|Grandma's homemade dress, 1911|
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.|