Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sewing Diaries

Page from Barbara Johnson's album
or sewing diary

A sewing diary is a bound journal documenting fabrics, fashion and sewing projects. I've seen a few in museum collections and I know of a few you can see online.

They are personal swatch books with notes on when and where fabric was purchased, the price, what kind of dress was made with it and sometimes where the dress was worn.

Swatch book from a French manufacturer showing madder-style prints

They differ from swatch books or sample books like the one above in that sewing diaries are kept by the consumer. Swatch books are kept by the manufacturer as a record of what's been printed.

The Victoria and Albert Museum owns a sewing diary created by Barbara Johnson (1738-1825) who began her journal when she was 8 years old and continued pasting in swatches into her 80s. As you can imagine, it's a valuable record of cloth and fashion in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Page from Barbara Johnson's book
At the top she's written:
"Blue and white spotted lutestring [silk] negligee [dress]. Eighteen yards. Three quarters wide. Six and sixpence a yard. Brother Johnson's Birthday."

View it in the V&A Museum's online catalog by clicking here:

You can see she's pasted fashion plates and swatches into a used ledger. They call it an album. You can also classify it as a form of scrapbook.

The Museum printed a facsimile called A Lady of Fashion: Barbara Johnson’s Album of Styles and Fabrics in 1987. It cost about $100 new and now brings $200-$500. (This book is probably going to remain quite valuable as a collectible book.)

The fabric blog called True Up has a posting on Barbara Johnson's album.

The American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts owns several sewing diaries.

Click here to see one:

Ann Eliza Cunningham stitched fabric samples from 1841 to 1890 and made notes on the pages.

On the ATHM page you will see in the lower middle of the page a blue line with the subject Sewing Diaries.
Click on that and several will come up.

Last year the Historic Costume and Textiles Collection at The Ohio State University displayed Susan Hunter Beall's album inspired by Barbara Johnson's. The exhibit called The Sewer's Art: Quality, Fashion, and Economy showed Beall's relatively recent records of her art.

Click here to read more:

Home economics teachers used to stress this kind of record keeping. Do any of you keep a Sewing Diary?


  1. Thank you for writing about diaries!! I keep a large scrapbook of my quilt pictures and fabric swatches (often pictures don't truly capture fabric color - at least my efforts don't). I also indicate the quilt name, block names that the quilt is based on, who and/or what occasion it was for, a brief description, and the dates of the project's start and finish.

    The last two facts are often the most fun...recently I finished my take on Corliss Searcey's version of the Civil War Bride Quilt in 7 months (hand applique, hand quilted, TOTALLY insane timeline!) and I am about to finally finish my first quilt that I started in 1983 when I first started quilting (213 quilts later - better late than never!).

    Diaries are great - I guess that blogging has taken it to new levels.

    Thank you for your blog - I read it often, but seldom leave a comment (not to mention I enjoy the "Brackman shelf" in my quilt library).

    Teresa :o)

  2. Not as pretty as the diary...I keep a envelope with scraps and a photo from each quilt I make in case it needs repairs later.

  3. I've kept a ring-binder notebook with pages showing a picture of the finished quilt, typed description and swatches of the fabrics used sewn along the bottom edge of the page. It is all too easy to forget the projects completed and given away.

  4. I keep or kept 2 different kinds of 'journal' for sewing. When I was sewing for young children I kept a notebook with swatches and pattern #'s of what I"d made. As a quilter I keep a loose leaf notebook with page protectors holding any notes or pictures of a specific quilt. I get behind and then scramble to get caught up. I haven't actually put very many fabric swatches in the notebooks but that would be a good addition. In fact I may blog about both of my sewing journals next week with references to your blog. Thanks for the idea.

  5. I really should keep one. Especially when you start with a fabric and run out, would be nice to have a journal of the fabrics and where they came from.


  6. Dear Barbara,

    We even sell a fabric or project diary! You can see it here: http://www.quilt-it.nl/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&page=shop.browse&category_id=8&Itemid=2
    For every project there are som questions you may fill in and swatches to stick. This way you always remember which fabrics you used or batting was in a quilt. Very handy for quilt you sell or give away!


  7. No, never thought of it, but what a great idea, and what a marvelous resource! Of course, in these days when we still have to harp on quilt labels just to get the minimum documentation done sometimes, I'm sure it will be the real enthusiasists who wish to write or read them.

  8. When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove me from that service? Thanks!


  9. Hello Barbara! You're the only website that I can find with any information about this--I've been looking for a while. Many years ago, I bought a very old sewing diary at an antique market, somewhere in southern Illinois. I don't know anything about fabric or quilting; I just bought it because it seemed fascinating and it was only a few dollars. It is almost identical to the one by Barbara Johnson at the Victoria and Albert, but it is American and ends in the 1850s. I don't want to sell it; I'd just like to learn more about it because it is such a special artifact. Could you please recommend someone who would be willing to take a look at some photos?