In the 1920s, the hem of sheer and lightweight dresses were often finished with a picot hem. Nowadays, the term ‘picot hem’ is often used wrongly. So what’s a real 1920s picot hem?
A picot hem is a hemstitch cut through the middle. In the 1920s, you obviously had your dresses hemstitched for money, according to this 1920s source: ‘Many of the daintiest summer frocks for the young girl are […] trimmed in machine picoted ruffles of self-material. The machine picoting […] is machine hemstitching cut through the center as shown in sketch 1. The charge for this work is made by the yard, and there is a great saving in planning picoting so that both edges of the hemstitching may be used’.
In 1921, machine hemstitching ‘is used on blouses, dresses, lingerie, etc., to put together seams, finish hems and put on trimmings such as bands, etc. It is neat, durable and gives a garment a dainty, finished look. […] Prices for the work vary, but it is not expensive. It can not be done at home, as the machine required is too costly’. All the lines and seams are basted in self-colored thread before the garment is sent to the hemstitcher. A foundation of silk muslin or thin lawn is necessary for bias edges and thin materials, such as net, chiffon and lace. ‘Picot edging is simply machine hemstitching cut through the center. It makes a very dainty and yet strong finish for edges of collars, sleeves, tunics, ruffles, sashes, etc.’
The first hemstitching machine was invented in 1893. Here are pictures of antique hemstitching machines and of a hemstitching sample. And more pictures and instruction manuals of antique hemstitchers. Here are very interesting drawings how 1894 hemstitching machines work. And some videos of picot and hemstitching machines: a heirloom hemstitch machine, another double needle hemstitcher, double needle picot hemstitch machine, and of a Singer one needle hemstitcher and picot edger, where it’s necessary to finish each side of the holes separately; and here the fabric is pierced with a wing needle which isn’t a real hemstitch. Today, even a zig-zagged rolled hem or shell hem is often wrongly called a 1920s picot edge.
Commercial hemstitching seems still to be available in the 1950s, according to this great source: ‘A picot-edged hem, which is very satisfactory, is done by having bottom edge of garment commercially hemstitched. […] Placing a strip of tissue paper under fabric, make a line of basting along marked hemline, stitching through tissue. Have commercial hemstitching done over basted line. Remove paper only after hemstitching is done. Cut as shown.’
Here you’ll find my tutorial for a 1920s imitation picot hem.