My mom and I, Fall 2009 (in Cambridge, UK, of all places...)
This is an interview with my mother, inspired by numerous discussions we’ ve had about ‘sewing—then and now’. All the in-person sewing instruction I’ve had came from her, and it made me curious about where and how she acquired it. My mother grew up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1950s and 60s, and learned to sew in part in the home and in part through 4-H and high-school (Grade 9 Home-Economics, after that she took Typing.) She never was a professional seamstress, but she knows her stuff, and I think her experiences are probably typical of the home sewists of her generation, at least in our area. I know I love talking with her about it, and comparing how things have changed—or not.
I’ve inserted a few of my own observations in italics where relevant :).
Were you exposed to sewing in the home growing up?
Yes, my mother sewed. She sewed clothes for my sister and I. I remember plaid skirts,when we were about 4/5/6, which I think she sewed, Hallowe’ en costumes (a leopard for me and a white rabbit for my sister, age 5/6), ‘ Davey Crockett’ jackets out of a light tan, light-weight twill, complete with ‘ fringes’ cut from light-brown vinyl (about age 7/8), ‘ sailor’ dresses of mid-blue cotton, with white sailor-collars with embroidered red anchor accents, white cuffs on the short sleeves (age 8/9) (I think those dresses are still in the tickle trunk at my Grandma’s. We wore them when we were kids, too, for dress-up), rag-dolls, complete with clothing (when we were very young, pretty much babies). She must have done most of it on a treadle machine.
How did you and your peers view sewing? What about the older generation?
I think we viewed sewing as a way of acquiring items that were considered ‘ not essential’ . We purchased everyday clothing, usually from a mail-order catalogue (Eaton’ sor Simpson’ s-Sears), or on a late-August-before-school-started, one-day shopping excursion to the nearest city, an hour’ s drive away. We purchased winter outerwear,although I think my mother sewed me a wool coat with a rabbit-fur collar and matching leggings, when I was about 2. (I have seen the photos of me wearing it. I think she had made it). If we wanted a ‘ special’ dress to wear to some event, or if we wanted to alter anarticle of clothing, we sewed.
I think that my mother’ s generation embraced ‘ ready-to-wear’ clothing, although theycontinued to sew those items considered non-essential. They also did a lot of mendingand patching to keep every-day clothes wearable.
How, and from whom, did you learn to sew?
My sister and I must have learned to sew from our mother, who would have taught us the basics, (eg. seams, seam allowances). We received a hand-cranked, child’ s sewingmachine one Christmas (age 8/9), and used it to make doll’ s clothes. I don’ t know if wehad patterns, or drew them up ourselves. I remember my mother saying that her mother, years before, had drafted her own patterns. I started 4-H at age 10, and that first year, took the ‘Let’ s Entertain’ project, where we sewed and embroidered a cotton ‘ tea-apron’ ,
fringed the edges of a small ‘ tea-cloth’ , learned to set a table, and made ‘ tea-sandwiches and dainties’ . This would have been my formal introduction to sewing.
On what kind of machines?
I remember learning to sew on a treadle machine. To be most effective, you place one foot ahead of the other on the treadle-plate, and alternate foot pressure back and forth(a bit like riding a bike), rather than rocking both feet back and forth. It makes it easier to keep a steady pace. The little child’ s machine sewed with a chain-stitch, so one had to remember to pull the tail end of the thread through the loop, or it would un-ravel (I remember playing with this machine, too. I don’t think my grandma gets rid of anything!). My mother got a ‘ White’ portable about 1963. It was a straight-stitch model, which she used for everything, including mending denim work clothes, and stitching up my brothers’ hockey skates (by guiding the needle, carefully into the original holes). That is the machine I did my sewing on until I left home (and my mother still uses it!). I recall that it had a button-hole attachment that clamped the fabric, and moved it from side-to-side, tocreate an overcast stitch for the button-hole.
Where did you get your fabric, patterns, other supplies? Do you think it’s easier tofind good sewing supplies now than it was?
Our fabric, patterns and notions we usually purchased at a large department store in the nearest city (forty miles away). Some basic notions, like threads (black, white, brown, blue), buttons, maybe even elastic, was available in the general store in the nearest village (seven miles away), or perhaps in the nearest larger town (twenty miles away). One could also order fabric, etc, from the mail-order catalogues, but one could not really tell what one was ordering, other than the type of cloth (eg. cotton, print or plain, pillow ticking, woven wool – coat weight, dark red, green or black.)
With specialized stores dedicated to fabrics, patterns and supplies, it is so much easier to find what you want, in the colours and styles you want. And with the improvements in roads and vehicles, people are much more mobile, and even those living outside large cities have easier access.
What kind of finishing/techniques did you use? How do you think they have changed, if they have?
Because we sewed mostly with woven fabrics, often the only finish on a plain seam would be a pinked edge. We used French-seams on sheers, and flat-felled seams on heavy-weight fabrics where extra strength was needed (eg. work clothes). With a straight-stitch machine, there weren’ t a lot of options. We didn’ t sew with knit fabrics, perhaps because they weren’ t as available to home-sewers, or perhaps because we couldn’ t, with the machine we had. Once I bought my zig-zag machine (the Grand Old Dame), I could finish seams with a zig-zagged, overcast edge.
Did you learn about fitting?
In 4-H dressmaking, and in Grade 9 Home-Economics, we learned the basics of fitting, and of altering a pattern, based on one’ s measurements. We never got into making muslins (although, maybe we would have if we had been making something really expensive), because it was viewed as a waste of fabric and thread, as well as time. I always had a hard time with fitting, especially pants, as I always had a very short torso, with very little definition at the waist. Some of our methods for altering/fitting were rough-and-ready. For bust-line darts that didn’ t hit the right spot, we simply took up the shoulder seams (and then tried to alter the sleeve so we could set it in). For pants, we tried to fit the waist, and then tried them on inside-out, and pinned the crotch and inseams, or side seams until the fit was close enough.
Did you, at any point, feel like part of a sewing community, or was it a very solitary pursuit?
When I was growing up and learning to sew, it was more like taking classes, so there was a sense of competition, and of having to take things apart and redo them until they were right. After inserting, and re-inserting my first zipper (about 9 times) in an A-line skirt (no waist-band, faced top edge at hip-bone height), for 4-H, the fabric, a soft-pink twill, looked so dirty and bedraggled, that I don’ t think I ever wore the skirt much. When I was sewing for my own children, and my house, I had some friends who sewed, but it wasn’t exactly a sense of community. We could trade some suggestions, and did, but it was pretty minimal.
What inspired you to sew in the first place?
I don’ t think I was really inspired until I started sewing things for my own children and my home. When I first learned to sew, it was ‘a good thing to know’ , much like typing, or cooking. It was a way of acquiring items that would have been very expensive to buy, for a lesser cost. Even later, that was always there; I wouldn’ t buy brand-name blue-jeans for my toddlers, but I could sew them ‘Levi’s’ by mimicking the pocket stitching, andsewing on labels salvaged from worn-out adult jeans. And making a child’s parka and snow pants lined with ‘ Thinsulate’ was experimenting with new technology (although Inever really knew if the stuff was warm enough, since I never sewed anything from it for myself.) (I always thought it wasn`t warm enough, but then I don’t recall ever thinking my winter stuff was warm enough. It was Saskatchewan after all.)
How has your interest in sewing changed over the years? (off, on, what kinds of items, etc.)
The grad dress she made. Yup, that's me wearing it. What a classic! 🙂
The things I remember sewing, at home, were the 4-H projects: the tea-apron and fringed tea-cloth, pink A-line skirt (and perhaps some kind of top?), and the graduation-dress I made in Grade 12,and which I got to wear to the Provincial Dress Review, in Regina, that summer. (They tried to teach us how to walk down a cat-walk. I would have rather goneto camp, like my sister!). Also, the cotton shift dress in Grade 9 Home-Ec. which I never got to wear, since we cut them out in the fall, sewed intermittently all winter, and by spring I had outgrown mine.
After I left home, and bought my own machine, I did sew for myself, including a long, billowy ‘garden-party’ dress, out of a yellow, dotted-Swiss fabric (I wonder where it went?), a tunic top (of unbleached cotton) which I decorated with multiple bands of machine embroidery around the neck (I think my kids have this one in their dress-up stuff), hem and short sleeves (thanks to the Grand Old Dame)-–-a reflection of my ‘wanna-be Hippie’ years, drapes for apartment windows, a long-sleeved, button-front tunic and matching gored skirt, in a rust-peach print double-knit, for my wedding ensemble. Throw pillows, place-mats with matching, mitered, hemmed napkins, sheer sash-curtains, baby and kid items, including shaped flannel diapers, blue-jeans and aforementioned parka and snow pants, sundresses, Hallowe’ en costumes (thankfully, you were never into figure-skating!) I also sewed an Edwardian Walking Skirt, from a Folkwear pattern, as an interpretive costume for a historic house-museum I became involved with, as well as those ‘ Prairie-Girl’ (Folkwear) dresses and pinafores for you. The last thing I ever sewed for you was a ‘little-house’ inspired skirt and blouse combo, in a blue-and-white flowered print, which I
Me in the `Prairie Girl`dress, age 3 or so.
cut out, but which you outgrew before I could get it sewn.
I interspersed sewing with crocheting, knitting (remember the fisherman-knit sweater that I started for you, your brother wore it, and your girls) and other crafts. I have a small collection of antique apparel, including a man’s shirt, girl’s night-dress,women’s blouses, Edwardian white summer dresses in small child and small woman sizes, shoes and boots. It is amazing to look at the detailed work that was created from very fine fabrics, with pin-tucks, lace insertions and embroidery, by hand and treadle-sewing machine. I also have a collection of antique/vintage photographs (other people’ s ancestors, as well as mine) showing clothing from about 1890 to about 1929, and several reproduction catalogues which illustrate clothing (and household goods).
Why did you ‘give it up’?
I think the main reason was that I got too busy with other things, including gardening, heritage research and interpretation, local community concerns/activities. Also, I had no dedicated place to set up a ‘sewing corner’ where I could leave everything out. The computer took over the dining room, and one really can’ t sew on the kitchen table when people want to be fed. Also, I never mastered the art of fitting, and was frustrated with not being able to produce wearable clothes that fit. I am inspired by your sewing activities, almost enough to try again. Or maybe I will teach myself how to cane chairs, or to use the ruffler-foot to make an Edwardian petticoat. (I say go for it, mom!)
Thank you, Mom, for taking the time to answer these questions and for letting me post them. I hope they’ve been interesting for the rest of you. I know some of you have probably been sewing for as long—or longer—than my mom, and have seen all the changes for better and for worse. I’d love to hear your take as well!