The 1949 Singer Sewing Machine Manual contains this entertaining and unbelievable passage:
“Never approach sewing with a sigh or lackadaisical attitude. Good results are difficult when indifference predominates. Never try to sew with the sink full of dishes or bed unmade. When there are urgent housekeeping chores, do these first so that your mind is free to enjoy your sewing.
When you sew, make yourself as attractive as possible. Go through a beauty ritual of orderliness. Have on a clean dress. Be sure your hands are clean, finger nails smooth — a nail file and pumice will help. Always avoid hangnails. Keep a little bag full of French chalk near your sewing machine where you can pick it up and dust your fingers at intervals. This not only absorbs the moisture on your fingers, but helps to keep your work clean. Have your hair in order, powder and lipstick put on with care. Looking attractive is a very important part of sewing, because if you are making something for yourself, you will try it on at intervals in front of your mirror, and you can hope for better results when you look your best. If you are constantly fearful that a visitor will drop in or your husband will come home and you will not look neatly put together, you will not enjoy your sewing as you should.”
I juxtapose this idyllic and unrealistic description with the reality of home sewing. In my childhood, sewing was one of the ways you saved money. Patterns and fabric were cheap. My mom sewed a lot of clothing for herself and for me. She balanced this chore with cooking, cleaning, laundry, gardening, and caring for six kids and a farmer husband. Powder and lipstick was the last thing on her mind, and I’m sure she’d never heard of French chalk. It was enough not to have your fingers covered with jelly or mustard after making lunch, or something worse after changing a diaper.
I doubt if her mind was ever free to actually enjoy her sewing. The interruptions were constant, which might explain a few sewing mishaps I witnessed. Once she spent an entire afternoon installing and ripping out a zipper several times, and finally got it in perfectly, only to discover that she had mistakenly put it into the underarm seam instead of the back seam. What a blow. A nail file and pumice would have been useless in this situation.
Then there was the spring when I was about eight, that she sewed me a dress-up coat for Easter. Then as now, I loved blue, so she made me a periwinkle blue one. Also, then as now, everything I wore had to be shortened, so after she got the sleeves in, she had me try it on to measure how much to cut off to fit my stumpy little arms. It was going to be the best Easter coat ever. Until she accidentally cut off the same sleeve twice. I’m sure I was the only little girl in the state, maybe the world, wearing a coat with three-quarter length sleeves.
But there were many successes, of course, and along the way I learned to sew, too. I suppose I felt it was my duty to carry on the tradition. I was just never very good at it. I learned how to put in a sleeve and set in a collar pretty well. I could even make buttonholes. But zippers were a problem, and I avoided them whenever possible. The most discouraging part was that nothing I made for myself ever fit quite right. But even after I got married, when saving money was the order of the day, I doggedly kept at it. I sewed dresses, blouses, and even a few pairs of pants. I tried jackets and skirts. Some of them turned out okay, but a lot of them didn’t. Sewing got to be one of my major frustrations, and my husband suffered with me.
I finally met my sewing Waterloo when I was pregnant with my daughter, and decided to sew myself a bathrobe. Bathrobes should be easy. There’s not a lot of fitting involved, since you are basically constructing a sack. Things were going along pretty well until I tried it on and discovered to my horror that I had cut a hole in it. I have no idea how it happened, but it was an accurate commentary on my sewing skills.
When my husband came home that afternoon, saw me hunched over the sewing machine, and asked how it was going, he was met with a balled-up bathrobe flung across the room at him. I don’t believe that scenario is included in the 1949 Singer Sewing Manual.
He was unfazed, understanding the depth of my despair. “Please don’t sew anymore,” he said. “Please buy your clothes.”
Oh joy! Oh freedom! I took his advice and left the sewing life. The sewing machine is still around, because a lot of clothing I buy needs to be hemmed or altered in some way. And I’ve discovered a few things I’m good at sewing from scratch– curtains and valences, pillow covers and receiving blankets. It takes no special skill to sew a straight line, which is pretty much all that’s involved.
That, and not worrying that my husband will find me less than put together when I’m measuring and hemming. It’s not 1949 anymore.