The Dressmaker’s Library: Young Originals – Emily Wilkens and the Teen Sophisticate, Part 1

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Review of Young Originals Emily Wilkens and the Teen Sophisticate
by Rebecca Jumper Matheson. 
Published by Texas Tech University Press, 2015.

Fashion did not focus on the needs of girls in the late stages of their ‘tween years and early teenage years in the first 40 years of the 20th century.  Girls in this age group were considered little ladies in waiting.  The needs of their developing figures were not catered to in any way by designers and manufacturers.  Clothing for this demographic was cut slightly larger and sold in the children’s department.  The concept of a young consumer with specific needs and developing preferences was not treated seriously until a designer named Emily Wilkens went to California to work as a designer for child star Ann Todd.

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Early 1960s sketch by Erica Perl Merkling depicting Wilken’s ideal teenage girl.  A healthy body weight was the basis of good health, an integral part of Wilken’s concept of beauty.

As her reputation for catering to the needs and preferences of child and early teenage stars grew, Emily became more and more aware of the special needs of the teenage girl.  Keeping in mind her own younger sister Barbara, Emily began to envision the ideal weight, shape, appearance and figure flattering clothes necessary to help a ‘tween and young teenage girl develop a sense of style that anticipated her blossoming into young womanhood with charm and grace.

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Emily Wilkens Young Originals dress from 1944.  Each design was patented to prevent piracy.

In 1941 Emily Wilkens was back in New York.  This time as a costume designer for the Broadway play Junior Miss.  She designed the costumes under the auspices of Best Department Store so her name does not appear in the credits.  Nonetheless, the teenage characters in the play were attired in such a way to show their transition towards becoming stylish teenagers.  This was achieved by dressing the teenage actresses in somewhat sloppy looking sweaters and skirts at the start of the play.  Later, the girls wear pretty blouses and neat jumpers.  The jumpers and blouses were the forerunners of Emily’s own line where the emphasis was on perfect fit and figure flattering details meant to accommodate the changes in a girl’s figure.

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The model in this photo is Tee Matthews.  She wears an Emily Wilkens Young Originals summer dress.  Tee was very popular model with GIs during WWII because she embodied what we now call the “girl next door” look.  Advertisements where Tee modeled shorts and swimwear were cut out and used as pin-ups by the soldiers.  Tee’s appeal exemplified Wilkens belief that shiny hair, a clear complexion, exercise, diet and a positive outlook were much more important than drop dead glamour for a girl to be attractive.

Emily entered into a partnership with a clothing manufacturer that enabled her to design under her own name.  By the age of 26 she was on her way to winning awards for her contributions to the growing teen fashion market.  Some of her preferred construction details used to create a flattering silhouette for the growing teenage girl were:  double or triple French darts on the bodice, smocking across the abdomen or chest; and intricate trimming or embroidery on the skirt of the dress.

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Emily used details from 19th century fashions to add a special touch to her teen sophisticate dresses.  The dress worn by the teenage model was inspired by a late 19th century children’s dress trimmed with lace inset with ribbon.

Emily’s peak designing years saw her receive greater recognition in the press and the fashion industry.  Yet when she got married in 1947 social pressures caused her to end her career.  She became the wife of Irving Levey, a New York State Supreme Court judge and soon the mother of a boy and girl.  Emily returned to fashion in the 1950s but her styles were geared towards the older teen ready to go to college.  Emily was known to appear and disappear from the fashion scene throughout the decade.  She remained active when possible by designing for pattern companies.  These projects kept her name and influence going.

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This model embodies the healthy, natural look Emily considered the basis for success in cultivating and expressing one’s style and presence.

In the 1960s Emily taught a workshop at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology.  By the end of the decade she changed her focus and remained relevant throughout the late 1980s.  Emily taught women through speaking engagements, radio appearances, and the books she wrote.  She distilled the essence of her experience at health and beauty spas into programs anyone could adapt for personal use at home.  In this way Emily reached a wide audience at a time when the mainstream American culture began to appreciate the relationship between diet, exercise, and skin care as integral parts of cultivating one’s attractiveness.  Emily was diagnosed with dementia and entered a home in the 1990s.  She passed away in 2000.

Thanks to Emily Wilkens the modern teenager, as well as the woman with a youthful figure who can wear a junior size, have access to flattering clothes in sizes geared to their body proportions.  It isn’t necessary for teens to shop in the children’s department nor for a junior size woman to buy a Misses size and have it altered.  On a personal note, I am so grateful for Wilkens and her contemporaries for breaking this ground.  As a mature woman who can still wear junior sized 7 clothing I have to say that they fit me so much better than a Misses size 6.  I’m sure others with the same figure type will recognize something of themselves in the sketches and models who embodied the look Wilkens promoted.

Note:  The purpose of a two part book review consists of using part 1 to introduce Emily Wilkens to my blog readers and subscribers.  In part 2 I will use a Q&A format to review the book and explain why I think it is a valuable addition to a dressmaker’s library.






Double French Darts: How to create them

Naomi is getting into the flattering effects French darts create.  She recently made a top using single French darts at the side seams.  Encouraged by the results, she asked me how double French darts are created.

The pattern transformations that follow are from “The Custom Touch” by Mary J. Wadlington, published in 1981 by Gem Publications.

I recommend practicing on 1/2 or 1/4 scale pattern diagrams first.




Note:  In some of the diagrams Mary leaves the vertical bodice dart and the skirt dart open.  I have not used her system so I’m not in a position to say if this is good practice or not.  My own experience has taught me that if a dart intake is not closed and integrated into the style line there will be a bubble or excess fabric looking awkward when the toile is created.

In the patternmaking system I learned, the vertical waist dart is closed and integrated into the bodice style line.  The skirt dart is closed first and the flare created.  Then the skirt is taped to the bodice with the vertical dart closed.  The style line is created and then the paper pattern is cut.





Pattern Diagram: Hooded Robe

Norma and I had exchanged comments about hooded robes and cloaks.  I offered to upload a pattern diagram for a hooded robe that does not require advanced skills in drafting.  The instructions call for about 3 yards of terry cloth or cotton flannel but I think if you can locate very large bath or beach towels you might be able to use those for the robe.

The pattern is from “Reader’s Digest Complete Guide To Sewing” published in 1978.













1930s Sew-along with Norma: Bias bound sleeve hem

Hello everyone!  As promised, here’s how I’m using the new technique to finish the sleeves of the dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.  The approach for the sleeve is the same as for the v-neckline:

  1. Stay stitch and stabilize with style tape.
  2. Support with lightweight woven interfacing.
  3. Add a facing to finish the inside.
  4. Bind the hem using bias cut strip from the fashion fabric.
  5. Pin and baste into place.
  6. Slip stitch along the tape on the right and wrong side of the fabric.


The length of lace tape you see on the right acts as a stay for the long vertical dart.  I used two rows of tiny running stitches to sew into place.  The tape holds the dart in place so that it faces the center of the sleeve.


Interfacing was cut and hand stitched to the sleeve slightly below the sewing line on the wrong side of the fabric.


Close-up of the lace tape used as a stay for the dart.  I made sure to position slightly inside of the machine stitched dart.


I then finished the seams of the sleeve by applying the lace hem tape to the wrong side of the sleeve.  I stitched one edge using a running stitch.  The edge was trimmed and hand overcast.  I did this to add a touch of stability to this very drapey fabric.  It also minimizes the shredding and makes the hand overcasting more durable


On the right side of the sleeve the pre-shrunk cotton stay tape was hand stitched slightly below the sewing line.


The facing of the sleeve was stitched, pressed and hand overcast at the upper edge.


Machine stitching was then used to sew all layers securely together.   I used a medium length stitch right above the top of the stay tape.


The lower edge of the sleeve is trimmed.  The seam was not graded.


The bias tape is pinned around the sleeve hen and overlapped at the sleeve’s underarm seam.sleeve20binding2011_zps2ydgoheh

The tape is basted into place and then slip stitched on the right and wrong side of the sleeve.


I pinned the sleeve to check how it will hang.  I think the bias tape and interfacing add just enough weight to give the sleeve a nice shape at the wrist and keep it straight once it is set into the armhole.

This entire process has to be repeated on the other sleeve.  It’s very slow going but it’s working out.  I hope you will get some ideas for finishing sleeves and necklines when using lightweight fabrics for which you need some extra support.

1930s Sew-along with Norma: Bias bound V-Neckline


During the early stages of my dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma, I was challenged many times to come up with a way to finish a v-neckline with bias binding.  After several unsuccessful attempts I tried what I call the NEC Technique which evolved through blog comments with Norma and Carol.  The NEC Technique is still evolving so I have not created any definitive tutorial on how to carry it through.  Instead I will show you how it has worked on my 1930s dress.  The rayon faille fabric I’m using has a beautiful drape.  It also is very lightweight and some reinforcement is needed to keep darts flat.  The seams are finished using hand overcasting, a technique popular among home sewistas in the 1930s.

The NEC Technique stands for Norma, Carol and Emily.  Here is a look at how I finished the neckline.  It remains flat without any stretching or gaping taking place.

V-neckline finished using NEC technique


Finished neckline with double fold bias binding.  The binding is all in one piece around the neckline and is mitered at center front.  The first step is to machine stay stitch the front and back neckline using a medium length stitch.  Pre-shrunk cotton stay tape is then hand stitched above the sewing line to stabilize the neckline.  I used a single strand of waxed and pressed poly thread.  The running stitch is more flexible than a back stitch so I went with that.  The seam of the neckline is then trimmed.



After shaping and steam pressing your bias tape cut from the fashion fabric pin and baste the tape over the neckline.  Some of the basting thread still has to be removed from the neckline.  Make sure the basting stitches are secure and hold the tape on the right and wrong side of the fabric.


The bias tape is then hand stitched on the outside and inside using very small slip stitches.  Use a small sized hand sewing needle and waxed thread.  I’ll sew in a hook and eye at the back of the neckline when the dress is finished.

The rest of the treatment to support the neckline

Here is a look at the rest of the neckline treatment that was necessary.  When a fabric has sufficient body the NEC technique should work as described above.  Since rayon faille is very lightweight, I found it was necessary to use interfacing and a facing.  What you see in the following photos was applied before finishing the neckline with the bias binding.


I hand stitched a length of lace hem tape to the upper side of the darts on the front of the dress.  This worked to keep the darts flat and positioned towards the center front.  The tape was hand stitched using two rows of very small running stitches after the darts were steam pressed.


Here you can see the lace stay tape holding the dart in place.  The interfacing is a blend of rayon and poly.  It works very well with the rayon faille.  The edges of the interfacing were pinked.  I hand stitched the interfacing slightly above the stay stitching.


I find that an interfacing and facing that ends about 4″ down along center back provides a better support than a neckline that is only 2″ wide.


The facing was finished with hand overcasting and then hand stitched to the wrong side of the dress.  After that the bias binding was applied and slip stitched into place.  The facing will be tacked at the shoulders.


At center back, the ends of the facing are turned under and slip stitched to the zipper tape.

I did not grade the seams because the fabric is very lightweight.  I thought it would be better for supporting the bias tape to have an equal amount of fabric on each side.  The finish looks a little thick because of this but I’m ok with it.  I think if I use this technique again ways to improve it will come to mind.  I’d be interested in learning if anyone else tries this neckline finish out and takes it in another direction.

In the next posting I will show from start to finish the details of how this same kind of finish was used for the sleeve hem.

The Dressmaker’s Library: My very own style council via these books

I’m following a year long practice of daily reflections from a book called “Simple Abundance” by Sarah Ban Breathnach.  A few weeks back one of the entries mentioned an exercise from a book published during the Great Depression.  It was one of the very first self-help books that showed readers how to think positively and through discipline and effort work one’s way to a more abundant, prospering and successful life.  The book was called “Think & Grow Rich” by Naploeon Hill.  Sarah provided her version of an exercise from Hill’s book which led me to a wonderful discovery that has been waiting for me to get around to admitting it into my life.

The exercise is to think in a quiet place each night or morning about 4 influential people you are inspired by and who you seek advice from.  This is not a replacement for prayer or putting these people above God.  They are to be looked upon as role models you resonate with.  Once you have four people you spend some time with them by envisioning a conversation with them after you put a question to them.  If the answer doesn’t come during your quiet time, await the results by going about the rest of the day or evening.  An answer will come forth.

So what I did was sit down and ask myself which designers really, really move me?  Why do I feel hopeless whenever I admire the French Haute Couture creations too often?  Who do I really think were true revolutionaries of fashion for women?  The first few times I did this all I got was Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Calvin Klein and Vionnet.  I didn’t like the results because I felt like I had this enormous weight upon my chest.  It felt hopeless to converse with these legends.  I put off the exercise for a week.

And then one after another I was led to consider designers I’d learned about in passing from conversations with my Mom or maternal Grandmother.  I began googling and found used books by each designer.  Without hesitation or a preoccupation with couture I realized I had found designers who made clothes that woman wore.  These clothes worked with the woman and did not restrain her or turn her into a clothes hanger.

And to futher amaze me each of my favorite decades was represented.  So–drumroll–here is the result of my soul searching and book shopping:

“Young Originals” by Rebecca Jumper Matheson
A bio of 1940s ready to wear American designer Emily Ann Wilkens.

“What Shall I Wear?”
A book about cultivating one’s unique sense of style by American designer Clair McCardell.  The illustrations and photos focus on 1950s fashions.

“Mary Quant Autobiography”
I was so very, very excited when Mary came to mind.  Mary Quant is for me the real revolutionary not Dior.  In the mid 1950s Mary created a New Look that brought freedom of movement to a woman’s body.  Dior was harking back to the old look of the pre-WWII era when women wore corsets and crinolines, big hats and fancy accessories.  The world outside of the U.K. received Mary’s influence and styles as the 1960s began.

“The Biba Years 1963-1975”
The story of Barbara Hulanicki and the Biba boutique.  I learned about Biba during the early 1970s.  Barbara was the first ready to wear designer that I saw mix retro glam influences into modern styles.  This will be the first time I study her life and designs in any depth.  Barbara lived and worked in the U.K.

I’m about 1/3 of the way through the Emily Ann Wilkens bio.  There are many insights I’m gaining into the development of junior clothing.  Emily Ann also had a very healthy muse for her inspiration.  Her girl was of average height and healthy body proportions.  After I finish each book I will share a review, details and what influences I find each designer has upon me.

If anyone is interested in the complete scope of “Think & Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, a free downloadable PDF is available at

When reading Hill’s book please keep in mind it was written in 1930s and the successful people featured are all men.  I read it with a mind to extract the principles and exercises.  I think there is room to be creative and update the techniques to suit one’s own needs.

I have worked on the photos of the 1930s Sew-along with Norma dress and should be posting about it next week.  The bias binding finish worked out very well.  I have enough photos to provide ideas to others who want to try such a finish out.



1930s Sew-along with Norma: Yes, there were pinking shears in the 1930s!


Hello everyone.  I’m catching up on expense reports this weekend so I won’t have time to post photos of my progress on the dress for the 1930s Sew-along with Norma.  The bias binding is basted to the neckline and ready to be hand stitched into place.  It’s coming out beautifully.  Next week, I’ll photograph the same process as I use it for finishing the sleeve hem.  Rayon faille requires TLC but if one is patient the results are beautiful.

We had a few postings and comments where we discussed seam finishes when this project was in the early stages.  At that time I thought, as I always had, that pinking seams started in the 1950s.  I finally found documentation that proves pinking shears were in use in the mid-late 1930s.  I went to the website of J. Wiss and Sons while researching this topic and found some of their 1930s and 1940s product catalogs available for download.  I’ve posted links to the images used here so you can use this posting as a starting point to explore their site.

I have never seen pattern instruction sheets from the 1930s that mention pinking as a seam finish.  Perhaps because they were a very new item in the mid-late 1930s it took time for their use to catch on.  Anyway, I hope my discovery helps some sewistas in their quest to learn about appropriate vintage sewing techniques for their own creations.  I find pinking very good and intend to try it with hand overcasting in a future project.

J. Wiss and Sons Product Catalogs-Pages featuring Pinking Shears

Instruction sheets that came with Pinking Shears
One color circa 1934
Two color 1934


Wiss Gift Sets
Circa September 1939


Catalog page with pinking shears from 1943