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Monday, January 14, 2013

A woman who can sew

When I was a very little girl, my mom helped organize an annual event, that raised money to support a non-profit dental center. I remember my mom planning the table decorations for this event. She had quite a talent for that sort of thing. I also remember her sewing a gown every year, to wear to this ball.

While my mother sewed, my sister and I played together, under the table. My mother would give my sister and I some scraps of fabric from her gown, and the two of us would sew dresses for our Barbie dolls.

I was just 5 years old, so you can imagine my lack of sewing skills. Yet, I was so very proud of my handiwork. My doll dresses followed one basic "pattern", a rectangle, with a hole about 3 inches in diameter, cut in the very middle of the scrap of fabric. I used this as the neck-hole for my doll dress. Upon slipping the "dress" over Midge's head, I proceeded to fashion the rest of it. I hand-stitched side-seams, leaving just enough room for arm holes for Midge. A piece of ribbon for a sash, and my doll was dressed for her own ball.

My parents were like most young couples at the time. My dad worked, my mom stayed home. Consequently, they didn't have a lot of money for extravagances in those early years. My mother sewed quite well. She made most of her own, mine and my sister's clothing. Sewing a ball gown was just another garment to sew, for her. The gown that I remember most was a taffeta gold plaid, with a large sash. It was floor length, and to a little girl, she looked like a princess.

There was a time when sewing was something every young girl learned to do. It was thought that this would be a valuable skill to learn, to be used throughout her lifetime. Today, just a fraction of girls learn to sew. It seems that shopping is the "skill" they learn best. Where will this "skill" get them? When times are good, they may dress very well. But how will they dress themselves when times are lean? Compare this to my mother's generation. Good or lean times, a woman who could sew, could contrive a fashionable wardrobe for herself.

I realize that times change. Our technology continues to propel us further and further away from traditional domesticity.  Learning to sew does not have to reside in our past heritage. The ability to do for oneself, is empowering. How empowering it is, to know that you can transform something with a needle and thread, and next to nothing in your wallet. One may not "need" to sew their own wardrobe, but how wonderful it is to know that you can.


  1. I think I was in forth grade when I made my first jumper that I wore to school. My sisters and I made most of our clothes as did many of our classmates. I think it was combination of saving money and the fact that there were few places to shop in town. My sister was the best sewer in the family. She even made her winter coats. While I did okay, my stuff looked homemade while hers looked professional.

    1. Hi live and learn,
      Wow! Her own winter coats, now that's something. I'm not sure my sewing machine would sew through heavy wool. I do remember my mother sewing lighter weight coats (we lived in So. Cal.)

      Do you sew much now? It's one of those things I'd like to do more of in the coming years, now that my kids are older.

  2. I really wish I could sew. My mum taught me to sew by hand, and I can still sew on a button or mend a seam (as long as it's not anywhere obvious), but I would have no idea how to make my own clothes.

    Funnily enough, Mr Omnivore has a sewing machine and knows how to sew, so I need to get him to teach me :)

    1. Hi Economies,
      Now that is a turn, Mr. O having the machine and able to sew. But how fantastic! I'm curious, what does he sew with it?

      Yes, get him to at least show you how to run the machine, and use it for crafts (like making fabric bags for your home-crafted gifts that you make), or to mend seams, or do very minor alterations to clothing. You can take a piece of older clothing that just needs a little work and breathe new life in it.

    2. He bought it mainly to sew costumes, but also to sew clothes (which he never really got around to!). Last year I had a T-shirt which I loved but was too small for me, so I cut out the design and he sewed it onto a T-shirt that fit for me.

      You've inspired me to get him to teach me to use it :)

    3. Great! Another sewing convert! There are a lot of practical and simple things you can do with a sewing machine. Just even being able to stitch up a tear in a seam is valuable.

  3. Economies of Kale - I say to you, just try. Try something simple with straight lines first (a pillow case?, napkins? a pair of fleecy pj trousers?), and then go from there. It's so exciting and challenging and, yes, empowering. I've been tinkering about for a few years now and this weekend I completed a dress for my daughter and some book bags for birthday presents. Fabric from the off-cut bins is cheap and then you get the "what have I got to lose" feeling, and yet, so much to gain. It saves money, hemming my own trousers saves me $20 a pop. Taking in a too baggy shirt (just up the seams) makes a blah shirt just perfect. And, there's so much information on youtube to inspire you.

    1. You're so right, Jessica. There are so many instances where it's a "what have I got to lose" situation. Just in my own closet. Last summer I took several boxy tee shirts and fitted them, simply by taking in the side seams. I hadn't worn them for a while, and now they're among some of my favorites! I even see folds of decent fabric at the thrift shop, for about 50 cents per yard. Lots you could do with those! And still use just straight seams, nothing fancy.

    2. Thank you Jessica, you've inspired me and I like the idea of trying to make my own pajama pants :) I'll be checking out youtube for some tips.

  4. I have a love/hate relationship with sewing. I LOVE sewing by hand and HATE the sewing machine. I'm not sure why I hate it so... probably flashbacks from Home Economics class in Jr. High School! It just seems like work when a machine is involved and fun when it's just me with a needle & thread.

    Anyhow, I have a dear friend who is an amazing seamstress. She makes everything from scratch. The thing is... these days for most kinds of clothing, it actually turns out to be more expensive to make things yourself than to buy them! How bassackwards is that? I guess when you have entire countries full of sweatshop workers churning out cheap clothing it's pretty hard to compete.

    What a strange world we live in...

    1. Hi Cat,
      Definitely remember those Home Ec classes. I always preferred the cooking parts over the sewing. But our sewing teacher was pretty nice, and let us choose just about anything we wanted to sew.

      You're right about sewing from fabric store fabric. And patterns are sooo expensive, now. You can buy a whole dress for the price of some patterns. I wait for sales and use coupons, or just do fun, crafty projects that don't require a real pattern. Where sewing clothing is really cost-effective is buying thrift clothing and tailoring to your style and fit.

  5. I took sewing in 4H. I remember making a dress with a matching vest. I also remember fighting with my mom during the whole process, so as a result I shied away from any more sewing machine projects. However (I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as my kids get older), I did a lot of embroidery projects during my adolescence. I think embroidery teaches you a lot about basic hand sewing skills and as a result I can do some simple mending, which has come in handy. My mom also insisted I learn how to sew a hem and sew on buttons.

    Santa brought my daughter a beginner's sewing kit this past Christmas, and she really enjoyed it. Your post today was timely as I've been thinking that she, at least (maybe my son, too, if I can talk him into it) needs to learn some basic hand sewing skills.

    I agree with Cat--fabric prices are such that it's very expensive to sew an outfit these days. I think we Americans started enjoying cheap ready-made clothing but didn't think about the long-term price we would be paying (are there any USA clothing manufacturers? All the labels I check are imports). So many jobs have been lost overseas. Farmers in America who traditionally grew cotton have switched to more profitable crops. Sad and short-sighted of us.

    1. Hi Kris,
      Once upon a time, I enjoyed embroidery, too. I may try that again some time. And you're right, you learn some valuable hand-sewing skills, that transfer or other handsewing readily.

      I think everyone should learn how to sew on a button or do a hem, even boys/men. Otherwise it sounds crazy to take a short to the tailor to have him/her sew on a button for $20, or fix a hem for $30. Plus there's the time that it takes, if you drop your clothes off to be repaired. And if you're out of town on business, pop a button, you may not have replacement clothing with you.

      I think that's great that you're encouraging your daughter to sew. I loved making doll dresses, even if they weren't terribly good. I was proud that I could. I did teach my son basic running stitch, but that was so long ago, I should really show him again, and have him sew on a button. There's something about doing it once, that sticks in your mind, and helps you get over the hurdle of wondering how to do that thing when it's for real.

  6. My mother wore all hand made dresses when she was little. Her father was away fighting in WWII, and with little money everything she wore was hand made, but absolutely gorgeous. I never wanted to learn to sew on a machine, there's something about hand sewing that is relaxing and the quiet is soothing. the extra time it takes is a pleasure not a chore.

    I have a friend who loved to sew, she needed a part time job, being as our son's were best friends I babysat for her in exchange for her using her employee discount on fabrics I wanted (I paid her what it cost her) and I gave her free babysitting. We each received what we needed from the exchange.

    1. Hi Lois,
      I think you're right about how relaxing hand-sewing can be. Because it is a slower process than with a machine, you have to accept that "this may take a while", and just let yourself go slowly. I've done a few patchwork projects with only hand-sewing. The other benefit to hand-sewing, is you can take it with you when going places. Can't do that with a machine!

  7. Grace (Lili's Daughter)January 15, 2013 at 7:35 PM

    I loved reading this post today! I really would have liked to see what your mother's dresses looked like; I bet they were beautiful. Do you remember how long it took her to sew her dresses, or were you too little to notice?
    I also enjoyed making Barbie doll clothing as a little girl. One of my favorite library books was an instructional doll clothes-making book that advertised "No sewing required!" on the front cover. The first project in that book was a "spring fling dress" that was made out of a sock, and I enjoyed that project so much that it got to the point where I was begging to cut up my ruffliest socks.
    I think sewing is a very valuable skill and one of mine that I would love to improve in the future! It allows your clothes to become a work of art--hand-sewed clothing is unique clothing, and adjustments can be made so that the article fits the wearer to a T.

    1. I;m glad you enjoyed this, Grace. I wish you could have known your grandmother.She was an amazing woman. I've never since known anyone who could do so many things so very well, and make them all look so easy to do.

      To anser your question, I think that she would spend the better part of a week, sewing in her free time, to sew a gown-type dress.

      I remember those ruffly socks, and the Barbie dresses they became. Your sewing has made great strides since those days, and will continue to get easier and easier for you.


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