Back in 1950s Middle America, all schoolgirls were required to take home economics in junior high school. Since it was a full year’s course, part of the year covered cooking and the rest taught sewing.
I enjoyed the cooking lessons. I still have recipes from that class, which I proudly shared with my mother. But the sewing part was another kettle of fish.
Back then, making a dress required plenty of advance work, similar to planning the Allied invasion of Normandy. The first stop was JC Penney or the basement of Gimbel Bond, where the “dry goods” lived.
Like a soda fountain for patterns, a long counter with built-in swivel seats held the massive pattern books: McCall’s, Simplicity or Vogue. Mom and I would browse through the books, make a choice, and ask the clerk to give us the correct size tissue-paper pattern, squished into its envelope prison.
The envelope’s back told us how much fabric to buy and we’d begin our treasure hunt for just the right material. Since some fabrics cost as little as 39 cents per yard, it wasn’t unusual to make a dress for under ten dollars including the “notions,” like zippers and buttons.
Sometimes Mom didn’t need to buy a pattern. If she saw a pretty dress in a shop window, she’d whip out a small notebook and pencil from her purse to make a sketch of it. After buying fabric, she’d create a pattern, and give birth to a new creation on her treadle Singer.
My sister, too, was on a first-name basis with her sewing machine. She raised the bar by making coats, drapes and slipcovers. In fact, she made my wedding dress and her matron of honor dress, including pillbox hats, a la Jackie Kennedy.
With all this sewing talent in the family, you’d think I was a shoo-in for whiz-bang grades in sewing. Not “sew.” For our first project, an apron, I finally had to take the thing home for Mom’s CPR to pass muster.
Using the school machine, I snarled the bobbin thread, broke needles and even sewed my finger once. A Zen Master might say I didn’t “become one with the machine.”
Later in life I continued to try when my husband bought me the fanciest electric sewing machine Singer made in 1974. He might as well have thrown the money off Key Bridge.
Somehow I never got the memo on the Old School skill of sewing.
Reach Carol McEwen at firstname.lastname@example.org.