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Owning a Twenties Needlecraft Business

A 1920s sketch of a woman sitting on her front porch in a large wicker chair. A low table sits next to her. She is sewing by hand. Next to her a friend sits on the porch railing. They are visiting.
Many women found that time with their needle could turn a profit.

Many of the magazines of the Twenties and Thirties offered ideas for women to make extra money from home. For many families, the Twenties life wasn’t attending party after party in dance shoes and short dresses. It was about making ends meet and finding the best prices at the grocer. And sometimes it was about making a bit of money on the side. Owning a Twenties needlecraft business was highly encouraged by some of the needlework magazines of the time..

Here is one story, direct from the pages of Needlecraft Magazine. These little stories appeared on the editorial page, and I’m sure subscribers read them with interest, just as I did when I found it 100 years later.

A Twenties mail-order needlecraft business

Attributed to a Bess V. from Tennessee, this tells a tale of ingenuity and business savvy. Bess didn’t just open a store front and wait for people to appear. Instead, she looked at her situation realistically and networked with people in her community to get the word out. Here is her story:

“My own Needlecraft Shop is on a mail-order basis. I live in a small town where it would scarcely pay to open such a shop in the regular way. Yet I trust the hints I am glad to offer, and which are drawn from personal experience will help others in adding to their income as I have done.

Then those who bought the camisoles showed them to friends. In a short time I was in receipt of mail orders from the city.

“My first orders were for a tatted camisole yoke, made up on white wash-silk. This I took with me on a shopping trip to a nearby city. I used it in soliciting orders from the clerks of the department store. The work spoke for itself, and I made my price as reasonable as possible. Because of this, I brought home enough orders to keep me busy for several weeks.

“Then those who bought the camisole yokes showed them to friends. In a short time I was in receipt of mail orders from the city. These were not only for yokes, but also for lace to trim underwear, pillowcases, and other articles. One woman sent an order for fourteen yards!

Tatted lace and embroidered hankies

“In another town near my home a woman I know set up a dressmaking establishment. She gave me permission to put some of my work on display in her windows. It sold rapidly, especially tatted collars and lace for trimming dresses. My friend said it really helped her business. Passers-by would stop to admire the work, and many of them came in and placed an order for a dress with one of the collars or some of the lace to match.

“Among my best sellers are handmade handkerchiefs. Material for half a dozen costs comparatively little. For some of them I use an edge of tiny tatted rings, or a simple dainty pattern in crochet. Others with plain edges show a design embroidered in colors.

“An assortment of these handkerchiefs, neatly arranged, was placed in a ready-to-wear waist [blouse] shop. Others were displayed in a millinery store where they sold readily.

“I have found that bits of thread left from embroidering larger pieces are often sufficient for working several handkerchief corners. The proprietors of shops such as I have named rarely object to having work placed on sale as long as it does not enter into competition with their own goods. On the contrary, they seem glad to have it.

“So here’s to the success of other workers! Where there’s a will the way is not hard to find. It requires only the determination to carry on, and the ability to see and grasp every opportunity presented. Perhaps we need to create them when we do not at once discern an opportunity. Let me say that Needlecraft has been and is a veritable goldmine to me. I have no difficulty whatever in selling the neatly finished designs with which it is always teeming.”

Things change yet they stay the same

It’s interesting that Bess needed to augment her income in the 1920s much like many of us do today. As I read through her story, I wondered… how did she get all this done while running a household in 1920-1928? She lists a massive amount of needlework production. Even though she outlines no time period for her side business, she still produces an amazing number of finished goods.

She makes:

  • Tatted lace collars
  • Lace yardage in tatting –– including a 14-yard order!
  • Tatted lace chemise yokes.
  • Embroidered handkerchiefs
  • Handkerchiefs with crochet edgings
  • Handkerchiefs with tatted edgings

Bess not only decorates the handkerchiefs, she makes them from fabric yardage. It was almost easier to hem a handkerchief while attaching the finished lace than it was to attach the lace to a finished purchased handkerchief.

Even considering the time span may equal three years or more, this is still quite a bit of handwork for someone to produce for sale. Not only that, but if someone asked me to tat 14 yards of edging I may just pass out! Bess must have really enjoyed working with her tatting shuttle.

In addition, owning a needlecraft business in the Twenties required bookkeeping, packaging, mailing, and keeping address and contact records. Basically, everything we do now to run a business, Bess needed to keep on paper.

I hope you enjoyed this look into the life of a needlecraft entrepreneur and this look at owning a Twenties needlecraft business. If you were going to open a mail-order shop like this today (a relatively easy project given the Internet), what would you want to sell? What projects do you love enough to create them over and over again?