Made to Measure: the Tailor Shop at Colonial Williamsburg

I can recall two times in the past that I’ve visited a tailor. Both visits were for alterations to dresses I had bought: one for senior prom and, much later, one for my wedding. A handful of times, I’ve chosen prefabricated patterns and yards of fabric to sew my own clothing. However, the majority of my experience in choosing clothes is by selecting mass-produced garments that were made to fit some “average” body rather than my own. My visit to the tailor’s shop in Colonial Williamsburg gave me a glimpse into the individualized experience of made-to-measure clothing in the 18th century.

Upon entering Mark Hutter’s tailor shop, the first thing I noticed were shelves filled with fabric and notions, such as buttons, thread, ribbons, and trimmings. In order to display the fabrics and notions of the 18th century, Mark meticulously researched Colonial Williamsburg’s collections and acquired close-to-accurate reproductions through various contemporary fabric marketplaces. A tailor’s shop could fulfill custom work for a range of people of varying social status and for clothes ranging from high fashion to utilitarian. In most cases, the customers were men, but tailors were capable of providing for women too, especially of garments with custom fittings such as stays and riding wear. The position of tailor was considered men’s work, although there are instances of women tailors.

The array of cloth the tailor stocked on the shelves reflected the variety of potential fashions he produced. During much of the early colonial period in America, cloth and fashions were imported, especially from England and France. It’s not until the Revolution that colonists sometimes preferred domestically manufactured cloth as a political statement. The cloth in Mark’s shop included silks, wool broadcloth, cottons, and linen. He explained that even though silk was typically the finest cloth of the era, an extremely fine woven linen could be just as expensive for the customer. Of course, the hierarchy of cloth also depended on the current fashion—and as any contemporary consumer of clothing knows, fashion changes with time and place.

An unusual sight on the shelves in the tailor shop were bottles of rum, cones of sugar, and a basket of citrus fruits (lemons and limes). These perishable items were imported from the West Indies to sell in the shop quickly and for a high profit. If a shop owner was able to diversify his or her inventory, business’s profits might increase. Diversifying the range of quality and type of cloth a tailor offered his customers was one method of increasing profits, but any goods that could potentially attract more than the customer needing new clothes might help traffic.

Even if a tailor offered a diverse selection of cloth, a customer could buy from other suppliers. Mark relayed several scenarios where a gentleman may have purchased his cloth elsewhere, yet still required the skills and labor of the tailor to produce his clothing. Since cloth and notions were imported goods, this was not an ideal situation for the tailor as the materials cost more than the labor. It was quite a shock to my 21st century mindset at first to understand this logic—materials cost more than labor. Mark explained that the cost of labor would increase as the complexity of the garment increased (higher quality cloth, notions, fashionable patterns, etc.)

The colors and patterns of fabrics were inspired by high fashion in England and France. Mark gave the example: the colors green and purple were inspired by fashions worn by Marie Antoinette and used in Chippendale furniture. I was amused to learn that people entertained themselves by giving raunchy names for colors, such as “Goose Turd” or “Gosling Turd” for a bright green color and “Boue de Paris”, or Mud of Paris (referring to the street sludge) for a gray brown color.

As a somewhat frequent purchaser of fabric, I was curious about the dimensions of cloth available in the 18th century. Fabric widths were available in a range of sizes, depending on the fiber and pattern, anywhere from 11 inches to 10 feet wide. A surprising detail was the variety of units of measurement used to calculate the length of cloth. I had never heard of the measurements “nails” and ells”. A nail comes from a measurement thought to be based on the hand, specifically, from the fingernail to the second joint on the middle finger (Rowlett). Some sources specify that the unit is measured from the “fingernail to the center of the second joint from the tip” (Klein, 56). A nail is equivalent to 2 ¼ inches.

More confusing, an “ell” could refer to several measurements depending on what country you were in. Mark specifically spoke about the English and French ells, providing measurements for each. An English ell is equal to 45 inches or 1 ¼ yards. A French ell is equal to 54 inches or 1 ½ yards. As with the nail, the ell is thought to originate from a measurement of the body, the cubit, measured from “the point of the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.” (qtd. in “The Diagonal”, 98)

Tailors knew the cloth requirements for specific patterns and the customer’s individual body measurements. Mark measured me for a women’s stylish riding waistcoat. (I should mention that, typically, a customer would be offered some sort of alcoholic drink in order to enhance their experience at the tailor’s shop. Next time!)

Instead of using a cloth measuring tape with units of measurement marked on it, Mark used a strip of blank paper to measure me. All of his choices in where to measure me included allowances for the fashionable pattern I had chosen. To find the length of the back of the waistcoat, he measured from the nape of the back of my neck to the top of my tailbone. Next, he measured from shoulder tip to shoulder tip to find the width of the garment. To find the size of the armhole, he measured the circumference of the top of my shoulder as I held my arm perpendicular to my body. To find my natural center, in order to determine the circumference of the waistcoat, Mark asked me to position the tape where I thought the center of my chest was located. Lastly, Mark asked me to place the tape at my navel in order to determine my natural waistline. As each assessment was made, Mark creased the tape and cut varying notches of slits and diamonds to indicate my specific measurement.

Tailors were able to adjust the size of the pattern according to the customer’s individual measurements. They first drew a loose tracing of a paper pattern onto the fabric using a piece of chalk. The tailor had to efficiently position the pattern pieces onto the cloth and avoid excessive waste. Customers may have purchased expensive cloth, either at this tailor’s shop or elsewhere, and therefore expected it to be used economically. Once the pattern was traced onto the fabric, they used the paper tape to re-measure the pattern by skillfully erasing and redrawing judging by eyesight as they went along. They had to remember what area of the body the notches in the tape represented and line them up with the corresponding section of the pattern. Prior to the use of sewing machines, a standardized seam allowance was not used. Instead, tailors determined this based on his familiarity with the pattern and the customer’s measurements.

Once the pattern was altered to the customer’s measurements, it is cut out and sewn together by means of basting. Basting is a method of quickly attaching pieces of cloth together using long, running stitches. For comparison, a basted stitch may be a length of one inch, where a “normal” handsewn stitch could be more like six to ten stitches per inch. Basting was used more frequently than pins to keep the cloth together, especially at this stage of the initial fitting. The threads used in the tailor’s shop were made of linen (spun from flax), silk, cotton, or mohair.

As the tailor and his assistant sewed the pieces together, they sat “tailor-style” meaning they sat cross-legged on top of a table as they worked. A common sense reason for this was to keep the cloth off the floor and away from dirt. Mark’s assistant informed our group that the sartorius muscle in the leg is also referred to as the tailor’s muscle, stemming from this practice of sitting cross-legged.

Once my fashionable riding waistcoat was basted together, it was time for the fitting. At this stage, Mark used pins to close the front together. I can’t claim to know how the waistcoat was supposed to fit from a fashion standpoint, but it was snug. This piece was unquestionably made for my body. Were I in the 18th century, I would have had some help with my posture from stays (a corset is a close contemporary equivalent) that would make the waistcoat fit properly. Mark could tell there were a few small adjustments to be made around the armhole before continuing the construction of the waistcoat.

While reflecting on my visit to the tailor’s shop, I stumbled upon this quote from artist Ann Hamilton: “Cloth is the hand that is always surrounding us; it’s our constant companion.” It seems utterly simple and yet profound to me to consider the relationship between our bodies and things exterior to it as being symbiotic. Not only does the 18th century tailor measure the body to be fitted by the cloth, but the body itself is used as a unit that measures the cloth. Perhaps what we have lost in a less individualized, more mass-produced world—that symbiotic sense of connectedness to the things we create.


By Lisa Bennett, MFA Program, University of Delaware


Further Reading:

Klein, Herbert Arthur. The Science of Measurement: A Historical Survey. New York: Dover Publications, 1974.

Rowlett, Russ. How Many? A Dictionary of Units of Measurements. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2005.  <>.

“Dynamic Symmetry of Man for Advanced Students.” The Diagonal 1.5 (1920): 98 . Print.


For many years, the Department of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg has generously hosted Winterthur students as part of a course in pre-industrial craftsmanship.  Over the course of several days, we students work closely with the tradespeople, trying our hands at a wide range of eighteenth century occupations that bring our studies, quite literally, to life.  Every year, we leave with a deeper understanding of the material world.  This post is part of a series that chronicles our visit in March, 2017.

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