Thursday, August 13, 2015

Make Your Own

Grandma's homemade dress, 1911
I have been called penurious in my time. Yet, in comparison to my mother, or her parents, who had to support themselves and their families during the worst downturn in U.S. history, I am downright profligate.

Nobody knows from frugal any more.

I recently saw a woman on television say that there is a trend among fashionable young people to buy cheap, hip clothing that may fall apart the first time it's washed. But they don't care. The only spend $30 or so for something they throw away when it's ruined and then they can buy something even more stylish and up to date.

I make no judgment. I'd rather be in a position to do that than to have to wear clothes I made myself out of a flour sack. For much of American history, few farm families had the money to buy ready-made clothing from a store. Clothes were homemade and worn until they were so patched and stained that they were unwearable. After which the mother would use what was left the make a quilt, or a rag rug, or a mop. Then she'd use the scraps to make a patch for a shirt or trousers, or a button cover, until the material disintegrated into molecules and floated away on the breeze.

In the mid-1800s, companies that sold sugar, flour, and animal feed began packing their goods into heavy cotton sacks instead of boxes and barrels. It didn't take long for women to realize that once the bag was empty, they were in possession of a piece of fabric that made durable work shirts, or aprons, or really nice, cheap clothes for the kids. Once the flour and chicken feed companies found out what was going on, they started printing pretty designs on the bags, and suddenly every rural child in America was wearing a dress or shirt with little pink flowers on it, or underwear with "Pillsbury" printed across the seat.

A while back I received a note from a cousin of mine who wrote, "Aunt Thelma [our mutual great-aunt] always bragged about how Grandma Bourland [our mutual great-grandmother] only had to look at a photo of a dress to be able to copy it." That comment made me smile, because my grandmother on the other side of the family had said exactly the same thing about her mother [whose name was Alafair].

"Ma didn't even need a pattern," Grandma Casey told me. "You'd just tell her, 'I want pleats here and this kind of sleeve,' and she'd whip it up."

She did, too. Above is a photo of my grandmother Casey standing in front of her parents' house in Kentucky in 1911, clad in a dress that her mother made for her. For a fictional wedding in my second book, Hornswoggled, I dressed the bride in this very outfit.

I suppose if you had seven daughters and you made every stitch of clothing they wore from birth until they left home, not to mention clothing for your sons and your husband and yourself, you'd become an expert seamstress in short order. Even if you had to sew it all on a treadle machine. Years ago I tried to make something on my grandmother's treadle sewing machine. You really have to get the knack of pumping the treadle with your foot. It's like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time.

Me in Italy, 1969. My mother made my outfit.
My own mother made a lot of clothing for her three daughters. We did not live on a farm and could afford store-bought clothes, but Mama grew up in the country during the Depression, and she was the living embodiment of frugality. If she could make do, she did. I never felt put-upon by wearing homemade clothes, because what my mother made was excellent. She had a great eye for material and color and we girls always looked chic. I so loved some of the dresses she made for me in the '70s that I still have them to this day. I think they are museum quality. I'd model some for you, Dear Reader, but these days I could get into them with a shoehorn.


G. Writercat said...

Love your post! I learned to sew on my grandmother's old treadle machine when I was about 10 or 11. My mom didn't buy an electric sewing machine till I was in my teens. Controlling the electric was much harder - it had a tendency to run away - I had exact control over my sewing on Grandma's old machine.

Aline Templeton said...

Wonderful photgraphs, Donis! Yes, my mother made clothes for me and I used to do it too, though using patterns,at first with either treadle or handle machine and later with an electric one but that ran away with me too. I even made little coats for my kids - couldn't do it now!

Sybil Johnson said...

My mom made clothes for us as well. Much better than some of the stuff in the stores. And she made the BEST Barbie doll clothes from material scraps!

Eileen Goudge said...

My mom taught me to sew. When I started high school it was with an entire wardrobe I'd sewn from Butterick patterns. Sometimes I still wished I sewed my own clothes. I have a certain red dress in mind, but have yet to find it in a store. I could make my own but then I'd have buy a sewing machine, find a place to put it, and abandon my writing for a time. Guess the red dress will have to wait.