Book Review: Needlework for Schools
Browsing through the Significant Seams Library, I noticed an older book which caught my eye. It was so different from the other colourful crafts and knitting books with lovely photos of things to make that I couldn’t help but notice it for its plain cover and smallish size.
Needlework for Schools, by Melita M Neal, is a textbook written over fifty years ago, for girls embarking on a two year G.C.E. Domestic Science course in needlework; no fancy coloured pictures, no outsized print – but a mine of information and How To instructions and drawings, designed to teach girls everything they needed to know about the art of garment making – and it’s just as relevant, in many ways, now as it was then.
This little treasure, published in 1962, is a bit dated, but it is still so valuable. Cloth, materials and styles may have changed over time but the basics of needlework have remained largely the same. And this book offers, in considerable depth, a technical and instructional approach to the art of needlework.
The book begins with outlining what you need to get started and progresses on to making garments using a sewing machine. Necessary equipment is listed, followed by in-depth instructions on the actual dressmaking processes.
“Stitches are to needlework as tables are to Arithmetic,” the book reminds us, and illustrates the many different types of stitches, what they are used for and how to expertly make them. Following that, the book covers important topics such as fitting zips, cutting and attaching facings as well as using commercial paper patterns – altering them, laying them out on material and cutting out the garment. There is a section on using a sewing machine that also outlines common faults which can occur with the machine when sewing and remedies or ways of putting things right. The book offers step-by-step guidance on various types of hemming, attaching different types of collar, setting in sleeves and decorative processes.
Because it is a text book, designed to prepare pupils to take an exam, the book includes some endearing written and practical work questions: “What is the main difference between tucks and pleats? Give examples of the use of each when making underwear.” This is part of the quaint beauty of this little book. But its big value for us today is its thoroughness and instruction in the art of sewing.
Jackie used this textbook when she was at school, so I asked her to give us her thoughts too: “This very basic book gives you a solid foundation to build competent dressmaking skills. From the 60s to now, it remains relevant. I still refer to it on occasions.”
I found the book interesting to read again because I like to sew and I learned many new sewing techniques and terminology from it. It was easy to read and succinct in its delivery of instruction. I think the book would interest anyone who wants to learn the instructional techniques of garment making and to then be able to apply them while making a garment. Because of the styles covered in the book it would also interest any seamstress who enjoys making retro garments in the styles of the 1950s and 1060s. If there is any drawback to the topics covered it would be the absence of trouser making. I guess when the book was written women just didn’t yet wear trousers as often and as widely as we do today.
Needlework for Schools by Melita M Neal, Publisher: Blackie and Son,1962, 287 pp.
Reviewed by Kaye Poole, a keen sewist who runs our Wednesday afternoon Mending Club, with the help of Jackie, our Volunteer Co-ordinator.