In her prepared material on the show, exhibit curator and historical society board member Angela McBrien sets the tone for the first scenes in the display.
In 1790, McBrien reports that while advances in textile production resulting from the Industrial Revolution were well under way in Europe, things were just beginning in New England. Samuel Slater opened his first mill in Rhode Island in 1790, but it was a few years before the mills of Lowell began production. Textiles at the time were either imported or homespun. They were expensive to buy or time consuming to produce, she writes.
A striking circa 1815 dress featuring a detailed bodice bears testament to the era, McBrien notes. While it was clearly crafted by a skilled seamstress, she says a look at the back of the dress shows where the maker ran out of fabric. The back panel features delicate, crisscrossing seams where the fabric had to be pieced together before it was cut out. Since fabric was too valuable to discard, the seamstress had no option but to piecemeal the rest of the dress.
Even after production of fabric became more mechanized and material became more readily available, the cost remained relatively expensive, resulting in the make-do-and-mend attitude continuing into the mid-1800s, she writes. A maternity dress from the 1860s retains stitching marks on the bodice from its earlier incarnation as a day dress. The frugal-minded mother-to-be simply added extra fabric to the front of the dress so she could continue wearing it during pregnancy.
While the invention of the sewing machine freed women from time-consuming and tedious hand sewing, McBrien writes that women still dedicated the same amount of time to making their dresses, using the opportunity to trim their designs with frills and flounces. Several of these elaborately fashioned dresses of the late 19th century are also on display.