During the 19th century, needlework was a standard part of every woman's role in life, unless her time was so taken up earning wages in a factory that she couldn't do much else. Members of the working classes not working in factories, for example farming families who could not do much agricultural labor in the evenings or during the winter, were expected to busily work to produce something for family use, or to sell later and add to the family income. This even included working-class males to some extent. They were taught basic knitting, mending, and sewing, which came in very handy for those who became sailors, soldiers, long-term bachelors, etc., and at home they helped the family to produce articles for sale.
But for all social classes, needlework was strongly connected to women’s social, and even moral, image. Even middle- and upper-class women (and girls) were expected to ply the needle at every moment when they had nothing demonstrably better to do. During social calls they did “fancy needlework,” such as embroidery, tatting, fancy knitting (stockings were not allowed to be fancy), crochet, etc. However, in the presence of family and intimate female friends they did enormous amounts of “plain sewing,” producing underwear and household linens for the entire family. Added to this is the pre-Victorian and early Victorian custom of doing the household’s laundry only three or four times a year (the “great wash”). The middle and upper classes changed their underwear if not every day, at least every couple of days, meaning a family needed an enormous stock of it. And even women who did not make their own new dresses did a great deal of alterations and recutting. The material had already been used, so they were less concerned about spoiling it, and the material might well be recycled into less important garments such as home wear, petticoats, and children’s clothes.
What was happening is that as factories took over producing various forms of needlework, women were simply freed up to do other kinds of needlework. In the 18th century mechanization took over spinning and weaving, leaving women with more time to do sewing and fancy needlework. Then in the mid 19th century the sewing machine was not only invented but eagerly adopted, leaving women with more time to do their own dressmaking. Home dressmaking was certainly done earlier, but the sewing machine (with wood carvings and wrought iron suitable for display in the parlor), made it much easier. Women had been sewing, mending, and altering since they were small children, so the only really professional skill they needed was “cutting out”-- a term applied to not just laying out the fabric and taking the scissors to it, but to designing the garment and to pattern drafting.
But here, manufacturers and publishers were also eager to help, by supplying charts, apportioning scale systems, cut paper patterns, manuals on pattern drafting and dressmaking, and dress forms. Also, there were many women’s magazines (such as _Godey’s_, _Peterson’s_, _Harper’s Bazar_, and many others) that constantly supplied fashion plates, fashion descriptions, and patterns either overprinted on separate sheets, or printed in the magazine either to true scale or not. Pattern catalog magazines such as Butterick’s _Delineator_ expected readers to buy cut paper patterns separately, but these magazines too were replete with fashion descriptions and dressmaking hints. And all these magazines were full of ads for scissors, dress forms, trimmings, notions such as skirt binding braids, and everything else related to sewing. Many magazines, from time to time, published whole series of articles that when put together, amounted to a manual describing the process of making a dress from start to finish. Manuals on domestic economy also sometimes contained chapters on dressmaking.
In short, 19th-century women did a great deal of home dressmaking and they did not figure out how to do it on their own. Women in the working classes planning to become professional dressmakers or lady’s maids typically received some professional training (often an apprenticeship in a dressmaking establishment). However, a great many middle- and upper-class women also made clothes for themselves and their families. And they didn’t do it in a vacuum: An enormous number of resources were available to help.
Not all 19th-century dressmaking manuals are available on line, by any means. Nor are all the domestic manuals and fashion magazines that contain significant information. But here are a few that are:
_The Workwoman’s Guide_, 1840http://books.google.com/books?id=JCsBAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=intitle:workwoman's+intitle:guide&hl=en&ei=YqIjTKXdDougnwforbQm&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCQQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
_The Hand-Book of Dress-Making_, 1845http://books.google.com/books?id=gPgDAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=intitle:dress-making&hl=en&ei=2aIjTKLuM4X_ngflwJzBDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
_Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book_, 1850http://books.google.com/books?id=TXkDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA406&dq=intitle:dress-making&hl=en&ei=2aIjTKLuM4X_ngflwJzBDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
_The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility_, 1856http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=hearth;idno=6062485
_Cutting-Out and Dressmaking_, 1879http://books.google.com/books?id=JokvAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=intitle:dressmaking&hl=en&ei=mqMjTOjCNMGFnAet-7gm&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CD8Q6AEwAw#v=onepage&q&f=false
_The Home Needle_, 1882http://books.google.com/books?id=syh_AAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=intitle:home+intitle:needle&hl=en&ei=WqUjTJH9Dd_tnQeI6dkB&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
_The Elements of Modern Dressmaking for Amateur and Professional Dressmakers_, 1894http://hearth.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=hearth;idno=4399915
_The Art of Dressmaking_, 1895http://books.google.com/books?id=Tfg_AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=intitle:dressmaking&hl=en&ei=mqMjTOjCNMGFnAet-7gm&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEkQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
_The Practical Work of Dressmaking & Tailoring_, 1902http://books.google.com/books?id=YltHAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP33&dq=intitle:dressmaking&hl=en&ei=mqMjTOjCNMGFnAet-7gm&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=7&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBg#v=onepage&q&f=false
_The American System of Dressmaking_, 1909http://www.archive.org/details/americansystemof00merw
_The Dressmaker_ 1911 (Butterick)