet, the obtaining of a parasol and the gloves are all detailed. Kitty is wildly excited while Priscilla quietly does most of the sewing work. However, Priscilla leaves one task to Kitty – that of sewing on the hem facing. But Kitty runs out of time due to socializing with her friends and trusts to Priscilla’s good basting technique instead of sewing the facing on firmly as she should have.
The rest of the story goes on to tell of Kitty’s fun with Cousin Jack at the Class Day. Class exercises, a dinner and dancing afterward are all thoroughly enjoyed. But though she likes Jack, Kitty decides to have fun and flirt with another handsome fellow, Mr. Fletcher, at the dance. This, gentle readers, I am sad to say, is the beginning of her downfall. After much vigorous dancing, Kitty’s dress has become bedraggled. As she and the elegant Fletcher come down the stairs, he catches his foot in her now-ripped facing. They both nearly fall, but the dashing gentleman extricates his foot and dashes off, leaving her embarrassed to the tender mercies of Cousin Jack.
At this point, I quote from the story:
“The facing, the fatal facing! [cried Kitty] That made all the mischief, for if I’d sewed it last night it wouldn’t have ripped to-day; it if hadn’t ripped Fletcher wouldn’t have got his foot in it, I shouldn’t have made an object of myself, he wouldn’t have gone off in a rage, and – who knows what might have happened?”
“Bless the what’s-its-name if it has settled him,” cried Jack. “He is a contemptible fellow not to stay and help you out of the scrape he got you into. Follow his lead and don’t trouble yourself about him.”
“Well, he was rather absurd to-day, I allow; but he has got handsome eyes and hands, and he does dance like an angel,” sighed Kitty, as she pinned up the treacherous loop which had brought destruction to her little castle in the air.
“Handsome eyes, white hands, and angelic feet don’t make a man. Wait till you can do better, Kit.”
Of course, the story ends happily ever after when Kitty does do better – with Cousin Jack!
All this should help us remember – even a hem facing can change your life! Don’t forget to sew it on firmly! :D
Here is a picture of a hem facing from a recent dress I made